Heather Booth’s organizing career dates back to the civil rights movement. An activist with SNCC, she later joined the women’s liberation, student, and anti-war movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s. As those movements began to fracture, Booth got involved with the Industrial Areas Foundation. There, she “realized what I wanted to do was combine the movement spirit and the sense of breadth driven by that vision [of sixties activists] with the practicalities of community-based organizing.” 

Soon, Both had the chance. She was fired from her day job after speaking up for a clerical worker whose pay had been cut, and used the money she won in a settlement to form the Midwest Academy — a training program “designed to combine the vision and values of movement organizing with the practical skills of community-based organizing.” Since then, the Midwest Academy has trained over 25,000 organizers from hundreds of organizations across the country, making an indelible mark on the movement. 

Drew Astolfi sat down with Booth to talk about her long career in organizing, how the movement has changed, and what’s giving her hope for the future. This interview has been edited and condensed. 


You started organizing with SNCC. How did you become an organizer in those days? 

[When] Emmett Till was killed, that had a very big impact on me. To see a teenager's battered body, it was so horrific. I really felt you can't act this way, and we have to act, as a society, to change things. We can't allow it to be this way.

The first activity I was actually involved with was through American Friend Service Committee, and it was handing out flyers against the death penalty. I was totally frightened. I was a very young teenager then. And I didn't even know how to hand out flyers. I dropped them, and I think someone spit at me. I was scared, and I didn't know if I would do the right thing. But I found community [in the] Friend Service Committee and then in CORE, Congress on Racial Equality, in support for the sit-ins in the South. And then, found my way to SNCC, which in the North was called the Friends of SNCC. 

For me, it was the following of moral values. The horrific reality about how people could be treated and realizing that it wasn't enough just to be a good person but to actually do something to change that situation, even if I didn't know exactly what it was. Throughout all of this, I was often insecure and frightened. I felt I didn't know enough, I wasn't good enough, I wasn't smart enough, I didn't know what to do. And I feel that still. And it's actually helped me in my organizing because one of the things it made me realize is many of us feel insecure or unsure, and so much in the society tells us we're not good enough, we don't know enough. A big part of organizing is to let people know, with honesty, that we are good enough, smart enough, brave enough if we stand together. That alone, we may not really know, but together, we really can make a difference, and we'll support each other. It's not just to say you're always doing the right thing, but that it's your commitment that matters and your caring about others that matters.

And so, one of the big lessons that I believe, in organizing, is to keep love at the center. And the other big lesson is to know that, if we organize, we can change the world. But we need to organize. 


You’re a founder of the Midwest Academy. I remember you saying that you thought about it as a response to the fracturing of the movements of the late '60s. How clear were about where you were going when you founded Midwest Academy?

There was a lot of time spent on that discussion. We had been through a variety of organizations that, themselves, were dissolving or fracturing. SDS came apart. SNCC was no longer the organization it had been. The women's movement organizations were coming apart.

Women were coming into the workforce and we helped to think through, could we do something to help spark a working women's movement? Ellen [Cassedy, one of the founders of 9to5,] was in the first class of Midwest Academy. And we were, early on, a kind of training arm for part of the working women's movement. But coming out of a theory of identifying, what are the problems that we can address? What's the problem of the division between labor and community? And how do we build something to last?

In 1980, there was a second turning point. Reagan is elected. Right-wing populism is on the rise. Many in the left were saying, "Well, we're the majority of the country." Well, first of all, whether or not we're the majority, we didn't have the electoral power to control the levers of power. I realized, if you don't do elections, you get done in by elections. I set up another organization to do training around the country, to train all the groups that I had been working with in elections. And so, we did training for all the Citizen Action groups, NARAL, Planned Parenthood, and many other organizations, on how you combine elections with issues and still keep your organizing base. Because that was new. We didn’t want them to lose. So, then, we had the model of locally-based organizing coalitions at the statewide level, combined in national operations, learning from each other. We had cross training with a canvass operation now becoming electoral. And that carried us forward for quite a while.


Sounds like a familiar story from today, actually.

I think this last election is another wake up call. On the one hand, the beauty of what happened needs to be appreciated. I feel like almost every meeting needs to start with saying something like, "We did it!" Trump is out. A movement changed and transformed an agenda so that there's basically a progressive agenda being moved broadly. This is an administration that talks about systemic racism. Now, it's a long way to go to implement the policies. But what a transformation. And we need to celebrate how remarkable this moment is, that we were such a key part of doing it. So was Joe Biden, and we should give him credit, and Kamala Harris. But that the movement helped to make this happen.

What we learned in the last few years was how to resist, how to protest, how to make demands. Trump was a unifying factor. For all our differences, we could all be unified against Trump. So, I think there are many challenges for us now. One is, will we hang together? Without Trump, do we keep the beauty of the alliance we've had? Two is, we know how to protest, and everyone says the word "power." But I think our first inclination is [to point the finger at elected officials and say]: why didn't you do this? Why didn't you, leader, do this? When, in fact, we need to point the finger to ourselves and say, "Did we create the conditions that made it possible? Did we organize?" In addition to protest. I'm for all sorts of protest. But it's one part. The building of real power means clarity about what we're fighting for, clarity about who has the power to make the decisions, clarity about what power is needed to move that person. Is it supportive power? Is it hostile power? And by whom?

I have a non-sectarian politics. I grew up in a movement that became very factional and very sectarian. If you didn't have my line, you were awful. And what I've learned is that, first of all, we don't know everything. And we have to learn from each other. And we have to be generous with each other.


You've had several lives in the movement. What do you think we have lost along the way? What changes give you hope?

Well, I am so hopeful about the generation of leadership coming up that is bold, courageous. I mean, I was frightened all the time. They may be frightened, but boy, are they willing to take risks and try new things, and I'm thrilled by the joy that many bring into the movement. Color of Change was having luncheons with Black women, and they start by saying, "What gives you joy?" I love that. To say the movement can be a place of joy. 

On the things that are of concern now, I think I've mentioned them. Do we stay together without a unifying enemy? Do we turn on each other? That's always been a concern I've got. Right now, we're staying together, and that's beautiful. Do we understand how you actually move power, and that it means you've actually got to build bases of power that also aren't just isolated? So, your block club is connected to your city group, to your state group, to your national group. That national matters, that state matters, that city matters, that block matters. And that we need to learn and support each other, and that we need to control the real levers of power.


Anything else you’d like to add?

There are the three principles of Midwest Academy. [We need] to win real improvements in people's lives. We don't just talk about change; we show how it matters to them. I am very concerned about that now, that we win victories, that people feel, "I have money in pocket. I can walk down the street and not be frightened." That we improve lives in concrete ways. The second is that we give people a sense of their own power so they know that they're part of it and they know that there were victories that they helped to win. And the third is that we change the relations of power. That we move for structural reforms. There are certain reforms that are more meaningful than others. Immigration reform is a structural reform. Voting reforms are structural reforms.  [And we need structural reforms.]

I do want to end with what I said before. There are two values I want to push. We need to organize, and only if we organize will we change the world. And we need love at the center.


Created with Sketch.

Related Articles