Mat Hanson (MH) is the Co-Director of the DC Working Families Party and conducted the interview.

Ben C. Miyamoto (BCM) is the Director Membership and Research at the Scholars Strategy Network and helped transcribe and edit the interview.

Hahrie Han (HH) is the inaugural director of the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University, the Director of the P3 Lab, and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network Steering Committee.

Mat Hanson: Before we start - a quick refresher, The Forge is a journal for organizers by organizers launching later this month, which is focused on bridging strategy and practice in conversations across communities of labor, movement, electoral, community, and digital organizers in the United States. We hope the audience will be organizers, leaders, academics, and folks generally interested in how we organize and how we work to build power. Excited to chat with you! To start, could I ask you to tell me a little bit about yourself?

Hahrie Han: Sure! I just moved to Johns Hopkins to be the inaugural Director of the SNF Agora Institute, which is dedicated to bridging research, teaching, and practice to strengthen global democracy through civic engagement and inclusive dialogue. I also direct the P3 Lab, where we're working with organizations on the ground to better understand how to make people's participation possible, probable, and powerful.

Mat Hanson: Wonderful! Could you tell us a little bit about the Center on Democracy and Organizing (CDO). Maybe a little bit about the specific goals and purposes. And what brought you and others to launch it?

Hahrie Han: The center, “C-DO” as we call it, just launched last year with pilot funding from the Ford Foundation and the Open Society Foundations. It began in a conversation between me, Taeku Lee, and Lisa García Bedolla. All of us do work on organizing, engaged with constituencies and organizations on the ground. I think there were two challenges that we felt were making that work harder and that we wanted to confront.

First, there seems to be a real hunger out there from organizers who want to partner with scholars who could help them deepen the learning they were doing about their own work, but we didn’t have a good pipeline of scholars trained to work with organizations in that way. And with that, the academy has always struggled to provide scholars of color and scholars who come from the communities where we’re working. So there's the problem of the pipeline - not only the number of people, but also who is in that pipeline.

The second challenge is that a lot of the partnerships that we see between researchers and practitioners tend to be transactional. It might be a research-practice partnership on program evaluation or a researcher who worked with an organization to get data but then did not partner with the organization in other ways. In those cases, the relationship can feel extractive on both ends.

We wanted to find a better way of building those partnerships, by creating a space for co-created learning that pushes the frontiers of strategic thinking within organizations and also learning within the academy. So CDO is designed to create an institutional home where we can expand both the opportunities for networking and the pipeline of people doing this kind of work.

Mat Hanson: That is absolutely fantastic. Could you tell us about some of CDO’s programs or your vision for how you'd like to see this work done in the future?

Hahrie Han: Sure! I should emphasize that we just got through our pilot year so we're still very much in formation. Also, a lot of the examples that I have come out of my own scholarship. So, Lisa and Taeku would likely give you other examples. Part of the goal of CDO is to bring all those pieces together so it’s not just the idiosyncrasies of one person.

That said, in its first year, CDO had a couple convenings where we brought together different stakeholders like funders, scholars, organizers, other practitioners, and people who are thinking about this sort of research - practice partnership in movement organizations.

Those early gatherings were meant to be a proof of concept, determining whether other people - beyond the three of us - agreed that developing these research-practitioner relationships is a challenge and something that should be worked on. We tried to figure out what it should look like and why it hasn't evolved before. There was a broad strategy discussion about the core questions and ideas that we wanted to consider, looking at the questions at the intersection of research and practice in organizing.

For example Lisa García Bedolla wrote a piece about how the kind of research methodology we use might need to be different if we're thinking about creating learning with organizations and especially with a focus on communities of color. We had a postdoc, Nicole Willcoxon, who wrote a piece about the history of engaged scholarship in the academy - the idea of working with the public is not new, but in fact, has a long tradition in the academy.

The real highlight of the year, for me personally, was the summer institute. Young scholars came to the institute in pairs - in partnership - with an organization with whom they had a pre-existing relationship and with whom they wanted to work on something. In other cases, people applied independently, gave us a sense of their interests, and we matched them.

The idea was to figure out how to design a question that is of mutual interest to both the scholar and the practitioner. How do we think about the challenges of doing work on the ground? For example, we did a site visit to the Asian Pacific Environmental Network in Oakland.

The institute was really great because it brought together this broad community of young scholars coming from a diverse array of backgrounds and disciplines and organizations that were interested in learning in partnership with people in the academy. I, personally, learned a ton from that experience and hope that we can continue it in the future.

Mat Hanson: I think that sounds great. Is this summer institute something you plan on doing every year? And thinking long term, could you tell us about your vision of what success looks like if the network gets built out?

Hahrie Han: Yeah, our hope is that by doing it again we'll begin to build an increasingly large network of people doing this - so it feels less ad hoc and more and more a part of both the organizing and the academic communities that we're all a part of.

When I was an assistant professor, 10 years ago now, I was in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Scholars in Health Policy Research Program. Basically, in three sites across the country (University of Michigan, Berkeley, and Harvard) they would bring together an interdisciplinary cohort of postdocs or professors - usually a sociologist, political scientist, economist, and a swing person - and essentially the fellowship gave you two years to do whatever work you wanted to do, as long as you developed a product that was related to health politics in some way.

And then you would also participate in a seminar about health politics. The idea was that they wanted to build programs that invested over the long-term in human capital - cultivating people who are positioned all around this broad domain of health care. And that program, which started in the early 90s, arguably single-handedly developed the area of study within political science that we now think of as health politics.

That's the kind of thing that, in the long-term, I would love to see CDO do on the academic side - build out a little corner in each of these core disciplines where people are doing work on organizing. We might be connected to each other but there's no professional setting where we all come together intentionally.

Within the movement, I would really love to see CDO be a place that begins to deepen the conversation about what learning looks like within movement contexts. I am probably extremely biased because I come with the perspective of a researcher, but I feel like the best organizers that I know are always in this mode of constant learning.

They’re trying to solve problems and learn about the problems that deeply affect people's lives. They're constantly saying “OK, this didn't work - why? How do we learn from it? How do we do better next time? And how do we deepen our practice and understanding of the organizing craft?”

I think if we can legitimate scholarship around that learning then we can move away from the technocratic understanding of things like cost-per-vote and move towards a place where we understand leadership and movement leadership as a craft. And that could help us invest in it. Hopefully that could have ripple effects in all sorts of directions you can imagine.

Mat Hanson: Absolutely and I think that is something we should dig into a little bit more. Could you tell us about highlights from your past work and implications for organizers today?

Hahrie Han: Yes. So, I worked in politics before I went to grad school. When I went to grad school, my first thought was that I would graduate and then probably go back and work in politics. What really changed my mind was getting involved in a project with Marshall Ganz, who's at the Harvard Kennedy School. I had taken an introduction to organizing in undergrad and he pulled me into a project that he was doing in partnership with the Sierra Club.

In 2003, the Sierra Club had an election in which an anti-immigrant group seized three seats on their national board. It turns out that the voter turnout for their national board elections were so low that a small, outside faction could come in and hijack the election. They claimed this huge number of members at the time, but many of those people just wrote a $35 check once a year, got a backpack, and then otherwise had no relationship with the organization.

So we structured a research project with them, where we trained three-hundred of their leaders to go into every local Sierra Club affiliate across the country. They conducted a series of leadership surveys and a self-assessments about how the organization worked. Through that project, I learned how you can work in partnership with organizations and do so in a way that can really help. As academics, we publish all these papers in top journals and stuff like that, but that helped me think about how researchers can think about outcomes for civic organizations.

Like, how do we think about the role of organizational practice in shaping individual leadership trajectories? Questions that were important to us as academics but also to the Sierra Club. With that experience in their national board, they realized that there were some local groups that were really strong and had a relationship with their membership base and others that did not.

But they didn't understand what the differences were. And we were able to document it and draw a picture of what those differences were. And that helped spark the whole leadership training program they developed within the organization. That helped me understand what I wanted to do as an academic.

One of the books that has been used the most by practitioners was about the difference between mobilizing and organizing called How Organizations Develop Activists. That was born out of my time as a Robert Wood Johnson scholar. I was talking to a bunch of organizers and they were talking about this paradox: on the one hand there were these new technologies made it easier than ever to get people involved. On the other hand they felt more powerless than ever before. They wanted to understand strategies for engagement that get people involved, but also get people involved in a way that actually matters.

The underlying premise of a lot of the research I've done centers on a similar idea - that in order to solve the big problems that we face, we have to understand the ways in which we engage with each other and the extent to which we can create places where we are accountable to and beholden to each other.

When people talk about policy problems around strengthening democracy, climate, inequality, and the concentration of corporate power, they tend to focus on solutions at the level of policy - like how do you design policy or identify candidates who are going to get done what we want to do. How do you get those people elected or those policies passed?

And that matters of course, but a lot of my research focuses on the micro practices and how those affect our ability to solve our macro problems. So I think about how the internal practices of organizations shape the capacity of the organization to achieve their broader policy and power goals.

Mat Hanson: With that in mind, can you share your thoughts about the relationships between community organizing, social movements, and electoral politics? I think we're living through a pretty momentous time right now and I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about how they inform each other and how they can help build momentum for each other?

Hahrie Han: I don't know if I'm the best person to talk about this, to be honest. I am well aware that there are long traditions of organizing in electoral politics and movement organizations and those have been in conversation with and evolved in different ways. And that those traditions and distinctions are really important.

But in the work I've done, I've always thought about the challenge of pulling people off the sidelines into public life in a way that makes them real agents of change, realizing their own interests - as opposed to consumers of something else. And that can happen through elections, or through traditional community organizing, or through unions, or elsewhere. I’ve always been interested in the broader questions as opposed to the interrelationships.

So that is a long way of saying that those types of organizing are, I think, inextricably interrelated. I know that within community organizing there's a tradition of people that didn't want to think about contesting for power at the national level. I think that that debate predated me a little bit.

So when I came into this work it was sort of taken for granted that, given the challenges we face in our world, we have to contest for power at every level. And to do that you need movements, you need established organizations, and you need to contest in elections in order to be able to create the scaffolding around people that you need to help them practice democracy in every domain.

Mat Hanson: There's a really great answer - I thought that was great. With that, could you tell us a bit about policy and civic feedbacks and power building?

Hahrie Han: The whole idea about policy feedbacks is that they are designed to shape how people perceive themselves in relationship to government and get involved. S o, for example, if you design social security policy in a way where a check shows up from the U.S. government in your mailbox once a month - it's like “Wow, the government is so great for sending me a check once a month.”

Whereas, when you design the Earned Income Tax Credit in such a way that it's just basically a reduction in your taxes, then most people won’t understand that it’s actually money in your pocket, because they never see that money in their pocket. You get nothing.

So the design of policy is going to shape how people perceive government and also shape their willingness to get involved. There are some classic studies that look at the elderly people’s engagement in politics. We think of the elderly as being a high voting population, but they weren't until Social Security came along. Social Security gave them a stake in politics.

So for organizers, it seems like one of the big challenges is how they can think strategically about the levers of change that they can pull. I think policy design is an underutilized opportunity. A colleague and I have been working on a paper that where we look at this idea of civic feedback loops - it isn't published yet by the way, so not peer-reviewed - but we look at how not only are there feedback loops that go from policy to participation, but there are also feedback loops that go from how you engage people to the extent the organization or the movement is going to build power over time.

So that kind of gets at how the micro practices shape our ability to solve macro problems. If you engage people in a purely mobilizing kind of way then that’s going to create a different set of strategic opportunities for leaders who are negotiating for power. They’ll be negotiating based on a base that they only know through canvassing versus leaders who can negotiate for power based on a base that they actually have deep relationships with. And looking at and understanding where those feedback loops are, we're trying to think about a set of civic feedbacks for organizers.

Mat Hanson: Could you share your thoughts on what you think some of the big debates are in the field of research on organizing?

Hahrie Han: Yeah. It's hard to answer that question because there isn’t really a field of research on organizing. There are people who study organizing that sit in sociology and political science and community psychology and all these other places. But this is not a coherent field. I will say, some of the core questions that I struggle with are about what core practices make organizing work and how to develop people’s agency. But we don’t have good measures of agency.

How do we contextualize that? Another question would be - given the ways in which the goal of organizing is really power and not policy - how do you conceptualize, understand, and make visible the movements that organizations are making relative to power shifts, even when they lose an election. You can lose an election and still gain power. You can also win an election and still not have power. But right now we don't really have a lot of tools to differentiate those things. And that's the kind of thing that I think academics can help us understand.

Mat Hanson: Any other stories from the field you think are worth sharing?

Hahrie Han: I think about some of the research-practice partnerships that were pivotal for me. In late 2013, Joy Cushman invited me and Paul Speer at Vanderbilt to a research council within PICO - Faith in Action. It was exactly what we were talking about earlier - a structural unit within PICO meant for shared learning.

One of the things we discussed was about their “Let My People Vote” program - a big voter turnout program - where they were asking what we know and not know about that work. I put together the research available on the topic and presented it in a kind of lit review. Then, I remember one of the federation leaders saying, basically, “This is not acceptable to us.” I was sort of like, “What do you mean? These are the findings.” And he was more or less like, “We can't take these findings be true because they disinvest in and disempower such a big part of our constituency.”

And for me that was a really powerful moment because it helped me reinterpret a lot of the questions we have in the academy. It also spoke a lot to the [leaders’] willingness to hang with us, as researchers, even as we presented them research that they clearly couldn’t work with.

That led me to a deeper conversation where I grappled with ideas that led me to much better questions at the end of the process.

BCM: Do you have any advice for any young researchers who are trying to do this work but are finding it difficult or don't have the type of institutional supports that CDO offers?

Hahrie Han: For scholars I would say, first, come to CDO!

And you have to work within the academy in a way that allows you to negotiate contradiction. The contradiction is that when you are in the academy, you are prized for a certain kind of work that needs to meet the conventional standards of academic rigor. In order to do the work in a way that supports these groups in the deepest way, we can't ignore that.

I think that groups like Center for Popular Democracy or Faith in Action are working in a world where they get resources from funders and in a world in which funders want to see randomized controlled trials.

That's what I really learned from that experience with PICO. It's not that we we’re going to ignore the truth of what has been found, but instead we have to figure out, given the reality on the ground, how do we do work that challenges the conventional wisdom, because the conventional wisdom is excluding huge swaths of people.

With research, we have to contend with and meet the highest standards of academic rigor, but we also have to challenge those standards. And to do that work, I think you have to be in deep relationships. My advice is to find a good partner who's willing to dig in and hang with you even when they don't like what you're saying.


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