“The tradition of transformative organizing always finds the paths of hope. In dark times, what do we do? We organize.”
Eric Mann’s new book Playbook for Progressives is one of the most anticipated publications offered to the grassroots social justice movement in years. Over 10 years ago, a group of young organizers, including myself, surreptitiously got a hold of a four-page outline from a training that Eric had given at the Labor/Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles about the job description and the essential qualities of organizer effectiveness. The rough outline spread quickly, passed around to dozens of organizers, all seeking theory that spoke to the model of Left conscious organizing in the context of the U.S From that point forward, we began our own campaign to urge Eric to write this very book.
That one outline was so invaluable because we were always searching for theory and reflection on how to build grassroots mass organizations with Left edge and consciousness in the context of the US. Too many of our lessons and wisdom have largely been lost with our movement elders. While new generations are often inspired by the legacies that came before us, we often can’t find the organizations to join or the mentors to pass on lessons learned. From relative obscurity, we are then forced to chart our paths to power through trial and error.
In my own experience as a young anti-racist white activist, I had many years of trial and error organizing—some really inspiring moments, and some serious crash and burn failures—before I was very fortunate to be trained at the Labor/Community Strategy Center National School for Strategic Organizing in 2001. I spent the following nine years as a full-time organizer with POWER working to build a multi-racial, multi-lingual mass organization fighting for racial, economic, gender and environmental justice in San Francisco. For me, The Playbook for Progressives is the first book to really describe the model of organizing that I see as having the greatest potential to really transform conditions and build a movement for global justice inside the U.S.
The Playbook for Progressives is exciting, because it takes political theory that is so sharp and helpful for mass organizing in the U.S. and makes it accessible to thousands of activists and organizers. Eric Mann is uniquely positioned to write a book on Left grassroots organizing, as he is one of the few long distance runners who has stayed directly on the frontlines building mass organizations and waging powerful campaigns in working class Black and Latino communities for over four decades. The book is filled with concrete examples from Eric’s own experience, as well as the lessons of his comrades and peers throughout his forty year history in the civil rights movement, labor movement and environmental justice movement in some of the most exciting and dynamic struggles of our time.
For anyone directly involved in social justice work, the book literally pulls you through from start to finish by grappling with the very questions we all face on a daily basis. Anyone who has had to plan a membership meeting in the heat of a campaign and prepare leaders to directly confront decision makers; anyone who has struggled with the fine art of building relationships and consolidating members into leadership; all of us who have been called on to lead chants in a multi-racial immigrant rights march, or deliver a rousing speech in the midst of direct action—this book is speaking directly to you.
A Call to Join the Movement
Grassroots organizing is the often-invisible backdrop to the most powerful moments in history. Working class heroes like Rosa Parks and Fannie Lou Hamer come center stage from mass organizations. For that matter, many of us can trace back to key individuals who pulled and supported us in taking our first actions and joining our first organizations. Eric Mann even names, one by one, all the people who helped him get to where he is today.
As essential as grassroots organizing is to movement building, we are in desperately short supply of organizers in this historic moment. The social movements in the US need more trained and dedicated working class field organizers who are building organizations across the country, and there are very few people who do grassroots organizing. How many people do you know who regularly knock on doors, make quality follow up calls and coordinate one-on-one sit downs with new contacts? Eric proves this is essential to organizing and without skill in these areas, the movement will only grow slowly.
Playbook for Progressives is a call to anyone who reads it to join the movement—not as individuals, but to be part of building a larger movement that can make history. It is a call to activists to join organizations and begin organizing in the place where you are. It is a manual designed to help strengthen grassroots organizations, and a call to begin coalescing our various arenas of work into a broad social movement for global justice.
Transforming the System & Transforming Consciousness
Playbook for Progressives explains transformative organizing as “a tradition of building social movements to challenge the entire system that defines U.S. history and the present.” It is the art of both transforming material conditions in working class communities and fundamentally transforming the consciousness of everyone involved in the struggle itself.
I remember from my time in the National Organizing School at LCSC that organizers would reflect that the success of consciousness building within the membership of the organization came not only in the ways that a person responded to an attack on their own community, but also how they respond to an attack on another oppressed community. Do immigrant Latina domestic workers feel moved to action when an African American young person is attacked by the police, and is the opposite also true? Will an organized base of bus riders or janitors also participate in a march against anti-transgender hate violence?
Broader class consciousness is critical to any true social movement, because self-interest can only get us so far. Of course, a person may come to their first meeting because they are being under-paid, over-worked, or denied critical services for their families and loved ones. The choice to fight for ones own survival is a powerful place to connect to why we fight in the first place. To win, we have to reach the point were that desire for justice extends to any place where injustice exists.
The Playbook for Progressives points to some of the most incredible moments in the U.S. left, such as the thousands of leaders from mass struggles who formed the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the 1930s to fight the rising tide of fascism in Europe. The book draws together the best of the grassroots left organizing tradition and draws from these examples a framework of Transformative Organizing.
The Organizer as the Smallest Unit of Organization
The starting point of the job description offered by Eric Mann is that any one organizer can be seen as the smallest unit around which an organization can be built. Contained in this one powerful charge is the essence of why organizing is ever challenging, creative, life-changing work that involves tremendous personal growth and change.
Mass movements are built through thousands of organizers fanned out across sectors, regions, varied constituencies. At the core, an organizer spends her whole life adapting to changing circumstances and multiplying herself from each new contact she meets over the course of years.
The first half of the book lays out the practical skills that an organizer needs to master in order to be have the complete capacity to root oneself in whatever material conditions you are facing and advance the deliberate steps to build organizations and wage successful campaigns for justice.
Eric offers the multifaceted model of an organizer as a foot soldier who is often the one on the buses, in neighborhoods, laundry mats, work sites engaging with everyday people. Rooted in the masses, the organizer must also take the roles of evangelist, recruiter, group builder, strategist, tactician, communicator, political educator, agitator, fundraiser, comrade and confidante, and finally movement cadre.
What I appreciated most is that the Playbook is written as a very accessible field manual. It cuts through the intimidation than can paralyze new organizers having to step into new roles. Eric makes clear that all organizers make mistakes, and you keep going. Eric’s offers the vision of an organizer—not as someone who is born with each of these skills, but someone who pushes herself to grow.
Courageous, Militant, Agile, Relentless, Generous….
The second half of the book takes an even more delicate and engaging analysis on the practice of organizing, and the deeper level of self-inquiry that each organizer is asked to make within herself.
The sixteen qualities described in the book could be evaluated by any one of us to see to what extent our work in a given period reflects our strongest practice. An organizer could ask herself: has my work been organizational in orientation and working toward a collective vision versus individual? Have I listened well to the base and the leaders of the organization? Are there contradictions in my practice of upholding the rights of all oppressed people? Have I been self-sustaining and taken good care of myself and others in order to stay in the struggle over the long road ahead?
One of the qualities that Eric includes in this section is the practice if being tactically agile, able to read conditions and seize opportunities to advance the campaign and the work of the organization. To illustrate this skill, Eric goes into detail describing a moment in the Bus Riders Union campaign when the organization assessed that in order to advance their campaign, BRU organizer Francisca Porchas needed to interrupt the speech that Mayor Villaraigosa would make at a high-profile national gathering of five hundred Latino elected officials. After careful preparation around timing, tone and message, the book describes the moment Francisca stood at the close of the Mayor’s speech where he was touting his environmental justice record and in spite of her own quivering voice, found the words “Mr. Mayor I respectfully disagree with your policies.” Having captured the entire room, and caught the attention of security guards moving toward her, she goes on to raise questions on the Mayor’s willingness to restrict the auto emission, to oppose rail construction, to buy more clean-air buses and to reduce bus fare.
Like many of the examples drawn out in the book, any organizer can see themselves in this type of challenging situation, summoning up ones own courage and preparation to take the best action possible in that moment. The book also lays out the openings that this one action, carried out skillfully, was able to unlock for the entire campaign.
At POWER, we have an edited version of these qualities as a foundation of our internal evaluations of our development as movement cadre. Each organizer reflects on her practice in each of these aspects of work and offers a self-assessment to the other staff. We also offer and receive feedback and support to and from staff with whom we work about their assessment of our practice in each area—where we are strong and where we have areas for development.
Taken as a whole, the qualities and skills laid out in the Playbook take a lifetime to master. Everyone, from beginning organizers-in-training to veteran leaders of national and local mass organizations, will find something that challenges and pushes their own edges of development.
Lifting up a Nationwide Tendency
In addition to laying out a clear and powerful organizing model, the Playbook also contributes to a larger movement building process by lifting up in each chapter some of the most inspirational Left grassroots organizers and organizations from across the country.
The Playbook shares powerful lessons from national labor and civil rights leader Bill Fletcher, national domestic worker organizer Ai-jen Poo, warrior poet Audre Lorde, Black Workers for Justice leader Saladin Muhammad, farm worker organizer Dolores Huerta, Indigenous Environmental Network Director Tom Goldtooth, scholar and peoples historian Robin D. G. Kelley, civil rights veteran George Wiley, and the Strategy Center’s own Manuel Criollo, Maria Guardado, Lian Hurst-Mann, Barbara Lott-Holland, Andy Terranova, and countless others.
Lessons from each of these organizers and their real campaign experiences ground the book in material reality. Transformative organizing is not just a theory. Eric chose to share his math and to show the very practice where the ideas are coming from. Many of the stories include lessons that are made from not only successes, but also from risks and errors that were then corrected. The summations of these organizing strategies demonstrate a level of humility and careful attention to detail that alone make this book invaluable to anyone involved in social justice work.
In this way, the Playbook also offers a model that hopefully will encourage all of our organizations throughout the movement to sharpen our own practice of reflection and summation of our work. We have so much to gain from drawing out our own lessons internally within our organizations and to share with one another.
Read this book!
Playbook for Progressives is an invitation to open the dialogue for movement activists and organizers involved in the struggles for racial, economic, gender, environmental, and LGBT justice.
The most powerful opportunity this book offers is the potential for unifying a movement building strategy from the grassroots up. The conditions in the U.S. and around the world could not be more urgent. The racing speed of imperialism is devastating our mountain tops, our air, our water supply. As organizers inside the U.S., we are strategically situated in one of the most important places where space for social change must be opened up in the coming years. The world is looking for alliance in our ranks as oppressed communities within this country.
The Left organizer is constantly aware of the uphill battle and steep climb inherent to this work. With this book, Eric Mann reminds us why, in spite of the difficulty, organizing can be such joyful and deeply rewarding work. The book awakens the organizing spirit in all of us, leaves the martyr behind and cheers us on saying “You can do it because we need you.”