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Activity 3.2 Interviewing the Activist

By Matt Noyes. (I got the idea from the late Spalding Gray's "interviewing the audience" performance technique, which I saw him perform in Brooklyn's Prospect Park one summer night. Gray circulated in the audience prior to the performance, finding interesting people who he later brought onstage for a rambling, but very entertaining, interview and conversation.)

Summary:
In this activity the facilitator and the participants work together to analyze the real situation faced by one of the participants (or a group) and to think about ways to address the problems or challenges. This activity requires improvisation and flexibility by the facilitator, and depends on the participants.

Materials:
Flip chart, handouts

Purpose:
To help the activists analyze and strategize about their problems, to model a process of analyzing and strategizing, and to share/introduce tools and tactics.

Process:
Before the activity begins, the facilitator circulates and speaks with participants, looking for someone with a situation that lends itself to this activity -- it should be a situation that is not too complicated, where there are clear organizing opportunities or challenges. So, for example, a situation where there is a complicated legal case that is being decided by a federal court may not be a great choice.

Explain and motivate process.

(After a round of introductions (see intros)) facilitator begins to interview the activist(s), as she would in a normal organizing conversation (note: this assumes a democratic organizing approach).

Facilitator first tries to get a clear description of the problem:

The context and players: what's your job? Who is the employer? How is their business doing? What is the union? What is it like? When is the next election? Who are your coworkers? Where are they from? How many people are there? What are the main types of jobs? What languages do people speak? Etc.

The issues: what are the problems? What are the key problems that your coworkers talk about? Does everyone have these problems? (You are looking for issues that are hot, widespread, that unify workers, that are actionable in this lifetime (or sooner!) etc.)

The activist's goals and plans. What are your top priorities? What needs to change? What changes can you make in the short run, long run? What are other people's goals?

The level and quality of organization: Is there a caucus? How many people are involved? Are you working with anyone on this?

The history of activism: What has been tried? Who has done what? How did it work? What was management's response?

Some techniques you may want to use to analyze the situation:

Mapping. You may want to map the workplace to show who does what work; where people work; where they meet or socialize; who are friends, who are enemies; where the weak points are in the production process, etc. (See example)

Range of activism. You may want to have the activist get specific about who/how many workers are supportive of her cause, how many are neutral or not interested, how many are opposed or hostile? Use the map to show where they work, groups, shifts, etc. Suggest that organizing should start with those already close to the activist and work outward.

Arsenal of actions. Have participants brainstorm a list of actions that the activist and his or her coworkers can take on the job or in the union to solve their problems. Ask the activist how these actions sound? Are they realistic? What are the risks or drawbacks of the various actions? You may want to introduce the idea of starting with small, less risky actions -- like wearing a button or just taking a newsletter -- and then working up to more powerful and more demanding actions.

Research Items: Participants may need more information to get a complete picture of the situation. Write up a list of information the activist needs to get in order to understand the situation or to act. Then discuss ways he or she can get that information.

Evaluate the discussion: towards the end, ask the person being interviewed how realistic the suggestions are from where they sit. What do they think they can use when they return to work? Where do they plan to start? What obstacles do they see to taking the actions suggested? The other participants should also be asked what they take away from the discussion -- whether there are any ideas they can apply in their situations.

Watch for:
Charley MacMartin commented that "if activities were ski slopes, this one would be a double black diamond, advanced skiers only -- risk of serious injury."

This activity is really "live." It is not based on previously created content -- a power-point presentation or lecture on organizing techniques, for example -- but on the content that will come out of a live analysis of a real problem. This means that the activity demands a lot of the participants -- who they are, what skills and experiences they bring -- and demands a lot of the facilitator.

You have to be prepared to address many possible types of workplace and union issues and concerns; you need to assemble a good set of techniques and tools (without knowing which ones you will actually use); you need to foresee possible tensions or misunderstandings among the participants; you have to be ready to facilitate a dialogue among a lot of experienced people; above all, you need to be flexible and creative so that the discussion really deals with the activist's specific situation, even as it incorporates skills or techniques that you and others bring to the workshop.

Backload the presentation. If you feel that it is important to offer a presentation on organizing skills as part of this activity, do so at the end. This will allow you to tailor your presentation to the situation discussed and will make it more likely that participants will listen -- they have already had a chance to talk and discuss the issues.

Variations: If you have the chance to work with people over time, you may want to track the activist's work, repeating the activity from time to time to see what has changed, what has been done, what has succeeded/failed, and what can be done now. A working group of activists who agreed to meet regularly could do this activity for each activist and use it to give each other feedback and organizing support.

Mapping, like the other techniques should adjust to fit the circumstances -- if workplace safety is a burning issue, the map can be used to take an inventory of hazards, leading to discussion of what can be done about them.

Examples:
I did this for the first time at a conference of Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU). The workshop -- titled "Building Workplace Power" (see the attached agenda for the workshop) -- was attended by about twenty Teamsters from a wide range of industries and locals, including some top-notch rank-and-file organizers. Before we started I talked with participants and recruited a volunteer to be interviewed, a warehouse worker from Maryland who felt isolated from his co-workers, frustrated by racial divisions, and out-gunned by management.

We started off with a quick activity: "This is what workplace power looks (sounds, feels, acts) like." (see the attached file below), then began interviewing the activist, starting by asking him to describe his workplace. This led us to make a workplace map based on his description.

Along the way, the activists from other locals played a great role, asking insightful questions and offering a range of actions and ideas which I noted on the flip chart.

Toward the end, I summarized the tools and techniques we had talked about (which were detailed in handouts for the workshop) including workplace maps, one-on-one organizing, and setting up a worker to worker network. Some of the handouts were from TDU organizing materials, others from AUD. Two very experienced TDU members, who had been recruited for this workshop by the conference organizers, briefly spoke about their experiences. We wound up with an evaluation.

One of the most interesting things about the workshop was how participants used their experiences to help our activist think about his situation. People in equally hard circumstances commiserated. People in stronger locals helped him picture what could be achieved.

A year later, the activist we interviewed had become a rank-and-file TDU leader and his workplace and local were a reform success story. The key to that success, of course, is found in the activism of the workers in that warehouse and the ongoing support provided by TDU. The workshop helped the activist step back, collect his thoughts, look at some alternatives, and get inspired to return to the fray. Playing the role of coaches and advisors allowed the other participants to practice their knowledge, see how it might apply or not under different conditions, and learn from each other.

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