Campaign Strategy and Tactics is Gangster

Amani United campaign planning charts

Milwaukee       The leadership and organizer training with Amani United in Milwaukee had gone very well for two days.  The general theme of these three days was identifying issues and how these issues can be distinguished and then be transformed into winning campaigns that build power for the organization.  We had made great progress in the second day and had gotten to the point in the dialectic process of the training between me and the leadership where we were examining the definitions and differences between tactics and strategy.

We were using a specific issue that the leaders had mentioned in the afternoon session as an example.  In order to flesh out this topic, the leaders had chosen a proposal by the Milwaukee city bus service to eliminate the #80 bus line.  Conversation was energetic and engaged.  Feelings were unanimous and deep that this was deadly to the neighborhood.  Stories abounded of the extra half-mile or more that residents would have to walk to be able to catch a bus to work, downtown, or grocery stores from Amani if the 80 was taken out of service.

We looked at the potential targets.  We diagrammed additional pressure points that we could potentially leverage to join with Amani United in order to impact the targets or that we would need to neutralize.  Then we got to the point of discussing tactics and strategy for the potential campaign.  We agreed that any tactic repeated too often lost its effectiveness.  We agreed that tactics needed to have proportionality and be appropriate to the target.  We agreed that strategy and tactical selection had to be adaptive enough to gauge the actions the organization took against the reaction of the targets and response of the public, and constantly evolve.

Earlier I had made my usual pro forma apology for the militaristic nature of some of the discussion and the terminology.  I made my usual joke that the alternative was often to use more sports metaphors, but goodness knows that would be inappropriate as well.  The organization’s president, Rice Bey, then blurted out that he “got” all of this now that we were talking about tactics and strategy, jumping up and saying, “this is all gangster!”  Without exactly saying so, a light seemed to go off for many of the other leaders in the room.

The old metaphors were gone.  The metaphors with real meaning, the ones that worked in looking at strategy and tactics were embedded “in the streets,” as several said.  We had suddenly jumped from the room of the religious social services center where we were meeting into lived experience of many of the leaders.  These weren’t episodes of “The Wire.”  We were part of the thrust and jab, cat-and-mouse of moving product with a hundred different strategies and tactics to win against the police and make a living.

Building the organization, finding issues, launching winning campaigns, and, in fact, winning and losing made sense suddenly within all of the leaders’ experiences.  As one leader then said, “Hey, Wade, I get it:  this is for real isn’t it?”

Yes, brothers and sisters, this is totally for real.  Winning matters and losing hurts.  Organizing is the difference.

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Getting the Lead out in Milwaukee’s Amani Neighborhood

Milwaukee       If you want to really be helpful in leadership development or organizer training, you can’t just pull a bunch of old training documents off the hard drive, print the agendas, change the dates, plug and play.  If I’m going to do the work for more than an hour or two, I want to first get to know the organization, meet the leaders and core staff, and get to know their challenges of course and their successes and failures.  For their money and my time, I want to really know what issue enrages them and what they dream for the future.  I spent most of a day doing so with ten leaders and two staff members of Amani United and the Dominican Center, so that they could teach me.

I didn’t walk in blind.  I had met a couple of leaders and one organizer late last year when they buttonholed me after “The Organizer” ran at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.  Their invitation coupled with that of Sister Patricia Rogers, the director of the Dominican Center, had brought me back in a typically hard winter January day. I had driven the neighborhood and gone up, down, and around the blocks before I walked into the locked down former St. Leo’s rectory, so I knew it wasn’t a tourist destination for visitors to the city.

I had also found some statistics on the internet about Amani.  I knew 92% of the residents were African-American, that 52% of the community was below the poverty line, that female heads of households ran 48% of the families, that more than a third of the population was unemployed, owned no transportation, and hadn’t gotten a high school diploma, that only 73% of the housing was occupied, that 69% of the community were renters with rental rates 20 to 50% higher than the rest of the city, and that 64% lived in units built before 1939.  So, yes, it was my kind of neighborhood, and on the bright side 99.5% of the registered voters in Amani voted in 2008.  That says something right there about hope and the future.

With this background, listening to the leaders in some ways was not surprising.  Familiar themes around non-performing schools, crime and safety, slumlords, abandoned houses, and vacant lots came up.  Other issues were surprising.  The record checks that prevented parents from being volunteers or visiting their children’s schools because of minor offenses twenty years previous.  The contradictory city regulations that kept financial assistance from fixing roofs because the property lacked insurance because insurance was dropped because the roof needed to be fixed.  The fact that former felons had been blocked from buying homes.

And, then there was lead, and the fact that the neighborhood had been poisoned.  Wisconsin had dominated lead production in the 19th century.  Many home fixtures were dictated to be installed with lead.  The water laterals, meaning the pipes from the house to the street, were all lead until recently.  Lots where children played tested through the roof.  Mothers around the table told of their children being poisoned with no penalties and little abatement.  They told me that the lead levels were worst than Flint, and in the Amani zip code they were twice as high as any other area in the city of Milwaukee.  I kept asking how they knew that but later that night found the chart in a report that showed the whole area as bright red.  Other newspaper reports detailed how Milwaukee had been seen as a leader in lead prevention in 2014 but was dragging its feet now.  There were coalitions galore that had formed to deal with lead, some even included Amani United, but talking to the leaders it was impossible to get the sense that the problem was being solved.

The leaders in Amani got my attention, and the lessons I learned kept me tossing and turning all night long.  The next steps will be making the plan and meeting their demands for the skills they need to fight and win.

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