Outreach isn’t just reaching people who already agree with you

But a capaign can go to far. In this case, too far is when people believe that believing is enough, without factoring in the differences between the passionate few who run the campaign and the barely interested many who actually vote. –Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody, referring to the 2004 Howard Dean campaign

In my wife’s work with the GetDowntown program, she hears avid bicycle commuters suggest ways to get non-cyclists to bike to work. She hears from avid walkers about how to get non-walkers to give up their cars for a good pair of shoes.

In my work, I hear from deeply committed environmentalists about how to get indifferent people to lower their carbon footprint. I hear passionate peace activists tell me how we should get the apathetic public to care.

This input is valuable, and many good ideas come from it, but what these true believers forget, and what I often forget, is that the “barely interested many” aren’t approaching our issues from the same perspective we are, and what motivates us may not motivate them. To reach the “barely interested many,” you have to set aside your interests to see what it is that they are interested in, meet them where they are, and help them take the next step.

It can be fun to connect with the people who already agree with and to talk the shared language of what already motivates you, and there is a place for that in sustaining a movement, but it is not enough.

If you are going to change the world, you can’t just talk to people who already agree with you. You can’t just speak the language of what motivates people like you. You need to reach out, talk to new people in their own language. That’s why they call it outreach.

Five Ways to Lead With More Compassion

compassion and empathy are more than feel-good skills, they make you a better leader.

Susan Cramm has an excellent post on the Harvard Business Review blog how to lead with more compassion. The 5 ways are:

  1. Assume the best in others;
  2. Understand what makes them tick;
  3. Serve their needs;
  4. Accept responsibility;
  5. Assume the best intentions.

I’ve said before that  empathy is the core of organizing (and fundraising, and media relations, and volunteer management, and marketing, etc.). These five practices are strong ways to build your empathy and compassion and become a better community organizer. the best in others

The limits of empathy

Is empathy always best for organizing?

Is empathy always best for organizing?

I’ve written before that “empathy is the core of organizing.”

Empathy has its limits, though.

Here’s an example. Recently the organization I worked for wanted to hang an anti-torture banner over Main Street in our city. The city permit process requires that such actions get approval from the area merchant association. When they received our request, the Main Street group decided to put all banner permits on hold while they reviewed if they could deny banners that are political in nature.

I was angry at their decision, but I also had empathy for their perspective. I want downtown merchants to do well, and I didn’t think that pictures of aborted fetuses, for example, would be good for business. I saw their side of the story.

Not everyone in the organization was inclined to be understanding. Some said we should march down Main Street with the banner they wouldn’t let us hang up (as a publicity stunt, this was a beautiful idea). Some had no patience for the merchant association’s concerns, and therefore they were willing to take a much more assertive approach.

Which disposition is the correct one? They both have merits. I have begun to re-think my advocacy of empathy over all things as I see that my respect for the business association’s concerns limited my ability to respond forcefully.

Still, I cannot bring myself to give up my general approach to see and understand my the perspectives of those I disagree with.

Demagoguery, de-humanization, and denial of other perspectives can be a powerful ways to mobilize people, but that is a road that I fear to travel. Instead, I remain committed to seeking empathy and understanding.

How it ended. We had so much else to do with torture awareness month, we never chose a path of action to deal with the merchant association’s rejection of our banner.

We did get to put the banner up, but not on Main Street

We did get to put the banner up, but not on Main Street

We did get permission to hang the banner on another street by a different merchant association. I am deeply uncomfortable with handing over decisions about what speech is permissible to a business group, especially if there are no clear standards for their decisions and no means for appeal. We have had some contact with local civil liberties attorneys and we have not ruled out trying to change the approval mechanism working either through our elected officials or through the courts.

Empathy is the core of organizing

The blog has a great post titled Empathy: Not Such a Soft Skill. The post argues that “empathy is a critical skill. If you can imagine a person’s point of view — no matter what you think of it — you can more effectively influence him. Empathizing with your team, your boss, your coworkers, and your colleagues won’t make you a pushover — it’ll give you more power.”

I agree. In fact, I believe that empathy is the most imporant skill in organizing.

Do you want to recruit a volunteer? It makes all the difference if you can understand what motivates her.

Do you want to pitch a story to a reporter? Emapathy helps you understand what the reporter looks for in a story.

Do you want to lobby your mayor? Empathy helps you understand the political pressures she’s under and her own hopes and fear, and thereby better influence her.

But here’s the thing, empathy is not projecting yourself, your insecurities, or your passions onto another person.

I see this most with fundraising. People get hung up worrying that “they don’t want to hear from me,” or “they will be angry if I ask them for money.” I confess, I get caught up in this kind of thinking sometimes.

Projecting your own fear of asking is not empathy.

Empathy is really trying to understand that people like to help where they can, where they have a connection to an organization and a belief in a cause.

I also see this with people who are passionate about an issue. For example, I’m a homebrewer and a bit of a beer geek. I love to talk about yeast varietyies, fermentation temperature, and when hops are added to a beer. But this kind of talk bores most people.

Empathy isn’t about geeking out on my interests, it’s about understanding and connecting with yours.

That’s true about homebrewing. It’s also true about how many parts-per-milling of CO2 we should admit, the electoral intricicies of the FMLN election in El Salvador, or how zoning changes impact the level of affordable housing.

Empathy is the most imporant skill an organizer can have, and true empathy depends on putting aside your biases, your fears, and your agenda to really understand the other person. When you can do that, you can meet them on their terms and move them forward to be an agent for change.

Why people of faith should oppose torture

Torture is Wrong bannerThis is Torture Awareness Month, and I’ve been working to recruit congregations to hang banners saying “Torture is Wrong.” Sometimes I get the question, “Why should our congregation take a stand on this issue?”

The National Religious Campaign Against Torture has compiled a good list of resources about why people of faith are speaking out against torture. Let me add my own thoughts.

As I look at my tradition, Christianity, and its roots in Judaism, I see much of its ethical teachings as based in empathy.

We see this clearly in the Laws of Moses:

“You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, having been strangers in the land of Egypt.” Exodus 23:9

Why not oppress? Because you know what it’s like. Even if you as a person have not experienced this, remember your history as a people and a faith. Remember what it’s like to be powerless, so that you won’t take advantage of the weak.

Jesus continues teaching from this tradition by reminding his followers of Lev. 19:18, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:31)

If you love your neighbor, you won’t torture him. That may be trite, but it is true.

Likewise, when we look at the history of our faith community, we as a people know what it is to be tortured. From the St. Stephan, the first Christian martyr, to the Jews of the Holocaust, people of faith have seen what it is to be unjustly beaten, tortured, and killed. From a Christian perspective, of course, we see this most in Jesus, who was flogged, humiliated, and nailed to a cross–certainly a form of torture.

The teaching of Exodus can be restated, “you know the soul of the tortured, having been tortured by Rome.”

And now we are in power. As people of faith in America, we are part of the world’s only remaining superpower.

We are part of the New Rome. The New Egypt. The new empire.

And it is vital that we look back to our history and our tradition that we remember that we too as a people were victims of torture, and that we choose God’s path of empathy and declare:

Torture is wrong.