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.
Caroline Murray is Principal and Owner of Innovative Organizing, where she brings strategies to movement organizations, leaders, and campaigns seeking to build power and scale their impact. As Executive Director of the Alliance to Develop Power (ADP), a multi-racial, low-income people’s organization, she was at the vanguard of the New Economy movement, built a sustainable community-controlled economy valued at over $80 million that stopped capital flight, generated and redistributed community wealth, and built the Springfield, Massachusetts area community. She recently served as Senior Advisor to Cynthia Nixon for Governor of New York.
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 Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, CNN, MSNBC and others have covered George’s organizing work.
George Goehl: Hi, I’m George Goehl, and this is The Next Move, where we’re talking with organizers about the craft of organizing. Today my guest is Caroline Murray. Caroline talks about the power of asking why.
The other day, I picked up my 10 year old daughter from school and we took a walk. She shared some stuff that she really didn’t like in her relationship with a couple of friends. My response was kind of a buck up, it’s all attitude, speech. Later, I realized that I’d missed the opportunity to understand what she needed from the conversation, why she had raised the subject. What she really needed was someone she trusted to process her feelings with, not advice.
Once I got it, I was able to be of help to her simply by listening. This dynamic plays out in our relationships every day. And organizing is about relationships. We have to get really good at relationships. One part of that is understanding what’s underneath people’s feelings and actions, asking why it feels this why, why you see things the way you do, why you think we should go in this direction helps us do that, not as some rote practice, but out of genuine curiosity. Good things happen when we ask why.
Caroline Murray has been organizing for 30 years. She is principal of Innovative Organizing, where she brings strategies to movement organizations, leaders, and campaigns seeking to build power and scale their impact through organizing. As executive director of the Alliance to Develop Power, a multiracial, low income people’s organization, Caroline was at the vanguard of the new economy movement, organizing to win a community controlled economy of thousands of units of housing and over $80 million. When did you first become an organizer? Not when did you get your first organizing job, but when did you first become an organizer?
Caroline Murray: I’ve been thinking about that quite a bit. I think when I knew that I had found my thing was during the Jesse Jackson for president campaign. So I was on the national field staff. This is kind of before computers, so we were … I know how to cut a walk list by hand using a phone book, which they don’t make those anymore either. So I started in New Hampshire, I went to Florida and Georgia and Pennsylvania and New Jersey. And it was really hard organizing, person to person relational organizing, building what at that time was the Rainbow Coalition with Jesse Jackson. And in ’88, he actually got quite a bit of support from the white community and did quite well, and actually made great changes at the Democratic Convention.
But I remember we were in Pennsylvania, and it was towards the end of the campaign, and we were really tired. And I was also in charge of doing some of the labor outreach. And they sent me to Chester, Pennsylvania, or maybe it was Marcus Hook, to the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers. And they said, “Go get them to endorse.” And I was like, “Well, that’s not going to happen. Okay. I’ll give it my best shot.” So I went there, and I walked into the union hall, and it was dark and smoky. It was like something out of a movie, and all white guys, middle aged white guys.
Now Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers are … It’s a hard job. And they had been on strike for I feel like it was more than a year. And they had a food pantry there, and people were really suffering. And I met with the president. I learned that his daughter had cancer. He brought me home to his house to have dinner, and I met his wife. And he said some pretty offensive things, and I continued to sort of talk about Jesse Jackson’s vision of the future and how that was more in his self interest than any other candidate. And then he said, “If he comes and walks the picket line with us, then I’ll take it to my board.” And I was like, “Okay, we’ll do it.” Of course, I’m not allowed to commit to that.
So I went back to Jackson headquarters, and I was like, “Okay, he has to go.” And it was a little bit of a back and forth, and we got him to go. So Jesse shows up, and this is … The ’80s were really complicated. Right? And it gave birth to Ronald Reagan, and it was just a really complicated time, and very similar I find to sort of the birth of Trump. And so he shows up, this is a sort of devastated area, this particular area of Pennsylvania. 1000 people show up. Jesse gets out, so I had to brief him on what’s happening, how long they had been on strike. I had to tell him that president of the union’s daughter had cancer. And here, put this green ribbon on your shirt. Particular leaders are very good at just sort of transitioning and being in the different realm, and so he did a prayer with the president for his daughter.
And they immediately launched into a march, and they went around the plant with 1000 people, who were all cheering and chanting because no one had been paying attention to them, and their strike was getting no love. And then I had to kind of run ahead and get to the end. And we had this whole sound system set up, and we started to quickly make sure the sound check was working, and it made that horrible really loud buzzing noise, and then the sound system broke. So I was like, “Oh, my God. The sound system is broken, and 1000 people with the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, led by Jesse Jackson are about to turn the corner.”
So I ran, very fast running, to the front of the march and I grabbed the bullhorn from someone who was at the front, and I ran back. And we threw some hay on the back of a pickup truck. And then when they arrived, it looked like he was supposed to get on the back of the pickup truck with the president of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers. And I’m like, “Oh, here you are. This is where you’re giving your speech to the 1000 people.” And I handed him a kind of small bullhorn. And there is this really famous picture of Jesse Jackson on the back of a pickup truck with his arm around this white guy in an OCAW International Union baseball cap holding a bullhorn, and that is from that event.
George Goehl: Oh, my God.
Caroline Murray: I’m hyped right now. I’m like, “This is great.” But then what happened was Jesse gave a speech, but then towards the end of the campaign, he started to do his I am somebody chant, which he hadn’t been doing in the beginning. But once it was very clear that it was over, he did that chant. And it was not the typical crowd. That was more of a church chant for him. And he did it anyway. And he was preaching and healing this group of people who were so harmed and broken, and they all joined him in this chant. And then he kind of switched it over to the keep hope alive chant, and they were sobbing. Everyone in the crowd started to cry, including the president of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers. And then I started to cry. I’m about to cry right now, actually. And I said, “Oh, my God. There is something to this.” That’s when I was hooked.
George Goehl: Yes. Talk about creating the arena.
Caroline Murray: Yeah.
George Goehl: I mean, so much happened, and you organized it to happen. That’s amazing. Let’s move forward a little bit. What were some early moments or early teachings that have really stuck with you about organizing?
Caroline Murray: I think that the thing that I really carry with me, and it also sort of comes from that story as well, is the idea that: What is the definition of organizing? Right? And for me, it’s really developing grassroots leaders, building power, and winning. Now of course, within all of that, there’s so many other things. But the real heart for me is having a real curiosity and love for people, and meeting them, whoever they are. People who are different than me I think are interesting. And talking to them, listening, I always say to folks that I’m teaching, “You need to ask why and delve deeper, and engage in some real deep listening.” And then you have to also share your story because this is a mutual public relationship that you’re developing, where we’re making our private pain public through sharing our stories, but it’s got to be two ways.
And in the course of building those relationships, we take people on a journey. Right? And one of the things that I always say is, “Shame keeps you quiet.” And if you can ask why and help people identify their shame, and then move to a different place, then you can develop hope and then take action. Right? But you’ve got to have a vision to take action. And so that sort of trajectory and that commitment to that as a practice, for me, it’s sort of like a calling. It’s a spiritual practice. And I feel like I have been around so many people who have reinforced that for me, that real commitment to developing those relationships and to lifting up the leadership of folks on the front lines of people who are immediately impacted.
Otherwise, you’re not an organizer. You might be an advocate, you might be a campaigner, you might be a social worker, all of which are important, but that’s not what community organizers do. There’s a story about Shel Trapp that I think you’ll appreciate. One of my first National People’s Action … Before People’s Action was People’s Action, it was National People’s Action. And we were at one of my early conferences there, and I was feeling it out. And we had brought a bunch of people. And I was in the lobby, and Trapp was crying. The rooms were all screwed up. Maybe you were at this one too. Everybody’s rooms were often screwed up.
George Goehl: Every other year.
Caroline Murray: Yeah. In this case, they were really screwed up, and the hotel was being very rude to our people, which was also not uncommon because the great unwashed descent in these bougie hotels, and they just really don’t know what to do about it. And someone was saying something, they couldn’t fix it. And Trapp said, “Oh, you need to go fix it. Do whatever you need to do to fix it.” And then he said, “Our people get shit on every day, and they’re not going to get shit on when they come to People’s Action.”
And I was like, “Okay, I’m in here too.” So there’s these moments where they just kind of reel you in. And I think for me, those moments really are about the sort of heart and soul and dignity of the human spirit.
George Goehl: Yeah. And Trapp definitely cared about the human spirit. Can you say what’s … A lot of people are going to listen to this and be like, “Who the hell is Shel Trapp?”
Caroline Murray: Oh.
George Goehl: Who’s Shel Trapp?
Caroline Murray: Well, Shel Trapp is an old Alinsky organizer. Was he trained by Alinsky? Or who was he trained by?
George Goehl: He was trained by Gaudette, who was trained by Alinsky.
Caroline Murray: Yeah, yeah. So he started this network, People’s Action, with Gale Cincotta, and brought unaffiliated groups, this is before the rise of sort of stronger networks, and so I was running a small local group, and understood that just like people need to come together to build power, organizations need to come together to build power. So I was very interested, and our members were very interested in being in solidarity with organizations from all around the country, working on issues that may not be our immediate issues, like working with farmers in Iowa, but that builds all of our power, and that the act of solidarity was part of what we needed to do to create a new world.
And so Trapp was leading that. I first met him in the basement of their old office. Everybody was smoking cigarettes, it was so thick with smoke. I think I … Yeah, I don’t know.
George Goehl: Yeah, I remember.
Caroline Murray: Yeah. And there was just all these kind of ragtag organizers just imagining the future and what we could do together. And it was incredible. We had an organizer conference every year, which I think you might still do. Right?
George Goehl: Yep.
Caroline Murray: And a lot of that was staying up late and night and having Trapp pastor us. There was one time when I was on the verge of leaving organizing because we were going to have a major loss, I thought. And he pulled up his chair next to me, and he was kind of gruff, and put his head down right next to my head. It was really in my space, actually now that I’m thinking about it. And he said, “So what the fuck are you afraid of?” And I was like, “Oh, my God. I can’t do this right now.” But that’s the question that needed to be asked. When we talk about agitation, it’s not about bullying someone, it’s loving. Right?
George Goehl: Totally.
Caroline Murray: And it’s helping people find themselves and get to the questions that they’re not asking themselves, that ask why. And he said, “What the fuck are you afraid of?” And I was afraid, I was afraid of losing. I was afraid of the responsibility of sort of taking folks on this journey and invoking hope and a vision of something that was possible, and then losing. And he helped me. He stayed up with me for hours that night, one on one. And he helped me. And the next day, I was better, and I went back and we won, so there you go.
George Goehl: No, I remember that night.
Caroline Murray: Do you?
George Goehl: I was there. Yeah, I remember that moment. I tear up a little bit because I think about that’s what’s so cool about this craft is it’s constantly developing other people, whether it’s the organizer, or the member, or the leader, if you take that out of it, it’s not organizing. It’s some other shit, and it’s probably good shit, but it’s not organizing. And funny, Trapp, I think has this reputation of being so tough and scary. And I was like, “He was actually never mean to me. He was always about developing me.” It was never about anything but that.
So I feel like when the financial crisis hit, and then there was the initial reaction, and then there started to emerge this whole conversation around the new economy, not the new economy as the libertarians or Silicon Valley would picture it, but the new economy of one way more controlled by community, way more cooperatively controlled. It was super exciting, but ADP was doing that way before. Can you explain what ADP was and why it was special, especially in the context of the idea of the new economy?
Caroline Murray: Yeah. Yeah. So ADP stands for Alliance to Develop Power, and I was there for about 20 years. And it started off actually as a tenant organizing shop. There’s this whole sort of many tens of thousands of units of HUD assisted housing that were at risk of losing their affordability. And we were organizing tenants to fight for policies that would save the housing, and then to find nonprofits to sort of buy them and fix them up. And in the course of our organizing, and again, doing deep one on ones and really asking why and developing these relationships between and among people from many different buildings, we sort of arrived at a different kind of a model, which was that people said they don’t want to replace one bad landlord with another bad landlord. Even if it’s a nonprofit, it still might be bad.
And that folks said, “Why can’t we have control over these decisions?” And many folks were saying that your building competes with that person’s building, and so that they shouldn’t even unite together, that it should all be separate sort of building organizing. So we created this umbrella organization that brought everyone together and came up with a new model that said that tenants are going to purchase the properties themselves and convert them to tenant controlled housing. And that was pretty controversial because the nonprofit housing industry is very powerful and very aligned with the Democratic party.
And we ended up competing with a number of nonprofits to purchase the buildings, and these were multiyear campaigns that involved tens of millions of dollars and major housing developers that we literally went to war with, which was actually the night I was crying with Trapp, was I thought we were going to lose the whole shebang, and we ended up winning and purchasing as a result of that campaign, 3000 units of housing, and keeping it permanently affordable. One of the incredible moments, and there’s many stories, but one of the most incredible ones was one of our groups in Greenfield was partnering with the local housing authority. This is sort of before we came upon this final conclusion that we really needed to buy them ourselves as tenants.
And it was the night before the signing of the partnership agreement. And Terry Allen, the board president, he was in his Vietnam vets group, and he was the Sergeant at Arms, so he was really good at reading bylaws. And he was staying up late at night, and he called me. He said, “There’s something wrong with the bylaws. They changed it.” And I was like, “What are you talking about? It’s midnight. Are you sure?” And he’s like, “Yeah.” And so they changed one of the pieces in the bylaws that said that the housing authority would always have majority control. Now obviously, majority control means that they get to make all the decisions, which isn’t how it was supposed to be. It was supposed to transition over time.
So we called an emergency in the morning, and the board said, “We’re going to kick them out. We’re going to cancel the signing. We’re not going to do it tonight.” And I was like, “Oh, my God.” Well, you need to talk to more people, so we did it. Everybody went out, we went door to door. We called an emergency meeting of all the tenants. It was a couple hundred people there. And by God, they voted to kick out the housing authority, knowing that might make them actually lose the deal because again, we had tens of millions of dollars at stake. But they wanted to take that risk because they wanted to have complete self determination and have control of the decisions that affect their lives.
And to me, if I didn’t have my sort of ear to the ground, and the members and the leaders were not truly in positions of decision making, and instead were sort of people that I just turned out or mobilized, that never would’ve happened. I never would’ve made that decision. I thought they were crazy, as a matter of fact. But fast forward anyway, we ended up doing a number of buy outs, many thousands of units. And then we were at a meeting after that when we were sort of figuring out the budgets. Now we own these buildings. What are we going to do with them? Because we had moved from opposition to governance. We were very good at fighting, and we did not know how to run anything. We had no idea how to do it.
And so we were at a budget meeting, and we were sort of poring over all the budgets, and another member, Ray Crossler, who you also know, we were looking at the landscaping budget. And Ray said, “Why don’t we mow the lawn?” And it was literally like fireworks went off, and light bulbs started flickering, and ghosts of tenants from years before started whispering at us, because we knew that some new thing had just happened, and that we were not tenants anymore, and didn’t just buy this, but that we were now major land owners and had economic power, that we could then wield in all new ways.
And so we created from that what we call the captive market. We studied Mondragon, we’d studied cooperative principles. And so from there, we created worker owned businesses. We created food cooperatives and a whole, what we call the community economy that serviced that captive market of housing, so there’s a painting business, a landscaping business, a construction business, a cleaning business. We had a farm on the land that we had that was valued at about $80 million, and that was completely controlled by members. But we maintained, it was really important that we kept a focus first always on organizing and about building power and being led by members, not as a CDC.
If you look at the history of sort of the community development corporations, they went awry. And so we were really clear that our institution, creating alternative institutions always came out of a campaign. It was always a solution to a problem, as opposed to someone’s idea from outside of the community. So we bought the housing because the tenants wanted to buy it. We created a landscaping company because we needed landscaping, and we had members who knew how to do that. We then built a farm because we had immigrant members who were farmers, and they knew how to do that. And then they could sell the food, and then also service the rest of the membership. So everything sort of came out of the experiences of our members, and were solutions to problems that they identified.
George Goehl: That’s really amazing.
Caroline Murray: And that was our community economy. It was beautiful, and it was also really, really, really hard. And I don’t want to sort of downplay that because I mean, organizing itself is sort of counter-cultural. It’s against what we’re taught to do in the world.
George Goehl: Super counter-cultural.
Caroline Murray: To be in relationship with each other and to develop social trust is not of course what our society tells us to do.
George Goehl: That’s right.
Caroline Murray: We’re supposed to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and be hyper individuals.
George Goehl: Yep.
Caroline Murray: But then when you add a layer of that, of cooperative decision making around money and work and businesses, it gets very complicated.
George Goehl: Yep.
Caroline Murray: And so we had to integrate this constant retraining and trying to walk the walk and build the muscle of developing a practice. It was very hard. And it was also really beautiful and really messy. And I think if I was to say something to a young organizer about this time, don’t idealize your people. People are just people and they make mistakes.
George Goehl: Well, say more. What do you mean by that?
Caroline Murray: I mean someone might’ve stolen some money, or took an extra bag of food from the food pantry, or driven the community car when they weren’t supposed to, because people just do stuff. No one’s perfect. And I think that a lot of folks think first of all that grassroots leaders or members are somehow special and not suffering from the human condition that we all suffer from.
George Goehl: That’s right.
Caroline Murray: And they hold them to expectations that are just not reasonable. And so we had a sort of rule at ADP that redemption was always available. We had a team of leaders that would say, “This happened,” and there would be an accountability conversation, and maybe they would need to take a time out or something from their membership or their leadership, if something egregious had happened, but that they could come back, that they could, as a form of restorative justice. And there was the possibility for redemption, that we loved each other. But sometimes things happen.
George Goehl: I actually remember y’all doing that. I’m picturing you at the National People’s Action convention. We have 1000 folks there. ADP is usually good for 100 of those. And you’re the director of this awesome organization, sitting there with a member, prepping them for a role for maybe two hours, helping them work through that. They’re going to speak a plenary or lead an action, probably one of those two things. What’s happening in that space? And why are you putting two hours into that? It could be like writing a grant, or something else, but you are always doing that.
Caroline Murray: Right. Right. Well, when I started off when I was talking about what goes into a real commitment to grassroots leadership, it’s a mutual relationship. Right? And one of the things that we always said is, “We’re going to be there with you. We’re not going to throw you into something that you are not prepared for.” Yes, we’ll throw you into new things and we’ll all agree to do that, and we’ll all do that together. And we’ll be brave together, and we’ll learn together. And we can trust each other to have our backs. And so that meant working with someone to develop their own story, to develop, to prep, to lead a rousing speech, to get ready to confront ICE agents, whatever it is, that we’re going to do that together.
And I think I’ve seen a lot of organizers kind of write speeches for people, and it doesn’t work. That is robbing someone of their dignity, I think. People have their own stories and their own agency and their own way of speaking. And you can only really unearth that by having a real conversation, by really listening and helping them sort of craft their story, and then understanding that giving a speech is hard. Right? And there’s a way to do it. And whether you’re doing sort of a three part play, or whatever it is, there’s a structure to it, and it’s a craft. And so someone needs to also learn how to do it to be able to do it well. And so there was always that commitment to each other, to helping each other be our best selves in our work as public people.
George Goehl: Yeah, that’s a lot more work than writing a speech for somebody. Earlier, you mentioned cutting a walk sheet from a phone book. At some point, you started to engage in some pretty scaled digital organizing. In that kind of shift in digital organizing, where do the fundamentals of organizing still apply? How is it really not that different? And maybe how is it really different?
Caroline Murray: Digital organizing, I think when it’s at its best, is really just a communication channel. That’s how I think about it. So I can talk to more people when I use tools than I can without them. To think of it as just as another way to talk to your people I think is first and foremost. And engaging with folks in a way that also enables them to talk back to you, so the sort of peer to peer texting that’s come out I think is really important. But what I coach folks in doing is to always follow up with a phone call, and that you’ve got to move from a digital relationship, or a relationship that requires technology as a mediator between you and a person, to actually getting on the phone, and then eventually moving people to taking action in real life.
So for me, it’s just sort of a way of talking to people, talking to more people, than you would be able to otherwise. But you still want to move people to be taking the same kind of action, and then to be training them, which you can use digital tools for, but then helping them develop. I do a lot of work now developing small local circles. And how do you teach people to do a one on one? How do they sort of get out of their own circle of people that they know, and get beyond that, and start getting beyond the choir and building in their own communities, and building that bigger we? That’s about building an organization.
George Goehl: You’ve got a vision around these circles.
Caroline Murray: I do. I’m kind of obsessed with them.
George Goehl: No, tell us the vision, as much as you’re willing to.
Caroline Murray: I mean, I think that in these days, we have a great opportunity right now. Biden is ahead of us in a lot of ways, I think. Some things that we couldn’t even imagined 10 years ago are starting to come, policy wise. And there’s also going to be a huge backlash. And at the same time, we know that sort of the climate crises that we’re facing, we have a global pandemic, we are at risk. Our very humanity is at risk. Right? And I think that the only way to counter that is to have people be in relationship locally, whether it’s a mutual aid hub, or you want to call it a resiliency circle. But the USDA when they said, it’s on their website, “What is the most important thing you should do to get ready for a climate crisis?” And the answer on the USDA website is get to know your neighbors. Now that’s organizing.
So how can we create the tools to help everyday people be able to develop the kind of transformative relationships that we’re talking about? Because at the end of the day, we are trying to transform society. We don’t want to replicate the structures of inequity that we have now, but sort of bring these tools and democratize them and bring them to more and more people using technology, and help people form small circles, which are a little different than a big institution, and have those small circles where people are both transforming themselves and each other in community and building the beloved community. And they can be taking care of each other in this time of crisis, but can also then take action together.
I think that this sort of organizing, especially through the Trump administration, was so federal. Everything is about sort of federal policy. But I think real change happens locally. And we’ve got to be addressing our local city councils. We’ve got to be taking on the mayor and then taking on building power at the state level and going from the ground back up. And I think that starting with circles and helping folks be in relationship and take care of each other in this time is really what’s needed.
George Goehl: Yeah, and that caring, man, that’s going to build some depth. So you and I have talked about this some, but the craft of organizing, the field of organizing, let’s say, has changed a ton in the last 10 to 15 years. What do you see as some of the positive changes? And what causes you some concern?
Caroline Murray: In the old days, and I actually did not ascribe to some of these things, but people didn’t work on elections. There wasn’t really a world view involved in our work. There was really not a goal of governing. Governing power wasn’t something that we talked about. And the understanding that we have to really take on, I think in particular, white supremacy in capitalism is now sort of de rigor in our movement, and that’s excellent.
There’s an understanding that our liberation is bound together. I think that we’re still working on of course, but really understanding the role of white supremacy in sort of the systems that are oppressing us I think has, to me, has been one of the most important leaps that our movement has made.
George Goehl: Yeah. Well said.
Caroline Murray: I think all of those things have just transformed the movement, and having folks work together. Right? Whether it’s organizations working together, or networks working together, and working outside of your issues area, the intersectional movement that we’re a part of now was really not when we were organizing 25 years ago, that’s not what was happening. It was very turfy and sort of a lot of competition.
I would say in terms of what’s getting lost, I think that it’s the idea of really developing grassroots leadership versus organizing the unorganized versus mobilizing the already convinced. And I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I think that the resistance was really important. We had to spend the last four or five years just fighting every single thing, every single day. And that required mobilizing all the time. It was exhausting and it was traumatic. And I think we all have some amount of PTSD from what happened. But we’ve got to really have a vision and be fighting for something instead of just fighting against things. And we have to recognize that we are not big enough. We are not the majority. And we have to organize unorganized people, and not just stick with the people who agree with us, who we have fun going to protests with.
And I worry that’s sort of getting lost these days. And I say that though with the utmost love for folks that have been resisting because we had to do it. Right? And so I think it’s sort of: How do we transition now into this new moment? And it’s hard.
George Goehl: Oh, yeah. What do you mean by the unorganized?
Caroline Murray: When we say organizing the unorganized, we mean people who don’t necessarily agree with us yet, or people who don’t know that they agree with us. I’m not saying we need to go organize the enemy. No, of course. We need to organize the people who are working three jobs and don’t have time, or the people who maybe say, “Yeah, I think that’s a good idea, but.” So and that requires that long slog of going out and meeting people where they’re at, and building those relationships again, those sort of public relationships, and taking people on that journey of moving through their own story, and sharing, and shame, anger, and love, and helping people find their agency to take action. That’s again, that whole cycle, we need to go out and find people, find the others, a phrase that I often say to organizers that I’m training.
You can’t just stick with the people that are already with you. And even though you’re busy and you’ve got to turn people out, you still have to find the time I think to go talk to the others, to find them, and bring them in, and welcome them.
George Goehl: Yeah. So one of the things I remember loving about going to the ADP office is there were different slogans and organizing lessons printed out, or on the wall, in all kinds of different ways in the office. I’m sure that was the ones that were up were not an accident. What’s a favorite organizing axiom of yours?
Caroline Murray: I have so many. I really feel like the one that sort of speaks to me and says also reveals who I am, is a theologian, Robert McAfee Brown’s quote that says, “What you see depends on where you stand. What you hear depends on who you listen to. Who you are depends on what you do.”
George Goehl: Why that one?
Caroline Murray: I think that just really speaks to the role of the organizer. It’s almost like we’re a doula or midwife helping people birth into a new sense of self, to imagine a new world. And we’re constantly helping people see themselves anew, and that you have to really listen to people. It depends where you are, who you’re listening to, who you’re talking to, where you’re getting your feedback from, and then what you choose to do with that. If you remind yourself to always go back to the base, I think that you’ll always be in the right place.
George Goehl: Okay, last question. You’ve got 100 brand new organizers in a room, you can teach them three things. What are you going to teach?
Caroline Murray: Oh, my God. I’m going to teach them how to do a one on one, how to meet people where they’re actually at, and not preach at them, and actually listen, and how to engage with loving agitation, how to go deeper. That’s a whole set of things, but I’m going to count that as one.
George Goehl: Good. Okay.
Caroline Murray: The second thing I’m going to teach them is that if you’re just building relationships but not doing anything with them, that’s also not organizing, that you’ve got to be identifying what the problems are and then having a strategy to win, to craft the solution. And then the third thing I’m going to teach them is to then, love on each other. It’s a whole cycle. Right? It’s like you meet, you build the relationships, you go into action, and then you celebrate and you love each other. And then you do it again.
George Goehl: Kind of simple when you put it that way.
Caroline Murray: It is, actually.
George Goehl: Caroline, this was great. I’m really glad you did this tonight.
Caroline Murray: Thanks so much.
George Goehl: An organizer recently said to me that the wins that are on the table today are not commensurate with the scale of the problem. Sadly, that’s often going to be the case. But statements like this don’t really change things for people. Putting forth a theory on how to change the conditions, or win the best thing possible when the current ones can’t. Under less than ideal conditions, the Alliance to Develop Power won buy outs of thousands of units of housing and moved those into collective control of tenants with section eight vouchers. That is winning the world as it should be within the world as it is.
Caroline and the Alliance to Develop Power identified a strategic opening that made winning ownership of these properties a possibility. As organizers, we need to listen, build relationships, and develop people, and we need to be strategists, looking for levers that make bigger change possible. We are always doing strategy, developing leaders. Caroline said that one of the things we always say to members is, “We’re going to be there with you. We’re not going to throw you into something that you are not prepared for. Yes, we’ll throw you into new things, and we’ll all agree to do that, and we’ll all do that together.”
This is a thing organizers get to do all the time, prepare people for new experiences. It could be sharing a meeting, leading a negotiation, or canvassing for the first time. There are so many choices in how we do that prep. We can fail to prepare the person. We can just tell the person what to do. Or we can actually work with them to think about how they want to do it, what story they want to tell, a point they want to make, wrinkle they want to put on this active leadership. Yes, we have an obligation as organizers to provide council, but that doesn’t mean we rob people of the opportunity to think it through themselves. This takes time, patience and listening. But this iterative style of leadership development, this is where the magic happens. I have so many memories of Caroline, the executive director of the organization, sitting with members doing exactly this, often for a couple hours until it was damn good and it felt like it was theirs because it actually was.
You can learn more about the work that Caroline Murray is doing at peoplesaction.org/nextmove.
This podcast was produced by People’s Action and The Mash-Up Americans. It is executive produced by Amy S. Choi and Rebecca Lehrer. Our senior producer is Sara Pellegrini. Our development producer is Melissa Lo, production manager, Shelby Sandlin.