February 24, 2008

Organizing 101: Lessons From a Search for a Stolen Dog

bloglines del.icio.us Digg facebook Google Ma.Gnolia Newsvine Technorati socializer StumbleUpon Yahoo

[My friend Bryan gave me permission to spread this and I think it should get around as broadly as possible.]

Team Bean
How the Search for My Stolen Pit Bull Reminded Me About How to Organize

Someone stole my puppy last week. Took my little girl Bean right out of my car in broad daylight on a busy street. There’s much to be written about the subculture of dognappers and why someone might want to steal a pit bull, but the Michael Vick fiasco has kind of overwhelmed the public consciousness on this topic. It’s worth exploring, particularly from an anti-racist and class- and gender-conscious perspective, but that’s not what I’m going to be doing here.

This writing is about how a group of people can come together, mobilize around something, and win. You know, win, that’s not something we do a whole lot these days. We didn’t stop and can’t end the war; we’re losing New Orleans; it seems like there’s more destruction coming down on humanity and the environment every single day. But sometimes we win. And when we win, it’s important to think about what it is that we did, and how we might translate these lessons into future victories.

In one short week, we were able to mobilize basically an entire town to look for a lost dog. Dozens of people contributed hundreds of dollars, hours and hours of active searches, and got as creatively bold as they could possibly get. The following is a list of 10 points that I was able to glean from the efforts during my week of chaos.

1) Build and maintain relationships all the time, every single day. The first wave of folks who responded were my family; the people with whom I have spent long hours, countless meals, emergency trips, late night craziness, and special moments. They got the call, and the responded immediately. If I didn’t have this network, the effort would have never gotten off the ground. These kinds of relationships take work, and it sometimes makes my life pretty hectic and exhausting. But when the chips are down, these folks are going to have my back. We’ve got to keep meeting new people, and we’ve got to invest the time to understand who they are and what moves them.

2) Appeal to people’s basic interests. Almost everybody has a dog, or has had one at some point. Everyone can imagine if a member of their family was stolen out of their car in the middle of the day. There was a visceral response when people heard the story, and folks sent letters, made calls, and spoke prayers from all over the country. Others came from miles away to help us look. It wasn’t abstract, it wasn’t a hard thing to connect: people just got it. Your dog is lost—boom—I’m moving. We need to think about what we try to organize around and think more creatively about who people are and what will move them.

3) Meet people’s basic needs. The Black Panther Party had it right. If folks are hungry, they are going to fight better if they’ve had food. If kids have shoes, they will be healthier and better able to learn and grow up healthy. We offered a $1000 reward, and lots of people responded because they needed $1000. Obviously, we can’t offer money to people to get them to come to a demonstration or a meeting. But, we can attempt to meet people’s needs better, and I can guarantee we’ll have more folks on our team. And once we get folks in the door, then we can help connect the need to the politics and the action.

4) Don’t discount anyone. I just got off the phone with an 86-year-old woman who is scared of dogs, but told me that she would’ve tried to get Bean into her house if she had seen her. The dude hustling on the corner, the “soccer mom,” the kids playing ball, the guy that you “don’t think speaks English,” the church ladies…all of them responded. We often get snobbish when we’re thinking about who to talk to. I’m guilty of it myself—“oh, they won’t care.” But when you step out and passionately present your situation, folks of all shapes and sizes respond in the most amazing ways. We need to challenge, and get over, our expectations about who is going to respond to what, and give everyone a chance to be part of things.

5) Everyone should do what they are good at. Not everyone can knock on somebody’s door and succinctly rap about what’s going on. But the same folks who can’t do that will make a mean flier in no time. Others will cook. Some will operate the information center. The blog needs tending. The phone calls need to be made. The money needs to be raised. The people who are hurting need someone to sit with them and generate some laughs. Everybody has a part to play. We don’t all need to be everything. Value everyone’s skills, and help them figure out how to be most creatively effective.

6) Use all the technology available to you. We had fliers on posts, a blog running, listservs, a Craig’s List posting, and a Face Book page up and running within about 12 hours of Bean’s disappearance. Word spread so quickly we couldn’t keep up. Our cells phones were blowing up. We got in the newspaper, the TV news, and the radio stations. Someone even suggested an ad on the side of a bus. If things would have gone much longer, we might have done a targeted mailing. We drove, we biked, we walked. We used all the tools at our disposal.

7) But…walk and talk. Ultimately, however, it was the fact that we put a flier on the door of every single house in about 4 neighborhoods that really got us somewhere. After about a day, we couldn’t talk to a single person in any of these neighborhoods that wasn’t on the lookout because of a flier or a conversation with us. We boldly approached everyone, and connected with people on a human level. We put our feet on the ground, and our faces in front of people, and that made such a difference. Bean was on everyone’s mind. Ultimately, it was a flier left on a car windshield at Wal Mart that helped bring our girl home.

8) Take care of yourself. I don’t think that I’ve ever been this tired. I’m normally pretty “invincible,” sleeping little and energetically going from here to there all day long. But this one wore me out. I was going to work, leaving early, looking for my dog, holding down my partner emotionally, not sleeping, and grieving, almost around the clock. But I let folks step in and bring me food. I took a nap in the afternoon when I couldn’t bear the thought of another unsuccessful search. I called my family to make me laugh and tell me that things would be cool. I let my people take care of me, and there’s no way I could have made it through the week without them. We all have to do this. Go hard, but know when you’re coming up on limits.

9) Pick something that we can win. Like I said before, it’s pretty rare for us to win these days. We get beat all the time, and we internalize a lot of it. It’s hard to keep going when you never see positive results. A friend of mine told me the other day that she “needed for us to find Bean,” so that she could tuck this one away and pull it out when things get hard later on. People sensed that we could get Bean back—we could actually do it—and then worked that much harder. We need to keep thinking about the big wars, but get ourselves some small battles along the way. It keeps us fresh and hungry for more.

10) The power of positive thinking. I have to admit it. I’m usually the first person to groan when people start getting spiritual about their organizing. I respect it, and I believe in where it comes from, but I have such a hard time connecting to a lot of it. Singing and dancing and quiet moments for reflecting, I’m with it; praying and sending out “positive energy” and talking to spirits that aren’t around you—man, it gives me a hard time. Maybe that stuff helped bring Bean back; maybe it didn’t. But it couldn’t have hurt, right? I even found myself talking to the ghosts of my Catholic past, Saints Christopher, Anne, Anthony, and Francis, just to see if they could help. We had so many people praying and dreaming and chanting and meditating…it really helped to keep us afloat. When I didn’t believe we’d find her, I stopped moving as quickly. When I had hope and knew that she was coming home, I could go all day. We all need something good to hold on to.

So, apparently, the sun also rises. It’s nice to spend a little time dissecting a win, and I share this to try to encourage us to get down to the core of why we do what we do. We’re not just doing this because it’s the right thing to do. We’re doing it because we know that this thing has to change and that we have to win if humans are going to survive on this planet. Let’s keep it moving y’all.

Thanks so much for all who contributed to Team Bean in any way; for bringing my dog home, and for helping me to remember the power of active people and organization.

Bryan Proffitt is a Hip-Hop generation white man who teaches U.S. History at Hillside High School in Durham, and belongs to a handful of community-based, and national, organizations committed to a just and healthy world. He can be reached at bproffitt33(at)yahoo.com. He just got up from a day-long nap with his puppy dog.

No comments: