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Problems vs. Issues

  • Community organizing efforts

Check out this quick refresher on policy, advocacy, and organizing for policymaking concepts. Find reflective questions to make connections to your work, so you can refine your strategies for policy change and disrupt oppressive systems that perpetuate inequity.

LEE Members are invited to dive deeper into how organizers can create equitable change through policy in our learning module: Organizer’s Guide to Equitable Policy Change.



“The key characteristic of an ‘issue’ is that it is discrete and specific, instead of vague and overwhelming.”

–Aaron Schutz and Marie G. Sandy, authors of Collective Action for Social Change


To focus our organizing efforts, we need to examine the challenges our communities face and separate them into two categories: problems and issues.


Defining Problems

Problems by definition are vast, complex, and entrenched. Take for instance the school-to-prison pipeline. 

The school-to-prison pipeline is a widespread problem with several intersecting institutional dimensions and deep historical roots. On the whole, it is a problem with no immediately apparent, plausible solution.


Defining Issues

An issue is a more focused, manageable subset area of a problem. An issue affects a specific community, has a winnable proposition, and is bound to a definite period of time.

Consider a school district's student resource officer making arrests of students. If the resource officers arrests students of color at a disproportionately high rate, it's an issue that harms a clear, quantifiable number of students and families. Yet, because the terms of a school's contract with the police department are publicly available, ending the school resource officer contract would contribute to solving the school-to-prison pipeline problem.

In this case, plausible solutions and policy actions present themselves immediately: Organizers can mobilize constituents to persuade the school board to redirect those school resource officer funds elsewhere once the contract expires, or even terminate it early. Perhaps they could work with an ally on the board to introduce a resolution committing the district to restorative justice measures instead of a police presence.

Once you cut a specific issue from the broader problem, solutions become much clearer and more manageable.



Quick Review


  • Vague
  • Enormous
  • Uncertain cause
  • Overwhelming


  • Defined
  • Manageable
  • Clear root cause
  • Plausible path to success


Reflections for Organizers

  • What are the overwhelming problems vexing your community?
  • What are some of the specific issues your organizing work can address?


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