It’s a Friday afternoon and I’m walking into the visitor centre of Vancouver’s Van Dusen botanical gardens, a building whose unique, undulating curves of wood were inspired by the shape of an orchid’s leaves. One of the gardens’ fundraisers describes the building as an “entryway into a world of knowledge.” It’s an appropriately descriptive phrase.

With four other Dogwood Initiative staff (Emma Gilchrist, Lyndsey Easton, Ben Porcher and Celine Trojand), and several dozen other advocates and community members I’ve come to learn from Marshall Ganz and his team of trainers, assembled in one of the centre’s rented halls. Ganz is the guy credited with designing the grassroots organizing model that helped catapult Barack Obama to two consecutive presidential victories.

With oil tanker projects still threatening B.C.’s coast, massive coal export expansions in the works and ambitions to tackle even bigger issues, we wanted to learn from the best – to “level-up” as Celine would say.

Grassroots Organizing

The phrase “grassroots organizing” is a catch-all term referring to the many different ways you or I might seek to change something in the world by getting individual people together, building a sense of unity and commitment through shared values or a shared goal, and then chasing victory.

The point of grassroots organizing is to establish a base of power capable of challenging the ambitions of large corporations or government and its institutions, for example.

Like most things, that is easier said than done. Without a systematic, rigorous approach to follow, organizers and organizations often end up spinning their wheels. Dogwood is no exception.

We’ve been challenged by a small staff, ambitious goals, a need to be active at ever-larger scales and frequent small crises and fires to put out.

During our 14-year history we’ve achieved some significant victories but, as an organization, we’ve been on-again-off-again community organizers. We’ve tended to rely on instinct and aphorisms instead of a clear, methodical approach. We’ve leaned on staff to organize consecutive series of one-off events, hoping that our network will continue to show up and be motivated. In many cases, they have and to great effect, but by relying so heavily on staff we’ve limited our reach.

So that’s how we ended up in Vancouver, surrounded by the amazing gardens and architecture, with the hope that Ganz’s model could help change that.

The Ganz Model

Ganz, a senior lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, has spent years distilling his experience as an organizer for the United Farm Workers, political campaigns, unions and non-profit groups into a coherent model of community organizing.

Introduced via Skype, he looked every bit the Harvard lecturer: a rumpled collared shirt, big glasses framing intelligent eyes, a mop of wiry hair and a bushy, grey mustache. He spoke in clear, deliberate tones, his passion apparent but tempered by years of experience and reflection.

His address emphasized the individual: their personal story, the values and desires that motivate them and how their motivation can be enhanced by connecting their personal story to that of others and to the urgency of the moment.

Every model, of course, must package old lessons into new terminology. And so with Ganz we get the concept of “strategic capacity” and the “story of self,” “story of us” and “story of now.” These phrases are entirely corny, but also clarifying.

As Dogwood staff, our big take-away was to focus on leadership development. Spend less time trying to be the hub for everything, all the time, everywhere, and more time training and supporting a select few – the best and the brightest within our network – so they have what they need to take a leadership role in their home communities.

It’s not rocket science, of course, but until that point we lacked the structure to make it a reality. Now, we believe, we have what we need.

Beginning this summer, Dogwood’s going to put Ganz’s ideas into practice. Our organizers Ben Porcher and Celine Trojand are working with the best of the best within our network – in a small number of initial areas – to set up teams.

There will be trainings in story-telling, team management, door-knocking and phone banking, among other things. Together, we’re going to continue to relentlessly build the size of our network, preparing for a potential worst-case scenario: where the B.C. government gives the green light to one or more oil tanker export projects and we are forced to launch a citizen’s initiative in an attempt to hold them back.

Our efforts certainly won’t be on the scale of Obama’s campaign, but that and other examples of the Ganz model give us a clear path to follow.