Organizing: What it takes to create change   


I have gotten more than a few blank looks when I tell people that I am an Organizer. Oftentimes that look is followed up with “But, what do you DO?”. Since I am a professional rabble rouser, hopefully I can give some insight into what it means and takes to create lasting change.

Whether it’s social justice, community, issue-based, or labor, organizing is built on relationships and face to face conversations. This in turn helps to create a network of empowered people, driven by their passion for change. Oversimplified explanation? Definitely! Tactics, strategies, and time needed vary depending on the type of organizing and goals.

I will focus on “issue based organizing” as some of my most profound career/personal growth happened while working on the passage of the marriage bill in Illinois. Where to begin – maybe the end? We won the marriage fight in Illinois and ultimately the U.S. What did it take? Decades of work that was built on the generations that struggled before us and people busting down the closet door.

One of my favorite experiences was taking volunteers to events like the Illinois State Fair or literal street corners with heavy pedestrian traffic (think an el stop or farmer’s market). We had to change the hearts and minds of the general public as well as garner votes in the General Assembly so we struck up conversations with complete strangers, asking them to sign a postcard to show their elected official that there was support for the bill.

You needed thick skin at times but some interactions were so affirming. I remember one person stopped and thanked all of us for what we were doing. His sister had been with her partner for years and he could not understand why she didn’t have the same rights as he did. He happily contributed, as did many individuals.

We knocked on doors, rallied in front of legislator’s offices, phone banked, lobbied legislators by the hundreds and in small groups. We held press conferences with couples and had clergy testify adamantly in favor of the bill. We used social media to inform large groups of people and shared stories from across the state, turn people out to rallies and lobby days, and pull in new volunteers.

One of the worst days on the job was the last day of session in May when everyone’s spirits soared thinking that bill would most certainly pass the House (it had already passed the Senate on Valentine’s Day). Long story short, it didn’t. It felt deflating for so many couples who started planning their weddings and it burned out some of the volunteers and activists that had already put in countless hours. We had to take a hard look at what went wrong and try to correct it. Again, the bill passed a few months later so it all eventually worked but it taught us all a valuable lesson that you cannot take anything for granted in organizing.

Is the struggle over? Absolutely not.

There aren’t a lot of people that do organizing as a career path but some of the best organizers I have met, have been dedicated volunteers. Regardless of the movement, you can’t door knock, phone bank, raise money, stage a rally, or put on an event without volunteers. Chicago is an organizing town so if you feel moved, dip your toe in the water. You never know what kind of history making you will be a part of!

About the Author

Marriage Postcards to IL General Assembly

Caroline Staerk continues to engage Illinoisans from all different backgrounds and is currently an Organizing Director at the Illinois Federation of Teachers. She has close to 20 years of experience in this field and has worked as the Public Policy Manager at Forefront, Director of Field Operations at Equality Illinois, and organized workers across the Land of Lincoln and U.S. with the Service Employees International Union. She has also lived in Maine where she worked with youth and the elderly for the Americorps*VISTA program and Missouri where she worked on health care reform and state representative races. Loves include traveling anywhere that has a beach, eating her way across Chicago, and as a WI transplant – Packer football!