Fine Wines

If you dig through Princeton files long enough, you will find a plain Microsoft document entitled “FINE WINES AT PRINCETON UNIVERSITY: A Manual for the Intrepid Connoisseur” stamped from 2001. Just below, however, lie two quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X on collective struggle. The wine connoisseur façade winks and slips away, revealing a 42-page manual explaining in succinct style how to effectively organize for change in the University.

No name is given as an author, and while the manual is pervaded with a self-assured and urgent voice, it feels anonymous, dropped from the sky. After some digging, I found that the voice belongs to David Tannenbaum, a Class of 2001 graduate who spent much of his undergraduate time doing activist work, including a gap year community organizing in Brooklyn. Upon returning to school, he became interested in the conditions of campus workers. After interviewing everyone, from the workers themselves to upper-level management, he wrote an expose on workers’ mistreatment in a widely-read (and now defunct) magazine offshoot of the Daily Princetonian. This marked the beginning of what would become the Workers’ Rights Organizing Committee (WROC), an activist coalition that successfully fought for better wages and conditions for Princeton’s lowest-paid workers. The coalition, injected with David’s hands-on experiences, captivated people from all corners—undergrads, faculty, graduate students, religious leaders, and the workers themselves—ultimately leading to concessions by the University.

Staring down graduation at the end of four years of organizing experience, David sat down and unloaded everything he knew over the course of two days.

The manual states:

This manual is being written in the hope that future generations of Princeton activists will avoid these mistakes, and learn from the successes and failures of past groups. With any luck this manual will be updated as the structure of the university changes and some of the more specific tactics mentioned below become outdated. The basic strategy behind these tactics—organizing grassroots support to leverage public pressure—is timeless.

David envisioned the guide as open to change but grounded upon foundational principles. He withheld his name from the document and facetiously titled it “Fine Wines” to keep the guide undercover from administrative eyes. With three chapters—organizing public support, leveraging power, and nuts & bolts—it is written with a rigor reflective of his real-world community organizing experience.

After finishing, he contacted other student activists and held a meeting where he handed out copies and fielded questions. Around 20 people showed up. After graduation, he went off to Oxford on a Sachs scholarship to study economic and social history. WROC continued, but lost steam once former President Shirley Tilghman raised the minimum wage and ultimately dissolved in 2003.

The manual was passed among friends and colleagues in left political circles and used in some campaigns, such as in the now-defunct Princeton United Left’s divestment campaign from Israeli companies profiting from occupation of West Bank and Gaza. But it never became a well-known resource for activists across intersectional lines. A hopeful line thrown across the water, the document eventually sank to the bottom of people’s computer files.

Fine Wines could save activists months of trial and error, but it remains one man’s vision based on his own organizing experience, omitting dissent that arises from a breadth of points of view. Therefore, we asked various current or recently graduated student activists to read and respond to the manual. This article is not a replacement or update, but an introduction, framing a few relevant excerpts quoted in the left-hand columns with commentary from current or recently graduated student activists, listed below.

Arlene Gamio Cuervo, ‘18: heavily involved with Princeton University Latinx Perspectives (PULPO) and immigrant advocacy group DREAM Team. Arlene uses they/them pronouns.

Micah Herskind, ‘19: co-president of Students for Prison Education and Reform (SPEAR).

Nicky Steidel, ‘18: founding member of the Young Democratic Socialists of Princeton and sits on its organizing committee.

Destiny Crockett, ‘17: helped lead the Students for Education Reform student and organized with the Black Justice League (BJL).

Tess Jacobson, ‘19: founding member of the Young Democratic Socialists of Princeton and sits on the organizing committee.

On the basic strategy of organizing

David: The key strategy to winning any issue-based campaign is to organize grassroots public support around a morally compelling idea or policy and leverage that support into a public pressure campaign against people and institutions in power.

Arlene: I agree that organizing grassroots support and applying public pressure are both necessary aspects of organizing, but I don’t think it always happens in the order or with the motive that the author describes. Grassroots support should not be organizing to apply public pressure. It should be organized because individuals should have a say in policies and structures that impact their lives and said individuals should be changing their day-to-day actions to create this change…

People are not tools. Or, better said, they should not be treated as tools to achieve a means to an end. The question instead is: how can we engage individuals to both understand our organizing movements, provide their own criticisms, join us while also teaching us of their own initiatives and applying our organizing into their everyday lives.

On the least effective campaigns

A tension threaded throughout organizing work is whether one should use institutional channels or engage in direct action outside University channels, such as through protests or sit-ins. This judgment is sometimes a hard one in a University that professes to care about student voice yet has consistently used protocol to delay and wait out agitating students. Both methods have found success: The Black Justice League’s sit-in prompted many changes both in material structures (e.g. increased funding for certain departments) and in people’s awareness (e.g. a more critical mainstream understanding of Woodrow Wilson), and queer and trans students managed to push for gender neutral housing through a student life committee. Ultimately, there is no binary: “We exist within and outside of institutions which pushes us to play this game of both cooperating with University officials while pushing on their boundaries as historically marginalized people,” Arlene said.

David asserts that the least effective campaigns:

  • Are fooled into believing that the sanctioned “proper channels” are the most effective channels.
  • Get caught up with procedure and protocol, and other irrelevant details that are meant to slow and stop change.

Destiny: Perfect!

Arlene: But you also need a paper trail of past efforts to build legitimacy, support, and image for your group. You also need to build allies within university structure that will advocate for you behind closed doors.

Tess: These two are related. The reason the “proper channels” are NOT the most effective is because of the bureaucratic procedures intentionally put in place to slow change (and at a University, where the student turnover period sits reliably at four years, an established administration naturally has the upper hand when it comes to “proper channels.”)

David continues:

  • Believe that the formation of a committee is a sign of the University’s willingness to change.
  • Are distracted by administrators’ openness and willingness to have extensive meetings, and believe these are a sign of how reasonable they are.

Arlene: Definitely true. Institutions can’t love you. And no matter how open an administrator is through discussion, action is what matters. Show me you care by changing a policy—because we all know that personal connections run the show for the most part.

On identifying the issue

In some cases, identifying the issue is a no-brainer as doing so is a necessary response to maintain one’s selfhood and dignity. In others, organizing is an act of recognizing the one’s complicity in maintaining inequality and the possibility for a better world. A personally compelling motive, however, does not automatically mobilize a mass group of people. From a worthy cause must be extricated issues that are clear, compelling, accessible, and actionable.

David: Usually campaigns start because an individual or small group of people has discovered an issue worth fighting for. The best issues are:

  •  Morally compelling
  • Easy to explain to most (though not necessarily all) people
  • Potentially affected in a significant way by the policies of the university
  • Issues that fit the above criteria at other universities or local institutions (e.g. businesses, local government, etc.)

re: Usually campaigns start because an individual or small group of people has discovered an issue worth fighting for.
“Discovered” isn’t exactly the right word . . . more like being screwed over within Princeton’s structure and needs to see it changed for their wellbeing and the wellbeing of others.

re: Easy to explain to most (though not necessarily all) people
I think “accessible” might be a better description; an explanation can be accessible, or available to most people, but not be in a position to be explained to everyone . . . if that makes sense. Like, not everyone can understand why trans students need gender inclusive restrooms but they can understand that we are in harm and can follow suit on.

re: Potentially affected in a significant way by the policies of the university
This is the biggest and most difficult part. You need to make a clear connection to university policy and the issue at hand in order to be legible to the public and potential supporters. This doesn’t mean that we do the work for admins but it does mean that we need to familiarize ourselves with how the university works, draw power maps, make folders on admins’ past support or lack of support, etc.

On building the core group

David: It does not take many people to make a change at Princeton. After you’ve identified the issue you only need 5-7 people to carry through the next few stages. It is of course better to have more, but the number you initially attract will depend on how immediately compelling the issue is. This is not a reflection of how compelling the issue can become. Even if you could attract a large group of folks at this stage, it’s not always desirable to do so. You do not want more than 15 to start.

Nicky Steidel: re: 5-7 people
This is certainly true, although it’s not always recommended. Some activist groups can be really closed off and non-transparent, which makes it harder to mobilize when the time comes. I think having some sense of transparency and openness to your organizing (even if you start with the 5-7 person vanguard model) is important, although others may disagree.

Arlene: re: the number you initially attract will depend on how immediately compelling the issue is
It also depends on the time of year, diversity of the core organizers, political climate, etc . . . .

On diversity

The language and logic of diversity used in the manual was contested. David, who graduated in 2001, wrote in a time where most University racial and cultural campus groups were not politically robust. “When I was there, there weren’t really many activist groups active on those issues [of identity]. It was really a shame.” As a result, questions of diversity were not in his radar at the time, which became strikingly clear as many commented that diversity merely to include representatives from minoritized identities risks tokenism and is no longer tenable. Rather, current student activists emphasized the need to create an equitable structure wherein the people most affected by the issue at hand are the leaders or providing counsel to the leaders. While getting a widespread movement inevitably requires diverse appeal, others countered that a core group does not have to be “diverse” in order to effect widespread change.

David: It is incredibly important to have a diverse core. There should be women and men, representatives from minority groups, a range of class years (you don’t want the group to be stacked with seniors), graduate students, at least one faculty member and at least one staff member. The appropriateness of these ratios will vary according to the issue, but you want a diverse group no matter what. This will make it much easier to build the group later, and you will also have the benefit of differing points of view that will usefully inform how you present the issue, and the tactics you use.

You need to be aware of issues around diversity, not merely look for “diverse” people to include in your group. For example, during post-election [2016] mobilization many groups on campus randomly cc’ed black and brown activists to their correspondence without asking for our consent or interest to be included. This inconsiderate and unsafe move was made with the intention of “including” a “diverse” core. We need to be thinking of equity instead.

It might be that a movement on campus is made of only POC or only women/femme people, and the change they enact will affect everyone on campus. You need to respect past groups’ efforts and collaborate/consult with them but sometimes the labor needs to land more on white and cishet and more wealthy and male folks, which can look like the core group comprising of a less “diverse” (less male for example) group and the outer levels (considered more grunt work) comprised of diverse “privilege-heavy” people. The shots need to be called by the most marginalized in our communities and the work that puts people in danger needs to be carried out by those with more leverage/power.

Micah: Totally agree that diversity is important, but it needs to go beyond just representation—it’s important to not just include different voices but to be led, directed, and informed by the voices of those who are most impacted by the issue. For SPEAR, we’re clearly organizing around an issue that disproportionately affects people of color and those living in poverty, and we still have work to do in making sure that we center voices of color in leadership. In addition, the voices we would want most are the ones most excluded from Princeton: currently and formerly incarcerated people. In recognition of that, however, in planning our annual conference, we were really intentional that our speakers were mainly formerly incarcerated individuals and folks of color.

re: representatives from minorities
I absolutely loathe the word “minority.” Here is the place to actually name the groups of people who have made impacts on campus organizing and say why these groups (Black people, Native people, LGBT people) need to be in those groups, and not just as tokens but as leaders. Especially since, throughout Princeton’s history, it has almost always been those folks who have actually shaken things up at Princeton.

re: at least one faculty member and at least one staff member
I don’t know if the numbers of each matter as much. Faculty are great mentors and listeners but I don’t think they ought to be part of any organizing group necessarily.

On first steps

The first steps that a group takes often reveal its priorities. Once an initial group is formed, David recommends members brainstorm a tentative list of demands and start researching the issues at hand. While this helped with creating successful issue-based campaigns, it was less so in making sustainable, long-term structures. Arlene emphasized that the group’s needs to first define its raison d’être in the form of principles and methodology as well as familiarize itself with past and current groups that work on similar issues beforehand.

David: Once you have a core group set, you need to have an initial meeting. This meeting is crucial for getting the campaign off on the right foot. The meeting should be well-planned by 2 or 3 members of the core group so that everything gets accomplished and no one person dominates the agenda. The goals of the first meeting are two-fold. First, the issue needs to be identified, and an initial list of demands needs to be formulated…

The list will be changed countless times over the next few weeks of your campaign, and the demands will reflect the research the group comes up with, but there needs to be an initial list.

Arlene: It’s too early to identify demands. You need to meet with different parts of campus or work on establishing yourselves as a group or similar activities before you have a sense of what your demands will be. You can start thinking about demands but you’re not quite there yet with drafting a list.

Demands aren’t the crux of the organizing group because that would center outside actions and structures. So for example, to focus demands as the crux for PULPO would mean something like this: we as people who want to change the retention rate for Latinx students organize in this group to achieve x change. It’s kind of a flat purpose. When in reality our focus is more like: we as individuals who have been historically excluded and oppressed within institutions of higher education and the nation at large come together to provide community and support and mobilization for our respective communities, of which retention issues are included. If the demand is the focus then the group would disband when that demand is met or not met, but to build a sustainable organization you need to be motivated by something deeper and more personal.

On decision-making process

David: It is important that everyone has a hand in making decisions—not just because democracy is good in principle, but because it leads to better decisions. Some groups have attempted to act by “consensus”, which means that everyone in the group has to agree before a decision is made. At Princeton, these groups have so far failed because meetings are way too long and no one takes final responsibility for anything. There may yet be a way to make this work, and it would be great if it did. The best system we’ve encountered is a compromise between consensus and majority rule. The WROC group agreed that as long as at least 2/3 of the group agreed to a decision at a meeting, it would go through.

Micah: re: At Princeton, these groups have so far failed because meetings are way too long and no one takes final responsibility for anything.
People feeling responsibility is one of the most important parts of a group—if one doesn’t feel that it ultimately reflects on them or that they are ultimately responsible for the success of the operation, the team is going to dwindle real fast.

Arlene: re: “consensus” model
You need at least a ¾ majority unless at least one person strongly believes the action goes against the principles of the organization. If, after an extended conversation at the next meeting, a decision is not obtained then you decide whether you would like to pursue the issue as an organization or individually without the organization name or if you want to pass the project to an allied/neighboring organization.

On leveraging power

David: The administration will try to co-op [sic] your campaign at every turn, but the most insidious undercutters are your supporters who will discourage you from doing things that really embarrass the university.

Tess: Yes!!! Remember that we don’t owe the administration anything. We embarrass the University because the University does things that it should be embarrassed about. As students, we are entitled to make change at the place we live and learn. As human beings and organizers, our allegiance is to our cause and our politics OVER our university.

David: Activists need to be Organization Kids too: not in the sense that they need to accede to power, but that they have to be every bit as organized as the administration will be, and certainly more organized and informed than potential student objectors. Remember that the administrators are paid to deal with your campaign.

Nicky: re: Remember that the administrators are paid to deal with your campaign.
This cannot be emphasized enough.

David: Mass turnout events get the biggest bang for your organizing buck. They increase the size of your base of support; they draw media; they put embarrassing public pressure on the administration, they motivate your group, relieve stress, and make everyone feel empowered (there nothing greater than screaming at the top of your lungs with 300 other people, especially at staid Princeton).

Micah: There have been countless protests where 10-20 people stand outside of Frist and chant—the administration loves this, because it doesn’t do anything to them. You have to disrupt University events, or at least do it in front of administrators or outside of meetings. Sometimes it seems like protests are more for the people protesting than for the cause itself.

On ensuring continuity

The manual’s section on “ensuring continuity” at four sentences is notably brief.  It cites the manual’s existence as a method, but says itself that “manuals aren’t enough.” Despite this, it offers little else, ending on a strangely hasty note. In the spirit of progress, I ventured a little beyond the guide’s territory and sought out new advice from veteran student activists on how to ensure continuity.

I asked Daniel Teehan, a recent graduate who was the former president of SPEAR and organizer with Princeton Private Prison Divestment, for advice. “I would say that it’s important that organizations create enough structure that the group doesn’t have to continuously reinvent itself, while leaving room for necessary improvements and to give new leaders a sense of ownership over the group,” he stated. This entails creating a centralized way to “organize knowledge and maintain group history, set procedures for elections and group meetings.”

Specifically, an important protocol to establish is how to deal with interpersonal conflict and abuse, which Arlene cited as a leading cause for organization dissolution. “As organizers you need to sit down every year or semester and decide how conflicts will be resolved and how violence will be confronted.” Oftentimes in activist scenes, particularly identity-based ones, the people with whom you organize are those with whom you study and play, making conflict resolution essential.

Even when organizations don’t suffer from infighting, they can still lose energy after key leaders graduate. To prevent this, Daniel urged finding ways, such as holding annual conferences, to maintain connections between alumni and younger group members. Doing so not only establishes the organization’s presence and injects regularity, but enables younger members to gain a sense of history and alumni to stay connected.

To combat leadership turnover, setting up an advisory board composed of “alumni, professors, local advocates, and people directly impacted by whatever issue the group is working on” is a useful albeit time-consuming method, according to Daniel. “Having annual meetings is a good way of establishing and turning over important relationships, while ensuring a level of continuity and some kind of institutional memory.

Additionally, establishing regular projects such as SPEAR’s letter-writing campaign to incarcerated folks, P.S. Solidarity, and passing down their management to younger members is an easy way to relay knowledge without starting entirely new projects. Such projects can teach “rising leaders the ropes of navigating the Princeton bureaucracy and figuring out how the group works,” Daniel stated.

Whether reflected in the guide or not, the labor of organizing is also emotional labor. Activists invest their hearts and souls into projects that are at times uncertain, discouraging, and taxing. Individuals, as much as organizations, risk burning out. In light of this reality, emotional honesty and support can go a long way in keeping a group together. “It’s a pretty personal thing, but I think having leaders of the group who are open about the difficulties of the work in terms of stress and emotional labor is important.”

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