Hahrie Han didn’t grow up political. The daughter of Korean immigrants in Texas, Han thought she might become a physicist or an architect. She ended up involved in organizing by “a little bit of happenstance.” While a student at Harvard University, Han’s community service group got into a fight with the university over how much control the university could exercise over the group, and she helped to organize a rally in Harvard Yard. The experience led her to sign up for a class with the legendary organizer Marshall Ganz, which, Han recounts, “gave me a language and a framework to understand so many of the experiences that I'd had as a kid growing up as the child of immigrants, [attending] a primarily white school…. All of a sudden, all of these experiences made sense to me, even though they had never been politicized for me when I was younger.” After college, Han moved to Washington, DC, where she worked in politics. But all the time she spent on electoral campaigns made it challenging to “step back and try to make sense of what was happening. That's what drove me into academia.” In this interview, which has been edited and condensed, Han talks with Ben Chin of Maine People’s Alliance about her new book Prisms of the People, the moments of uncertainty that face every organization, and why base building is critical to navigating changing power dynamics over the long haul. 


I want to start where you started at the beginning of the book, talking about activists trying to answer a really basic question: how does change happen? 

The book starts with this story of two organizers who had been working for immigrant rights in Arizona. Back in 2010, there was this really restrictive anti-immigration law that had just passed through the legislature and was going to go to the Governor's desk. And these two organizers had this conversation with each other where they were like, "Oh, my God. What are we going to do?" Because at the time, no one had imagined that a law as restrictive as that law could be passed. Certainly immigration had been an issue that had been fought for many years (many decades, centuries) but no one thought that a law quite that restrictive could be passed. So there was a moment of uncertainty.

We started with that [story] because so many organizers face that every single day. Sometimes you face it on a big scale where something like SB 1070 happens and you're thinking, "Oh, my gosh. What do we do?" And sometimes it's a very micro scale where you're in the middle of a one-on-one meeting with someone and the conversation isn't quite going the way that you'd want. You think, "Oh, my gosh. How do I navigate my way through this conversation?"

Part of what we were struggling with is that it felt like so many of the ways in which we talk about organizing out in the world try to pretend that there's a formula for how you do it — that if you write an email in just this way, if you make your button this color, you're going to get hundreds of people to sign up. Or if you get this many people to show up in Washington, DC, then power is going to change. And I think what we were seeing in the organizations that we were studying is that power doesn't give up power easily. Power doesn't topple very easily. All of these organizers are working in tremendous conditions of uncertainty. 

So the question that we were asking [in the book] is, how can [organizations] make choices now without knowing what challenges [they are going to face] six months from now, a year from now, two years from now, five years from now, something like that. That was the logic that underlies the book. And what we found was that the organizations that were most successful at negotiating those power dynamics were not the movements that had the best strategic plan on day one. They were the movements that were best equipped to respond when that moment of challenge came. 

So then the question is, well, what do you do now to prepare for that moment of challenge [that will come in the future]? [The answer] has to do with the extent to which you build a base of people who are able to move with you in that moment of challenge. What is the extent to which they are flexible and committed and independent so that they can move with you when you need to respond in that moment of crisis? 


A lot of folks who are coming into organizing right now, their primary background is working on a presidential campaign or planning a protest online with one of the many powerful national movements. And I wonder if you could speak about how what you're describing — building a constituency and infrastructure — might be complementary to those strategies but also a little bit different and might actually involve valuing different things.

Very often, when I write about organizing, the image that people have in their head is a big protest. That's what people think organizing is. [In our book,] we try to make a distinction between mobilizing and organizing or activism and organizing. A lot of the huge protests that we've seen have spoken to [the] anger that people have about the world as it currently exists. So, someone can start a Facebook post, and then all of a sudden, you have millions of people in Washington, DC, for the Women's March. 

That's different from organizing. Now, does it take a lot of coordination and a lot of work to pull off an event like that? Absolutely. And I'm not undermining that. But it's different than the long-term, hardcore work of building a constituency to actually move a power agenda over a period of time. [That is organizing.] And that has to do with the extent to which I'm pulling together not only people who are already angry about the world but also identifying people who may not have made the connection between the problems they have in their own lives and the problems that other people have, the problems that they see in their communities and the things that could be done by government or people in positions of power. 

What is the extent to which I'm equipping those people to not only understand how these issues are all connected and their experiences are all connected but also equipping them to work with each other to realize a vision of the world that they want? There's a whole component of transforming people's political imaginations, their understanding of themselves, their connections to each other, and creating these communities that wouldn't have existed had they not had those experiences. And that's very different than the work that it takes to pull lots of people together for one event on one day.


I don't know if we actually have a sharp definition or way of thinking about power. I really liked how you describe it in the book because I think a lot of us are still walking around thinking, "Power is just how you force people to do stuff, just beating somebody over the head and getting what you want." And I think when we define it that way, there's a lot of people who rightfully say, "This actually does not sound like something I'm that interested in participating in or building." How do you define power, and how do you see it relating to strategy and social movements?

We draw on Marshall [Ganz]’s work to [define] power as a relationship and not a thing. So, I have power over you only to the extent that I have resources that act on your interests. And you have power over me only to the extent that you have resources that act on my interests. We can decide to share power by using our resources mutually to act on each other's interests. So, it doesn't necessarily have to be adversarial. But just because I have power in one relationship doesn't mean that I'm going to have power in another relationship because it all depends on that exchange of interests and resources. 

The second point that we make is that power often operates in ways that are hard to see. So the most obvious way in which power operates is where one person forces another person or group of people to do something. But the theorist Steven Lukes talks about this idea that there's not only what he calls the visible face of power, but there's also the second face of power and the third face of power. So, the second face of power is the idea that power operates not only based on the question of who wins the vote at the city council but who decided what vote we're even going to take. Part of the way in which the NRA has exerted so much power historically is they kept gun issues off the national agenda for a really long time. They simply wouldn't let it come up for a vote.

And then the third face of power is basically this idea that all of us walk around with assumptions in our head about how the world works. And if I assume that most people are not going to vote, that I'm going to build an entire electoral system that's based on the idea that we can only get 50 percent of adults to get out and vote or that people of color are less likely to vote — that's a form of power too.

So, winning power is not just, did they pass a policy? Did they win an election? But what is the extent to which they earned a seat at the decision-making table? What is the extent to which they are able to shape the assumptions that people have in their heads about how the world works? What is the way in which they are able to enter into those relationships of negotiation through which power is actually navigated?


What are the Hahrie Han remixes that you would add to some of Marshall's theories?

Marshall has done so much more than I have in terms of helping to do things like develop trainings around public narrative and Story of Self that help make concrete the micro dynamics and micro practices through which people are able to realize their own agency, develop their leadership, and then do the work of organizing. We're thinking a little bit more at a macro level of, how do we understand the patterns in the ways in which these movements and organizations organize? What is the impact that it has in terms of actually moving power and power dynamics? So the focus has been different. 

Now, where I think a lot of those things come together has to do with this question of strategy and strategic capacity, which gets back to the uncertainty that we're talking about. If you take seriously that organizing is about the struggle for power and that those struggles for power are always going to be uncertain, then the best thing that I can do as an organizer right now is to build my constituency, which is the most flexible and useful resource that I have, and to develop the strategic capacity to be able to respond in those moments of uncertainty.


What is next for you? 

At P3, we've been doing a lot of work to try to think about how we move some of these ideas out to the world. We're starting a book club for organizers. So, if there are any organizers out there that would be interested in just doing a pretty informal book club that brings people together to read interesting things and reflect on them, that would be one thing.

We're also thinking about things like, what are the tools that we can put in the hands of organizers to help them reflect on their own practice? So, we've done things like develop this agitational assessment around how you think about your own strategic capacity, and what are the questions you should be asking yourself to understand whether or not you're doing the practices that might lead to the strategic capacity that you need.

I've been doing a lot of work trying to understand the relationship between faith and race in America. Christianity in America has obviously had a very fraught history with race, so I've been studying people that have been organizing within Christian faith traditions to try to bring racial justice to their communities. What does it mean for people to stay and fight for a community in this world where so many people, when they get fed up with an institution, tend to just leave it? But here, because of their faith commitments, people are really staying and fighting for the justice vision that they think is correct. So, I'm learning a ton just by doing that work.



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