Thoughts on Organizing and Leadership
I can't be at Netroots Nation this year, and I find myself thinking about things decidedly not netroots. These thoughts are certainly not mutually exclusive, after all, here I am writing about them online. But today I am considering how my thinking in recent years has been deeply informed by the many wonderful essays I had the honor of compiling and editing into an an anthology a few years ago. The book helped to give focus to, and to surface some useful debates
publication. So I am not surprised when recent events, writings or conversations remind me of some of the valuable lessons I found in relating to some of the powerful essays in the book.
As I got into it, I realized that publishing the book was in itself an organizing project -- one that I think continues to have many implications for how to think about and respond to the Religious Right.
Questions about the nature of organizing and leadership have been on my mind lately.
My post about Religious Right figure Samuel Rodriguez is about the relationship between leadership and followership, and the kinds of questions that arise when there is an apparent disconnect. Does he actually have many followers, and if so, who exactly and how many are they? And in light of this, how then should we then view the nature of his leadership, as celebrated by himself and a fawning media and political class?
My post , based on a syndicated news article about how the progressive Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice is making changes in their approach to organizing in light of a changed and hostile political environment, goes to the heart of the matter for everyone concerned about the growing political power of the Religious Right and the meaning of its political agenda -- and not just prochoice religious progressives.
Today, I want to highlight a few quotes about organizing and leadership from Dispatches from the Religious Left: The Future of Faith and Politics in America.
Marshall Ganz, former Organizing Director, United Farm Workers:
"To find the courage, commitment, and hopefulness to face the challenges of our times, why would we turn to marketing mavens, management gurus, and niche strategists when our real sources of strength are in learning who we are, where we come from, and where we are going?
When I am for myself alone, what am I? The implication is powerful. When I think of myself, I lose my humanity. No longer a 'who,' I have become a 'what.' To be a 'self' is to be in relationship with 'others' ... To be in relationship is about justice, not charity. Relationship required recognition of the 'other' as 'self' created equally... unique and capable of choice. It is to do 'with' the other, not 'to' the other. Entering into 'relationship with' requires speaking and listening; exploring values; interests, and resources; discerning commonalities and differences; committing to a shared project. Understood in this way, relationship is demanding because it requires giving of ourselves, not only our goods. But this is also why it is so powerful."
Jean Hardisty, founder and president emerita, Political Research Associates and Deepak Bhargava, executive director, Center for Community Change
"Organizing is central to any effective strategy for revitalizing the progressive movement.
Organizing, not to be confused with mobilizing, is ultimately what changes people's minds. Whereas mobilizing is about moving people to take certain actions (voting, lobbying policy-makers, coming out to an event or calling your Congress member on an issue pre-selected by someone else), organizing is about developing the skills, confidence and practice among ordinary people to speak out in their own voice.
What ultimately forces change is human beings seeing fellow human beings act from a place of deep conviction. That moment of recognition can occur only when people who are living with an injustice bring their experience to the public square. Of course, solidarity efforts are crucial to social change. It's hard to imagine the farmworkers, or the civil rights workers in the South, succeeding if they had failed to rouse broader sympathy throughout the country. But they were able to do this only because they spoke with an authenticity that transcended walls of race and class prejudice. No policy paper or slick message will ever replace the power of organizing."
"Leading social movements requires learning to manage core tensions, tensions at the heart of what theologian Walter Brueggemann calls the 'prophetic imagination': a combination of criticality (experience of the world's pain), hope (experience of the world's possibility), while avoiding being numbed by despair or deluded by optimism. The deep desire for change must be coupled with the capacity to make change. Structures must be established that create the space within which growth, creativity, and action can flourish, without slipping into the chaos of structurelessness. Leaders must also be recruited, trained, and developed on a scale required to build the relationships, sustain the motivation, do the strategizing, and carry out the actions required to achieve success."
"Although we associate leaders with certain kinds of attributes (like power) , a more useful way to look at leadership is as a kind of relationship. Historian James McGregor Burns argues that leadership can be understood as a relationship that emerges from repeated 'exchanges' or 'transactions' between leaders and followers or constituents. Leaders can provide the resources constituents need to address their interests, while constituents can provide resources leaders need to address theirs.
What do we exchange in this kind of relationship? Constituents may get help solving a problem, a sense of empowerment, access to resources, etc. Leaders may get the same things-- and something else too, something that makes us willing to accept the responsibilities that go with leadership. Dr. King described this as the 'drum major instinct' -- a desire to be first, to be recognized, even to be praised. As much as we may not want to admit it, this might sound familiar. Rather than condemn it -- it is, after all, part of us -- Dr. King argued that it could be a good thing, depending on what we do to earn the recognition we seek.
Based on this view of leadership, then, who makes leaders? Can they be self-anointed? Can I decide one day that I am a leader? Or do I earn leadership by entering into a relationship with those who can make me a leader by entering into a relationship with me -- my constituents? There is one simple test. Do they have followers? Fine speeches, a wonderful appearance, lovely awards and excellent work aside -- no constituency, no leaders. You may not agree with this, but consider it."
"Many of us may not want to think of ourselves as followers. While leadership is highly praised, no one says anything about being a good constituent... or citizen. I argue that voluntary associations only work when people are willing to accept roles of leadership and followership. Leading and following are not expressions of who we "are" but of what we "do" in a specific meeting, committee, project, organization, or institution. We may play a leadership role with respect to one project, and a followership role with respect to another.
Another important distinction is that between leadership and domination. Effective leaders facilitate the interdependence or collaboration that can create more" power to" based on the interests of all parties. Domination is the exercise of 'power over' -- a relationship that meets the interests of the 'power wielder' at the expense of everyone else. Leadership can turn into domination if we fail to hold it accountable."