Organizing a Class on Organizing

By Mark Rudd

The following paper was presented at the American Studies Association Annual Meeting in San Antonio, on November 18, 2010, in a session called “Organizing American Studies.”  As the record of an effort to bridge the classroom and the world outside, and as a heuristic reflection on American Studies pedagogy, we think it’s of wide interest.  Thanks to Mark Rudd for allowing us to post it here, in the EAS Forum, where we hope to stimulate discussion about American Studies and public scholarship. - ED.


I am not an American Studies professor or scholar, although I play one at this conference.  I am a retired community college remedial math instructor and a long time left-wing political organizer.  I was fortunate in having been able to publish, last year, a memoir, Underground: My Life in SDS and Weatherman, which deals with my experiences 1965-1977 in the anti-war and “revolutionary” movement.  One of my main motives in writing the book was to communicate with young people something about good organizing and bad organizing, having experienced both.  In my travels over the years, it had become obvious to me that young activists have fundamental misconceptions about how mass social movements come into being.

Soon after my book appeared, the chairman of the American Studies Department at the University of New Mexico, Dr. Alex Lubin, whom I knew through our joint Israel/Palestine peace work in Albuquerque, asked me if I would consider teaching a class for the department.  I immediately jumped at the chance;  in time I titled my course “The Organizing Tradition in American Social Movements,” with the intention that the students and I would explore the question most on my mind, how are powerful mass social movements built?

I felt sure that some of the answers would be found in studying the black freedom movement in the South, one of the most successful social movements of the twentieth century.  I had been reading Charles M. Payne’s brilliant I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (University of California Press, 1997), an analytical case study of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in one town in the Mississippi Delta region.  I was longing to read the book with curious and committed young people, so as to be able to see what they made of the history.

But I also wanted the class itself to embody, as I understood them, the best elements of democratic organizing—collective problem-solving, development of leadership, relationship-building.  Over the summer of 2009 I developed what I called a tentative course syllabus which would put much of the burden of planning the class on the students themselves.  Together we would figure out what needed to be studied.  Plus, the methodology of the class which I had in mind was inductive, constructionist learning. My main plan was to pose the sole question, “What is organizing?” then read narratives with the class.  The narratives I suggested were Barack Obama’s description of his three years organizing on the Southside of Chicago in Dreams from my Father, which would be followed by my own story about organizing at Columbia University, 1965-1968, and the subsequent slide into Weatherman in Students for a Democratic Society, SDS, 1969-70.

I hoped questions would emerge out of these stories on the nature and attributes of good and bad organizing, which students could then use in their own investigations for class projects on current organizing in New Mexico.  Only in the second half of the class would we put together the analysis, using Payne as a template or guide.


The first day of class, I told the students they would all get A’s as long as they participated fully in discussions, did all the readings and assignments, and became fully engaged in the topic of What is organizing?  This surprised them, as if they’d never heard of such a preposterous grading system.  Then I screwed with their minds even more by telling them that the syllabus was merely tentative, that we’d be figuring things out together and that all assignments could be negotiated if people felt they could come up with better ideas.  I certainly didn’t want to waste their time.  This baffled them.

That same first day, it dawned on me that things might be a bit more complicated than I had anticipated.  The students were a very mixed lot:  ten were young, right out of high school, few of whom had any sense of history or even much interest in organizing. Five people were older, returning students who did have rich life experiences.  I also allowed two more older unregistered people to participate in the class because I thought they’d add to it.  Though this was a 300 level class, skill levels varied enormously, as I was to find out.  Some people had never read a book to take notes and make presentations.  Most important, the younger students had little sense of what they were getting into when they chose the course.  Almost none of them knew what was meant by “social movements.”  Four people were business majors who had stumbled into the class believing that American Studies courses are easy A’s to satisfy distribution requirements.  One person thought that “organizing” might be an important business skill (she was right).

However, all the older students, including the two unregistered people, had actually chosen to take the class because of their interest in the topic and their desire to study with me.  Their life experiences and classroom leadership would prove to carry the class.

Since we met only once a week, for almost three hours, I wanted there to be some way to hold discussions between classes.  I had never been near a class website, but I assumed that I’d have at least one computer hot-shot in the class who could set one up for us and manage it.  Wrong!  I wound up building and managing a Google site myself, at quite an effort.  Since I wanted to encourage open discussion, there had to be limited, not public, access, which caused me all sorts of problems.  It would be several months before I had everyone signed on properly and using the site.  Turns out some of the younger students were actually scared of computers (surprise!).


I tried to use the opening discussions on the Obama and Rudd readings to get the students to pose questions about organizing.  Obama, in particular, has serious lapses in his story:  who trained him?  who hired and paid him?  what was he trying to accomplish?  what did he actually accomplish when he went off to Harvard Law School. My own book was the story of good organizing (Columbia), turning to really bad (Weatherman).  My friends and I had substituted our own self-expression (“we are revolutionaries”) for the even harder work of organizing.  I was completely open to all their questions, especially concerning the turn toward violence.  This opened up a useful discussion on strategy and tactics.  Much of this was extremely difficult for the younger students to understand, since they had no background in history or even a frame of reference concerning personal commitment.  I had to explain the concepts of, for example, colonialism and national liberation to them.  Or, in talking about the organizing method used in the labor and civil rights movements, I had to explain what’s a communist, what’s a socialist, what’s the labor movement.  This was an awful lot of territory to cover.

After one class, a young student confronted me:  “I’m lost,” she said.  “What do you want?”

“I want you to figure out what organizing is,” I replied.

“But you’ve got to tell us what to look for,” she said angrily.

I was dumbfounded.  I asked her, “Have you done the readings?”

“No,” she answered, “I was waiting for you to lecture on what’s important.”

Her problem, and that of 2/3 of the class, was suddenly clear to me:  my problem-posing/ problem-solving method itself was a complete mystery.  They had gotten by in college up to now by learning to follow a simple method:  the teacher assigns readings, the students either do them or not, but either way the following class they come in and the teacher summarizes the five most important points they need to know.  I was asking them to employ a much more difficult method, one that demanded that they fully engage with a problem and shift from passive mode to active.  No wonder they were confused.


It was the projects which broke through the impasse.  I asked the students to go out and interview organizers who were actually working in the community and the state and ask them two simple questions, What is organizing?  Talk about an organizing success you’ve had. I gave them a list of sixty or so organizers, but told them they could find their own subjects if they liked.  The first project was to bring back to the class the answers. Combined with the readings, I hoped that the students could then pose more intensive questions about the organizing method and the attributes of good organizers.  The project for the second half of the class would be to go out and get the life-story of the organizers, including what motivated them, what successes they had, and what methods they used.  These then would be presented to the class for analysis.

I had decided I’d do all the assignments myself, in order to provide models for the students.  So I interviewed Tomas Garduno, a young organizer for the Southwest Organizing Project, which had had recent success combining years of community organizing with an electoral strategy.  I wrote up the interview as an outline and presented it.  Subsequently, I did a 90 minute video interview with Tomas and his father, Rey, an Albuquerque City Councilor whose campaign Tomas had managed.  However, I completely failed at editing the interview, so I showed the class a twenty-minute segment.

Over the course of the semester, my students brought back the stories of, among others, a Navajo community organizer trying to save her community from coal-mining; an organizer trying to bring into existence an African-American history museum; a rural anti-Walmart organizer; a union organizer; an animal protection legislative organizer; a living-wage organizer; a charter school organizer; a small business owner; two arts center organizers; a conservation voters organizer; an Alinsky-style Albuquerque organizer. They also wrote studies of the cocalero organizing in Bolivia (“How did Evo Morales rise from being a coca farmer to president of Bolivia?”) and the transition from dictatorship to democracy in Chile.  Skill levels shown in the finished products varied enormously, but all the projects were done in good faith and showed a remarkable degree of engagement with the topics and the general problem of what is organizing?


One of the most important forums we used in the class proved to be the comments and discussions held on the website.  I asked the students to post questions and comments on the readings, and they actually held online discussions!  I also asked a “Question of the Day,” which turned out to be more like a question of the week.  On Sept. 19, 2009, following the first big tea-party rally, I asked the class,  “What is the ideology of the tea-baggers?  Does the conservative movement have a unified ideology? Does the ideology work to motivate and unite people?”

One of the older students, fully engaged, replied,

“Re: Teabagger march on Washington. Wow. In looking at the two main websites for the events (Tea Party Express bus tour - - and the March on Washington 9/12/09 -, it appears that the gathering in Washington was organized and sponsored by well-funded interests. The Freedom Works Foundation was the main sponsor/organizer for the events of 9/12/09 in D.C., while the Our Country Deserves Better PAC was the main sponsor for the two week Tea Party Express bus tour that started in Sacramento and ended in D.C. on 9/12. There were dozens upon dozens of conservative non-profit organizations that served as additional sponsors for both events. The bus tour hit 37 major cities as a rally/entertainment tour, while the website disseminated information on how to donate money, charter buses and obtain permits in DC, as well as a schedule of events for the day of 9/12/09. Each of the co-sponsors were linked to the main website, as well as 42 conservative blogs and 9 state sponsor websites. The media coverage of each stop along the bus tour gave additional voice and momentum to the cause. According to the website, the main focus of the protests were speaking out against government growth, future tax increases, the soaring deficit and out of control spending in DC. However, there were many smaller organizations that attended with their own protest agendas in mind (health care, anti-socialism, etc). The Freedom Works Foundation is headed by Dick Armey, former US House Majority Leader and the Our Country Deserves Better PAC is headed by Howard Kaloogian, Assistant Republican Leader in the California State Assembly. ...  It seemed to be a well-coordinated effort between many organizations.”

“I think the original tea party protests in April were grassroots efforts, but the 9/12/09 events that grew from the idea were sponsored and organized by well-funded conservative interest organizations.”

Wow. I will continue to look.

It doesn’t get much better than that.  The younger students read that and began to understand that being a student involves curiosity and the energy to go out and learn on your own.

We also used the website to post projects, documents, and websites related to the class. I also posted anonymous student evaluations of the class which I solicited at midterm, “What works and what doesn’t.”  Responses, of course, were all over the board, but they were on the whole positive.


Reading Charles Payne’s I’ve Got the Light of Freedom had been a transformative experience for me.  I had known about the civil rights movement in the South, had known about the Mississippi Delta region (from the blues), had known about Freedom Summer, but I never knew about the real conditions in which SNCC organized.  I also was bowled over by Payne’s approach:  he asks, at the outset, “How did they do it?  How did they organize a dependent and apolitical people?”  His answer lies partly in the leadership of Miss Ella J. Baker, the unsung genius of the southern freedom movement, as well as the role of Myles Horton at Highlander Folk School, and Septima Clark in founding the Freedom Schools.  What he details is an organizing method deeply rooted in female-led black churches—democratic, relationship-oriented, ones that build leadership from the bottom.  It is the essence of the vision of “participatory democracy” which my own organization, SDS, learned from SNCC.  This is, in an important sense, the origin story of the New Left.

Payne proved to be difficult reading for most of my students.  Few had ever plowed through an entire academic work of sociological theory and practice.  So I gave them my own notes for the introduction and the first three chapters, presenting a model for how to read and take notes.  Then I required them each to work with a partner in presenting two subsequent chapters in outline and oral form to the class.  It was chaotic, but it worked!  At the end of the process, the whole class had an outline of the entire book.  And we were able to discuss the elements of organizing, as analyzed by Payne—the role of families, youth, women; the problem of leadership and careerism; the problem of who writes history.


After reading Payne, several of my younger students asked, “Why didn’t you give this to us first?”  It seems that they only fully understood what we were driving at concerning the elements of organizing after seeing how Payne analyzed the Mississippi struggle.  My inductive approach had mostly confused them.

I put the question up for discussion in class and on the web several times in the last weeks of the class.  Should I have reversed the order of the readings, requiring Payne first and the narratives after?  Or was my original method useful?  In every single vote, the class was split down the middle.  I resolved that the next time I teach the class I’d put the question up to the students at the beginning.  In effect they’ll be choosing their method of inquiry as they write the syllabus.

Another suggestion, but one the class seemed to agree on, was that they wanted to know more about the Alinsky school of organizing.  The students had come to recognize, on their own, that Alinsky’s non-ideological organizing was much more common than the SNCC/Ella Baker model I championed.  One of the non-registered students, after reading Obama, had gone on to read and report back to the class on Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals.

Listening to the plethora of reports on organizing that the students presented, I began wondering what are the criteria or standards for good organizing:  Achieving stated goals? Development of new leadership?  Continuity of an organization over time?  Growth in numbers of active members?  Amount of money raised from foundations?  Many people in New Mexico (and elsewhere) claim to be doing good community and political organizing, but what does it all add up to?

I hope to have a chance to teach this class again, and to learn more from my students about organizing.  Because of departmental cutbacks in funding, only a few classes taught by part-timers survived; mine, with its low enrollment, didn’t.

It’s probably a lot easier to teach a class on organizing than organizing a class on organizing, but it’s a hell of a lot more interesting.  One thing I learned is if you’re planning to organize a class, it’s a lot better to have a mix of people, old and young.  Maybe this applies to all sorts of organizing.

Oh, yeah, I did give everybody A’s.  They deserved them.