Tag Archives: community organizing

Connected Citizens in the New Year

I read the Knight Foundation’s Connected Citizens report (subtitled, “The Power, Potential, and Peril of Networks”) a few months ago (it came out in late April, I think, but, giving birth kind of put me behind in my reading this year), and I’ve been thinking about it more lately as I look to the future, especially since the report is, itself, in part an effort to predict where and how networks may change our lives and our efforts for social change, in the years to come.

I expect that some of the questions the report poses, and some of the hypotheses it suggests, will filter into my thinking and writing about advocacy (especially in the online context) and community organizing over the coming year, but here are my reactions as we straddle this period between the past and the future, at the (almost) dawn of 2012.

  • Do we truly have greater transparency today? Or does the proliferation of information mean that it’s that much easier to hide the important stuff, in the midst of a lot that doesn’t matter? I’m torn about this, really–on the one hand, there’s the demise of traditional investigative journalism, with all that that means for our ability to uncover the truth and publicize it; on the other, there’s the rise of citizen-supported journalism and independent cataloguing of so much that happens in our world. I know it sounds clichéd, but it’s like “the truth is out there,” but will we be able to find and recognize it, in the middle of so much…stuff? And what does that mean for our efforts to be megaphones for the voices that are so often silenced, as we know we must, in order to truly empower those whose stories need to become part of our policy narratives? Since policymakers are vulnerable to this same information overload, how do we push past the noise to be heard?
  • Will technology enable us to turn ever-more inward, or seek and build alliances with unlikely partners? Or both? How do we resist the tendency towards silos, or, indeed, is such homogeneity all bad, in terms of building strong identity? Since, again, policymakers are people, too, how will their increasing reliance on what their “friends” prefer, in terms of policy approaches, and, indeed, even what their social networks hold as “truth” and “information” impact our ability to construct policy solutions that can cross rigid ideological lines? I’m not too optimistic, really.
  • How can we engage our crowds so that the barrier to participation is minimal but still meaningful? As the default for “participation” becomes quick engagement, how do we invest in the deeper relationships that are truly transformational?
  • Social workers know how to “design for serendipity.” From our direct practice experiences, we get the idea that we cannot predict outcomes flawlessly but must, instead, create the spaces (physically and, more importantly socially and psychologically) for real magic to happen in people’s lives. This makes us, I believe, champion “network weavers”, if we can leverage those clinical skills into social change work.
  • Anyone who has ever read the comments on an online newspaper article about immigration policy knows the link between anonymity and the deterioration of dialogue in a public sphere. The challenge here, as we increasingly shift to broader conversations detached from a local, identified context, is to figure out how to cultivate relationships that breed accountability while taking advantage of the boundary-less nature of online networks.
  • We can all get excited about the rise of mutual support and the tremendous potential of networks to address real, pressing need. But we should also be very afraid of the parallel risk that such indigenous resource provision becomes an excuse for abdication of our collective (read: public) (read: we still need taxes) responsibility to uphold the social contract and provide for the needs of those without strong networks in the first place (because such network resources are, like nearly everything else in this world, not evenly distributed).

    Again, there’s more there than what I’ve captured here, including some thoughts relevant to my work with the Sunflower Foundation, particularly this question of whether measuring network health and strength can tell you how close you’re getting to a desired change, given that networks are, by definition, rather uncontrollable and certainly dynamic entities. But, in chiming in so late on the conversation, I’m partly hoping to restart it a bit, since we know that we’ll be dealing, increasingly, with networks in our work in the years to come–indeed, they may become the default way of approaching our shared concerns–and we need to understand how to engage them effectively, how to critically evaluate their roles and their shortcomings, and how their existence will shape ours.

  • Is it time to up the ante?

    I know, things are hard enough these days, without going out and looking for trouble, right?

    And, yet, here we are.

    Here’s the problem: there’s increasing evidence, I believe, that the kinds of online advocacy about which we were so excited just a few years ago are, in fact, too easy.

    Because we’re not the only ones who know that it doesn’t take much to get people to sign an online petition or click to send an email to their member of Congress (I know, it’s sometimes not as easy as it sounds, but that, unfortunately, usually has more to do with the nature of our relationships with those we’re trying to get to advocate than with the actual, technical difficulty of taking that particular action, and that’s an entirely different problem.)

    A relatively recent survey of nonprofit activity on Facebook, for example, found that, while only 40% of organizations were able to convert their Facebook fans into donors or volunteers, about 66% saw an increase in people taking an advocacy action. And while that sounds great, because we can always use more activists, it makes me wonder:

    If it’s known that people would rather sign a petition than give you a dollar, how much is that signature really worth?

    This is related, too, to the common wisdom (enforced by our own experiences) that there’s just SO MUCH out there, and that it can be hard to sort through all of that information. Certainly policymakers feel that way, too, which contributes to their desire to wade through the noise and find that which most resonates with them. Since we can’t count on always aligning with their way of seeing the world, or having their trusted advisors lend us their voices, that means that we need to either make a compelling case related to their constituency (harder to do, somewhat ironically, in the context of online global networking, because of difficulties precisely locating advocates’ geographies) or develop powerful actions that can rise above the chatter…or both.

    This question, and the doubt it reflects, matters not just in the short-term, when we really want people to listen to what our advocates are saying. Ultimately, key to building strong movements is people’s recognition that their individual contributions are, collectively, part of something far greater. And, so, if that’s not really the case–if me calling my member of Congress on my own would really make a bigger impact than joining with others to sign a petition or click “like”, then am I really part of a movement after all?

    Are we authentically inviting people to transcend themselves and transform their lives, with the sacrifices that such affiliation entails? Or are we selling them the idea of advocacy, in a way that may forever distort their understanding of the real thing? If it’s the latter, what will that mean for the times when we have a really big “ask” of our advocates, if we haven’t been building, at all, but rather engaging in a sort of pseudo-organizing?

    Lest we start off the last month of this year with a complete downer, I think that there are some real opportunities to utilize some of the same utilities on which we currently rely to leverage advocacy with real impact. Here are some of my ideas, and I’d love to hear yours, both in your reaction to this whole “time for a game-changer” proposition, and for ways to maximize the power of our online advocacy strategies and dodge the impotent, as we continually react to how our successes raise the stakes.

  • One of the most promising findings from the Idealware Facebook survey was the more than 70% of organizations who attracted new attendees to their events using social media. If we’re building advocacy into all of our events, as well as using social networking to recuit new participants to advocacy-focused events, there’s obvious potential to build momentum for our work using “new” technologies to drive the oldest of organizing axioms: turnout matters.
  • There are some really inspiring and exciting examples of organizations (and, indeed, individuals, who are perhaps naturally better at this than our fortresses!) using online networks to implement completely nontraditional campaigns. There’s no law that says that your online “ask” has to be a petition or an email. Again, sometimes we make the mistake of requesting relatively little, because we think that’s all we can get, when digging deeper, and inviting our advocates to do the same, can both strengthen our relationship and amplify our voice.
  • Those online petitions or social media “fans” don’t have to be THE campaign, and, indeed, they often are not. But when we organize an event to deliver a stack of letters to a policymaker (complete with compelling personal testimonies, appropriate media pressure, and the inclusion of unlikely allies) are we making sure that that effort echoes with those who originally took the online action, so that they see how it fits into the larger strategy and see how they might, in the future, play an expanded role?

    What do you think? What should be the measures by which we judge the effectiveness of our online advocacy strategies–number of participants, or vigor of engagement, or tangible policy changes? Is what we’re doing working, or is it time to push forward?

  • The “how” matters. A lot.

    My consulting work will has slowed down, a lot, over the past two months, as I stepped back to spend some time with my growing family. I don’t miss the stress of trying to make work phone calls while kids are clamoring for fruit snacks, but I do miss, very much, the opportunity to play at least a small part in the work of some really inspiring social service and civic organizations.

    I’m ready to get back to “normal”, or at least my version of it.

    Getting ready for some of my fall work, though, and making plans for the future, has prompted me to reflect more on the impact that I have on those with whom I work, and on how this phase of my career builds on my past experiences, and some other thoughts that may quite honestly be more insomnia-provoked than truly interesting.

    But this insight, I think, means something, to me and to the organizations with which I’ve worked over the past couple of years.

    HOW we do advocacy matters, especially in adverse political and economic times like these.

    That’s one of the primary lessons that I’ve tried to share with organizations, especially those just beginning to integrate advocacy into their services. I don’t mean the sort of standard “there are no permanent enemies” advice (which, okay, I’ve never been all that good at anyway).

    Instead, what I try to help clients understand is that, when we lose SO OFTEN, we have to build our campaigns so that there are real, tangible victories that can be salvaged, celebrated, and, most crucially, built upon, from the wreckage of the failures (that always hurt anyway).

    And people, be they advocacy-averse Board members of a large social service agency, or social justice advocates assembled at a progressive church, usually start to nod when I mention those losses. Because they know them; they’re what they fear. So talking about them openly, from the very beginning, helps to take some of the “sting” out. And, with the inevitability of failure, at least to some degree, on the table, then we can talk about how you build “loss-proof” campaigns, the kind literally guaranteed to bring your organization significant benefit, regardless of the ultimate outcome.

    To some extent, this means thinking carefully about how you’ll measure success, and building in the kinds of interim measures (increasing your membership base, attracting new donors, raising your profile) that, while not empirically demonstrated to lead to later advocacy success, matter on their own rights.

    But what I push organizations to plan for, and what I mean by the “how”, is the need to construct strategy and choose tactics that are designed to build the power of individual leaders within your organization and to strengthen the relationships among them.

    This means that, when you have the choice between going alone to a meeting with the Mayor or spending the time to prepare community members to facilitate it, you choose the latter. You hold regular meetings with your leadership to let them make the decisions about how to proceed, especially at difficult junctures. You encourage them to collect postcards or petitions, even if you doubt they’ll influence the decision-makers, because you want them to practice their messages and build their base. And you utilize reflections to help them name their advances and process their grief about the loss, rather than buying into the “winner takes all” logic of our current political system.

    It means that you recognize that, while falling short of your ultimate policy goal is virtually a given, irredeemable failure is unacceptable. And so you plan to prevent it.

    And that way, you win. Even when you lose.

    And that makes all the difference.

    Ethics and Advocacy, de nuevo

    We're held to the same Code of Ethics, even with the "holes"

    It’s “update” week at Classroom to Capitol.

    As I read through previous posts for my summer maternity break hiatus, I found a few that I really wanted to revisit, rather than repost. This is the first of the three that I have chosen for this week, with new thoughts and, of course, new questions.

    One of the first twenty or so posts that I wrote for this blog, back in June 2009, dealt with the ethical challenges faced by advocates, organizers, and other macro practitioners. I outlined some of the biggest holes, as I see them, in the NASW Code of Ethics, and how vague, contradictory, or rather unworkable guidance there can cause problems for those of us whose social work practice doesn’t really conform to the traditional, agency-based, more direct interaction model.

    I continue to weave content on ethics into all of my classes, and I continue to struggle, at times, with some doubt about whether what feels like natural and “good” community or advocacy practice is really the most defensible, based on my social work Code of Ethics. And I continue to be frustrated by the relative paucity of dialogue about those gaps in our ethical guidance, and especially about the self-doubt that creeps into my practice, and, I know, into the minds of my students, too.

    So, I’m revisiting this topic in the hopes of enlisting other social workers in not only offering some of their consultation, but also joining in the conversation about what may need to be added to our NASW Code of Ethics, or perhaps tweaked a bit, for we macro social workers, who, after all, deserve clear ethical guidance just as much as our clinical colleagues–just as our clients deserve just as clear an understanding of the ethical rules that shape us.

    In class, I raise a lot of different questions about ethics in advocacy and organizing: means v. ends, informed consent, competency, loyalty to employing agency…but below I’ve tried to distill those thorniest areas that truly vex me, with some examples of how these issues manifest themselves in practice. I’d really appreciate other macro social workers willing to share some of their own ethical dilemmas, or any social work professionals willing to offer some insights from their perspective as people committed to living our Code. Ethics are, after all, about protecting those we serve and the reputation of our profession, both causes of critical importance to me as an advocate. So we have to get this right.

  • The dual relationship thing always gets me: So, our Code of Ethics doesn’t have an absolute prohibition on dual relationships, but we are instructed to avoid dual relationships where they could harm the client. Sounds reasonable. Except, in community practice, this is often pretty tough. Do I keep someone out of a community organizing effort because we also go to church together? I can’t. Yet when they get somewhat confused about how I relate to them differently as an organizer than as a fellow parishioner, is that introducing the potential for harm? What about when someone I’ve been developing as a leader asks me to come to her high school graduation. To not go would seem to deny the power that that diploma has for her, but, when I do go, I’m inevitably asked to come to dinner at her parents’ house, and they want to talk about my kids, and…where do you draw those lines?
  • Boundaries v. “whole person” organizing: I can talk on and on about how we need to integrate organizing into this full sense of self, and I totally believe that, but then, I have to live it, too. I mean, my own children are a big part of the reason that I work for the social justice causes I do, and, yet, if I’m supposed to maintain boundaries around a professional relationship, I have to be careful about how much I divulge. It feels awkward, and it is awkward, and sometimes a little disingenous. But I don’t want to be responsible for someone being confused about whether we’re “friends” or not.
  • Dignity of every person in nasty advocacy fights: So I do immigration advocacy, right? And I know that my Code of Ethics means that truly underhanded tactics are off the table, then–I wouldn’t want to be that kind of lobbyist, anyway. But to what extent do I need to uphold the dignity and worth of those who would seek to, say, shoot members of my community from helicopters like feral pigs?
  • Informed consent and compromise: I struggle with this one a lot; we can never truly say that we “represent” any community (which is why I’m a proponent of advocacy with instead of advocacy on behalf of), but, even when we’re practicing empowerment and maximum participation, there are going to be those who would be affected by the policies we promote (or oppose) who haven’t been consulted in any meaningful way. And, when it comes to the inevitable compromises, coalitions can fall apart and even those with whom you have been working closely can feel that their interests were not well-represented by those who were at the table. How can I ethically work as their “social worker” knowing that I can’t get their informed consent for every possible outcome of the policy change process?

    There are other issues that have cropped up–Can I work ethically in coalition with organizations whose values are not perfectly aligned with social work’s? Can I advance the interests of one group of clients over another, in pursuit of incremental policy change? Can I represent an issue as being worse than I can prove it is (if I really believe it to be so)? The list above, though, represents my kind of perennial ethical challenges, the ones that I feel really torn about, and the ones where I feel that I’ve probably made some missteps, in both directions–sometimes not practicing great social work out of an abundance of caution, and sometimes walking in a gray ethical area.

    A favorite social work instructor of mine once said that some of what we call ethical dilemmas are really just crises of conscience–where we know what to do and just need to muster the courage to do it. And that’s the case, sometimes, with advocacy: we know when we should stand up and speak out, and, in fact, our Code of Ethics demands it.

    I’m glad every day that I belong to a profession that expects people to take real risks in order to bring about a more just society.

    But I do wish that I had a Code that defined “client” more the way it is in my practice, that offered more guidance for my greatest dilemmas, and that created a more standard and workable ethical framework so that my macro practitioners would feel as compelled as our clinical colleagues to follow it.

    Our clients, whether they make a 50-minute appointment and sit down across a desk from us, or march side-by-side on the institutions of power that shape our lives, deserve no less.

  • So you want to have a ‘marcha’?

    *I’m aching for a really good marcha these days–it’s been awhile! I’m reviving this post in the hopes that there are some plans in the work; certainly we’ll have plenty to bring us to our feet!

    photo credit lannadelarosa, via Flickr

    Really good political rallies, demonstrations/protests, or marches (they’re a little different, but they all serve the same general purpose as part of an advocacy or organizing campaign, and they have many overlapping considerations) can energize your leadership, bring mass followers in to build a movement, and attract the kind of public, policymaker, and media attention that you can only dream of with more traditional policy activities. Poorly planned or overdone or lackluster events, though, can drain your leadership, antagonize potential sympathizers, and earn you disdain or ridicule in the public. What separates the two?

    I have had the experience of planning and executing 6 mass action-type events and of consulting in the planning of about 5 others. I’ve attended countless, as a participant/activist. Certainly other organizers have more demonstration experience, but my memories of these events have given me a few lessons to pass on. I’d love to hear others’ thoughts about what makes a march or rally really impressive and invigorating. Likewise, if you’ve been involved in one (or more!) that were less than what you had hoped, please share those experiences so that we can all learn. Because they are public activities, some of the results of a demonstration are admittedly beyond the organizer’s control, but I think that you can bring a lot more of it within your sphere of influence through good planning and great community organizing. There are several handbooks/textbooks on the market that address at least some of the logistics of organizing mass protests, some of which have inevitably informed my thinking on this, but the following ideas come from having learned (often, the hard way) from the experience of mobilization.

  • Be clear about what it is that you want to accomplish with the mass action, and that a demonstration is, indeed, the best way to accomplish those goals. Nothing attracts the kind of attention that a well-attended mass mobilization will, but it can also alienate some aspects of your target population and distract your core leadership from other work. I’ve seen, often, how rallies can become seen as ‘ends in themselves’ rather than means to your desired end (some kind of policy or social change), and you have to be clear from the beginning about how this mass mobilization is part of a larger strategy, because, otherwise, the details can suck you (and your leadership) in. They might not be as ‘sexy’, but there are many more efficient ways, sometimes, to get from point A to point B.
  • Control your message, as much as possible, while recognizing that it will be impossible to totally control. It’s almost an axiom that the one message that you REALLY don’t want to get out as a part of your demonstration will, in fact, be represented on someone’s t-shirt or poster or chant, and that WILL be what the media and your targets pick up–the youth wrapped in Mexican flags at the comprehensive immigration reform rallies are testament to that. You can’t prevent this, so you have to be ready to neutralize it as much as possible. An important first step is, really, making sure that you have a compelling message and that your participants clearly understand how this message is connected to their own enlightened self-interest. If people are just coming to ‘protest’, you’re more likely to have some highly dissonant messages. Some other suggestions that have helped me with this:
    1. Plan your agenda carefully, and no one gets the microphone/bullhorn who isn’t supposed to have it. Meet with all of your speakers in advance, and get a commitment from them about the general tone and substance of their remarks (recognizing, of course, that there will be fluidity in the actual delivery). Yes, this might mean that you have to tell a politician or the Executive Director of an organization that, no, they can’t have the floor for just a few minutes. Make sure that you’re clear on this in advance, and be prepared to back it up.
    2. “Plant” your message. For every rally I was in charge of, I created dozens of posters with the messages that I wanted to convey and brought them with me to the demonstration. Inevitably, people had forgotten to bring something to carry, and they were happy to grab some that I had made–instant message diffusion. Every year, some of my posters showed up in the media coverage. I used American flags in the same way; we purchased hundreds (sometimes thousands) of them, and I had volunteers hand them out from the back of my car. People wanted something to wave, and now they were waving American flags. Instant “Kodak moment.”
    3. Police your message, to an extent. No, hopefully we are not going to ask people to change their shirts or put down their signs, I guess unless they are inciting violence or something, but we can and should make an effort to connect with the media in advance and funnel them to some of our leaders who are ready with the core messages. Your leaders need to be ready to answer the most common questions: “What are you demanding (and of whom?)? Who do you represent? What is your response to (insert the most common counterargument here)?”

  • Logistics don’t make your event, but they can ruin it. You need to think about where you want to have your event (messaging can tie in here, too, but it also needs to be a feasible location), how people will get there, permissions, parking (if applicable), restrooms, security, sound system, traffic flow (as people leave), weather back-up plans, and countless other details. I found that it was usually best to have a committee of my grassroots leadership oversee this, as they inevitably thought of things that I did not–like making sure that we weren’t in a place that required photo ID, having room for strollers, putting up a barrier between the rally and the street (kids run, I now know!), and, on one particularly hot day, having free water to give out and a nurse on-hand for anyone needing medical attention.
  • Related to the above, think for a moment about the way in which one of the primary goals of any mass action–making powerful targets uncomfortable–is, necessarily, a bit risky for participants. And then have some real conversations with your leadership about how much risk people are willing to take. Marches require getting permission to close down streets or a willingness to risk arrest for being there. Stationary demonstrations are more or less risky depending on the location, the communication in advance with police, and the participants’ adherence to any agreements with officials. Sometimes you need civil disobedience as a part of your strategy; other times, as with the undocumented immigrants with whom I often worked, an arrest would have been devastating. Be strategic about this, and ensure that at least your core leaders give informed consent, and are clear about the risks as they do turnout work.
  • Don’t rely on mass appeals alone for your turnout. Of course you need to use the media to get people to come to your event–before most of our rallies, I did a series of on-air interviews on Spanish radio as well as newspaper announcements. But mass communication for mass mobilization works best if the media coverage serves to remind people of the event and give them the details, not to invite them for the first time; that’s best done by someone with whom they have a relationship. That’s why you need a team of influential leaders in your constituency to work on turnout for you; they each need to be asking their friends, colleagues, family members, and others in their social circles to participate. While it wasn’t the biggest rally I ever organized, one of which I’m particularly proud was when we got more than 400 people to come to Topeka from Kansas City. I had 8 team captains/family leaders each responsible for recruiting and turning out 40 people, and those folks represented the vast majority of those who ended up coming (which required taking a day off work!). Relationships move people.
  • Recognize that, with mass actions, no matter how many people show up, it will never seem like enough. Seriously, I wonder if the organizers of the Million Man March were wondering why they didn’t have 2 million? At least I’ve always felt this way, and I know it’s not just me. An organizer I know in Los Angeles, where they had literally a MILLION people come to their immigrant rights march in March 2006, told me that she couldn’t believe that some of her colleagues didn’t come (she had to ask them, of course, since the line of people marching stretched for blocks!). This is, again, why it’s so important to be clear about your goal. Trust me, the million people got the attention of the policymakers and forced Senate action on the comprehensive immigration reform bill which, while ultimately unsuccessful, was the main goal. We can’t waste energy mourning the 1,000,001st person who didn’t show up.

    I hope that, at least once in your life as an advocate/activist, every one of you has the opportunity to look out over a crowd of faces, known and unknown, who have come together because they’re passionate about the same issue(s) you are. I hope that you have a chance to hear them chanting, in unison, for justice and dignity and safety and equality. I hope that you have a moment of falling in bed, late at night, completely exhausted of body and mind, with those chants still echoing in your ears. It is a beautiful, beautiful thing, and, on many occasions throughout history, it has changed the world.

  • Then and Now–The Importance of Play

    *I’m still on maternity leave and, so, revising and republishing some of my favorite posts from the past two years. I’ve tried to select some that were particularly popular at the time, as well as some of my own personal favorites. I appreciate your patience as I dedicate myself to full-time motherhood for a few more weeks!

    The best organizers, like the best parents, I’m convinced, understand the value of play. We’ve all been involved in social movements that could use a serious injection of fun–when even a big rally is kind of a drag, it’s a serious sign that something is wrong. Think about it; most of the time we need to ask people to stick with us for months, even years, and few people want to spend that much time with people who are not any fun. We need to nourish people’s souls as we’re fighting with them for justice, and that means learning to laugh, commune, and dance together, not just march and strategize and shout.

    And this was something that was a little hard for me to learn. My family of origin is, quite honestly, not too big on play. When you ask us what we’re doing for the weekend, we’ll respond with a to-do list. We’re pretty much always working on something: paid employment, volunteering, housework, general self-improvement. We love each other, and we even have a good time together, but it’s mostly in parallel labor, not real relaxation. And I still very much carry this with me.

    Thank goodness that I started my organizing work in a community that includes celebration and comraderie as a core part of its culture. Early on in my work with Latino immigrants, they showed me by example that taking time to eat meals together, to attend each other’s family celebrations, to tell jokes (that never translate well into English!), to make music and dance, to enjoy beautiful artwork…that these pursuits are not distractions from community-building but integral components of the same. I wisely learned, also early in my career, that these were areas where I was best to cede all authority to the grassroots leaders for whom such play was more natural, and they organized some of the best parties and gatherings I’ve ever attended, as well as finding ways to weave laughter and love into every thing we did together–from planning sessions to poster-making nights to GOTV phone banks to trips to Topeka to give testimony. And the relationships that we built were stronger as a result of attending to each others’ needs as whole people rather than just our ‘serious’ sides.

    And this is a lesson that has served me well as a mom, too. Despite my overly productive tendencies, I am now that mom who spends most of the day on the floor playing. My oldest son thinks that twist-ties are called trailer hitches, because I’ve fashioned them to connect all of his trucks in a long line. We get really dirty by the end of each day–painting, building, imagining. My youngest kids get wrestled and sung to and swung around every day. I don’t get much done, honestly, until they go to bed each night. But, then again, I do. Each shared moment of play builds a reservoir of good will, of relational strength, that I can then call on as we continually negotiate our lives together as a family. And it’s the building of those deep relationship wells that comprises the core task of community organizing.

    So, there–your excuse to ‘play’ at work! If anyone has good stories to share about how you have infused playfulness into your advocacy and/or organizing work and how it has made a difference for you, I’d love to hear it. Please share your experiences to give others fun ideas!

    There’s a great article that I use in class that discusses this idea of incorporating play into community organizing. I can’t attach the article here because of copyright restrictions, but I can email it to anyone who lets me know that they want it, or here’s the citation. He uses great examples–remember the giant puppets that were part of the WTO protests in Seattle? and makes a great case for integrating playful strategies into any type of organizing campaign.

    Shepard, B. (2005). Play, Creativity, and the New Community Organizing. Journal of Progressive Human Services 16(2), 47-69.

    Parenting and the Golden Rule of Organizing

    *I’m still on maternity leave, and, so, reposting some of my favorite posts from the last two years of Classroom to Capitol. I’ve tried to pick out a mix of those that attracted a lot of attention at the time and those that are just personally meaningful to me (and, I hope, to some of you!), and I’ve also updated them, in some cases, with some new questions and information. Thank you for your patience as I dedicate myself to full-time motherhood for a few more weeks!

    When I was in graduate school at Washington University (the one in St. Louis), I had the amazing opportunity to take a class from Ernesto Cortes, lead organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation in the Southwest. He came to teach two long weekend seminars on institution-based organizing that Wash U offered as a regular 3-credit course. It was so intimidating that some of the class is still a blur to me, but some snippets of what we talked about still stand out (along with a memory of my mortification when he chose me to model a 1:1 with him in front of the entire class–scary).

    One of the things that really hit me as a social worker was his explanation of the ‘golden rule’ of organizing: Never do for someone else what he/she can do for him/herself. Not should do for herself, but can do for herself. Not ‘rarely’ or ‘seldom’, but ‘never’.

    I like this rule because, when you first hear it, it sounds so totally common-sense. Of course we should never do things for other people that they can do for themselves, right? Um, except that we do it all the time. As social workers, and, indeed, as people, how often do we take shortcuts, making the phone call ourselves because we’re afraid our client will forget, or answering for a client in a meeting because we’re afraid he doesn’t understand, or staying late to finish a report for a colleague because we’re really good at that.

    And, at first, it doesn’t seem like a bad thing. I mean, we’re social workers. We’re supposed to help people, right? And that means doing helpful things for people, right?

    I struggled with this quite a bit in my community and advocacy practice. How is an organizer supposed to know what someone can do for herself? Do we let them try and fail? What if such failure has implications for the whole community, or the whole organization? Where do we draw the line between empowering people and abandoning them? Between paternalistic ‘overdoing’ for people and supportive modeling and guidance? How do we ensure that our interactions with people change as they change and grow? And how do we deal with the fact that sometimes not doing for other people is harder and slower than just getting it done, when our lives and our organizing are so busy?

    It was when my oldest son was struggling with his carseat buckle that I made the connection: the same challenges that parents of toddlers face apply to this age-old organizing connundrum. He wants to learn how to unfasten his carseat because he knows that, once he can do it independently, he’ll get to move to the back of the van with his brother or sister. He hates sitting in the middle row by himself, so he’s really motivated to get this figured out (you might say that he has a good sense of his self-interest). As you can imagine, his initial attempts at this have been less than satisfactory. As I’m trying to get the other kids loaded up to get to wherever we’re headed (inevitably late), I find myself facing the same dilemma as when I wondered whether it was fair to ask an undocumented client to speak to the media or someone who spoke limited English to give the introduction…what can he do for himself? What must I do for him? How do we negotiate this in a way that builds his skills and his confidence and, most importantly to an emerging leader and a toddler, enhances his real power?

    I don’t have all of the answers for this, in organizing or in parenting. But I know that, when I hit on the right approach as an organizer, people did extraordinary things that they (and, honestly I) were quite unsure they could do. And, as a mom, when my son got the chest strap on his carseat off all by himself and said, “Mom, I’m getting really close to sitting in the backseat!” I know that Ernie Cortes is right. It’s not easy to sit on our hands and do less, but, if we can stand it, we really are doing more.

    They’re really free agents: parenting lessons and organizational practice

    Who wouldn't want a superhero on their team? And why would I fight my kid on wearing his Batman costume to run errands?

    One of my favorite blogs to read, partially for the insightful content and partially because I’m convinced that she’s a terrific person (even though we’ve never “met”), Community Organizer 2.0, had a post awhile back that dealt with the idea of free agents, a topic expanded on in The Networked Nonprofit, and one that I’ve done some thinking about here before.

    And it occurred to me at the time that my most successful parenting days come when I apply the principles of free agency to my kids, and that those lessons can help me not only succeed as a parent but also apply to my organizing and organizational development work. And, then it took me a couple of months to actually sit down and write that out. And, apparently, I’m incapable of doing so today in short sentences!

    The concept of free agents is basically this: if nonprofit organizations and “official” entities try to control too tightly their messages and those who would be ambassadors for their causes, they’ll miss out on a whole lot of passionate activity that could be contributed by those who don’t see themselves as traditionally connected to a nonprofit base (as a staff member or volunteer), but who will “latch on” to your issue and, potentially, bring the new attention and energy that every campaign desperately needs.

    There are some really smart people spending a lot of time thinking about organizations as fortresses and how to break down the barriers that discourage free agents, and about how to change organizational culture so that the idea of loosely affiiliating in this way isn’t so strange and scary. It’s tremendously exciting, in part because of the incredible advocacy potential of free agents (who often specifically want to tell people about a given cause and rally others to its defense, which is what advocacy efforts crave), and also because I believe that making organizations more responsive and responsible to free agents will make them places where clients can tap into leadership opportunities and where transparency will, to a large extent, reign.

    Very important stuff.

    And, of course, because I’ve got young children to raise, I tend to think of everything in terms of what it means for me as a mom, in addition to someone who tries to think about and work with social problems and the nonprofit organizations charged with addressing them. Which brings me (eventually!) to this post.

    Because my kids are free agents, with me, not of me, and the more I remember that, the better things work around here. What this means for me as a parent, and what I think it can mean for us as practitioners?

  • We have to be okay with the fact that free agents don’t do things the way we would do them. If we want that, we need to just do them ourselves. But, so much of the time, we’re too busy, or we’ve recognized that there is something valuable to be gained by giving others the chance to do for themselves, but then we want quality control veto, or something, over the final product. That’s crazy-making, whether it’s how my kids spread peanut butter on their own sandwiches, or how someone crafts a Facebook appeal for your next advocacy meeting. They’re free, remember, to come at this their own way.
  • Similarly, we need a clear sense of where we’re headed, so that we don’t have to stress if we’re not following the same path to get there. My favorite all-time human behavior concept of equifinality applies here: there are many routes to Point B. Too often, though, we’re not entirely clear what our goal is, so then the process becomes our fixation (we all have to do it this way), not even because we want the control, but because we’re just not sure what to tell people about where we’re headed. When my kids know that we’re leaving in 10 minutes, and what they have to do to get ready, then it no longer matters if shoes or coats go on first. And if we define advocacy success so that we know it when we see it, then we’ll all be at the finish line together.
  • Ownership matters, a lot. Sometimes, we’re fine delegating control of the process to our free agents, but we want the credit (or at least the branding) for the successes. What motivates my kids, especially the oldest, is knowing that something was his call, and that the success (or failure) will be his to own, too. Too few organizations have any kind of structure to applaud the contributions of their free agents, because they’re not even consciously tracking them, and because they don’t fit into one of the categories that they currently laud. If we want free agents in our orbit, we can’t try to co-opt them.
  • It’s not just “zen”; you really get more. If this whole free agent thing was just the right thing to do, because it’s consistent with our principles of inclusivity and empowerment and maximum participation, it would still make sense, especially for nonprofit organizations seeking renewal and transformation. Absolutely. Just like, if it was just about me being a less hypocritical parent and raising my kids in the way that I believe in organizing, it would be right for us. But the truth? My kids are more creative and cooperative and enthusiastic when I treat them as my co-travelers on a life journey, rather than as extensions of myself or as my minions. And your free agents will, as case examples are demonstrating all over the world, use their talents and tools for extraordinary ends, too, when your organization stops trying to orchestrate those ends.

    I’m interested in hearing from both parents, about this whole free agent “thing” applied to kids, as well as from nonprofit folks who are finding ways to tap into and build up the free agents who circulate around their causes: is this parallel something my intense-summer-course-addled brain just came up with, or does it reflect what you see in the free agent realm?

  • Yes, everywhere: “real-life” applications for community organizing skills

    What does Vacation Church School have to do with community organizing, you ask?

    Um, in my world, a lot.

    Over and over again, I find that I apply my community organizing experience to all kinds of situations, and that that perspective shapes how I approach so much of my life, from how I parent to my engagement with nonprofit boards, to my neighboring to my volunteer service. In some respects, that can be problematic: I’m sure that some of my friends wish that I’d stop including “have you talked with your senator about immigration reform?” at the end of an email to them, and my husband has wondered aloud why we still send Christmas cards to several current and former elected officials as well as a scattering of immigrant advocates around the state.

    But, for the most part, I find that almost all of life’s challenges are more successfully conquered through community organizing tactics, and I’m continually struck by how amazed people are at what one can accomplish by leveraging the tremendous power of organized people.

  • I ask people to do things that fit their passions and skills, instead of putting out a “I’m sure everyone is too busy for this, but could someone please?” plea. It makes it much easier to recruit volunteers for Vacation Church School, yes, and it also gets parents to testify at a PTA legislative forum and neighbors to take on planning a block party, too. People want to be valued, and that’s not just true for major campaigns for social justice.
  • I make relationships part of my to-do list. People are more likely to say yes, not just if the ask fits with their lives, but if the asker is someone they trust and care about. That’s why I make it a point to send notes, or make calls, fairly regularly to a wide spectrum of people–those with whom I serve on Boards, other advocates, even some of my kids’ friends’ parents. Some would say that relationships are cheapened, somehow, if there’s the potential for an ask to enter the equation at some point. I counter that organizers legitimately care about people as people, absolutely, but also see relationships as our single greatest asset. And assets deserve continual investment.
  • I’m short on protocol but don’t skimp on process. I have very, very little patience for formality; committee rules and complicated chains of command tend to discourage new participation and stifle real accomplishment. But I absolutely believe in giving people an opportunity to voice their experiences, on the PTA and at the conclusion of last week’s Vacation Church School and after my son’s class end-of-year celebration.
  • I believe in multiple entry points; I want to give everyone a way to say “yes”. So, okay, maybe this sometimes looks like persistence bordering on stalking, but, when someone says no to my first ask, I follow it up with another. A good friend of mine, Jake Lowen, who is also an awesome organizer, talks about jumping ahead to a huge ask and then dialing it back to something that seems, in comparison, modest, and I guess that’s what I do. I found a role for everyone in Vacation Church School, including the folks who initially told me no. Because I want people in the door.

    So none of this work is going to change the world, right? I mean, I hope that building a better community for my kids and for others’ kids plays some small role in making a better society, but it’s not like I’m organizing a revolution. But what approaching all of life like an organizer means for me (in addition to the fact that I couldn’t turn it off if I tried) is a chance to keep my skills sharp. I also truly believe that it exposes more people to the real possibilities within themselves, when they join with others. And, that, of course, is precisely where revolutions come from.

    I want to hear from you about how organizing spills into your “regular” life, and about how applying organizing skills in other contexts has made a difference for your work. And what are you facing that could benefit from some organizing energy?

  • This is how you do it: Building Movement survey

    My obsession with Building Movement has been well-documented.

    They’re nice about it and keep sending me emails about their efforts, which mostly revolve around encouraging and then documenting the really phenomenal activities of nonprofit social service organizations to integrate direct practice and advocacy, in a way that empowers their clients and energizes their staff.

    It’s really good stuff.

    The last piece of theirs that I’ve been combing through is called Catalysts for Change (I even love the title), and it presents the major findings from a survey of more than 450 nonprofits in California, about their efforts to transcend mere service provision to become a real force for social change around the issues presented by their clients, along with case studies of the organizations doing this best, to provide inspiration to the rest of us.

    They frame this work as helping clients become change agents and, indeed, recognize their inherent capacity to transform the systems that trap them, and I just kept nodding my head as I read. But not all of the report is good news–Building Movement discovered, not surprisingly, that nonprofits are, for the most part, missing opportunities to engage their clients in these revolutionary ways, for all kinds of predictable reasons about limited resources and limiting philosophies.

    Some of the lessons I took from these nonprofits’ experiences, and the efforts of Building Movement to catalog them:

  • Many more organizations are engaged in externally-focused advocacy (more than 80%) than in grassroots organizing and capacity-building within their own client base (fewer than 50%). Board members are likely to participate in advocacy, but quite unlikely to interface with clients on this work. This strikes me, in many ways, as odd: why are we more willing to stick our necks out and expend our own energies than get our own houses in order, so to speak, by fully equipping and utilizing the considerable power our clients represent? How can we expect institutions of power to include our clients’ perspectives if our own organizations haven’t fully embraced this? It makes me wonder about how we’re shaping social workers’ views of the world, and of those we serve, and how we can work from the inside out to turn our organizations into forces for change.
  • Smaller organizations are, perhaps predictably, less likely to incorporate advocacy into their work, but, given the number of nonprofit service providers with fewer than 25 staff, it quickly becomes clear that we cannot afford to relegate social change work to only the big players.
  • The challenging (to use their rather euphemistic term) economic context seems to be encouraging, not discouraging, advocacy activity: desperation breeds courage sometimes, apparently, and, here, organizations are reaching out beyond direct service work as an extension of their survival mechanism. Here, too, though, there are some real missed opportunities: only 25% provide clients with the opportunity to register to vote, and only 10% connect clients to elected officials’ forums, when making the case to these power brokers is clearly in organizations’ own direct financial interest, in addition to critical for advancing the issues on which they work.
  • The organizations highlighted in the case studies all have that rather indefinable organizational culture that supports advocacy, and the leaders of those institutions point to that as a core feature that supports their work. About two-thirds have explicit structures (strategic plans, mission statements) that call for and provide accountability for these social change activities, and these organizations out-perform their peers on engagement, including on the more elusive client-empowerment measures (at a level of statistical significance, even!). That makes it obvious that cultivating organizational support for both an internal and external social change orientation needs to be a focus of leadership efforts.
  • Unlike several years ago, direct service providers reflected a familiarity with the terms “civic engagement” and “social change”, even if we as a field still lack common definitions or a universal commitment to these ideals. Building Movement suggests, and I agree, that this points to a real opening to institutionalize these ideas in nonprofit management. This advocacy is perhaps best viewed as a continuum, too; while very few organizations are engaged in collective activism, relatively many are comfortable with direct contact with elected officials. There are certainly roles for organizations along this spectrum, and finding these niches starts with conversations.

    I’m going to highlight some of the case studies later this week, but I’m interested in your reactions to these findings, too. Does anything surprise you? How does knowing what this really looks like, rather than what we might guess, matter? What questions need to be answered as part of this project of “field transformation”? How do these findings dovetail, or contradict, what you experience in your own organization?