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Activists Use Love and Empathy to Create New Alliances and Possibilities with the 'Enemy'

A new generation of community organizers is thinking differently about their opposition.


Saul Alinsky is called the father of modern community organizing. His 1971  Rules for Radicals  is like a political version of  The Art of War  merged with street fighting tips from a boxing coach—the tone is gruff, aggressive, and blunt. For Alinsky, the ends justify pretty much any means. But a new crop of activists is forging a different path—and turning organizing orthodoxy on its head.

In the traditional Alinsky approach, opponents are “enemies” and strategy involves concepts like “pressure” and “attack.” Alinsky’s final rule is “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.” Don’t just target institutions, he says—go after iwhat ndividuals and make it personal and painful. This is the advice that helped shape modern political organizing—not always the most effective approach for alliance building and mass public appeal.

The new generation of community organizers is adapting the antagonistic politics of the past and building bridges instead of burning them—not necessarily abandoning old-school, Alinsky-style organizing altogether, but reimagining orthodoxies of organizing to create new alliances, innovations, and possibilities.

Tap employer love

Ai-jen Poo is the founder and director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, a membership organization of housekeepers, nannies, and home health assistants, most of whom are undocumented immigrant women. These are the workers who are at the furthest margins of our economy. In 1938, they were explicitly excluded from initial labor standards as a concession to segregationists in Congress, and these workers, who do the work that makes all other work possible, are to this day excluded from basic wage and safety protections. But the central theme of Poo’s politics? Not revenge. Not protest. Not polarization. It’s love.

“The way we try to think about it and the way the world is, we’re all interdependent and interconnected,” says Poo of her organizational philosophy. “Those connections are fairly invisible to most people most of the time. We’re taught not to see those connections. ruWhat organizing with love does is organizes ways for people to see their interconnections and harnesses that connection as a source for change.”

It’s not that Poo’s “political love” is conflict or tension free, a saccharine “Kumbaya” holdover from the ’60s. “Conflict and tension are as much a part of the human condition as interdependence is,” Poo says. “There are times we have to have conflict, and tension has to exist to bring something else into being. But they have to coexist with a deep sense of connection and shared destiny.”

While the natural “enemy” of domestic workers might be their employers in a traditional Alinsky-style power analysis, through Poo’s prism, most employers mean well and love their home aides and nannies—and want to do well by them—but maybe don’t know how or face hurdles to doing so because of existing policy. So instead of fighting employers, Poo organized them—inspiring the launch of Hand in Hand, an association for employers of domestic workers.

Make allies of opponents

Saru Jayaraman has used this model in her work. As co-founder and director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC United), Jayaraman organizes low-wage workers in the restaurant industry—the servers and dishwashers and bussers who often make as little as $2.13 an hour and get no benefits or sick days. In Jayaraman’s work, calling restaurant owners “villains” isn’t just a figure of speech—ROC United has organized campaigns against specific restaurant owners for wage theft and other employment violations.

And yet after a very brutal public campaign that recouped $1.15 million in overdue wages for workers at one of celebrity chef Mario Batali’s top restaurants, Jayaraman extended her hand. She welcomed Batali into a group of “high-road” restaurant owners that ROC United convenes. This might seem like a variation on another Alinsky mantra, “no permanent friends, no permanent enemies,” but it goes beyond a superficial tactic to a philosophical mindset. Jayaraman isn’t just moving targets like chess pieces. She isn’t burning opponents to the point where relationships are permanently charred. She’s building long-term alliances with partners that have recently been her opposition.

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