Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing: A Column

By Jacob Klein

"On December 6-8, 1996, forty people of color and European-American representatives met in Jemez, New Mexico, for the 'Working Group Meeting on Globalization and Trade'. The Jemez meeting was hosted by the Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice with the intention of hammering out common understandings between participants from different cultures, politics and organizations. The following 'Jemez Principles' for democratic organizing were adopted by the participants."

So begins the Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing, a guide to grassroots power-building with equity and justice at the center. The Sierra Club Board of Directors adopted these principles in 2014 to guide our work towards greater environmental justice. Yet, these principles remain largely unknown to many of our members. While the Sierra Club still has a long way to go before living up to these standards, that room for growth can be seen as a gift.

The Jemez Principles are more than just a set of values that we can point to when attempting to prove our commitment to justice. They are tools that we can employ for our work to be successful. They offer us the methods to meet our goals, to build our capacity, to strengthen our relationships, and to act with integrity. They are a gift from organizers of color, people who have long felt the brunt of environmental racism, that provide predominantly white groups like the Sierra Club the opportunity to act in solidarity.

In order to increase the visibility of these principles and to train Sierra Club members on advocacy from a grassroots level, I will be writing a series of articles for the Yodeler addressing each of the six principles. I will put these principles into contexts that relate to environmental organizing through personal stories. These principles are already fairly accessible — one of their strengths — but I’ve always found that situating and deepening ideas helps with understanding.

When I first interviewed for my current position at the Sierra Club, I was directed to the Jemez Principles. As I read them in preparation, I was struck by how simply they sum up the fundamentals of organizing that had been instilled in me in my training as an organizer. In reviewing them, I found succinct and common-sense descriptions of the grand concepts that I endeavored to bring to my work. I was comforted to realize that I had these north stars by which to guide my praxis.

These principles are not a how-to on building a campaign structurally. They are not a rulebook on tactics. Rather, they prioritize self-reflection — How do you work with people? How do you have conversations? Who are you working with and why? What is your tolerance for the discomfort that leads to growth? Thus, a movement can grow.

Advocates need to take these questions into consideration when working on political issues. It’s never as simple as the letter of the law or the drafting of policy. What matters is the stance you take, how you listen, who you’re able to hear, and who’s being placed at the center.

Anyone can be an organizer; that’s one of the beautiful things about doing this work. Passion and collaboration are the keys, and the Jemez Principles provide the foundation for practicing.

I hope you’ll join me on this journey!

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