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Making That First Contact - Organizing 101

Three young organizers made the long drive through rural California to meet famed farmworkers organizer Cesar Chavez. After their hard dusty journey, they sat with him and asked, "Cesar, how do you organize? "Cesar replied, "Well, first you talk to one person, then you talk to another person, then you talk to another person..."But, HOW DO YOU ORGANIZE?...they insisted. Cesar repeated. "First you talk to one person, then you talk to another.

To build an organization, there's no substitute for face-to-face contact. You can call people on the phone, send flyers in the mail, distrubute leaflets, but to build to relationships that will hold an organization together you must meet and talk with people, one by one.

So first, you have to go and knock on someone's door. When you knock on a new person's door, there's that awkward first few seconds when she's deciding whether or not to slam the door and go on with the business of life. Your opening has to be clear, open and appealing. She's wondering, Who are you? Where are you from? What do you want? And what's it going to cost me? Think about you own experiences with strangers coming to your door. What makes you decide to talk to them? What makes you decide to close your door?

Who sent you? With whom are you connected that I know? These are credibility questions a good organizer will work out in advance. If you can say, "I was just talking to your neighbor, Mrs. Jones, and she said you'd be a good person to talk to, or "Reverend Smith is working with us-he's letting us use the church basement for our meeting next week, "you have "borrowed credibility" and have a few more seconds to get in the door.

The person you're talking to knows that you haven't decided to knock on the door for a lark. You want SOMETHING, so what is it? Are you pasting around a petition? Petitions are an excellent door opener. Many organizations use petitions for just this reason to have a conversation opener with new contacts. Carrying around a petition is better than walking around with your groups flyer. People know it generally doesn't cost them anything to sign a petition; they'll be more at their ease if you open with: I'd like to talk to you about our organization.

Once you are inside the door, your job is less to talk and more to get the other person talking. Listen to her story, her reaction to your group's issue, how she ties that in to her own past experiences and future aspirations. You are also taking the measure of her leadership possibilities. The more people talk to you and the more they perceive you as LISTENING, the stronger will be the bond between you.

Whether you are selling brushes, vacuum cleaners, or toxic waste cleanup, the time comes when you have to close in for the sale. In organizing the sale is the commitment to DO SOMETHING. To make the sale, you will have to show how it is in the person's interests to get involved in your organization. People act out of self-interest. You want them to see how their needs and desires fit in with what you are doing. Usually, there is direct self-interest is less direct: If I work with this organization, I can count on them for help when I need it. Or self-interest could be the desire to help, to do the right thing, to socialize, to be connected to something exciting. The strength of such commitments will vary: a strong moral or religious commitment often outweighs the need to socialize (though not always!)

Use your judgement to gauge what the person can afford, "Everyone can do something. Commitment should be expressed as action. "I believe" should flow directly into "I will do. "Signing the petition is the easy way out. So is making a half-hearted promise to maybe come to the meeting. Explore ways that the person can become actively involved. Ask for other contacts. Ask her to come door-knocking with you, or to make two to five contacts herself-make sure that she knows you'll be back in touch to see how things went. Close out the meeting by being sure you and the new person have a clear anf concrete understanding about the deal; how many people she'll contact, how many she'll commit to getting to the meeting, etc.

Now you're up off the couch and heading fo the door. You've had a good meeting with a brand-new person who looks like a real good prospect. Before you leave, that person deserves to know how happy you are with this meeting and, more important, how essential she is to building this organization. Remember how you felt the first time someone asked you to get involved.

Then you're out the door, armed with more insight into the community, new names, more issues, and, hopefully, feeling stronger. Now you've talked to one person and it's time to talk to another..




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Center for Health, Environment and Justice • P.O. Box 6806
Falls Church, VA 22040-6806 • 703-237-2249 • chej(at)chej.org

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