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Cutting an Issue

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Cutting an Issue”

Aaron Schutz

Reading: Organizing for Social Change, Chapters 3 & 5
In the previous module we discussed how to identify a “target” and the importance of analyzing the power structure within which the target resides.
As a reminder, a “target” is “the person or institution that can make the change you want” and a “secondary target” is “a powerful person or institution that can influence the target.”
You need to know who the target is because otherwise you may be pressuring the wrong person or institution. It’s helpful to identify secondary targets, because they represent people and groups that can influence the decision-maker.
It’s important to emphasize that a “secondary target” is different from what we will call a “constituency.” Your constituency is the group that you are trying to organize in a powerful way. Secondary targets are things like banks and corporations. They are not part of the core group of people and small organizations (like small businesses) that you are trying to organize together to gain power.
Your “constituency” is made up of ALL the people and groups that you are trying to organize together. Everyone you would like to reach is included in your constituency, not just those that already agree with you. For example, the constituency for a campaign to reduce police violence would include all members of those groups likely to be affected by or to fear police violence (in our city, mostly people of color), even though there may be people in this group who won’t want to join your organization or who may disagree with your organization’s positions.
Allies are individuals and groups that “constituents are potential members of your organization, while allies are not.” For example, if you are having a campaign to reinstate extracurricular activities at MPS, some teachers may join your organization, but the teachers union almost certainly won’t, although they may be willing to help fight for the same goal.
A problem is something that you don’t like about the world or your society, but that is too big and/or too vague to grapple with in any coherent way. “Pollution” and “crime” are “problems.” We don’t like them, but it’s hard to know about what to do about them in general. To use an obsolete term, they are “bummers.” In the words of our text, they are “broad area[s] of concern.” They’re terrible but just thinking about them can be disempowering.
In the terms community organizers use, an issue is a more specific challenge that is separated out from the larger “problem.” An issue, rightly described, always includes the solution to the challenge that is chosen. As our text notes, “an issue is a solution or partial solution to a problem.” For example, an issue that one might “cut” out of the “problem” of crime is police accountability, and the solution that your group might fight for could be installing video cameras in all police cars in the city. An issue you might “cut” out of pollution might be a campaign to stop a new coal-fired plant from being built in your community.
Again, notice that from the perspective of community organizing, you haven’t “cut” an issue until you have also defined how you plan to solve the specific challenge you have chosen. Without an identified solution, your group doesn’t have anything specific to fight for.
To some extent, the criteria for cutting an issue, discussed in detail below, can be counter-intuitive. We are used to thinking about “winning” as the most crucial goal in any battle against oppression. However, community organizers think about campaigns in a fundamentally different way. To understand organizing you have to understand this different way of thinking.
The key problem for any community organizer is a lack of sufficient POWER. You just don’t have the money or the people to ensure that the social changes you want are made. So the core goal for all community organizers is generating POWER.
How do you generate power? In this context, you generate power by strengthening your organization. So the core aim of all organizers is building a stronger organization.
Therefore, you want to pick issues that are likely to BUILD YOUR ORGANIZATION. For example, an issue that you can easily win without really making organization members work and extend themselves probably isn’t an issue you want to get involved in. You want an issue that will force the organization to grow, and organization members to learn to be better actors.
It is important to understand that having a reputation for a strong organization is a crucial asset for organizing groups. If people perceive your group as strong, YOU MAY NOT NEED TO FIGHT! Groups that might have otherwise done things to harm your community may not because of the threat you may get involved. And organizations may invite you to the table early in the process of developing particular projects because they know you can cause problems for them later if you don’t. Organizations that aren’t respected, that aren’t seen as powerful, don’t get this treatment.
When you try to “cut an issue,” think about how a specific issue will help build your organization, how it will help you build POWER for the LONG TERM instead of just about whether and how to achieve a particular goal. Then and only then will you be thinking like an organizer.
One of the key challenges for “cutting an issue” is how you frame what your issue is to outside audiences which may be sympathetic to different concerns than you or your group is. On page 23, the text gives some examples of framing. For example, if you are an environmentalist and want to have logging stopped in a particular forest, it makes sense to frame your “issue” by emphasizing how you will make sure this won’t eliminate jobs, since forest workers may be a crucial part of your opposition.
Chapter 3 of our textbook, Organizing for Social Change, lays out a series of criteria for what counts as a good issue. They do a nice job of describing these. I focus in on what I think the key issues are, here.

  1. Result in a Real Improvement in People’s Lives

  2. Give People a Sense of Their Own Power

  3. Alter the Relations of Power

  4. Be Worthwhile

  5. Be Winnable

  6. Be Widely Felt

  7. Be Deeply Felt

  8. Be Easy to Understand

  9. Have a Clear Target

  10. have a Clear Time Frame that Works for You

  11. Be Non-Divisive

  12. Build Leadership

  13. Set Your Organization Up for the Next Campaign

  14. Have a Pocketbook Angle

  15. Raise Money

  16. Be Consistent with Your Values and Vision.

See the chart on page 28 of our text that lists all of these.

It’s important to stress that these are flexible “guidelines” and not strict rules. They are tools to help you decide between better and worse issues. But almost no issues really fulfill all of the criteria (since they are somewhat contradictory, as you will see). And there are often very good reasons not to follow one of them, as I will note at points, below.
Let me go through each of these in order and discuss what they actually mean in the context of an organizing campaign.

  1. Result in a Real Improvement in People’s Lives.

As an organization, there are many issues that you could win, but that really aren’t worth your effort. In every case, what is “worth” fighting for is related to the size and established power of your organization. If you are a small block club, then getting a stop sign at the end of the street may count as a “real improvement.” If you are city-wide organization, then a stop sign seems too small to “matter.” Furthermore, such a small change will only matter to a small number of your constituents.

What you want is something that will be seen and experienced as a “real improvement” by as many of your constituents as possible, especially people who aren’t yet a part of your organization. Such achievements strengthen the resolve of current members while drawing new members in. In other words, they build POWER that you can use for even larger campaigns in the future.

  1. Give People a Sense of Their Own Power

As in #1, and as will be true for all of these guidelines, what “counts” as fulfilling this criteria depends on what kind and what size of organization you have. As an organization, you want to seek out challenges that stretch your organization as opposed to issues that will be relatively straightforward to win. Winning campaigns that seem quite challenging can empower your members and new members for the future. It gives people a sense of their power. You want people (within and outside of your organization) to say “wow, that’s amazing that they were able to [for example] lower class sizes in first grade classes across the city.”

  1. Alter the Relations of Power

Again—and I’ll keep repeating this—your fundamental goal is to gain more POWER. You want a campaign to result in some change in the power relations in your community, either because you have changed the structures that allow people to participate or because you have made your own and other related organizations stronger and better able to fight in the future.

You want to come out of a campaign with more POWER, both in terms of members and in terms of reputation, so that you can pursue even larger campaigns in the future. And you want powerful people to think twice before making decisions that will disadvantage your constituents because they worry that you may hold them accountable for these decisions. And you want powerful people to invite you to the table before such decisions are made because they realize they need you on board if they are going to succeed. The POWER of a social justice organization can have wide effects far beyond the specific campaigns it wins.
On page 25, our text counts “electing people to office who support our positions” as one way to alter the relations of power. I’m going to argue, however, that this is a very limited and often problematic strategy. The fact is that electing people who are on “your side” is only the start in electoral politics. Unless you are able to maintain an organization that can hold these new officials accountable, you are likely to be disappointed. Those of you who have taken classes from Professor Michael Bonds in our Department will probably have heard of his work showing that electing more black officials doesn’t necessarily result in improvements for black residents. The truth is that elected officials often quickly get co-opted. And even if they aren’t, they may need to make decisions you don’t like in order to stay in office. Electoral politics matters, but it is not enough.

  1. Be worthwhile

This one seems pretty obvious. It has to be a change that actually matters to people who are in need. Otherwise, why bother?

  1. Be winnable

Okay, now things get tough. You want to fulfill criteria #1 and #2, which ask you to push for more difficult challenges. But at the same time you can’t push for changes that are so challenging that they are impossible. Again, this is a POWER issue. If you fight for something unwinnable, you are likely to simply disempower your constituents and reduce your capacity to fight in the future.

However, it is important to keep a focus on the fact that POWER is the key goal not winning. There have been cases where organizations fought in campaigns that they knew they would likely lose because, for different reasons, even a loss would build POWER for the long run.
For example, participating in a national campaign for immigration reform may be clearly unwinnable right now, but participating draws in a constituency that might otherwise not be part of your organization. And fighting today means you draw in people interested in this issue who may be there to fight when it does seem winnable. (Although there may be more winnable issues that could be cut from the immigration “problem.”)
There are many things you want to change that you don’t currently have the power to change. For example, it can be challenging to cut a good issue around education in Milwaukee because most things you want to do to help MPS require money. But in our state the School Board doesn’t have the power to raise money very easily; only the legislature can give you more money for schools. And it is very hard for an organization based only in Milwaukee to influence enough key votes to get new money. So a Milwaukee-based organization, no matter how powerful it is in Milwaukee will need to find a more local issue to fight about, and that issue can generally not involve an increase of state funding.

  1. Be Widely Felt

Again, the key issue, here, is your capacity to build POWER, both today and tomorrow. You want to pick an issue that affects a broad range of people, or that concerns a broad range of people, because issues like these are likely to bring in the largest number of participants. Again, this conflicts with the “winnable” challenge, among others, since the more broadly felt a problem is, the harder it is likely to be to change it.

How widely felt you need your issue to be depends on what kind of organization you have. As I have noted, Alinsky wanted to have multi-issue organizations to draw in a wide base of supporters. But many groups are, in fact, fairly narrowly framed around particular ethnic or cultural groups. In these cases, what is “widely” felt is relative to your own constituency.
For example, the problem of parking at UWM is an issue for people who work at UWM, but not for people around the city. But if you are a UWM student organization, it’s probably hard to find an issue that is more widely felt.

  1. Be Deeply Felt

Another way to say this is that it needs to be a “gut” issue. This criteria is deeply related to the next one, “Be Easy to Understand,” because a “gut” issue is generally one that can be clearly stated. For example, the image of a single teacher with forty little kids in a single classroom is obviously unjust to most people. People who are likely to join you will get a painful feeling in their gut just hearing that there are classrooms like these.

You want to get people at an emotional level, not just an intellectual one. You want them to respond with anger and remorse, not simply abstract understandings of inequality or unfairness.
Whether an issue is “deeply felt” is at least partly an issue of framing. You want to seek out those images and stories of the problem you are fighting against that make change seem crucial. This is why recruiting people to give testimonials is a classic technique of community organizers. For example, people might not feel like “immigration reform” is a “gut” issue for them at the start. But they might after hearing a few parents talking about how the current process that ships people spouses to a different state for months prior to their deportation hearings has ripped families apart, given children nightmares, etc. Stories like these shift the dialogue from one about “illegal aliens” to one about what justice should look like in America. They reframe an issue and make it a “gut” issue for those who may not have understood it this way before.
Some issues just can’t be made a “gut” issue for enough people, and these issues are generally not good ones to pursue.
From the perspective of an organizer, what are important are the issues that are important to your constituency. The organizer may care deeply about saving maple trees from a new insect invasion, but if her constituency doesn’t care about this, she probably won’t be able to make them care. The job of the organizer is to develop ethical campaigns for the issues that are central to one’s constituency, not to push the issues that an organizer thinks are important. An organizer is there to facilitate the dreams of the people she works with, the dreams of her leaders, not her own.

  1. Be Easy to Understand

This criteria is key and is sometimes forgotten. You need to FRAME your issue in very clear terms for your constituencies. This means eliminating jargon and unnecessary complexities.

For example, an organization I work with fought for and won increases in the number of schools that were funded under the state SAGE program. The SAGE program includes a wide range of complicated changes and requirements for schools. But the core issue, the one that appeals to most people, is that it reduces class sizes in the early elementary grades. Therefore, we fought for SAGE as a class size reduction program. That’s it. We didn’t get into all the other complexities. Everyone can understand that 40 kids in a classroom is unjust. We didn’t need to get into the rest of it.
Here’s another example that I just made up:
One way to FRAME an issue about school funding reform could be: We want the legislature to change the language of the State Law, paragraph 1.22.7, which now reads “school districts will base their post-year funding on their funding as of fiscal year 1998 according to the formula provided in section 1.2.8,” to the following: “school districts will base their post-year funding on the average of state district education funding as of fiscal year 1998 according to the formula provided in section 1.2.8.”
Another way to FRAME your issue would be to say: The funding differences between rich and poor districts in Wisconsin are unjust and unacceptable. We demand the legislature change the funding formula to equalize funding in Wisconsin so that kids of poor parents can get the same resources as the kids of rich parents.
In other words, simplify. Don’t give us a long dissertation on the little changes you want to make. Don’t give us the official jargon or cite the change in the law. Tell us in simple terms why we should care and what the fundamental change will be. YOU and your leaders need to understand all these complexities. Your constituency doesn’t really care about them.
At the same time, it’s crucial to be honest. There can’t be something hidden in the complexities that would be a surprise to people who are supporting you. In fact, as with all of these criteria, sometimes you simply must get into the complexities. And in a case like this, you will need to find a way to educate your constituency about them. Remember, you goal is long-term POWER. If you mislead people, or make them feel misled, then you reduce your capacity to mobilize them in the future.

  1. Have a Clear Target

We’ve talked enough about this in our earlier module.

  1. Have a Clear Time-Frame

A campaign always has target dates included in it. We will talk about this more in our next module (on strategy and tactics). You need to give people a sense that things are happening and that things are going to happen soon, or you will lose them to other challenges in their lives. As our text notes, “An issue campaign has a beginning, a middle, and an end. You should have an idea of the approximate dates on which those points will fall.”

Of course, in the real world you don’t control when things happen or what your opposition will do. But you need these dates as motivators and to help keep you on track, even if they will usually change.

  1. Be Non-Divisive

Again, this criteria is relative to the specific organization you have. For example, I work with a coalition of congregations in Milwaukee. The fact that we are a collection of churches limits the issues we can work on. For example, we can’t run a campaign about abortion, either pro-choice or anti-abortion. It would split our coalition and ruin the power we have gained by joining together. Some other organization is going to have to fight about this, and, in fact, some of our churches may be part of pro-choice groups while others work with anti-abortion folks.

Other issues might surprise you. For example, we can’t fight to ban handguns because this would also split our coalition.
There is often a way to develop a non-divisive campaign even around divisive issues. For example, we could run a campaign to pass a law requiring gun locks. And we could run a campaign around providing services to pregnant teens. It’s not that we can’t talk about guns or gun violence. But we do need to be careful to construct our issues in ways that don’t end up destroying our organization.
Again, the key issue here is to maintain and increase POWER to achieve ethical aims, and if that means we have to avoid particular issues, then we will need to live with this. Someone else will need to fight to ban handguns. And the people who do fight handguns will have to live with the fact that they have alienated a large group of people who will probably not be willing to join them on future campaigns, even if they don’t involve handguns.

  1. Build Leadership

This criteria is less about the issue you pick than in how you pursue the issue. We will discuss this in the next module. But the key challenge is to find ways to involve many people in the tasks that need to be carried out and decided on. It is by being involved that people learn to and make commitments to become leaders.

  1. Set up you Organization for the Next Campaign

You should always be thinking about how the current campaign will lead to the next campaign. For example, if you are working on a campaign that involves educating your members about a particular set of issues and then you decide to switch to something completely different, you probably aren’t using your resources efficiently enough.

For example, the organization I work with is currently working to increase the number of school nurses in MPS. And we plan to link this specific campaign to future efforts around school health. What our leaders learn about health challenges on the nursing campaign will be very helpful to us when we shift to campaigns about dental or vision care, for example.
You want to think about how an issue will prepare the organization to keep moving forward in some coherent way. If a particular issue won’t prepare you to do this, then it probably isn’t a good issue.
There are a range of different ways to think about how one campaign prepares an organization for future campaigns. For example, a block club might work to pressure their alderperson to put a stop sign at the end of their block. While their next issue might not have much to do with stop signs or traffic, if it involves this alderperson, then their first effort would have helped establish them as a real force to be reckoned with next time when they come to ask for changes in garbage collection, for example. If the “target” who can get stop signs is some faceless bureaucrat who they will never deal with again, then it is less likely to prepare them for future efforts with other officials. Of course, they may still need a stop sign, and winning anything will help a group feel its power.
Again, just because an issue doesn’t really fit all of the criteria we are talking about doesn’t mean it’s something we shouldn’t pursue.

  1. Have a Pocketbook Angle

People like to save money. And they like to get more resources

Of course, the problem is that many of the social changes we want actually cost money.
If possible, you want your issue to shift resources from those with too many to those with too few. The point isn’t to be Robin Hood, here. Sometimes the people who really “ought” to pay are unreachable. But you want to shift power, and shifting power generally means shifting resources from one group to another, and this usually means somebody loses and somebody gains.
People who are more privileged in this society are generally raised to think that we can all “get along,” and that we should all be looking for win-win solutions that keep everyone happy. The reality is that real change for people who have “less” generally requires that people with “more” give something up. Which they don’t want to do. Which brings us back to POWER . . . .

  1. Raise Money

Organizers argue that there are two kinds of POWER: organized money and organized people. While poor people by definition don’t have a lot of money, it is very difficult to organize people without any money at all. You need to pay an organizer and other staff or your organization will never have the stability and organizational capacity to survive over the long term. So sometimes you need to balance what you constituency wants to do with what you can get funded. Sometimes this isn’t a problem, since people who care about schools want something important to change. What the specific issue is, right now, may be less important to them. For example, what is more important: small class sizes or dental care for the 75% of kids who haven’t seen a dentist? I may have a preference, but both are “gut” issues.

The problem comes when organizations become primarily driven by getting dollars. This happens quite frequently, since once people are hired we want to find ways to keep funding them. But what generally results from this approach is an organization that loses any sense of real identity—a patchwork of different efforts that don’t really hold together. And, in most cases, the race for money ends up getting organizations involved in service work instead of POWER organizing. And, as we have noted, once organizations start focusing on service efforts they generally lose their capacity to fight.
Be careful about focusing too much on money. There are powerful people who would love to use money to co-opt POWER organizations and stop them from being able to resist.

  1. Be Consistent with Your Values and Vision

This one is absolutely vital. It’s the most important criteria. If you don’t meet this criteria, you are in trouble. And if your organization doesn’t have a sense of what fits and doesn’t fit with your values and vision, you are also in trouble.

Decades after Saul Alinsky helped create his first collective action organization, The Back of the Yards Organization, it started using its power to exclude black people from its neighborhood. He said at one point that he wanted to go in and organize against it. Back of the Yards was an example of an organization that lost track of the values that initially informed it.
Consistency with values and vision also involves the tactics you use, the tools you use to try to influence the powerful. We will talk about this in the next module.
Below, I have assigned you to one of three different “problem” areas: Education in Milwaukee, Parking at UWM, and Police in Milwaukee. You should assume that you are an “issue” committee of a small but growing citywide organization, except in the parking example, where you are a UWM student group. You should start your discussion this weekend, which will give you all week to arrive at your “issue.” You should have a decision about what your “issue” will be and you should have discussed the reasons why it is a good issue (given the criteria above) on the forum by: SUNDAY, 11/11 at 4:30.
Note that there are few perfect issues. Most issues will fail on some of the criteria listed above. What you need to be able to do is to justify why you will pursue your issue despite its limitations.
Then each person will write out an evaluation of how your issue relates to the set of criteria they have been assigned to.
Your job is:

  1. To cut a specific issue out of the “problem” you have been assigned. You will do this by interacting in the forum discussion you have been assigned to. In your discussion, each of you should refer to the criteria for a good issue in deciding exactly what your issue is. A good way to participate is to refer to a new criteria that no one else in the forum has discussed yet, or, perhaps, to give a different perspective on whether a particular criteria is met by a particular issue. Think like an organizer. In this case, then, your personal opinion about what you would like to pursue isn’t important. What’s important is to come up with a good issue that will motivate your

An issue will include:

      • Who the target is and why

      • Who your constituency is and why (who you will be recruiting together to act for change, which generally includes those who are most affected).

      • The specific solution you recommend and why

You will need to make up some of the “data” for this exercise. That’s okay—just talk about what seems reasonable. And you can also include information that you would need to know to be certain about your issue. In a real planning session, you would have done a lot of research that would inform you about your problem area.
This discussion and a decision on what your issue will be must be completed by Friday 11/11 at 4:30.

  1. Once you have decided on an ISSUE, each member of the group will need to write up and post a discussion of how your issue relates to the 8 questions that you have been assigned. This post, which should be a minimum of 400 words, is due TUESDAY, 11/13, at 4:30pm. We will discuss your responses at our face-to-face session on WEDNESDAY, 11/14.

I will be monitoring your discussions and butting in with comments when it seems relevant. Feel free also to send me an email if you run into a problem you feel like you need my help to solve.

You will be evaluated first, on the breadth and depth of your contributions to your issue discussion in your group forum, and second, on the extent to which you have effectively responded to the criteria you have been assigned.
For each criteria, you should stated your perspective and then provide a clear justification for why you are taking a particular position. In other words, one or two sentences will not be sufficient. As always, the point is not to be RIGHT, but to show with your discussion that you understand the concepts involved.
Although this is a group project, therefore, the online format will allow us to evaluate each person as to their individual contributions to the project. So don’t worry if you end up doing most of the work. This will be quite evident in the forum posts and in your individual criteria discussions.

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