The rubber is about to hit the road! Barring catastrophe, and all of this is preparing you to prevent catastrophe, the starting gun is about to go off and in four to six weeks, depending on your calendar and the size of the drive, the first meeting of this new community organization will be launched. It’s now time for the first organizing committee meeting setting everything in motion.
Remember at this point, you have already gotten a prospective member of the committee to host the meeting at her house. You have also identified key people who are willing to be on the committee and come to this meeting. At least as an organizer, you think you have. A rule of thumb is that you need the committee to be about one percent of the total number of households in the designated community. In other words, you want fifteen for an area with 1500 families, twenty for 2000, and so on. To get that number at the first organizing committee meeting you are going to have to have one-and-one-half to two-times the commitments to attend as you want bottoms in the chairs at the meeting. (We’ll come back to this time after time: organizing math matters!)
At a well run first committee meeting the organizer will have done second visits with the key people who are going to run parts of the agenda. Failing to do this well would inadvertently transfer the weight of the meeting over to the organizer and away from these potential leaders, so it is best not to stumble into a mistake here as the organization begins to cement its reality into the bloodstream of the participants. The outline for the agenda of the meeting will have been discussed with the prospective attendees. The agenda will be either posted or passed out to everyone, or both.
Ideally, the host will welcome people to her home and to the meeting. Everyone will introduce themselves. In a community organization they will say where they live, and in a workplace organization, where they work, and in what kind of job. Many times at the very first organizing committee meeting in ACORN, the organizer would have arranged for a leader from another neighborhood to come to the first OC to do the “What is ACORN?” background presentation to give everyone a sense of the organization, its history, its reach, and aspirations. If this is the first organization to be built in this area, then in the best case a resident will explain why they believe an organization is needed and why, for example, ACORN was the best and natural choice as the vehicle to meet that demand. At this first meeting, the organizer needs to be prepared to back this up, as new members get their raps together.
The meeting would then move into the issues in the area (or the workplace) that are triggering the need for an organization and demand action. This is an open conversation with lots of participation when the meeting is going well. Vocal members of the committee might be prompted to describe the issue that is motivating or angering them to act. The conversation is seeded by prompting individuals to talk about issues that they have raised in more informal settings during the runup to the first OC, on the doors, or wherever they made first contact. The organizer can help here, if needed, by saying “Mr. Gomez and Ms. Johnson, both of you mentioned abandoned houses near your blocks. Is that an issue the group should consider?” And, away they go. This part of the meeting is the longest and might clock out at a half-hour.
The bridge to the next item is straightforward. “It is clear from the discussion that there are issues and lots of them, so this is how we might move forward to build an organization.” The organizer is at the meeting for a reason. She is the mechanic that is going to help tune up the engine they want to drive to victory on these issues and their aspirations for the community. If this is a community organizing drive, she is going reconfirm the turf boundaries and talk about the organizing math: how many doors, how many people will need to hit them, how many weeks to the first meeting, and so forth.
Once the basic methodology is established, it will be time to call the question. This is going to take some work. Are people ready to do this? Either by clear consensus or a show of hands, the folks at the meeting need to vote that they want to organize, and if it’s with ACORN, that vote would also be certifying that they want to be an affiliate of the larger organization.
Then I like to pass around a calendar with large blocks for several weeks with the days marked clearly for the evenings and the weekend afternoons. An organizer would have already made sure that two or three people were ready to sign up to do the home visits during the coming week, so they would be given the calendar first. Their names might already be filled in on some of the squares. The goal is to get everyone to volunteer for a time to be trained and commit to door knock during the week. With the calendar signup process, usually everyone will sign up for a time, even if they have no intention of hitting a single door.
A constant theme is now emerging that this is a membership organization and that members will do the work. The additional point that becomes clear in this part of the agenda is that several people have already joined and paid dues. They will explain how the dues works, that they have already joined, and systematically ask everyone on the committee to join.
The meeting should never last more than ninety-minutes. We’ll talk about all of this more, but the meeting should end in good spirits with a feeling of accomplishment and the excitement of people now fired up and committed to changing the world around them, one door at a time.