Building the skills of social movement organizers

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Building the skills of social movement organizers

Peter Gibbs is a co-director of the social movement capacity-building organization Organize BC. Scott Neigh talks with him about Organize BC's use of training, coaching, and community-building to build the skills of organizers working for social and environmental justice in western Canada.

Depending on the details of a given collective struggle, and on the community or movement at its centre, how people act together to create change can look very different. Even so, a lot of the skills and capacities to do that work can be quite similar across different struggles. And by and large, most movements don't have good infrastructure or good practices for helping people build those skills and capacities as they become active. Organize BC, a project of an organization called the Global Youth Education Network Society, has been trying to address that need.

Organize BC has its origins in a group of environmental organizations on the west coast. It was 2012 or 2013, deep in the years of the federal Conservative government of Stephen Harper and its relentless attack on environmental protections. These green groups were mulling over the grave question of why they kept losing. The organizations – Dogwood, Lead Now, Force of Nature, and One Cowichan – identified the Harper government as a main barrier, and they decided to intervene by empowering their supporters to engage in get-out-the-vote activities in the next federal election. They put together Organize BC initially as a project through which they trained hundreds of people who already had relationships with their organizations in the relevant skills for that kind of campaigning.

After the election in 2015, they took some time to reflect. They decided to go from being a relatively closed and narrow project, to something more public and much broader. Organize BC then did the basic work of developing a website and an organizational profile. They began to adapt their curriculum and expand their programming to make it relevant to a broader range of campaigns, movements, and communities.

Today, the bulk of Organize BC's work is in-person trainings. This includes a standard two-day curriculum they call Organizing: People, Power, Change. They have core programs on digital campaigning, building inclusive movements, and campaign storytelling. They also do versions of some of these things via online trainings, and they sometimes are able to offer customized trainings in specific contexts. As well, they have a few annual flagship programs – the Firelight Campaign School, in which a group of mostly new and young activists come together for a five-day summer camp-style intensive training; the CanRoots West conference; and a retreat each fall in which organizers who are in the thick of campaigns can gather, discuss, and problem-solve.

Though they still have strong ties to the environmental movement in BC, in the last four years their work has moved beyond that. They have done trainings with people involved in struggles related to Indigenous sovereignty, the labour movement, public child care, gentrification, queer and trans communities, migrant justice, health care, and more.

Their next big event is the 2019 edition of CanRoots West, happening on April 13 and 14 in Vancouver. Presenters will include organizers from groups like the Vancouver Tenants UnionLead NowJustice for Janitors; the Indigenous land defence initiative Tiny House Warriors; and the Sunrise Movement, the organization whose work has catapaulted the Green New Deal into the national conversation in the United States. The workshops and talks at the conference will touch on things like digital organizing in the labour movement, resisting the racism and white supremacy that gets reproduced within our movements, working for progressive change at the city level, organizing with workers of colour, and direct action.

Image: Used with permission of Organize BC.


Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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