by Esther Meroño Baro
Community organizer, multimedia artist, grounded futurist.
In her book, Emergent Strategy, adrienne maree brown challenges us to “see our own lives and work and relationships as a front line, a first place we can practice justice, liberation, and alignment with each other and the Planet.”
There’s a lot of wisdom to unpack and reflect on in that quote. What comes up for you?
I think about how connected I feel to the problems I’m choosing to invest time and energy into solving and the dreams I’m moving towards – and who I’m in relationship with. How am I embodying the values I preach in the community organizing I do? How am I inviting my people to learn with me? Heal with me? Imagine with me? To walk and build with me? Who are my people?
Since 2014, I’ve been paid to work as an organizer for social justice, mostly on national campaigns and mostly in roles where I’m designing and drafting communication materials to invite and ask strangers to do something, share something, show up to something. But before all the training and practice I got on how to ghost write in someone else’s voice and craft a compelling message that will reach lots of people and move them into action – I was a bored teenager living in a small town in Southern Utah.
I enjoyed spending time with people across a variety of social cliques, and absolutely loved to plan gatherings where I brought them all together. They didn’t always vibe, but I learned that if I organized activities where we moved our bodies together, where everyone had a chance to contribute, or that allowed for multiple activities to happen in the same space, most people would have a good time. But getting them all there – that required a separate conversation with each person, where I expressed all the reasons why they would enjoy themselves, regardless of not knowing everyone – which causes a lot of social anxiety for some folks. Some friends needed to talk through all their insecurities with me. Some friends needed to participate in the planning. Some friends just needed a ride.
I wasn’t conscious of this then, but organizing these group play dates required a desire to bring people together, and trust in myself and my friends that we could have a good time despite of, and maybe even because of, our differences. Creating an inclusive space for that to happen, and getting people to show up, required truly seeing my friends in their uniqueness and their interconnectedness. It wasn’t always easy, and it took a lot of energy (I had a desperate friend ask me to secretly organize my own surprise birthday party ‘cause they weren’t sure how to get everyone there!). And there was almost always some sort of drama unfolding – we were human after all – but it never stopped me from gathering folks. I’m trying real hard lately to connect with that courageous, resilient, collective joy-seeking, 16-year-old version of me.
Now, when I do my own trainings on how to reach people and move them into action, I invite community organizers to consider their own stake in the campaign, their own desire to connect with others, and I ask: “Who are your people?” Each of us has a unique lived experience, and a whole community of people we’re connected to who have shaped that experience, whether they’re family (biological, adopted, chosen), friends, lovers, colleagues, mentors, neighbors. And if we pay attention to them, we know if, when, and how to invite them into an experience we want to share – into the world we want to build with them.
What’s the point of putting time and energy into getting free if we leave our people behind, anyway?
So, as you think about who your people are that you’re inviting into these conversations, consider the folks you enjoy spending time with, who you’re curious to get to know better, who you want to heal and move and build with. You’re spending a lot of time designing this experience – choose people you want to talk to, and who believe in what you’re doing!
And when you reach out to invite them – slow down and get creative. You’re not an NGO with a massive email list. You’re not a political party. You’re not trying to go viral on Twitter. Skip the mass text message, ground yourself in the core purpose and values of the experience, and consider how to make that purpose clear and compelling for each person you’re inviting so they can show up knowing and feeling that they’re wanted and they belong in the space. Planting seeds for the environment you want to nurture in the way you invite folks at the very beginning will sprout healthy roots that can deepen and expand and weather the inevitable storms of conflict that will blow through if you’re together long enough.
If you’re a super nerd, or if you’re planning to eventually scale your organizing and work in collaboration with other folks engaging their own people, check out this audience persona worksheet I drafted from some prompts in this awesome organizing toolkit that you can copy and edit to help you reflect on where your people are and how to meet them there.
Want to learn more about organizing strategies and inviting people into collective action? Check out these additional study materials!