Winds of Change Newsletter, December 2011     See sidebar for table of contents

Organizers' Toolbox: New Regular Column for OVEC

by Andrew Munn

The "Organizers’ Toolbox" is a new feature of OVEC’s Winds of Change. In this and upcoming newsletters, I’ll write about why we organize and how we do it, with the aim of supporting you in becoming a more active and confident organizer. This is one organizer’s take on organizing, and I’d love to hear from others. Please get in touch via or (304) 924-1506.

I suppose it makes sense to start with the question, "What does an organizer do?" To paint with a broad brush, an organizer builds power by bringing people together to identify a common goal and work toward it.

And, too, "Why organize?" We organize to shift the balance of power away from a system that values profit for a few over the well being of many to a system that allows communities and people to make the decisions that impact them most. If organizing is about shifting and organizing power, what is power and how does it work?

It’s All About Power:

In September, Maria Gunnoe and Bo Webb spoke truth to power in front of a subcommittee of the House Committee on Natural Resources (see story on page 1). Each gave a scathing account of the effects strip mining has had in their community and across our state, citing 19 peer-reviewed scientific studies that correlate strip mining and increased health risks.

Following a parade of politician and industry insider testimonies that attributed the economic devastation caused by mechanization and strip mining to (weak) federal regulations of valley fills, Bo and Maria both pointed out the hypocrisy of their jobs rhetoric. Their statements received applause from the crowd.

However, when the subcommittee issued a press release after the event, there was not a single mention of Bo, Maria, or the dozens of supporters who packed the courtroom – rather, it was a reiteration of pro-strip mining propaganda!

Was it because of political corruption, coal money in politics, or censorship? If you’re thinking all of the above, you are right, but what’s underneath it all? What did the politicians and the coal industry have more of than the anti-strip mining movement?

Power. It’s all about power. No matter how much truth was on our side, the industry and their politicians had the power to determine the outcome of the hearing.

Power is a word we hear often, and many people’s gut reaction is that power is bad. There’s good reason for this – we see power abused every day, by banks, by the coal companies, by the government. But, that’s the use of power. What is power itself?

Most simply stated, power is the ability to do. Using this definition, we all have power. Regardless of your station in life, you have some ability to do, though there are real differences in power between people. As organizers, it is our work to build our movement’s ability to do, person by person, community by community.

I find the chart (see below) useful in thinking about types of power and their uses:

Power Within, on the top right of the chart, is the innate ability to do that all sentient beings have. Although there are differences in ability to do between people, all have some ability. Examples: you, me, and Don Blankenship.

Power Over, on the bottom right, is a hierarchical use of power in which a person or an institution uses power (within) to determine the experiences, or fate, of other people, communities, or species. Example: The Environmental Protection Agency, Army Corps of Engineers and Office of Surface Mining have the power to determine whether a coal company is permitted to destroy our mountains and communities.

Power To, on the bottom left, is a hierarchical use of power in which a person gives their power to another person or institution to make decisions for them. Example: We vote for politicians to decide whether we go to war and to what degree industry is permitted to pollute our communities and bodies.

Power With, on the top left, is a use of power in which people share their individual power to achieve their common goals. Example: People pool their money to purchase a wind turbine to provide energy for their community.

Of course, there is overlap between categories. During the subcommittee "hearing", Bo, Maria, and our movement presented their shared power (power with: working together) to the congressional committee in an appeal (power to: asking politicians) to reinstate the Stream Buffer Zone Rule (power over: state authority).

The coal industry presented their lobbyists and coal-state politicians (power over plus power with) to Congress in an appeal (power to/power with) to deregulate the coal

industry (using power over to give the industry more power).

What would a hearing look like if our movement had more power than the coal industry? What if, through organizing, we had more people and resources on our side than the industry?

A recent study showed that the majority of Appalachians oppose strip mining. Sentiment is on our side. We build power by organizing people to turn their sentiments into action, by sharing and directing their own power. The success, or failure, of movements all boil down to power.

The next few "Organizer Toolbox" columns will cover some of the "how to’s" of organizing, such as relationship building, whereby people identify each others’ interests and abilities in order to work together, and group building, in which people share and build their power to work towards a common goal.

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