Activism Inc. - How Canvassing is Sucking the Spirit out of Thousands of Young Progressives

Yesterday I read Activism Inc. I strongly recommend reading it. It's insightful and short. The thesis I got from it was that thousands of progressive-minded young people are joining canvassing operations, lasting an average of several days, and burning-out.

These young people could be forming the backbone of social movement organizations, however instead they burn out and find non-activist jobs (like being teachers).

The book argued that conservatives are succeeding in placing young people into conservative organizations, however the left is failing.

I'd be very interested to read a book on what the conservatives have done that works so well for them. I suspect part of the answer is that they may have larger sums of money that can create more organizations and better-paid positions (whereas canvassing jobs in particular, and other leftist jobs are generally lower-paid).

I think the solution is community organizing. You need to have people who are committed to living in a community for a long period of time (avoid all of this jumping around from one place to the next, which is detailed in the book). Then you need to build up deep relationships with people in the community, build long-lasting (e.g. 10 year long or more) coalitions between groups in the community, ultimately build a progressive third party (so you can take over city hall or at least have a strong influence on it, and help local groups win their campaigns), and so on.

Instead of canvassing mostly for money, you'd have people running local offices who would be "canvassing" or doing other forms of outreach to build up their organization - to solicit ACTIVE members who would participate in meetings, organize their neighbors, democratically set the organization's agenda, and in the process people would get trained and become leaders.

Another solution is to have people form organizations that fund themselves. For instance, several people could make enough money working 10-20 hours per week doing computer consulting on php/mysql (and/or drupal) and spend the rest of their time working on developing a software project like the Activism Network (if you are interested, email me). There is easily room for perhaps another hundred people doing activism tech projects, maybe even more. And there would be enough computer consulting jobs to pay everyone's way. Part of key here is being able to live on a salary in the $20,000 range, instead of $50,000 (which is what you could get with full-time computer work) and for people committing to things for the longterm so they don't just learn the skills and then leave to get a high paid job. Somebody could even set-up internships programs, equivalent to the DC unpaid internships, to teach people the basics of software development.

I think you've got a good

I think you've got a good start here on the burnout phenomenon, but I think there's more to it than that...

You talk about the need to put people in community organizing rather than just canvassing. However, door to door community organizing offers the same types of emotional stresses (slamming doors, long hours on foot, uncertain safety, among others) as canvassing, which is definitely a large part of the reason people quit so quickly.

In addition, the primary organizations that hire entry-level community organizers are ACORN and the PIRGS. Having worked for ACORN in the past, I experienced the minimum 52 hour work week, the emotional exhaustion from constant membership searches, and the stress of the office. I think I could have handled all that for longer than the month I stayed with them, if it weren't for the fact that they also have a union busting conviction from the Spring of '03 or '04, a pattern of closing down entire city wide chapters while continuing to take dues directly out of people's checking accounts, and other aspects of organizational instability. And, while I don't have any insider's knowledge of the PIRGs, I've heard that their conditions are similar.

And so, approximately 80% of new community organizers (at least in ACORN) quit within the first month. It's not because they can't work hard; if that were the problem, they would never accept the job in the first place. For me, I quit because I did't see the organization I worked for reflecting the same values they espoused; the values that brought me to work for them in the first place.

And so, I think part of enabling young people to "dedicate themselves to the left" is to make sure that we provide a stable environment for that to happen, and in addition, make sure that the ideals we are preaching aren't violated by our own organizational policies.