Wednesday Jan 26

Online Only Features

Editor’s Note:

We reached out to one of our companeras in Mexico, Ercilia Sahores, on the eve of the Women’s March and Strike that had been called in Mexico City and throughout the country to protest the femicides – killing of women.  She was out of the country but recruited a sister who provided this vivid and beautiful report and photos that captures the power of the march and the women who where there. 

As march 2020 comes to end, and coronavirus news flood the media with every reason, in time, for me, the season will not be remembered for the pandemic, but for the violet jacaranda trees that united to the women´s march in Mexico city. Right now, yes, it is amazing to witness how governments and media and parents put their available resources and energy into protecting their constituents and loved ones from this virus that can harm, even kill us, in the short term. It is encouraging that, in fact, it is possible to slow down and act together towards a common goal. It seems it is possible to put human safety first, before economy, and before the unstoppable, so called, development.

But, coming back to Jacarandas in Mexico City this year. It had been so frustrating seeing them bloom already since February. It was too soon, and it felt as if there had been no winter: climate change.

Jacaranda trees turn the city into an exhibit of beauty every year, but since Sunday 8th of March 2020 seeing jacarandas now bring me back to the march. They are even more beautiful than ever. They bloomed earlier, lets believe, to be there as well, because it mattered. With or without covid-19, it matters a lot. The 2020 human development perspectives report -tackling social norms, a game changer for gender inequalities- signals that “the world is NOT on track to achieve gender equality by 2030”.

In Mexico we marched, one of the main reasons, because women are killed daily while the judicial system fails to serve its duty. Gender violence has become the norm in this country: it is said 10 women die every day, while governments act as if indifferent. The president even had announced a national raffle of his like to occur on the same day as the march, giving no importance to the later. Thus, at the march, some chanted:

“We don´t want raffles, we want respect”

And other I can remember:

“Police, protect me, I´m a monument”

“Women are being killed and it’s decided to protect monuments”

“Mr., Mrs., look, don´t be indifferent, women are being killed in front of people”

“Not [property] of the boss, nor of the husband, I am mine, mine, and only mine”

“Down with the patriarchy, which will fall; and up with the feminism which will rise”

At points, the environment felt celebratory and positive. Women of all ages, happily chanting, and caring not to lose their companions. Other points were quieter: parents carrying their dead daughter´s picture. And there was at least one group of peasant and indigenous women. From the window of a restaurant a waiter showed a sign saying: “I´m with you”. Sorority was there.

The magnitude of the event was without precedent. It took so long to move just a short distance because we were so many. Every street downtown going towards zocalo, the main square in central Mexico City, was crowded with participants and observers. It was reported that about 80,000 persons took part. Some media reported the square never filled, but at the site one could see that contingents would arrive, make a short stay and then leave. As many left, others kept arriving. Some stayed listening to discourses and other activities, dancing and singing included.

All along the march there were also displays of violence. Women dressed in hoods and some bare-breasted, would paint walls, take wood building protection (set for the day) down, crash windows and even throw gas and start fires. Yes, that happened too, and it felt a little scary at moments. For many, young girls and wealthier women included, it was their first march. On the way back home, someone said it would all had been perfect had no violence taken place. But, would it? If we put ourselves in the shoes of the ones with no power and money enough to be taken seriously by the system, what would we do?

And what changes after marching?

On the 9th we had the women’s strike in Mexico, and it too was successful. Later I heard a campaign in the radio, from the government, explaining why international women´s day is important. And then, and up until now it is all about coronavirus. And I cannot but wonder if it’s a window of opportunity to rethink the system and address the perpetrated social norm of believing in the desire of economic growth and power over others and status.

Taking inspiration from ancient feminine and indigenous knowledge, what if we turned to relearn about the gift economy and the culture of caring for what really matters in the long term. And not only for the sake of younger and future generations only, but for healing our communities and way of sharing our common land. I´m inclined to believe that no matter the gender or the arena where we stand, acknowledging another form of living, less focused on money and power, could take us closer to gender equality, and surely would help in stopping killings of women too.

The self-help movement is moving into a new stage, from people providing and receiving help to these same people contributing to the formulation of systemic policy. After participating in self-help activities for more than 40 years, this is my "take" on how self-help works and the principles that drive it. These concepts can be applied to current social policy issues like welfare, volunteering, increasing productivity, fighting crime, and reforming education. I would hesitate proposing almost any new social reform without considering how these concepts might in whole or in part inform any new approach.

The explanation of key self-help principles presented here is followed by a preliminary outline of how the principles might be applied to some contemporary problems. But, first a statement of the basic conceptualization that drives the whole movement.

The Self-Help Paradigm

Self-help has revolutionized the concept of help. A traditional definition of help states that "it is an action that has a consequence of providing some benefit to or improving the well-being of another person." The problem with this formulation is that it omits a vast area of help-getting that is the result of giving help. In fact, paradoxically, it appears to be much easier for someone to give help than to receive it, and giving help aids the helper more than the recipient.

I first observed this phenomenon in self-help mutual aid groups, where an essential part of the self-help ethos called for members not only to receive help, but also to give it. This ethos is one important way in which mutual aid groups are unique; it distinguishes them from groups where an individual may receive help and then leave. The essence of the self-help group is giving help and benefitting from giving.

In self-help, people with problems are potential help-givers, more interdependent than dependent. It changes the helper=helpee ratio in various ways.

  1. The number of individuals involved exclusively in helpee roles is vastly reduced, and the number of helpers is increased dramatically.
  2. Even when receiving help, the receiver knows that tomorrow or even later in the same meeting he or she will provide help to someone else, thus removing the loss of status experienced by one who is always a receiver of help.
  3. The help-giving power of the entire unit is expanded because of the power that emanates from so many individuals playing the helping role.

Resources for help increase not only quantitatively but qualitatively as well. The new helping behavior in the system derives from the experience of the help seekers, the people with the problem, whose latent potential previously has been passive. In addition, the entire process of giving and receiving help is democratized and shared. A new ethos is born. Self-help produces a tremendous power shift, allowing any individual with a problem or illness to be a potential help, giver to others with the same condition. Instead of viewing society as having 10 million alcoholics in need of help, we also have 10 million potential help givers.

This understanding of self-help is a vision but also a tool providing a methodology for seeing problems in a non-pathological way. It releases energy that change agents can then harness for social change.

Ten Principles

I. The Peer Principle-Social Homogeneity.

Members of a self-help group possess social homogeneity; they share a similar condition whether it is raising grandchildren or being in debt, on welfare, an ex-offender, diabetic, gay or disabled. Members of the group understand each other as no one else can. The therapeutic effect and understanding of being helped by, and helping, someone else with the same problem is one of the key strengths of self-help.

Among young people, the operative peer principle is that they are influenced far more by each other than they are by parents, teachers, or other authority figures. They talk the same language and they listen to each other far more than to adults. They model themselves on other young people their own age.

The peer principle has important applicability for movement building and for identity politics. It played a major role in the development of the women's movement, gay movement, Black power movement, and disability rights movement. This principle also appears in therapeutic communities where the therapeutic agents, the group workers, are recovering from the same condition as the members of the group.

II. Self-Determination and New Forms of Participation.

Self-determination means that the activity is determined internally by the self-help "unit"-the individual, group, or community. This allows a new dimension of participatory democracy to emerge that is less concerned with issues of control or governance, and more with what the individual or group has to contribute. For example, if I consciously participate in an exercise and diet self-help group to improve my heart condition with like individuals, self-determination is immediate. In a subtle fashion, this represents an extension of democracy to direct participation involved in the work of helping.

III. Helper Therapy and the Restructuring of Help.

Paradoxical as it may seem, giving help is the best way of being helped. While the helper-therapy principle was initially formulated in relation to self-help groups, it has applicability to all types of helping in a wide range of settings-schools, centers for independent living, community service, and so on. In education, peer tutoring, peer counseling, and peer education are illustrative of the helper therapy principle. The principle dictates that we design situations where the receiver of help also has the opportunity to become a helper. For example, students in elementary schools are natural helpees for high school student tutors. Playing the helper role is beneficial to the tutors; not only do they feel good about helping others, but tutoring improves their own schoolwork. They learn through teaching. For this to take place, schools consciously need to encourage help giving.

Becoming a helper after being helped reduces dependency and leads to longer lasting groups because participants do not necessarily leave when they have achieved the benefits of the group. For example, widows may remarry but remain active in the group because of what they gain from helping others. It gives the helper a sense of control: "I can't be helpless if I can help someone else."

IV. The Consumer as Producer and Consumer Capital.

Consumers of help who produce help are prosumers. Thus, in any mutual aid group, a member may be giving help at one point and receiving it at another. In self-care, for example, when diabetics inject their own insulin, they give help and receive help simultaneously.

Consumer capital is the increase in productivity that results from the input of the consumer. Individuals may pump their own gas or help themselves at a self-service market, often saving time because they do not have to wait to be served, while freeing up the employees for more specialized work that the consumer cannot do.

V. Strength vs. Pathology.

The self-help approach is built on the inner strengths of the individual, group, or community. This is in contrast to a pathology orientation. Within the school community, what is needed are approaches based upon the strengths of the students such as youth-tutoring-youth programs, where underachieving students tutor younger school children who are also doing poorly. Here the message is clear that the tutors have something to give of themselves; their strengths are used as they assume the helper role.

The capacity of local citizens to resolve many problems in their community is presented in a comprehensive monograph by John Kretzmann and John McKnight, Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community's Assets. They suggest that "communities cannot be rebuilt by focusing on their needs, problems, and deficiencies. Rather, community building starts with the process of locating the assets, skills, and capacities of residents, citizens associations and local institutions." These assets can then be put to work on individual and community-wide problems.

Self-help groups along with other community associations such as school councils, block clubs, churches, and bowling leagues form the basic community-building tools of local neighborhoods. To find and mobilize community assets, Kretzmann and McKnight offer a five-step approach: 1) mapping assets through a capacity inventory to identify what local citizens can contribute to community building; 2) building relationships among the community's assets; 3) mobilizing the community assets for developing the local economy and exchanging information; 4) convening the community to develop a shared vision and a plan; and 5) leveraging outside resources after the first four steps have been accomplished.

VI. Non-commodification.

The help provided by self-help is contextualized by the fact that it is not a commodity to be sold and bought. Services are free and reciprocal. Unlike commercial self-help books and tapes that are sold in the marketplace for profit, mutual aid is not a commodity.

VII. Social Support.

This is a concept that is much broader than self-help. The self-help group is one of many forms of social support that enables individuals to withstand crisis, loss of loved one, or alienation. Supportive relationships provide a buffer against stress. They allow the individual to interpret the situation in a different and much less stressful way.

VIII. Ethos.

Ethos is not just the behavior and practices of a group, but the values that animate it. As reflected in the 12 steps, it is clear that AA reflects an ethos that is concerned with more than abstinence alone. Below are three examples:

Step 8: Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to all of them.
Step 9: Made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
Step 12: Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry out this message to alcoholics and practice these principles in all our affairs.

The self-help ethos includes both traditional and modern elements. This ethos generally is characterized by anti-dependency, anti-elitism, anti-bureaucracy, sharing community, informality, anti-addiction, a spiritual bias and an important extension of participatory democracy, particularly in the work of giving help.

IX. The Self-Help Solution.

Self-help makes human services more manageable. That's why I refer to the self-help solution. The foundation of all self-help is the unique way help is given and received. At the heart of all self-help practice is the notion that:

  • help is given by people with the same problem or condition;
  • help is not given by experts;
  • help is based on indigenous experience;
  • the act of seeking help is not stigmatized.

The power of self-help rests on a strong belief in experiential learning, the help-promoting properties of the group (its wisdom), and the mental health benefits derived from a cooperative mutual relationship.

X. Internality.

Self-help programs share an internal focus rather than relying on external interventions by "experts" -- teachers, therapists, clergy, or the state. The emphasis is on what's inside the individual or community.* This internal factor stands out in a number of other self-help concepts: self-determination, inner strengths, indigenous character, regenerative healing (healing from within), and resilience.

Thus, the self-help of individuals who quit smoking on their own can be contrasted with anti-smoking programs of the American Cancer Society; the self-help mutual aid of alcoholics in AA can be contrasted with traditional approaches that emphasize willpower and view alcoholism as a moral issue, which is very different from the philosophy developed by alcoholics themselves; and the self-help orientation of African Americans concerned with using and developing the resources of their community can be contrasted with the external interventions proposed by the government or experts outside the community.

Another dimension of internality is the self-help conceptualization of healing in which the important distinction is made between healing and curing. Healing is used to refer to what is done by the patient (or the patient's body) in order to resolve a problem of the body, mind, or spirit; whereas curing usually refers to what is done to the patient by a physician or therapist.

Implications of a Self-Help Strategy

Applying these concepts can strengthen various types of service interventions. Volunteering, for example, can be enhanced by -using the helper-therapy principle. The promise of a "helper's high" is useful in recruitment and training.

  • Self-help can add an expanded dimension to other kinds of helping such as mentoring, therapeutic communities, peer groups, community service.
  • It offers a different approach to building social capital and assisting agencies in holding clients, by converting them into prosumers and imbuing the agency with a self-help ethos.
  • It helps us understand the nature and dynamics of some of the major movements of our time: women's, gay, disabled, breast cancer research, and identity politics.
  • It provides a powerful new approach to productivity in the human service field. By viewing the consumer as producer, in individualized self-care as well as in self-help groups, society's help-giving resources are multiplied. Peer programs in schools have resulted in improvement in student learning and conduct, thus increasing the productivity of the schools. Self-help allows both the helper and helpee to gain-the helper-therapy principle.
  • A sense of community may be enhanced by the ethos that derives from the fact that the help is essentially free, shared, and unstigmatized. There is a certain communal excitement attached to self-help activities. AA meetings are sometimes described as a community of strangers, bonded by a commitment. Many aspects of the self-help ethos emphasize community-sharing, responsibility and the barn-raising image. The essence of self-help mutual aid is cooperative group activity.

Applications of Self-Help Concepts

  • Crime rates can be decreased by using community policing and neighborhood anti-crime groups.
  • Peer groups in schools can be used to convert negative peer pressure to positive peer pressure.
  • Welfare dependency can be reduced by support groups that embody the self-help ethos of sharing, group interaction, and self-determination.
  • The Million Man March and identity politics can be understood in light of the self-help concepts.
  • Mentoring can be strengthened when the concepts of identity and the helper-therapy principle are employed.


There remains the question: Why call all of this self-help? Many of the principles have been applied in different contexts without being called self-help mutual aid. Moreover, there is a certain tendency in the society to downgrade self-help. We may see this as elitist, but nevertheless it is real. Can't one benefit from using these concepts without naming them anything? Yes, I believe the configuration is significant, and the individual principles gain power from their patterned usage.

While I'm aware of the backlash against self-help and the tendency not to use the term, but rather to substitute the term "support group," I see some positive surplus meaning that has movement-building potential. There are profound spiritual undertones in the self-help philosophy and worldview, with a great deal of hope. Colin Greer (personal communication, April 18, 1997) notes four key dimensions of the implications of self-help.

  • Self-help represents among the best defenses against the individuality of a commodity culture.
  • Association around self-help and across conditions produces a degree of race and class mixing that is unusual in our society.
  • The activism of people in self-help organizations offers the resurgence of democratic life among ordinary people in our society, which is crucial if we're to protect and reclaim popular democracy.
  • The people organized in self-help groups have an investment in effective service and can represent a major vehicle for working out and demanding the appropriate role of government in the adequate funding and delivery of services.

Taken together, Greer's points and the self-help principles articulated here present an important advance in the practice and theory of democracy.

*All examples of self-help, whether individual, group, community or nation, have one thing in common: promotion of latent inner strengths. Self-help emphasizes self-reliance, self-production, and self-empowerment. Although we tend to think of the word "self" as being synonymous with individual, in this redefinition the word becomes, instead, a synonym for internal.

Frank Riessman, founding editor of Social Policy, is director of the National Self-Help Clearinghouse and author of three books on self-help. This article originally appeared in the Spring, 1997 issue of Social Policy.


Riessman, F. (1998). Ten self-help principles. [Online]. Perspectives. [1998, March 27].

“. . . Stop children, what's that sound? Everybody look what's goin down." — Stephen Stills

Is it possible to know our past and not know our future?

Having watched a virtual parade of predations on the American democracy—attacks on the institution of the presidency, the desertion of a once-principled Republican party, the growth of corporate criminality, the ballooning of economic inequality and the monied corruption of government, and a deepening erosion of the electoral franchise—can we be shocked by the hollowness of what is left?

Do we, committed to an enlightened future, act in good conscience if we behave as if what we’ve been doing all along will somehow counter these deadly blows to the republic, or that somehow our organizations will avoid the fallout?

“That sound” we hear is a death rattle. What we are witnessing is nothing less than the death of the American dream at its moral-spiritual core. The soul of America is dying.

We are like the drowning ones, whose whole lives pass before them. The dream—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—one of the promised fruits of our liberal democracy, enabled by rights enshrined in the Constitution, and modulated by a widely envied legal system—passes before our eyes.

For some, of course, that dream never was fulfilled. Our sins, past and present, haunt us—we have oppressed many and enslaved others. There is much to atone for. And yet, no other country rivals the United States of America in the hearts and minds of the victims of poverty, oppression, and injustice. Even now, others come here with that same hope, yearning for freedom.

Will we deny them the dream? Or will we save the institutions which have made the dream possible—institutions which in the past ensured that enlightenment would continue and that, in time, the commonweal would triumph—but which now have become corrupted?

Traitors to that dream, Trump now among them, have exploited the heart of our nation. These undertakers, in the words of Samuel Adams, are “raising themselves up on the ruin of our country.” They are destroying the source of our faith and hope, while affecting bogus claims of patriotism. They are driving nails into America's coffin.

The reasons for our pessimism are not complicated. The free and independent fourth estate has been monetized and weaponized by corporate media empires. Voter suppression and gerrymandering have put entrenched reactionaries in control of the federal government and most state governments. From the top down, both state and federal courts are rapidly becoming reactionary bastions of privilege warring against the commonweal. Withal, our moral-spiritual institutional bedrock is wearing away.

At this point, perhaps we doubt our capacity to save ourselves. Will nostalgia, a sentimental remembrance, be all that remains? Will we no longer act as the children of God, with all that has demanded of us historically, but only as politically and economically manipulated ciphers? This is not a political struggle. It is a struggle for the survival of democracy.

Can we salvage the dream? If so, who or what may intervene?

Let us acknowledge first what won't work. Building grassroots organizations of the sort that already exist, organizing progressive coalitions, registering voters, and electing progressive politicians—by themselves are not enough. Neither is winning the next issue-campaign or the next election cycle, winning majorities in state legislatures and Congress, or even winning the Presidency. All these are necessary, of course, but they are not sufficient. If they were, we would not be in the fix we're in. We would already have saved the dream.

What more is required? What can we do now for the sake of the commonweal? We can begin to rebuild the institutions of democracy at their roots. We can begin by ensuring that every citizen is permanently empowered to act politically, as a fully endowed human being and as a member of a directly democratic assembly with institutionalized public powers. Nothing we have been doing can take the place of institutionalizing directly democratic political roles, rights, and resources for every citizen.

Further, as we have described elsewhere,* the United States has a well-tested, bottom-up, directly democratic political institution, a highly serviceable model for such empowerment: the “open” New England town. With this model, a lower tier of urban social infrastructure can be created to make the full citizenry a permanent partner in the country's political-economic decision-making.

Directly democratic assemblies provide an effective means for citizens to shape their own laws and policies, and to articulate their demands for collective goods and services. And once this lower tier acquires public powers, they will have opportunities for joining together to direct and counter even much higher levels of authority, public and private, that act contrary to their interests.

Without this institutional empowerment, however, the best of this country, carried in the hearts and minds of most of us, may never again emerge as a commanding moral-spiritual force.

Without this institutional empowerment, all the professionals dedicated to the commonweal—the faith-based, community, and labor organizers; the liberal and progressive lawyers and judges; the selfless public officials; the enlightened clergy; the heroic educators; and the dedicated citizen-activists—will not be able to revive the nation’s soul. Nothing else has the potential to countervail the death-dealing institutional power now arrayed against the soul of America.

If we fail to act on this truth, we will, at best, be revealing a misplaced reverence for something other than the action-organ of America’s embodied moral spirituality. For all practical purposes, the moral-spiritual soul of America ceases to exist in the absence of its effective expression in the body politic.

We ought to remember that in the history of most empires, moral-spiritual decline eventually leads to physical death. At some point, which for us may not be far off, it becomes irreversible.

How long will we weep for the looming death of this nation’s moral-spiritual goodness and the end of its inspiring promise? How long will we wait before responding to the historic challenge of the existential threat we are facing? A window of opportunity is closing.

From the year 1936, American poet Langston Hughes speaks to us with his poem, “Let America Be America Again”:

“America will be,” he tells us.

What it wasn't then, it could be in its future.

But will it?

His future is our present.

Will we save the dream?

Will America be?

Jane McAlevey’s latest book No Shortcuts is what everyone who is serious about social change has to read this year.  At a time when the leadership of several of the strongest national labor unions are at their weakest point in 100 years, some even admitting that they are bracing for cuts in membership of 30 to 50%  this book offers the clearest prescription for rebuilding.  Written right before the Trump victory McAlevey aims her book at the heart of the most important debate in progressive politics right now – how will the American working class rebuild a mass political base, most especially its labor unions?  For McAlevey it’s people – in all their splendor, confusion and disarray that are at the heart of successful organizing, and its only organized people that will get us of this crisis.

We weren’t supposed to need this book.  Twenty-five years ago there was a renewed confidence and excitement about the value of organizing people.  The New Labor moment of the mid 1990’s which Jane was both eyewitness to and participant in was a breath of fresh air in the then slowly declining trade union sector.   New Labor promised to reinvent the American labor movement – and rebuild class based popular power.  The AFL –CIO seemed reinvigorated, the Teamsters were being reborn, HERE and SEIU were experimenting with different ways to organize low income service workers that other unions had struggled to recruit, and even college campuses featured fights over sweat shops.  There was a parallel development in community organizing – ACORN was growing in leaps and bounds, the IAF had recently helped elect Anne Richards Governor of Texas.  New campaigns like the Living wage effort that IAF invented and ACORN popularized were springing up everywhere.  I remember that time as a season of hope; a time of creative collaboration between community and labor organizers.  The story of the failure of that bright moment to realize lasting gains for labor is longer in scope than this book, but the seeds of that story are embedded here and progressive thinkers can only hope that McAlevey will follow the thread further in a later book.

The essential argument of No Shortcuts is that direct person to person organizing - as Chavez would say “you talk to one person, and then another person and then another person” is the missing ingredient in making lasting real social change.  The failure to embrace this hard truth is the reason for labor’s decline.  McAlevey argues that it is both the web of relationships among workers (or in her community case study, neighbors) and the commitment to build organizations that are owned and led by people that depend on them that make the difference between people power and raw defeat.

She resurrects the old CIO idea of the “list and chain system” – a process of identifying (listing) the organic leaders among the people you are organizing and helping them activate their own chain of relationships and followers to bring power to bear on whatever the organizing effort is about.  This conception of leadership differs enormously from the current progressive model where leaders are seen as people who already agree with a program, and who are then developed further into leadership.  For McAlevey real organizing is aimed at identifying and working with people who actually have followers.

Building that list and chain with organic leaders requires careful listening and countless kitchen table conversations.  It means mapping the community institutions – the Catholic and evangelical churches, ethnic mutual aid societies, soccer clubs, Scouting groups – as well as the all-important informal associations like home country relationships or friends who speak the same dialect, high school friends, relationships built through marriage, caregiving support networks, babysitting help, betting pools, money saving clubs like the systems of paluwagan – all these and many more  must be recognized catalogued, understood and valued.  Essentially everything involved in the intrinsic beautiful ways of fellowship that our people use to connect to each other must also be valued by the organizer and the organization if that organization is to be truly representative of people’s interests. I suspect that it is this painstaking work combined with bourgeois disdain that make so many liberal elites look so hard for other methods of social change, and be so suspicious of organizing.

As McAlevey describes it this process of listening and mapping is hard work.  It requires the organizer listen with the whole heart, and discard anything that gets in the way of that listening.  This listening is not a one-time thing, done in the service of a single action.   Instead listening in the service of organizing is a constant practice – the heart of the soft martial art of organizing.  Only once this is understood can the organizer create their list and chain.

Once assembled the “list and chain” (once again for McAlevey this means the list of leaders and the chain of relationships they can mobilize) of potential leaders and followers must be tested in crucible of public action and tension – which brings us to the second core concept of No Shortcuts – the structure test.  This is any activity that tests the rank and file leader’s ability to deliver followers to shop floor petition, picket line, direct action or even strike.  Jane argues that organizations (union or community groups) that regularly test their membership in action are strong – and each test reflects back on the organizer and leadership team.  Each test reveals again if the organization truly represents and leads the people, or not.  In this model failure teaches almost as much as successes.  Consistently meeting the challenge of structure tests is the essential ongoing ingredient of building an organization that is owned by the people who make it up and it is a radical insight.

The focus on leaders and their exercise of power is radical in the original sense of the word – structure tests go to the root of what makes a people’s organization live and breathe.  Each action is an opportunity for every leader to confront and conquer their own fear, and every individual moment of courage changes the person that struggles through it.  It is in this way that the struggle is also a spiritual one, and the first revolution for each and every leader is indeed internal.  This process done over and over and over again is the essence of how organizing not only wins power, but readies our people to lead their union, church, community or nation.

In a set of five compelling case studies McAlevey demonstrates how (rank and file) people’s leadership is the margin between victory and defeat.  Each story illustrates a slightly different nuance of the central argument about the need for rank and file leaders with real followers, real relationships.  Meticulously documented each of these stories stands up on its own – and there is enough in them for many hours of reflection for teams of community and labor leaders.  In a recent talk I gave to new young organizers at a network of progressive community groups someone asked me for a reading list, and I immediately thought of this book.  The case studies here should be added to the required reading lists for any seasoned practitioner as well as for the next generation of organizers struggling to learn the art and craft of the work, but the larger argument urgently needs to be (re)learned by the broader progressive community.

Whether or not you agree with every aspect of McAlevey’s point it’s certainly true that too much of the left’s current writing is aimed at a privileged and educated class of leadership seeking any solution but the one that brings them face to face with the workers and rough edged people of our nation.  The coming Trump years are likely to demonstrate the hollow nature of organizing campaigns that failed to build worker (or community) leadership and buy in – as if anyone needed another harsh lesson in this.  It is long past time for a “fearless self-inventory of failures” and Jane McAlevey points the way to the self-awareness Progressives will require to move forward.  It’s not an entirely new argument – McAlevey echoes some of the insights of legendary reinventor of community organizing Ernie Cortez – but it’s never been a more important or timely one.  This is the book that meets the needs of the time we are living in and you should read it.


Drew Astolfi

Former director FACE, current staff at CCC

Drew Astolfi is a 27 year veteran community organizer.  He has worked in the Bronx, the uptown neighborhood of Chicago, Western Massachusetts and most recently as the director of Faith Action for Community Equity in Hawaii.  Currently he works for the Center for Community Change a DC based social movement support organization.

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