Sanford Horwitt, author of Let Them Call Me Rebel: Saul Alinsky – His Life and Legacy, tells a story about Alinsky that is significant to understanding why organizing is so important. You can imagine the scene. Alinsky was talking with a group of new activists, smoking a cigarette, as he usually was, and standing in a room with a group of glassy-eyed would-be organizers, eager to learn from the man who created the institution.
Saul Alinsky turns to one of the people sitting nearby and asks him, “Why do you want to organize?”
Surprised, the young man thinks for a bit and answers, “I want to help create more affordable housing.”
“Hmm,” Alinsky grunts. “How about you? Why do you want to organize?”
The young lady says she wants to organize to stop gender bias in the workplace.
“And you,” Alinsky says, pointing at a man in the back. “Why do you want to organize?”
“I want to create a living wage, so we can end poverty,” he answers with confidence.
“WRONG!” Alinsky shouts, startling the group.
“You want to organize for power!”
Alinsky understood that none of the things those idealistic youth wanted to do could happen unless they had power – the power to motivate the people in power to move in the direction needed to create the desired change.
Often, when I’m training with the Grassroots Leadership Academy, I’ll ask a class why they want to organize. I’ll get answers like “to make America freer” or “to fight for school choice” or something similar. While I won’t yell at the class, I will follow Alinsky’s lead and explain the real goal in organizing – power.
Power, by itself, is amoral, neither good nor evil. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political and economic change.”
If you walk into a meeting, whether at city hall, the state capitol or the White House, and you stand alone, you have next to no power. However, if you walk into the same meeting and have a legion of people standing with you, you have power.
What do you want to do? Do you want to lower a property tax?
You need power.
Do you want to abolish licensing requirements?
You need power.
Do you want to limit government?
You need a lot of power.
In “A New Weave of Power,” authors Lisa VeneKlasen and Valeries Miller explain the four different forms of power to consider. “Power over” someone is often the most thought of when referring to power. An organization can have “power over” an elected official, but this isn’t the most ideal form of power. This is a win-lose relationship. Instead, strive to create “power with” relationships. Work with officials to create the change you desire. You can also have “power with” other organizations, combining your strength and multiplying your influence.
You also have the “power to.” The “power to” go to an official’s office, the “power to” choose how to respond to events and the “power to” ultimately make a difference.
Finally, you have the “power within.” Each of us holds the power to influence those we meet through sharing our passions and our individual stories. We have the “power within” to keep moving forward after a setback or disappointment and the “power within” to be humble in victory.
Remember, power is neither good nor bad. It’s how it is used. Can you argue that power is evil if it’s used to free a nation of slaves? Of course not. Can you argue that power is good if it’s ued to force a nation into servitude? That’s equally absurd.
Actions are good or evil. Power is “the ability to achieve purpose.”
Embrace this paradigm. Seeking power will only improve your designated outcomes.