Let me give you a word on the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightening. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.
The struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what people will submit to, and you have found the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue until they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.
~ FREDERICK DOUGLASS
Letter to an abolitionist associate, 1849
Introduction: so you’re interested in organizing a local Green group?
The Green movement is a truly grassroots movement. Our local groups are growing from coast to coast, and reaching into every corner of this country. We’re always glad to see new interest in working for a Green future. That’s a big part of why the GPUS National Office is here: to help new groups and new individuals find each other and organize effectively for a new tomorrow.
Starting a new group is a serious commitment, one that you should think carefully about undertaking. If you’ve been an activist before, you know what it can mean: endless meetings, a perpetual drain on time and money, debates that turn into quarrels, and so forth. But it also means a sense of belonging, doing the right thing, participating in something greater than yourself, and helping to shape the tides of history. It means defeats and delays, and successes and victories. It means meeting people from all over the country, and being part of a worldwide network. Most of all, it means what you believe it can mean, and that’s the most powerful feeling of all.
So how does one start a new Green group? Start with some basic goals for your group. You should organize in a way that will:
- get things done
- be rewarding and joyful to participate in
- welcome involvement from new members
- welcome involvement from people with different levels of commitment and varying points of view
- make all people feel comfortable to speak, share ideas,
and make proposals
- respond creatively and effectively to new situations
- empower and teach people to become powerful, confident activists.
IN SHORT, a good group will be effective, fun, and participatory.
Organizing means engaging with society: doing, not just thinking or talking
Social change is made through engagement. If you want to change society, you have to go out and change it. This may seem obvious, but all too often folks think that society will change just through education, thinking good thoughts, or treating each other better. These are important, but they’re not the final answer. Sooner or later you have to work together to get funding for a citywide recycling program, stop an incinerator, defeat some toxic waste dealer in an election, or make sure that a ballot initiative gets passed. This is political work in its truest sense, and this is the primary reason for the Greens’ existence.
An engaged social change group is a healthy, happy, and growing social change group—everything else being equal. Groups that don’t seem to have much interaction with society generally don’t attract or keep dynamic members, and usually fall apart sooner or later.
Practicing social change (just like a musician practices) is the best way to learn about social change. If you are an active organizer, you will find yourself learning about a broad spectrum of issues: from deep philosophical/political questions to practical things like how to chair a meeting or fix a jammed staple gun. Furthermore, not only will you learn, but your group will learn. Learning by doing is by far the best, and mutually-shared knowledge is by far the deepest.
Don’t feel overwhelmed by the size of the world’s problems. It all starts one campaign at a time. Take one worthy cause and do it well, and you will be building a base of organization and experience crucial to making the changes we all seek. Engagement equals experience, and experience equals power. When enough people have engaged in enough political work and have generated a sufficient sense of their own power through learning by doing, we’ll start to have an effect on the big questions. Never give up. Take is one day at a time.
It’s not easy being truly engaged. Many of us have had experiences with groups that have the best of intentions, but never quite seem to pull it together. Lack of focus, inexperience, internal disputes: all of these problems can prevent a group from achieving its potential, and eventually lead to its dissolution. This is a perpetual problem in the Green movement, as in all social change movements. It’s often especially hard for Greens to focus, because the Green vision is a big vision, and there’s many pieces to it.
It’s important at the start to acknowledge the debt this guide owes to organizers from the Midwest Academy, one of the great practical organizing institutions in this country. While drafting this guide, it was hard to overcome the temptation to simply include large chunks of Midwest’s magnum opus, Organizing for Social Change: A Manual for Activists in the 1990’s. You should have this book, if you are at all serious about organizing.
What an organizing strategy must accomplish
To briefly outline the Midwest Academy basics: any organizing strategy must:
- Win concrete improvements in people’s lives
- Give people a sense of their own power
- Begin to alter the relations of power
Towards this end, Midwest teaches a very effective process. In this model, you
- list the purpose and long range goals of the organization
- state the goals for a particular issue
- and define a series of shorter-range steps to achieve that goal.
The problem we face as Greens with this process is the general nature of our long-term goals. We’re trying to fundamentally reconstruct society, not simply stop toxic dumping. In order to make some sense of a Green strategy, we need to think about two basic points:
- First, big social change movements are composed of many smaller groups and movements.
- At the grassroots level, the key building block (or cell, if you prefer a more organic metaphor) for movement-building is the local organizer.
What is an organizer? What does an organizer do?
Here’s one description from the University of Minnesota Campus Greens:
- has a commitment to a vision of how things might be different, and is always trying to figure out the best way to make his or her vision come about.
- is a person who organizes: campaigns, rallies, lectures, protests, study groups, ballot drives, and so on.
- is reliable and dependable; shows up on time; and follows through
- does all different kinds of work cheerfully, and is committed to learning organizing skills.
- doesn’t speak out of turn, and listens carefully to others.
- is accountable; gives reports on work done and asks for criticism on how it could be better.
- keeps in contact with other members of his or her group by phone and mail.
- studies other times and places where other organizers tried to make social change.
- Remains grounded in the community he or she is trying to organize; is constantly watching, hearing, and taking part in community life.
- is patient and persistent; doesn’t let his or her commitment turn into self-righteousness.
- speaks in a language that the people he or she is trying to reach
- realizes that social change is not made by loners or superstars, but by people working together.
- realizes that knowing all about an issue and knowing how to organize are two very different things.
- takes care of him or herself; doesn’t take on too much and get burned out. is always educating him or herself about sexism, racism,
- is always teaching other people how to become organizers.
In the final analysis, that’s what it’s all about: creating new organizers, people who have participated in the practice of changing society and have gained a new sense of their power by doing so. Repeat this process five hundred thousand times and we will have the beginning of a strong Green movement.
Some of you may have organizing experience, and know exactly why you are in the Greens. And for others, this may be your first try at political organizing, or it may have been years since you were last active. Let’s take a first look at some issues that you’ll need to think about from the very beginning.
Party or Movement?
Are we a party or a movement? Get used to thinking about it, because you’ll be hearing the question a lot, and it bears directly on your initial organizing efforts.
This is an important question. Some Green groups run candidates, field ballot initiatives, take positions on legislation, and so forth. Others focus on single issues, education, direct action, and organizing Green events. Many do both. Your local group will decide for itself where its focus should be. Looking at the Green Party as a whole, as it operates throughout the US and the world, the answer to the question is: We are both a political party and a movement.
Inside or Outside Strategy?
Another way to think about this question is to ask: In or Out of The System?
Of course, this question can hide more than it reveals; we really are faced with many overlapping systems, and no one can ever be totally “outside” of all systems. However, the basic question is still an important one. Greens span the entire spectrum in their activist efforts. Some focus on getting people into local and municipal office, and lobbying to influence bills at the state and national level. Others stay in the streets:
Marching, protesting, packing hearings, and so on. But probably the most effective Greens are those who know when to do each, and that takes some understanding of the limitations of each basic approach.
“Inside the system”
“Inside the system”
|It’s publicly acceptable and doesn’t
|the system co-opts those who approach it; principles will be compromised away into nothingness|
|the realistic thing to do; the system has so much power that we have to deal with it||electoral politics is inherently alienating to the individual; it focuses on mobilizing the people rather than empowering them|
|Greens can participate and win in local and municipal elections||there’s no sense in participating in the system when you haven’t got real people power to back it up|
|sometimes you have to compromise||the deck is stacked against you|
|Green policies often make sense and don’t need to be forced on anyone||even proposals that make economic sense are often blocked by selfish interests|
|elected officials have the chance to influence many issues||waters down the movement|
|broadens the movement|
“Outside the system”
“Outside the system”
|the only way that lasting social change is ever made—look at the Civil Rights and labor movements||can scare the public and hurt your image, more difficult to recruit people|
|gives people a real sense of their own power; victories are clearer||often ineffective and demoralizing; no one issue matters that much|
|some people aren’t allowed into the system—working “outside” is their only hope||usually requires a single-issue focus and other key issues can pass you by|
|builds close-knit groups||alienates people from the movement|
|deepens the movement|
Please notice that the above table is not just about electoral politics; it’s more general than that. There’s a fine line down the middle, one that’s an art to walk. Entire books have been written on this subject, with one of the finest being Organizing for Social Change: A Manual for Activists in the 1990s.
The wrong way to start a Green local
When Greens first come together, there are often serious debates over focus. Bring together fifty different backgrounds, and you’ll usually get fifty different ideas as to where the group should go. Some people will want to work on tenants’ rights, others will want to work on stopping a toxic waste incinerator, others will want to organize a lecture series, and others will want to run for office. None of these things is necessarily right or wrong. What is wrong is trying to do all of them at once with a new group.
Remember our first principle: be engaged. If you split up into ten different little task forces or working groups, it’s very likely that few of them will get anything done, and you won’t appear to be very effective. It’s far better to have the group as a whole focus on one or two projects, and do them well.
We’re a decentralist organization, but there are some organizing realities you can’t change. It’s important to realize that, in a group, the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts. Another way of saying this is, one group of ten people can have a lot bigger effect than two groups of five people. What this means for your group is that it’s usually worth it to try and find something that as many people as possible are excited about. It also means that you should be cautious before you start too many small “working groups.” Unless the people in those groups are really committed and/or experienced, they may fall apart. (We’ve seen it happen over and over and over again.)
Here’s an example of the wrong way to start a Green local.
Joe and Karen want to organize a Green group. They get hold of a Green brochure, read a book on Green politics, and are deeply inspired by the vision. Not wanting to be “centralist,” they decide they can’t do anything more until they have a lot more people. They put about a thousand posters up for a mass meeting. They don’t want to set any agenda, because that would be “antidemocratic.”
At the meeting, about eighty people show up. Everyone introduces themselves and talks about why they’ve come, which takes an hour and a half (during which about a dozen people leave). Two men in particular go on at length about Green philosophy and what the Greens should do in their area. Someone then suggests that they brainstorm ideas for projects. This is done, and the group comes up with about twelve ideas for projects to work on, ranging from ‘running candidates for office” to “starting a newsletter” to “organizing a study group” to “stopping the local toxic dumping.” Not wanting to hurt the feelings of those who suggested any project, the meeting forms twelve working groups. People sign up for the projects they’re most interested in, and another general meeting is set for the following month. After another two dozen people have left, someone realizes that each working group should have someone designated as a coordinator, to call people and get things started. No-one can be found to coordinate four of the working groups (everyone who’s signed up for them has left), but eight coordinators are designated and Joe and Karen wind up with the other four lists, some of which have only one or two people signed on.
Joe and Karen both on the spur of the moment decide to work on the newsletter. They call the ten people who signed up on the list and try to schedule a meeting. After numerous phone calls back and forth they arrive at a time when seven of the ten can attend. Their working group meets and talks about ideas for the newsletter, and comes up with some ideas and questions that they feel need to be submitted to the whole group again.
At the next meeting, about fifteen people show up. The two men who talked so much at the first meeting are nowhere to be seen. Only four of the eight working group coordinators show up, and are several comments from people who were never called to do anything. Only one other working group met (on toxic dumping). They want to work very closely with the local toxic coalition. After some discussion it’s agreed to endorse the local toxics coalition, but no-one seems to have a very good idea of what it means…
The story could go on, but you get the picture. This is not a fictional account; it is a composite of numerous stories.
A better way to start a Green local
Cathy and Steve start organizing in a different city, with a different approach. They too study all the Green literature they can find, but they make some decisions that serve their
local group very well in the long run.
First, they carefully build a small organizing committee, not by mass advertising, but by word of mouth and small ads on bulletin boards at the local health-food store, bookstore, and in the offices of sympathetic organizations. The organizing committee meets consistently for a good three months before officially launching the organization. In those two months, the committee takes a careful look at the community: all the other organizations, the media, the economy, the biology, the culture, the political structures, and so on. At every meeting they put a big map of the city and surrounding area on the wall, and refer to it constantly when discussing their future plans.
They don’t choose a name for their local yet, but instead simply call themselves the City Greens Organizing Committee.
They discuss strategy in depth: looking at a number of possible projects in detail, drawing on solid organizing materials and discussing critically at the potential for each project. They make extensive use of Organizing for Social Change, especially the detailed process for “choosing an issue,” which they find very helpful.
Some strategic questions to be considered: Where are we? What is the community like? What is the social history of this area? The biological history? The economic history?
What other groups are in the area? What do they do? Is the Green name recognized?
What’s going on right now? What issues are “hot”? How do they relate to Green values? Who’s working on them? Can we help them? Do they want our help? What can we bring to the issue? Gain from the issue?
After considerable discussion they narrow the possible campaigns down to three: placing a recycling initiative on the ballot, running a city council candidate, and shutting down a local toxic waste dump. They then split up into three committees and research how each campaign could be started and especially how new people could be immediately involved in it. Each committee is assigned the task of organizing two “work nights” where new people can be involved in hands-on work to forward the issue.
While this subcommittee work is going on, the full organizing committee plans an ambitious introductory meeting. Rather than one big advertisement, they spend their money on smaller series advertisements in five weekly community papers over a two-month period, and work hard to keep posters current in a number of key locations for the month prior to the meeting. They also make use of their personal contacts, especially encouraging friends and acquaintances who used to be activists during the ‘70s and ‘80s.
They don’t make any effort to publicize this work, but people start coming to their full committee meetings through word of mouth. When new people come to a meeting, they are taken aside, given a brief rundown on what’s going on, and given the choice of jumping into the committee and subcommittee work right away, or waiting for the official introductory meeting. In this way, the organizing committee expands to a solid core of 12 people over the three-month period.
The intro meeting itself is carefully planned, with an overview of Green philosophy and the Green movement internationally, nationally, and locally; a thorough explanation of their organizing committee’s efforts and the three campaigns; some small group introduction and discussion time, and a name-choosing process for the local.
By the time of the meeting, no-one’s gotten much sleep lately, but their efforts pay off. One hundred and seventy-five people show up and are immediately signed up for four work nights. Contributions are taken and new members are signed up. Possible names for the local are brainstormed and one is chosen, giving everyone a feeling of ownership and accomplishment.
Six weeks later, a formal membership meeting is held. About fifty people come. The local’s overall status is assessed, and introductory presentations are given on issues such as relationships with the national organization, legal questions, financial outlook, and so forth. Reports from the working groups are heard and the campaigns are seriously discussed. The model bylaws provided by the national are briefly debated and referred to a committee…
This is not a foolproof recipe. The point is not to give you a formula; there is no such thing. There are Greens for whom the above example would not work at all; starting with three projects is very ambitious unless you’ve got some experienced people on board from the beginning. The point is to present an example of planning and strategic thinking in setting up a local. If you’re stumped as to how to do this, by all means call us at the National Office—that’s what we’re here for!
Possible Activities for a Green local
When you are engaged in an issue campaign, there will be certain specific things you will want to do, possibly in conjunction with other groups. These include researching the issue and producing literature about it; holding or attending protests, rallies, and press conferences; lobbying; pitching stories to the press; and so on. During political campaigns, there are other specific activities you will need to engage in, such as gathering petition signatures, canvassing, and get-out-the-vote.
Some Green groups struggle to maintain momentum and a sense of purpose outside of election time. The activities listed below can work both during and outside of election seasons. It is important to engage in some activities OUTSIDE a political or issue campaign. It will not only serve as a recruitment tool – and we must always be recruiting – but also it can attract and hold members who want to build the Green Party itself, as an institution.
Educational work is important, and many Greens have been focusing on it for the past few years. However, you’ll find that if your local focuses too much on education for its own sake, you will start to lose your more action-oriented members. Try to organize your educational programs within the larger context of your local’s actions.
Study groups are a good way of looking at questions in depth, and can easily be tailored to what you are doing. They are especially good for studying other times and places where people tried to make social change. Try reading some organizing history and then asking yourselves, “How does this apply to our local situation?” These events can lay groundwork for strategic planning sessions.
Lectures / Forums
Lectures are good publicity tools, especially if you can get a well-known person to speak. Overall presentations on the Green movement by well-known authors can help educate new members, and provide a good forum for recruiting. Other times you may wish to focus your lectures on your campaigns. Panels and forums are far more labor intensive, but can bring in new people, help galvanize a community around an issue and forge connections among diverse groups.
Holding a clothing swap or day when you gather recyclable items is easy to do, is a positive activity, and brings you into contact with new and different people.
Parties and Other Social Events
Don’t underestimate the benefits of having fun together and building relationships to your group. There are also some potential members who are more reachable through a social event than a lecture or meeting. These events don’t have to be expensive or time-consuming to organize. A simple pot luck dinner or picnic, bar crawl, Karaoke night, or attending a concert, movie or lecture together is easy to do and builds team spirit. A visit from a Green from out of town (or from another country) is a good occasion for building a social event. More labor intensive, but potentially worthwhile, is organizing a tour of local businesses or local historical/political sites. This can be especially good for towns with a lot of transient residents, such as college towns.
Speaking at schools, from high school to college level, is a good recruitment tool and good experience for honing your message. You probably have some teachers in your ranks you could start with. Develop a list of speakers with their biographies, and some exciting-sounding topics each can address, and get it out to potentially interested faculty in political science, sociology, and environmental science, and student political/ environmental/social justice clubs, for starters. Faculty information is readily available online for most colleges. Some schools host school-wide civic engagement events before elections where one can table or offer speakers. You can also offer speakers to local meetups or other community groups.
About working in or building coalitions
When you’re thinking about trying to form a coalition or alliance around an issue or an electoral campaign, ask yourself some strategic questions:
Whose problem is the issue? Who might support a Green? What groups are they organized in?
What would they get out of joining you? What risks would it run them?
How could they help? What power do they have? What resources would they bring with them?
Basic respectful alliance-building
Here are some basic tips on alliance building.
Learn about them before you approach them. Do your homework.
Make some personal connections first, if you possibly can. Go to some of their events, hang out, make friends, don’t talk business right away.
Know why you are approaching them and what you have to offer them politically; don’t just come to them out of an aimless sense of guilt. If you can’t define or achieve your own goals, focus on building your own organization for awhile. Be credible.
Involve them at the earliest planning stages. Show them respect by setting the agenda with them.
Agree to disagree. That’s what coalitions are all about.
Some of the best materials on unlearning the barriers to forming alliances are provided by Tools for Change, which publishes the Margo Adair / Shea pamphlets Breaking Old Patterns Weaving New Ties and The Subjective Side of Politics. http://toolsforchange.org
A few words about press conferences, press releases, and VNR’s
Press conferences are often used to introduce important issues to the public. They are usually only well received when they are used sparingly for important news or issues that have not been previously reported, or you offer a clearly new perspective.
1. Mail a brief and enticing MEDIA ADVISORY that makes them want to come. Begin with attention-getting leads that include the who, what, when, and why. Keep it to 1 page. Most outlets now accept email. Do not attach any photos or files. Include links to those materials.
2. Only introduce the topic and the reason for the conference. This is not the place for elaborate explanations of an issue.
3. Schedule in the morning or at noon before deadlines for the evening news.
4. Hold the conference in a convenient place for the media.
5. You MUST have some sort of visual interest at your press conference. Children holding hands around a building, a pile of dead birds … something that will make a good photo and / or video.
6. Confirm by phone, at least with key people, the day before and day of event. Be prepared to quickly re-send the media advisory if the target did not receive it.
You must have proper technology available for electronic media. If you don’t have anyone in your group who understands this, you must find someone before you hold a press conference.
7. Start on time. Introduce speakers. Present issue briefly. Distribute PRESS RELEASE (not to be confused with MEDIA ADVISORY, above.). The press release tells your story the way you would like to see it written. It includes quotes from relevant parties. Allow time for and encourage questions. Thank everyone for coming.
8. Afterward, mail press release to missing press.
9. Get to know those members of the press and media that cover your issues and develop relationships.
For activist media work beyond the basic press conference, a good resource is Prime Time Activism, by Charlotte Ryan. See the Bibliography.
Producing your own video is a very important part of any press strategy today. See the guide below for how to produce video news releases or VNR’s.
Guide to Producing Video News Releases:
Care and feeding of new recruits
Learn why the new recruit showed up and work on ways to give them what they are looking for. Also determine what skills and interests they have, and find ways for your group to use them.
Always circulate a sign in sheet.
Hold tight and productive meetings that start on time and hold to a well-defined agenda, and are never longer than two hours. “Open meetings” (where new recruits can wander in) have a different purpose and should be organized differently than “membership meetings.”
Be open to new ideas and ways of doing the work.
Pair off new people with experienced folks—a “buddy system.”
Share the skills of more experienced members, through appropriate workshops and trainings.
Encourage all committees to keep clear minutes, records, and notes in a way that a new person can easily get up to speed if necessary. (This is always a good practice for everyone.)
Maintain a good local archive of flyers, leaflets, clippings, photos, and other history. Keep good files, and compile the best of them for display. You can have this material on your website and/or in a binder. Share it with newbies, and it will really give you a sense of accomplishment and new members the impression they’re joining a going concern.
Be honest and open about what they’re committing to when they sign up for a task.
Air dirty laundry or have screaming fights at “open” meetings with newbies present. Present a positive and united front.
Ignore the new person. Be welcoming and social without being overwhelming.
Try to load up the new person with all the work that no one else wants to do.
Try to get the new person to agree to chair a committee at their first meeting. Give them time to decide how deeply they want to get involved.
Miscellaneous nuts and bolts
Before you decide to do a newsletter, you should ask yourself what you are going to put in it. Too many Green newsletters only report on what other groups do. Better that you should have action and no newsletter than a newsletter and no action.
If you do a newsletter, take some time to make it look good. If you don’t have anyone in your group who knows layout and design, study a book on it yourself. Your newsletter and your group will benefit tremendously from it. Strongly resist the temptation to make any publication too text heavy. A good proportion of graphics and photos to text is necessary to make the publication appealing.
You’ll need a database to keep track of your people sooner than later. You can start with a simple spreadsheet, and as you grow you may want to move to a relational database. People in your group who have these skills are worth their weight in gold. This is another area where if you don’t have anyone with spreadsheet and database skills, one or more of the core members may have to devote time to learning how databases are made and maintained.
Many Greens prefer open source software. Open Office is one such system. However, you’ll have an easier time finding people who know how to use the most widely used commercial relational database systems such as Access and FileMaker (and you’ll find them easier to learn if you are not a techie). If you’re going to go open source, you will need experts in your group who can devote serious time to developing and supporting your system.
Greens around the world are involved with the development of systems such as Drupal and CiviCRM. The Green Party of Aotearoa – New Zealand has been a pioneer is this effort. The Green Party of Canada has also been very involved in this type of development.
Money: getting it and keeping track of it
Can’t live with it, can’t live without it
It costs money to change society. We’re trying to do as much as we can through people power, but that (usually) doesn’t pay the printing bill. Your local should take its finances seriously: how to get money and how to account for using it. Too many otherwise wonderful organizations have shattered on the rocks of financial mismanagement. Don’t be one of them.
Si Kahn’s Organizing and the Midwest Academy’s Organizing for Social Change each have lengthy and informative sections on grassroots fundraising and accounting systems that you should study thoroughly.
One fundraising tactic you can use is a service of the National Office. We’ve got lots of goodies at a very attractive price that you can sell for a profit. Visit the online Green Party Store.
Structuring your local
Yes, the Greens believe in grassroots democracy and decentralization. But you will still need to structure your local consciously, because if you don’t, your local will structure itself unconsciously in ways that probably won’t serve you well.
As Jo Freeman pointed out in her 1970 classic pamphlet The Tyranny of Structurelessness, groups have either 1) a formal and informal power structure, or 2) only an informal power structure. Intelligence, commitment, political outlook, speaking ability, social class, race, gender, age, and many other factors always contribute to informal power structures which can make your group increasingly difficult for newcomers to join.
In order to overcome this dynamic, it is necessary to establish clear “rules of the game,” so that the decision-making process is transparent and open to everyone. This means a clear organizational structure (it needn’t be complicated) and clear principles on how decisions are made.
Jo Freeman identifies the following as necessary for a truly democratic practice:
- Delegations of specific authority to specific individuals for specific tasks.
- Accountability of those delegated authority to those who gave them authority.
- Distribution of authority among as many people as is reasonably possible.
- Rotation of tasks among individuals.
- Diffusion of information.
- Equal access to resources.
An organization without common policies, without even the means to establish common policies and actions, is not decentralized—it is disorganized.
~ Howie Hawkins
“Decentralization, Not Disorganization!”
You will probably find it necessary to put your database in one place, have one address for your newsletter, keep your files in one place, and so forth. Howie Hawkins provides two distinctions which are useful along these lines. He argues that there is a distinction between coordination and centralization, and between policy-making and the administration of policies. The key issue with leadership and staff is not whether to have them (you will need them sooner or later) but whether they can be held accountable. The main question: does your base—as represented in your membership meetings—have the final say in what your local says and does? If that is the case, then by all means give people and committees the authority to get your day-to-day work done!
Some basic principles of democratic structure
First of all, structures should be:
- and grounded in the work you are doing.
Keep it simple, so that everyone can understand it. Conflicts grow out of confusion, conflicting lines of communication and authority, and overly bureaucratized structures. If you can get by with a membership meeting and one or two working groups, fine. Don’t establish committees unless and until there is a clear need for them.
Feel free to experiment, and to change what doesn’t work. As your local’s focus changes, so should your structure’s.
One basic distinction you might want to look at is between a functional versus a project structure. A functional structure would be oriented around a set of working groups like Publicity, Finances, Outreach, Membership, and so on. A project structure would be based around a set of working groups like Incinerator, Anti-Racism, Animal Rights, and so forth.
These approaches are not mutually exclusive; a functional structure might have project committees and vice versa, but you should be aware of the basic distinction whenever you think about restructuring your local.
Too often, people mechanically adopt suggested structures without critically discussing whether they are actually needed. You may not need a coordination body if your local is fairly small and doesn’t have a need for rapid response or ongoing spokespeople. If a working group isn’t doing the work it was supposed to, re-evaluate and disband it if necessary. Use “sunset” principles, if necessary: if a committee isn’t explicitly renewed by such and such a date, it expires. There’s nothing worse than feeling burdened with “ghost” committees that were active last year but no-one’s heard from lately.
There are any of a number of ongoing tasks which a local will need to have done on a regular basis: communication, logistics, facilitation, finances, project coordination, and so forth. As above, keep these offices flexible; if one has outlived its usefulness, do away with it. But as before, don’t establish a job description just because some other group has a similar position. Wait until the need is clearly demonstrated in your local’s evolution.
An important role at the local level is someone designated as the contact person for that local, someone that the National Office can refer new people to, someone listed on the State Party website as a contact for that local, etc.
If you’ve starting from scratch, now is the time to start things right!
Developing systems to keep things filed and accessible in a shared virtual (online) workspace is an important investment. You may need to invest considerable time in training for some of your members, but it will pay off in better communication and record keeping. This will be an ongoing issue, and you need to identify people early that are willing to take primary responsibility for it.
Renting desk space at a church or from another community group is the best long-range solution. For the time being, those of your files that exist on paper may be kept at someone’s house. Keep them together, and separate from that person’s personal business.
Having the group invest in a separate file cabinet might be a good idea. It should be understood that this person is only a temporary custodian; it might be good to rotate the files from member to member every year or so if you can’t rent space somewhere in the name of the local.
Other things for your files: correspondence from the national, brochures, clippings, anything having to do with money, membership records, and so on.
This guide was adapted from a number of sources, including the SEAC Organizing Guide, Organizing by Si Kahn, Organizing for Social Change by the Midwest Academy, the Resource Manual for a Living Revolution by the Movement for a New Society, On Conflict and Consensus by C.T. Butler, the DSA Youth Section Organizing Manual, the San Diego SEAC Organizing Manual, and miscellaneous handouts and flyers. Some new sections were drafted on experience of the National staff.
This is a living document and criticisms, additions, and changes are always welcome.