Archive for the 'organizing theory' Category

Power, as they say, before policy

14 September 2008

Take a gander at this article, allegedly a defense of organizing, which I think has it wrong in a number of ways. Its thesis is that organizers and Sarah Palin have a lot in common, a conclusion likely to please neither party. Let me focus on this sentence in particular:

“I like organizers, if they sign on to the right causes.”

You have to admire his willingness to go out on a limb. But he’s by no means along in having an unfortunate tendency to focus on issue campaigns, and on the merits of a particular approach to a community problem, and which approach is the right one. Organizers are no more immune to this than anyone.

But of course no policy is objectively right. There are only choices, which we make on the basis of our values and our other self-interests. Experts in economics, in sociology, in science can tell us what the choices are, what the consequences are of a particular policy or procedure. The real trouble has always been figuring out which trade-offs we should make as a society – not whether approaches (do-nothingism among them) are imperfect (they all are), but how they are imperfect, and which imperfect projects we the people will undertake anyway.

Democracy is not measured by the universality of the franchise. It’s measured by how many people have a stake in that process of figuring-out. The price of admission to that process is power, so the power-building work of organizers is what really makes a deeply democratic society – whether you agree with the causes or not.

The Powers-That-Be have been choosing imperfect solutions for many hundreds of years – but the imperfections have been the imperfections that they want.

Organizing is about building power, not about the merits of a particular issue. And people who won’t otherwise have enough power to have a seat at the table getting that power is an unqualified good.

*[There’s also a tendency to focus on the tactical element, mainly because tactics are fun. Who doesn’t smile at the idea of a “shit-in” shutting down O’Hare, a la Rules for Radicals? But tactics are about what you do with your power. They’re not a substitute for it, especially over the longer term.]


Empowerment and entitlement.

8 March 2008

Like Scott Wells, I’d been reluctant to wade into the discussion about youth and young adult funding within the Unitarian Universalist Association, mainly because I care only slightly more about intradenominational politics than other people do. And most of you who read this aren’t Unitarian Universalists, anyway.

But this whole mess is a nice excuse for me to talk about organizing, which I love. Back to youth and young adults in a bit.

In organizing, we spend a lot of time talking about self-interest. Self-interest is distinct from selfishness (concern exclusively about the self) and selflessness (concern exclusively with others); a working definition might be “concern for the self in relation to others.” I have short-term self-interests: I’m hungry, so getting some food is in my self-interest. I have other, deeper self-interests: I want to have a family. I want to be respected. I want to be right with God.

The only way to relate honestly with other people is by finding common self-interests. Read that sentence again, and then again until you believe it.

A simple example: It’s in my self-interest to eat. It’s in the self-interest of the grocer to sell me food. So we come to an arrangement that satisfies both self-interests (namely, me buying food and paying for it) and then we’ve had an honest interaction. Viola! Our self-interests are different, but they come together in ways that are mutually satisfactory. The same is true of all honest interactions; they’re just more complicated or subtler. With me?

Now, power is just the ability to engage other people’s self-interest. The power that large groups of people have relative to elected officials is that officials have a self-interest in not ticking off people who vote for them. The power that my boss has relative to me depends (in part) on my self-interest in not being fired.

All of that stuff is in the first day of organizer training. So what does that have to do with Unitarian Universalist youth and young adults? If y/ya want to be “empowered” – which I can only assume means to be, well, powerful – they need to stop whining and find ways to engage the self-interest of the rest of the Association. Funding is being cut because y/ya “leaders” have not managed to engage the self-interest of the people who control the UUA.*

So what would a process leading toward real y/ya empowerment look like? Well, off the top of my head, it would involve introspection, one-on-ones, small group meetings, etc. — whatever was necessary to identify the individual and collective self-interests of UU Youth and Young Adults. It would, as Scott said, involve “creat[ing] institutions that create the desired goals.”

Then, with a clear understanding of what they want, they would meet with the key power people in the Association, and try to figure out how they could make what they want be in the self-interest of the power people in the denomination. They would need to be very clear in their own minds that denominational politics, like all politics, is about power. And political power is the ability to induce and/or engage the self-interest of whomever can give you what you want.


* This resolution uses the language of “investment” in y/ya programming, but doesn’t tell the rest of us what the dividends will be. It could be any number of things: Maybe the self-interest they engage is our desire for there to be strong UU institutions after we’re gone. Maybe it’s something else. But to be “empowering” for everyone involved, it will have to be negotiated out of our respective self-interests, not whined into existence.