Basics of organising #2 – Evaluating issues

Community housing protestThere are basic tools and principles to community organising, but they are not templates. They must be evaluated and adapted to meet the needs of your local situation. The success of your organising drive will not depend upon this article – only your hard work and dedication to organising will make changes happen.


Evaluating issues

Just because you think it is an issue it does not make it an issue.

Just because you think it is not an issue it does not mean it is not an issue.

When you find what appears to be an issue, three questions must be asked:

• Can people be mobilised around this?

• Is it specific?

• Can something be done to change this situation?

If people cannot be mobilised around an issue, then you do not have an issue. A good way to ‘test’ an issue is to call several friends or family members, talk about the situation and then ask would they be interested in getting a few people together to talk about what can be done? Or bring it up at the ‘any other business’ of your community organisation’s meeting to see what kind of reaction you get.

Issues must be made specific before anything can be done: there is a big difference between a concern and an issue. You can’t do anything about concerns, but you can win issues! Bad housing is a concern. The block of flats on Goldman Street with no heating, broken front door, owned by absentee landlord Mr Smith, is an issue and can be organised on. Healthcare is a concern. The fact that the local pharmacy will not sell cheap generic drugs is an issue. When people say that the ‘community is rundown’, that is a concern. But you can make it into an issue by getting them to define what they mean by ‘rundown’. It could mean there are potholes in the streets, that a streetlight is broken, or that there is a lot of vandalism or anti-social behaviour. To be something that an organisation can work on, the concern must be translated into a specific issue.

Can something be done or changed? Your local organisation on its own may not be able to take on the packaging industry but it can organise a community litter-pick or make sure the local council provides enough bins or a regular street sweeping service. You must make sure the issues your organisation takes on are not beyond the scope and power of your organisation and that you can realistically expect to win or change something about the issue.

A couple of other points about issues: If you are going to attack an issue which looks like it will take a long time to win, then you have to set up and celebrate intermediate victories.

• ‘The issue is really moving now, we have been offered a meeting with the head of housing.’

• ‘The council have agreed to give us 10 new bins for the area. We are rolling now!’

Also, in a long organising drive, make sure you have plenty of alternative targets. You cannot ask people to picket an enemy every Saturday for six months. You must look for alternate targets. Does the enemy sit on a board of directors of some agency or business? Then visit that agency or business and ask associates there to call your enemy and come to a meeting. Does the enemy belong to any clubs or organisations or a church? The same type of visit can be made. One group even went to the home of a mayor in the suburb where their enemy lived and asked the mayor to give our enemy a call to come to a meeting. The enemy’s associates are usually willing to make these phone calls because they want to get out of the controversy.

In a long organising drive there have to be alternative targets so people do not get bored and so the enemy has pressure coming from a variety of sources at the same time.

Remember the two sentences at the head of this section. Organisations have organised on some very strange issues, have won and built the organisation. Some examples of these issues: shopping trolleys, bells on ice cream trucks, toilet paper at the school. None of these is earth shaking, but they were won, a constituency was built and the organisation moved on to bigger issues.

This text was originally published by National Training and Information Centre, USA 1985 and written by Shel Trapp. Large sections have been edited or otherwise omitted.

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