Review: A Hell Raisers’ Guide

In 1959 one of Canada’s great hell-raisers, Aaron Sapiro, died in Los Angeles. There is no gravesite. Sapiro left his body to medical students.

Sapiro as a community organizer in the 1920s promoted co-operatives for grain, dairy and fruit producers from British Columbia to Nova Scotia. He created Prairie wheat pools. “You need to be paid decent prices,” he told farmers.

Saskatoon once presented him the keys to the city in tribute to his public service. The periodical Farm And Home wrote in 1922 that Sapiro “did more than any other man on earth to make farmers the most prosperous and contented in the world.”

Spy the land and you will not find a single monument to Sapiro, though his legacy is everywhere. Such is the fate of community organizers. “Organizing isn’t all fun and winning,” writes Matt Price, former campaign director for Environmental Defence Canada. “It also involves drudgery, tension and controversy.”

Price writes: “On balance, the path of least resistance is to be a free rider and not be involved.” Alternatively, University of British Columbia Press has published Price’s guide for hell-raisers, Engagement Organizing. It is fresh and candid, and provides insight to everyday Canadians – readers, voters, taxpayers, neighbours – who remain the natural constituency of any grassroots campaign, left or right, regardless of whether you’ve ever planted a lawn sign or endorsed a petition.

“Everybody fails sometimes,” writes Price. “The question is whether you fail well.”

Need a traffic light on the corner? Want to save home mail delivery? Oppose subsidies for Bombardier Inc.? Price details the practice of politics from the ground up. “People hunger to be part of something bigger than themselves,” he writes.

Engagement Organizing skirts platitudes, scorns media manipulation, questions ballyhoo claims of Twitter traffic, and convincingly argues lapel buttons and low-cost memberships in grassroots groups from ACORN Canada to the Canadian Taxpayers Federation are worth more than billboards. “When people see a campaign billboard, at some level they know that it means a candidate ‘just has rich friends’,” he quotes one municipal organizer in Calgary. “But when they see a button or a bumper magnet, it counts more as a personal endorsement.”

In 2011 Vancouver organizers with the Dogwood Initiative cost ex-Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn his seat in Parliament due in part to what Price calls “an ingenious concept”: a decal fit to stick on a dollar coin that protested oil tankers on the Pacific coast. “Dogwood had tens of thousands of these decals made and asked supporters to stick them to coins for circulation.”

“Within 48 hours, someone had one across the country in Halifax,” writes Price. The campaign made a national issue of marine safety, though Canada has not had a major tanker spill since 1970, and elected the Green Party in Lunn’s riding.

Why did the Occupy movement and Idle No More fail? Price covers that too. “Digital tools and practices and good data management do not ‘change everything’ and by themselves do not build real power,” writes Price; “We need to check our assumptions about how we wish the world would work versus how it actually does.”

By Holly Doan

Engagement Organizing: The Old Art and New Science of Winning Campaigns, by Matt Price; UBC Press; 200 pages; ISBN 9780-7748-90168; $22.95

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