Here’s the third article in our popular series from Rex Lai, following on from the TAO and SHIH of union organizing. In this article, Rex looks at the DOJO of organizing. Literally, “Do” means practice and “Jo” means place. What are the practices of successful organizing, and what are the places we must create in order to achieve success? As a metaphor, the Dojo captures the art and the discipline of effective organizing.

Five Practices of the Empowered Shift

The Place of TAO

Traditionally, we think of a Dojo as a training hall for the practice of martial arts. I want to expand this notion, beyond the sense of physical location. The meeting hall, an off-site retreat, a debriefing room — these may all be places of practice. Any social space can be a center for learning. In fact, the physical environment, whatever it is, can and should facilitate great practice.

Place is created by holding space. However, space is not just a physical environment; it is also a mindset. This includes the cognitive, affective, and expressive capacities. Holding space requires paying attention to the logical, the emotional, and the behavioral. For simplicity’s sake, let’s call these these the psychodynamic field. What kind of space are we holding? Does it allow for risk, experimentation, security and nurturing? How are we bringing voices into the room? How are we having people exit? What space are we allowing for divergent thinking and convergent commitments? These are some examples of how we can hold space.

Place also requires time. When and where cannot be separated. For instance, organizing can occur in any number of unplanned and informal interactions. One-on-one learning can happen in a car, in between house visits. It can happen outside, during a smoking break after training. And it can happen in the workplace, for better or worse, when staff organizers have little or no chance for involvement.

The three main dimensions of place, then, are physical environment, psychodynamic space and timing.

While most training and learning is done in a formal and controlled setting, I want to invoke the two design thinking principle. Sometimes design is planned change and sometimes it is adaptive change. We must know whether teaching is deliberative or emergent. Places of practice need to account for both formal training and also informal places of learning.

The Practice of TAO

As conversations connect, relationships start to emerge. Good dialogue often starts by asking good questions. These evoke personal and value-laden meaning. Effective dialogue means listening with curiosity, while listening more deeply for meaning. When responding back to what was just spoken, we should be bridging the speaker’s intention to the listener’s impact. In contrast, debate is a closed-off mindset, based on positioning and the win-lose mentality. Debate does not allow for deep, curious listening.

Practice goes beyond conversation. What is the ask? What commitments are we looking for? What action is being mobilized? If motivation is the drive towards movement, where is the campaign going? What is the role of this individual in reaching the campaign’s destination? This is the part of the practice where narrative, analogies, metaphors, symbols and images are very helpful. When done well, this part of practice reinforces and resonates with the message.

Experience is core to good practice. Actions should create an experience that demonstrates collective strength through struggle. Action is also about experimentation. Actions that result in failure can still be valuable if lessons are learned and insights are gleaned. Individual activity should always be a part of the collective intention.

Reflection is a crucial part of practice. What insights have occurred after the experience or action? What individual and personal meaning did it have? In listening to others, were there universal themes that arose from the personal sharing? What collective insights emerged? What worked well? What could have made what was good into something great? Reflection is typically the internal, contemplative, and deliberative part of practice. In a world where action is emphasized, reflection is often short-changed. This process should be given room to breathe, and to be processed and shared.

Practice as a cyclical and iterative process. There is usually a starting point, but this process is not necessarily linear and sequential. Sometimes there is backslide, and a step may need to be re-visited. It is often more of an upward spiral. If the steps of practice look familiar, it is because they are based on many similar learning processes. These steps are based on other familiar processes like experiential learning, action research, and the scientific method.

Practices of the Empowered Shift

“Transformation is a change in the nature of things, not simply an improvement.”
–Peter Block (Best-selling author, Consulting guru)

The “Empowered Shift” is the name I give to those moments in which workers experience a fundamental, transformational change in their world view. This is different from mere, incremental, developmental learning. World views are mental models that inform how we interact with the world. In a sense, they create worlds. World views are the narrative or the mindset of each individual.

In an empowered shift, individuals realize their strength, commitment, and ownership through the shared experience of struggle with others. “Empowered” comes from the Latin root of power, which means being able. Therefore, empowerment is not only a mindset, but also a readiness and a willingness to act.

One such empowered shift occurs when individuals move from “someone should …” to “I will…”. It is a shift from blame to ownership. Another is the shift from victim of oppression to healer of oppression.

In Part One of this series we looked at the five practices of the empowered shift, based on the psychodynamic states discussed in Marshall Ganz’s “Breaking the Belief Barriers”. This involved a transformation from AFISI to AHUYS… from Apathy to Anger; fromFear to Hope; fromInertia to Urgency; from Self-doubt to “Yes You Can” and from Isolation to Solidarity.

Each of these states operate in dynamic and interconnected tension with the other. For this reason, in following with the principle of Yin Yang, we discussed not only Push practices but also Pull practices.

The AFISI mindset inhibits empowerment and action. The Empowered Shift is all about transforming this to an AHUYS mindset. Let’s break this down…

ANGER replaces Apathy

Anger is energy. Like pain, it is a useful feedback mechanism. It lets us know that something is wrong. This dissatisfaction alerts us to a yearning for change. Anger, then, can be a call to purpose.

In saying this, we are NOT talking about rage or destructive anger. Constructive anger has sometimes been called Righteous Indignation. Anger at the status quo is what sparked Memphis sanitation workers to declare “I AM a Man!” Justified anger contains varying shades of outrage against injustice.

Why does Apathy exist? It often plays a constructive role for those that seek harmony. Some people are conflict averse. They seek to placate conflicting forces. These people tend to de-escalate situations and are often seen as steadfast.

However, a problem arises when apathy becomes paralyzing, and is linked to a sense of futility. When people start to become indifferent to their situation, apathy has turned an ugly corner. When workers lack empathy for each other they have been dehumanized. How can we spot apathy taking hold? What are the observable indicators?

Do employees talk about the need to Lull, Smoothe, Allay, Assuage, Settle, Placate or Pacify campaign activities? If so, this is Apathy rearing its head. These are the signs of apathy creeping into the workplace.

Is there passive resistance, which feels like Deadness, Detachment, Blankness, Disregard, or Indifference? Would you describe the employees’ behavior as Remote, Nonchalant, Uncurious, Listless, or Lethargic? These are the adjectives of Apathy.

How do we transform Apathy into Anger?

The apathy mindset is almost an acknowledgement of death. With little empathy for each other and lack of interest in situational issues, it is almost as if the victim had wandered off into the wilderness. The only way to pivot out of this mindset is to get people to engage again.

If people cannot connect to the workplace, we need to build engage them in something they do care about. Maybe it is the church, their family, or a civic group that they care about. If Apathy is about lack of interest and relevance, then Anger needs to focus interest, to highlight relevance, and to marshall energy. Energy must be sparked. When people pivot out of apathy, they have the emotional distance they need to see how they were stuck. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “a good indignation brings out all ones’ powers.”

HOPE replaces Fear

Nelson Mandela once said that “vision without action is merely a dream.” If that is so, then Hope is what bridges the first steps (F) of action with the constant re-orientation to the vision (V)—our North Star. Hope is where the energy resides within us for building capacity.

As a mindset, Hope has many complementary characteristics, such as assurance, boldness, confidence, courage and fortitude. Hope gives birth to the belief “Yes I Can!”. Out of this comes a sense of Urgency that speaks to the necessity for action, right here and right now!

Fear is prevalent because it can play a useful role. Fear encourages us to appreciate reasonable doubt; to keep us alert for danger. Fear of the unknown protects us from being foolhardy. This fear nudges us to accept the devil we know, rather than the devil we don’t.

Fear cannot be ignored or dismissed. Passive and covert resistance must be encouraged out into the open, in order for us to grapple with and transform them. Fear paralyzes. It’s cousins are Apathy and Inertia. Fear is not just an energy—it is also an orientation of Futility and Despair.

Fear whispers that every situation is impossible, implausible and unlikely. Don’t Even Try. These notions run counter to the workers’ ideal of Can-Doism. The only way to triumph over Fear is to confront and move through it. However, logical reasoning is not enough. Fear affects us emotionally and physically. Our central nervous system acts in much the same way whether it is a lion in front of us or a boss whom we suspect is about to sack us. FEAR is sometimes described as False Evidence Appearing Real. Once we confront it—and experience the falseness of our assumptions—we can triumph. Oftentimes, going through this process together as a group is the best way to take the first step towards Hope.

How do we transform Fear into Hope?

Hope that springs from Fear is much more powerful. Sometimes we change because we are “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” When we tap into individual ambitions, dreams, plans, wishes, we are cultivating Hope.

URGENCY replaces Inertia

Marshall Ganz describes campaign pacing in terms of an arrow of time. I prefer the metaphor of a vector. In physics, a vector contains both MAGNITUDE and DIRECTION. These are the two crucial elements that make up Urgency. Urge is the verb that gives birth to Action and Activity.

DIRECTION is like a moral compass pointed towards true—the Vision. Direction is informed by the compelling need that underlies motivation. Drive is the energy that fuels direction. So, understanding individual motivators is the key to driving a climate of Urgency.

Magnitude is composed of size, extent and momentum. Urgency generated within individuals can be traced to the atmosphere of the campaign. Nothing breeds confidence like seeing co-workers act together and in public unity. The more the climate of the campaign portrays solidarity, the more urgency will grow. Deliberative design to reaching this tipping point should be the aim of a good campaign.

Speed is the other part of Urgency. Try not to think of this in terms of “the faster the better”. An organizing process—like life—has stages and finish lines. Speed is more about pace and timing. The right fit of pacing to the situational context is what is required. Faster may not be the right fit. Sometimes we need to go slow in order to go fast later. For instance, most campaigns leading towards an election require the building of a crescendo.

What are the conditions in which Inertia exists? Inertia plays a role for those averse to change. Traditionalists like stability, familiarity, and predictability. Sometimes, those that are most comfortable with inertia will play it off as being contemplative and deliberative. But when Inertia becomes the prominent mindset, it inhibits action and movement.

Inertia is the cousin to Apathy. The common definition of Inertia is that a body at rest tends to stay at rest. Let us replace the notion of a body—as an object—with the notion of a field. The field is a totality of psychological forces, which together create a climate. It can be a climate of chill and fear that keeps a situation stagnant. Or it can be a passive energy field of futility. Why bother trying; you can’t beat city hall? Inertia may be described as the external manifestation of disempowerment.

How do we transform Inertia into Urgency?

The key to getting people to move from Inertia to Urgency is to link the shift to elements of certainty. The ability to act in concert with others, in order to ensure some level of stability, is key. Framing the current situation as undesirable will create a compelling need to act. Helping people to identify the consequences of Inertia will help them to choose. Inertia is a flatline. Urgency is the beating heart. I believe part of this mindset is the blame narrative versus the ownership narrative. The blame narrative puts the focus on the external world, thereby dodging any kind of internal motivation and responsibility. The ownership narrative puts the locus of control on the internal, giving individuals the choice, power, and freedom to act.

YES YOU CAN! replaces Self-Doubt

Yes You Can! is a spirit, an attitude, and a belief that can become a mindset. It is an individual orientation can be woven into a collective message, such as “Si Se Puede” (i.e. Yes We Can!). The individual’s can-do spirit is linked directly to the collective’s can-do spirit.

Yes You Can! is all about self-agency. It is linked to Urgency and together they can produce confidence, certainty, and undeniable hope. When this catches on, it is contagious.

So why does Self-Doubt hold so much power over us? How has it served us? This is a self-defense mechanism. These folks tend to be humble and non-adventurous. They may be risk and change averse. But sometimes this attitude can be so ingrained that it becomes their dominant narrative; something that they never question. At this point self-doubt no longer informs us; it defines us.

How do we transform Self-Doubt into Yes You Can!?

When we experience something together, we generate beliefs that break through our internalized Self-Doubt.  Self-Doubt can be so dominant that we do not wish to take the first step. It becomes an internal field that promotes a climate of despair, futility, and fear. Self-Doubt rules in Isolation. The only way to transform this is to join together and to experience Hope, Solidarity, and Community.

This is where your first steps (F) need to be designed wisely. Building a belief in our own agency requires early successes. Just as we cheer on a baby learning to walk, early successes need to be celebrated and encouraged. The more we let people step out and experiment, the better they will get. It is okay to fail, as long as people are willing to jump up and try again. Nothing breaks through the façade of Self-Doubt better than positive experience.

SOLIDARITY replaces Isolation

Solidarity is one of the cornerstones of unionism. Solidarity is made up of common direction and synergistic effect. It allows ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things. Unity is a distant cousin. Solidarity is the decision to throw your lot in with others. This is based around common aims, cohesion, esprit de corps and unification.

Solidarity is the commitment that we will contribute to the greater whole. It has ownership and accountability that if I join with you—I will play my part. The actions that formulate Solidarity are Connecting, Combing, Fusing, Joining, and Linking Up. It usually starts with a Calling to Shared Purpose, Convening, and Gathering.

Isolation can creep up on any one of us. It is hard to understand how isolation can serve us. Sometimes, people need to be alone in order to recharge. This can happen to the best of us, especially in hotly contested climates. Feeling safe, secluded and detached can be refreshing. However, what we need to guard against is the Isolation mindset that is ongoing and self-reinforcing.

As unionists, we are familiar with the divide and conquer strategy. This is the antithesis of Solidarity. In a multi-cultural society, it is very easy to sow the seeds of distrust, and to focus on differences. When Isolation happens, Inertia and Self-doubt are not far behind. When we disengage from our co-workers or community, it is harder to generate empathy.

How do we transform Isolation into Solidarity?

It is always good to prepare people for Isolation. Inoculate against divide and conquer tactics. Look for any action that divides, unlinks, disjoins, secludes, restrains, or restricts. These are some of the action verbs to look for. It is better to describe vividly what Isolation looks like, so that we can spot the early signs when they emerge.

Once Isolation happens, join people in their individuality and don’t be judgmental. Respect differences, knowing that you don’t have to agree. By joining with someone sliding into isolation, you are re-connecting with them and acknowledging their right to be where they are. Avoid judgment and persuasion. Remember, they may be in Isolation because the climate is thick with conflict and contestation.

Look for common ground. Search for values and needs that bind people together in likeness and shared purpose. Identify what some see as a wall and try to find a way of converting it into a bridge.


The empowered shift is about the transformation of the AFISI mindset into the AHUYS mindset. The aim of this exploration has been to capture the essence of these mindsets, in such a way that we can manage resistance and create resonating drives. We are moving closer to the Yin and Yang of organizing; to the practice of the Push and the Pull.

The main lesson of Dojo is that we need to create effective places of practice. Much like many of the martial arts, this is a practice that allows for flow in many different situations. There is no cookie-cutter recipe. However, you will find that many dynamics appear time and time again. This iterative flow of practice, reflection and principles will help us sharpen the craft of organizing.

* About the author


Rex Lai, MSOD, is an organization/community development consultant who previously had more than 15 years experience working with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). He currently works in management and training capacities in the private, public, and not-for-profit sectors, where his work focuses on helping organizations and communities discover their potential to make positive change. Rex is certified to administer and interpret the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI®), and has developed expertise in campaign advocacy, community organizing, and political consulting.  He earned his B.S. in Civil/Environmental engineering from the University of Illinois, and received his Master of Science degree in Organization Development from American University/NTL Institute for Applied Behavioral Sciences. His TAO system is registered as trademark pending.