Left’s Lessons On Community Organizing

The lessons on how to get people behind you and your cause from the 1960s and 1970s are still valuable.

Ellen_RatnerOver the weekend, I attended a conference on alternative media at Goddard College in Vermont. The first one was held in 1970, and this one was attended by aging former hippies as well as people from the Millennial Generation.

What we now consider “old” ways of disseminating of our message was quite new back in 1970. FM radio was considered a new technology, and fax machines were not on the horizon. There were computers, but they took up lots of space, needed punch cards and stored things on tape. We had to rely on community organizing to get our message across.

Now with computers and social media such as Facebook and Twitter, there is instant media and a 24-hour news cycle. There is so much free media that we don’t have to pay for most of what we consume. We used to have to wait for the top-of-the-hour news or even plan our evenings around the watching end-of-the-day news. Now, we do not have to wait. If we really enjoy a special anchor or program, we can just watch it online later.

With the division and rancor that we saw this week about political Washington, I thought about those ideas for communication that we used way back when. That is when the left won the communications battle. Most of our organizing tools did not require a whole lot of money back then; they just needed a whole lot of creativity and organizing. Here is what they did.

It began with the arts. Two groups used their own ingenuity to make their point. The Bread and Puppet Theater made puppets that could parade down streets. They were huge and towered above the puppeteer. People would turn out to enjoy them and watch the message they were conveying. At the same time this was happening in the East, the San Francisco Mime Troupe was developing in the West. With paper mache hands, they portrayed the famous court scene of the Chicago 8.

It made the point and people paid attention.

Back then, there was no Starbucks. People congregated at night in coffee houses and participated in events at locations such as clubs and libraries. They were great places to organize and get messages across.

Around the same time, people decided to run for office. Former presidential candidate and now Secretary of State John Kerry ran for office and raised money from a Peter, Paul and Mary concert. People came to groups and discussed matters, often weekly, and the women’s movement in Boston began with discussion groups under the heading of “Bread and Roses,” the title of a well-known union organizing song.

Then there was the “teach-in,” a way of making citizens aware of the issues.

Howard Zinn a famous anti-war spokesperson and college professor, not only spent his time teaching college students in the 1960s, he taught high-school students and freely gave up his weekend time.

Boomers interested in changing the world spent a lot of time on basic communications. They got to know state representatives, members of Congress and other elected officials. Students sought out faculty members who could not only guide them but serve as their spokespeople. Fun events were organized to make a point and to gather like-minded people. One of my favorites took place on the Charles River in 1997. It was called a “be-in,” and it was there to support Harvard Dean John Monro, who was going to teach at a black Southern College at the height of the race crises. Balloons were blown up and flown with his name on it.

Before today’s marketing and branding, the anti-war efforts were in full swing, making the history books in marketing campaigns that today’s political types only wish for. Black arm bands, peace symbols and slogans were everywhere, and later even sidewalk art such as the work of Keith Haring made the AIDS crises come home to the sidewalk near you. His work later sold for thousands of dollars but began as simple protest art.

Now, in the year 2013, we are too busy bending our heads to read our handheld devices to participate in good, old fashion organizing. It doesn’t matter if you are a tea-party activist or a left-winger interested in ending drone warfare, Internet organizing is not the only way to go. The lessons on how to get people behind you and your cause from the 1960s and 1970s are still valuable. They are still the best way to get a cause organized so that it is effective, perhaps even better than the Internet.

Ellen Ratner
Ellen Ratner is the White House Correspondent and Bureau Chief for The Talk Radio News Service, covering the White House and providing exclusive reports to talk radio stations from the Congress and government agencies. In addition, she is a credentialed reporter at the United Nations in New York where Talk Radio News Service has a bureau. Ms. Ratner is a news analyst on The Fox News Channel where she is currently seen on “The Strategy Room” and is heard on over 400 radio stations across the United States. She was the only talk show host granted two interviews with President Bill Clinton. Ms. Ratner helped to develop the concept of “radio rows” with the first large one held at the White House in 1993. In addition, she has trained many groups in use of radio, television and Internet media. Her latest book, Ready, Set, Talk! A Guide to Getting Your Message Heard by Millions on Talk Radio, Talk Television, and Talk Internet, was published in July 2006. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Ms. Ratner graduated from Goddard College in Plainfield, Vermont. She earned a Masters Degree in Education from Harvard University. Follow Ellen on Twitter @ellenratner

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