Power to the Students: Teaching Issue-Based Organizing

I got my first taste of organizing as an undergrad. Our college president announced a series of sweeping and permanent budget cuts in response to significant endowment losses incurred during the 2008 financial crisis. The cuts would fall exclusively on the non-administrative staff. Widespread layoffs, forced retirements, and reduced benefit were all on the table for the low-wage workers who could least afford it. A small group of us got together to protest these decisions. For me, it was a life-changing experience that sparked my commitment to the labor movement and grassroots organizing. We made so many mistakes, large and small, and learned nearly every valuable lesson the hard way. For a long time, I thought this was how everyone learned to organize.

I now teach a class on issue-based organizing. We talk to community organizers, reporters, scholars of the labor movement, and union leaders. We study student movements, past and present and discuss their common and distinctive elements. Students write case studies based upon their research, and the case studies become part of a curriculum for teaching other students how to organize their own movements.

Why teach students to organize? I hear a lot about teachers “empowering” students. I always ask these teachers, “Cool, so what is your definition of power?” I seldom get a response. Digging a little deeper usually reveals that what they really want is for their students to feel like they can access the resources and opportunities made artificially scarce by a racist, patriarchal and exploitative system. As long as our working definition of power is constrained by these boundaries, our pedagogy will continue to oppress.

The fact is, we can’t empower students and we shouldn’t try. Framing it in these terms does a disservice to our goal of helping students discover and use the collective power they already possess.

We talk a lot about power in our class. What is it? How does it work? How do we get it? In a 2019 piece in The New York Times, Mona Eltahawy writes, “We must define power in a way that liberates us from patriarchy’s hierarchies.” Eltahawy links power to freedom, and writes, “To be free, I must defy, disobey and disrupt.” Teaching students to organize gives them the opportunity to explore their collective power to defy, disobey, and disrupt systems of oppression.

Typical civics classes, if they’re taught at all, focus on the functions of government and the importance of voting, but electoral politics is only part of our framework. Influencing elections is not enough without solid public policy and strong grassroots organizing. Telling students that voting is the extent of their responsibility as citizens is inadequate and cynical. Students possess far more power than that, and they ought to know it. My students realize early on that our class is different. One told me, “The fact that we have this class at all is unique. You would think that with all the stuff that’s going on we should be having more classes like this, but we don’t. This class speaks to the events we’re seeing. We can talk about the issue and think about how we can actually respond.”

Typically, when teachers present social movements, they do it in a top-down way that makes it seem like the actions and ideas of the movement sprang from a single person. Gandhi’s march to the sea brought the British colonial government to its knees. Dr. King’s dream inspired a wave of popular resistance to Jim Crow and racial discrimination.


Teaching students to organize humanizes the individuals in a movement by revealing the vast interconnected network of unknown people behind the famous leaders. It also reveals the careful planning and preparation necessary to sustain a movement. Like one student said to me, “For me, it makes movement leaders seem more human instead of thinking they were superheroes and stuff. The process they went through to get things done. This makes it more realistic and more achievable.”

The class offers students a theory of action linked to actual social change. It gives students a transferable framework and skillset to act against injustice. Adopting a new theory of action is often about reframing existing knowledge and experience, and for many students, that is transformative. Asked how this course had changed her, a student replied, “I was a lot more angered by what I saw on the TV. Now I know that this is a process, and I have to be level headed and how to make sure that everyone gets on board. It’s a lot more about communication rather than just reacting.”

I don’t presume to know the ideology or issue that matters to each student. As I frequently remind them, the issues belong to them and their community. One student explained this approach well: “It’s a self-worth thing. Here my opinions do matter and can help. I’m not just a number. No matter what your opinions, this validates them.”

That doesn’t mean the class offers carte blanche for students to form whatever opinions the want about issues that matter to their community. After all, a central tenet of organizing is to listen, listen, listen. As one guest speaker and seasoned organizer reminded us, an organizer must adhere to the maxim, “Nothing about us without us.”

Students and teachers in our organizing class are preparing to face the next challenge head on, inoculated against the vague platitudes and do-nothing sentiments of many people in positions of authority. As one student reminded his classmates, “Next time something happens, we can do more and be better. What we know now will help us for sure, what we do with it is up to us.”

A draft-copy of our curriculum can be found at this link: A Student’s Guide to Effective Organizing

Special thanks to Lina Stepick, Gabrielle Emanuel, Bryce Luchan, Matt Richardson, Jenn O’Connell, Chris Peck, Walter Palmer and Annelise Orleck. Your activism, mentorship, and friendship inspires us every day to “do more and be better.”