»The Enemy is Not Each Other» – A Praxis Reflection on Do's and Don'ts for Deep Relationship Building

13 Minutes
Grassroots Movement Building, Community & Union Organizing, Facilitation & Deliberation
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Sören and his fellow activist from 'European May' at the Berlin Central Station (Photo: Frieder Unselt)


Facing My Fears

In October 2020, a couple of weeks before the US elections, I found myself in a state of fear. A week earlier, I had (in what now seemed like a deranged moment of unwarranted hubris) agreed to be one of the trainers in a “Fundamentals of Organizing” webinar for 35 aspiring organizers in rural Alabama, rural Michigan, and three European cities. It was to be a multiracial, working-class group of people fighting poverty, structural racism and state violence in their respective communities. Now, a day before the training, I felt like a fraud: What did I, some white dude from West Germany, have to teach people coming from vastly different places? How on earth could my experiences connect to theirs?

I came into the training as an organizer with Justice is Global, a special project of People’s Action, one of the biggest networks of progressive community organizations in the US. Justice is Global builds power across borders, and my role is to build Justice is Global Europe, its European base. This way, we aim to combine methods of grassroots organizing from different contexts and build power in the places that hold the most sway over the setup of the global economy.

The participants of the training were from the People’s Action member organizations Michigan United, Hometown Action (Alabama), and Justice is Global, plus a group of organizers from Europe I was working with. I should explain that the way we do trainings is through intense, probing methods of questioning, role-playing and decision-making in which trainees get an opportunity to think deeply about their relationship to the concepts and methods we’re introducing to them. In order for this to work, the trainer has to set up the training room as a space in which it is okay to be open and vulnerable. We do this by sharing stories about ourselves, our communities and our struggles. These methods are challenging for both the trainer and the participants. The upshot is that if done well, these trainings can be transformational.


Coming to Terms with the Why

In the process of dealing with my fears, I talked to Nigel Tann, the director of training at People’s Action, who was leading the overall training arch for this “Fundamentals of Organizing” webinar. Instead of just assuaging my fears in a non-committal way (“Don’t worry, you can do it”), Nigel asked me a simple question:

Sören, why are you doing this? Why did you want to lead this training session?

Nigel Tann

This gave me some food for thought. Yes, why was I doing this? Why did I want to walk into a situation that I knew would be challenging and risky? As a trainer, I would stand in front of a room full of strangers and ask probing, often personal questions. Participants might become annoyed and defensive, pushing back in a way that might derail the whole training and leave me in a state of despair. These, at least, were my nightmares about how it might go.

Lying awake the night before the training, I thought about the “Why”. I thought about my vision of building a grassroots organization that reaches across national borders and brings together people from all parts of Europe, and eventually the world, to fight for a global society based on the value and dignity of all human life. I thought about my anger at seeing the world descend into the trap of nationalism in the last 15 years, about the borders that were being erected and the deportations taking place everywhere, and how I had longed and worked for a chance to do something meaningful and effective about this for years.

I thought back to my own experiences of exclusion – I thought about how when I was a kid in elementary school, I was bullied for years because I was supposedly not the “right kind” of boy, because I was open and vulnerable about my emotions. I thought about how this experience had made me alert for the mechanisms of exclusion in our society, including the ones that we take for granted – like national borders.

I thought about my difficult family history and how we had been affected by the dismantling of the German welfare state in the 2000s. I remembered how my mum had feared every letter from the Jobcenter – the agency that administers welfare payments (“Hartz IV”) in Germany. I thought about Gerhard Schröder, the German chancellor at the time, explaining that we had to cut social services due to “globalization,” and how I had realized later that the way global capitalism was set up was undermining wages, working conditions, taxes and social services everywhere. I thought about how this exact realization had landed me at Justice is Global, the organization that I was now working with, which was working on a vision to create a just, progressive globalization.

As this was going through my mind and body, I knew again why I had made a commitment to train an international group of grassroots organizers the next day. In fact, this was exactly the risk that I needed to take in order to make my vision a reality. If a global grassroots movement was to be possible, I needed to know if it would be possible to connect our experiences in a way that made us realize that we’re in this fight together, that we’re all hurting under systems of oppression that span the globe. And that we can make a difference together.


Bridging the Divisions

In the training, I talked about my parents’ struggles with depression, alcohol abuse and addiction. And I talked about how this was underlying my own struggles to believe in my self-worth, and to stand up for what I believe in. To believe that I could move other people to stand up for themselves, too, so that we can fight and be powerful together. That I was, in fact, in this struggle right now as I was standing in front of them, doubting that I was worth being their trainer. As I talked about this, something magical happened: people resonated with my story. It turned out that many people in the training knew from their own experience what it meant to grow up with parents who are struggling with addiction. And everyone knew how it felt to doubt one’s own worth, and how undermining that feeling was.

My training was a success. Together, we learned that even if we come from vastly different places, we have experiences that we share in common. If we analyze these experiences, we find that they have everything to do with the ways in which our current political systems are failing us. And even if they might sometimes make it harder for us to organize, these experiences also constitute a deep well of connection and motivation, a fire that can nurture us in the long fight for systemic change.


Building Deep Relationships


  • Take the time to get to know and listen to each other with curiosity and compassion. Set aside specific times to do “1-on-1s”, intentional conversations with people you want to work with in which you connect on a deeper level.
  • Understand your own stake in your collective liberation – your self-interest. Don’t try to “help”, but work to build power with people, at eye level.
  • Be open and vulnerable with where you’re coming from, and why you’re in this fight. Vulnerability is your super power for real leadership.
  • Get people where they’re at, not where you would like them to be. Understand their situation and organize in the world as it is.
  • Agitate on the basis of people’s experiences and emotions. Why are they angry, and what do they want to do with that anger?
  • Challenge each other to take risks and grow together rather than languishing in your comfort zones.
  • Think and act on the basis of transformation. Once you realize that any issues – including interpersonal ones – can be changed, transformation both big and small becomes possible.


  • Don’t make assumptions about people. Everyone has a unique story and reasons for why they act or think a certain way. Your task is to listen, understand and transform.
  • Don’t talk down on, but work with people. Everyone brings experiences and knowledge without which the struggle cannot be won.
  • Don’t do for others what they can do for themselves. This includes things that they might never have done before.
  • Don’t be nice. The work of liberation is hard and cannot be done without discomfort, agitation, conflict and challenge. It’s not about being liked.

This is how transformational grassroots organizing works. Nationalism and other systems of oppression and division have been pitting us against each other. But through deep relational work, we can create the connections we need to build power across lines of class, race, gender, ability, and nation. This is more important than ever in a time in which right-wing politicians are weaponizing these fractures to divert and distract us from the real crises and cracks visible all around us: not immigrants are the threat, but ecological devastation, social inequality and the economic power of corporations. If we can connect on the basis of shared experiences and a shared analysis, we can create strong organizations that develop powerful grassroots campaigns challenging the transnational power structures underlying these crises.

History has shown that change comes from the people who are most impacted by injustice: workers, women, queer people, people of color and immigrants have fought and struck for equality, justice, and democracy for centuries. Without their struggles, none of the rights that we cherish today – the right to vote, to rally and demonstrate, to have a weekend – would exist. But all of these rights are now under threat. In our globalized, diverse world, this fight can only work if we do the hard work of building deep relationships with each other.

About the contributor

Sören Brandes
Trade Union Organizer at ver.di

Sören Brandes is a co-founder and organizer with Justice is Global Europe. He has been organizing for justice beyond the nation state for the past 5 years. Since 2019, he has been trained in the methods of transformational community organizing by organizers from the US, and has been working to help bring deep relational organizing to Europe. He is based in Berlin.