The Listen, Organize, Act podcast focuses on the history and contemporary practice of community organizing and democratic politics. Alongside this specific focus are two others: the first is to explore how organizing connects democracy and religion, particularly at a local level; the second is to explore the visions and practices that shape small 'd,' participatory democratic politics. The name of the podcast reflects these concerns. Through a series of conversations with folk who live and breathe the work of organizing, each series looks at democracy as not first and foremost about a system of government, or set of laws, or an ideology but as rooted in three things. The first is a commitment to listen to others different to oneself because their experience, their story, who they are as a person matters. Listening honors fundamental premises of democracy, as it marks a way of respecting the dignity of each individual, the importance of dialogue as against killing and coercion as means of resolving conflicts, and that people should have a say in decisions that affect them and be able to shape their living and working conditions. The second is that democracy does not just happen, it needs organizing. And if it is to be democratic, it needs people organizing between themselves to determine their living and working conditions. If ordinary people don’t get organized then they are subject to others acting on them and their living and working conditions being determined by systems and structures controlled by others who either won’t listen to them, don’t have their interests at heart, or are actively hostile, wanting them silenced or disenfranchised. And finally, democracy lives or dies by shared action. Listening and organizing generate the means of coming together, but at a certain point people must act together to move the world as it is towards becoming a more just and generous one in which all may flourish. Each episode is a stand alone discussion, but when listened to together, the episodes build on each other to form an integrated series. Season 1 is a foundational course in the meaning, purpose and mechanics of how to do community organizing and build a more just and generous common life through democratic means. Season 2 is a foundational course in the meaning, purpose, and character of democracy.
S2.E1: Thucydides and the Athenian-Melian Dialog
With Jed Atkins, I discuss Thucydides understanding of politics, how he has shaped the history of political thought, and the context for him writing "The History of the Peloponnesian War." We then focus on a passage from "The History" known as the Athenian-Melian dialog, reflecting together on the ways this dialogue frames the relationship between power and politics. In the second part, I discuss with Anna Eng why the dialogue is drawn on by community organizers to teach democratic politics and how she uses the dialog in trainings.
Jed Atkins is the E. Blake Byrne Associate Professor of Classical Studies and Associate Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Duke University. He is chair of the Classical Studies Department and Faculty Director of Transformative Ideas and the Civil Discourse Project in the Kenan Institute of Ethics. A scholar of Greek, Roman, and early Christian political theory, he is the author of “Cicero on Politics” and the “Limits of Reason; Roman Political Thought;” and (with Thomas Bénatouïl) editor of “The Cambridge Companion to Cicero’s Philosophy.”
Anna Eng is the lead organizer of Nevadans for the Common Good, an affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). Originally from Portland, Oregon, she has organized for over 20 years in California, Texas and Nevada.
S2.E2.1: Saul Alinsky - Part 1
This two-part episode discusses the work of Saul Alinsky, the “dean of community organizing,” and the different traditions and influences that shaped his democratic vision. The key texts discussed are his two books: “Reveille for Radicals” published in 1946, and his more well known later book, “Rules for Radicals,” written in 1971. In this first part of this two part episode I discuss Alinsky, his writings, and his legacy with Amanda Tattersall. Amanda currently directs the Policy Lab at Sydney University. With a background in social movements as well as union organizing, she was inspired by reading Alinsky to set up Sydney Alliance, a community organizing coalition in her hometown. Since doing that, she has helped develop a number of other initiatives to craft creative, democratic responses to endemic problems.
Amanda Tattersall is an Associate Professor at Sydney University and a community organiser. She established community organising in Australia founding the Sydney Alliance, and also co-founded GetUp Australia’s largest digital campaigning organisation. She currently uses her community organising experience to lead relationship-driven research with the Sydney Policy Lab on issues like climate change and mental illness. She also hosts the ChangeMakers Podcast.
S2.E2.2: Saul Alinsky - Part 2
This two-part episode discusses the work of Saul Alinsky, the “dean of community organizing” and the different traditions and influences that shaped his democratic vision. The key texts discussed are his two books: “Reveille for Radicals” published in 1946, and his more well known latter book, “Rules for Radicals,” written in 1971. In this second part of the episode I to talk to Mike Miller. Mike started out in politics as part of the early stirrings of the student movement at UC Berkeley. From there he got involved in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), doing work in Mississippi but mostly organizing support for SNCC on the West Coast. That led him to working with Cesar Chavez as part of the Farmworker Movement. Coming off of all of that he ends up as a community organizer based in San Francisco, his home town, but organizing in different locations around the US for many decades until his retirement. His move from SNCC to organizing in the Bay Area was catalyzed by meeting Saul Alinsky who recruited him to work for the Industrial Areas Foundation for a while. I talk to Mike about his relationship with Alinsky and what he thinks was Alinsky’s understanding of democracy. Towards the end, Mike reflects on the different pathways organizing took after Alinsky died. Along the way, he draws some contrasts between the different kinds of organizing he has been involved in over the years.
Mike Miller was a leader in the pre-1960s birth of the student movement at UC Berkeley, a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) field secretary, and director of a community organizing project initiated by Saul Alinsky. He has been a lead organizer, consultant, mentor and workshop leader in the field of community organizing over many decades. He has taught community organizing, social welfare, and urban politics at UC Berkeley, Stanford, Notre Dame, Lone Mountain, San Francisco State, University of Wisconsin/Milwaukee, and Hayward State. He has also written extensively on the subject and related matters in numerous magazines and journal articles. His books include “A Community Organizer's Tale: People and Power in San Francisco—the 1964 to 1972 story of the Mission Coalition Organization (MCO),” and most recently, a co-edited volume entitled “People Power: The Community Organizing Tradition of Saul Alinsky.” He currently directs the ORGANIZE Training Center: www.organizetrainingcenter.org
S2.E.3.1: Ella Baker - Part 1
This episode discusses the work of Ella Baker and the different traditions and influences that shaped her organizing and her understanding of democracy. Baker didn’t write much and what she did write is not widely available. Instead, her approach is taught through accounts of it by historians of the civil rights movement and her biographers. So it is her life and practice that I focus on in this two part episode. In part 1 of the episode I discuss Baker's biography, her vision of democracy, and her legacy with my colleague, Wesley Hogan. Wesley is Research Professor at the Franklin Humanities Institute at Duke. She has researched and written extensively on the civil rights movement, particularly the work of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (or SNCC) which Baker helped organize and within which Baker was a key figure. And in her most recent book, Wesley examines contemporary movements influenced by Baker such as the Movement for Black Lives and the International Indigenous Youth Council, which is involved in the struggle to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline and protect sovereign control of Indigenous lands.
Wesley Hogan is Research Professor at the Franklin Humanities Institute at Duke University. She writes and teaches the history of youth social movements, human rights, documentary studies, and oral history. Her book books include, On the Freedom Side, which draws a portrait of young people organizing in the spirit of Ella Baker since 1960; Many Minds, One Heart: SNCC's Dream for a New America (2009) and a volume co-edited with Paul Ortiz entitled, People Power: History, Organizing, and Larry Goodwyn’s Democratic Vision in the Twenty-First Century. Between 2003-2013, she taught at Virginia State University, where she worked with the Algebra Project and the Young People’s Project. From 2013-2021, she served as Director of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke. She co-facilitates a partnership between the SNCC Legacy Project and Duke,The SNCC Digital Gateway, the purpose of which is to bring the grassroots stories of the civil rights movement to a much wider public through a web portal, K12 initiative, and set of critical oral histories.
Resources for Going Deeper
Charles Payne, “Slow and Respectful Work” & “Mrs Hamer is No Longer Relevant,” I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), Ch.’s 8 & 13.
Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2003).
J. Todd Moye, Ella Baker: Community Organizer of the Civil Rights Movement (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013).
Mie Inouye, “Starting with People Where They Are: Ella Baker’s Theory of Political Organizing,” American Political Science Review 116:2 (2022), 533–546.
Interview with Ella Baker (1968) https://abolitionnotes.org/ella-baker/interview1968
Speech to the SNCC Conference (1963) https://abolitionnotes.org/ella-baker/sncc1963
Address at the Hattiesburg Freedom Day Rally (1964)
Ep3.2: Ella Baker - Part 2
In this second part of the episode on Ella Baker, I talk to Gerald Taylor. We discuss the influence Baker’s approach and vision had on him as an organizer, how he sees her understanding of organizing play out on the ground, and his own involvement in myriad grassroots democratic initiatives. Along the way, he recounts a compelling set of stories and reflections on what it means to do organizing in the spirit of Ella Baker.
Gerald Taylor was a national senior organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) for nearly 35 years, and for much of this time he was the IAF’s Southeast Regional Director. In 2015, he co-founded Advance Carolina, the first state-wide Black led 501c (4) in North Carolina focused on building Black political power. His organizing career began as a teenager through involvement in the civil rights movement, with him eventually being elected as New York State President of the NAACP Youth and College Division at 17 years old. He then organized with the National Democratic Party of Alabama, an interracial third political party, in their historic election victories of 1970. He went to be involved in numerous organizing initiatives in the US, most notably in New York City, Baltimore, Memphis, Nashville, Atlanta, and Jackson, Mississippi. Immediately after Hurricane Katrina, he spent four years organizing African American communities along the Mississippi Gulf Coast to receive disaster relieve leading to the formation of a coalition that negotiated nearly one billion dollars in disaster relieve funding for these communities. He has trained thousands of leaders, including clergy, over the past forty years in community organizing and congregational development. He has also lectured at colleges and universities, including Shaw Divinity School, Hood Divinity School, North Carolina Central Law School, Duke Divinity School, Vanderbilt Divinity School, Garrett Evangelical Methodist Seminary, and UNC Chapel-Hill on theories of social change, community organizing, and leadership. He has also worked internationally with organizations such as Bread for the World, the Sidney Alliance in Australia, and been a consultant to democratization initiatives in Swaziland, Zimbabwe, and South Africa.
Resources for Going Deeper
See the show notes for the previous episode
S2.E4.1: Bayard Rustin - Part 1
This episode discusses the remarkable figure of Bayard Rustin who pioneered many of the tactics and strategies still used in large scale organizing work. A lifelong and committed Quaker, Rustin is in many ways a paradoxical figure. A utopian realist or pragmatic radical he was criticized for many of the positions he took yet his commitment to people power manifested through nonviolent, democratic means of change and his holistic vision of social, economic, and political transformation was deeply revolutionary. From the 1940s onwards he was at the forefront of struggles for peace, racial equality, economic justice, and the dignity of all people. And as an openly gay man he was constantly harassed and excluded by those he worked with because of his sexuality. Alongside his life, work as an organizer, Quaker theology, and democratic vision, this two part episode discusses his seminal essay "From Protest to Politics," still used by organizers today.
In this first part, I talk to Sarah Azaransky who teaches at Union Theological Seminary. Sarah is writing a book on Rustin and has researched and written extensively on the historical influences and figures that shaped the civil rights movement. These include a biography of Pauli Murray, another key figure of the struggle for civil rights, as well as a history of the interaction between civil rights leaders in the US and the Indian independence movement led by Gandhi.
Sarah Azaransky teaches social ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. She is author of The Dream is Freedom: Pauli Murray and American Democratic Faith (2011) and This Worldwide Struggle: Religion and the International Roots of the Civil Rights Movement (2017). She is working on a volume about Bayard Rustin to be published in Eerdmans' "Library of Religious Biography" series.
Resources for Going Deeper
Bayard Rustin, “From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement (1964),” Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin, eds., Devon Carbado & Donald Wise, 2nd edn (New York: Cleis Press, 2015), 116-146. Also available online.
Bayard Rustin, Strategies for Freedom: The Changing Patterns of Black Protest (New York: Columbia University Press, 1976).
Jerald Podair, Bayard Rustin: American Dreamer (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009). Concise biography that directly addresses Rustin’s work as an organizer and his political philosophy.
George Shulman, “Bayard Rustin: Between Democratic Theory and Black Political Thought,” African American Political Thought: A Collected History (Chicago” Chicago University Press, 2021), 439-459. A superb essay that reflects on how the tensions and contradictions in Rustin’s life and how his debates with Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and Staughton Lynd articulate the condition and possibilities of democratic politics today.
Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin (2003), dir. Nancy Kates & Bennett Singer. Documentary film about Rustin’s life.
Have appreciated the wisdom and insight of various organizers as they speak about fundamentals of political and communal issues from a organizing perspective. A must listen for all invested in serious questions of community, justice, and citizenship.
Impressive and substantial
I was skeptical that one could get at the essence of IAF organizing in a podcast - I was afraid it would be too academic - but Keisha and Mike speak from their years of organizing on the ground to answer Luke’s questions with compelling stories. I was especially gratified to hear Keisha talk about the challenges of recruiting both younger people as organizers and institutions other than faith-based ones.
Great intro to organizing
Brilliant podcast for both those new to organizing and those long in the field looking for a refresh and renewal.