The Importance of Win-Win Relationships in Organizing

Over the last two years as a hobby, I’ve been reading a lot of self-help books.

Really, my reading self-help books is a spin-off interest of one of the main driving passions of my life — organizing. They’re really quite similar fields: the caricature of self-help is that “if your life sucks, it is up to you as an individual to fix your mindsets and behaviors, and then you can thrive,” while the caricature of Left organizing is that “if your life sucks, it is up to you as an individual to gather as a group and create/alter social structures to change mindsets and behaviors, and then you can thrive.” It’s really the same thing, the only difference being that self-help focuses radically on the individual, while Left organizing focuses on communities and societal structures: both self-help and Left organizing are about empowering, developing, and enriching lives. And — between whether to focus on the individual or the society — the real answer to true empowerment is both and somewhere in the middle of the two. (You can see why I’ve grown fascinated with the self-help world.)

Anyway, one of the more popular and pervasive concepts in self-help is the idea of the “win-win relationship”: the idea that, in any healthy relationship you have in your life, both parties are gaining value from that relationship. Win-win relationships are something to strive for; they’re something that, if you don’t have them consistently in your life, you should do something about it.

And like a lot of self-help, it’s sort of intuitively obvious. But I’d also argue that it’s the sort of intuitively obvious thing that is so obvious that we forget to really examine it deeply: humans don’t think about breathing, fish don’t think about water.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been making it a point to very consciously, very closely examine what “win-win” relationships would really, truly mean in my life as an organizer, and here are some of my conclusions.

I hope you enjoy.

1. The Relationship between the Organizer and their Craft

I’ve been doing community organizing work for almost 8 years now. Of those 8 years, 5-and-a-half of those years have been paid work, and in particular, 3 of those years have been as an external organizer with SEIU. Now, I’m not going to pretend like this is the greatest accomplishment in the world, I’ve got many decades of work ahead of me. But what I have been able to notice, and what I want to communicate with some level of authority, is that the vast overwhelming majority of people who get involved in the Left movement, particularly those who end up as staff and working the extreme number of hours that the work requires, cannot sustain working the lifestyle for 3 years, much less 5-and-a-half. I’ve seen so many people come and go: there are too many to count, I cannot remember all the names and faces.

What is the consistent variable that can help me predict, with quite a bit of accuracy, who will stay, and who will go? This is the defining difference: whether or not the organizer can find a deep, fulfilling, positive, “win-win” relationship with the Craft.

When I first started formally union organizing 3 years ago, there were about 9 people hired around the same time that I was hired. Of those 9, only me and and my friend Quintus remain. To be fair, of those 9, a few left for un-related reasons. But something that Quintus and I both shared was a total fascination with the work. Every new concept, every new technique, every opportunity to practice a different type of conversation or scenario — we were enthusiastic about it, excited, giddy. “Oh my god, f*ck yes, this is awesome and amazing, I’m learning so much, I can’t wait to learn more.”

5-and-a-half years later as a paid staffer, I still regularly write essays like this post, thinking about the craft and exploring it. I write these essays for others who might stumble upon them and might benefit, sure, but mostly I write these posts because I can’t not: I need to get my original concepts out of my head and into text; all these years later, I’m still so excited and creatively fulfilled by the Craft.

Here are some other reasons I’ve found some of my co-workers use to create deep, fulfilling, positive, “win-win” relationships with the Craft:
* Finding human connection truly beautiful, and sharpening relationship-building skills to bond more deeply, faster, with as many people as possible.
* A fascination with the relationship between the Emotional, the Social, and the Political.
* The un-ending nuances of reading other’s communication (sub-communication and otherwise) to truly and more deeply understand others’ truth.
* The endless potential for creativity in the work; viewing the work as an artform.
* Etc.

Importantly, you’ll notice that, on my list, I have left out “seeking justice in the world” and “healing from societal trauma.” I left these out intentionally. Why? Because it creates a dependent, win-lose relationship with the Craft that, while authentic and possibly totally necessary in the short-term, will be unsustainable in the long-term; to feel like, in doing the work day-in-day-out, sacrificing sleep and personal relationships to, for example, work a 12-hour shift, that you’re “sacrificing yourself,” “losing,” etc., will create massive resentment that I can tell you from personal experience will make it so you will drop out of the movement and burn-out. (I expand quite a bit on this concept in “An Exposition on Organizing and Mental Health: My Story.”)

To sustain yourself in the movement as an organizer, you MUST find your “win-win” relationship with the Craft.

2. The Relationship between the Organizer and the Organized

Imagine that you’re at a party. At this party, Bob walks up to you and introduces himself, says “Hi.” Immediately — and you’re not quite sure why — you feel the energy sucked out of you. It feels off and suspicious, even though you’re not sure why. After that conversation, Carl walks up to you and introduces himself, says “Hi.” Immediately, you feel tons of abundant, positive energy.

Both Bob and Carl introduced themselves the same way, but you just got a weird “feeling” from Bob, and a good “feeling” from Carl. The reason for the different energetic feelings you felt is that people carry around different social-emotional energies to them, based off their inner-beliefs. If you are coming from a truly coping place and you have bad social form and you have a nervous energy about you and you view social interaction as a way to “take” from others so that you can finally feel “OK,” people can sense that; similarly, if you are coming from a true place of thriving and you have great social form and you have an abundant positive energy and you view social interaction as a way to “give” positive emotions to others and lift others up, people can sense that too. And people can sense it almost instantaneously.

I say all this because I used to have some really, really bad beliefs about organizing. Here were my worst beliefs:
* People don’t “naturally” want to improve their lives with organizing, and so I must manipulate them into doing so.
* People probably think I’m weird when I talk with them.
* That I’m Asian makes people less likely to want to listen to me.
* That I’m using organizing to heal my own trauma, and I’m doing so out of desperation.
* I need organizing to feel self-worth and self-love.

These mindsets are totally, totally toxic; they are win-lose, and people can sense that in all your sub-communication.

Yes, in having real organizing conversations, there are times when you’re going to have to be super negative with those you are organizing. Sometimes you’re going to have to go deep and agitate them deep and have them truly examine their most inner beliefs, and it will make them feel bad. But the reason it still works as a win-win scenario, is that you’re doing it from good inner beliefs, others can sense that you’re trying to give value to them in doing so, and that makes all the difference.

That’s what organizing should be! Everyone benefits.

Make sure you are viewing others in a “win-win” light, and it will improve your organizing 1000x fold. It certainly did for my own results. (I expand on this idea a lot in “The Subtle Ways Your Soul Makes a Profound Impact.”)

3. The Relationship between Organizer and Organizer

How do you view the world? Truly think about this.

Which of these statements resonates with you more:
* I want to be the best organizer in the world. I’m in a competition with others.
* I love myself completely; I don’t need to be a better organizer than I already am. Other organizers are an opportunity for me to give to.

Far too many organizers, particularly staff organizers, feel that they are in a competition with one another. I know that, for the majority of my career, I definitely resonated with the first statement more.

And the crazy thing is that your thoughts can become your reality… there is truth to that if you don’t easily trust others, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy; being a not-trusting person encourages others to act in a way as to not garner mutual trust in the first place. In other words, believe that you’re competing with everyone, and everyone will compete with you; believe that everyone is an opportunity to collaborate with and give to, and you will receive collaboration.

Either way, you will progress. But it’s your choice: progress in a way that feels like you’re endlessly climbing uphill, out of desperation and hatred. Or! Progress like you’re metaphorically being lifted on a cloud of self-love and inspiration and love for others.

4. The Relationship You Have with Your Humanity

Do you have an identity outside of Organizing?

Could you, theoretically, step away?

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