This guide, prepared by NYC United for Peace and Justice draws on the organizing experiences of Upper Hudson Peace Action branches. NYC United for Peace & Justice
A Guide to Organizing a Neighborhood Based Peace and Justice Group.
What this is.
This is a guide to organizing a neighborhood peace and justice group written by people who have are actively involved in neighborhood groups. It is based on the experience of people who like you, are working full time or retired or at school, with families and friends and many other commitments. We want you to know that even with all those commitments, it can be done! It is also an offer from New York City United for Peace and Justice to help you in any way we can: with advice, resources, a cheering section and a friendly shoulder to cry on when things don’t go well.
What this is not.
This is not a rigid recipe for success. What works in one neighborhood and with one group of people may not work in yours. What has been successful for us may not be the only route to success. This is just a guide. Take from it what seems useful.
Why neighborhood groups are so powerful.
Neighborhood groups are important because bottom-up beats top-down every time. If we want to touch the lives of the largest number of people, we need to find them where they live, where they worship, where they shop and where they send their kids to school. People start their involvement with small steps. Most of them do not travel to Washington to demand peace unless they have first become involved in something local that seems easy to do and offers a chance of success.
What is a neighborhood?
Some “local” groups encompass whole boroughs. But if you are starting a new group it is better to pick a community that feels like one to you. Most neighborhoods in New York have names that have grown up over time. If people identify themselves with these names and the geographical space does not seem too large for you to cover, it is probably appropriate.
How to start: first find a small group of “committed” people.
The very first step is to assemble a small group of “committed” people. We put this in quotes because commitment means different things to different people. Some people can contribute huge amounts of time and some just an hour every week or so. But more important than the amount of time is consistency.
Can you find a half dozen people who will volunteer for tasks they can realistically carry out? That’s all you need to get started. One group may get going with 3 such people. Another may start with 15. Sometimes you can start with 20, only to find that 15 of then drop out. If this happens don’t be discouraged. Be consistent.
At your first meeting, plan the agenda of the next, larger meeting, to make sure it stays on target. Discuss how you will reach out to call the larger meeting; perhaps through phone calls to friends, perhaps through notices and flyers or through announcements in a church bulletin.
Set up a listserv.
The internet is a great way to communicate and so you will probably want to set up a listserv. This can be done easily through https://info.yahoo.com/privacy/us/yahoo/groups/details.html. You can name your group something like East Harlem for Peace and Justice and your address could be firstname.lastname@example.org. You can choose if you want someone to moderate the list which means that all messages have to be approved by one person. This probably isn’t necessary in the beginning as long as you establish guidelines for how the list will be used. As people join the group, you can add their names or they can subscribe themselves by emailing email@example.com.
The next meeting.
The meeting (and most meetings) should probably not last longer than 90 minutes. Introduce everyone and find out who you are and why each person is there. Discuss why it is a good idea to form a group and what you might hope to accomplish in the near future. Discuss possible activities, how often you should meet and where the meetings should take place. Pick a facilitator and someone to remind folks of the next meeting. Assemble a list of names, phone numbers and email addresses. (Especially for neighborhood groups, you want not to rely only on emails. Part of the success of small local groups is that people build relationships with each other. Often people respond much more to a phone call then only to email.) Start talking about a first activity. It is a good idea for the core group to prepare one or two workable suggestions in advance.
Start small, be concrete, be realistic.
Perhaps the most important thing we have learned is to avoid a laundry list of issues and activities. Everyone has a pet issue and a favorite plan. But it is important, especially in the beginning, to plan a concrete and realistic activity to learn how you can best work together. Nothing builds confidence as much as a successfully carried out plan. Nothing is as demoralizing as a complex scheme that remains on paper. Every meeting should end with a concrete plan of action. People will not come back to meetings that engage in endless talk and argument.
Avoid too much “organization”.
Some groups spend too much time choosing officers, writing by-laws and forming subcommittees. Plan just enough formal organization to get the job done. Do you need a chairperson? Yes, it is a good idea to identify someone who is a good facillitator; who can firmly keep the meeting on target without offending people and who encourages everyone to participate. It is also a very good idea to find someone who will write down all the decisions and to record who volunteers to accomplish which task. Start every meeting with a review of these minutes. You will only need a treasurer and someone to set up a bank account when you have raised enough money to justify this.
There are so many things you can do. You might have a weekly or monthly vigil in a public place or a roving vigil in a different place each time. You might develop a simple flyer that describes your group and how to get in touch. You could set up a table at a supermarket with a petition or postcards to an elected official. Or perhaps you could organize a film showing with one of the many powerful anti-war films available on DVD. You might have a forum in a church or synagogue or mosque and invite one or two speakers. You could arrange a meeting with an elected official? The important thing is to choose. Once you choose a project make a decision about what needs to be done first and do it.
“Preaching to the converted” is not a complete waste of time. We all need more education and we all need to be energized from time to time. But it is also really important to reach out to new people. This can be hard and even embarrassing. Not all of us are comfortable approaching strangers on the street or calling them on the phone. But some of us are bolder than others and these confident folks can help out and point the way for the shy ones. Don’t worry if you are not an expert on the history of Afghanistan and the nuclear ambitions of Iran. The people on the street are not experts either and you are armed with conviction. But reaching out is more than tackling strangers. Can you contact local faith-based institutions? How does the pastor of the church down the street feel about the war? Will he or she work with you to organize a forum in the church? What other community organizations can you contact? Is there a senior center, a tenant’s group, a block association, a PTA, a union local that might want to have a speaker on the war, or might co-sponsor an event?
Where to meet.
Which brings us to a frequent question: “Where can our group meet?” Well, you can start out in a living room. But this is probably not the best. It is preferable to find a neutral place where no one, especially new people, feels at a disadvantage. Even a local restaurant, which is not too noisy, may do to start. Better yet would be that friendly church, synagogue or mosque, because it is more or less neutral and because it can help build relationships with the congregation and even with other faith-based centers. Some people are worried that only Christians will feel comfortable in a church and only Jews will attend a meeting in a Synagogue. This has not been our experience, but every group is different.
The importance of names.
At every meeting, send around a sign-in sheet. When you meet someone on the street who seems interested, get his or her contact information. The sign up sheet should be part of every activity including vigils, educational forums, etc. Find one person to be in charge of putting the names in a database or in some other accessible form. Invite the new people to future activities. This is how you grow.
If possible affiliate with a larger group.
It is empowering to plug into a wider coalition, it keeps you informed about what other groups are doing and is a place where groups can share ideas and information. Your input is always valuable. It also can help to amplify the work you are doing by participating in city-wide or nationally coordinated actions.