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FAQs on Community Organizing

2) What are the qualities of an Organizer

A: BASIC QUALITIES OF AN ORGANIZER

There are certain qualities fundamental to an organizer. He should have the right attitude for organizing work and should have basic organizing skills. Although one may not have them in the beginning, it is possible to acquire them through training. Training uncovers, develops and sharpens skills and other qualities so that the organizer uses them more consciously. The following section discusses these basic qualities and skills essential to organizational work and can be used as recruiting criteria.

Irreverence
What do we mean when we say an organizer is irreverent? We mean that he considers no tradition, law or value as totally sacred when it works against the people. Put another way, no authority or institution is so respectable that it cannot be challenged or even rejected when it denies service to the people. In this sense, the organizer’s irreverence is really but the other face of a deep reverence for people and life. He sees that the Sabbath is for man, and not man for the Sabbath.
 

How does this irreverence develop? An organizer starts becoming irreverent when be begins to question his own previously held values. His values undergo constant reevaluation in the course of struggle with the people, with their every encounter with agencies, institutions and authority.

The organizer must pass on this quality of irreverence to the oppressed too. The organizer will discover that as they form organizations, some of the people’s leaders can become oppressive. This happened in the case of one labor union. After winning a big wage victory, some of the leaders were blinded by though they had shown great courage and commitment in the past, these leaders were thrown out by the people, who were, in the proper sense, irreverent.

Most especially the organizer and the oppressed should learn to be irreverent towards the people’s oppressors. Losing their awe for over blown tyrants is part of the process of shattering the “culture of silence” that afflicts the oppressed. In fact, the time will come when these formerly cowed people learn to enjoy deflating the pompous oppressor.

A Sense of humor

To keep same and avoid giving up in frustration, the organizer must maintain a sense of humor. This means keeping a sense of proportion about everything - - the people, their problems, their enemies, and especially oneself. Definitely, the organizer must avoid thinking that the whole liberation of the people is his burden. He has to do his best in his place but remember that it is only part of the whole struggle.

Actually, the oppressed themselves teach the organizer a bit about humor. They generally retain the ability to laugh at their own problems and weaknesses.

The organizer who wants to avoid being ridiculously serious need not swing to the other extreme of trying too hard to be humorous. A lead person reports.

One organizer always went to the area looking so serious. Folder in hand, he went around giving assignments to people, like a foreman. So, I asked him to be a little more humorous. But his fellow organizer who overhead the advice, went to the opposite extreme. He went around all day telling jokes and laughing. One leader came up to me and asked, “Is he crazy?”

Instead of forcing himself to crack jokes, the organizer can listen to the people, and learn what it is they appreciate and laugh at, and the jokes and stories they trade. A good, balanced sense of humor is one way of getting closer to the people.

There is another meaning and function of this sense of humor. Tactics that work best are those that make the enemy appear ridiculous so the people can laugh at him. Since the oppressors are usually very properly serious, the people’s sense of humor can cut him down to size. An organizer gives an example:

Creativity

Anything can be used as organizing material. But, it requires a creative imagination to see the possibilities. When Pope Paul VI visited the Philippines, he left a sum of money in the care of the Archbishop of Manila for the squatters of Tondo. In 1972, the Zone One Tondo Organization (ZOTO) tried to convince the now-deceased Archbishop to release the money and help in the ZOTO land-titling effort. When he replied that the funds were already committed to welfare projects, several hundred squatters flocked to a local bank owned by the Manila Archdiocese and proceeded to open accounts with an initial P 1 deposit of one centavo coins. The harried tellers called on everybody, including the manger, to help out. Business was disrupted for days on end. The people did get the Archbishop to negotiate anew with their leaders.

Flexibility

No two situations are exactly alike. Conditions can change in a short time. The organizer must therefore always be on his toes, sensitive to changes in the situation so that he can adjust his plans accordingly. This is called flexibility, and it is not to be confused with opportunism. Flexibility means adapting to conditions to reach your basic goal. Opportunism has no goal at all except self-interest.

How does an organizer develop this flexibility? Partly, it is the fruit of detailed discussion and exchanges of experiences with other organizers. He learns that there are different approaches to the solution even of the same issue under seemingly identical conditions. The organizer also learns that according to the situation. Sometimes one has to challenge, and even taunt, at other times a gentle and patient approach works best. An organizer observes:

Some organizers are more naturally flexible than others, have outgoing personalities and easily make friends. But some former campus activist tend to be more rigid. They tend to concentrate only on a clear presentation of ideas and talk at the people. They do not adapt their language and style to different persons and groups. Nevertheless, if one has a basically genuine commitment to the people, one should be looking for the most effective way to help the people organize and fight.

Tenacity

Tenacity has been called the most important quality of an organizer. While organizing has its excitement and dramatic moments, it is a tedious process. Since the organizer must keep at his task day in and ay out, many are tempted to give up. But, if an organizer is tenacious, even if he is not very talented, he will learn and improve with the passage of time.

Tenacity is needed because organizing for people’s power is not a none-shot deal, but a process of the oppressed people’s growing up and assuming responsibility for themselves. The organizer realize that this is a painstaking process because he and the people are up against a historical past and a mountain of negative experiences. One organizer recalls: “I would wake up at 5 A.M. each day and work at my issues into the night.” Given this kind of dogged determination, one can gradually overcome even great difficulties.

Perhaps more than any other quality, tenacity can be strongly influenced by training. The consultations with the training director include detailed reporting and analysis of the organizer’s work: How many people did you talk to this past week? How long did you talk to each one? What about? Repeat the conversation. What issues have come up? How many people are affected? Constantly he learns that no one can organize well without working hard at it.

These detailed checkups act as pressure on the trainee-organizer to keep going, despite the temptation to take things easy or give up. A training director explains:

While the romanticist believes that the people possess the basic capacity to liberate themselves and to create a more perfect world, he overlooks one important thing” he fails to realize that this basic potential for greatness is smothered by bad habits learned during years of oppression.

For example, when the romantic would-be organizer starts to work at the grassroots level he is shocked when he sees the people engage in petty graft, opportunism and intrigue. The people in whom he had so much faith, the people whom he believed could change the world, are actually no different from their oppressors!

Similarly, some organizers cringe at what they consider manipulation by other organizers. This is especially true of tactics which did not arise from the oppressed themselves but were suggested by the organizer. The romantic organizer will consider this manipulation. This is absolute nonsense because, it suppose the people cannot think for themselves and follow anything that is suggested. Once the people encounter an idea and make it their own, then it is no longer an alien suggestion but a part of themselves.

One organizer said:

The organizer should not make the mistake of leaving everything to the people’s spontaneous effort. The people have lived all their lives inside a cage and will not immediately know how to escape. They must be helped, advised and shown how to break down the door. Likewise, the organizer should not make the mistake of breaking the cage himself, taking over from the people

A genuine love for the people

Some organizers interpret love for the people to mean sheltering them like children. But this is just a disguised form of paternalism where the people remain dependent and powerless. An organizer who truly loves the people must not shield them from the hardships necessary to real growth. An organizer remembers:

They asked me to draft a petition form them. Of course, it would have been done faster, and since they asked me, I could tell myself it was their decision. But, would they have learned anything if I did it? Or, again, when they were planning for delegation to a government office, they told me they had no transportation money. Instead of giving them some, I told them. “If you are really interested in this issue, look for the money. Ask those who cannot go along to contribute some.”

Or, on a deeper level:

Before my first conflict-confrontation, I wondered whether, it was right to go through with it. People would get shouted at, and maybe there would be serious consequences. But, I decided to go on ahead because only by undergoing these experiences would they be free.

The organizer must watch himself when the people’s organization starts getting results. Some will feel grateful and he will be strongly tempted to back in the glory. He may feel needed forever. But the organizer must from the very beginning look for other people to whom he can pass on what he knows, so that the people will not be dependent on him. He is like John the Baptist, is the sense that “they must increase, I must decrease.”

Some organizers have come to feel that the two absolutely necessary qualities for good organizing are intelligence and dedication.

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