Eric Mann is the director of the Labour/Community Strategy Centre and co-founder of the Bus Riders Union, both based in Los Angeles. Mann has spent more than four decades as a civil rights, antiwar, labour and environmental organizer and has worked for many organizations including the Congress of Racial Equality, Students for a Democratic Society and the United Auto Workers.
Mann’s new book, Playbook for Progressives, shares reflections from his many years as an organizer, and focuses on what he calls transformative organizing. “Transformative organizing works to transform the system, transform the consciousness of the people being organized, and, in the process, transform the consciousness of the organizer.” Mann’s book is divided into two parts: the job description of the successful organizer and the 16 qualities of the successful organizer.
A strength of the book is its focus on specific stories and events, drawing from Mann’s long and successful organizing history. These stories provide insights into movement history and also highlight Mann’s key points.
Although Mann quite rightly draws from his own experience and organizations, he doesn’t discuss other organizing methods, and may leave new activists with the impression that there aren’t any other ways of organizing. Mann ignores forms of organizing such as affinity group/spokescouncil models and collectives. Instead, he focuses on organizations with levels of hierarchy such as executive committees, paid employees and boards (there are many more activist organizations set up this way in the US than in Canada, due to different rules for non-profit status and the availability in the US of foundation funding — what some have called the “non-profit-industrial complex”). He also doesn’t discuss issues such as: who makes decisions? how do we share power? how do we ensure that those with power in organizations are accountable?
The book promotes a narrow vision of organizing. It encourages new activists to join an existing organization, become an activist, then organizer, and then eventually work up the chain to become part of the cadre. As such, the book seems to promote a hierarchical view of organizing where cadre, “the most gifted, professional organizers,” form the backbone of an organization. The book seems to have limited applicability for people who wish to start their own organization, or are part of newer movements that choose to organize in different ways.
The book has strengths in terms of its focus on anti-oppression and one-to-one organizing and the importance of going out into our workplaces and communities to talk to one another. Mann discusses a number of examples from his organizing history such as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and the Congress of Racial Equality.
The book has a strong focus on the qualities and responsibilities of organizers, but very little information is provided in terms of concrete skills. Sticky issues, such as how to deal with conflict in groups, are not covered at all. For example, Mann identifies “strategist” as a key organizer role, and relates important movement history regarding strategy, but doesn’t leave the reader with much guidance on planning a successful strategy.
Mann focuses on the need for a clear ideology, but nowhere in the book is he explicit about his own ideology. Coming from an anti-authoritarian perspective, I find a lot of the terminology and missing elements problematic.
The book uses loaded and perhaps dated terms to describe the job description of a successful organizer such as evangelist, foot soldier, and cadre. Mann promotes a superhero view of the organizer, and is insistent that an organizer needs to be good, if not excellent, at all 12 of an organizer’s roles, rather than suggesting that these roles can shared amongst people in a group. Although many of the roles and qualities identified are useful in my view every organizer has strengths and groups work best when people can do the work they are good at and love, and work from their strengths.
Another example of the focus on movement building from above comes in the chapter on the role of “political educator.” Mann notes that “the political educator presents a coherent ideological frame that gives confidence and sense of orientation to the people she is organizing.” Mann focuses on the traditional view of educator as expert, and does not discuss other currents in political education such as popular education that seeks to help oppressed people to build on the knowledge they already have.
In the context of the Occupy movement, where many people are joining a social movement for the first time, the book falls short in terms of advice about how to deal with key issues such as conflict and oppression within groups, structuring new organizations, pacing and maintaining momentum, and coalition and movement building. Nor does the book discuss other issues such as dealing with state oppression and violence and infiltration.
Mann’s book is an interesting memoir of organizing stories and highlights, but falls short as a concrete tool for organizers.
Maryann Abbs is a Vancouver-based community organizer, educator, and herbalist, and is influenced by anti-authoritarian and anti-oppression movements.