Sidewalk Strategies – with Larry Tramutola

One of the questions we ask every expert we talk to is, “Do you have a book, podcast, website, or resource you would recommend to organizers?” When you’re an organizer, everything feels very in the moment. You either feel like you know everything and you’re on top of everything (let’s just admit confidence isn’t usually lacking in organizers), or like everything is crashing down around you and you don’t possibly have time to do anything except keep trying to keep everything going.

To continue to grow and tackle difficult challenges, you have to seek outside wisdom from the family of organizers who have been working for so long. When I asked Marlon Marshall this question, he immediately pointed us to Sidewalk Strategies by Larry Tramutola. Marlon read Sidewalk Strategies as a young organizer and it helped him understand the importance of meeting people where they are, creating relationships, and connecting your campaign values to those of your voters.

After our chat with Marlon, I immediately ordered Sidewalk Strategies and read it in one sitting. I couldn’t put it down. As I studied my way through it, I was thinking about how helpful this would have been to me as a brand new organizer. Throughout each chapter, there were lessons I learned over many months as an organizer. And beyond this feeling, so many new lessons were clicking for me.

As Larry says, the only real way to learn how to organize is to actually organize.

But reading Sidewalk Strategies, learning about the campaigns and individuals who would redefine how generations of activists organize, would certainly help you get up to speed faster and elevate you as an organizer sooner than if you had to learn all these hard lessons yourself, first-hand.

Larry began organizing in the 1970s with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers movement. Larry was trained and taught by Fred Ross for most of his career. Fred Ross, the trailblazing organizer who inspired, trained and mentored Cesar Chavez, one of America’s greatest champions for social justice, helped define the way individuals organize their communities around a cause.

Tramutola has been organizing ever since he first met Fred and is widely recognized as an expert on grassroots organizing, political strategy, and on passing difficult ballot and tax measures. We reached out to him to get some inspiration and advice for you and our conversation blew me away. I know once you get a little snippet of his wisdom, you’ll rush out to buy his book, so we’ve linked through to it here.


AM: What are some key takeaways a busy organizer should focus on right after finishing your book?

LT: The first thing is you’ve got to try to use every day to make progress, and make sure every day builds upon another. It’s really easy to get distracted and to do things that may seem important, but that actually take away from reaching your goal. If you want be successful doing organizing and you have a specific objective, whether it’s finding precinct leaders or building support, you’ve got to work at it with horse blinders on, to get you to do that task.

That’s number one—your own personal discipline.

There are always distractions in organizing, some coming from others, and some are your own internal distractions, including being tired or bored. Throughout all of this, the successful organizer has to be focused on the job at hand. I think this might be the toughest thing for organizers to understand. Often people new to organizing think of rallies, demonstrations, and mass movements; however generally speaking, the organizing work can be fairly mundane on a day-to-day basis, but that repetition is important. That would be the first thing that I would really think about—how do you deal with your own personal motivation and draw upon the motivation of other people to stay disciplined.

AM: Throughout the book, you had axioms from your mentor, Fred Ross. I noticed how evergreen they are. My favorite was, “Never get so hungry for volunteers that you do their work for them instead of insisting they do it themselves.” It resonated so much with my experience. What advice would you give to an organizer who’s facing that issue?

 LT: I think this is more of an issue for an experienced organizer, than an inexperienced organizer, because in some ways the inexperienced organizer has got to do it themselves, at least a little bit. I think that that axiom in particular is written toward people who are a little more experienced, because the fresh-faced organizer has to do this stuff to learn how to do it, and to be able to ask somebody to do something that they’ve done. You never want to ask someone to do something that you haven’t done or that you’re unwilling to do.

I believe when Fred wrote that axiom, he was really talking to Gabby (an experienced organizer) rather than Luis (a brand new organizer), because Gabby has graduated into the role of an organizer. You probably now have the skills to do it yourself, but you’re never going to reach organizing capacity and build movement if you continue to do it yourself.

Organizing is about building power, and you can’t do it without lots of people involved.

We all sometimes think, “Hell, I can do this better than they can. I can do it quicker and easier.” But if we do it for them, they never learn. Now, we model, but they’ve got to be allowed to make mistakes. And when they make mistakes, we have to be in a position to say what was good, and what they could do better.

AM: Do you have a favorite of Fred’s axioms?

LT: I’ve got a lot of them! I knew Fred really well—he was my mentor. The axiom I’ve always liked is that if you wait until you have all the resources before you start, you never start. So, you’ve got to fill this void of no activity with activity; and by doing that, things happen. That’s fundamentally what organizers do. We’re getting people to do what they should do, but don’t have the skills or the motivation to do it. We light fires in people so that they then take responsibility and they make things happen.

AM: I want to ask a tough question I struggled with as an organizer. I often encountered an obstacle where someone wanted to be involved but didn’t want to talk to voters or do any of the normal tasks I had for volunteers. I would then spend a ton of time trying to find something for that volunteer to do.  

How would you recommend reconciling making volunteers of all types feel included versus dedicating enough time to develop volunteer leader prospects?

LT: This is a difficult thing for people, but you’ve got to do it. In our work, we’re dealing with adult problems. This is serious work at its core, which means it demands serious attention.

The first thing is: you can’t have people taking your time when you’ve got other things to do. You lose the first fundamental, which is you’ve got to make progress every day, and virtually every hour of every day, to keep things moving.

Not everybody comes to the organizing family or the campaign for the same reasons. You as a leader have got to be able to manage people and evaluate people. If you can’t either get rid of someone who is a disruptive force, or give somebody who’s not a disruptive force something that they can do, then you’re probably not a leader, because leaders have to make those kinds of decisions.

There’s this kind of community organizing dogma that says, “organizers are behind the scenes and not leaders.” I don’t believe in that—they are leaders.

Organizers have to provide leadership and part of leadership is the management of people, which has to do with elevating people who are really good, training people who need the training, and unfortunately at times, getting people out that sap energy.

This is sophisticated—it’s not organizing 101, this is a graduate course of organizing, but it‘s really important.

AM: Do you have any advice for staying motivated to work as hard as organizers do?

LT: A couple things. Number one: every organizing campaign—whether it’s a year long, five years long, or with no end in sight—needs milestones. You build towards those milestones, and you create artificial milestones if there aren’t real milestones. A real milestone on a presidential campaign would be that primary, or that local vote. But there may be some preliminary milestones prior to that, that set, achieve, and celebrate as you’re going through it, that will help you reach the next goal.

The other advice is that somebody on your team has got to be mindful of the celebration. We shouldn’t carry the burden of the world on our shoulders in every organizing campaign. One of the attributes that an organizer has to have is joy. We’re trying to create something better, and when we create something better, there’s got to be laughter and joy. There are ample opportunities for fun; you just need to be creative about it.

AM: Something Marlon mentioned that I was thinking of a lot when I read your book was: despite a lot of changes in technology, organizing is always about building relationships to organize around a cause or person. What are your thoughts on that?

LT: I’m not one of those people who says, “Gee, technology hasn’t changed what we do”. When I started, I had 3-by-5-inch cards and I had to go to a phone booth and throw dimes in, in order to make calls to people. Obviously technology changes the way we communicate and will continue to do that.

But at its core, organizing is about relationships, and it’s making a connection with people. I’m talking about fundamentally changing people and getting people in a community to take action together. Technology can be used to keep them together, to keep them informed, and to provide discussion and forums for people to talk. But fundamentally it’s about relationships that you make with people to get them to do things.

One of the things that technology can never do, is give me the ability to be able to look at you, in your eyes, and either invite you, motivate you, or inspire you to get involved and do something. That human connection is essential for organizing.

Organizing is a constant. Organizing isn’t ideology or about proselytization over one way of thinking. Organizing is taking a variety of people and working together and trying to find solutions, which may not be the ideological solution we thought. That is such a powerful thing, It’s the human connection of organizing that is really important; and you’ve got to be skilled to be able to do that.

I don’t think we’ll ever change that with technology. I think twenty or even 100 years from now, the human connection of organizing will still be the basics.

AM: All that said, are there any new developments in organizing that you think will have an impact in organizing?

LT: First, I am absolutely inspired that you believe there is a network of folks who do organizing who will be a part of your communication family. For those of us who have been doing organizing for a long period of time, we’ve felt almost as if we’re the lost nomads in the desert, and to realize that there’s a growing group of people who are looking at this as a profession—I think is awesome. So that’s pretty cool.

In terms of the industry of organizing, obviously we have the ability to create subsets and targeting and messaging that you could only dream about years ago, and that will continue. The problem with that, from an organizing perspective, is that so much attention and resources go into people who we know are going to vote, and a lot of our organizing effort has got to get to people who need to be inspired to vote who are not your 5-out-of-5 voters. They maybe have registered to vote because they got registered at the DMV or somebody asked them to register at an event, but they are not necessarily really motivated to vote. I don’t know how technology helps that, and that‘s my concern.

I just think it’s hand-to-hand combat, you’ve got to drag people into this, and people are trying different things. But being able to go door-to-door with handhelds and with maps and scripts is huge, and that will just get better.

AM: Do you have any parting words of advice for organizers?

LT: For anybody who does this stuff, it’s hard work. What I tried to do in my book was to give some practical lessons that successful people have used and will continue to use. The thing about organizing for me is that the more you do it, the better you get. It’s a wonderful profession if you really care about making change. I wish there were more people who went into organizing who want to run for office, because if you really want to talk about significant change, organizing is where it’s at. It’s not being on a board. So I love the fact that you are, in some ways, building a community of organizers who can share things.

You always have to be learning. You always have to be open to learning, to listening, to new ideas, and to freshness. I think that’s what kept Fred Ross organizing into his eighties, because he had that.