From Classrooms to Campaigns: Rebecca Bailin on Sociology and Organizing

When Rebecca Bailin took her first ever sociology class as an undergraduate at the University of British Columbia, she thought “Oh my god, this is the language I speak. This is how my brain works.” Enamored with the field, she pursued graduate study at The New School for Social Research, earning an MA in Sociology in 2012.

Most recently, Bailin has been the Campaign Manager with Invest in Our New York, a statewide coalition of 170 groups working to pass legislature that would end tax breaks for the richest New Yorkers. In Spring 2021, she spoke with Research Matters about her journey from classrooms to campaigns.

Moving from Academia into Organizing

As an MA student, “I was very interested in discourse analysis and cultural sociology,” Bailin says. “I really gravitated at the time towards the ways in which the discourses of leftist social movements tended to be exploited for explicitly capitalistic or neoliberal interests, not only by companies but also by institutions like governments and universities.”

She credits Terry Williams, Professor of Sociology; Rachel Sherman, Professor of Sociology; Robin Wagner-Pacifici, University Professor; and Miriam Ticktin, Associate Professor of Anthropology, for creating a supportive and engaging educational environment. Bailin loved the “rigorous thinking” that was expected of her and the opportunity to grapple with complex ideas.

After graduating, Bailin did not want to embark upon an intensive academic career. Instead, she became an organizer for the Riders Alliance, where she campaigned for more equitable and affordable public transit in New York City. Bailin says while her MA didn’t necessarily directly translate to her career, her background in sociology deeply informs the way she approaches the work.

“I didn’t learn how to be an organizer at school; I learned how to think. I was allowed to explore my intellectual thoughts and think creatively,” she asserts.

A large portion of her strategic organizing work comes down to navigating different spaces—understanding how they operate and what to say to ensure the message is heard.

“I think what The New School and my education in sociology set me up to do is to say ‘well, what if we think about it like this?’ It’s just set me up with a little more critical thinking about structures, nuance, and discourse.” Principles of discourse analysis equip Bailin to rethink the language she and other organizers use, and consider the impact that language has on the outcomes of their work. “I really pay a lot of attention to how we as organizers, and I mean ‘organizers’ broadly, think about or talk about our work. How does our way of thinking limit us compared to other ways of thinking?”

However, to run successful campaigns, Bailin also had to know when to step back from structural thinking and focus instead on the interpersonal nuances that underlie people’s decision-making. Focusing on the balance between structural and relational analysis sets her apart as a strategist. “I really distinguish myself from a policy person. I’m not policy. I am campaigns and strategy…The desire to think so much about accuracy and nuance is sometimes antithetical to winning,” she says. “It’s weird to be fond of both arenas and figuring out how to meld the two.”

Bailin’s balanced approach paid off immensely at the Riders Alliance. Her organizing was instrumental in big victories such as congestion pricing, discounted transit cards and the “Fair Fares” program for low-income New Yorkers — wins that have had a major impact on the daily lives of almost all city residents.

“Since the beginning of my career, my job has been to translate complicated policy and make it accessible for everyday New Yorkers in a way that could motivate them and inspire them to act. The goal is both to build power and to change the dynamics of power,” Bailin says.

Investing in New York

After eight year at the Riders Alliance and eight months in the New York City Mayor’s Office, Bailin got an opportunity to work for a campaign focused on a more just tax policy in New York State. In 2020, 170 organizations saw an opportunity to form a coalition and push for the change they need — six bills that will raise $50 billion in revenue — and “Invest in Our New York” was born. In order to win, the coalition needed a great strategist; that’s where Bailin came in.

“My job was difficult,” Bailin says. “It was both to guide the campaign strategically to help move it along, and to build consensus among our steering committee members to build a campaign.”

According to Bailin, it’s much easier to organize around specific “issues” like housing or healthcare than around a broader goal like tax redistribution. So Invest in Our New York had a hard decision to make. “Do we fight for the money to go to a specific thing or things, or do we say ‘no, we all need a bigger slice of the pie’ because all our issues are interconnected?” They chose the latter so that legislators would have a harder time breaking up the coalition by funding some issues at the expense of others.

As campaign manager, Bailin worked within the steering committee of 10 organizations as a facilitator and consensus builder. She also worked on campaign messaging, where her background in sociology proved crucial. “A lot of sociology is written in jargon. I love jargon, but you need to translate it, to talk about it in different ways to different audiences. And that’s at the core of organizing — being able to adjust to different audiences,” she says. “You have to find ways to talk about things that make them easy to understand and attractive enough to fight for.”

Understanding the right approach for every group of people ultimately comes down to strategic instinct. “I think a lot of that instinct and knowledge is informed by qualitative studies and qualitative work and discourse analysis — that’s really valuable in this work. It comes down to the ability to get a sense of what will motivate people, which I think I developed at The New School,” she says.

Building a winning strategy sometimes means navigating difficult disagreements over strategy. “When you’re identifying what is strategic, sometimes you’re engaging in and repeating discourses that are harmful,” Bailin says. During the campaign, this tension rose around the use of the term “fair” —  some organizers asserted that they should avoid the word, because real “fairness” won’t rise out of legislative decisions. But the public understands what “fair” means. The “unfairness” of tax breaks for the rich and for investors, and not for the working or middle class, resonates.

“Saul Alinksy says that you need to organize the worlds that exist for the worlds you want, and that’s my approach. You need to figure out where to start so you can bring people along,” Bailin says.

After just three months of public campaigning, Invest In Our New York won $4 billion in this year’s budget — New York state’s biggest win for progressive taxation in the last decade. This spring, Bailin and Invest in Our New York planned for the next budget cycle with a focus on raising money for higher education, homelessness, overdose prevention, climate issues, and more. “What we were able to build in such a short time–it’s incredible. It’s historic,” she says.

After such a successful turn at Invest in Our New York, Bailin has her eyes set on a new opportunity. Soon, she’ll be leveraging her deep knowledge of New York State politics as Senior Advisor to New York State Senator Andrew Gounardes. 

Cailin Potami is a writer, an editor, and a student in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA program. They live in Queens with their cats, Linguine and Tortellini.