When I was 21 years old, I led a campaign to get the public university I was attending in Ohio to install condom dispensers in each of the student residence halls as a public health measure. Hundreds of students signed petitions and attended rallies, and, eventually, the student senate (which I chaired) passed a resolution. Faculty, including from the public health department, were publicly supportive, and we won a super majority vote on a resolution at the Faculty Senate as well. After the faculty vote, I was quoted in the Cincinnati Enquirer in April 1991 saying, “Now we’ve made it very, very hard” for the university President to say the university was split on the issue.

We held our culminating rally outside the university administration building — complete with a re-enactment of 9th grade health class, in which a public health professor with a banana taught people how to properly use a condom. Even my mom remembers this rally because she got calls from friends across Ohio when local nightly news programs featured that “condom rally” with me as emcee. We were confident of winning.

But after wondering aloud to the Enquirer about whether condom dispensers would “encourage sexual activity” (this was the early 90s!), the President and Vice President for Student Affairs just said no. End of discussion. We lost. Our power analysis was far off the mark. 

I’ve been trying to get smarter at understanding power ever since. Later that same year, I started my first full-time paid organizing job at the United States Student Association, followed by eight years as a community organizer based in South Los Angeles at AGENDA/SCOPE, almost a decade as a union organizer and campaigner with SEIU and UFCW, and another decade as a national leader in issue campaigns, alliances, and electoral power-building at Community Change. Whether it was fighting for more public funding for poor students and students of color to access higher education, demanding that the DreamWorks movie studio guarantee quality unionized entertainment industry jobs for communities of color across Los Angeles, or organizing with workers building a union at a national chain of assisted living facilities owned by a huge Wall Street firm — win or lose, the lessons for me have always come down to power. 

 

A New Series at The Forge

I’m launching a new series at The Forge in which I engage organizers with a deceptively simple question: what’s your power analysis?

When health care activists are assessing how systemic a national health care demand to make… what’s the power analysis?

When workers are assessing the strategic significance of organizing a particular workplace or employer or industry… what’s the power analysis?

When a local community organizing group or statewide progressive alliance is deciding how to allocate its limited time and resources between an important issue campaign or a new base-building project…what’s the power analysis?

When any of us as organizers are debriefing a recent victory and considering the smartest next fight to pick…what’s the power analysis? 

Or when we are lamenting our latest infuriating loss…what was the power analysis, and where did we go wrong?

I wish we started more often by analyzing power — ours and the other side’s. I wish we had sharper and more shared approaches and language across our movements for describing, measuring, and analyzing power. Powerful actors and institutions are creating and purposefully maintaining unjust political and economic systems for their own benefit. The only way to change those systems and bring about our vision of the world is for our organizations and movements to build power ourselves and to learn how to wield it strategically to win the justice we seek.

 

What we talk about often

As I thought about creating this series, I reflected on some of the things we organizers talk with each other about often: 

  • What is motivating or enraging us 

  • Exciting tactics that dramatize problems or expose hypocrisy

  • Issue campaigns and all their up, down, and sideways moments

  • Programs to turn out our voters and win elections

  • Messaging, narrative, and other forms of searching for magic words

  • Heart-rending stories of the injustices and the suffering of our people

  • How unprincipled our political, economic, and ideological opponents can be

  • How immoral profit-seeking capitalists and white supremacists are

All of these are important dimensions of our work. But only when tied to our understanding of power can they help point us to the most impactful and strategic directions.

 

What we complain about when we are not winning

I also thought about the things we organizers tend to complain about or blame when we are losing: 

  • The rules of the game are rigged against our people

  • The decision-makers are in the pocket of __________

  • If this or that liberal Democrat would just “get a backbone” or if this or that corporate Democrat would just do what we say…

  • If Democrats would just realize that we progressives are “obviously right” that moving our agenda would ensure their re-election…

  • We needed a better message and to get it out more

  • The media refuses (or doesn’t know how) to cover our issues the right way

  • The other side outspent us

 

Let’s talk about power – analyzing it, building it, and exercising it

In this series, I’ll be talking to organizers and movement leaders — including Doran Schrantz of Faith in Minnesota, Andrea Mercado of Florida Rising, leaders at the New Georgia Project Action Fund, and others from across the progressive movement — about the power analysis that guides their work and their organizations, the power they’re trying to build and exercise, how it’s going, and how they know. 

I’ll be trying to get under the hood, to dig past the public talking points we all sometimes use to promote our work. I hope this series will become a place for real talk among us as organizers. I know it can be hard to do this in a public forum — but we are going to have to find a way. We have to be able to talk honestly and critically with each other about power because the world is on fire and so many of our people are dying. Learning with each other — about what’s working and what’s not — is imperative if we’re ever going to build the scale and depth of collective power we need to achieve our vision of a just country and world. 

 

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