Unions are organisations that transform people’s lives and help build a better world says Hahrie Han, a US expert on organising.
Political science professor Hahrie Han, the daughter of Korean immigrants who migrated to the US with no money or work, understands social change from a perspective that is bothpersonal and professional.
Han’s parents found work and eventually moved to a middle-class suburb. Han completed a PhD at Stanford University, and she became a policy adviser to the Obama election campaign and wrote a defining book about Obama’s mobilisation of millions of grassroots volunteers.
“Transformation is a core part of what we do as humans”, Han told an audience at the NSWNMA annual conference in July. But if change is a constant part of life, what really matters is “whether people feel like they have a capacity to act or not”.
And according to Han, this is where social movements and organisations such as unions come in: it’s these organisations that harness transformations in people’s lives to build a better world.
“In any big social change in the past – the civil rights and women’s rights movement – [what is important is] organisations that can channel that transformative power and make social change,” she said.
Why we should we care about organising
“Organising is about building a set of structures through which people can build their own capacity,” said Han, an expert in political organising and collective action.
Han said unions and other social movements work most effectively when they can harness the disconnect people feel between “the world that I want” and “the world as it is”, and use the anger people feel to “fuel the fight” for something better.
Unions and leaders of social movements help people to see that “I am able to take charge of my own life, to build a life that I want.”
“That agency, that capacity to act, is at the core of what organising is; it’s the core of what a movement is.”
When Han talks about “leaders”, she’s not referring to a handful of people at the top; instead it’s the many behind-the-scenes organisers who are crucial to successful social movements. Effective organisations develop leaders in each community, “modelling in a powerful way [so] that people begin to develop the transformative capacities to make the change they want”.
Speaking from the floor, NSWNMA member Bernadette Roberts described a local example of effective organising, the “I Care for Palliative Care” campaign. The nine-month campaign led to the state government promising $100 million for palliative care just prior to the state budget coming out this year.
“A lot of that [campaign] was using principles of getting people involved. We had 20,000 advocates across NSW, 100 really active, and 15,000 pledges.”
“The most influential part was having the leaders,” Roberts said. “When people who didn’t know much about palliative care heard from people who understood the issue and felt really passionate about it, it really made a difference in terms of getting people to support the campaign and to understand they could have an impact,” Roberts said.
Transformation needs to be at the heart of organising
A paradox of political organising, Han reminded the audience, is that people who need change most often don’t have the capacity or resources to make the change they need.
“When we think about the toughest problems that we have in health, the vulnerable populations where we see deprivations and diseases, a lot of those problems at the core are about power.”
Organising is therefore about changing the way resources are used. Building a sustainable movement depends on transforming individual leaders, and then creating structures through which those leaders can act.
Organisations that do this well are ones that distribute “leadership capacity and authority throughout the organisation” to teams and leaders working out in the communities, Han said. Becoming a leader means learning how to organise and work with others, and knowing how to “face rejection”.
She added that leaders are “made, not born”.
Effective organisations also tend to have many diffuse leaders working interdependently, Han said: “they find ways to put people into connection with each other and make people part of decision making within the organisation”.
Change can lead people to respond with either fear or hope. Donald Trump, Han observed, is an expert at mobilising the former emotion, “creating a whole movement around fear of the other”.
But Han urged activists to focus on people’s potential for positive emotion.
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