Consensus Organizing: Building Communities of Mutual Self-Interest


Mike Eichler

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    This book is dedicated to Pat Libby


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    Do you see things around you that just do not seem fair? Are you upset when you see poverty in the midst of great wealth? Are you frustrated when some of our schools provide inferior education to poor children? Do you hurt inside when you realize that people in our country go to sleep at night hungry? Many of us are feeling upset, frustrated, and hurt. We want to do something to change these terrible circumstances, but we do not know how. We do not even know where to begin. If this is the way you feel, this book is for you. We must help people. Trying is not enough. We must be strategic. We must be effective. No person is born with the ability to create solutions that work on a grand scale. We must learn how to help others, one step at a time. We must practice. Please know that you are not alone in your feelings. You are not alone in your intentions. I want to build on your feelings and intentions so that by combining them with analysis and strategy you will start to become effective. Change is exciting when you have confidence and newly acquired abilities. Change is daunting when you feel overwhelmed.

    To build your confidence, this book is written in a style you may never have experienced before. I have tried to make it jargon-free. That's right, no more reading stuff like, “assessment personalization skills” or “facilitate conditions” or (one of my all-time personal favorites) “limitations of cognitive restructuring.” The use of jargon can have the tendency to develop an exclusive club of members who understand it while keeping out the rest of us who do not. Instead, I want all of you to understand and participate. I want you to read each chapter and learn some new things and never say to yourself “Whaaat?” I have always found that people who communicate clearly sometimes feel guilty. They say, maybe subconsciously, I have to add to this, make it more complicated, harder, or else people will think I do not know much. Well, I think more highly of you than that. I think you will want to learn more when you realize you can learn it and do it and like it. I think I will increase my chances that you feel this way if I keep it simple.

    I will try to show you that you can help people and their communities through learning simple concepts. I will try to engage you by telling you stories, because I think that is a great way to learn. I will try to talk about real people and situations because when it's real it just means more, and sticks with you longer. I will try to make the learning process relevant to you. Like all good lasting relationships, we will need to build on our mutual self-interest. My goal is that this book inspires you to never feel overwhelmed again when you see social problems around you. Instead, you will see these same problems and say, “I can do something about this.” “I can get these people together, and with their determination, create change.” My goal is for you to take what you have learned here and use it. So do we have a deal?

    I will be talking a lot about trying to change things. Community organizing is a method to create change. Consensus organizing is one particular method of community organizing. Think of it like you think of therapy or clinical practice. Therapy tries to create change in individuals, one at a time. Community organizing tries to create change to benefit an entire group of people or an entire neighborhood. If done effectively, community organizing can have a big effect on a lot of people. If done ineffectively, you will start to find yourself becoming frustrated and overwhelmed. You will lose your own confidence and the confidence of others. You will begin to think no matter how hard you work your efforts will make little or no difference.

    So what is consensus organizing and how was it started? Consensus organizing is a way of thinking. Once you understand and choose to use it, you may never stop. It will affect your personal and professional life. It will affect those around you, and change the way they think of you. Consensus organizing will have a big impact on the way you think and behave. You may find yourself less self-centered while, at the same time, feel more balanced, well-adjusted, and satisfied. You will find yourself listening more carefully to others, while they, in turn, become more genuinely interested in you. You may find yourself thinking about yesterday, today, and tomorrow all at the same time and not even getting mixed up. You will find strange, hidden similarities among people or situations that no one else sees. Your life will be much more interesting.

    Consensus organizing was stumbled upon. It was not part of a grand scheme, grand plan, or grand design. It was a last-ditch, desperate effort to solve a serious problem. It was attempted after everything I was taught didn't work. It was not dreamed up in an ivory tower, think tank, or mountain retreat. It was born out of practicality. It has continued to be used for primarily one reason and one reason only: It works. In countless sets of circumstances, it seems to help people in lasting ways. It was tried out in desperation. It now is chosen strategically. Some efforts using consensus organizing have continued to help people long after flashier, headline-grabbing mobilization efforts have fizzled and dried up.

    Book Format

    This book contains 13 chapters. I have tried my best to keep the tone of the writing friendly and accessible. You should be able to grasp the overall theme with a fairly quick and easy read. This book is arranged in a very unusual way. Each chapter will begin by talking about a particular aspect of consensus organizing and conclude by taking you on a road trip with real-life examples from different cities. The road trip will involve stories and tales that I hope will stick with you throughout your career. I think you will find these examples to be memorable and easy to retain. These stories should clarify and anchor the theme in your mind forever. Each story really happened. I tried to serve up the most illustrative examples.

    I want you to feel like you are in the passenger seat on our trip. If we get lost, it's my fault. If we run out of gas, it's on me. If we drive too much in one day, just speak up and we can rest for a while. At times, when things are going smoothly, just enjoy the trip. At the conclusion, I want you to take over the wheel. I want you to have some fun (that's right, fun!) and learn some things down the road. I hope that you can reflect on your experiences from reading this book and tie them into your hopes, dreams, and careers. When we pull back in front of your place and you are home again, I hope you will want to keep consensus organizing in your personal and professional life.

    So what kind of trip are we taking? Pack carefully, because the climate will change. I would suggest you utilize the concept of layering. We are starting out in Buffalo, New York. From there, it is south to Pittsburgh and the Mon Valley, in Pennsylvania, and Houston, Texas. We will come back up to New York City, then down again to Atlanta, Georgia; West Palm Beach, Florida; and New Orleans, Louisiana (I know there will be no complaints on that particular stop except maybe the 10 pounds we gain from the gumbo and étouffée—more about that later). We will be out west in Las Vegas, Nevada, and San Diego, California. You should update your passport, because I'd like to fly to Belfast, Northern Ireland, as well. Everything along the way will be real. You will know because I will be talking about things that no one could just make up. I have lived this life in the hope that one day you would be interested in taking this trip with me. I have even sprung for satellite radio because no one should travel cross-country having to listen to the same five songs. Buckle up that seatbelt, sip that large coffee, and leave the radio dial alone. Learn how to become a consensus organizer and the next time you drive, you get to pick the tunes.

    My goal is for you to see that consensus organizing can be practiced not only by me but also by you. My hope is that you can begin to see yourself using consensus organizing and someday substituting your stories for mine. Your stories will be even richer, more enjoyable, and more interesting. Think of it as baking an even better chocolate chip cookie with more morsels, more flavor, more taste. Others will not be able to wait to begin to taste all that you have to offer.

    At the conclusion of each chapter, I have included a small number of straightforward questions to help you think and reflect on what you have read. Most of these questions are serious, with a couple thrown in that you will enjoy only if you read the chapter. This book is designed to make you want to talk to others, listen to others, and tell others about what you have read. It should make you want to go out into a real community and do something. If the book is really good, it will pass the toughest test of all. It should make you not want to sell it. (I know, I know, it will be tough to pass up the $1.25 the book buyers will cough up.) I really hope you will want to keep it and, maybe in a few years, read it again.


    Influence is a funny thing. You look at life and wonder how you got to where you are. You are there because of the influence of others. I want to say thank you to the teachers who have influenced me—Mrs. Patricia Watt of Holy Name of Jesus School; Mr. Paul Westmiller, Mr. Joseph Conley, Father Donald Joyce, and Father James McGee of Bishop Fallon High School; Dr. Thomas Weinburg of Buffalo State College; and Dr. James Cunningham and Dr. Morton Coleman of the University of Pittsburgh.

    Thank you to the sweetest aunts and uncles—Rose, Mike, Grace, and Andy.

    I want to tip my hat to friends in Pittsburgh who couldn't care less what I do to make a living—Bob Metcalfe, Dick Ditmore, Don Walko, Skip Schwab, Matt Hawkins, Robert Pearlman, and Bob Holmes.

    Thanks to all those I had the pleasure of working with around the country—George and Jo Debolt, Reverend Bill Thomas, Paul Brophy, Jim Capraro, Richard Manson, Tom Lenz, Ben Butler, Bob Pease, Karen Demasi, Jerry Altman, Tom Murphy, Rob Fossi, Mary Ohmer, Reggie Harley, Richard Barrera, Manuel Jones, Dale Smith, Ronelle Neperud, Jeff Baloutine, Kathy Tyler, Peter Goldberg, Barbara Buckley, Hans Dekker, Pat McElligott, Dave Bergholz, Harold Richman, Anita Harbert, Bill Murrah, and Steve Weber.

    Thanks also to all those who have supported consensus organizing, in particular, Diana Lewis, Hank Bukema, Mike Watson, Jan Kraemer, Dr. Bob Ross, Pat Jenny, Herman Davenport, Peter Goldmark, Rebecca Riley, Julia Lopez, Ruth Goins, Olga Cañon, Ruth Riedel, Tom Beech, Lady Jean Mayhew, Bill Schambra, Mike Sviridoff, and John Gardner. Most especially, my thanks go out to Craig McGarvey for his help, encouragement, support, and friendship. Without him, there would be no book to enjoy.

    I would like to express my gratitude to those who have written about consensus organizing—Mark Gerzon, Bob Fisher, Elizabeth Beck, Ross Gittell, Avis Vidal, Herb Rubin, and especially Shep Barbash.

    Thank you to all the students at the Consensus Organizing Center, in particular Jessica Robinson, Day Rice, Paula Anderson, Karin Amiling, Madelyn Ochoa, Jorge Nunez, Angelica Garcia, and the flying fingers of Henok Negash and Sarah Minas.

    I would like to express special recognition for the skills and caring of Dr. Becky Ziner and Dr. Jeffrey Gaines.

    And a very special mention is extended to Anne Teachworth for putting the pieces of me back together and for making New Orleans my spiritual home.

    This book is also dedicated to the memories of the warmest, kindest father and father-in-law—Victor Eichler and Harris Libby.

    Last, to Pat Libby, thanks for making every day a true gift.

  • “Answers” to Reflection Questions

    1. Members of many organizations still actually wonder, “What would Saul do?” Near the end of his life, he started to organize the middle class hoping to get those people to use their power in the stock market to effect social change. It's anybody's guess whether today's realities would make him become interested in a concept like consensus organizing or whether it would make him even more radical and confrontational. I do think he would have held onto his principle of starting local with important local issues that resonate in each particular neighborhood. He would still exhibit his irreverence and sense of humor and still care deeply about “the little guy” and our democratic society.

    2. Of course if you had the power to choose the speakers, I couldn't influence your choices. You could choose authors, politicians, musicians, actors, anybody. But I still get to tell you who I would choose if I had the power. Here are my top five choices:

    • Dennis Kucinich. The congressman from Ohio and former candidate for president may be the most interesting of all elected public officials over the last 20 years. He grew up poor and for a while, he and his family lived in a car. He became the youngest mayor in the history of Cleveland, Ohio. He has a very unusual, thoughtful perspective that shows insight into what makes our country great and what needs to be improved.
    • Melinda Gates. She and her husband have given away more money than anyone else in the history of the world. She really seems to believe that no one life on this planet is more important than another. Many believe there may have been no Gates Foundation without her urging.
    • Don Rickles. The comedian represents the end of an era—totally, absolutely, politically incorrect racial and ethnic humor. Offstage, by all accounts, he is reported to be a really nice person, charitable and kind.
    • Gerry Adams. Northern Ireland's leader of Sinn Fein came out of the terrible violence of the 1970s and 1980s, but since then he has chosen the democratic, political path to social change.
    • Bill Clinton. He wouldn't run out of things to say, and love him or hate him, no one could say he would be boring. Getting his perspective on current issues would be fascinating.

    So how does my list compare with yours?

    3. This is a very important question. Many people go through their entire lives and never really develop much of a desire to help others. You, however, have the desire. Where did it come from? Your family? A particular experience in your life? A person who inspired you to help others? Your motivation will tell you a lot about yourself. It will also tell you a lot about your reaction to consensus organizing. Discipline yourself and look into this question deeply. Get past a simple “knee-jerk” answer.

    4. Your personality is unique and an important indicator of how you look at creating change. What kind of personality do you have? Outgoing people don't become quiet and withdrawn in community work and introverts seldom become spellbinding speechmakers. Do not think that you will be ineffective as an organizer because you may not be riveting, dynamic, and mesmerizing. Remember, the most important skill of a consensus organizer is the ability to listen.

    5. Our childhood neighborhood may have an important impact on our lives. Much of what shapes us comes, of course, from our families. Almost as influential, however, are the experiences you remember in your neighborhood. What was it like for you? Did you move a lot? Did you stay in one place? What was your neighborhood like? Was it close-knit? Was it poor, working class, middle class, or wealthy? Was it diverse? Was it safe or dangerous? How do you think your neighborhood experiences affect how you look at other neighborhoods? I think you will see more links between your neighborhood and your current outlook than you ever imagined.

    6. The answer should be yes! All of you who live in warm climates should visit in January. I'm serious. It will show you how frigid temperatures and howling winds can increase the neighborliness and helpfulness of the people around you. There are plans in the works to turn my childhood home into a national historic site, like the homes of John E Kennedy and Elvis Presley. So that should be a “must see” on your trip. OK, I was kidding about the last part.

    1. You can't believe in both myths because they are too contradictory. Many people in the helping professions subscribe to the anti-myth theory. Be honest and think through both concepts. Ideally, a consensus organizer eventually bursts past both myths and looks at issues in a less ideological way. It will not happen overnight.

    2. This may seem like a silly question to you, but it really is not. Lots of people in the helping professions propose suggestions that basically call for the redistribution of America's wealth. The trick for a consensus organizer is to get help from those same wealthy sources in a way that produces mutual benefit—to the wealthy and the poor. This will be an impossible task if you picture yourself as a “Robin Hood.”

    3. I would hope that you are not in the group that answered yes to this one. Quite a bit of the rhetoric from the right-wing portion of our media constantly blames the victim. That is, they place all the blame on the poor for every problem they have. This, of course, is a nice little theory that just happens to absolve those subscribers from all sense of responsibility. Wouldn't it be nice to lead your life by blaming everyone but yourself for absolutely everything? This attitude may be easy for you to spot. Do not confuse it with the idea of people taking personal responsibility for their actions. Taking responsibility is a good thing. Absolving everyone else from helping is not a good thing. For the most part, consensus organizing requires personal responsibility and community effort along with partnerships from outside the community. Consensus organizers need all of these ingredients in their recipes.

    4. Yes, blockbusting still occurs. The real estate industry is a major player in our economy. Because enormous amounts of money are made in the buying and selling of property, we will always have a sizable number of people who will cross whatever ethical and even legal lines necessary to enhance their profits. To be fair, many in the real estate profession try to demand an end to blockbusting and racial steering. But always remember a profession that polices its own will never have perfect results. Just look at the police! There are still some communities in the United States that have people using ethnic and racial fears to make huge profits. There are laws in place at all levels of government that call for the elimination of this practice. But we still need a vigilant, educated, and well organized public to blow the whistle and lead efforts to prevent these illegal tactics from destroying neighborhoods.

    5. Community organizers are not alone in fighting for justice and equality. We have partners all over the place. What did you come up with? No profession will get a score of 100 percent on this test, but some obvious professions include teachers, social workers, counselors, public health workers, nurses, rehabilitation specialists, hospice workers, and public defenders. I hope you have composed a long, long list because the point of this question is to show that whereas no profession scores 100 percent, no profession scores 0 percent either. Look for kindred spirits everywhere. Remember the people who surprise us with their help may be the most effective. Their impact may be even larger than the usual suspects, “where help is expected.”

    6. You may have lost some sleep trying to look for the answer to this one. You would have had to live in two cities to even know what the heck I was talking about. These sandwiches are exclusive to the cities in which they were born. A beef-on-weck originated in Buffalo, New York. It is a roast beef sandwich made very special because of the crusty, flaky roll known as a kimmelweck roll. The roast beef and the roll form a marriage as united and inseparable as a couple celebrating their golden wedding anniversary. In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, everyone at one time in their life has either eaten or watched someone eat a chipped-chopped ham sandwich. Created at Islays, a local chain of delis, it's a paper-thin cut of ham that almost floats from the slicer to the bread. It has a very distinctive taste—almost nothing like “regular” ham. The correct answer is—a tie. You have to eat both and you will see there is just no way to decide. Tony Bennett or Frank Sinatra? Take both.

    1. Now this is an interesting question. Both have a lot of similarities, if done the right way. You should be talking about the person's strengths. You should be talking about their options. You should be making sure they are in charge of their effort to change. I would argue, however, that there is one very important difference as well. In an organizer's one-on-one meeting, we talk about the need for collective action and point out that the same barriers and problems are affecting many others as well. We will point out that there are political and economic factors at play that must be analyzed and then changed through the actions of many people. We would seldom turn the problem inward.

    2. Poor and working-class people have very few connections to people in other circumstances. They don't know the people who are doing fine while they continue to suffer. As they suffer, it is not felt by others, not shared by others, and frequently not even noticed by others. Without connections, it is very hard for poor and working-class people to create change. Since many problems caused by poverty seem to affect only the poor, the rest of society appears to be uncaring. Wealthy people have much more social capital. They contact their contacts. Their agendas are understood. Others help carry out their agendas. Consensus organizers believe that there would be more help for the poor if more of us knew poor people. The more there are personal connections, the greater the chances to develop genuine concern. Genuine concern can lead to serious efforts to create positive change.

    3. Let's start with what you wouldn't say. I wouldn't recommend, “I hate you and everything about you. I am disgusted with this shallow suburban lifestyle and this is my way to reject everything and get back at you.” Instead, how about something like “You always taught me to care about others and that we are all our brother's keeper. I finally have found a career in which I feel I can make a difference.” Community organizing should not be seen as a choice representing rebellion, angst, or disgust. It should be a genuine, optimistic, strategic, and positive decision. Consensus organizers are positive people who look for positive qualities in others.

    4. While still at the pinnacle of a spectacular baseball career in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Clemente, a native Puerto Rican, was saddened by a hurricane that devastated Nicaragua in 1972. He became even more distraught by reports that relief supplies were not reaching those in need but were being commandeered instead by criminals and thieves. Hearing this, he gathered supplies and made large personal contributions. To make sure that the supplies got to where he intended, he decided to ride along with the cargo on the next plane. Overloaded, the plane crashed upon takeoff into the sea. He perished, leaving a widow and three young boys. His body was never found. Because of this, and the exemplary life he led, the National Baseball Hall of Fame waived the rule that players must wait at least 5 years after retirement to be considered for admission. Clemente stands in stark contrast to many of today's professional athletes who are too often caught up in greed, illegal drugs, and self-promotion.

    5. There are a lot of professional people who are skilled and trained to show all of us the seriousness of a problem. They can point out the need for the problem to be addressed. What they don't do is make a personal or organizational commitment to help solve the problem. Beware of those in our society who point the finger at the need for “the other guy” to do the actual work. Try instead to find a smaller number of people who make a commitment of their own time, skills, and resources. The consensus organizer must find people who are willing to work. That is a much different task than finding people who point things out.

    1. You can build a great deal of respect when you commit to doing something, plan well, implement, and eventually succeed. The respect that others give to you for saying you are going to do something and then successfully following through is significant. If, instead, you play the role of lobbyist, or advocate, or pain in the butt, tangible results may still be achieved but the depth of respect will be shallow. Depth of respect leads to others supporting your future endeavors. You will get even more help and participation the next time around.

    2. People are good at some things and are terrible at others. Think of yourself, for example. Some tasks are easier and more fun than others. To achieve success, someone must perform effectively at each required function. You can't operate a circus with everyone selling tickets and no one taming the lion. Your job as a consensus organizer is to understand the tasks at hand and the work that lies ahead. You must understand the talents and skills of your participants. Most people will respond very well when they are told they are indispensable. You need to steer people into their roles. It won't happen on its own.

    3. Consensus organizers want everyone to benefit through their participation. We think that benefits are not only acceptable, but they are also necessary. The only problem is that sometimes people want hidden, secret benefits at the expense of others. For instance, if a homeowner wants his or her property values to rise, we are fine with that. On the other hand, if there's a man who owns a company that makes signs that people put in their windows to show they are block club members and he wants to recoup the expenditure of his funds for making the signs, we are fine with that. If, however, he is in charge of the signs and withholds the fact that he owns the sign company and charges the neighbors double, we are not fine with that. Simply put, benefit must be gained openly, honestly, and in clear sight. People must be comfortable and articulate about their expected benefits. Everyone else must be aware and comfortable as well. If so, you will be fine.

    4. Bill Maher and you both like to be complimented. Oh, you may not want to admit it, but you love it. Deep down, even June enjoyed Wally's friend Eddie on leave It To Beaver every single time he said, “You look lovely today, Mrs. Cleaver.” The reason I am stressing this is that sometimes in our desire to be professional we forget the common sense and importance of showing our appreciation. Never worry about “laying it on too thick.” You have the ability to absorb all the compliments anyone wants to give you. Bring it on.

    5. The consensus organizer is the person who shows people their options. Your job is to discuss all the possible different directions, the choices, and the different avenues. You can have a personal favorite, but you can't just present one way of doing things. There will be no group “buy-in” if people have no choice. The entire group must decide among all the choices. You just lay them all out.

    1. Cultural competency is much more than an academic term, but it is up to you to make sure of this. If you think of it only as something you are forced to memorize, then that's all it will become. Try instead to make sure it means something to you. Don't see it as something relevant to only your professor or your employer. See it as a living, breathing idea that resonates with you everyday.

    2. Our society is not unified on much of anything. The writer Mark Gerzon (1996) refers to our country as the “Divided States of America.” Not only do we have divisions, we sometimes see the ability to divide as a skill. We even elevate and admire some of those who divide us. Talk show hosts have celebrity status. We repeat their outrageous comments to our friends, neighbors, and family members. This question probes whether you play a role in this division. In your personal life have you pitted one group of friends against another? Have you done the same thing with a brother and sister? You must discipline yourself to stop this behavior or you will find it spilling over to your professional life as well. Try instead to look for things that could unify your friends and family. Get in the habit of developing commonalities. Don't let societal trends move you into a corner. Similarities among people are right in front of your eyes. Start to see them now.

    3. This answer will surprise you unless you are a Texan. “Don't mess with Texas” was a slogan coined by the state highway department to try to influence people to refrain from littering. It was put on a lot of garbage cans, trash barrels, and refuse trucks. It was everywhere. It was a brilliant slogan, intended to tap into the immense love and pride people in Texas have for their state. Its impact was felt in such a profound way that it zoomed past its original intent and merged with the state's macho swagger as well. It unified the citizens more effectively than others states that tried stuff like “Land of Enchantment.”

    4. I think you have to understand yourself first. We use ourselves as a benchmark to form our opinions of others. How are other people different from you? Are they as dedicated, hardworking, committed, and caring as you are? Or are they lazier, shiftier, more deceiving, and aloof than you are? Spend a good amount of time analyzing yourself in an honest, straightforward manner. Don't skip over your self-analysis and move on to someone else. Think of Bill Clinton's definition of humility or Mother Teresa's definition of commitment or Bruce Springsteen's definition of a concert. See how it would affect their analyses of others?

    5. What's your opinion? There are efforts sprouting in different parts of our society pushing the idea that we are now becoming “all one.” Some demand we become color-blind. Some eschew the use of race and ethnicity on job and college application forms. There are those who say the idea of cultural differences in America is an idea that is passe and no longer significant. This debate will not be going away anytime soon. If we concentrate on our differences, will we miss out on our similarities? On the other hand, what will be lost if we ignore our differences? Does cultural competency hold us back or move us forward? Try to be specific in your thinking. Back up your opinion with real examples.

    1. People can do a lot more than they think they can, but most constantly stress their limits and not their potential. We set the bar too low. As a result, people start to believe what we tell them. People who are told they have limits self-impose the limits, and those who predicted those limits look like geniuses. We are “proven” to be right. As we become professionals, we see nonprofessionals as severely limited. We want the nonprofessionals to depend on professionals. I want you to take a really hard look at this. What if a teacher said to a student, “I have more knowledge than you do. You don't understand the topic. You are limited. I will do it for you rather than show you that you have the capacity to learn how to do it yourself.” Wouldn't you think this was a terrible teacher? Well, you should become a great teacher. No matter what your profession, break down what you have learned and teach others what you know. Judge yourself by your ability to have nonprofessionals gain confidence and ability. That is not setting up your “partners” for failure. That is helping them succeed.

    2. No. He just threatened to do it. He was trying to prove that the threat of disruption and embarrassment could be a powerful motivator. He got what he wanted and did not have to carry out the action. Suppose he did have to follow through. Imagine all of the bad jokes and puns. I'm tempted to start, but if I do I'll never stop.

    3. Strategy needs to constantly evolve. Our plans are not devised in a vacuum. We have lots of other people reacting, changing opinions, adjusting their tactics, and so on, so we have to do the same. Do not be intimidated by the idea of constant change. Change is what keeps you from becoming bored. Change makes the situation more interesting. Watch out for those who dig in their heels and keep repeating something over and over, expecting everyone to do what they want. If you are into baseball, think of it as a nine-inning game. If you play chess, think of it as a match. If you like mystery novels, unfold your plot with twists and turns. Strategy needs to fit into particular situations and situations constantly change.

    4. If you chose, you lose. Suppose you make the strategy choice and it is ineffective. Well, then, it was your fault. Suppose you make the choice and it works. No one will feel much satisfaction and no one's confidence will be built. That is, no one but you. It's not about you. It's about the people you are working with. They need to build their self-esteem, confidence, and social capital. This can only happen when they, as a group, make decisions and benefit or suffer the consequences. That does not mean that you can't frame the discussion. It just means that you don't get to choose.

    5. Yes, as long as you don't just remember the word “manipulative” and forget the word “honest.” When I finished a meeting once, a financial supporter said, “You seemed to set up everybody to say just what you wanted them to say. It just seemed so manipulative to me.” I said, “That wasn't manipulation. That was planning.” As a consensus organizer, you need to bring together people who have never been together before. There won't be a lot of comfort and trust as you attempt to do this. It will not happen on its own. You can never lie to people to make it happen. You can, however, certainly help orchestrate the process.

    1. When you make people feel guilty, they do not respond well. Oftentimes they become defensive or negative and overreact. If you want help but make people feel guilty, they either will refuse to help you or not help you for very long. On the other hand, people tend to respond positively to people who are trying to help themselves. It's a very consistent pattern. People respect others who work hard. So you would be wise to encourage people to do what they can on their own first. This will be respected. Help and partnership will be easier to find.

    2. There are very few people out there who will respond well when they receive nothing in return. Most of us prefer reciprocity. It may not be money. It may not be public praise. It might be a simple matter of feeling better about yourself or getting a letter from the kid who received the scholarship or knowing that the help led to more people being helped. Never forget the crucial concept of reciprocity—give when you receive and receive when you give.

    3. You should be able to talk all day about this one. The whole model of consensus organizing is built on the idea that people respond more effectively and productively when they know you than when they don't. Problems in low-income communities require long-term strategies for improvement. Think of your deepest friendships. Think of people who stand by you through thick and thin. Those are the kinds of relationships that isolated people in isolated communities need.

    4. This may seem a little superficial to be included here, but it isn't. There are many significant reasons why your best friend is your best friend. Best friends are trustworthy. They can be counted on, always, no matter what. They are a pleasure to be around (usually). They reinforce your value as a person. They cheer you up when you are feeling down. They build your confidence. Maybe, most important of all, they understand you. We need connections to the haves and have-nots. These connections need to include all those factors included in friendships. It cuts two ways, with everyone benefiting. It's as simple as that.

    5. I know people who refused to go out with their real friends on Thursday nights because they couldn't bear to miss one episode. I mean, what is so compelling about the comment, “Oh Ross!”? They were all annoying and I always thought we tried to get rid of annoying friends. Contact me. I need an explanation.

    6. Buffalo. Yeah, that's right. If you picked Chicago, you lose. When I went back to visit my family in Buffalo, after being away for years, I took the newspaper and walked outside intending to read it on the front porch. My father saw me and chuckled. He said, “You've been gone for quite a while.” I didn't know why he said that. I mean, why the chuckle and the comment? I'm just going to read the paper on the porch. I went back inside in about 20 seconds. I had the classified section plastered onto my face. It seemed like it was glued there from the constant blasts of wind.

    1. It is very hard to create partnerships when the primary, initial purpose of getting together is to secure funds. Whenever I am asked to work with an existing partnership, I always ask how the parties got together in the first place. The more lasting, productive working relationships are developed through a mutual desire to accomplish something. The partnership may have needed money at some point to help reach certain goals, but it was the participants' need to get to the same end that brought them together. Rarely do partnerships last when they are formed to chase money.

    2. The Mon Valley people were flattered when they were told that they had knowledge and expertise that was appreciated and needed. They were especially flattered that people from such a large city so far away would invite them to share their expertise. This desire to be appreciated and needed created a reciprocal desire to help in anyway possible.

    3. Technically, partnerships could last, but only if self-interests evolve in tandem. This would be quite a long shot. Instead, what almost always happens is that partners' interests go in different directions, making it very hard to stay together. Once self-interest diverges, you no longer have a real working partnership. Instead, you have a shell that continues to exist, but has no real, tangible benefit.

    4. Think about it—Bonnie and Clyde died in a shootout. Siegfried and Roy—one watched the other being mauled by a tiger. Ben and Jerry remain socially responsible businessmen. You have to go with Ben and Jerry.

    5. Raphael had to think about the person he was talking to and analyze that person's self-interest (even his own mother). Once he understood the person's self-interest, he tried to take his own agenda and link it to the other person. It was a lot of work and a lot of thinking. It sometimes made his head hurt. When he found himself drifting back to simpler times, when he just bullied or ignored others, he called consensus organizing a curse. Not that you would ever do such a thing. Right? Right?

    1. In the beginning of a relationship, it is much more important to show the other person you are interested in them rather than vice versa. Don't ever make the mistake of trying to prove your value to a person before you show them what a value they are to you. People are uncomfortable around someone who keeps harping on why you need them. Think of it this way—most people would rather spend 30 minutes being complimented than 30 minutes hearing about you.

    2. Some people don't notice the differences that are caused by differences in class. People are constantly surprised by others who don't see things from the same perspective. We are frequently oblivious to class issues. Thus, we are exasperated when others see the same thing we see and draw an opposite conclusion. Try thinking about the richest person you know and the poorest person you know. Compare yourself to both of them. You should begin to see the differences. Much of this is a class matter.

    3. No. Never. Ever. Not even if someone offers you hard cash. As a rule, try to avoid all phrases that are overused. They sound hollow and almost without meaning. Instead, prove how important others are to you through your actions, not catchy sayings. Sound bites cío not prove that you are a caring person. Your actions will.

    4. Listening is the key to consensus organizing. We are certainly not a society of listeners. We “listen” to someone while we drive, eat, use the computer, shower, and read, and sometimes we doze off. Try listening not as if it were a little something extra to do while doing something else. Instead, listen as if your life depends on it. Stop cutting other people off in the middle of their sentences while you say what you think is more important. It is crucial to stop planning your next comment while you should be listening. Learning to be a community organizer is not learning how to herd sheep. You have to know each person you are working with to begin to understand his or her self-interest. You can't do that by talking. You do that by listening.

    5. Go ahead, tell me, I'm listening. Hey, want to hear about my fascinating family history? Sure you do. My great-grandfather came from the small, but historically significant German town of Überallis. It was the fall of 1901, it was snowing, blah, blah, blah (please see the answer to question 4).

    6. For a consensus organizer, every person is important. Each person is a potential match to another person. The match can lead to helping more people. Each person is an important part of a puzzle and you have all the puzzle pieces in front of you. You should be in the process of improving your listening and your open-mindedness, allowing you to find more resources than ever. Try to answer this question in as much detail as possible.

    7. OK, if you don't know all three songs you have to fake it and just take a guess. All three sing about pieces of the kinds of relationships that occur in consensus organizing. Stephen sings about relating to new people, not just the ones you already know; Bruce about staying close to those you grew up with; and Mariah about reliability and dependability. All three answers, in any combination, can be considered correct. If only the SAT and GRE exams were like this!

    1. Most of the time lobbying is done on a series of one-way streets. We want you to do this for us. Lobbying, however, can be done on much more of a two-way street. We will do this for you and then you will do this for us. Lobbying on a one-way street will have only one dimension and will not lead to an institutional relationship. The person or group you are lobbying will be more of a target and will resent your lack of reciprocity. Institutional relationships must be built around mutual benefits and will evolve over a period of time.

    2. You have to start somewhere. In any institutional relationship you begin by contacting a person within the institution who sees benefit in knowing you. The first contact needs to keep expanding your contacts within their institution. Never stop after knowing one “inside” person. Make sure you constantly expand your contacts through their help. It's not that important where you start. It is very important where you end up.

    3. Families traditionally do laundry on Mondays. While washing and drying their clothes, they begin to soak and cook the beans. Both the washing and cooking take all day, so it's a perfect partnership. This makes Louisiana the home of the multi-taskers.

    4. It is funny to watch as people who once worked well together are amazed when their partner is no longer their partner. People are shocked because they just worked so perfectly together in the past. Consensus organizers believe that partnerships only continue to exist when all the partners continue to benefit. As issues evolve, there may no longer be the mutual benefit that there once was. The deeper and older the partnership, the more rough waters it can withstand; but if there is no longer mutual benefit, partners start voting with their feet. They walk away. You should see this as a natural process. There is no one to blame for this. Fluidity is a factor in all partnerships.

    5. Remember the analysis we did on both sectors. You should have a strong preference here. The key for you is to analyze why you have your preference. What is it that makes government or business more difficult to work with? It should tell you a lot about yourself.

    1. All you have to do to prove your point is to have an example of young people doing community organizing successfully. Most people are impressed with success. Try to avoid philosophical arguments regarding young people (e.g., they are part of the community too, they deserve a voice, we have refused to listen to them for so long, or no wonder they feel so alienated). Instead, just show some real proof of their value. Show others what they have achieved.

    2. This question is designed to see if you have any knowledge of real inner-city schools. Do not let the media, friends, or families influence your outlook on kids from inner-city schools. Form your own opinions. Go to some schools. Look around. Sit in on some classes. Talk to the administrators, teachers, and students. Contrast your own experience to what others have told you. Then compare what you have seen to Hoover High in San Diego. If you have gone to a school like this yourself, go back and see if anything has changed since you graduated. Has it gotten better or worse?

    3. Jessica's strategy avoided a big trap that many of us fall into. We feel justified in our cause and blame others for their lack of sincerity and concern. While we continue to place justifiable blame, nothing improves. She felt that advocating directly for sex education with an ultra-conservative school board would not be practical. She refused to get stuck in the mud. Instead, she came up with an innovative strategy to help get what her classmates needed. You have to admire her ability to work around the problem while she simultaneously addressed it. You can't get stuck when you find opposition and are unable to “win.” She showed a great deal of sophistication to work around the roadblock while adhering to her goal.

    4. OK, so this might be impossible to answer. I didn't give you a single hint. In the gym, there is one whole wall with pictures of past Hoover athletes. The biggest picture belongs to a baseball player. He went on to become a great hitter for the Boston Red Sox. He interrupted his career twice to defend his country in World War II and Korea. He was nicknamed the “splendid splinter.” His name was Ted Williams. I have a picture of him at Hoover High with his teammates.

    5. Kids have some advantages. They can be creative. They can look at an issue you have been struggling with for a long time and come up with a different angle on a different starting point. They can have an impact. When others see their determination and effort, they can attract additional supporters. They have fun. No matter how serious their cause, they are still kids and kids like to enjoy themselves. They can be honest and blunt. They can push past the waltzing around and pontificating and get to the heart of the matter. Now what reasons did you come up with?

    6. Even though a school might look forlorn, worn out, and totally “ghetto” (their term—used by many high school students), there still can be real pride and caring within the school. A slogan can help unify a school or neighborhood if the people in the school or neighborhood really mean it. The Hoover school students use the phrase “Once a Cardinal, Always a Cardinal” to show their feelings. Some even sign it below their name on their class assignments. Get a slogan that means something to you about your life or career goals. It helps.

    1. If you think about this for a while, it should be easy to do. The people you choose should have a track record of getting others to work together while they themselves don't become the center of attention. I would hope you came up with people who are good at finding common interests and bringing people together rather than dividing them. They should be hardworking and dedicated but also lead a balanced life with a good sense of humor and have other interests outside of their job.

    2. This is an interesting task. Some people think that all lawyers are too adversarial to be consensus organizers. Some pick union activists and antiunion activists. Some choose public officials. My hope is that you have a short list.

    3. You should go over the six tendencies carefully. Sort out the six into three piles. The first pile should contain those tendencies that you found easy to practice and seemed natural and logical. The second pile should contain one or more tendencies that seemed odd to you at first but as you thought about them, they gradually made more sense. The third pile should contain any that were such a struggle for you that you are still fighting against them. Many people have trouble with the concept of authority. Was that true for you?

    4. Many advertising campaigns for youth are ineffective because they portray inappropriate behavior as both dangerous and popular. Young people are so anxious to fit in and gain acceptance among their peers that they fixate only on the “popular” part of the message and don't even notice the “dangerous” part. Their desire to be popular vastly outweighs their desire to avoid danger.

    5. This question is debated. Consensus organizers are optimists at heart regarding the human spirit and realists at heart regarding human behavior. People will not become lazy if there is a spirit of hope and possibility in their everyday lives. If instead, they are surrounded by despair, pessimism, and lack of opportunity they may, after a period of time, behave as if they are lazy. They do this as a protection from failure. Simply put, they start to believe they can't fail if they don't try. Please don't misinterpret this. Your job should be to help find or create new opportunities for achieving success. Most people will then rise to the occasion.

    6. Many have tried but no one can quite explain it. Jerry Lewis is still very popular in France. If you can figure out why, you have unlocked one of life's greatest mysteries. As for the mystery meat in the blue can, spam, we have more amazing facts. The belief is that the vast majority of it is purchased, prepared, and actually eaten by Hawaiians. The most popular theory for this bizarre truth is that the large military presence makes Hawaiians either nostalgic, patriotic, or both. It's even on the menu in some casual restaurants.

    1. Author and social commentator Robert Putnam says that when our society saw huge declines of social capital as people left their livelihoods as southern sharecroppers for factory jobs in the northern cities, we created new organizations to help people connect to their new communities. In other words, in the past when we felt severely disconnected, we devised new ways to reconnect. You may be entering another rebirth of community creation. It will take new forms, but we will be coming up with new ways to stay close to our families and our neighbors.

    2. These four barriers need to come down for you to practice consensus organizing. If all four are still standing, do not despair. They can come down, if you concentrate and want them to topple. If you only have one or two remaining barriers, good. Just start to imagine all the things you can begin to do when they finally tumble. If all the barriers have been removed, great. What are you waiting for?

    3. I hope you came up with some other issues. I'd like to think that the list is almost endless. We are so polarized that we tend to create divisions on every new issue that pops up. See if there is one item on your list that motivates you. Focus on that issue and start to imagine doing something about it.

    4. Rubi and Raquel and others like them should be valuable to you. They should be able to help you reach your goals of creating change. They should be in high demand, like free agents in sports, available to be signed up by your team. We need people like them throughout the entire nonprofit world. They can understand the agendas of the community and their potential employer and be able to help both, simultaneously.

    5. Consensus organizers believe that power can grow without being taken away from someone. This is a radical idea in the community organizing field. Many other organizing approaches say that power is limited and must be redistributed to create a fair and just society. Are you open to the idea that power can grow for an entire group of partners without having anyone's power decreased? What examples did you come up with?

    6. Because this chapter focused on how positive the future can be, I thought we should push the envelope and propose that even those things that seem the most impossible may still have a slight glimmer of hope and a tiny chance of success.

    • Cubs. Holy cow, it is possible. Look at the Boston Red Sox.
    • Ben Affleck. A long shot, I'll admit, but what if he had a really, really small part?
    • Clinical practice course. I did it once. I think all the other professors had complex scheduling problems. I seem to remember I did OK. So, of course I believe it is possible I may be asked to do it again someday. After all, I am experienced.
    • Vanilla Ice. In popular music, for a while, even the “Macarena” was huge. Why not a comeback for Ice, Ice Baby? He was pretty bad the first time. How hard would it be to improve?
    Gerzon, M. (1996). A house divided. New York: Putnam.


    I remember turning on the weather channel and watching the storm's path. I said a prayer. My prayer appeared answered as Hurricane Katrina veered slightly to the east but then unanswered when the levees gave way. The “Big One” had finally come and it came under the crudest circumstances. It came in such a way that mothers, fathers, children, and grandparents went to bed feeling safe, only to awaken with rising water spilling over their mattresses. People gathered their families and ran to their attics and then to their roofs. My beloved city—the one I tried to show you in its wonderful, quirky uniqueness—was entangled in a nightmare. People I had worked alongside of were dead. I started to think of all the other communities I had worked in that were at the mercy of the water. Always, the poorest neighborhoods were the most at risk. It was not a coincidence that the disaster plan contained no provisions for the poor people who did not own a car. Thousands waited for help to come that for many came too late. It showed all of us a great deal about who we really are. We do not treat people equally. We hide behind bureaucracy. We do not take responsibility. We often avoid the golden rule.

    It also spoke to how isolated we are from one another. Some chose to focus on looters and avoided thinking about the help that thousands of law-abiding citizens so desperately needed. We saw problems that somebody else needed to address. Those who did help did so because of a feeling of connectedness, a feeling of “There but for the grace of God go I.” But most, instead, pointed fingers. Much of the food we eat, the coffee we drink, the gasoline we guzzle, and the music we enjoy came from New Orleans. It helped make us who we are. We are all connected to the city of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region even if we have never been there.

    When the city was still dangerous, toxic, and flooded, I remembered a bunch of New Orleans musicians, and how much the city meant to them. I remembered Harry Connick, Jr., going on his own to the convention center in the first hours of the flooding and trying to help. I remember Fats Domino still living in the lower Ninth Ward, the poor neighborhood where he grew up. I fondly remembered Reggie Harley driving me over to his house years earlier. It was a very modest dwelling, nondescript except for the wrought iron on the front porch that spelled out F-A-T-S. That's the house he had to be rescued from after Katrina hit. I remembered the Neville Brothers playing in my neighborhood with T-shirts that declared they were the “uptown rulers.” Despite being international recording stars, they were most proud that they were the best band in their uptown neighborhood! I remember, in particular, Art and Aaron Neville. One time, before the flood, “Mr. Art” was supposed to be on tour in Europe with his brothers, but a few weeks earlier he had seen a burglar stealing a TV from my friend Rhonda's apartment. He missed some of the European tour dates to stay behind and testify at the thief's trial. The judge sent the burglar to the slammer thanks to Mr. Art. Aaron once heard about a pastor in the Tremé neighborhood that had no one show up for his church service. He felt so bad for the pastor that he offered to sing at the church's next Christmas Eve service. I walked over and heard him sing “Ave Maria” by a rickety upright piano in front of a packed house.

    I remembered how all these New Orleans musicians loved their city and gave back to it in countless ways. They were connected to the people. The people of New Orleans were not consumers that they profited from. They were their friends and their families. Harry Connick, Jr., spoke for all his fellow musicians when he said, “It is hard to sit in silence, to watch one's youth wash away. New Orleans is my essence, my soul, my music, and I can only dream that one day she will recapture her glory. I will do everything in my power to make that happen and to help in any way I can to ease the suffering of my city, my people!”

    I started to remember my apartment and hoped it was still there and the current tenant was safe. I remembered the smell of crawfish boiling and people playing accordions down the street. I remembered dancing to a Cajun waltz sung in French by Zachary Richard and hoping it would never end. I remember the boats on the Mississippi and how comforting it was to hear their horns blowing as the fog settled in at 2:00 in the morning. I remembered the little boy walking down the middle of Camp Street every morning playing his trombone on his way to school.

    We need to bring back the sense of community in our great country. We need to treasure the sense of community we are still lucky enough to have. A popular radio talk show host, when asked about helping New Orleans after the disaster said, “Who told those people to live there in the first place?” Shame on all of us who tolerate comments like this.

    Consensus organizing can be a way to build relationships so people can see the value of connectedness. We need to connect more and more people until we spin a web so tight nothing can destroy it. No disasters, natural or manmade, can rip us apart. We need to stop saying, “It's not my responsibility” and start saying, “How can I help?”

    Our “leaders” need to stop hiring political advisers to make them look good. They need to stop hiring spin doctors to make them sound good. Instead, all of us, every one of us, should start actually doing good. We need to do good because our friends need us. Our real and extended families need us. We need one another.

    About the Author

    Mike Eichler is a faculty member of the School of Social Work at San Diego State University and the director of the school's Consensus Organizing Center. He has more than 20 years of experience in community organizing and is the creator of the method of consensus organizing. He has worked with unemployed steelworkers, casino owners, welfare recipients, bankers, corporate executives, and the homeless, bringing them together around common self-interest. He began his organizing career in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he helped a neighborhood battle the illegal practices of racial steering and blockbusting by joining forces with a for-profit real estate firm. When hired by Pittsburgh executives to help address economic problems caused by the closing of the steel mills, he brought the unemployed and the business leaders together to begin revitalization of the region. He was asked by the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) to expand his work throughout the country and organized new grassroots efforts in such diverse cities as West Palm Beach, Florida; New Orleans, Louisiana; Las Vegas, Nevada; and Houston, Texas. He also started his own national nonprofit, the Consensus Organizing Institute, which trains organizers in the consensus organizing method. In 1999, he joined academia, where he said he “would never be heard from again.” He has been recognized for his contributions by receiving the Mon Valley Initiative's coveted John Heinz Award and has been selected by San Diego State students as Professor of the Year in 2001, 2004, and 2005.

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