An Introduction to Relational Organizing, Part 1
Over my career, I have worked on campaigns and races large and small searching for the best way to empower voters to use their voices and create change in their communities.
No other example illustrates that quite like when I packed up my car exactly one year ago today and headed for South Bend, Indiana (which I wouldn’t have been able to point out on a map if you dared me) to take a chance on a guy with a silly last name running for president.
Quite frankly, I had no intention of working on a presidential campaign. In fact, when a colleague of mine reached out to let me know that they wanted to send along my resume for one, I actually laughed. I looked at my wife and said “I’ll let them send it over, but there is just no way that I am going to get this job or have any intention of taking it.”. Spoiler alert: I did get it and I did take it.
As appealing as a lefthanded-episcopalian-gay-midwestern-mayor-of-a-midsized-city was in the political thunderdome primary election that kicked off in 2019, it wasn’t just Pete Buttigieg that made me take the leap of faith of jumping into the presidential campaign sceen (sorry, Pete!). It also wasn’t just his amazingly sweet husband Chasten or their two rescue dogs Buddy and Truman (although they are some of the most lovable creatures on the planet).
It was a chance Wednesday morning interview with a badass woman named Samantha. That interview centered around two key words that convinced me to pack my bags and head to the Hoosier state: relational organizing, a more defined term for something I’d been doing my whole career.
Relational organizing is everything that I have spent nearly a decade rambling on and on about to just about anyone that would listen and Pete’s campaign finally provided me the tools and freedom to bring it to fruition. At its core, relational organizing is about bringing humanity back to politics (okay, I just heard you scoff, but stay with me) by developing and delivering training and tools that empower supporters to center and build on their own personal stories to have conversations with fellow voters that are grounded in shared values and personal connections.
Now, I know that all sounds like a novel concept and those of you that aren’t cynically laughing at this point are probably saying, “Well, duh! Isn’t that how all campaigns go?”. Nope. It’s not.
Relational campaigning and organizing should be the norm, but it isn’t. If you don’t believe me, check your mailbox during an August primary election or think back to the last election cycle when you wanted to throw your T.V. out of a second story window if you saw one more damn political campaign ad. Millions of dollars are dumped into the black hole that is political campaigns. Everyone in politics has spent their careers trying to find the “secret sauce” that will deliver a win for candidates. What has been missing underneath the heaps of campaign mailers and fancy algorithms that were written to target the “perfect voter” is simple: connections based on relationships.
Relational organizing is how Pete Buttigieg pulled off a historic win during the Iowa Caucuses and came in a stunning fourth place in the most crowded and qualified democratic primary in history. We worked every day to teach people who had never participated in a political campaign before, help those that have been campaigning for decades to unlearn the bad habits that they were taught previously, and created a culture where campaigning looked fundamentally different as a space where everyone was an organizer.
We built an army of thousands of organizers guided by the rules of the road, with hope in their hearts and fire in their bellies who were organizing in states that wouldn’t even see a ballot box for the better part of a year. Organizers who already knew the ins and outs of their communities and the issues they were facing were trained to bring the political conversations to dinner tables, carpool lanes, grocery stores, and county fairs.
Supporters wore their buttons with pride and were ready when the inevitable “Who is Pete?” came up at Target. They showed up at neighborhood meetings, hosted tables at community events, and sat at local common spaces with heavy foot traffic. They talked to baristas as they picked up their morning lattes, parents at little league practices, neighbors while walking the dog, friends at happy hour, and even to their families over Sunday dinners (gasp!).
Now, I know that you are cringing and thinking, “I could never…” Trust me, I understand. I have stuffed my fair share of turkey into my mouth at holiday dinners to avoid answering questions when things start to take a political turn while my wife kicks me under the table. But, I want you to think about something with me.
Imagine you are sitting on the couch watching Chopped, and you see a commercial for a new restaurant. Sure, now you have heard of it and the styled food looked okay but the next commercial had a cute dog in it and any thoughts that once crossed your mind about that restaurant are long gone. Now, a couple of days later, your best friend calls you and tells you that they went to that same restaurant and how they had stellar service and the best lasagna they have ever had. Which one is more likely to convince you to pick that restaurant next time the dreaded “What do you want to eat for dinner?” comes up? Right, the conversation with your friend.
Let’s unpack that a bit. Why would you be more likely to go there after that conversation? Because your friend had a great time and you have a serious case of FOMO? Because you are a sucker for great customer service because you and your best friend were servers together ten years ago? Because lasagna is your favorite food and this place apparently has the best lasagna that you have now been dreaming about since the two of you talked last week? Yes, all of that plays a part in it, but it is also because at the core -- you trust them.
It is the exact same thing when it comes to politics. More on that in our next post!