You don’t try to fight the man by becoming the man

“The trouble with organizing a thing is that pretty soon folks get to paying more attention to the organization than to what they’re organized for.”

– Laura Ingalls Wilder

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Organizing to create change doesn’t require creating your own little officialdom. It is too easy to lose your sense of purpose when you’re concentrating a great deal of energy on organizational charts and chains of command.

Big picture, strategy meetings don’t require pure democracy. Having every allied person vote on every little question that emerges, creates a hole that you may never climb out of. The average person committed to your cause is not a professional meeting-goer. When they do meet, they have an expectation that the next step is going to be actions that move you closer to your goal, not just closer to the next meeting.

If you are so rigidly organized that your main concern becomes creating a single group with an identical message, and speaking in one voice, then you’ll lose the creativity and the unique approaches that come from diversity. Your one voice can not tell the stories that will resonate with all people. Embrace the value of others’ experiences and wisdom.

People feel less free to discover and use their own power if they always feel like they need permission. One of the most powerful things you can do is to help people understand that they don’t need permission to do the right thing.

You don’t try to fight ‘the man’ by becoming ‘the man.’ Give up ideas of authority, and you’ll actually find more power.

One-to-One Relational Meetings

“The art of conversation is the art of hearing as well as of being heard.”
– William Hazlitt

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If you want to organize people to create change, few things are more important as one-to-one relational meetings. One-to-ones are at the heart of community organizing. They are also at the heart of leadership.

These conversations are not about converting the person, or running through a list of intrusive, personal questions. One-to-ones are about establishing a professional relationship with someone, and sharing stories as a way to understand their personal interests, motivations, and how your common interests and values might engage them to act in support of the change you are both interested in trying to create. This mix of personal, sometimes intimate knowledge leading to public, professional action holds unique value.

If I ask you to tell me a piece of your life story as part of one of these conversations, my goal is not personal friendship (though that could always happen as a result of professional familiarity). The intended outcomes of one-to-ones are:

  • to form a basic relationships across a community (community of place, or community of interest);
  • to understand common self-interests as well as a person’s passions;
  • To understand not only what they believe, or want, but why they hold those beliefs and desires;
  • and to gain insight on how that person’s unique talents and insights might be leveraged to support your common goals.

Conversation logistics and strategies

Email, or ideally phone the person you want to talk to. Introduce yourself. Explain what you are doing and how their name came up as someone you would want to speak with. Ask them for 30-45 minutes of their time. Make it clear that you are not selling anything, and that you are interested in their thoughts and ideas. Do as much homework as you can to understand what you think their interests may be — like you might if you were going to a job interview.

Arrive on time. Enter having thought about the questions you want to ask, but do not arrive with a pen and paper in hand. This isn’t a survey. You can make notes after you leave. There is no script. Listen closely. Keep the conversation relaxed. Let the other person’s interests guide your inquiry. They should do more talking than you.

Ask the person about their interest in your issue of concern. Listen for indicators of how the issue is personal to them. When they express concerns that they you also share, ask them to explain their views further, then try to build on those shared values.

As you near the end of your conversation ask about their interest in committing to a specific action. Don’t be too pushy. If they can’t commit to anything immediately, find a way to keep the door open for further exploration at a later time. If they can commit to some action, ask them how you can be of assistance. Follow up later and thank them for their commitment.

If the conversation is moving in the direction that you had hoped it would, here are some examples of the type of questions you might want to ask:

  • Have you been involved in this issue? If so, how?
  • Are there things related to this issue that you wish you knew more about?
  • What in your mind is an ideal outcome on this issue.
  • In what ways do you think you could best contribute to the effort?
  • Can you recommend anyone else I should talk to?

There are numerous resources online related to engaging in one-to-one conversations. Here are a few.

Revealing the Invisible

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“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”

– Ralph Ellison

When it comes to people being invisible, there are a couple of types of invisibility to consider. Both kinds represent significant challenges in the process of trying to effect social change.

First, there are people, or groups of people that are deliberately unrecognized.  They often have few financial resources, are generally of poorer health, have less social capital, and are often considered by much more privileged people, as being less important.

The second group of “invisible” people, or groups of people are deliberately hidden. These are people of wealth and influence, whose activities allow them to rig social and political systems under the radar of most people.

The deliberately unrecognized, the unheard, and the unseen, are often at the heart of changes we are trying to create. It is important to amplify their voices, and to shed light on their realities. Awareness, education, and advocacy are key strategic goals. For example, if your city doesn’t have homeless people on street corners, and in parks, officials may deny that homelessness is something they need to be concerned about. Only by hearing the stories of people who are couch hopping, sleeping under bridges, or in cars, can you reveal the true extent of your community’s lack of affordable housing.

It is important to understand that the “invisible” are not simply needy, or victims. Giving voice to the invisible serves to uncover potential strategic approaches and assets. They are the people who often know the best solutions to overcoming the challenges that they face. Any social change effort should seek to leverage people at the margins; not as sad examples, but as full partners in planning the future.

“The government, which was designed for the people, has got into the hands of the bosses and their employers, the special interests. An invisible empire has been set up above the forms of democracy.”

– Woodrow Wilson

Revealing the invisible may not only expose unfairness and inequality, but it can also uncover something on the other end of the privilege spectrum – the so-called, power behind the throne that is working in opposition to your goals. This influence is usually purchased with large amounts of money.

These influencers are usually very careful to not actually break any laws, despite the fact that their actions may be ethically abhorrent. You may never come close to matching their financial clout, but exposing their role can, however, be beneficial. This is because the money trail points to real self-interests, as opposed to those being touted in your opposition’s misleading rhetoric. In some cases, it may be possible to boycott the source of the influencer’s income, or at least send some bad publicity their way.

Ultimately, it will probably be more effective to spend more time on revealing the realities of the deliberately unrecognized, than on exposing the deliberately hidden. That is where there is more untapped power; and it is the kind of power that money can’t buy.

Leadership and the Dunning–Kruger Effect

“Useful men, who do useful things, don’t mind being treated as useless. But the useless always judge themselves as being important and hide all their incompetence behind authority.” – Paulo Coelho

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In 1999, a couple of psychologists from Cornell University, named Kruger and Dunning, published some research findings* which essentially said that there is a tendency for unskilled individuals to overestimate their own ability, and a tendency for experts to underestimate their own ability. This incorrect self-assessment of competence became known as the Dunning–Kruger Effect. When organizing to effect change, this tendency creates unique challenges.

Over-Estimators

If someone has assumed a leadership role, the failure to recognize their own lack of skill, as well as the extent of that inadequacy, is a potential recipe for disaster. This is doubly problematic as the researchers also found that over-estimators also fail to accurately gauge skill in others.

I have written previously about emotional intelligence, and how people can develop their capacity for it. Similarly, I believe that people can train themselves to more realistically assess their abilities in a variety of skills. The fact that under-performance is accompanied by tangible evidence in the end, means that there is incentive for people to seek honest, realistic self-assessment.

Under-Estimators

The real tragedy lies with the under-estimators. Undervaluing your own abilities isn’t just sad and unfortunate on a personal level. It has an impact on group morale, commitment, productivity, and ultimately, success.

One strategy to overcome this challenge would be to use appreciative inquiry, or one-to-one conversations, to map the assets of individuals. People sometimes forget about skills and talents that they have, and require others help to uncover those assets.

If you have examples of how an individual’s over-, or under-estimating their own abilities has played out in you work, please share them in the comments below.


*Kruger, Justin; Dunning, David (1999). “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Classism is an Obstacle in Social Change Activism

Classism is differential treatment based on social class or perceived social class. Classism is the systematic oppression of subordinated class groups to advantage and strengthen the dominant class groups. It’s the systematic assignment of characteristics of worth and ability based on social class.
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Not long ago, I attended for the second time, a meeting that was part of an ongoing comprehensive community initiative dedicated to improving a variety of quality of life indicators in the city where I live. You may be familiar with the process. An open, public visioning event is held. Priorities are set. Planning committees develop indicators to measure success. Projects and programs are implemented. It is a well-intentioned effort.

Unfortunately, however, the vast majority of the approximately 150 people in the convention center space for this meeting, were people I like to refer as professional meeting goers. Most of those who were not in this category, were college or high school students. The professionals in the room were people whose jobs led them there. They were employed in philanthropy, social services, education, or healthcare. They were haves, whose job it was to help the have nots of the community.

Though the group was not completely homogeneous, or lacking in other types of diversity, it was clearly not an effort that sought to amplify the voices of the poor or marginalized folks in the community. Nobody was talking about real grassroots community organizing as a strategy to meet the goals expressed in their vision for a healthier, more vibrant community.

The unemployed were not in conversations about workforce development. Low income residents were not identified as assets in gaining a richer understanding of issues challenging the community. Service providers and “experts” were defining and deciding strategies. That’s a problem.

Here are a few things you can do to avoid perpetuating classism in your efforts to create change:

  • Personally invite low income people to participate from the beginning of your efforts. It isn’t enough to simply say that the public is invited.
  • Take a look at the processes that you use for things such as communication, scheduling, and direct action. Is there a privileged class bias built in? Are you including guidance from those on the margins? Are you providing opportunities for collaborative leadership?
  • As you plan, are you creating ‘safe spaces’ where everyone feels as though they can speak in confidence, and in complete honesty?

We have to be deliberate in reaching out to, and including people on the margins of the community.  They provide perspectives that people in more privileged classes cannot know. The forgotten, and seemingly invisible people among us have insights and understanding that will inform more effective change strategies. But, we will never tap into that unique knowledge and wisdom unless we extend an invitation to join us.

Change Happens at the Center

We tend to think of change as something that happens at the margins. That’s why people use phrases like “the leading edge,” or “pushing the envelope.” If we are deliberately acting to make social change, however, that change happens at the center. Experienced community organizers know this. It’s why they spend time with people in the middle. Let me illustrate how this works.

us vs themTake any issue; polarizing or mundane. We are led to believe that there are two sides: for and against; us and them; red state blue state; you get the picture. Painting this less complex picture is easier for both zealous advocates, and lazy reporters. It makes for good drama. When it comes to change, you will rarely get the people deeply rooted in the “them” side to flip 180 degrees to the “us” side (or vice-versa).

twoWe know for a fact that this is not a complete picture. There are many people who are, in fact, neutral. They may simply be unaware of an issue. They may be conflicted and ambivalent,  or they could just be apathetic.

threeThere are also individuals who are passive in their support for us, and people who passively support them. The people in this category fall in a continuum of varying levels of commitment as well.

fourThe key to creating the change that you want to happen, is to spend less time where there is little return on the investment of your time — hurling verbal bombs at the folks who will never change their minds. What you want to focus on is moving people over just one position on the chart, beginning with the people who passively support your cause. The smallest of things can move pieces of the middle.

People’s personal experience guides their opinions. Their experience also defines their self-interest. If you understand this , and organize around this principle, eventually, a tipping point of sorts makes the movement toward change unstoppable.

When You’re Ready To Move From Talk To Action

“The world is changed by your example, not your opinion.”
–    Paulo Coelho

Mahatma Gandhi once said that “action expresses priorities.” We can be outraged and upset about something, but unless we choose to act to change it, we are telling the rest of the world that it isn’t really that important after all.  Advocacy and educating people about issues is important. It gets peoples’ attention, and may rock some boats, but advocacy alone is not enough. You need to organize.

If you have a group of people who all agree that “A” is unacceptable, and that what they really want is “Z,” you have a common vision, but there are countless paths and countless acts between that vision and realizing change. You need to organize.

Organizing can be complex. It is so dependent upon personal relationships and personal politics, that we sometimes forget about some of the other factors that are crucial in creating change.

“When it is obvious that the goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.”
–    Confucius

The popular and widely-used organizing tool below is from a chapter titled “A Framework for Thinking About Systems Change” by Timothy P. Knoster, Richard A. Villa, and Jacqueline S. Thousand, in the book,  Restructuring for Caring and Effective Education: Piecing the Puzzle Together . It was adapted from the work of Delores Ambrose. The matrix serves both as prescription and as a diagnostic tool when groups seeking change meet challenges in their pursuit.

changeHaving all the pieces doesn’t mean that your work is done, that you automatically go from A to Z. They get you from A to B (then celebrate briefly, and reflect on what you learned), and then from B to C (celebrate and reflect), and so on, until you reach your long-term goal.

This chart also reinforces the importance of asset-mapping. That’s how you know if you have the required skills or resources to carry out your plans. Passionate, caring, and motivated people still need the missing pieces. Leaders find those pieces.

More on the importance of organizing to come.