Hahrie Han, Elizabeth McKenna and Michelle Oyakawa’s new book, “Prisms of the People Power & Organizing in Twenty-First-Century America” (University of Chicago Press, 2021), explains how and when organizing works in U.S. politics. I asked the authors what their book says:

HF: Often when people think about collective action, they ask whether constituencies can trust and rely on their leaders. This book is more about whether leaders can trust and rely on their constituency. What do we get from this different perspective?

HH, EM, MO: Our book asks what the conditions are under which grass-roots organizations are able to exercise political power. We find that what really distinguishes organizations is how they respond when their power is challenged. Any grass-roots organization seeking change — especially those working with low-income communities of color — will, at some point, see their power challenged.

That’s the moment when leaders have to ask themselves how prepared their constituency is to act. Does my constituency understand the issues at stake? Are they connected to me and to each other in the kind of relationships that will motivate commitment and sustain action? That kind of commitment and those kinds of relationships cannot be constructed overnight or manufactured through marketing. Instead, leaders must cultivate them long before that moment of challenge.

One of our cases examines a network of immigrant rights organizations in Arizona that had been organizing for a decade to counter restrictive immigration policy in the state. When they began organizing, they could not have anticipated President Donald Trump, Trumpism or the 2020 election. But when the moment came, they were ready, because they had laid the groundwork ahead of time, and they helped flip Arizona.

Leaders and organizations that do that patient work of laying such a foundation are more likely to win power because they have equipped their constituencies to act when they need it. So really it’s a relationship of mutual accountability that has to exist between leaders and constituents. Leaders are not mere instruments of the constituency, nor are constituents props of the leaders.

HF: People often view activists as one-issue ideologues. Your research suggests that many — perhaps the large majority — don’t fit that stereotype, and that their flexibility is part of their success. Why is this important?

HH, EM, MO: We found that the common media portrayal of activists as unrealistic, extreme and unable to compromise was an inaccurate caricature. This portrayal unfairly conflates strategy and preference, assuming that because many activists have bold visions for change, they are strategically inflexible. In fact, we find that the most effective grass-roots organizations are flexible, understanding that power is a dynamic negotiation. They often had strong ideological commitments but were also quite savvy about the political dynamics of struggles for power.

Flexibility is crucial for movements to incorporate the large numbers of people from different backgrounds, interests and viewpoints needed to grow the movement, and to endure the length of a campaign. Any effort to win political power takes time. As the political weather changes, so too might the candidates, policies, strategies or outcomes a movement supports.

We studied a successful effort to win publicly funded universal preschool in Cincinnati. After more than 10 years of building, the coalition supporting this effort almost fell apart over a debate about how progressive the funding mechanism for the bill should be. It stayed together when the grass-roots organization representing the poorest families in Cincinnati compromised on their support for a wealth tax, in exchange for commitments from business leaders to target resources to poor families and accept a property tax instead.

HF: Scholars, journalists and funders think about organizing in terms of policy wins and losses. You suggest that some successful organizers adopt a different frame of thinking. What is it, and what do they get from it?

HH, EM, MO: We focus on power, not policy, as the outcome. Often, unique circumstances can come together to pass policy — as they did in our Virginia case study to restore voting rights for the formerly incarcerated — but the extent to which that policy actually impacts people’s lives depends on the way it’s implemented and how it’s protected or not over time.

As we’re witnessing with the current fight over voting rights in America, policy without power is fragile. Power is about the extent to which grass-roots organizations help pass the policy, but also win the right to continue influencing how policies get implemented, interpreted and updated. As the political battle over voting rights unfolds in Virginia, the organization we studied is in the middle of that fight — not because they won the policy several years ago, but because they won power.

HF: Many commentators think that American democracy has a bleak future. Your book points to a different understanding of how democracy works and what the possibilities are. Does this justify a less pessimistic account of where the United States is headed?

HH, EM, MO: In the end, our book is about how organizations and movements can equip people to become architects of their own future and win the power they need to design the world they want for themselves and their families. That is what democracy should be — a process through which ordinary people, grounded in their own interests, learn to put their hands on the levers of change, and deliberate or compete with others to design that future.

Our optimism comes from knowing that it’s possible, and that the work is happening in the world — despite the power of racism, wealth, and structural inequity. Our pessimism comes from recognizing how fragile it is, and what an uphill battle these organizations are fighting. Our political system often fails to recognize the way that the micro-dynamics of how we pull people off the sidelines, what kinds of organizations we construct around them and how we scaffold their participation in the political system matters for what we can achieve, and what kind of democracy we create.

We are in a challenging time, and people are feeling frustrated that they don’t see change happening. But what we’ve learned is that the work organizers do today lays the groundwork for future success. They can build relationships, commitment, skills and organizations, now, so they can create opportunities to win power and make change when the moment is right.

This post was made possible by support from the Ford Foundation. It is part of a year-long series bringing important new research on BIPOC organizing to a broader audience.