A Precipice and a Possibility: Reflections on Climate Justice Toronto’s Strategy Design Process!
Notes from the Field
By: Amanda Harvey-Sánchez and Aniket
In May 2021, coming out of an Annual General Meeting (AGM), Climate Justice Toronto created a strategy committee tasked with spearheading a long-term strategy development process for the organization. The strategy committee’s purpose was to lead and facilitate the process of developing a clear long-term goal which CJTO could orient itself toward, and a pragmatic path forward. This process also began as we were still adapting our new internal organizing structure to the realities and challenges of virtual organizing during a pandemic.
The initial plan below was for the strategy development process to take place in four stages: preparation, design, review, and a final organization-wide vote.
The strategy committee coordinated the preparation stage as a process of intention-setting and reading and reflecting on past and present social movements, theories, and strategies. We organized our readings and discussions around four themes: histories, political and economic theory, world-building, and contemporary organizing theory. We summarized our reflections and learnings here, here, here, and here.
One of the defining themes of the preparation stage was the necessity of “deep organizing”. We picked up the concept from Charles Payne’s book I’ve Got the Light of Freedom. Here, he talks about what civil rights organizer Ella Baker called “spadework” – the unglamorous, difficult, day-to-day work of building relationships in a local context (knocking on doors, going to church meetings, meeting with local leaders one-on-one). “Deep organizing”, for us, is taking that kind of slow and repetitive work rooted in communities and structures in society and leveraging them towards a particular campaign objective. It’s these often uncelebrated tasks that lay the foundation for real and material political change.
What we did and how our plans changed
The General Plan: As we moved toward the design stage, many of us felt the need to get started on concrete campaigns sooner rather than later. The municipal election, for example, was an opportunity to try out “deep organizing” on the ground. While we still felt that careful and intentional long-term strategy development would help make our organizing more coherent, targeted, and impactful, we were also grappling with how to effectively continue organizing in the short-term. Without any movement on campaigns, we risked losing existing members, failing to bring in new members, and possibly stagnating entirely. Nowadays organizers often worry about going so fast that the wheels come flying off. What we think about less is moving so slow that we come to a halt and get stuck.
A loose consensus emerged that some combination of the following was necessary:
- workshops or trainings with an external organizing body to develop hard and soft organizing skills across our membership
- a CJTO forum for developing a collective understanding of who we are, what we care about, and what our priorities are
- a CJTO retreat where we come together and apply our collective learning to launch a new campaign
Concurrently, I (Amanda) also applied for a grant to help fund some sort of “Toronto Climate Justice Convergence” as part of my PhD research with CJTO. I first floated this idea during the preparation stage of strategy development and further developed it in consultation with my Community Advisory Board. The goal was to bring together social, economic, and climate justice groups in Toronto to build broader and more politically impactful coalitions in the city and beyond.
Amidst this evolving context, we landed on a new timeline for strategy development, including a new partnership with the Institute for Change Leaders (ICL), a Toronto-based organizing training centre:
The Specific Plan: Building off existing relationships, we partnered with the Climate Justice Organizing Hub (“the Hub”) to support our capacity-building workshops with the ICL. Generous donations from CUPE3902 also helped cover additional costs during the design stage of strategy development, including paying for the retreat.
The strategy committee brought forward a proposal to the entire organization in January of 2022. The gist of the plan was this: bi-weekly organizing workshops with the ICL followed by a “synthesis meeting” after each workshop to take stock of key themes and learnings, culminating in a spring retreat after which we would launch a municipal election campaign geared towards “deep organizing” that would exceed the immediate electoral context. We also built-in time for an explicit discussion around vision and ideology in two parts, putting into practice reading and discussion on this topic during the preparation stage.
The Feedback & Revised Plan: Passing the strategy proposal was no easy feat. What soon became clear was that there was an almost infinite number of potential problems, gaps, or shortcomings with any strategy proposal. But much as it might bring us comfort and a sense of security to have a “strategy document”, “5-year plan”, or highly detailed strategy blueprint and mission-statement, no such document will ever be comprehensive enough or stable enough to “solve” the intersecting (and changing) crises in the world today. What’s important is we start somewhere, doing something, even if it’s imperfect and incomplete.
We made some changes based on feedback from the rest of CJTO. For instance, we agreed that the “synthesis meetings” should be carried out by CJTO as a whole (during Steering Committee meetings) rather than only the strategy committee, to ensure important learning and decisions are made collectively. This meant that the strategy committee effectively dissolved by February 2022, as we were now all working together to carve out a shared path forward.
We also made some modifications to adapt to changing circumstances as we got started (e.g. a facilitator getting sick, working with fluctuating capacity across our membership, some workshops and discussions taking longer than anticipated, and new ideas emerging along the way). The timeline below shows the actual schedule we ended up following.
What resulted from this process
We covered a lot in this process (too much to cover in one blog post), but here are some small snapshots of key documents, decisions, creations, and actions that resulted from the strategy design process.
Vision & Ideology
Vision and ideology are topics we have been grappling with at CJTO for a very long time. We’ve danced around them many times in CJTO’s history in the context of developing political principles. The strategy development process brought this to the fore, most notably in this Jacobin article titled, What the Sunrise Movement Can Do Better by former Sunrise organizers Jonathan Guy and Sam Zacher. They note the importance of political ideology in helping to guide decision-making and provide coherence and direction in campaigning – something I (Amanda) have also written about in the context of fossil fuel divestment campaigns. Still, we were wary about the risks of being too dogmatic or sectarian, or what Carla Bergman and Nick Montgomery call “rigid radicalism” in Joyful Militancy. So how to proceed? How much ideology is enough, and how much is too much?
For us, we opted to combine ideology with vision and treat the topic as a set of touchstones to be developed on an ongoing basis. We laid the preliminary groundwork over the course of two workshops, one meeting, and some follow-up discussion on the materials developed at those meetings. You can see what we came up with below.
Organizing our vision this way was useful in illustrating everything on our radar. That includes the vision for what we want, the “Planets”, but equally as important, common problems that snare left-wing organizing, “black holes”. Most of all, we found this exercise most useful as a starting point. We simply can’t anticipate everything, and as an ICL facilitator reminded us: shared ideology comes out of shared struggle.
We later made some modifications and developed our galaxy map into a definite political programme for CJTO, to articulate precisely what it is we want to work toward. The “North Star Demands”, summarized below and on our website and viewable in full here, work from vision statements down to several specific and tangible demands. We approved this document in June 2022, with the understanding that it is a living document. Our circumstances and priorities change, and so too must our goals along with them. Moreover, we will learn and grow as we work with others and begin taking concrete actions towards making these visions a reality.
Summary of CJTO’s “Planet” or “North Star” vision statements. The full list of demands is linked above. Original slide design by CJTO member Rebecca, adapted from our June 2022 retreat summary slide deck.
York South-Weston: Why this ward?
The decision for CJTO to get involved in the municipal election was not an easy one. Indeed, it was something we agonized over for almost a month, working through our fears, hesitations, and disagreements collectively (at this point still entirely over zoom!)
The kind of work needed to organize for power and enact real change does not ultimately happen by only politely knocking on doors twice or thrice a decade. Many of us were worried about becoming foot soldiers for a candidate’s campaign and losing sight of our own political vision and objectives. All the same, elections happen, and their winners and losers make decisions with material consequences for working people. The key question for us, then, was how to use the political opportunity of an election to meet new people, forge relationships, start new political conversations, and ultimately build power beyond the ballot box.
Given that context, we worked with the ICL to develop a plan for intervening in the municipal election in new (for us) and creative ways. If we were to endorse a candidate, it would have to be strategic: it wouldn’t be enough to just align with our political programme, having an organized grassroots base and a plan to win mattered too. To that end, we considered the following questions.
The points on strategic leverage and winnability were crucial for us. CJTO had already been involved in an endorsement style electoral campaign during the 2019 federal election as part of a distributed organizing campaign called Our Time. In that campaign, we endorsed a large slate of candidates, most of which did not win, and most of whom we have had little contact with post-campaign. This time around, we were going to opt for quality over quantity, endorsing only 1-3 candidates but really making our endorsement count. This would both lay the groundwork for a longer-term relationship with the candidate (win or lose) and if they were to win, incentivize accountability towards CJTO as an organization, thereby providing us with an active ally in office.
Beyond the political calculus involved, we also wanted to use our time during the election to build relationships intentionally and meaningfully in a specific geographical context. We were keen to meet and learn from local leaders and community organizations in the area. Early on, York South-Weston emerged as a key ward to consider. Among other things, low-income neighbourhoods in the ward are disproportionately impacted by flooding. This left an opening to work across climate, social, and economic justice, in collaboration with organizations in the area.
After meeting and interviewing four candidates in different wards, we settled on endorsing Chiara Padovani – a tenants’ organizer and social worker with strong ties in her home ward of York South-Weston. Chiara lost her bid for City Council in 2018, but did not give up organizing. Instead, she doubled-down by fighting above-guideline rent increases and preventing unfair evictions through her work with the York South-Weston Tenant Union, which she founded. This made us confident we weren’t working with a career politician, but rather someone committed to the kind of grassroots organizing that actually wins change.
Manageable Campaigns with Big Vision
An ongoing challenge in CJTO is navigating and attempting to reconcile the tensions between big-picture thinking and campaigns we can actually win. There’s no one-size-fits-all formula, but it’s important we think about what will build power toward system change and inspire ordinary people to get involved. Left-wing organizations often struggle with becoming consumed with the individually focused goals of some activists. The problem is if and when this comes at the cost of the broader commitment of our politics: the shared and collective struggle to bettering the world beyond individuals and even our own organizations.
One mechanism we have built-into our strategy design so far is planning for a “Fall Convergence” to stake out campaigns and coalitions beyond the election that align with our political programme. This would bring together social, economic, and climate justice groups in the city, and build on existing relationships developed during the municipal election. You can see how we were envisioning these pieces coming together below, taken from our June 2022 retreat.
Like most things in life, strategy and campaign development are rarely ever the same in theory and in practice. Some things played out a bit differently once we got started in earnest, and that’s okay. The test of a left-wing organization committed to making material change is hardly how committed it is to a particular viewpoint or path. But rather how, in the face of surprises, it can adapt and change, democratically and equitably moving past disagreements both within and without, to keep moving forward. There is no one path to the world we want, but each and every one of them passes through concrete strategy, local circumstances, and building power to actually win.
Amanda Harvey-Sánchez is a Toronto-based Latina organizer, activist-researcher, and educator. This blog post is part of Amanda’s doctoral research with CJTO, a two-year ethnographic community-based participatory research project tentatively entitled “Actualizing Everything: Affective Activism, Effective Politics, and the Future of Climate Justice Organizing in Canada”. Find Amanda on Twitter @amanda_hsanchez.
Aniket is a person on the planet Earth.
This blog post is the first in the series “Notes from the Field” by Amanda, a component of her research project with CJTO.
Cite as: Harvey-Sánchez, A. (2022). “A Precipice and a Possibility: Reflections on Climate Justice Toronto’s Strategy Design Process!”. Notes From the Field. Climate Justice Toronto.
Bergman, C. & Montgomery, N. (2017). “Ch. 5. Undoing Rigid Radicalism, Activating Joy”. Joyful Militancy: Building Resistance in Toxic Times. Chico, California: AK Press.
Delaire, M. (2020). Tenant groups in York South-Weston unite to fight for tenants’ rights. toronto.com.https://www.toronto.com/news/tenant-groups-in-york-south-weston-unite-to-fight-for-tenants-rights/article_6914c1ab-1f02-5ac5-b79c-bdaacc7349a9.html
Grim, R. (2022). The Elephant in the Zoom: Meltdowns Have Brought Progressive Advocacy Groups to a Standstill at a Critical Moment in World History. The Intercept. https://theintercept.com/2022/06/13/progressive-organizing-infighting-callout-culture/
Guy, J. & Zacher, S. (2021). What the Sunrise Movement Can Do Better. Jacobin https://www.jacobinmag.com/2021/08/sunrise-movement-green-new-deal-left-politics-local-organizing
Harvey-Sánchez, A. & Lang, S. (May/June 2021). Divestment and beyond. Briarpatch Magazine. https://briarpatchmagazine.com/articles/view/divestment-and-beyond
Moon, J. (2020). The community of Rockcliffe keeps flooding. When will it end? Toronto Star. https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2020/07/09/the-community-of-rockcliffe-keeps-flooding-when-will-it-end.html
Payne, Charles. (2007). I’ve Got the Light of Freedom: The Organizing Tradition and the Mississippi Freedom Struggle. Oakland, California: University of California Press.
Williams, Krysta. (n.d.). Galaxy Map Activity. https://docs.google.com/document/d/17KAb8z0VTS0-456D-yxqYGwoqgn-G5_1STBkAqnkccs/edit
CJTO References & Additional Resources Mentioned
Climate Justice Toronto. (2021). Developing a long-term strategy for CJTO. (Theme 1 from “Preparation Stage” of Strategy Development) https://climatejusticeto.com/2021/11/13/developing-a-long-term-strategy-for-cjto/
Climate Justice Toronto. (2021). Long-term strategy: the world as it is and as we want it to be. (Theme 2 from “Preparation Stage” of Strategy Development) https://climatejusticeto.com/2022/01/21/long-term-strategy-the-world-as-it-is-and-as-we-want-it-to-be/
Climate Justice Toronto. (2021). Long-term strategy: imagining and implementing the utopia. (Theme 3 from “Preparation Stage” of Strategy Development) https://climatejusticeto.com/2022/06/30/long-term-strategy-imagining-and-implementing-the-utopia/
Climate Justice Toronto. (2021). Long term-strategy: how we realize our vision. (Theme 4 from “Preparation Stage” of Strategy Development) https://climatejusticeto.com/2022/06/30/long-term-strategy-how-we-realize-our-vision/
Climate Justice Toronto. (n.d.). “About” – “Our Vision”, “Our Structure” and “Our Principles”. https://climatejusticeto.com/about/
Climate Justice Organizing Hub. https://www.lehub.ca/en/
Institute for Change Leaders (ICL): https://www.changeleaders.ca/
Our Time: https://our-time.ca/
York South-Weston Tenant Union: https://www.tenantunion.ca/