Organizing for Education With a Stronger Defense and a Creative Offense

By Michael Gecan
Wherever I go in public education circles, I hear a great deal of anxiety and concern about the pressures that educators are facing. Yet, as real as these pressures are and as overwhelming as they can seem, they can be faced—and reduced or reversed—by well-organized people who know how to play a better brand of defense in the public arena, but who also develop a creative and productive offense.

As the co-director of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), I have witnessed how this type of organizing can work. In New York City, due to the relentless work of our organizations in East Brooklyn and the South Bronx, along with many other groups, city agencies, and other partners, 200,000 new units of housing, mostly affordable, have been built. In Maryland, where IAF organizations mounted a successful campaign to reverse neglect and disrespect, the legislature recently passed a $1 billion bond issue to improve existing schools and build new ones. And, in Rockford, Illinois, a city that time forgot, the local NEA-affiliate has taken an active role in investing $200 million into the physical improvement of schools there. In every Rockford school, teachers and education support professionals are meeting, consulting architects, and ensuring that money raised to improve their facilities is wisely spent.

None of these advances was easy. None was accomplished quickly. None would have worked if there hadn’t been years of in-depth organizing—finding and training leaders, assessing and collecting dues, testing issues and themes that were owned by local leaders and members—that preceded the tackling of larger issues. All involved building relationships with other institutions and power figures across the ideological spectrum.

Inviting Ourselves to the Party
Each effort involved what the IAF calls “inviting ourselves to the party.” The last people the establishment, the elite, wanted or expected at their party was ‘us’: teachers and coaches from Rockford, ministers and community workers from Baltimore. It takes chutzpah to invite yourself to someone else’s party. It takes irreverence, not only to the insiders, but most importantly, toward a range of familiar responses. It means rejecting:

• Doing what you used to do—simply repeating the same activities, patterns, even slogans that once had meaning and impact, but now have lost both.
• Denial. “This too shall pass.”
• Wishful Thinking.
• Isolation (based on the illusion of exceptionalism). By now, it is obvious that merit matters a lot less than power.
• Gimmicks. Social media is just the latest example. It’s the technological version of the prince who will ride to the rescue.
• Blaming Others.
• Playing the Victim.

Four Core Habits of Power Organizing
The time spent on these responses is time not spent on the four core habits of power organizing that I describe in my book, Going Public: An Organizer’s Guide to Citizen Action, and that are practiced by effective leaders: (1) the habit of relating, (2) the habit of organization, (3) the habit of action, and (4) the habit of reflection.

The Habit of Relating: The Individual Meeting.
When the IAF began describing the individual meeting as organizing’s most important and most radical tool, more than 30 years ago, we were very much in the minority. Today, almost every organizing institution promotes the individual meeting. And yet, for all this talk and attention, the individual meeting remains one of the least used tools to this day.

The Habit of Organization.
The question that has to be asked is this: are we willing to reduce the amount of time and resources dedicated to service and mobilizing and increase the amount committed to longer-term organizing based on public relationships?

The advantage that those involved in education have is that they often work in a dense web of potential relationships: with other staff, with students, with parents, with business communities. Unfortunately, these relationships are often either very thin or rigidly hierarchical. Some teachers may overlook the fact that bus drivers and kitchen workers may be much more connected to their local communities, and, therefore, better connected and more powerful in the public arena. The kind of solidarity and power needed to defend public education and to improve it in the next decade depends on the resolution of the status issues. We need to change ourselves and hold one another accountable before we earn the right to hold others accountable.

The Habit of Action.
By action, I don’t just mean mobilizations around election or legislative budget cycles. I mean the kind of action that emerges out of local issues and is led by local leaders. The lack of local action means there can be no new leadership development, no new facets to the public relationships among different factions in an institution, and no real fun or joy in this important public work.

The Habit of Reflection (and Evaluation).
It may be a strange thing to say about professional educators, but I have observed very little reflection about the way public issues are addressed, public relationships are built, and public actions are designed and implemented.

Fitness for Change
My colleague Tom Mosgaller refers to people who maintain a regimen of relating and organizing, acting and reflecting, as “becoming fit.” In the unlikeliest of places, we see this fitness developing. Fifteen months ago, on a lovely weekend in Madison, Tom and I conducted a training session for 60 leaders of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, as well as community and religious leaders. At the time, they were in the middle of a desperate struggle with their governor, which ended in defeat, as everyone knows.

Since then, 1,300 people have attended similar sessions in local settings across Wisconsin. Those individuals range from very progressive to staunchly conservative, as well as those who could care less about partisanship. They are not debating, or refighting, the recent battles. They are building new relationships, leaving their normal comfort zones, and asking themselves what kind of state do we want and what kind of public life do we seek to create. They are reflecting on their own habits and instincts and hearing about the interests and visions of people with very differing views.

It is too soon to tell how all this will develop. But, as someone with 38 years of organizing behind me, I can see all the signs of a new and innovative power center emerging: non-partisan, pragmatic, open to all reasonable people across the political spectrum, focused on solutions, acting responsibly and creatively. If the good people of Wisconsin can patiently and systematically improve their fitness day by day and week to week, then educators anywhere can.

This aricle is an excerpt of a longer article to be published in Fall 2013 in NEA’s Thought & Action journal of higher education. Visit the journal at