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Organizing Terminology: Agitation

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By Lynn Buske, JONAH Organizer

Many of our followers, no matter how long they’ve been part of JONAH, aren’t familiar with our organizing techniques and terminology simply because we don’t talk about them enough. A new addition to our JONAH Journal will be short snippets to help you understand more about our organizing model.

In the last newsletter we talked about self-interest: finding how you, as an individual, work amongst others – your passion in action in a way that feeds you and helps others – and how relationship plays a huge part in the success of our self-interest. The other reason self-interest and relationship are important, is because they put us in the position to do some agitation to make sure that the work we and others are doing is quality and in-line with our self-interest. 

Think of the word agitation. How would you define agitation? What do we call the thing in the washing machine that gets the dirt in clothes out? 

The kind of agitation we talk about in community organizing can only be done in relationship and is to be done for the betterment of all. It is not done just to satisfy your own agenda or be done without allowing someone to agitate you back. Agitation is about encouraging each other to grow, and it is a form of LOVE rather than simply projected anger or frustration. In my opinion it is most helpful to agitate someone one-on-one AFTER listening intently and knowing the self-interest of that person, and when the agitation points them toward their best self. It is not pointing out their flaws or broken promises.

David Liners, WISDOM Director, says, “Agitation is about challenging each other to be our best selves. It is helping people to identify the obstacles or demons that keep them from being the amazing people God created them to be. This requires building relationships. Usually, we can only hear agitation from people we trust and who we know want the best for us.”

Straight from our Gamaliel manual, “Agitation is the art of challenging a person to be true to their values, true to self and to act on those values out of their own self-interest. It is the art of pointing out the contradictions between what a person professes and how she or he acts. Agitation must encourage freedom and respect the dignity of the other person. We recommend a method that speaks to the heart, the passion, the core of a person.”

Why agitation is important in an organization like JONAH, also from the Gamaliel manual:

  • Your job is to create a community, an organization, and a congregation. If what you are doing with people is driving them away you are not agitating. 
  • Your job is to create a vibrant, growing, powerful, dynamic community, organization, or congregation. If people are not acting out their values, if there are contradictions between what they profess and what they do, you are not agitating. 
  • We want to develop vibrant leaders and vibrant lives.

Agitation gives us boundaries to avoid burnout and supports us in our growth. It brings people into our work. It is a demonstration of the community we are trying to build together by truly supporting each other, even when it is hard. True agitation is HARD to do. But I am only doing a dis-service to the people and organization that I care about when I DON’T do agitation, and do it well. 

An example (a common one, actually):

  • A leader, who has volunteered to lead a group, comes to me frustrated because of lack of turnout and involvement for their activity/issue. From my observations, and some further inquiry, it becomes clear that this leader hasn’t taken the time to build relationships with people interested in an issue and hear from them because of a fear of actually leading, fear of relationships, and pride in own ideas. I say, “I know you really want your mission to succeed, and I know you know our organizing tools and that they work. By not building real relationships or involving others’ ideas, how you build a team, you are sabotaging your success. Do you see that? Do you see what is blocking you from doing this work? What can I support you to make this happen?”

Self-interest is about clear heart and clear boundaries, agitation is about taking action to challenge people to act in accord with their own self-interest and values.

Agitation is NOT:

  1. Sending letters to your politician demanding that they follow through on their promises. This is just accountability of a patron to a governing official. It CAN be agitation if you have specifically communicated with them before about your self-interest and they replied clearly that their promise also helps them accomplish their self-interest and you care about their succeeding in their role.
  2. Calling someone out in front of a large group with assumptions in hand and NOT listening to the entire situation.
  3. Adding your opinion to something that is not your role to be involved in because 

a. it is outside your self-interest 

b. it is in your self-interest but you chose not to be part of it.

  • Sitting down with someone and telling them what you think they’re doing wrong and you know what they should be doing 

a. especially if you aren’t in relationship with them and you don’t know anything about them

b. even if you are in relationship but you aren’t encouraging them to be their best self, which includes asking questions so they discover the direction they need on their own.

This is a very brief introduction to a difficult concept. I hope this helps explain further why we start with relationship and how those relationships can powerfully impact the goals we are headed toward. Our organizing principles tell us we cannot improve our communities without these kinds of relationships and collaborations. Everyone has to benefit. Everyone has to do better. Everyone has to be respected, including our volunteers. THIS TAKES TIME and investment in YOU and EACH OTHER. The reward is for you, others, JONAH, and our community.