Book Review: Prisms of the People: Power & Organizing in Twenty-First Century America

Contributor: Ned Howey


“Leaders of grassroots organizations are not automatically granted seats at any decision-making table. How do they obtain and hold onto those seats? And how do they use them? These questions are at the heart of the analysis in this book. How do leaders translate collective action into political power—or not? How do they build a community that stands behind them, and then wield the power of that community in political negotiations?”

In 2015 the leaders of LUCHA, Arizona’s progressive social justice organisation born on the back of a massive protest vigil against the State’s draconian anti-immigration policies, faced the challenge of determining their next fight to mobilise their base around. While political elites, allied progressive organisations, and DC-based white political consultants warned against the pragmatism and lack of potential for success of taking on the issue, the organisation’s leader’s decided to move forward with fighting for an increase in the State’s minimum wage. They did so for one clear reason: their constituents had made it clear to them that this was the cause they wanted to undertake.

Against all odds, the organisation went on to build power and win the measure. The organising around this campaign served as a basis for a key role they played in electoral mobilisation around the 2020 elections, which ‘turned Arizona blue’ and dislodged Trump from office. This is just one of the major lessons explored in depth in “Prisms of People: Power & Organizing in Twenty-First Century America”, which successfully outlines an essential guiding logic for how we can win progressive power. As the book shows, despite the reality that most efforts to create progressive change do not result in the outcomes they seek, there are decisions which leaders of organisations can make that will enable the building of blocks of success. 

Without reservation I can comfortably assert that this book is one of the most important organising texts to come since Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals”. Hahrie Han’s last book, “How Organisations Develop Activists”, published in 2014, was a true game-changer for our understanding of how organisations can and should draw upon a mix both mobilising and organising to develop activists and their power. It’s framework continues to be on the lips of some of the most successful organisers and organising experts, and has been deeply influential in the development of our own work here at Tectonica, including our Framework specific to digital, The Five Part Framework for Digital Organising.

In 2021, in a time when progressives are struggling to win battles across the planet, Hahrie Han along with her co-authors, Elizabeth McKenna and Michelle Oyakawa, have given us a roadmap for those of us trying to win progressive power through the potential of movements. With “Prisms”, the authors opened the door to a new chapter in political work and our understanding of it - one which is fundamentally centred in people - and perhaps most importantly not just through the view of seeing people as a resource to be utilised by organisations for the achievement of policy change. The book’s approach is valuable because it steps out of the model of many other similar research, which usually focuses on strategies for the stockpiling of resources such as people, actions or money.

The novel approach presents a new world of insights into how we can build power and make possible a different kind of politics. The defining of ‘power’ used here in the research is usefully complex - matching  real-world uncertain political contexts and the power bargaining needed for change. Heavily based on the work of Steven Lukes, the authors dig deep into the various faces of power needed for progressives to create impact, including visible, invisible, and hidden power.

The massively important research presented in this book, demonstrates that the strategic decisions behind the efforts of six organisations - outliers for their success in building power - resulted in a central finding that should serve as a new fundamental tenet for anyone organising for change: power built through collective action is able to do so through organisations nurturing a constituent base that are independent, committed, and flexible. 

The example from these six organisations helps the authors move beyond pure academic research and allows the readers to see what centring organising with a base community actually looks like in action. From the power of organisations to earn influence with decision-makers through consistently turning out crowds of supporters on demand to public meetings, to running delegates at Party nominations and deciding strategically to vote as a block rather than as individuals, to multi-faith organisations running bans against Democratic Party fundraisers when their platform abandoned immigrants - later negotiating with the Party to fund the shared interest of racial narrative work, the book shows us how organisations draw their power through the depth of their connections with the community itself. These examples and the authors’ analysis, move beyond the common wisdom that the target of movements is necessarily the direct opposition, but often, in reality, is vying for power and influence among supposedly allied organisations.

The central metaphor used by the book for the building of power through collective actions is that of a prism - white light enters the centre and is transformed into colorful vectors of light. The organisation itself is this prism and the book shows us how we can build it to refract the actions of constituencies into political power. While the work focuses solely on State-level US organising and none of the organisations use a digital-first approach, without a doubt these lessons apply deeply to the work of organisations universally. 

We at Tectonica felt the work was so important in its value to our base - organisations across the globe fighting for social, economic and environmental justices - that we’ve decided to go further and have organised study events around the book - one directly with the authors to discuss and dive deeper with our questions and an event the following day with a workshop on how this work could apply to our organisations. You can join us by signing up here: