Rule for Radicals #2: Never go outside the expertise of your people

If you’re a grassroots activist, chances are there are some issues you are particularly passionate about. Maybe you or someone you know is personally affected by occupational licensing. Or perhaps you studied economics in college and care about tax reform.

It’s impossible for an activist to know every detail about every policy issue facing America today. No one has the time, energy or memory to be completely educated about and actively involved in every fight.

That’s ok. Often, the best way for activists and grassroots organizations to be effective is to pick a handful of issues and focus on those.

The problem, as Saul Alinsky points out in his second rule for radicals, is when grassroots campaigns go outside their activists’ expertise. One of the greatest traps for freedom-loving activists can fall into is ending up discussing or debating issues that have nothing to do with their end goal.

When movements go outside the expertise of their people, Alinksy says, it results in confusion, fear and retreat. He says feeling secure adds to the backbone of anyone.

One of our trainers uses a metaphor when talking to activists during his trainings. When you’re talking to people about an issue, he says, imagine yourself on a small island. As long as you stay on that issue, such as education freedom or tax reform, you’re safe. But if you venture off the island, you’re in dangerous territory. There are sharks, big waves and even giant squid.

Activists can wind up off the island for a number of reasons. Sometimes, it’s people who are genuinely curious about your opinions on issues that don’t relate to the one you’re currently discussing. Other times, the opposition might be intentionally trying to knock you off your campaign.

If you’re leading an education freedom campaign in your county talking about how more options in education benefits every student, opponents of education freedom may try to tell people you are anti-teacher or that education freedom is racist. Or they might try to bring up other issues they disagree with you on.

If you and your team get pulled away from your student-centered message or off of the topic of education freedom entirely, it’s going to inevitably result in confusion fear and retreat. As hard as it can be sometimes, staying on “the island” and staying on message is crucial to winning.

If grassroots campaigns want to be successful, they have to be disciplined. Stay on your island. Stay on message, and stick with your activists’ expertise.

Check out our post on the first rule here. If you’re interested in learning more about staying disciplined and making a difference, check out what upcoming GLA trainings are happening near you!

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