Paul Engler: The Informer Interview

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Paul Engler is the co-author, with his brother Mark, of the new book This Is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-First Century. Paul grew up in Des Moines, and came back to Iowa for his book tour, including a stop at the Ames Public Library this Thursday. Evan Burger sat down with him to pick his brain on sex education, the presidential primaries, and how to change the world.

You’re back in Iowa for some events promoting your new book, This Is an Uprising. Tell us a little about the book.

I think that people get stuck in certain ways of thinking about social change. In the book, we call those ways of thinking “organizing traditions.” You go to an organization, whether it’s an advocacy group in DC that’s doing lobbying, or a group that’s organizing neighborhoods and faith groups to win neighborhood issues or citywide issues, or a labor union.

Each of these groups has different philosophies about how change happens, and when you’re surrounded by everyone in your culture, those assumptions get reinforced again and again. Then when you bump into another person with a different culture, you’re like, “Why do you eat that way, and look that way, and think that way?” and there’s this war between the different traditions. In these Momentum Trainings we do, we really affirm everyone’s organizing tradition. We tell people, “Your organizing tradition has a lot of strengths, it teaches amazing skills, it has a whole craft of organizing.”

When people start organizing in a certain tradition, they discover that each organizing tradition has a real depth. But there are also other organizing traditions that can help us better understand how to make change happen. And the only way we can see that is to take the fish out of the water, take ourselves out of our cultures and realize that there are other cultures, there are other waters.

You mentioned the Momentum Training, which is a training program you started that applies the lessons found in this book. Is the goal of the training to bring together the best of all these different traditions?

Actually, when we started the Momentum Institute, I was really afraid, because I come out of a hardcore organizing tradition, and I knew that changing an organization is very hard. There are all these really good reasons organizationally why people advocate for certain things or think certain things. And people’s jobs are on the line, so it’s really brutal [to change organizational culture from the inside]. Organizing is a feudal kind of system of knights and lords and fiefdoms, and I was just a knight in that system, so it was very hard for me to advocate for very much.

So I thought when I formed a training institute that took what I thought were best practices from all across the globe, and from decades of reading — I’m kind of a social-movement organizing geek, I study a lot different organizing traditions for fun — I thought people were going to reject it or be threatened by it, but I was surprisingly wrong. We do it in a very appreciative way, and people love our stuff because they feel like it gives answers to certain questions they’ve been struggling with.

You’re a trainer and a theorist of organizing as well as an organizer. How do you see these three roles relating to each other? Should every organizer also be a trainer and grounded in theory?

Well, people have different strengths and weaknesses.

In the US, most community organizing – like in Des Moines, where you have groups like AMOS [A Midwest Organizing Strategy] and Iowa CCI [Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement] – a lot of these organizations come out of an Alinskyite tradition.

Saul Alinsky, this guy in the ‘60s, formulated and systematized this whole school of community organizing. There’s many different strands of that tradition, and even a lot of labor organizing has similar dynamics. Alinsky learned from hardcore community and labor organizing in the CIO [an early union], so even unions like UNITE-HERE, whose organization doesn’t come from Alinsky, comes from that earlier tradition, and is very similar to Alinskyite philosophy.

Building a really strong base of people through personal one-on-one relationships, knocking on doors, building indigenous leaders and grassroots structures, and then leveraging that like a laser beam towards a decision-maker that’s able to make a change that you want. You give them specific demands, then you take actions that hold them specifically accountable to force them to make concession — that’s the theory of change.

People say Occupy didn’t accomplish anything. What they don’t understand is that Occupy dramatically changed public opinion around a lot of the things Bernie Sanders is running on right now.

That school of organizing really has a heroic organizer as the bottleneck. Everything is based on the idea that the organizer is like a magical worker that forms all these organizations. Alinsky saw the organizer as the engineer who made these organizations possible, so the big question was, “How do we produce tons of organizers?”

I actually think that’s the wrong question. I think that tradition puts too much emphasis on the organizer, and instead we need to start thinking about how we can create movements with many different roles. Maybe we don’t have an organizer who magically can do all these things, but maybe we have someone who can do social media, and someone like my mom, who’s an awesome caretaker, and those roles can be really validated in the movement. Not everyone needs to understand theory.

I do think everyone needs to understand some basic theory. If you don’t understand basic theory about social change, you’re dependent on the organizer or the organization to provide that theory for you, and you just accept it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn’t allow for a lot of innovation, and it doesn’t allow for what I call good social movement ecology, which means that you’re not able to be in dialogue with different movements.

In addition to the Alinskyite, or “structural organizing” tradition, you also write about the “mass protest” tradition, which is based on these big movements that take to the streets in a huge way, but have a tendency to flare up and then burn out. You posit a third type of organization that you call a hybrid organization, which combines the best of both traditions. What are some hybrid organizations currently operating here in the US?

One thing that most people don’t understand is that most of the big flare-ups in the US, from the anti-globalization movement to the anti-war movement, to the immigrant rights movement and Occupy, belong to a single mass protest organizing tradition. Every time a flare-up happens, people think it’s something totally new, but all the things that they do — large, consensus-based decision-making based on Quaker processes, spokescouncils or general assemblies, sparkly fingers — all these things are part of the American mass protest tradition, and 80 to 90 percent of it is the same, protest after protest.

I bow to the greatness of that tradition, but that tradition also has tons of problems that other countries don’t have in their mass protest traditions. These protests in the US almost always fall apart, they almost always lose non-violent discipline. And when that happens, when people start breaking windows, doing property destruction, lighting cars on fire, or even throwing molotov cocktails at the police, you lose the support of the public and the mass protest fizzles out. In a lot of other countries, there is a more vibrant mass protest tradition that doesn’t have those problems.

In the book, we talk about the hybrid that takes the best elements of Alinskyite and mass protest traditions and mixes them together. Right now, NPA [National People’s Action] groups like CCI and other groups across the country, are coming from the structure side and are really interested in creating a hybrid. There are other great groups right now like Cosecha, which is an immigrant rights group formed by a bunch of DREAMers, and If Not Now, that are attempting to be hybrid organizations.

I think the best historical examples are in the early ‘60s: SNCC [the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] was an interesting hybrid between structure and mass protest. They did hardcore structure organizing but they also did the mass protest stuff that got lots of media attention and momentum, and the combination was very powerful. The Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was Martin Luther King Jr.’s organization, did very interesting combinations of hardcore organizing and hardcore mass protest.

There’s also the United Farm Workers. Cesar [Chavez, the leader of the UFW] worked for Alinsky, but he incorporated Gandhi, he incorporated the civil rights mass protest tradition into his work with unions. Because of that tension, the United Farm Workers won when everyone else was losing. No one thought they had a chance in hell, but they used all these mass protest tactics that allowed them to succeed in organizing farmworkers where everyone else had failed. Later on, the union fell apart, but it had an amazing round of success.

Those are some of the best examples. There are many more, but those are the ones I look most to.

One of the main points you make in the book is that mass protest “flare-ups” don’t just happen spontaneously, that there’s always organizing under the surface that makes these movements happen. What role do you see macro-level considerations in making a moment particularly fortuitous for trained organizers to take advantage of?

I think people are too binary, by saying that it’s all conditions or it’s all skills, when in reality it’s a combination of both. For the hybrid, we’re interested in how you create these “moments of the whirlwind,” these big movement moments that are generated through big action. Sometimes, it’s by escalating a “trigger event” that’s happening in the environment.

Sept. 11 was a trigger event, for instance. It changed public opinion — but it’s different from a disaster like Three Mile Island, the nuclear disaster that catapulted the anti-nuclear power movement. That’s because the anti-nuclear movement escalated, they had a movement that could take that disaster and make it into something.

A lot of what the mass protest tradition is about is how we take the conditions that are given to us and engineer these moments of the whirlwind. Some of the biggest trigger events are elections. Every four years there’s a big trigger event — Bernie Sanders is creating a trigger event right now. He’s capitalizing on that and using it, but people involved in various movements also need to figure out how to use that.

Regardless of whether Bernie wins or loses, what advice would you give to organizations who are trying to bring in new people who are coming in on the Bernie train?

Related: Read the Informer's coverage of Bernie Sanders
Related: Read the Informer’s coverage of Bernie Sanders

People who are doing structural organizing and people who are playing the inside game don’t care about “changing the weather,” [i.e., changing the overall political climate] because they don’t even understand that it’s possible. That’s the big debate between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton right now: the Hillary people say Bernie can’t win anything, that he’s not practical, we need someone who can play the inside game.

Well, no, actually you can change the weather, you can change what is possible. You can even measure how much you change the weather. People say Occupy didn’t accomplish anything. What they don’t understand is that Occupy dramatically changed public opinion, which you can measure in public polling, around a variety of different issues: income inequality, taxing millionaires, Wall Street regulation, a lot of the things Bernie Sanders is running on right now.

All of these things have been elevated by Occupy, and because of that, ballot initiatives have been passed, resolutions have been won. The organizers would be the first ones to tell you that the change in weather had a huge impact on that. In California, for instance, the governor conceded on a tax on millionaires because of the change in public opinion that Occupy caused; Washington state passed a millionaire tax; in New York, Occupy revived the millionaire tax. All that happened because of the change in weather.

To answer your question, Bernie and Obama created trigger events that changed the weather. Our question is how do we absorb the new weather, how do we absorb that people are mobilizing outside of mass structures. The mass protest tradition really addresses this question.

In a lot of ways, Obama was a better organizer than Bernie. His campaign had an amazing infrastructure of building teams and online lists, and he created a huge moment of the whirlwind. But then with Organizing for America he tried to absorb it into the Democratic Party, which was never going to work. With Bernie, we need to think about how to build decentralized organizations that can absorb momentum in a different way than we traditionally organize. And momentum organizing has a lot better answers on how to do that than traditional organizing.

What advice would you give to people who are getting involved in politics for the first time with the Bernie campaign and are looking for organizations where they can carry on the political revolution that he talks about?

People always ask me, “What should I do?” Here in America, we have this deeply ingrained idea of individualism, that you should do something as an individual that expresses your individual passions and desires. I think this is a bad impulse for doing collective action. I think the most important thing is that you do something in your own vocation, in your own church, that you join a community of people that care about social justice.

We always picked issues that were popular to students, so the first thing we organized around was the right to TP the shit out of the school at homecoming.

My mom, for example, is involved in this group called WILPF [Women’s International League of Peace and Freedom]. A lot of people don’t know about it, but it’s huge with women over 70, and in Des Moines they have this amazing chapter. There are tons of groups like that and I think it’s important to build that community with your vocation: if you’re a musician, building community with other musicians, if you’re a pastor, building it with other pastors, if you’re a retail clerk, building it within your union or with other retail clerks.

Building community is the best way to do social activism, and it’s really the only way. There’s a quote: “If you want to do something fast, do it alone, but if you want it to last a long time, do it with other people.”

You talked about how Obama and Bernie implicitly used the lessons laid out in your book — how about Donald Trump? Is his campaign using momentum-driven organizing in any way?

Related: Read the Informer's coverage of Donald Trump
Related: Read the Informer’s coverage of Donald Trump

I don’t know how conscious Donald Trump is of these dynamics, but I do think that the Right in general, and the Tea Party, are evil geniuses. A lot of what we talk about in our chapter on polarization is what Frank Luntz, who’s the leading PR expert on the right, has been talking about for two decades. And a lot of the reason the Right is winning is because they’re doing things that we’re advocating in the book. They’re not going for the muddled middle, they’re activating their base and pulling the whole political spectrum to the right.

I think Donald Trump is an anomaly, because he’s losing the middle, which Frank Luntz agrees you want to avoid. He’s polarizing the base towards him, but the mainstream against him. You have to remember: 42 percent of Latinos voted for George W. Bush in Texas. You know how many Latinos are going to vote for Trump? Maybe 15 percent. That’s a big deal. The Republicans lost a huge base in a lot of different demographics because of Trump. Before, [Republicans] were polarizing but they were winning the middle. Trump changed that.

This Is an Uprising, like most of your work, is co-authored with your brother Mark. What writing process do you use between the two of you?

Well, organizing is a subject I’m very deeply enmeshed in, both personally as an organizer, but I also just geek out on this stuff. I co-founded the Momentum Institute with Carlos Saavedra and a whole team of activists who try to figure out how these ideas can help activists in the United States. Because of that, I have a lot of expertise that I bring to the table. My brother is a better writer than I am, I will admit that. He’s a freelance writer, so he knows the craft of writing.

Also, because I’ve been studying this subject so long, I have a lot of narratives. I’ve read massive amounts, so I have stories to explain each principle. Experience really is the only thing that allows you to do that, so that’s one thing I bring to the table. My brother brings his writing, and he also has stories, but he’s not an organizer.

I think I gravitate to being more accessible than my brother. I like concepts that are very simple and easy to apply, where my brother — he would hate this, by the way -— is more academic, more intellectual, in the way he presents his content.

Overall, I think we make a good pair, because we each bring a different voice but we have to meld it together. It’s a beautiful process — I’m not sure I’ll write all of my books with my brother, but he is a very strong writer.

The two of you grew up here in Des Moines — were you involved in politics growing up?

Our dad was a radical priest, he read Saul Alinsky and was really influenced by Alinskyite organizing. He died when I was nine, so I didn’t know a lot of my father’s politics. But I did know that he was a priest and my mom was a nun, and we were always enmeshed in this great community of peace and justice Catholics. I went to a very progressive Catholic church, and my parents were involved in social justice.

But it wasn’t until my dad’s death, when my mother had to work a lot to provide for us, that my brothers and I really bonded and created a sense of community. Our house became a huge source of community, which was important for me after my father’s death and the death of my grandmother, who died shortly after him. Having a sense of community was a real salvation for me, and that was something I learned from my parents.

Then, learning organizing brought even more community, because there was an actual science and craft to build a whole empire of community. Naturally, high schoolers organize themselves into niches, but I actually had a science behind it, which I brought to the warfare of teenage social groups. It was incredibly effective, we organized our high school, we had activist groups, environmental groups, feminist groups. It changed my life — I went from being a radical environmentalist weirdo to being popular and supported. That gave me a lot of validation, and it made me want to reach for community as the solution to my problems.

One of the campaigns you led was based on sex ed — how did you pick that issue?

We always picked issues that were popular to students, so the first thing we organized around was the right to TP the shit out of the school at homecoming, because the students really loved that. I fought for things like keeping the art fair and senior skip day and senior breakfast alive.

We took on sex education because we had this amazing biology teacher who taught sex education for 20 years. Everyone loved him, but he didn’t have any permission to do it, so when he retired, the sex education system collapsed. The school district was not very good about sex education in Des Moines. So we realized there was an opening, and we were influenced by our women friends who had experienced a lot of trauma around rape and sexual assault and teenage pregnancy.

Strategically, I think we were really smart, because we realized that if we advocating for the most progressive sex education program — including putting condom machines in the schools — then everyone would flip out and we could compromise to something in the middle. We wanted Planned Parenthood to help run the program, and first the school didn’t want them involved, but we were able to bring Planned Parenthood in to help train the students. In my senior year, the seniors taught the sex education. We won that through pushing the school – we had to let go of the condom machines but we won all this other stuff.


Paul Engler’s book tour for This Is an Uprising will make a stop at the Ames Public Library this Thursday.

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Evan Burger is a writer and organizer who lives near Ames. He is a graduate of Columbia University, where he was the editor-in-chief of The Gadfly, Columbia’s philosophy magazine. He has also written for Jacobin magazine. Evan organized in rural areas with Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, on campuses with the United States Student Association, and most recently worked for the Bernie Sanders campaign. He can be reached by email at burgerevan [at] gmail [dot] com.