Introduction to Deep Canvassing: The Proven Method to Change Hearts and Minds Are you an organizer, community leader, or just someone looking to engage with your community around deeply polarizing issues? Learn how to have compassionate, non-judgmental conversations across lines of difference with this powerful technique.

The Next Move - Season 2

Episode 2: Help People Grow with Stephen Roberson

Episode Summary

What will it take to depolarize our politics? At the heart of organizing is investing in deep relationships — ones that help people develop their own power and potential. No one can describe what that takes like Stephen Roberson, Director of Organizing at Community Voices Heard. During this episode, he and George talk about the curiosity and compassion it takes to dismantle division at the most meaningful level: person to person.

Photo of Stephen Roberson
Episode Guest Stephen Roberson
Guest Bios
Transcript
Learn More
Other Episodes
Season 2 - Episode 2

Guest Bios

Photo of Stephen Roberson

Stephen Roberson

Stephen Roberson came up through the United Farm Workers, where he worked directly with Cesar Chavez as well as Chavez’s own mentor, Fred Ross, Sr. During the late `80s, while working as Lead Organizer and National Staff with the Industrial Areas Foundation, he spearheaded the Nehemiah Project, which built 1000 homes with low-income families in Brownsville, Brooklyn. After seven years as Associate Director of Organizing with SEIU Local 32BJ’s New York headquarters, Stephen now directs organizing at Community Voices Heard.

Photo of George Goehl

George Goehl

Host

At age 21, George Goehl walked into a soup kitchen to eat. Over time, he became an employee – first washing dishes and eventually helping run the place. Three years later, he was struck by seeing the same people in line as when he first arrived. He began to organize.  

Today, George is the director of People’s Action, a multiracial poor and working class people’s organization. He leads one of the largest race-conscious rural progressive organizing efforts in the United States. 

Following the financial crisis, George and National People’s Action mobilized more people into the streets than any other organization to demand accountability, help win Financial Reform, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and secure mortgage relief. 

The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe Guardian, CNN, MSNBC and others have covered George’s organizing work.

Season 2 - Episode 2

Transcript

George Goehl: Hey! I’m George Goehl, and this is The Next Move, where we’re talking with organizers about the craft of organizing. Today’s guest is Stephen Roberson, an organizer’s organizer, and he’s seen it all. I tell you all: organizers, you have not chosen the fastest path to power. You could build power for yourself more quickly if you pursued elected office or became a social media star. You’ve chosen to do something else, to build the power of many other people and with many other people. It’s simply a different thing.

George Goehl: Activism is in vogue these days and we’re better for it, but let’s not mistake activism for organizing. An activist is active, maybe even leads in the fight for social change. An organizer is developing the power and the potential of others within that fight; often one by one, sometimes many at a time. Today’s guest, Stephen Roberson is a developer of people. Stephen’s path started with United Farm Workers then with East Brooklyn Congregations and United Power in Action for Justice, both projects of the Industrial Areas Foundation; then for SCAU and most recently, Community Voices Heard, a member organization of People’s Action. Here’s the conversation. So I got to ask, how did you find organizing?

Stephen Roberson: Well, it’s a long story, George. When told by a 70-year-old man, there’s a lot of history. I mean I was born at a time when lots was going on in this country. I was born in 1951 and that takes us into deep Jim Crow and into a lot of death and a lot of disappearance of heroes and heroines: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy. So many people were killed at the time I was going into adolescence.

Stephen Roberson: I was in a school system that was mostly white. I was the son of service workers and domestic workers. We were a little bit below, part of the lower part of the working class in my community, and around all those changes that were going on in our country at the time, so much racial hatred. Trying to figure it out, not knowing, as a kid, who I was in terms of, am I supposed to be inferior to the white kids I went to school with? Should I believe that? Am I more what my parents told me I was, which was unique, strong kid that they loved and thought could be somebody?

Stephen Roberson: So it’s in the midst of all that, trying to figure it out and not having the answers as a 13, 14, 15-year-old kid. The love of my deacon in my church, who invested in me, Deacon Johnson; love of a Mr. Kennedy, my sixth-grade teacher, I think that’s what propelled me into trying to get to the bottom of this uncertainty as a human being. This anger, this kind of just being adrift, shall we say. Those people helped me to center myself more and realize that I could be somebody, so what happened was that I was reading a book at the age of about, probably about 17 or 18, called “Soul on Ice” by Eldridge Cleaver.

George Goehl: Yeah.

Stephen Roberson: In it, there was a question asked of, “What would you die for?” And that was such a jarring question for me, at that age. What the hell would I die for? Do I take anything in life that seriously? And then all these deaths were occurring and all this does, I got to get in touch with who I am and I got to become somebody.

Stephen Roberson: So the first time I encountered organizing and got put to the test was when I encountered a picket line in front of a supermarket, of all things. A white friend of mine, who’s today still my best friend, Norbert Harold, said “Come on, Steph, we’re going to go to a picket line.” What the hell a picket line? What the hell? In front of a supermarket? What the hell are you… What’s going on here? Not leaving Jersey, what? So I went to this picket line, I said, “Holy shit, we’re in it. There are people who don’t like us here.” We’re standing up for this group of people, these farm workers.

Stephen Roberson: That’s when I got radicalized and probably, I think I was arrested also for loud and lewd behavior and inciting a riot for being on a picket line. So that radicalized me pretty quick. I had to figure out what the hell am I doing on this line. Did I really know what I was getting myself into? And at the end of this long story is I came off of that picket line and went and organized with a good friend of mine, who’s much better at this. My first house meeting of all the kids in my neighborhood, to talk about the farm workers and to talk about getting black history books into the library at the school, which was unheard of. Yeah, he got them together and I was the big star in front of the meeting, doing all the talking and flapping my gums, and I said, “Oh shit, now what do I do?”

George Goehl: That’s…

Stephen Roberson: It was that question came and damn, I guess I better do something with all this attention and all these kids looking at, listening to me for the first time. So I organized another picket line of them in front of the public library in Westwood, New Jersey. That was my first 19-year-old coming into my own, trying to figure out who I was, trying to figure out the world I was in. Having no answers other than the fact that it felt pretty good to be in front of those 25 kids, who wanted to be a part of changing the way things were in our little town of 15,000 people. That was my first foray, George. I wish it was more romantic, but that was it.

George Goehl: No, that’s fine. Wow. There’s a lot in there.

Stephen Roberson: Yeah.

George Goehl: And I feel like half of organizing is ending up on moments where you’re like, “Now what do I do?”

Stephen Roberson: Yeah, that’s right.

George Goehl: That kind of describes half of it. What happens next for you with the farm workers?

Stephen Roberson: Oh, boy. So it went from there to say, “Shit, I was also taken with this thing.” I was emerging as this leader, but I didn’t know how to organize. I was part of the Black Panther Party and what they were doing in New Brunswick, New Jersey but it was mostly show to be honest. We didn’t really organize much. We organize a free breakfast programs and service elements in the community and we were kind of protectors, but I wouldn’t have called that organizing.

Stephen Roberson: So to me, the farm workers, when they put up these picket lines, to me that represented somebody knew what they were doing. I mean they actually knew what they must have known. That’s what I was thinking at that age, because they’re doing it all over the country and they’re doing several neighborhoods in New Jersey. Not just like one place, right? And they’re doing it week after week after week, so I just became very curious about how do you do that? How would you do that to sustain that kind of energy over a very needed and deep concern for the people that picked our foods who were black and who were Latino. That kind of fit what I was trying to get at and so I said, basically, as a 19-year-old, I said, “Well, I got time on my hands.”

Stephen Roberson: I left school because I got so drunk on how to become a better organizer and I was learning left and right from Chavez and company. I wasn’t getting any kind of stimulation like that in college. So, that’s what was next. I just dove in. I joined a boycott house in Montclair, New Jersey and that’s where we all came together and lived, people who want to work for the boycott. Yeah, I just kept learning. I kept growing and I kept relating outside of my own culture, and economic class, and that really, really invigorated me.

Stephen Roberson: I met some really good people along the way. From farm workers down to people who were like me. Most of those were white though, but the farm workers weren’t. The farm workers were blacks and Latinos who came off the job to work for five dollars a week and room and board just like me, to build their struggle and to build their organization. They came from LA; they came from Florida; they came from Canada; they came from so many places to work in a setting. Some say in Cleveland, in Jersey City, in New York City, or every all over the country, Detroit, to shut down these [grapes 00:09:55] and that really invigorated me. It seemed like we were starting to win. That also helps when you’re feeling like you’re winning. You’re shutting down stores. That really invigorated me. I learned a lot. I learned to be on my own. I learned that I was somebody. So yeah.

George Goehl: What do you think of as actually organizing and what do you think of as that maybe, stuff that masquerades as it? Like what is organizing?

Stephen Roberson: Well to me, part of this is still reflection and guidance from some of my mentors. To me, organizing is first seeing a situation that’s not good and you know it’s not good. It’s a bad culture and you disorganize it. Your first thing is you got to rip it up and dismantle it a little bit or a lot. In my case, it’s been a lot. Then figure out if you could put it together differently.

Stephen Roberson: So to me, that’s what organizing was. It was disorganizing of existing relationships and making them different. Not destroying relationships, necessarily, but just reorganizing them differently; so that people’s relationships were different, so that they saw each other differently, so that they saw their capacity, so that they saw their humanity differently. That’s a big bill, but that’s what I saw as organizing. Yeah, I couldn’t just go in and kind of like reform something. It was kind of like, I always had to totally tear it down a bit but with the idea that to build it up, not just to destroy it.

Stephen Roberson: So, that’s what organizing was to me and I was always invigorated by relationships, George. I’ve had people of all different types who’ve influenced me and it’s helped me to be involved in some significant change in our society, because of those relationships.

George Goehl: Yeah.

Stephen Roberson: Some of whom I don’t like. I mean, I wouldn’t go out and spend social time with them.

George Goehl: Can you do organizing without an investment in deep relationshipS?

Stephen Roberson: I can’t.

George Goehl: That’s all right.

Stephen Roberson: I tried it the other way, George. I did try it the other way as a young man. I just wanted to have action. I just wanted to. I just liked that. I needed that as a young person scrubbing off energy, some of it useful, some of it not, but the end of the day I could never quite figure out how to attain a new contract with the union without really relating deeper with people. I couldn’t get the contract. We couldn’t win.

George Goehl: Right.

Stephen Roberson: It was that simple. So I dragged my ass up from the ground after a couple of losses and had to sit in somebody’s living room and vent and challenge and cry. Do all these stuff after a big loss and come out on the other end winning in the longer term.

George Goehl: Yeah.

Stephen Roberson: I got convinced of that and who convinced me was [Fred Ross 00:13:27], who was a great organizer who never wanted any recognition at all.

George Goehl: Can you share, I mean I think there’s a whole generation of organizers that doesn’t know who Fred Ross is. Can you say a little bit about who he?

Stephen Roberson: Yeah. Well Fred Ross was originally employed by Saul Alinsky on the West Coast. He’s this big guy on the West Coast. He found and engaged with Cesar Chavez, which proved to be such a beautiful relationship. He’s the type that mentored Cesar and changed his life and made him really into an organizer. They organized all up and down the coast. Chavez was a young “pachuco” [00:14:17] from San Jose. “Sal Si Puedes” (Get Out If You Can) was the neighborhood he raised up in. Fred found him, had a house meeting with him, and Cesar reluctantly, as a young guy, reluctantly started hanging around with Fred and eventually they formed a farm workers union.

Stephen Roberson: Yeah, so Fred Ross was that guy and he remains Cesar’s mentor and the mentor of many others, Dolores Huerta. I mean he trained all of those folks and for some reason, he invested in me. I don’t know why. I really don’t. I don’t know. I was certainly no star. I mean he’s just a great man. I don’t know how else to put it. You never thought about race with Fred. You never… He didn’t give a shit. He didn’t really give a shit who you were in that regard. He cared about your, he really came across as a guy that just cared about you.

George Goehl: It’s so funny. I never met him and I sensed that from everything I’ve heard and know.

Stephen Roberson: Yeah, he’s an unusual human being and a real model. A real role model without even trying to be one. But he believed in the fundamentals, I’ll tell you that. He’ll drill you hour after hour.

George Goehl: Like what might he drill you on? What would he drill you on? What’s an example?

Stephen Roberson: Like personal meet, he called them “personal visits,” which are what we call one-to-ones now.

George Goehl: Yeah.

Stephen Roberson: Yeah, you got to get that personal visits, Stephen. You got to. How many have you had this week? Any of them leaving the house meetings? That’s your problem. You don’t believe in the house meeting. Okay. You’re not going to build anything like that. Let’s go over your script again.

Stephen Roberson: But kind, though. I mean it was never, he never yelled. Not at me. Never yelled, but he was serious as a heart attack though. To be honest with you, George, I think he, more than anything, showed me that through that kind of caring, you could really develop. If that’s what you wanted for yourself.

George Goehl: Like what I hear you describing about him, like you said, caring, but you’re also describing somebody pushing you-

Stephen Roberson: Oh, yeah.

George Goehl: And agitating as an act of love-

Stephen Roberson: Yup.

George Goehl: Not to beat you down.

Stephen Roberson: Yup.

George Goehl: And I just think, seeing that as a form of investment in somebody versus an affront, I just think it’s… I mean, it’s certainly how you took it as an act of love.

Stephen Roberson: Yup.

George Goehl: Yeah.

Stephen Roberson: Well, that’s why I took it.

George Goehl: Right.

Stephen Roberson: You know?

George Goehl: Yeah. Can you say, like what were some key moments for you organizing for the farm workers in Florida?

Stephen Roberson: Ooh.

George Goehl: I see that’s a big question.

Stephen Roberson: Well, I mean it’s a lot to that story but I can isolate one or two things. I’ll go to California for this one. So we’re in the lemons, right? With lemons, in the summertime, it’s deadly hot. It got to be over 100 degrees in these groves and the grove is where you have thousands of lemon trees. It all have to be harvested. Some of them are very difficult to climb and get up into because they’re old trees. As we, this term, the low-hanging fruit, that people throw around, well on that we’re all, that actually meant something because that determined how much you could get because you’re being paid at a peice rate level.

George Goehl: Right.

Stephen Roberson: Not an hourly wage. So we’re in this contracts coming up. People are being treated real shitty. Wages are very low. You have to be a superman or woman to be able to accumulate enough fruit to make any money at all. People were making an average of maybe $10 a day or something. It was ridiculous, so the company didn’t give a shit because they were the best workers in the industry, right? Work for Coca-Cola, who paid more than anybody else at $10 a day.

Stephen Roberson: So we’re in this thing and the contracts are coming up and we figured, “God damn, we’ll never be able to win this damn thing.” Why? Because the hourly workers, most of whom are white, and their equipment drivers aren’t with us. They don’t ever come with us. We’re complaining and bitching and moaning, along comes this one white guy. His name was Charlie Woods and he’s with the VFW and a little bit clanny, like all his relationships were with white guys who were part of the clan. But Charlie had an interest and that was that the hourly workers didn’t feel great either. Now, we didn’t know that because we didn’t relate to them at all. Okay, had no relationship whatsoever, right?

Stephen Roberson: So we’re here, blacks and Latinos, so we’re here. Vietnamese over there, Cambodians over there. So Charlie comes and he says, “Stephen, I don’t know you but I want you to come out to talk to the VFW.” Here we are out in the middle of nowhere with this guy, is he setting me up? I mean I was scared to shit. I’ll be honest with you. I mean-

George Goehl: Yeah.

Stephen Roberson: I was scared to shit. What the hell does he want? Well, we want to see if we could get together. Some of these guys said to Mr. Woods, but I know, “Where’s this VFW?” Well it’s out in the middle of the woods, over here at a… Holy shit.

George Goehl: Good lord.

Stephen Roberson: So I dragged my ass out there and Charlie introduces me and kind of protects me from this group of peering eyes, who were looking at me at the front of the room. The only black guy in any range. It was like, “Holy shit. I hope I can make it out of this.” But there was enough interest that kept me alive there and Charlie actually delivered a delegation of the white allied workers to meet with some of the black and Latino and Asian workers. We negotiate a deal with, they were going to say that they were on our side, as long as we fought for 50 cents an hour more for them. That was such an unlikely relationship that I’ve developed.

George Goehl: Wow.

Stephen Roberson: And it actually developed and the company got scared.

George Goehl: Right. You referenced interests. Why is understanding interests so important?

Stephen Roberson: How can you get to know the other if you don’t really understand what they’re interested in? So I always resented that people on the left, forget about what goofballs on the right said, but people on the left who would say, “Oh, all those white people voting against their interest.” How would you know that? How would you know what their interest is?

George Goehl: Right.

Stephen Roberson: Yeah, why are you so arrogant to say that about another person, who you’ve never spent one second talking to? I’m not interested in organizing if it doesn’t involve interest, people’s interests.

George Goehl: Yup.

Stephen Roberson: I can’t see that we go anywhere as a society without recognition of the other.

George Goehl: Yeah. I get that.

Stephen Roberson: We’re in trouble because of that right now. We’re in trouble, big, big trouble.

George Goehl: What do you mean?

Stephen Roberson: Well, as a society, we’re in big trouble because we don’t respect the other. We respect soundbites on Facebook and Instagram. It’s the one-liner, who’s the most provocative? Who can do the zinger and then get zinged back? Who’s going to win these gladiator fights over Instagrams and text messages? If we’re down to a society like that, I’m afraid of the polarization, George. I mean I believe in polarization.

George Goehl: Right.

Stephen Roberson: I’m a big believer in it. I don’t think you can win without it, but I’m not a believer in polarizing and keeping it there. I don’t see any future in that. I see destruction in that and that’s against my interest, because I got kids and loved ones who have to endure. They have to perdure and have a decent life. A just life and a peaceful life, if we can get there. But all these polarization hasn’t helped us one bit because there’s no interest in depolarizing.

George Goehl: Can you define or just describe for people the concept of polarizing and depolarizing? Like in the context of a fight.

Stephen Roberson: Sure. It’s like disorganizing and reorganizing. Yeah, the point of polarizing is to make it clear. It’s an attempt to make it clear because we don’t know any other way to do it. We are all right and they are all wrong. Trump was all wrong. We were all right. We had all the right answers. He had all the wrong answers.

Stephen Roberson: So my interest is that I know that we’re going to have to survive as a country, as neighborhoods in a country, as a city in a country. It is no way we can do it if we stay polarized. We’ll always be at each other. We’ll fight each other. We’ll kill each other, either physically and literally or socially, economically, politically, because that’s our only aim and it’s warring.

Stephen Roberson: It’s warring. It’s not noble at all. It’s not in keeping with our people of value to want to just polarize and never come back to understand that we are “like it or not.” Okay? We are here in a whole group of people and we’re never going to like them all, but I’m not-

George Goehl: Yeah.

Stephen Roberson: I’m not romantic, okay? But enough. Just to keep going and to make things better. I’m going to have to make some things better for them. They’re going to have to make some things better for me. Negotiation, governing. You can’t govern half the country. I mean, that’s not going to last very long, I’ll tell you that. We should all have enough sense to know that. Half the country one way, half the country another way. That’s not going to work.

George Goehl: Yeah.

Stephen Roberson: Somebody going to have to go. Somebody going to go. You’re going to have to figure out who you want to wipe out those other people. Is that really what you want?

George Goehl: Yeah.

Stephen Roberson: You may want to wipe out Donald Trump, but don’t wipe out all the people who follow him because they’re not all bad.

George Goehl: Right. Yeah, I was definitely taught how to use like polarize with the alderman, but eventually going to have to depolarize so you can get some shit done.

Stephen Roberson: Yeah. And some of the aldermen were assholes.

George Goehl: Oh, yeah. I mean when I was coming up, they all were.

Stephen Roberson: Right, yeah.

George Goehl: Like a couple. I want to write some quick kits that I think people need to hear from you. What is that one-to-one?

Stephen Roberson: Simply put, it is the coming together of two people face-to-face, eyeball, eyeball. Two heads together trying to get to know each other. Trying to figure out if there’s anything that they could possibly have in common. If there are any linking interests. Is there any hunger and appetite? Driven by anger, driven by vision of what could be.

Stephen Roberson: A one-to-one is held with a leader. When I say leader, I mean a person that’s got relationships that they can deliver and have delivered. You’re talking to a person who’s connected to others and has something at stake in those connections. You wouldn’t want to lead your next door neighbor, who you loved and who will come out to something because you asked them to, into a death trap or into some stupid strategy that didn’t work. You wouldn’t want to do that.

George Goehl: Right.

Stephen Roberson: So when you’re talking to another leader, you have to really be willing to listen. You have to be very curious. You have to be intent on not preaching and into a way of enabling, through your own action, their ability to share more and more of themselves; that you realize that this first 30-minute encounter is not going to be the last one.

Stephen Roberson: It’s only a beginning to a potential relationship that you don’t judge immediately. Some people say it takes a minute to learn but a lifetime to master. You have to stay in it. You have to do thousands and you never get perfect.

George Goehl: No.

Stephen Roberson: There’s no such thing. So, it’s an attempt, that relationship. It’s attempt that you value that more than you do the rally tomorrow at the city hall steps.

George Goehl: No, I do think of it as an art when you do one really well.

Stephen Roberson: Absolutely. Yup.

George Goehl: And you can do five that you’re really proud of and bomb the next one.

Stephen Roberson: Yup. Absolutely.

George Goehl: What happens in a good…? What is the magic that happens in a good one?

Stephen Roberson: I think it’s a recognition and a respect that occurs. The recognition of another, that you recognize as this is a real human being who’s got something to add more than they do just to the 50 people that they bring to the demonstration; that they themselves have a lot of richness in them and they’ve started to share that with you. You can envision because you’ve seen that they’ve got vision to something and that they’re not all about themselves. Hopefully, they’re not all wound up on themselves so much so that nobody else matters.

Stephen Roberson: So anger, passion driving them and the vision for what could be, and the hunger to be connected. That they understand connection. You walk away feeling energy, even sometimes in a challenging way that you say, “Holy shit. What am I going to do with this guy? Oh, man, this woman was so challenging. I’m not sure I can meet with that kind of talent. She’s just so good.”

George Goehl: Oh.

Stephen Roberson: Now I got to go home and figure out what the hell? How am I going to get engage this union local, it’s got 100,000 members. Why the hell would they want to relate to me? So it goes both ways. You can keep each other’s attention or you’re thinking together. You get a sense of connectedness.

George Goehl: Right. One of the things I’ve, I guess, I worry about in this kind of moment in organizing is that reflection, and digestion of what we’re doing, and how we’re growing, and what we’re learning. Doesn’t have the same amount of space. It’s fighting to get in, in a way of social media, and emails to open, and conference calls, and all these things. I mean, can you talk about the value of reflecting as a part of being an organizer? I’ll say this. To get a meeting with my supervisor, when I was coming up, I had to submit a written reflection.

Stephen Roberson: Yeah.

George Goehl: Like I would get the meeting.

Stephen Roberson: Yeah.

George Goehl: I would imagine it sounds crazy to a younger organizer today, but the meeting wouldn’t happen and I needed the meeting because my mentor knew more than I did.

Stephen Roberson: Right.

George Goehl: And I’m just trying to figure out what to do this next week.

Stephen Roberson: Right.

George Goehl: And those reflections, they were a page.

Stephen Roberson: Yeah.

George Goehl: It didn’t have to be a book or anything, but it is not a place to talk about what I didn’t like about the organization or complain about something. It was like “wrestling with this, I can’t figure this out.” I did figure this out and we have to submit that, so it was part of the culture.

Stephen Roberson: Right.

George Goehl: And I don’t know, was it part of the culture for you?

Stephen Roberson: Oh, God. So much part of the culture, George, that my first assignment from Ed Chambers, he says to me, “Oh, you’re such a big shot. You’re coming from the farm workers. You’re such a big shot. I got people who would organize circles around you and Chavez.” I said, “Oh, fuck. Who is this guy?”

Stephen Roberson: So he’d come saying, he says, “I don’t think you’ve reflected on anything. You’ve worked for the last 10 years, you appear to be a man who’s just been in loss of action. You never knew what you were doing.”

Stephen Roberson: So he says, “I’ll tell you what. I want to see you go and write a paper for me on what makes you, you. How did you get to be who you are?” And I said, “Holy fuck. How many pages I should do?” “I don’t care how many page… 20!”

Stephen Roberson: So I go lock myself in the room and I started writing. I remember writing that first page, so hard for me to figure, how do you talk about what makes you, you? I went straight to Mama and I started writing about my mother. I start writing with the first paragraph, “Oh shit. I can’t say that about Mama.” I crumpled the page up, throw it in the garbage. That garbage can got full, George.

George Goehl: Right.

Stephen Roberson: Then I got to a rhythm and came and wrote actually 25 pages of what made me, me and cited all the different people who had impactful roles in my life, which had never been done. I had never felt that deeply about myself. So I was so proud of my work that I took it to, in those days, a Minuteman Press, which is, I guess, like Staples or something now, where they print shit up and they laminate shit. Put it in the three-ring binder and go back and present it to Ed, who promptly drops it on the floor. He says, “What the hell is this?” I say, “Wait, didn’t you ask me?” “That wasn’t for me,” he says. “That wasn’t for me.” I said, “Holy fuck.”

Stephen Roberson: So that really drove home the importance of reflection, that he had jarred me so much that it uncovered all these stuff that I had never taken any time to think about. To this day, I’ve challenged other organizers to do the same thing. Not quite the same way, but… And I think it’s been helpful because it formed little vignette, that people could begin to share with others about who they were and how they became, what their life was and what their center was.

George Goehl: Yeah. Sounds like a gift that Chambers gave you.

Stephen Roberson: Oh, it was. Yeah, well I’m still talking about it 30 years later.

George Goehl: Right. It says a lot. Just because Ed Chambers the name I certainly grew up hearing a lot about and was still around when I was coming up.

Stephen Roberson: Right.

George Goehl: Can you say a little bit about who Ed Chambers was and why he was important?

Stephen Roberson: So Ed Chambers was the head of the Industrial Areas Foundation and he was really such a commanding kind of figure, who pulled no punches. I must say that he is probably one of the first white men that really understood, in my view, black folk. From a pure sense of it, as human beings. He was trained by Dorothy Day. Dorothy Day had a huge impact in his formation. A boy from Iowa, who came out to the East Coast after he got kicked out of a seminary at a young age; and found Dorothy Day in the Bowery and in Harlem, dealing with all kinds of people.

Stephen Roberson: He was formed and shaped in that kind of service and understanding in relationships. That’s who he was. I mean he’s a real bear to work with. I mean not many people can work with him, but he sure taught me a lot. That’s all that I can say.

George Goehl: That sounds so good.

Stephen Roberson: He didn’t give a damn about what people thought about him. He just cared that you respected him.

George Goehl: Yeah.

Stephen Roberson: He certainly didn’t want to be liked, I’ll tell you that.

George Goehl: No. It sounds like some of my mentors.

Stephen Roberson: Yeah?

George Goehl: It was not a priority.

Stephen Roberson: Well, he was colleagues with some of your mentors in a way.

George Goehl: Oh, yeah.

Stephen Roberson: I mean, he came out of the same era, had the same mentors.

George Goehl: Oh, yeah. What’s it mean to develop a leader? And I say that I know there’s a hunger out there in the organizing field to be developing more leaders. What’s it mean to do that?

Stephen Roberson: Yeah. I mean, to me it means a lot because that’s what I’ve kind of hung my hat on that accomplishment. To me, a big part of it is when you feel they are growing and they feel they are growing. They’re growing, they’re getting bigger, they can think bigger.

Stephen Roberson: They think that they can do more, they can accomplish more, and they’re willing to take some risks. They’re willing to get into the trenches and build something that is real and by that, I mean, that they can deliver people and they can win. They can stay in long enough, without having to be patted on the back constantly because that’s not real life, right? It’s not that kind of romance.

George Goehl: Yeah.

Stephen Roberson: So to me, that’s watching Johnny Ray Youngblood move from being a pastor, all unto himself, to one who could work with a Catholic bishop. He never did it before, or a rabbi or, for that matter, requires a Kep, an Imam from a mosque, who’s a competitor in the same neighborhood. Now, I’m working together with him.

Stephen Roberson: So to me, development isn’t that, it’s not like… I have folly sometimes around these very detailed development plans that people come up with. I never had any of those. That doesn’t make it right, but I was always more interested to see, “Has this person, had they led an action yet? Have they designed anything that they ran without me in the way? Have they won something? Who are they hanging around? Who are they reading?

Stephen Roberson: Are they reflecting at all? Can they reflect? Can they have enough security in themselves to be able to reflect and write about it? Even if they don’t write about it, can they record a message or talk to somebody about something they’re struggling with? Can they recognize that they don’t have all the answers by themselves?”

Stephen Roberson: To me, that’s a person that got some relationship who’s grappling with some very, very tough issues and coming about a way of dealing with them, with others who they respect. Can they be in a collective? That, to me, that’s development over time. Over time, okay?

George Goehl: Right. This is not-

Stephen Roberson: Yeah. You know, two months and you’re in. Yay!

George Goehl: This is not a sprint, no.

Stephen Roberson: No, not at all. So it’s a lot of things but at the end, you know when you hit the sweet spot.

George Goehl: Yeah.

Stephen Roberson: And it’s not just because of you.

George Goehl: No.

Stephen Roberson: It’s a lot of things people didn’t count to, but you’ve been significant. You’ve had a real role. You’ve advised, you’ve coached, you’ve challenged, you’ve jarred or they’ve jarred you. I don’t know another leader that I’ve ever worked with or developed who hasn’t jarred the shit out of me.

George Goehl: Right.

Stephen Roberson: At some point.

George Goehl: Well, it’s a two-way relationship.

Stephen Roberson: Oh, yeah man. It’s reciprocal.

George Goehl: Yeah.

Stephen Roberson: You don’t get that then you don’t have much of a relationship.

George Goehl: Yeah.

Stephen Roberson: So, yeah.

George Goehl: Stephen, one of the things I’ve always appreciated about our conversations is when you reflect back, whether it’s last year or 40 years ago. You’re as likely to lift up names of people you’ve developed as issue victories you’ve won. I feel like when you think about your legacy, that’s a lot of what you think about.

Stephen Roberson: Well, you’re right, George, because you know to me, the issue was always that person. It’s always the leader. I mean that’s how I was trained. It was never about just the strike. It was about, well who are these people who are putting this shit together? What are they going through? What are they becoming? Am I on a journey with them or just kind of watching as a spectator? What’s my role?

Stephen Roberson: So it’s always been about people to me and people look at me, “Ah shit, we got to fight racism. We got to fight…” Yeah. Okay. I got it, but we won’t ever win if we don’t have the right people; who are challenging and who can win and who got followings and who relate to others, who know that it can’t be just all whites who fight the battle, can’t be all Asians who fight the people. It’s only those who understand like King did. Even like Malcolm did. You’re not going to win anything, not in this country, unless you got some allies, muscular allies, who aren’t from where you are.

George Goehl: Yeah.

Stephen Roberson: Can’t bring it to that then don’t have any fairytales about utopia because it’s not going to happen.

George Goehl: Okay, wow.

Stephen Roberson: Not doing that.

George Goehl: Man, I feel like it’s a real talk.

Stephen Roberson: Yeah.

George Goehl: Organizers, we seem to have more axioms than about any job out there. You got a favorite?

Stephen Roberson: Yeah. Never do for others what they can do for themselves. The iron rule. Yeah.

George Goehl: What does that mean to people that haven’t heard it? Like why is that so important?

Stephen Roberson: Well, stop. It means it’s a tough reflection you have to have in yourself, that are you doing for the… Just because you want this task done, right? And you’re Mr. Do-It-All, right? But are you taking away an opportunity from another leader to do that thing and probably do it better than you would. We’re not. Maybe they won’t.

Stephen Roberson: But don’t take the muscular, don’t take the development of their public muscles away from them. They have to exercise them. Why did Stephen, at 70, have to run a meeting? Why would he do that?

George Goehl: Correct.

Stephen Roberson: I mean it’s just all these people… Don’t do for them what they could do for themselves, just because you want to show off or because nobody could do it like old Stephen can.

George Goehl: Or because they’re afraid the, we hate asking or pushing people to do stuff, right? Isn’t that one of the reason?

Stephen Roberson: That’s right. Yes. Absolutely. Yeah. We’re afraid of rejection.

George Goehl: We don’t want to trouble the other person.

Stephen Roberson: That’s right, yeah. Absolutely. But we’re taking away all their abilities.

George Goehl: Okay, last question. If you were launching a new organizing training center, what would be few things that would be at the heart of it? Especially in this moment?

Stephen Roberson: Wow. Well an understanding that the first change is got to be in you, so I wouldn’t invite anybody who wasn’t willing to change. Didn’t see that as central in these sessions that we all have to do some changing. Then the second part would be that you got to love relationships and you got to understand one-to-ones. If you don’t leave here with anything else, you got to leave with that.

Stephen Roberson: So that would be critical to me and then another thing would be, as we’ve been taught you and I, that action is to organization like oxygen is to the body. So those are some of the things I’d want to lead people with. Connection, love, power, right? Power and love. Not just power. Power and love. To be able, poder, in Spanish, and to be related. Both, they go together. It’s not one versus the other. All mush or all tyranny. It’s both and.

George Goehl: Stephen, this was a true pleasure. It’s exactly what I’ve hoped our conversation would be like. I mean you were a real gem. You’re a real special human being and a special organizer. Seriously, every time we talk, I’d feel a lot sharper and more inspired so thanks for doing this.

Stephen Roberson: Well, thank you man. That’s reciprocal. I don’t exactly hate you either, George.

George Goehl: Okay. I’ll take that as a victory.

George Goehl: The monuments to Stephen’s organizing are people developed in ways that would not have happened if not for his arrival in their life; and those people he helped developed are a tribute to those who invested in him. People like Fred Ross, Cesar Chavez, and Ed Chambers. In this moment, in which we need to craft of organizing to be at its best, who are you investing in? Helping see something in themselves that they did not see until you, the organizer, came into their life. It’s a question, organizer or not, we should all ask ourselves. Who are we investing in?

George Goehl: Stephen Roberson can not be found on Twitter, but he can be found in the neighborhood if you know where to look. You can learn more about the work that Stephen is doing with Community Voices Heard at peoplesaction.org/nextmove

This podcast was produced by People’s Action and The Mash-Up Americans, who’s executive produced by Amy S. Choi and Rebecca Lehrer; our senior producer is Sara Pellegrini; our development producer is Melissa Lo; production manager is Shelby Sandlin. 

Bye, now!

Season 2 - Episode 2

Learn More

  • Want to get to know Stephen better? Learn more about all the amazing things he’s done here.
  • One of the biggest victories for organizing in the late 1980s and early 1990s was the Nehemiah Project, which built more than three thousand homes with and for low-income people in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Stephen was a lead organizer in that campaign. Learn more about Nehemiah and why it matters here.
  • Stephen mentions Ed Chambers in our conversation. Here is a New Yorker piece about Chambers.
The Next Move - Season 2

Other Episodes

Episode 1: Get It Together with Alicia Garza

Progressives have been making major inroads over the past decade, but as we face the fight of our lives -- and for our lives -- how do we find the courage to lead? Alicia Garza, founder of the Black Futures Lab and co-founder of Black Lives Matter, points the way toward wielding power strategically by looking into differences and weaving alliances that upend expected patterns.
Episode details

Episode 2: Help People Grow with Stephen Roberson

What will it take to depolarize our politics? At the heart of organizing is investing in deep relationships -- ones that help people develop their own power and potential. No one can describe what that takes like Stephen Roberson, Director of Organizing at Community Voices Heard. During this episode, he and George talk about the curiosity and compassion it takes to dismantle division at the most meaningful level: person to person.
Episode details

Episode 3: We Will Win with Jess Morales Rocketto

Huge rallies and worldwide platforms can be transformational, not only for the causes we believe in but for participants themselves. But how do we get there? For Jess Morales Rocketto, it starts with the fundamentals of community organizing: knowing organizing is about power, listening to people describe the material conditions of their lives, embracing that everyone has a role to play, and building a path so more people can get involved. Most of all, it’s about believing that we will win.
Episode details

Episode 4: Building Power with Doran Schrantz

Power: Who has it? How do you get it? How do you use it to move institutions? And what does it have to do with building politics? Doran Schrantz how building relationships is key to power-building. From supporting neighbors as they move from victimhood to agency to building teams and identifying alignment with powerful players within institutions, building power starts with knowing ourselves -- and being able to grow and learn as we keep building relationships with the people we organize.
Episode details

Episode 5: Asking Why with Caroline Murray

Change can be exhilarating, but it can also be hard. In this episode, Caroline Murray talks with George about asking the difficult, vulnerable questions so that we can relate meaningfully to those with whom we organize. Speaking from decades of experience - as a leader in the New Economy movement and former Executive Director of the Alliance to Develop Power - Caroline describes why “why” is the key to being brave together.
Episode details

Episode 6: Fight for Every Block with Gerald Taylor

What’s the difference between single-issue organizing and building power for the long term? Gerald digs in to some of the tensions that emerge when you fight for wins in the here and now, while you build institutions that teach and prepare people for democracy.
Episode details

Episode 7: Making the Impossible Possible with Miya Yoshitani

Miya Yoshitani has been organizing for 25 years, winning tangible change within the world as it is, while having an eye toward winning the world as it should be.
Episode details