At once, Becky Bond and Zack Exley’s book, Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything is both manifesto and history. It mines the revolutionary approach to campaigning they pioneered for Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2015 and early 2016 to build a template for organizing and campaigning in the future. They invite people to recognize how different the landscape has changed in the last 50 years and what could happen for us if we adapt to match.
Written as a set of rules, the book is a blueprint. While the regular references to the Bernie Sanders campaign might unnerve those with a different political persuasion, the stories themselves shouldn’t. To close one’s eyes to how the authors understood the moment closes one to understanding what opportunities look like. In other words, don’t kill the messenger because their message is far bigger and more relevant than that.
Which is essentially the point.
The rules themselves are all wise and I’ll give them attention shortly. But more important is the main thrust of why they wrote these rules and why they quit their jobs to work for a candidate with little support and name recognition. And parallel to that, why I would be writing this review.
The reason is simple. There are big needs in the world. Hunger, the ecological crisis, war, famine. And these big needs can’t all be solved by a rigid adherence to movements built only on small actions.
Our obsession with trying to fix big problems with only small actions is killing us. Personal or incremental changes are far from enough because these only account for a part of our problem. The rest is systemic. And focusing on the small actually makes it worse for us.
[Notice how much this shifting responsibility sounds like the doctrine of original sin? A doctrine often cited to blame humanity individually rather than encourage our better humanity.]
What is “Big Organizing”?
And how is it different from what we know of organizing?
Most of what we call organizing comes from the mid-20th Century, canonized by Saul Alinsky in his landmark Rules for Radicals. It is certainly the bible of organizing.
Alinsky’s approach is decidedly local, incremental, and personal. An approach built through personal conversations, face-to-face meetings, and dealing with local issues. It also shies away from dealing with the big problems. In part because they may be more divisive. But perhaps more importantly, the big issues don’t fit into the mindset.
If all politics is local, then we can’t deal with the politics which are decidedly not local. So what does that do with the “all” in the first statement? How do we square it? Do we rewrite our experience to make small change heroic or write off big politics as not real?
Big Organizing is about dealing with the big issues. It doesn’t replace or make small (traditional) organizing less important. Instead, it adapts traditional organizing to scale up and meet the bigger needs. It is a means of adapting good doctrine to fit more contexts. And more importantly, take advantage of a profound opportunity.
Big organizing is simply organizing. It also is organizing that wants to suit the needs of any sized campaign.
A strict adherence to traditional organizing, like any institution, even the church, is like leaving sure money on the table. And big organizing is fundamentally similar to the Jesus message, not just calling us to deal with the big problems in the world, but to usher in the kin-dom of God.
Why? Because the big ask is what draws people to it.
When I heard an interview with the coauthor, Zack Exley, I was profoundly moved by the potential in his vision for organizing and campaigning. Of course, in part, because I’m a nerd and this stuff interests me. But it wasn’t the small particulars of it or any affection for his politics that did it (why is that always the first place we always go?). It was the message of addressing the big problems with big solutions worthy of the effort.
What he was saying about people and behavior I had seen myself. And what he hoped to do by gathering people together sounded like my own values.
And these rules are a similar magic to my ears. Because they are common sense but deeply unconventional in this environment.
They are true and fit well into any kind of organizing we do. Not just for political purposes, but in how we structure and organize nonprofits and ministries. Particularly those of us with a bottom-up view of leadership.
The Rules challenge our expectations.
Like encouraging us to invite people to a bigger dream than they thought possible and building time and expectations to match. Not only because our needs are bigger than we act like they are, but because we are far more compelled to act toward dealing with that big need.
It needs to be bottom up because there isn’t anything coming from the top to fund or lead us out of our problems.
We give away authority and access, trusting the vetted and proven volunteers not only have the chops to handle the situation, but will excel at it because of the whole distributed nature of the structure. Responsible and vetted people given authority will exercise that authority.
And the team itself will likely be made up of unlikely people. Because its method and their purpose line up perfectly. For instance, despite the media coverage, Bernie’s biggest backers were nurses, women, and persons of color. These were the super volunteers who propelled the movement more than the supporters we saw online or argued with on Facebook.
The Rules challenge our teaching.
Much of what helps organizing scale is that initial teachings are sound. What restricts growth is that we often mistake the teaching’s underlying premise, making dogmatic that a sign-in sheet is more essential than an opt-in sheet of the most committed members signing up to volunteer for specific things. The fundamental purpose remains, but the vehicle for making it happen gets tweaked and improved.
They push us to see that there really is no single-issue movement any more than any of us live a single-issue life. Our needs are intersectional and our lives are intersectional, and so our methods for dealing with those needs must be intersectional. So we must care about issues which aren’t our own.
And we don’t have to have everything figured out. We deal with the problems as they arise and make them the opportunities for growth that they are.
The Rules challenge our focus and goals.
Without a single-issue mindset or top-down authority, we need to restructure how we interact. And this was the truly powerful part for me. Because more authority is given to the grassroots, we often develop communication conflicts or opportunities for rogue behavior. And because this challenges people’s expectations, we can expect a counterrevolution from those most upset by this.
The response we give to these challenges is to be prepared. Not with a specific solution, but to prepare ourselves for this new landscape with its realigning of authority and relationship.
I vividly remember one church fight in which two people who couldn’t stand each other on the very issue we were all fighting about unexpectedly teamed up when our solution was different from what either one had expected. They became allies in the face of this other change.
Being prepared for these challenges isn’t about having the words to say or knowing all the ramifications of every decision planned out. It’s about focus and engagement in what is going to work and providing people the tools they need to make it work. It is investing in the people and the tools designed to help the people succeed.
For those not yet sold…
because you’re deeply committed to another view of organizing or are struggling to see how organizing connects with your organization, then this is not the right time to read this book. You’ll be distracted by the concrete examples and the very idea that some of these rules are even good. Or maybe you’ll struggle to see how it relates to leading a seemingly static structure and it’ll turn you off.
If this is you, then don’t read it. Stick this in your bookmarks folder and leave it for a few years from now when this is the model used in the 2020 election and you’ll be thinking, I thought I heard some of this before…
But if you are one who is part of any kind of organization which leads from the grassroots or are wanting to see how things have changed so rapidly in just the last 13 years, then this is an essential read for you.
Or maybe you’re looking for ways technology is changing the rules of communication or how it is upending the expectations for financial viability of any movement. That’s a big part of this book.
Or if you’re like me and you see yourself as part of a movement, whether it be the Jesus Movement, the Environmental Movement, or any of the movements for equal rights, in which the very foundation of your worldview is helping creation flourish, then you already get these connections. So you’re looking to see how things will be done tomorrow. Or maybe practical advice for getting people engaged. This book is for you.
Bond and Exley establish a blueprint that will get used.
In the 2018 midterms and in local communities. It’s methodologies we can see at work in distributed and grassroots organizing already, but usually not fully embraced. It’s teaching will challenge our biggest organizations to respond with similar methodologies and values which will surprise many.
But most of all, it is a set of rules which better align our values and practices, our authority and relationships. For leaders, this is a great opportunity to engage in the revolutionary leadership models we’ve long been dipping our toes into but never having the support to fully pull off.
Or maybe this is you. And has been you. Be glad we’re finally catching up.
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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.