Roots for advocates: applying community organising principles to developer relations


Ben Greenberg

Ben Greenberg

Community organizing is the work of societal transformation through key strategic principles and actions. It has through the decades given a voice to the voiceless and power to the powerless.

In this talk, Ben Greenberg explores the foundational principles and ideas of organising and applies them to developer relations. Saul Alinsky, who is considered to be the father of community organising in the United States, once described in an interview how he began his work in a new community: “The first thing you’ve got to do in a community is listen, not talk, and learn to eat, sleep, breathe only one thing: the problems and aspirations of the community. Because no matter how imaginative your tactics, how shrewd your strategy, you’re doomed before you even start if you don’t win the trust and respect of the people; and the only way to get that is for you to trust and respect them. And without that respect there’s no communication, no mutual confidence and no action. That’s the first lesson any good organiser has to learn, and I learned it…”

The field of community organising is the collection of strategies, principles, tactics and best practices to achieve the “trust and respect” of the people you work with and the people you serve. Throughout the decades community organisers have achieved significant social change in places around the world, and they continue to do so on every level of society. Developer Relations can learn a lot from community organising.


Hello, everyone. It is so nice to be joining you on this DevRelCon Earth wherever you are in the world as we talk about community organizing for developer relations, or as we can call it, “Roots for Advocates.”

This is a really big subject. So today what we’re going to do is break it down to three distinct areas. First, we’re going to talk about what is community organizing writ large, what is the field, what are the methodologies, sort of the foundational principles of it, and a bit of its history as well. Then we’re going to look at the prime tool in the community organizer toolkit, which is the one-to-one relational meeting.

It’s such an important tool which we can add then lastly, apply to developer relations to our fields and to our industry. So let’s get started. So what is precisely community organizing? When we talk about this, what are we actually talking about? So what we’re talking about can be best illustrated in this cute picture here. Community organizers start with a proposition that ultimately all of us, as individual people, are small fish in a vast ocean of much larger fish.

Some of them are sharks, a lot of them are predators. And as a small fish, it’s very hard to effect the change that you want to see in the world. It’s very hard to get the things done that you want to get done. But if we come together, all of us small fish, and we bring all our forces together, we can become transformed in that moment and become one large fish ourselves.

And we can then affect the change that we want to see in the world. It’s about turning us, a small fish, into something a lot greater, we act as one together. One of the primary ideologues, thinkers of community, organizing in the middle of the 20th century in the United States was an individual by the name of Saul Alinsky, and we’re going to spend some time looking at his thoughts, and how it applies to developer relations.

The book that he wrote that in many ways set the groundwork for this field is called Rules for Radicals, and this is how he described what his book was meant to accomplish. The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the have-nots on how to take it away. That’s such a provocative statement, and it’s meant to be provocative.

In fact, this book from the ’60s and the time it was published until today, to this very day, engenders quite a lot of controversy, but quite a lot of passion. This is what it looked like when it was first published, and if you focus in on the subtitle there, there’s something very important in the way that he framed that subtitle, A pragmatic primer for realistic radicals.

Three words there become key to understanding the foundations of community organizing. Pragmatism, realism, and radicalism juxtaposed together. So that’s what we’re going to try and understand together is how those things fit, and how they’re used to move, and change, and effect one’s voice, and one’s will in the world.

Before we get there, just a brief moment about who this person was. So Saul Alinsky was born in 1909, passed away in 1972. Yeah. He himself was a first-generation American. He was a child of Russian-Jewish immigrants who moved to Chicago. He ended up graduating the University of Chicago and founded two organizations which became really pivotal in the whole field of community organizing. One of them is called Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, and the other one is the Industrial Areas Foundation.

And both of these were very much involved in the workaround, very insidious issue of his era which was called redlining. If you’re not familiar with redlining or haven’t heard of it, I’ll just take a brief moment to explain what that was, and we’re still feeling the effects of it to this very day, and I actually recommend a keynote from RubyConf 2019, from Sandi Metz, where she spends a great deal of time talking about redlining.

Redlining was essentially the ranking of neighborhoods in the city by their desirability. And the desirability was determined by the amount of white Christians living in that neighborhood. So if it was entirely white Christian neighborhood, it had the highest desirability, and people could get access to the best rates for mortgages and loans and be able to purchase their first home. If it was a mixed white, Christian and Jewish neighborhood, it immediately went down in a couple of ratings and loans became more expensive, a little more difficult to acquire.

If one black family moved into that neighborhood, a loan became much more difficult to acquire, much harder to buy a home and the value of existing homes went down considerably. If it was an entirely black neighborhood, it became nearly impossible to get a loan. So if a society is built around the ability to transmit prosperity to one’s children, to build a future for one’s next generation through the acquisition of a first home, which is so key to the entire construct of American society and American wealth, denying people the ability to get that first home is almost a denial of their basic dignity as human beings, their right to live in dignity.

The right to raise their children in dignity. So Alinsky worked in that vein on that effort for a lot of his life in the capacity of community organizing. So what then exactly is this community organizing? Well, to answer that question, I like to think about something through its language because every field, every industry has its specialized terminology.

We have it in developer relations, people have it in every field, in psychology, and community organizing is no exception. So if you understand its language, you can come to understand what it is. So let’s actually do that together for a little bit, let’s spend some time there. One of the first words that is actually one of the most pivotal words in community organizing is a word that can cause us a bit of discomfort.

It’s a word you tend to avoid in polite company, and that word is power. We tend to not like to see ourselves in the construct of power, and we tend to not to like to see others in how much or how little power they have. And yet power is so important to understanding community organizing. What does power mean for a community organizer?

So to answer that, let’s actually listen to Saul Alinsky himself define power in an interview in CBS in 1967.

– [Saul] When we go in there, we organized them so they can have power. And by power, I mean exactly the way Webster’s Unabridged describes it as the ability to act where they become citizens or because of their power, they can have a place at the decision-making table, have something to say about their own future, and the future of their kids, and as a consequence, be part of the American family.

Now, this basically is where a lot of the controversy comes on it. A lot of the heat, well, it comes out of a lot of things. For one thing, I do the unforgivable.

What is that unforgivable thing that he does? He is invested in the effort of giving power to people who didn’t otherwise have it. And how does he define power? As simply the ability to act, as a dictionary defines it, which in other words, means restoring human agency to the human being. That is the most simple definition of power and sometimes the most dangerous definition of power, depending on which actors and which conversations you’re involved in.

But that’s how he defines power, the ability to effect change, the ability to act, the ability to express your human agency in the world. The next and the way in which this, by the way, is expressed is through this contrast between direct service and direct action. You might have heard these terms before, and they come up a lot in social action and social justice work.

Direct service is when you see a need in a society, in a community. Let’s say there are hungry people, or there are homeless people, and you build a homeless shelter, you build a soup kitchen, you are using your power to help the lives of individuals who are in need. So you feed the hungry, you clothe the naked, you provide shelter to the homeless, you heal the sick, you will see one small fish and you make that one small fish less hungry.

That’s direct service. Direct action is taking a step back, and asking the fundamental question, why are there homeless people in the world to begin with? Why are the people who go to sleep in our society hungry at night? And what can we do to address the underlying causes that perpetuate the systems that allow people to be hungry every night we going to sleep, that allow people to not get the benefits and services they need and die of treatable illnesses.

That’s the job of a community organizer is then to take those questions and give power, restore power, enable the power of the small fish to become big fish, to act on their own volition, their own will, to effect the change, and make it possible that these things don’t happen anymore. Direct service addresses the specific need, direct action addresses the underlying problems that give rise to that need to begin with.

The next term we need to grapple with is the term of self-interest. This is another one which can be a bit uncomfortable, a bit icky to sit in because we don’t like to think of self-interest, we like to think of higher loftier things. But again, we need to define it. And once again, we’ll turn to Alinsky to define it for us, and this comes from an interview he did in 1967 for a conservative talk show called Firing Line. And the context of this interview is this topic of redlining which is how we had begun our conversation.

Let’s listen to how he defined self-interest.

– [William] It is where landlords live so as to force the neighbors, as you put it, themselves to put pressure on the delinquent landlords to make those reforms.

– That was pure pragmatism [crosstalk] because people only do the right things for the wrong reasons. And I wanted to get the white neighbors to put the pressure on their white slum landlord in order to get rid of the Negro pickets that were in the community. They weren’t doing it for equality.

– Yeah. Once again, it seems to me that you obtrude into the discussion, you want essential cynicism.

– That’s not cynicism, that’s freedomism. [crosstalk]

– Did you hear those keywords there? Pragmatism, realism, and those are key and integral to this entire endeavor. But most importantly, he says something a bit audacious, people never do the right thing for the right reason. Now we can modulate that a bit, and say people mostly don’t do the right thing for the right reason.

And what does that genuinely mean? It means that people have interests that they often don’t like to talk about, whether it’s financial success, or it’s their own sense of ego, or the way doing some things make them feel good about themselves, or their family’s future. You know, from the lofty to the mundane, people have a set of self-interests that guides and motivates them.

And the job of the organizer is to uncover that self-interest which is not the same as being selfish. Self-interest is not the same as being selfish. So what does it mean to have self-interest as opposed to selfish? Well, the word interest comes from the word Latin, which means…self-interest therefore can mean self among others.

Self-interest is recognizing that you are a self and that there are other selves, and we all exist together and each self has its own encapsulated sense of wants, and needs, and motivations, and drives and passions, things that get you out of bed in the morning. And understanding that we don’t only act based on the moralistic, based on the ethical call, based on the calls of doing the righteous thing, we also act because we care about our own self-survival, we care about the survival of maybe our family or our children, we care about our financial security.

Recognizing those things is not diminishing the act, it’s understanding that we are human beings that have personal interests that don’t always align with the highest loftiest goals and ultimately, often, we act on those primarily. And we understand that self-interest of others through the one-to-one conversation which we’ll get to in just a moment.

And what is all of this to do for the community organizer? So you get the self-interest, you understand that people have different desires and passions, and take them out of bed in the morning, get them out to do the day. You as the person having these conversations, you are in a privileged place because you get to hear individual self-interest from so many different people.

And from that perch, you can start weaving a narrative that pulls up the threads of commonality that you’re starting to discern in those conversations. And you can start taking those abstractions, and reifying them into a general narrative of what you’re hearing in your community. And some of these things may very well surprise you.

I know when I was doing some organizing work in the Upper East Side of Manhattan around healthcare legislation in Albany, I was working with a community of people with influence, people with a certain sense of wealth, and yet in the one-to-one conversations, what kept on arising was the fear of the ailing health of their parents. This was a sandwich generation meaning they had children at home and ailing parents on the other end and worried about being able to provide for those ailing parents in their increasing healthcare needs.

And that self-interest resonated with the self-interest of people from other parts of New York City which didn’t have the same benefits, the same privilege, the same access to influence that people in the Upper East Side did. And yet they were able to connect those two communities which otherwise would not have been connected because the organizers were able to hear and harmonize the various aspects of self-interest that arose to the fore.

All of this happens through the one-to-one conversation, the critical, crucial element of the organizer toolkit. And there are some fundamental building blocks, the one-to-one conversation, we’re going to focus on a few of these together. These are really the foundations of how one approaches and builds their relational one-to-one conversations.

The first one that we’re going to focus on is this hierarchy of values. And we spoke about it a bit already, but understanding that each person has their own values. And those values emits the values of many other people. And your job as the organizer is to harmonize them with others, to find the commonalities and build a collective, a community together that actually feels genuine and authentic to each and every single person in that community.

The second thing is to understand this prime sort of truth of organizing. That people, and you could call it pessimism perhaps call it realism, people primarily act for their own reasons. They don’t always act for the right reasons. So your job is to assess the values undergirding that person.

Another way of saying it is what gets them out of bed in the morning. And pulling those out, calling them out during your one-to-one conversation. And another aspect of the one-to-one conversation that is also equally crucial is the concept of shared experiences. And I often talk about what does it mean to have shared experiences through the lens of currency.

I think currency is a fantastic illustration of this. We all have the experience, every one of us, regardless where we live in the world, of going to a store and taking out of our wallet whether it’s a credit card, or a paper bill or change currency and trading that in for something tangible, something concrete. So for example, a loaf of bread.

That loaf of bread has intrinsic value. It provides nourishment to your body. Its value is apparent to everyone. That dollar bill that you traded for that loaf of bread doesn’t have any inherent value beyond the paper it was printed on. It only has value because we as a society and now as a global society recognize a shared global construct called currency.

And this thing called currency actually doesn’t exist in the real world, it exists as a figment of our imaginations, but we invest it with value because it’s a shared construct. So your job as an organizer is to build shared constructs with your community. It’s to build those shared currencies that will enable you to have experiences that you can relate to.

Really important, every time you’re trying to wonder about how I understand this, think about that grocery store and trading in a piece of paper for a loaf of bread, and how that makes sense. It doesn’t make sense except for how we invest it with value. So what are the foundations of a good one-to-one? Foundations are, and these are many of them, things like open-ended questions, trying to avoid yes to nos.

You want to pull people into narrative because the more narrative the more opportunities to understand. You want to make sure that you understand what they’re saying, so you want to clarify, you want to understand the self-interest of a person. Avoid moralizing. Avoid offering advice. You always want to have a follow-up action for a one-to-one, a relational one-to-one. And equally important, you should not have the follow-up action in mind before the meeting.

That follow-up action should come as part of the conversation, and you shouldn’t make that ask if it’s an ask, beyond let’s say meet again, which you can always do. If it’s a concrete ask, don’t ask it if you feel a sense of hesitancy. You want to give people the opportunity to commit to something, and don’t feel like they’re avoiding it, right? And you also want to always take notes after, that’s incredibly important. When I was doing this work, my car was full of notebooks because the second we were done, I’d run into my car and take as many notes as I possibly could.

And have a debriefing partner. Debriefing partners are critically important. They help you flesh out the themes that arose in the conversation, talking about something, you know, having, you know, in programming, you often say we have a rubber duck to discuss our problems with, but having a real flesh-and-blood person to discuss it with in confidence really helps you follow and flesh out the themes and the self-interest that arose in that conversation.

How does this all apply to our wonderful field of developer relations? So the first thing is we have to take a moment and reimagine, recast the role of developer advocate as developer organizer. What does it mean if we imagine ourselves and our role as a developer organizer and in contrast to or in partnership with a developer advocate?

So perhaps the first thing that makes us ask is the fundamental question, who is my community? What constitutes my community? Is my community around a language? Is it around an operating system? Is it around a certain industry like DevOps or DevSecurity, or communications APIs?

And how do I assess the needs of that community? How do I stay in pulse to that community. That’s sort of the most fundamental question as an organizer, you’re constantly interested in and most invested in the question of who is in my community at all times. And in addition to that, there are questions you should be constantly asking yourself as a developer organizer, questions like, am I listening? I know I’m talking, but am I listening to the people in my community?

And how do I assess if I’m listening to people in my community? I assess why asking myself when was my last relational one-to-one with somebody in my community? If I can answer that question off the tip of my tongue, you’re probably doing your job. If it takes you a long time to struggle with when your last one-to-one was, maybe you’re not listening as much as you think you are listening.

The relational one-to-one is the crucial key, fundamental building block of the entire work. Without it, none of it can happen. And also asking yourself, what are my goals? What are our organization’s goals? Why do we exist? We don’t only exist simply to exist, we exist for something else. And if we do exist for something else, what are the short-term goals, what are the short-term wins that we can work on to achieve and move the goalposts forward?

And how will those short-term wins connect to our long-term vision? Those are the questions organizers ask themselves because as you build power for others, as you’re building their power, and building their voice and building their ability to act, you want to make sure that there’s short-term wins that are possible because short-term wins enable medium-term wins which enable long-term wins.

It propels and drives the momentum forward. So you want to constantly be thinking of how I can do that, and pace it so those things happen. And I think as sort of the crème de la crème of the entire experience, a developer organizer, your primary job is to empower your community.

It is to give a voice to those in your community to express themselves, a voice to effect the change they want to see, a voice to feel like they are a part of and have a seat at the table of decision-making in your community. Your job is to build their power. A politician builds power for themselves, an organizer builds power for others. And you do that building power by harmonizing the various voices that you’re hearing in your one-to-one conversations, by understanding where the power sits in your community and mapping it.

Who is with you in where you want to go? Who are the outliers that don’t agree, and how can you motivate and move them in ways and persuade them to come along with you if possible? And if not, how do you mitigate, or how do you navigate that? How do you catalyze leaders? So an organizer is not only invested in building programming and events, the building of the programming and the events are actually just the medium for the ultimate objective which is to create leadership, to create leaders, to build leaders in your community.

You do that through events and through organizing, but ultimately what your job is, is to build leaders. And lastly, that shared experience. If you don’t understand each other, or you’re not communicating. Building communal experiences, we all have them whether the developer is spotlighting, virtual office hours, hackathons, days of code, we all understand, and we have these things, but recasting and reframing them as opportunities to build shared construct, shared currency, shared experiences.

And remember that everything you do is personal, whether it’s a hackathon, whether it’s developer spotlighting, whether it is days of code, whatever it might be, at the end of the other side of that computer is another human being with self-interests, with wants and motivations, with desires. An organizer sees everything, the light of the human that is behind it all.

So if you understand that everything is personal, that goes a very long way. And lastly, what ultimately is our big picture? What are we striving towards? So to answer that question, as we did throughout this presentation, let’s close it out with some final words by Saul Alinsky in addressing this.

– Unless you can break through the kind of depersonalization which has settled down over the large masses of our citizenry, unless they can find themselves instead of feeling like floating flotsam in a whole sea of an anonymity, and there’s nothing they can do about anything, unless we can do that, we are truly lost into 1984.

Oh, we’ll still have a lot of the words, we’ll still have the tunes but the human spirit itself would just become a decayed piece of program data in the bowels of some computer, and the computer would be playing The Star-Spangled Banner or something, it would be gone, or pretty close to it, many quotas right now.

– The goal is to personalize the depersonalize. It is to restore the person, and to empower them and to make sure that our community, the people that make up our communities, our technical communities, are not just dots on a plotted chart, but have a voice, and have power and have the ability to effect change and to act.

Thank you very much.

Matthew: Hey, Ben, thank you. Thanks very much for that. So we are in the questions time. So if you have any questions, do, please, put them into the Slack channel. Ben, I want to ask you a question just to kick things off, if that’s okay?

Ben: Sure.

Matthew: Right. So I’m not quite sure how to word this, but the world that you described and the world that Saul Alinsky was hoping to change seems quite disconnected from a lot of what we do in developer relations. And I’m in no way saying that there isn’t, you know, that everyone who works with technology is empowered or has the agency that…the same agency as other people insides here.

What I’m saying is that we are generally in developer relations working towards a commercial goal, unless you’ve, you know, you work at somewhere like Mozilla, perhaps. So how do you square or apply these techniques to something that is ultimately about making more dollars for investors rather than doing good in the world?

Let’s put it that way.

Ben: It’s a fantastic question. I think it actually strikes to the heart of the question, and I appreciate you bringing it up. I don’t think it has to be a conflictual paradigm. I think that you can see both happening and being true at the same time. One can affect positive change, and do social good, write corporate social responsibility and social good.

And at the same time, be interested in moving forward the bottom line for a company, the profit motive for a company. I think both can be true. And in fact, one could argue that the latter is only enhanced by the former. That’s, I think, one way I would answer that question. The second thing I would say to that is that yes, and bracketing the entire sort of social history behind from the organizing.

The very basic notion of it is that you will be most successful in what you want to do when you place the people in your community at the core of your experience. And I think that holds and rings resonant and true to me, that if you place your people, your community at the core of what you’re trying to do, it will come off and be actually truly most genuine, most authentic, most real.

And I think when you don’t do those things, it becomes disingenuous. And, you know, we see this…I see it, you know, in my work as, in advocating, organizing around the Ruby community, really trying to create the most authentic experiences by tapping into what people are looking for, what they’re listening for, it’s having those conversations.

And when you do that, I think you actually build more genuine community which also, by the way, moves the business forward. So they don’t all have to be in conflict with each other. But I hear what you’re saying, it’s a very important question.

Matthew: It’s one that I struggle sometimes with and, I have conversations with people sometimes saying, developer relations is fulfilling, it’s rewarding and it gets me some great people, we get to help people achieve things. But couldn’t we be doing all this for something more meaningful?

But, I mean, that’s…perhaps we should have an entire conference on that. I don’t know.

Ben: We should have entire conference on that. And I think, though, if everyone thought that they could only do and effect good in the world, if they were only doing nonprofit work and working for charity organizations, we’d be in a very sorry state. I think it’s our actual, our obligation, to see everything we do in the cast of how we are moving the world in a better place even when we’re working for businesses.

And maybe precisely because most humans will end up working for businesses. And if most humans are working for businesses, then we have to find a way to do that in a good way. And I’ll just say one last thing on that which is if the good you’re doing, if only the good you’re doing is making people feel heard and making people feel present, that already is doing so much.

Matthew: Okay, thanks. Right. We have three questions on the Slack. So, Lorna says, “Which communication channels do you think work best for different types of discussion? Are there times where you would move things away from GitHub issues, for example, where a conversation can be a bit, two lines of text at a time?”

Ben: Yeah. Lorna, that is such a good question. As usual, Lorna, you always ask the best questions. It’s a really good question. I tend to privilege, and perhaps a bit unfairly so, the in-person conversations, and that makes this work even more difficult in the time we’re living in this global pandemic.

I really find that I’m most effective in conversing with somebody when I can be with them. So that’s challenging now, that’s deeply challenging. I think one has to also disassociate the purely technical question from the one that has any underlying or underpinning sort of challenges to it or dissatisfaction.

I think a lot of times those things can be… What’s the word for it? Can be aggregated and can often be kind of mumbled up together. But if you can pull them apart, you can answer the technical question or the technical challenge in a GitHub issue, right, because GitHub issues are very good for that.

But the second you start experiencing some dissatisfaction, you need to move to a place where you have a bit of a more synchronous conversation, where you can engage that thinking. I don’t think it has to be in person, but it does need to have some interaction of…and again, this is my own sort of, like, privileging of it, but face-to-face where I can interact and see body language, and that could be over a video chat, it could be over a variety of mechanisms.

But I think the second you start experiencing some of that, it warrants that kind of escalation, that kind of elevation.

Matthew: Okay. Mrysini says or asks, “What’s your advice on maintaining relationships with members of your community and having those one-on-one conversations now that loss of opportunities to connect in person have gone away or moved online?” So it’s kind of related to what you were just saying.

Ben; Really, I’m personally… If we’re owning our struggle, I’m struggling with that right now. It is something that I have not fully come to terms with, and I think it’s because I feel very invested in the in-person, and it’s something that really drives me personally. And my sort of experiences and I feel confidence is most invested in the in-person, Masini, so I have not yet finally found a satisfying answer to that question.

And I keep on hoping, the back of my mind, Matthew, that one day, this will be over, and we can get back together in person again, because I yearn for that, and I get a lot of sustenance from those in-person conversations, and I find that the work that I do gets a lot of enrichment. And I get a lot of insight from those in-person conversations, whether they’re at booths, right, like working the booth is so critical to me.

I find I learn so much from those conversations, and then I often take them aside, you know, during booth time and sit down with somebody and have a quick 15-minute one-to-one. I can’t tell you how many 15-minute one-to-ones I’ve had the last time I was at a conference. It was phenomenal, and my one-to-ones tend to happen at those conferences and meetups, and right now, they’re just a lot more challenging.

Matthew: It’s time for one last question from Mike who asks, “How do you create a fair path for people’s voices coming back to you with organizations usually putting more emphasis on customers or influences than anyone else?”

Ben: Mm. That’s your job, right? That’s the job of the developer advocate. The developer advocate, you know, one role of the developer advocate, it’s always traditionally been raising the voice of developers within the product and engineering teams, right? So we listen to our customers, our clients, our communities, and we hear those voices, and take them back, and that helps in the iteration process, right?

So you filter, you are part…you get to put it in a prism and package it. So part of your job is to make sure that you are not discounting the voices of, you know, the small person, of the small fish. That you are listening to those as well because the product teams, and engineering teams, and the marketing teams and what have you, they’re only going to hear what you present to them because you’re the one on the ground hearing it.

So it’s really up to…the challenge is yours. It’s up to you. The challenge is on behalf of all of us, and we can do it.

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