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We the People Interview Series: Interview with Stephen N. Smith, Author, Stoking the Fire of Democracy

As part of the Civic Agency initiative, we are launching a special “We the People” interview series. In this series, we will interview interesting people with different perspectives to offer on the “We the People” phase of our work in ADP. This is the first of many interviews that will be included in this series.

Stephen is the author of the book, Stoking the Fire of Democracy: Our Generation’s Introduction to Grassroots Organizing. This practical and short (123 pages!) book is a wonderful resource for students and faculty members who are interested in learning more about community organizing. Stoking the Fire would make an excellent common reader for universities that want their students to dig deeply into the nitty gritty of organizing tactics. What follows is a candid interview with Stephen, where he discusses why it’s important to make mistakes and build relationships when you are doing community organizing.

Cecilia M. Orphan (CMO): You talk a lot about the importance of making mistakes in your book. How are mistakes useful in community organizing, and how might we learn from them as we’re working to civically engage students?

Stephen N. Smith (SNS): To make change in the world, we have to be somehow different, unprecedented, unexpected. That’s what change is. It’s new and unchartered. Mistakes are the proof that we are going right to the edge of what’s possible.

Last March, the organization I work for promised to send 10,000 people from Illinois to march on Washington, D.C. to demand immigration reform. We could have promised 5,000 or 1,000 instead. Because we shot higher, we made a lot more mistakes (for example, some of the bus companies we worked with screwed us, we didn’t prepare people as well as we could have for logistical problems, etc.). In the end, we only got 8,800 people to march, but those 8,800 had a transformative experience. And because our partners took similar risks nationwide, the overall result was the biggest single D.C. mobilization in years.

CMO: Using community organizing tactics, how might faculty members engage students to solve community problems? How might students engage faculty members?

SNS: One thing professors do well is think. Organizing teaches that good action requires good evaluation afterwards. I love it when I see professors engaging students in difficult questions about their work: What went well? Where did you fail? What would make this change sustainable? What did you risk or sacrifice?

What students do best is risk. If you are 21 and you are not taking any risks to make the world a better place, you probably aren’t going to start when you turn 30 and have kids. When I was a student, after years of meetings with the president and other campus leaders and other tactics were exhausted, we risked getting arrested or kicked out of school when we conducted a sit-in of the president’s office that lasted three weeks. We also risked being ridiculed by our peers (which we were). But we won.

No risk I ever took compares to what’s happening in the immigrant rights movement now. Undocumented kids are getting arrested (and risking deportation) just because they want to go to college or serve in the military. When I go to sleep at night I think about how I can match my courage with theirs.

CMO: In your book you write, “Give man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he eats until the local factory pollutes his lake. Teach a man to organize, and he eats for a lifetime.” Can you describe the lessons from this parable for campuses working to solve community problems?

SNS: It’s interesting. In the book, right after that quote it says that even that statement doesn’t go far enough…that organizing is not something that one person should teach another. It’s something that people learn together, through common struggle and mistake-making and mutual accountability.

To answer your question, I don’t think that a campus can or should solve community problems.  Nor should a community try to solve a campus’s problems.  The question is: how do they work together?  I get really excited when student organizing tries to help the broader community by first holding the campus accountable. Interested in the environment?  First hold your college accountable to greening its buildings. Interested in poverty alleviation? First start a living wage campaign at your school.  When we engage our own institution first, it gives us more power to work constructively without the community around the campus.

If you are dead set on helping the community outside your campus, make sure that the relationship is truly reciprocal. If you are giving time and resources, make sure you are getting time and resources in return.

In community organizing, we build this reciprocity into our structure. My organization’s board, the group that decides whether to hire and fire me, the group that decides our strategy, is made up of immigrants, rich and poor people, citizens and undocumented immigrants. None of them is trying to do something FOR somebody else or solve anybody else’s problems; they are all in it together.

CMO: You write a lot about the importance of relationship building in your book. Can you talk more about this, and how it relates to community/university partnerships? What are some practical tips you have for campuses who are trying to work effectively and equitably with community partners to solve local problems?

SNS: A relationship just means that there’s give and take, and that we are treating each other as unique individuals – as opposed to interchangeable “clients” or “volunteers” or “programs.”

Most universities do this pretty well. Get to know your partners first. Ask them tough questions – where does their money come from? Who do they ally themselves with? Answer the same questions yourself.

Tell them the ways you will hold them accountable. Ask for ways they can hold you accountable. Perhaps most important, follow the iron rule of organizing: never, never do for someone what they can do for themselves. I fail at this a lot. I get so excited or prideful that I try and step in and lead when others would do so better.

Ask: what am I challenging others to do? And: how am I being challenged?

One litmus test we use in immigrant rights organizing is making sure we don’t have a bunch of non-immigrant white folks leading meetings. White folks, especially white men (like me), love leading meetings and being heard and helping out, but rarely do they have the base (of knowledge or of people or of experience) that our immigrant leaders do. Watching for who’s out front and who’s making decisions is a good thing we can all do to make sure we are not just being led by the same old crowd.

CMO: Any other thoughts and comments?

SNS: Two things: One, don’t forgot to have fun. If you aren’t having fun, it ain’t worth it.

Two, give me a call if you want to talk more. (773) 444-9557. There is nothing I enjoy more than talking with folks who, like me, are trying and failing to make the world a better place.

To order a copy of Stoking the Fire, please visit this website.

The views, opinions, positions or strategies expressed by the authors of the We the People interview series and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, positions or strategies of AASCU or any employee thereof.

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