Grassroots Organizing 101

Wednesday, Feb 19, 2020
by Benjamin Gelman ’22, Pace Center Student Correspondent

“Chances are if something wrong is happening to one person, it’s happening to others in the same environment,” said Mark Hopkins, an activist and organizer speaking at one of three Grassroot Organizing 101 workshops held this past fall. A collaboration between the Alliance of Jewish Progressives (AJP), Princeton Students for Immigrant Empowerment (PSIE), Princeton Environmental Activism Coalition (PEAC), Students for Prison Education and Reform (SPEAR), and the Young Democratic Socialists (YDS), the interactive workshop series brought in local activists for three two-hour training sessions in November and December focused on the practical skills required for on- and off-campus community organizing. 

This unique opportunity was oriented towards students entering the activist community on campus for the first time, as well as seasoned activists looking to deepen their organizing skills. It was sponsored by the the American Whig-Cliosophic Society at Princeton, the John H. Pace, Jr. ’39 Center for Civic Engagement, the LGBT Center, the Mamdouha S. Bobst Center for Peace and Justice, the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students, Office of Religious Life, the Program in Latin American Studies, and Undergraduate Student Government (USG) Projects Board. 

Community activist Mark Hopkins (at left) discusses the concept of power mapping

Community activist Mark Hopkins (at left) discusses the concept of power mapping with Eli Berman '20 and and Sharon Musa '20. Photo by Ella Whitfield ’21

Hopkins spoke at the second of three workshops, which focused on the habits and practices necessary to maintain sustainable movements. He spoke about the need to connect to people through “conversation where you just sit there and do a lot of active listening … and the most important part is the follow-up.” He also focused on what he called “power-mapping,” an exercise in which organizers closely consider who has the power to enact the change they seek and how they can leverage their own resources to achieve their goals. “Organizing is about standing on someone's toes long enough to make them pay you to get off,” said Hopkins.

Sean Toland, a seventh year Ph.D. student in the Princeton German department, and an organizer with Princeton Graduate Students United (PGSU), also spoke at the workshop. He highlighted the need to track individual meetings, keep good data, and to “know who you can reach out to … Your capacity won’t help you get things done unless you can use it where you need to.”

Sean Toland speaks with Amanda Eisenhour '21

Sean Toland, with Princeton Graduate Students United (PGSU), discusses organizing strategies with Amanda Eisenhour '21. Photo by Ella Whitfield ’21

This second workshop was preceded by one focused on forging genuine partnerships between community organizers and student activists. It featured Antonne Henshaw, a formerly incarcerated activist who, after 30 years in prison, now works on community healing, anti-solitary activism, and supporting returning citizens through the transition to life after prison, and Alexis Miller, a lead organizer for the Paterson, N.J., chapter of Black Lives Matter and leader with the National Black Law Students Association while pursuing her J.D. at Rutgers University. The third and final workshop centered on the mechanics of planning direct actions and media strategy, featuring Crystal Mor, the digital coordinator for the New Jersey Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (NJ-CAIC), and Nicole Karsch, an actions lead and trainer for the Sunrise Movement NYC hub.

Amanda Eisenhour ’21, a leader with SPEAR and one of the organizers of the workshops, said that they were created “in order to give students the confidence and skills to do this work better.” She also noted how much of the first workshop was centered on understanding “what a meaningful collaboration looks like” between students and community partners, and that a big lesson learned was to “let their priorities guide your work, not the other way around.”

Speaking of the necessity for workshops like this, Rafi Lehmann ’20, a leader with AJP and another one of the organizers, spoke about how “so many of us are siloed in our particular issues — we desperately need a space to learn from and with each other.” 

Ethan Khan '21 and community organizer Brianna Jones

Ethan Khan '21 converses with community organizer Brianna Jones. Photo by Ella Whitfield ’21

Both Lehmann and Eisenhour agreed that it is especially important for Princeton students to have these skills. “Simply caring or knowing about an issue is not enough,” said Lehmann. “Organizing is a skill that requires regular training and retraining. My personal hope is that activists on campus will develop and maintain a well-stocked organizing toolbox—especially given the rapid turnover rate in student organizing.”

Eisenhour added that “Princeton students, because of the structure of this university, and its geographic presence, can be so disconnected from the community.” Nonetheless, she said, “There is actually a really long history of student activism that has created change,” citing the creation of the Department of African American Studies and the protests advocating for the divestment from apartheid South Africa as examples. 

Lastly, both Eisenhour and Lehmann emphasized the collaborative and student-run nature of these workshops, and the importance of including so many different student activist organizations. 

“We wanted to disrupt the divisions between single-issue groups,” said Eisenhour. “Even though our issues are very different, we face similar challenges in our work. We wanted to create an inclusive space for sharing information, stories, and questions across issues. We also wanted to build a wide coalition of progressive student groups to facilitate collaboration and mutual support.”

Upcoming Events 

Student Activism at Princeton: Then and Now

To learn more about Princeton’s history of student activism, the Princeton University Library is hosting Student Activism at Princeton: Then and Now, a two-part event where all members of the campus community are invited to find inspiration for change, exercise creativity, and explore the past with archivists from the Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library. The first session will be held on February 20 from 5:30-6:30 p.m. at Mudd Library and will provide an overview of student activism on campus from the 1960s to now. The second session will be held March 12, 5:30-6:30 p.m. at Mudd Library, and offers participants the opportunity to use archival materials as inspiration to create buttons and posters that reflect current activism.

Navigating the Climate Crisis & Eco-Distress

In addition, the Office of Sustainability, TigerWell, and University Health Services are partnering for Navigating the Climate Crisis & Eco-Distress, a series of talks and events this semester focused on the intersections of wellness and environmental activism. The first, a Dialogue Circle: Navigating the Climate Crisis, will take place on February 27, from 12 to 1 p.m. All events require RSVP to Jess Joseph.

Climate Change and Colonialism: Lessons from the Puerto Rican Environmental Movement

How are activists in Puerto Rico–which faces extreme weather, unpayable debt, and exploitation by the government in Washington–responding to climate change? How can climate activists in the U.S. support Puerto Rican movements, and what can they learn from them? In this event, the Pace Center student organization Princeton Environmental Activism Coalition (PEAC) seeks to center the experiences of communities disproportionately impacted by climate change and to discuss the links between colonial government and the climate crisis in Puerto Rico today.

The event will begin at 10 a.m. on Saturday, February 29 in 010 East Pyne Hall with a two-hour panel on climate justice and decolonization. Two prominent Puerto Rican environmental activists, Arturo Massol (Casa Pueblo) and Ruth Santiago (Comité Diálogo Ambiental), as well as legal scholar Prof. Rafael Cox-Alomar (David A. Clarke School of Law) will be in conversation with discussants from Princeton. This will be followed by a Q&A session. The second part of the event, beginning at 1 p.m., is a practical workshop on community organizing. Like the Grassroots Organizing 101 workshop series last semester, the workshop will include presentations from each speaker, break-out groups for students to apply the speakers’ lessons to their own areas of activism, and full-group discussion. The workshop is open to all, regardless of past experience with organizing, group affiliation, or particular area of activism. While the workshop leaders’ focus is environmental issues, the practical lessons will be applicable to all student activists and organizers. A vegetarian lunch will be served. Contact Kenji Cataldo with any accessibility requests.

Sponsored by: the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, the Pace Center, the Mamdouha S. Bobst Center for Peace and Justice, the the Princeton Student Climate Initiative, the Program in Latin American Studies, and USG Projects Board.