I’m not a political organizing expert, and I realize what I’m about to say may not apply to long-established groups in larger cities. But something I’ve noticed about organizing leftists in small southern cities is that too many people are allergic to the concept of leadership. So here are my thoughts, based on five years of organizing work:
- Every project oughta have a leader. Whether you’re organizing a campaign, canvass, rally, or bake sale, someone needs to be in charge of making sure shit gets done. It doesn’t have to be just one person, but in small cities you probably don’t have a ton of active participants. It’s okay to have just one person designated “in charge,” because it’s just one project. This isn’t a dictatorship in which some bold visionary bosses everyone around. It’s just a temporary condition!*
- We’re all leaders in various capacities. I assume every person who shows up to a meeting can take the lead on something at some point. We’re all capable of tackling smaller tasks and no one is above handling the little things. Indeed, every project is comprised of many little things.
- The most impactful projects cannot be accomplished without a team. Every teammate (a.k.a. comrade) takes the lead on something big or small. The leader checks in periodically and makes sure everyone’s doing what they said they’d do, which amounts to a lot of dull yet delicate work. So much messaging and meetings. You’ve gotta respect people’s time because we’re all volunteers, living busy lives complicated by late-stage capitalism. But we’ve still gotta get shit done! So leadership often entails nudging comrades to follow through on their commitments. Most everyone needs a reminder at some point.
- Oftentimes leadership means getting administrative shit done. I’m not passionate about that stuff but somebody’s gotta do it. This is why I’m running to lead my Democratic Socialists of America branch, though I hope it’s a short-lived stint. We’re actually voting right now on whether or not to become our own chapter; should we vote to do that, we’ll elect new officers once our chapter status becomes official. But in the meantime, it’s the season for officer elections and we’re still gonna need leadership during this limbo period. I know I can get us through, because I’ve facilitated meetings, handled mass mailings, and corresponded with other DSA chapters and local community groups. But my best qualification is that I can make time to execute these tasks reliably. I realize some people put themselves in this position to grab power, but all I want is to make sure foundational shit keeps getting done.
- Something I’ve learned in the past 1.5 years of leading our Medicare for All crew is that if you have some grand organizing idea — like, “Let’s canvass working class neighborhoods and talk to people about universal healthcare,”— then chances are that project will only take shape under your leadership. I showed up to my first few DSA meetings saying, “We should canvass for Medicare for All.” Several people nodded and nothing happened. When I finally came to a meeting and said, “I’m gonna start a Medicare for All working group, who’s in?” stuff started happening immediately.
- Another thing I’ve noticed after overseeing several projects from start to finish (with all the messaging, meetings, posting, flyering, phone banks, and trips to the store) is that I find it bizarre when someone shows up to a meeting with big ideas they expect others to enact. Ideas are NOTHING without the labor required to see them through. What makes you think someone else has the time and energy to bring your vision to fruition? But then I remember when I used to show up and say, “We should _____,” and nothing happened. Perhaps that initial failure is part of the process. Most of us learn by doing. If you have a smart idea, consider taking the lead on it. Others will follow if they think it’s smart, too. But just understand you’ll probably be doing the bulk of the work at first.
- At the same time, don’t martyr yourself. If you’re doing too much of the work, then you don’t really have a team. You just have you, and you alone are not that impactful. You’ll burn out eventually. And then your impact will be zero.
Again, I’m not claiming to be some organizing mastermind. There are other key leadership qualities that matter a lot, like vision, interpersonal skills, or having a well-rounded historical perspective (an area in which I’m lacking). I’m okay with my shortcomings because I trust I’ll learn and grow with time, but ultimately I want my organization to expand beyond my ability to lead it. When that happens, I know I’ll still have a place because there’s always a need for people who get shit done. We’re like gardeners, tending the soil to create an environment in which our projects blossom and thrive.
*My sociologist spouse tells me this assertion means I am a vanguardist, to which I say, “Sure, that sounds accurate!” I have a lot to learn about history and theory — something I discuss later in the essay — so I’ll refrain from using such labels for now. My apologies to any passionate theory nerd whose head is now exploding.