We are so excited to announce the release of Wellesley professor Hahrie Han’s new book about how organizations build and organize effective networks of activists. Below is a letter from Hahrie to members of the network. We hope you’ll check it out.
I first learned about organizing as an undergraduate in Marshall Ganz’s seminar at Harvard. Growing up in Texas as the daughter of Korean immigrants who were more concerned about securing their own financial footing than they were about politics, I had never heard of community organizing. But in that class, I developed a language and framework for understanding the experiences I had attending school as the only Asian kid in a predominantly white, wealthy parochial school. Building power, Marshall’s class taught me, begins with developing leadership.
Those core lessons stayed with me as I went on to work in politics after college, and, eventually go to graduate school for a PhD in political science. After working in Washington DC and on a presidential campaign, I chose to go to graduate school because I wanted to dig deeper into the question of why certain communities get consistently marginalized in our politics. Working in the world of politics, I saw lots of great organizations and people working to build an inclusive democracy, but the problems persisted. If building power begins with building leadership, and there are so many organizations out there trying to build power in these communities, what isn’t working?
My new book, How Organizations Develop Activists: Civic Associations and Leadership in the 21st Century (Oxford University Press), tries to tackle one piece of this question. I start by asking what differentiates the organizations that are really good at recruiting and retaining activists from those that are not as good. What makes the organizations who are really good at building people power distinct from the ones that are not as good?
I found that in the twenty-first century information environment, with so many ways of getting people involved at their fingertips, many organizations were not clear about how best to engage people in a way that built power. Conventional wisdom might suggest that the organizations with more money, more charismatic leaders, better technological capacity, or, maybe, those that are just plain lucky are the ones with the most effective activist base. I find that while all of these factors matter, the organizations who were best at recruiting and retaining activists were the ones who focused not only on hitting their numbers (getting as many people as possible to take action), but also on building people’s capacity–focusing, in other words, on developing leaders.
In my book, I describe the different strategies these organizations used to organize and mobilize their members, and the results I saw in terms of the number of activists they were able to recruit and develop over time.
For all of you in the network all over the world working to engage activists, develop leaders, and teach and train others to do so: do the stories and lessons in the book resonate with your experience? I’d love to hear from you.