Movement-building expert Marshall Ganz imparts wisdom with students

Marshall Ganz listening to a group of students

Marshall Ganz, the 2022 Mimi and Peter E. Haas Distinguished Visitor and preeminent scholar on leadership, narrative, strategy, and organization in social movements, recently sat down for a conversation with a small group of students and staff in the Center’s lounge. With a lifetime of organizing experience including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the United Farm Workers, and Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, Ganz opened the conversation with a frank discussion on leadership. As Ganz defines it, “Leadership is about accepting responsibility for enabling others to achieve shared purpose under conditions of uncertainty.” As such, leadership is “a practice, not a position” and one that requires constantly learning and evolving.

Ganz explained that organizing is simply a particular form of leadership that begins with the question “Who are my people?” The first practice of organizing is relationship building, particularly public-facing civic relationships. When asked about the common trope that we are “more connected than ever before,” particularly through social media, Ganz responded that aggregating individuals on social media does not create meaningful relationships; relationships require commitment as well as connection. Ganz acknowledged a culture of radical individualism that poses a significant barrier to building relationships in our society. This contemporary ideology has led to political radicalization on the Right, and Ganz called for listeners to think about narratives that bring us together with people who don’t have the same political views as our own.

He discussed the problem of anti-democratic power structures, including the political party system. He cited studies showing that Americans view parties and social movements as much the same thing while they are not; politics features systemically anti-democratic processes, whereas social movements allow people to contribute to problem-solving. He critiqued the multi-billion-dollar market for political advertising that puts power in the hands of the wealthy and a professional political class. He said the business field tries to employ as few people as possible because it views people as costs, while movement-building fields calls for as many people as possible because it considers them to be assets. As such, we need to reconsider the non-profit model in which the first question asked when people try to resolve a challenge is “How do we fund it?” rather than “How do we do it?” In order to overcome these barriers, Ganz argued that we should organize around shared values, which are much broader and deeper than shared issues.

The second and third practices of organizing are storytelling and strategizing, or as Ganz colloquially refers to them “heart work” and “head work.” When asked about building shared values across national borders, Ganz emphasized the importance of finding a common conceptual language, the easiest of which is storytelling. Everyone in the world tells stories, and for the most part, the structures and basic framework remain the same. Storytelling allows people from all over the world to connect and discuss their values. Strategizing comes next, as a matter of “turning what you have into what you need to get what you want.”

The final two practices of organizing are action and structuring—defining societal relations. Success in all five of these practices leads to not only achievement of the goal at hand, but also stronger community, and developed leadership. Given the state of our world today, Ganz concluded that we have much work to do, but together, we can organize our way forward.