How to organize an educational forum on worker justice issues

Worker Justice Forums are held to educate particular groups of people on specific issues and how they can take action.

Educational forums can be large community gatherings or small discussion groups in your home or the basement of your church, temple, synagogue, mosque, or community organization.  

The most effective forums establish a dialogue and assume the participants come with their own knowledge base, values, and interests.  For example, though many people may never have heard the term wage theft, they have probably either been or known someone who has been a victim.

A forum on wage theft may start with the facilitator asking people if they have worked more than 40 hours and not been paid overtime, if their tips were stolen, if they never got their last pay check, or if the construction contractor they worked for called them independent contractors instead of employees to cheat them out of taxes and basic worker protections.

For the religious community, forums provide an opportunity for people of faith to create a safe and open space for people to share their stories and struggles, whether the topic is about wage theft, unsafe workplaces, particular workplace struggles, or unemployment and growing inequality.

Community forums encourage dialogue and offer an opportunity to reframe issues and introduce alternate perspectives and solutions grounded in religious values. Forums can be held for members of a congregation, a group of congregations, or an interfaith program that reaches out beyond a particular religious tradition.

Before planning a forum or discussion group, you need to determine who you are trying to reach, what you want them to learn or think about, and what action they can take. 

Here are some steps:

  • Determine the audience you want to recruit.  Are you trying to get high school, college, or seminary students to take action to support a union organizing campaign or a wage theft fight with an employer’s association? Are you looking to involve clergy and lay religious leaders? Are you providing a forum for a group of progressive activists, such as the folks who have occupied public spaces in your city, to learn about worker justice issues? Do you want to bring unemployed or underemployed workers together with people who are currently working to learn more about how they can work together to help people find jobs and advocate for legislation needed to create jobs?  Are you providing worker rights education to low wage workers or a group of ethical business people? Are you providing workers skills’ so that they can stand up for themselves and their coworkers, or organizing a community or national campaign to pass legislation?  
  • Find a location. For a small group, you may want to host the event in your home or at a local coffee shop or diner. For larger gatherings, you may want to reserve space at a library, community center, school or congregation.
  • Invite people to give presentations and personal testimony.  There are people with expertise that love an opportunity to share, including many IWJ leaders. They may know about successful legislative campaigns or how to build effective coalitions; they may have some specific expertise to share, such as answering legal questions. If you are working to pass a paid sick days law, consider asking a school nurse or public health official.  If the topic is wage theft, you should coordinate with a local worker center, labor union or other organization that organizes and provides services to low-wage workers.
  • Prepare a detailed agenda. You should allocate time for each agenda item. In general, keep the forum to an hour and a half at most. (If you need more time, consider holding a series of events). Make sure to have a good and well prepared facilitator or chairperson.
    • Welcome and introductions (if a small group), including asking “why did you come to this forum.” In a larger group, you may ask a few people to say why they are here. Review the agenda and goals for the session.
    • Presentations about the issue.
    • Facilitated discussion, with questions to answer. If possible, break into small groups.
    • Call to action: write letters to members of congress or the city council, circulate petitions, turn out to a prayer vigil or other public action.
    • If this is a religious group, open and close with prayer.  
  • Prepare Materials. IWJ is regularly creating new resources, toolkits, power point presentations, and webinars that can be used to focus and engage participants. Ask presenters if they have materials they want distributed. You may want to use an article, book excerpt, or short video as the basis for your discussion.
  • Invite people. Being personally invited to an event always increases likely turnout. You might start with a written or e-mail invitation followed up by a phone call. For a larger community forum, use posters, fliers, church bulletin inserts, Facebook and Twitter.
  • Follow up. Thank people for coming and encourage them to be part of a network for action: Worker Centers, Religion-Labor Groups, Faith Advocates for Jobs Congregations, student groups, online advocates. You want people to know how they can stay involved and get other friends, family members, congregants and co-workers engaged. An educational forum should be planned to help move a worker justice campaign forward.