Today I did a webinar for the London Campaigns Forum. The theme is ‘sharing’… but more accurately, the theme is ‘how can our organisations learn to operate more like the social movements we have seen springing up all around us?’
The talk is about 20 minutes, a bit long by internet standards, but would be keen to continue the debate on here, if people are interested.
…And the (much longer-seeming) text of it, for those who prefer to read
Sharing vs Distributing
Let’s talk about sharing… you know, that thing you do on the internet? With pictures of kittens and videos of kittens and stories about… kittens?
Oh, and actions to change the world! Those ones that other campaigners work very hard to ensure pop up in your Facebook or Twitter feeds at least a few times a day?
In which case, is this still sharing, or have we moved into the realms of distribution?
To distribute, as a verb, is a centralised, concerted effort to push something specific out to the masses, from a particular source, for a particular reason. Much as a distribution centre supplies many individual stores with a product to sell… Or as those stores go on to sell their customers those same products, within their locale.
Sharing, on the other hand, is a characteristic of networks – any number of people, acting independently, to connect any number of different things they value, with people they know who might also value them, no strings attached. Like you would lend a friend a book you’ve read, or tell them about an event you’re going to, because you think they’ll also enjoy it.
While often similar in effect at a certain scale, in that lots of people receive something – the ideas and motivations that underpin each of these actions are very different from one another. If our organisations want to share, there are a few more fundamental shifts they might have to make first.
When people share things, we derive some kind of immeasurable value from doing so. Knowing we’ve filled a gap, giving others the chance to experience something we’ve appreciated, or offered someone something new feels good. Others appreciate the effort we’ve made in doing so, everybody wins.
But is this what our organisations tend to do?
Maybe, maybe not.
‘Agendas’ and trust
Because organisations have ‘an agenda’ beyond ‘the share’.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. At some level the agenda is as simple as ‘create good in the world’, but as all of us who’ve spent any time in organisations know, there are a lot of secondary aims that we often end of placing before the ‘change the world’ stuff. Build the mailing list, converting donors in to activists, demonstrating value to funders, etc.
We have lots of reasons why we do these things, but that’s not really the point.
Hate speech, porn and credit card scams aside, the internet is built on trust.
Trust is built in a number of ways.
In an organisational sense, we associate it with terms like ‘brand loyalty’ and ‘credibility’, which are important in certain contexts, but the kind of trust that the internet is built on is something else.
It’s more like the trust that exists between friends that says: “I know you wouldn’t intentionally suggest I click a link to something you didn’t really believe that I, personally, should click.”
It’s the kind of trust that comes from believing the person offering you something has nothing to gain except the satisfaction of knowing that whatever they’re offering you has improved your life in some small way, even if that’s a matter of giving you an opportunity to do something good. There is definitely flexibility within this, in that those you call your friends can push this definition from time-to-time, without it ruining your friendship, but it’s definitely a fine balance to be struck.
And it is also a point where our organisations often run afoul of the internet, in the same way so many corporations do: people sense the bigger agenda, whatever it may be. It is not the ‘gifting culture’ that has been prevalent in most of our major religions and countless indigenous communities for millennia, and which has made a public resurgence via the social web in recent years.
For better or worse, our organisations have agendas; the strategies upon which we expect change will occur. So when we say we’re sharing, it doesn’t always feel that way to those on the receiving end.
But this isn’t an inevitability working for social change. In fact, we’re living at a time when the alternatives are all around us.
Organisations and movements
Lately I’ve been writing about the differences between organisations and movements, and why the things that help one thrive, are as likely to be anathema to the other. Two kinds of groups, working towards the same ultimate goals, but organised to do so in almost diametrically different ways.
Movements are self-directed – people joining-up around something that is immediately relevant to them, with of a feeling of shared purpose and the freedom to pursue that purpose in whatever ways they feel inspired to do so.
Alternatively, organisations are hierarchical – people following steps set out by a relative few, to achieve something that is (hopefully) in all of their best interests, on the time scales that the organisation decides.
And the types of environments that nurture each of these forms are rarely the same. At the most core level, organisations have always liked to be in control, whereas movements thrive on individual autonomy. These differences can be challenging ones to reconcile.
What can we be offering the broader movement?
And when it comes to a cause that you really care about, would you prefer to be told how you can contribute to it, or have only the limits of your own imagination to determine how you will be a part of something bigger than yourself?
While we can often offer a few cookie-cutter volunteer or ‘take action’ opportunities, we don’t currently have the organisational will to allow everyone access to everything they would need, to be completely free in how their support our issues.
…So if we can’t open our structures up enough to let people come to us, take what they need, and make something happen with it, we’re left with distributing an opportunity. ‘Here’s your opportunity, take it or… take it – it’s all we’ve got on offer!’
Whereas people can show up at an Occupy camp and run a workshop, cook some food, paint a banner or organise a march, if we shared that much control with the people surrounding our organisations, we’d probably fall apart. While it might be uncomfortable to think about it this way, the organisation is the membrane that keeps resources away from the movement and world beyond it.
How do our organisations currently compare?
Meanwhile, movements are increasingly providing both stronger democracy and accountability than our own social change organisations, and also remaining flexible enough to allow people to be a part of them, in whatever ways they chose to be.
Are we at risk of our organisations becoming the homes of those who ‘kinda, sorta care about the issues’, while the more active activists are primarily making their voices heard elsewhere?
…UK tax justice and cuts activists moving with the latest UKuncut action?
…Canadian civil liberties activists starting or joining a local Casserole (pots-and-pans) protest?
…Mexican students organising massive #YoSoy132 actions without student organisations or political parties involved, much like their British counterparts did over the EMA cuts in 2010?
While there have always been ultra-committed activists who’ve organised themselves outside of the big organisations related to their causes, more-and-more of us are able to be a part of something meaningful and collective, outside of organisations and without having to start something new from scratch. The barriers to entry for wide-ranging, independent activism have never been so low.
The activism long tail
Nearly a decade ago, Clay Shirky and Chris Anderson identified the ‘long tail phenomenon’; a concept at play in more-and-more successful businesses in the age of the social web, which describes the shift from generic to niche production and consumption.
Anderson looked at this phenomenon in relation to business models, with companies increasingly selling relatively small amounts of many different products, rather than massive amounts of a few, more generic ones.
Shirky applied the notion to activity in the blogosphere, noting that the vast majority of blog links were distributed across a vast array of blogs, as compared to the proportion that linked to the very most popular ones. Basically, while some blogs will always stand out above the others, the vast majority of blogging activity is actually taking place amongst niche communities, read by a relative few, but collectively comprising the vast majority of blogging action.
Occupy and countless other self-organising movements are creating an activism Long Tail as we speak.
While the relatively few campaigning actions we offer still have greater individual uptake than the self-organised campaign opportunities within non-hierarchical movements, the cumulative involvement of those self-created opportunities seem poised to account for the lion’s share of ‘stuff done for social and environmental causes.’
In other words, our handful of engagement options are the peak, while the infinite involvement possibilities of the grassroots movements are increasingly the long tail, where more-and-more is going on.
So where do we focus our organisational energies?
…If our organisations did become more focused on the less-active activists (at least, as they related to our particular cause), I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily a bad thing. I know I’m peripherally active with far more causes, than those I am very active on. I’ll sign a petition, occasionally write an email, very rarely go to an event or action…. But I’m still glad to be a part of them, even if I’m not currently willing to put huge amounts of effort into each of them at the moment.
Those voices – which would otherwise remain quietly isolated – can and should be amplified and respected as a part of our broader push for social change. The cumulative value of sheer numbers is still a political force to be reckoned with on almost any issue.
This route would allow us to essentially keep doing more of what we’re doing; to tweak, to amend, but to broadly stick with the approaches we developed when media was a one-way broadcast channel.
But it’s not our only possible path.
As best I can tell, our organisations have a few combinations of three main paths they can choose to walk, when it comes to campaigning in the 21st Century:
1) ‘Clicktivism’ and its offline variants – enabling and consolidating the voices of those who ‘kinda care’ about what we do and would be unlikely to engage with the issue proactively without these kinds of specific in-roads.
2) Network support for the stuff that people are doing on their own; linking and connecting wherever relevant activism is taking place, and offering specific, relevant organisational resources, contacts and information to help people organise themselves, even if they are doing so in ways we can’t quite get away with.
3) Opening-up shop for people to do whatever they choose for ‘the cause’. Confronting our fear of loss of control, what if we swung open the gates and made our primary work welcoming committed activists through our literal and online doors, helping them make themselves at home, and giving them the run of the yard to make change happen, but with our resources?
The last choice is clearly the most radical and would involve the most fundamental changes; charity status, boards of directors, staffing, would all need to be re-imagined. But to put it into context, it’s not that different to some of the reimagining that has been and is being required of newspapers, record labels, and ad firms as of late, as the internet increasingly cuts out the need for a middleman.
An organisation without walls…
…So humour me for a minute and imagine that the metaphorical walls of your organisations were torn to the ground. You can keep your jobs, but they’re about to get pretty different.
For one, there might be a whole lot of new people there. They might be using desks, holding meetings, building campaign props, working on unrelated projects which have a loose connection to your organisation’s campaigns. But they are as welcome there as you are – from the scruffy hippies, to the business people, they are all parts of the movement that your organisation is lucky enough to call home. There will still need to be collective efforts made to reach out to those who wouldn’t naturally walk in through an open door, but an open door would be a positive step to widening the demographics of those involved in our work.
For two, those people might be able to make proposals on how money is spent. Perhaps there’s a democratic forum where a range of activists make these kinds of decisions? Participatory budgeting is working for local governments around the world, why not for us? The resources are for the cause, and ‘movements’ don’t have strategic direction to worry about, in the same way our organisation used to. They pay attention to what’s going on around them and continually respond, based on the circumstances.
For three, the organisational logo, brand, and name might become open-source, available to anyone who cares enough about the cause to want to use them. ‘X’ org might start popping-up in all kinds of places it never used to, but you can always just defer to whoever was responsible for what was put out there, if people’s actions for your cause should come back to haunt you… Plus, activists usually do things for the right reasons; if we don’t have this much trust in how people would use our brand, we might have deeper problems to address. But that’s the stuff for another talk altogether…
Now these are just a few random examples of what might change. If we open-up what we’ve got and trust people who care enough about our issues to get constructively involved, I suspect they will do the kinds of amazing things we’ve seen them doing with the social movements beyond our walls.
This is sharing: opening our doors and saying ‘we trust you enough to take what you need’.
If that was that a bit much…
The second option is considerably less out-there, but would still involve a fair bit of re-thinking and re-prioritising. While some of our organisations have tried to position ourselves as ‘hubs’ – i.e. – right in the middle of networked activism – we might be better-off if we went for the more realistic role of ‘cross-pollinators’. What if we re-envisaged ourselves as the people who helped connect activists and moved resources, information, and maybe even funding around a network, as it was needed at a particular moment?
We would stop issuing press releases, stop speaking to the media, stop building the capacity of activists, and start buzzing around our movements, sharing a bit of value from A) and a bit of value from B), with C), or putting out a call whenever a request came our way, to allow others to step up and have their voices heard. We would make every effort to slip into the background and help ensure other people were front and centre, other actions amplified and other campaigners connected directly with one-another. We wouldn’t feel responsible for every little thing that happened in the organisation’s name, any more than we would feel responsible for everything that happens in the name of our cause, more widely, today.
Outsourcing radicalism: Is this a possible stepping stone?
Now, as I’ve been preparing this talk, an interesting action appeared on my radar from London – you might have seen it.
Move Your Money – a campaign encouraging customers to close their accounts with the high street banks and transfer their funds to somewhere more ethical – shut down a Westminster Barclays, as Bob Diamond, the bank’s disgraced and recently ex-CEO was speaking to a Treasury Select Committee about his banks interest rate fixing practices.
Now in a period of occupations and encampments around London, this isn’t that noteworthy… except when you look at the people – or more notably – the organisations, that back Move Your Money.
…The Co-operative Bank, NUS, the New Economics Foundation, among others. All good, established organisations, but not the kind you’d expect to associate with non-violent direct action!
Knowing people personally within each of those organisations, at one level, I’m not totally surprised. But knowing a bit more about each of the organisations themselves, I’m stunned to find their names even hidden in the background of this MYM action.
But maybe they are opening up another possibility? An in-between step from the top-down organisations of the past, to the looser networks of the future?
By part-funding a separate company, are they relieving some of the fears of their own funders or stakeholders, freeing them up to use organisational resources for something they couldn’t do on their own, or with their logos plastered all over?
I’m not sure, but it seems to me that there is an experiment going on to see how these organisations can adopt both some of the radicalism and more of the networked self-organisation that have been a part of the kinds of campaign successes that are coming from outside of our organisations more-and-more regularly.
Getting past the risks
I’m sure we could talk all day about the risks associated with these new approaches; all the potential media faux pas, the attempts to explain things to funders, the very real possibility that we couldn’t control how our cause was advanced… but my feeling is we could spend even longer addressing that which is at risk if we don’t start to shift how we work in some pretty major ways. Namely, the risks of stagnation, and even potentially irrelevance.
Sharing is one sign of the ways our world is changing, but broadly speaking, our organisations are not.
What can you open-up to offer the widest range of opportunities possible for campaigners to take action for your cause? In geek-speak, what is the ‘source-code’ of your campaign, and what would happen if you made it public, like so much of the open and free software communities have been doing since the 80s, and which offers some very different models of how we relate to our work?
If we want to keep distributing things, I’m sure there will continue to be a role there, but if we want to really share what we do, let’s start to find the parts of our respective organisations we can open-up to make it possible.
Thank you for all your time – for putting up with me talking this much, and for the conversation that I’m sure we’re about to have.
Also big thanks to a few people who helped me out a lot while I was preparing this talk – Paul Barasi, Veena Vasista, David Pinto and Adam Ramsay.
If we don’t all get a chance to say hello now, I hope we can connect on the internet later!
Imagine a bank, a national student charity, and a think tank shutting down an evil corporate office with some cleverly planned people-power?
…Not easy, is it? You can imagine all the things that might get in the way of such an event taking place…
The importance of non-violence direct action in 2012
MYM Barclays action, photo by @MissEllieMae
As our world gets both more heavily interconnected and the excesses of capitalist inequality become impossible for most of us to ignore, non-violent direct action is becoming a more-and-more central piece of social change efforts.
Yet, most NGOs – with the notable exceptions of Greenpeace and a few much smaller radicals – are still scared to death of doing anything that might cross any polite lines of acceptability, for fear of what it might mean for their public image, their charitable status, or their funding arrangements.
In recent years, much of the debate has involved organisations ignoring protesters, and protesters accusing organisations of selling-out.
But today I came across an interesting hybrid.
Following the massive public debate shifts in the UK and abroad that have arisen from Occupy, UKuncut and other self-organised non-violent direct action movements, it appears some of the ‘very serious people’ have picked-up on the value this breed of peaceful protest can offer their causes.
As much of what I write relates to helping organisation find ‘more like people’ ways of organising – approaches that allow us to ‘do what we would do if we weren’t being paid by someone else to do it’ – this is pretty interesting to me.
Move Your Money (a company limited by guarantee, for the record) is made up of some fairly straight-laced UK progressive organisations. The Co-operative Group, London Rebuilding Society, the National Union of Students, New Economics Foundation… Groups that do good, but which are not exactly known for doing so with especially ‘in-your-face’ tactics.
The campaign aims to get UK bank clients to close their accounts with the range of tax avoiding, arms-financing, interest-rate fixing, obscene-bonus-giving financial institutions in the country, and put their cash somewhere where it can be doing good, rather than evil.
MYM has been going as a partnership for a little while now, but has clearly decided to do something different to the work of any of its member organisations, who I presume play some role in both its finances and strategic direction.
This morning, MYM organised a flashmob at Barclays bank in Westminster, to coincide with its (now former) CEO, Bob Diamond’s testimony to the Treasury Select Committee over the bank’s LIBOR scandal.
And guess what?
They shut it down!
Obviously this is small fries in the scheme of the kind of business this scale of institution does, but given the ripple-effects of other ‘one-off’ sit-ins and shut-downs of the last year, it demonstrates a very bold move, given the partners involved.
I’ve spoken with countless frustrated staff in national social change organisations in recent years, wishing their organisations could do more to engage with both the radicalism of emerging social movements, and the networked organisation they have modelled, but who have had their hands tied in any attempts to do so in their work.
For all of you out there, this might be an example which can both open new possible ways of organising around your cause, while keeping the existing powers-that-be at ease that they won’t be seen as the ‘domestic terrorists’ Greenpeace and Occupy activists have often been made out to be in the press.
Let’s call it ‘TRADicalism’: a way of carrying out and inspiring radical actions, using some of our traditional organisational resources and experiences, without smearing the organisation’s name in the process. It’s about letting the old structures of antiquated charitable status and funding guidelines keep doing what they do, but finding new ways around them when we feel it is needed to advance our causes (and ultimately, our organisational missions!).
I won’t pretend I have investigated all of the ins-and-outs of the law on this one, but if you’ve got the institutions involved in MYM confident enough to have their names in the background of something like a peaceful sit-in to shut-down a corrupt bank, you’re in pretty safe company!
Do you know other examples of this kind of ‘arms-length’ radicalism, from more traditional social change organisations?
Do you think there is any potential here?
How long do you think we’ve got til the powers-that-be patch up the loopholes in their legal frameworks, which could allow this kind of thing to happen?
I did a presentation at the eCampaigners Forum in Oxford last week called “’human’ is the new ‘professional’”. Despite being the 1st victim of a clown-style horn telling me my 7 minute slot was up, the core notion that ‘professionalism’ prevents our organisations from connecting with the people involved in our causes, seemed to go down pretty well. Yet when we got to discussing the ideas in practice, there was a major push back to the more traditional approach…
Meeting agendas at the pub
I started with this: “imagine you’re at the pub and a mate pulls out agendas for everyone and says ‘we’ve got 10 minutes to debate yesterday’s footie, 20 minutes for Jim to complain about his family, and 15 minutes to talk about the recession… by the way, who’s going to be minuting this?’”
This was my metaphor for most voluntary organisations’ use of social media; applying the conventions of one space, to the structures of another. Like calling someone and reading them a press release over the phone, it just doesn’t make sense to treat social media as a formal broadcast channel and doing so undermines the impact we can get from it for our respective causes.
I recently decided that social media is (should be?) like the ‘smoke breaks’ of organisational communications. It’s informal, it has a power-levelling impact on those involved, regardless of job title, it is where critical ideas are often exchanged, but is rarely recognised for the important role it plays in decision-making processes or in information distribution/collection.
That one got a solid laugh.
After the talk…
But when we moved from the formal presentations, to an Open Space session on ‘Organisational social media policy’, it felt like my ideas, while good for a laugh, had been quickly thrown away. A few bad experiences, a lot of self-censorship, some fundamental mistrust of staff and a few very legitimate arguments (I felt) around safety of individuals being Tweeted/blogged about, took the conversation back towards the traditionally slow-moving, autocratic, top-down means of communicating that organisations have always used for older media channels.
The natural extension, in my opinion, would be another 30 page document that would take months to produce, get properly read by no one, and create a ‘chill’ amongst staff who choose to err on the side of caution to avoid saying or doing anything online that might not fall within the policy they haven’t read. Ultimately, it is the ‘safe’ approach to social media that looks most ‘unprofessional’, as it demonstrates a lack of understanding of the format in which it has engaged.
Having been discussing these issues with people in organisation’s for a little while now, it was not totally surprising to hear many of the concerns people raised at the ECF last week. But I wanted to provide a bit of an alternative story, some of which people brought up in the discussion, others which weren’t really touched on.
“We don’t want people’s personal lives to be confused with their organisational lives.”
My response: When it comes to a cause, whether cancer research, climate justice, human rights or animal welfare, almost everyone thinks of that cause as something personal to them. It’s only this tiny percentage of us who actually get paid to be active, that think of campaigns as ‘professional’ activities. And even amongst those of us ‘professional’ campaigners, we hopefully do our jobs in large part because we are passionate about our issues. If we are, but are not able to share that passion (as it might mean calling a cabinet minister a bastard from their Twitter account, for example) our organisations are losing a huge part of why they hired us, and what we have to offer the cause. And further, if our organisations want to take advantage of that passion, it can’t be boxed in with ‘acceptable types and levels of public passion’ guidelines – because that’s not how passion works. There is a level of risk acceptance needed here on the part of organisations. My inclination is that allowing your staff the freedom to be as expressive as they want to be online, will lead to much greater gains for your cause, than some occasional moments of public embarrassment will cost it.
“If we can’t control it, how can we make sure it is on-message’?”
My response: In short, you can’t. But even if you did control social media messaging from the top, people would still make mistakes and contradictory statements would still sometimes get published. So instead of asking ‘how can we control it’, why not shift the frame to ‘how can we get the most from it?’ and encourage anyone with the desire to take on Tweeting, blogging, video making, if they have the inclination to do so? After all, we are hired for a reason, and if we are worth the pay, surely we should be trusted to speak out about things we care about? I think it was Jamie Wooley from Greenpeace that brought up the big underlying tension here, by asking the group what they want a social media policy to achieve; is it a matter of controlling messages (and as a result, staff and volunteers), or is it about harnessing the potential power of all stakeholders to increase the impact of your campaigns and awareness of your issues? I have heard many a geeky rumour that Google’s staff social media policy is simply ‘be smart’, which seems to capture the essential balance of freedom and responsibility that is key to any public platform. I see little need to make it more complicated than that, as long as your staff are aware of the specific public information risks related to your work (say, revealing a dissident journalist’s location in a hostile country).
“But what if [insert hypothetical PR disaster here]”
My response: Then handle it as you would any other PR disaster; apologise, explain, move focus back to your cause, etc… I’d argue that the news story of an erroneous Tweet from a household-name NGO is probably not a story that will hold the spotlight for long. The much bigger PR disasters (the ones that lead to cancelled Direct Debits and angry blogs from former supporters, etc) are the ones where the organisation has undermined its own values. An open social media policy, in which more people are empowered to act for the issues they care about, is not remotely in the same league as say, undermining employees’ rights, paying private sector-scale wages to top brass, or being sponsored by companies that sell guns or tobacco. Just to put the hypothetical situation into perspective for a moment…
Some questions to follow-up with…
When the horn pushed me through my final slides a little faster than planned, I had a few questions I’ve been using as a ‘guiding principles’ in the process of ‘helping organisations to be more like people’ that got rushed through.
How human is your organisation?
1. Practices two-way, conversational communications, inside and outside its walls?
2. Supports autonomous leadership to emerge from all levels?
3. Encourages broad, open, equal involvement in organisational decisions?
4. Trust staff to take risks and try new ways of campaigning (without fear of reprisal)?
So what do you think? Is this a bunch of hippie faff, or are these questions our organisations need to be asking more seriously when we engage in the online world?
This blog is a partial departure from the norm here. It’s a response to a period of change in the UK that I saw play-out once before in Canada and feel needs to be fundamentally challenged, having seen its devastating social consequences there. More immediately, this is a follow-on from Lisa Ansell’s blog on the Big Society, and the importance of grounding our resistance in the immediate needs of those hit hardest by the social injustices of the current government’s cuts. It’s an attempt to make our resistance to injustice ‘more like people’.
Black Panther Emory Douglas' 'Paperboy'
The Black Panther Party doesn’t get mentioned much by most people I work with. Maybe it’s because I’m based in the UK? Maybe because the staff at larger voluntary organisations are disproportionately white? Maybe it’s because there’s been a long-term effort to distance ourselves, as a sector, from radical politics?
I don’t doubt that the answer is some combination of these things and more I haven’t mentioned. Without delving into the motivations too deeply, I think the Panthers provide an example that requires revisiting in light of the ‘Big Society’, the cuts, and most importantly, the notion of community organising that has been held-up by David Cameron and Company since before last years’ election.
This blog is partly a response to Lisa Ansell’s excellent post on ‘using the Big Society to fight the cuts’ – a pragmatic look at opposing the current government’s agenda, and the impacts it will have on peoples’ lives. I think the Panthers’ offer some key learning in this area, while they are often unknown or dismissed by the voluntary sector for their Maoist leanings or their advocacy of armed self-defence.
Without delving into these debates either, the Black Panthers succeeded (for a time, at least) in combining active campaigning and critical DIY service provision, as Lisa (rightly) suggests we need to, if we want to build a truly broad-based movement that includes and is led by those most impacted by the current ‘austerity measures’.
A challenge for the ‘left’ and the ‘centre’
This is a challenge to both the activist ‘left’ and the voluntary sector ‘centre’, acknowledging the need to step in and create alternatives to the state when it fails to provide for basic human needs, AND for the fundamental importance of actively challenging (by, as Malcolm X stated, ‘any means necessary’) those shortcomings. On a philosophical level, these ideas can seem in contradiction, but in the lives of people who are seeing critical lifelines disappear, both approaches are essential.
This was something Huey P. Newton and the Panthers understood. Like other movements that have emerged organically from the communities they supported, the Panthers knew that in order to get their political platform taken seriously in poor, black neighbourhoods, they needed to demonstrate how it related to peoples’ immediate needs, as well as their bigger picture aspirations and values.
They started ‘Breakfast for schools’ programmes in schools, they defended people against police brutality, they assisted the elderly to get to the shops and to medical appointments, providing those appointments themselves when people had no insurance to cover them… but through all of these efforts, the Panthers maintained that what they were doing was a stop-gap to pave the path for a more just world in which their services wouldn’t be required because they would be guaranteed rights for all. The government could never pretend that what the Panthers were providing was a justification for their own lack of provision; quite the opposite! They tried to ignore, discredit and otherwise undermine it, realising that the challenge presented by the group was far more fundamental to their power than the challenges of much of the mainstream organised left.
Black Panthers as a model voluntary organisation?
The Black Panthers were a model voluntary organisation, in the sense that they provided leadership, opportunities and infrastructure for people to support their local community’s core needs. But in doing so, they never pretended their makeshift provision could be the whole solution, within a country that systemically marginalised minority communities from coast-to-coast.
This combination of services and activism created a deep credibility throughout the United States.
The Panthers were not intellectuals presenting ideas for bigger picture change without obvious benefit to those hit hardest by inequality. Simultaneously, they weren’t offering piecemeal or plaster solutions to vast social ills, as so many charities had in those same communities. Instead, the Panthers offered people the opportunity to become active players in their own liberation – whether through the creation of immediate services, or the organised resistance to their state-imposed oppression.
Saul Alinsky's 'Rules for Radicals'
The Panthers’ approach was closely mirrored by the community organising of Saul Alinsky in Chicago (albeit, without the guns and non-racially specific), which Barack Obama was trained in the methods of, and is (in name, at least) behind parts of the Big Society agenda. The government seemed to have missed the analysis that I (and many others) have pulled from this period of history…
What this means for charities and activists?
So while the protests of tens-of-thousands of students facing the loss of their education prospects provide an inspiring example and clear demonstration of public opinion, it is not the entire solution.
Alternatively, most of the health or literacy services cobbled together by voluntary organisations on increasingly ragged shoestring budgets are important, but also incomplete in weaving an inclusive, believable and holistic narrative of positive social change for those at the wrong end of the current cuts.
‘More Like People’
I usually talk about the ‘More Like People’ idea in relation to institutional voluntary organisations. In this case I feel it also applies to the ad hoc activist groups that can be equally alienating to people impacted directly by losses more fundamental than say, libraries and forests (not to discredit the public movements around each of these important issues, but only to put them into perspective).
How can we – those of us concerned with equality in the face of a drastically clawed-back state – create the conditions for greater social justice? I think we can blur the lines – stop retreading the Blairite notion that services and campaigns should be inherently separate from one another. Stop trying to hold a philosophical high ground by refusing to step in where the state is clearly failing.
Whether or not the government’s model of community organising recognises the factors critical to its pioneers’ successes in the ‘60s and ‘70s, its lessons are not ones we can afford to ignore in 2011…
*I originally wrote this piece for FairSay.com in March 2010*
Though people have managed to self-organise throughout human history, we are at a moment where the fusion of this self-organisation, with ever-expanding social technology, is creating spaces that no longer require the type of ‘leadership’ we’ve become so used to… So what does this mean for traditional campaigning organisations? _____________
Image courtesy of Steve Lawson
Do we live in a leaderless world? Obviously not – we don’t have to look far to see how the decisions of bosses and politicians shape much of our everyday lives. Are there places in our world that exist outside of a top-down form of leadership? Yes – people collectively-organise, often to great effect, in many realms of life. And though this has been the case for all of human history – whether in church groups or terror networks – we are at a moment where the fusion of this kind of self-organisation, with ever-expanding social technology, is creating spaces that no longer require the type of ‘leadership’ we’ve become so used to.
For those of you already immersed in this world, the modern-legend that is Trafigura – the story of the PR firm that won an injunction against the reporting of Parliamentary proceedings involving its client, and then had it over-turned by a leak and a spontaneous, 12-hour online uprising in the ‘Twittersphere’ – is likely a familiar one by now. What the Trafigura ‘campaign’ represents though, is more than a ‘good over evil’, or ‘David and Goliath’ kind of victory – it represents a fundamentally different way of achieving social change, than that which most of our organisations will have had any previous experience being a part of.
What’s different about Trafigura?
What’s different about Trafigura, is the absence of a ‘head’; a lead body – usually an organisation, but at least a charismatic individual – who can determine, broadly, the direction through which a likeminded group can move to achieve its aims. The only ‘leader’ of this campaign, was the idea that people have a right to know what happens in Parliament, regardless of the reputational effects that may have on the people or groups involved. And that was it – this idea exploded and very quickly became a trending topic on Twitter, feeding into a range of major blogs, mainstream news stories and, within half-a-day, the repeal of the gag order itself – a campaign victory by any traditional measure. But no single person or group could honestly claim the victory, because what happened was bigger than any of the individual parts.
What does this mean for us?
So what does all this mean for traditional campaigning organisations? Potentially, a lot, though it is still ‘early days’. We can no longer assume that our knowledge, history of voice, or positioning will place us at the centre of mass collective sentiment around our issues or areas of work. On some level, the ‘need’ for a central organising body in a campaign seems – at least superficially – to be less relevant that it has ever been. As so many people can achieve critical mass, without being told to attend a particular event, or sign up to an organisation’s platform, the potential for self-organisation is vast, and can, at times, outweigh the benefits of subscribing to an organisation’s campaign actions. As institutions, it is impossible for us to move as quickly as individuals can, in response to an event or a piece of news. With the connecting power of social media, vast numbers of individual people are able to move very quickly, in roughly the same direction, without a helmsperson to steer the ship.
So are we, as campaigning organisations, on the verge of forced redundancy, in light of this shift towards decentralisation? No… or at least not necessarily.
If, in the coming months and years we are able to adapt to this changing terrain, and accept, that we won’t always be able to ‘lead’ every campaign we want to take on, I think we will find our roles to be ever-more important, as e-campaigning becomes part of more and more peoples’ social media routine. Alternatively, if we cling to the more traditional, command-and-control mechanisms of brand consistency and uniform messaging, people may very well find other ways of getting themselves heard on the issues they care about, that are less-restricting to their personal schedules or ideas of activism.
Practically speaking though, what would campaigning look like in this new environment? The ever-allusive answer is that it could look like a lot of different things, which is another reason it may be harder for some organisations to adapt effectively. It’s much harder to plan for a campaign when you:
don’t know when it might happen
don’t know exactly what it’s going to be about, and
don’t know what contribution you might be making to it.
What to do about it
But luckily we’re not flying totally blind here and there are still things we can do to prepare! The key is in flexibility; if a Trafigura-esque (spontaneous, leaderless) ‘campaign’ emerges within your area of expertise:
Make sure you’ve already got the relevant information available online – reports, stories, interviews – so you can start to link to it and share it around, as soon as the topic appears to be taking off. If people are linking to your information repeatedly, it builds a collective sense of trust that your messages carry some authority in the given area. Trust will make your next steps that much easier.
Figure out who the others are who seem to have some authority on the issues. This may cut against some organisations’ instincts, but promote what they are saying and doing as well, whether via Twitter, a blog, your website, or a Facebook page. Reciprocity is an important tenet of social media culture, and will inevitably benefit your both work and your cause, if you can demonstrate that you’re involvement is bigger than just your organisation.
Lastly, (and maybe most importantly) be prepared to offer whatever makes sense to those in the ‘campaign’ who are most active and vocal. Maybe this means providing a meeting space for activists looking to move their online actions into ‘real world’; maybe this means making an introduction to a relevant politician whom you’ve already built a relationship with; maybe this means setting-up a one-off campaign action for supporters to engage with… your potential types of contributions in such a situation could be endless, but your potential returns could be greater than those of many of our most successful traditional campaigns.
The potential for unprecedented numbers of people to come together to affect change has never been greater; let’s make sure that, though we might not be in the middle of it all, at least we can find ourselves a place where it counts…