Organizing Locally

Having the Hard Conversations

If you’re reading this – first, thank you! You’re likely someone looking to step up, put in the work, and help make our community better.

First – make sure you’ve got some time to read through this. It’s long. There are no shortcuts in this work. Grab your beverage of choice and sit down for a longer read.

What you’ll read below is my best advice for organizing in rural, red communities. I know – progress when you’re a blue dot in a red county is challenging. It’s hard work – often uncomfortable work – but it’s how change and progress happen. We put in the work.


My organizing approach focuses on the individual – not the masses. The reason is simple – flashy advertising may get some GOP voters to vote Democratic this year. But that same flashy advertising can sway them back into the GOP fold next year.

Real organizing is about focusing on people who are not yet convinced and not yet involved in our movement. We must bring people like this in if we want to win more elections.

We’ll start with this TED talk from Megan Phelps-Roper, which details her life inside America’s most controversial church and describes how conversations on Twitter were key to her decision to leave it. She shares her personal experience of extreme polarization, along with some sharp ways we can learn to successfully engage across ideological lines.

If you’re in a place where you can’t watch that video, read the transcript of it here.

Now ask yourself – what caused Megan to start thinking more critically about her views?

The conversations with others.


In the political context, this is called Deep Canvassing and Relational Organizing. We focus on conversations where we do more listening than talking. And we go into every conversation with a plan.

Take a break here to read “How to Organize Your Friends and Family”, a fantastic walkthrough from organizer Jane McAlevey on how such a conversation can go. 

Notice the strategy to the conversation: 

  1. Showtime! Introduction, Purpose, Context for the Conversation
  2. Get Their Issues
  3. Vision, the Plan to Win, Urgency
  4. Call the Question, Frame the Choice
  5. Inoculation
  6. Next Steps, Follow-up Plan

And notice the purpose:

The structure of a basic organizing conversation is one where people are asked to think for themselves, where they do most of the talking, and where you help them puzzle through contradictions.

It’s not bombarding their Facebook feed with memes. It’s not avoiding the conversation all together. It’s talking one-on-one and having a strategy in place for the conversation.

You’re likely asking – is this really possible? Will it even make a difference? It seems like we’re getting outvoted at every election.

In the 2018 election in my home town, 2,105 Dems voted compared to 8,110 GOP votes. That’s out of 17,928 registered voters. And on top of that, there’s another 8,774 people that could be voting but aren’t registered to vote.

Our community isn’t a died-in-the-wool GOP vote when only 38% of the county votes. We’re a majority non-voting county.

The same holds true for many rural communities across Tennessee. And that means there’s plenty of room to organize and grow our Democratic movement.


So what’s the next step. What’s the work. How do we pull this off.

It starts with you. 

First up, you need to map out your Social Power Network. This is a list of everyone you know and what you know about them. Without it, you can’t get a sense of where you are in the overall picture.

  1. Create a spreadsheet for the list. You can use this sample one as a model.
  2. Go through all of your contact lists and add everyone to that list. Check your email address book, cell phone contacts, Facebook friends, Twitter followers, etc. Make sure you get them all into this one primary spreadsheet.
  3. Start contacting each person and fill out those spreadsheet rows as needed. In the first pass, we’re focused on just general things – are they registered to vote, did they complete the census, etc. 

Now that you’ve got your Social Power Network map outlined, try a practice conversation with a like minded person who’s interested in organizing as well.

After that, start looking for conversations of opportunity. Go to church with someone who voted Trump 2016 but isn’t voting this year? Have a conversation with them and see why. Use the six organizing steps above to make progress with that person.

Here’s a real example of a conversation from my own organizing with my Social Power Network.

In an initial phone call with Susan, I find out she’s worried about her local hospital going under. She’s a moderate who voted Trump in 2016 because a fellow church member talked about how much better he would be for rural folks like her. She sat out 2018 midterms because her community didn’t really get better after 2016. In fact, her hospital is in more trouble now and nobody outside of their community seems to care. 

During that initial call, I walked through our six organizing steps and helped Susan to start thinking for herself. We’re 70% listening and 30% teaching/coaching Susan through a bit of self-discovery. We’re not using fear and division but rather raising her expectation that life can be better. One way is to plug in with us and help organizing. She agrees to help and starts mapping out her own Social Power Network. 

Now that Susan is organizing with us, she’s working in her community to  bring others onto the team. She’s personally emailing people she knows, making calls, sending texts – all from her own base of trust. People around Susan trust her so she’s more effective.

So that’s the place to start:

  1. Map out your Social Power Network.
  2. Practice the Organizing Conversation with a friend.
  3. Look for a conversation of opportunity and have that first organizing conversation.
  4. When you’ve got that new person onboard, share with them this organizing approach so they can start putting in this work as well. 
  5. Repeat step three and four.

That’s how we’re going to make progress. Bringing more people into our movement through actual organizing and conversations.

Don’t agonize. Organize. 


If you’re reading this, you made it all the way to the end. Thank you! It’s hard work, often uncomfortable at times, but this is how lasting progressive change happens.

If you want to go deeper into this kind of organizing, contact me. What you’ve read above just scratches the surface so you can get started right away.