Organizers threaten everything. Organizers should threaten everything.
This is what we need our organizers to do: challenge organizational habits, disrupt our inertia, and remind us of the communities we’re accountable to. Unless organizers function cleanly and constructively, and organizations allow their critiques to make change, no one can do their best.
Organizing is a way to creatively destabilize the status quo, to help us imagine worlds beyond institutional horizons. As such, grassroots organizing threatens everyone committed to walking to the promised land on the traditional highways: moderation, compliance, and good behavior.
Creative, tech, and corporate writers like Steven Pressfield, Hugh MacLeod, and Seth Godin write about this: Institutions’ inherent stability, including the stability of steady work and pay, induces people to adopt the reserve of moderate conservatives in times of change.
So as much as internal changemakers need to do their own work, braking against the destabilization from the margins that moves the Whole forward, staff members also need people outside their group envisioning and building something more. They and grassroots builders need not be at odds.
But they sometimes are. In the name of moderation, people who may agree with your politic over coffee shop pastries may approve institutional policies that defame people like you, or vote against your hiring or inclusion on an institutional committee.
It’s genuinely not personal. They’re swimming with the current of institutional action taken at the level of the group, not the person. That institutional action privileges the survival of the organization, not costs to any individual. Organizations don’t take mass action with our faces in mind. This would be a different world if they did.
Individuals suffer in the world we actually have, the world where policies are designed to address categories of people and decision makers seek objectivity through making rules for classes. This is the legal discipline’s fingerprint on our society. We don’t need less of the law. We just need more contributions from other disciplines as well.
We need lawyers. We also need pastors. And scientists. And educators. And traders. And day laborers. And farmers. And artists. We need all of these disciplinary insights to build the future.
Organizers threaten everything. But not all organizers will see results.
Organizers who aren’t drawing pay or esteem from the institution they hope to influence have a few options. Some, usually believing their organization is still fundamentally good, appeal to the consciences of organizational staff. They’ll study organizational values, policy, and history. Their rhetoric will frame proposed change as within bounds.
Others, more agnostic about their organization’s viability, will appeal instead to the organization’s wider audience. Their tools will be open letters—thrown-voice communications apparently aimed at one group but in fact framed to move another—and populist campaigns that capture the attention and share the voices of more people than those in the inner circle. They’ll host actions that disrupt or directly challenge the people the organization serves or sells to, and they’ll hope that these audiences will move decision-makers who care about their perspective.
And there are those outside both networks, who work in the wider field that shapes and interacts with the organization and its audiences. For churches, that might mean the worlds of legal cases or research. This group of organizers is at least two steps removed from the site of change and its work may never filter into smaller groups’ policies. But it’s part of the groups’ wider context and over time that context becomes harder and harder for even insular organizations to ignore.
None of these approaches can assume change will blossom in their lifetime.
The external organizer, the one laying down soil for change, is especially unlikely to see deep change. Human society evolves so slowly: distances collapsed in our visions and dreams span generations when we’re awake.
It’s painful to focus on the gap between what could be and what is, and too much of that produces fatigue and cynicism. So our organizing predecessors always returned to the present time and the local interaction: What can I do here, now?
We’re not promised the fruit of our labor, only the opportunity to do and do again. And that action, doing that’s connected to group goals and to real people, is the only way to avoid discouragement long-term.
This post began on Twitter in November 2015. Follow @mackenzian there for thoughts and threads like it in real time.