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.]


So go prove her wrong.

13 September 2008

I’m as proud as anyone of my work as an organizer. There is nothing more important than building power — the price of admission to a free society – among those who won’t otherwise have it.

But I think it’s a mistake for us to get defensive about what Sarah Palin said. The fact is that she’s not wrong. There are many community organizations that are sort of bullshitty, that are not deliberate, serious, and disciplined about the need to build power. Public officials like her don’t take organizing seriously because we haven’t made them.

Let’s answer her by all renewing our focus on building sustainable power. The power we build is what will hold her and others like her to account, not how loudly we whine about hurt feelings. No matter what she says, we’ve got actual responsibilities, and responding to her insults isn’t one of them. To work!

Screw “service.”

13 September 2008

I think the moment that I got my current job was the moment in my job interview when they asked me about my experience working with volunteers. I paused. “I’ll get to that in a second,” I said. “But I don’t believe that anyone’s a volunteer.”

What I meant by this is that everyone is drawn into organizing by their self-interests. What’s the difference between me and my leaders? Well, one of my self-interests is the money they pay me. That’s it, fundamentally. Other than that, we’re just at different places in terms of learning to build relationships and build power in order to secure greater degrees of justice and fairness in our community. There’s no secret organizer cabal keeping secrets from leaders. (If there is, you’re doing it wrong.)

So it grates a little to hear about Barack Obama’s “service.” I don’t know what that means. Yes, he gave up the opportunity for a high-paying job and went to work as an organizer. But that wasn’t a self-sacrificing move, that is, one contrary to his self-interests. It was a choice between competing self-interests, of the kind we all make every day.

I’m hungry but I don’t want to be late for this meeting. I have to choose. I can spend the next five minutes answering a call from my sister, or replying to an email from my dad. I have to choose. The power of one-on-ones, the power of an ever-more-clear-headed understanding of our own self-interests, is that we can make choices. That’s what grown-ups do.

My running list of relational vs. consumer culture words

2 September 2008

Part of what I ultimately want to build as an organizer is a relational culture. more than anything else, that’s what’s important to me about organizing — notwithstanding the seductions of consumer culture. Here, largely for my own reference, is my running consumer vs. relational comparison.

Relational / Consumer

Respect / Friendliness

Self-interest / Doing a favor

Negotiation / Request, Ask

Power Over / Power Among

Justice / Charity

Invest, Buy, Own / Give, Donate, Contribute

Strategy / Consensus

Do / Hope, Try, “Do Our Best,” “Make an Effort to”

Commitment / Goal

Accountability / Inclusiveness

Conversation / Interview, Announcement, Command, Reminder, Inform, Make Aware

Invite, Proposition / Publicize

Expectation / Gratitude

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.


17 January 2008

The chief glory of organizing is the one-on-one. It’s one of the main reasons I like this. I like the “soft arts of organizing,” even though the hard arts probably come more naturally.

Unfortunately, my one-on-ones have sucked lately. I mean, they haven’t flowed, and there must be all sort of obvious opportunities for the exploration of self-interest that I’m just not seeing. It’s never a good sign when you’re twenty minutes in and struggling for directions to go, and hurting for places to share something of yourself in the conversation, turning it into more of an interview and less of a real conversation (which is what I, my organization, and the world really need more of).

Over the summer, I had this down. I shoot for between 30 and 40 minutes for an initial one-on-one with a layperson, and I had them down to 35 minutes almost every time, and was getting everything I needed, building a relationship, and had time for a joke besides. Now they start to struggle after about 20 minutes.

I mainly just need to be doing more of them. I’m averaging under a dozen a week, and I’d like to average something closer to 15, and with the right people.

Relationship suffocation, anyone? Anyone?

8 January 2008

I’m new here, so imagine my feeling when I take my first look at the search-engine terms which have drawn people here in recent days and find this one: “suffocate a relationship.” What are you looking for, a how-to guide? It’s weird, and kind of creepy. Maybe it’s something about the word “suffocate.”

Yes, it may say something about me that that search brought them here, but for me it was a turn of phrase, not what I’m looking for. Who searches for that? (Not to judge or anything. Whoever you are, pull up a chair and stay for a while. Just don’t get too close, or, well, you know.)

Tactics: Be as funny as possible. Not that that’s saying much.

3 January 2008

Tactics, or, An academic exercise in what I would advise other people to do in order to get what they want.

Humor as a tactic has long served a particular purpose in public life. Is there anything as hard to deflect as a well-placed bit of satire? This is only one recent example. Look at the expression on Hillary Clinton’s face when she realized she’d set herself up for that one. This is something that late-night hosts are doing, declaring their solidarity with striking writers.

But for striking WGA writers, humor might also serve another purpose, which has less to do with making fools of production companies and instead, as a good tactic ought to, provides some strategic leverage toward beating them. To start with, here’s a passage from the great Saul Alinsky, from Rules for Radicals.

John L. Lewis, the leader of the C.I.O., told me that at the height of this sit-down strike [against Chevrolet] he heard a rumor that General Motors had met with both Ford and Chrystler, [saying, “If] the C.I.O. beats us, then you’re next in line and there will be no stopping them. Now we are willing to let the C.I.O. sit in at Chevrolet until hell freezes and suffer the loss in our profits if you will hold your production of [competing vehicles]. On the other hand, we can’s hold out against the C.I.O. if you boost production in order to sell to all the potential Chevrolet customers who will buy your products because they can’t get Chevrolets.

…It doesn’t matter whether this is a false rumor or true, [said Lewis], because neither Ford not Chrysler would ever overlook an opportunity for an immediate increase in their profits and power, shortsighted as it might be.

The internecine struggle among the Haves for their individual self-interest is as shortsighted as internecine struggle among the Have-Nots. …I could persuade a millionaire on a Friday to subsidize a revolution for Saturday out of which he would make a huge profit on Sunday even though he was certain to be executed on Monday.

So it was smart of the WGA to make a deal with Worldwide Pants, Inc., which makes the Late Show with David Letterman and Craig Ferguson’s program which follows. Functionally, this puts CBS at an advantage relative to the other networks, since those programs air on CBS’s affiliates. But it defeats the purpose of the tactic if Letterman and Fergusonbattl[e] for second place,” not wanting to be seen “profit[ing] from the walk-out.” If there’s no ratings advantage to be had by having union writers at work, why should production companies and networks make a deal?

With that in mind, here’s an idea for striking writers: You have all these funny, talented folks out on picket lines striking, right? Put all of them to work writing jokes for David Letterman and Craig Ferguson. Or at least all the funny ones. The rest of them, of whom there are many, can continue to picket. The idea here is to give Letterman a huge ratings advantage, to the point where NBC (the main late-night competitor) is forced to make a deal.

Why would that force them to make a deal? Because late night is the only profitable unit at NBC television right now. If it stops being profitable then it’s not even worth it for GE to own a television network. (In other social and political senses, of course, it’s worth owning. But companies, in the end, are responsible to shareholders who would just as soon lose unprofitable divisions, whatever their political or social importance.)

In a similar vein, the SAG, which is not crossing picket lines in solidarity with WGA strikers, should bring out every high-ratings big-name celebrity it can find, and give Letterman and Ferguson the biggest boost they can. The biggest music acts should do the same. If Leno, O’Brien, Stewart, and Colbert want their writers back, they should tell their viewers, on the air, to tune into Letterman and Ferguson instead. They should say it every night until they win the strike.

And everyone – the WGA, the SAG, and everyone else – should make a big, public deal of it. I don’t know if other contractual obligations prevent something like this from actually occurring. But it would sure put a lot of pressure on the other networks, by punishing those who don’t agree to the union’s terms, and by explicitly rewarding those who do.

(Disclaimer: This is not to say that I’m a gung-ho pro-WGA guy, though I do instinctively want to fall more on the union side than on the Big Bad Business side. The whole fun of speculating on tactics is independent of who’s side, if any, I’m on.)

An old poem

2 January 2008


There were two of us in the rain
at almost midnight and we had a dizzy-race
to a tree where I collapsed and she sat beside me
Leaned against me

There she kissed me—there I kissed her
with branches and needles and wet dirt and raindrops
Then we lay there for a minute tucked into
each other’s creases

Wintering in Washington

2 January 2008

I go back to Kentucky tomorrow. This trip home has been a qualified success. The problem this time has been that most of the people I’d hoped to see while at home are not around when I am. So there has been excessive down time – which I can have in Kentucky – and insufficient social time.

Emotionally, I invest a lot in the time I have at home, largely because I know so few people in Kentucky, where I’m still very new. There’s a proper balance in the ideal time with friends at home, between indulgent, idle hanging out, and having conversations that seem significant. I come home so seldom that it seems a shame to be here and not have those sorts of conversations that are best had in person. I also need to have a good balance of group activities and one-on-one time, and a bit of down time to regain my energy to really take full advantage of being around all the people here that I love. In practice it seldom works out that way.

But I’ve had a lovely Christmas and New Year’s, a couple of nice holiday parties, and lots of random errands and adventures with people from this house I squat in when I’m home. I eat very well here, and sleep late, and have an embarrassment of riches of churches that are mine, and not congregations I’m organizing.

And I did get at least one incisive and challenging conversation out of it. More on that later, perhaps.