Organizing is Distinct from Advocacy

Curtis Mayfield – Power to the People

Evaluating Community Organizing

Catherine Crystal Foster and Justin Louie
Blueprint Research & Design, Inc. March 2010

Organizing and advocacy differ, however, at a core level. Community organizing is emphatically bottom-up. It is the community members who select the issues, proffer the solutions, and drive strategy and execution. Most advocacy is fundamentally top-down, even if the work is authentically undertaken on behalf of community members. Advocates speak for others, while organizers inspire community leaders—everyday people—to speak for themselves. Tellingly, the
so-called Iron Rule of organizing is, “Never do for people what they can do for themselves.”
Organizers and leaders also believe that community members can be experts, and that expertise is not the sole domain of policy professionals. A low-income mother with little formal education can be an expert on local educational needs just like a senior think tank fellow, through her own experience or by conducting community led action research in her neighborhood school.
The leader-focused lens also points to another difference from advocacy. In organizing, leadership development is a central concern and a key outcome in addition to policy change objectives. This has major implications for priorities and goals. It makes capacity development look different in organizing than in advocacy, since the capacities to attract and develop leaders are a top priority in organizing.
Finally, certain logistical aspects of organizing differ from advocacy in a significant way. Organizers operate in a predominantly oral culture, in contrast to the more archived, written culture of advocacy. Organizing often places a premium on process and ritual, particularly as it concerns base-building and direct actions. In addition, organizing takes place in a more diffuse setting: in homes, churches, schools, or community venues, rather than in a central office or the corridors of the state house.

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