Consensus organizing argues that you really don’t know what people need or desire until you meet them and have built a relationship with them. Relationship building is the heart of all effective organizing work and, in particular, consensus organizing, which believes relationship inside and outside the community can be developed for the common good (Ohmer & DeMasi, 2009, p. 67).
Often the difference between a campaign that sparkles its way to success and one that fizzles out fast is what Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin
--founders of the Catholic Worker movement--call gentle personalism. All that means is that our relationships are at the center of our social movements. Mass action means individual connection. There is no dichotomy except those which are false.
So, for example, when we were organizing to affirm treaty rights in northern Wisconsin, James Schlender, Joe Rose and Walter Bresette would go out as lone emissaries to hostile groups and outreach with respectful and courageous assertion. They were fearless, walking through crowds of racists who were armed and dangerous, telling the members of a Rod and Gun club, for example, that the treaty rights were going to be their best friend in the end, if they wanted to save the habitat of wildlife. It was a winning, if risky, strategy. Schlender, a brilliant and sometimes caustic lawyer, came out of one meeting to find his tires slashed.
Bresette (pictured), a charismatic speaker and activist on the national and international levels, was told by the founder of one of the most racist groups, "Nice speech. You know this means war." Rose, sometimes accompanied by his son, Joe Dan Rose, knew everyone, was quite grounded locally, was a Mdewin spiritual leader, and had no serious problems. All three used their own brand of relational work to help the campaign and all three were effective in their own differing ways.
When we just organize through mass media that component is missing. When we argue logically and ignore relationships, we are not promoting our campaigns as well as we could. Combining gentle personalism and media work is a stronger package of organizing approaches than either alone.
Dorothy Day said that the reason she was able to keep going for so many decades and not lose community members faster than she gained them was that she was able to apologize sincerely. She was curt, authoritarian, and dismissive on occasion, and would return to the conflict to express regret for her behavior. She didn't demand perfection and she admitted her own lack of it. This was what she called her secret. She would also simply spend the time with a person others avoided, listening. She was massively busy and yet might be seen sitting in a corner listening to one of the most beaten down street people, hearing that person's story and pain. All this is gentle personalism and it is all relational work.
There is not enough time to do all that we know is helpful. We have to make priorities with our time and other resources as we work to change social norms, public policy, and practices. Honoring the place of relational upkeeping work is important.
Ohmer, Mary L. & DeMasi, Karen (2009). Consensus organizing: A community development workbook. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.