In seeking to create positive change in communities, we rarely experience smooth sailing. We run into unanticipated opposition; we discover that our strategy is based on wrong assumptions; and we suffer sudden shifts in the environment caused by forces often outside of our control, such as the ups and downs of the economy and elections results.
This reality has led some foundation leaders to talk about how to understand and learn from failures and mistakes. Rather than overlook the reality of failure, they urge people in the social change business to study it and learn from it.
I agree wholeheartedly with the need to expose and learn from mistakes and failures, though I have some difficulty with the word “failure.” Failure has a sense of finality to it which I believe does not accurately describe the social change process. Most change efforts that run into a dead end pick themselves up and continue on, often succeeding later on. Consider the numerous efforts to pass federal policy in support of universal health coverage. Presidents going back to Truman have tried and over the years we saw significant incremental progress with the passage of Medicaid, Medicare and the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. Finally the stars aligned and we celebrated the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2009.
I would like to propose the language of bumps, detours and dead-ends. In understanding our social change work, we may benefit from recognizing that some of the obstacles in the road we encounter are just the usual ups and downs (bumps), require a change in strategy (detour), or result in the development of an entirely new strategy (dead-ends). Here are my definitions:
BUMPS: The social change effort encounters friction and may get slowed down but is able to stay on the same path and move forward. For example, a community group seeks to pass a local ordinance to the sale of soda in city vending machines. Opposition emerges, the passage of the ordinance is delayed but after prolonged public debate, the City Council approves.
DETOURS: The change effort encounters a significant obstacle and needs to adjust strategy. For example, a coalition seeks to win passage of new school health policies at the State Capitol and in the process realizes that state legislation is not the right lever to get the change progress moving. The coalition shifts its focus to moving the policy change at the local district level.
DEAD-ENDS: In this scenario, the change effort gets stuck, and may enter a period of dormancy only to be revived later on. Here’s a real life example. In 2002, I was part of a two year campaign led by PICO California to win an expansion of the Healthy Families program to include parents. We thought we were at the finish line, having passed legislation and secured a funding commitment using revenue from the national tobacco settlement. Then in 2003 the “dot-com” bust happened and the Governor and Legislature chose to securitize the tobacco settlement funds to fill the budget hole. We’d hit a dead-end. We brushed ourselves off, got back on our feet, and shifted our focus to expanding health coverage for children and several years later, the PICO National Network played a critical role in the passage of the Affordable Care Act.
Of course a social change effort might experience degrees of bumps, detours and dead-ends all within one campaign; one strategy may experience nothing more than turbulence while another may hit the wall.
How do we celebrate our victories and learn from our defeats? The first step is to name our experience, analyze it, and then adapt. By spending time on the bumps, we’re more likely to recognize what’s going on and adapt more quickly next time.
It helps to share your experience with others. Bob Giloth and Colin Austin are doing just that through their book Mistakes to Success: Learning and Adapting When Things Go Wrong. Worth checking out.
The homes that we live in, the schools our children attend, and the buildings in which we work are built upon blueprints, documents that lay out where the walls go, how high the roof will be and how the plumbing will work. In most neighborhoods, the houses tend to look the same because they were built from similar blueprints. Over the years, people may adapt the blueprint, by building a bedroom onto the back of the house, or by converting a garage to a room. We usually do not see the blueprint of our house until we seek to change something. Until then, we are largely unaware of its underlying design.
Communities too are built on blueprints. Our neighborhoods were built upon blueprints much like our homes were. Blueprints not only determine physical space, but they also determine how institutions function. Our schools, for example, have an underlying blueprint, a set of policies that determine how an elementary or middle school should function. It’s no surprise that when we walk into a middle school in one part of the state, then visit another middle school hundreds of miles away, that we find how similar these schools are. They are built from the same blueprint.
There are blueprints, or sets of policies, that structure virtually every aspect of a community’s life. Policies determine who pays taxes and how much, how wealth is distributed, and how the private sector functions. The blueprint determines how we invest public funding and to what purpose.
The blueprint is often unseen
Although policy blueprints are public documents, we are often unaware of them. Just as in our homes, we typically do not see the blueprints that lie underneath our community life. These blueprints often become visible when a community runs into a problem, and upon investigation, discovers the blueprint. For example, after the Camp Fire devastated the town of Paradise, we learned that Paradise, like many foothill communities in California, was not built upon a blueprint designed to protect lives from a fast-moving wild fire. In the days following the tragedy, we learned that the town had few roads that could serve as escape routes and had an inadequate warning system. As city officials consider rebuilding after the fire, they are looking at how to change the blueprint. Officials in similarly situated communities are scrambling to learn the lessons and to make changes before the next fire season hits.
The blueprint is public
Because we live in a democracy, policy blueprints are public documents. They are written down and belong to the public domain. In the old days, they filled up thousands of shelves in government buildings; today they often live online, in the cloud. We elect judges to interpret the blueprint and lawmakers to rewrite the blueprint. The words “politics,” “policy” and “politician” all come from the same root, the Greek word polis, or the people. Our system of democracy is meant to be accountable to the people.
The blueprint is the product of competing interests
While the “people” have formal say over the blueprint in a democracy, very few people actually determine what is in the blueprint. The blueprint is not the product of a neutral, rational process. Rather it is the product of competing interests. A state capitol is a building visited regularly by lobbyists paid by particular interest groups to rewrite the blueprint to their advantage. Corporations spend millions each year to influence the blueprint. Interest groups hire specialists who dedicate their professional lives to understand the blueprint and to position the interest group to have the most influence possible over the blueprint. Year after year, groups compete: environmentalists vs. land developers, trial lawyers vs. doctors, labor vs. business . . .
The blueprint is not neutral.
The blueprint gives advantage to some and disadvantages to others. In this country, with its foundations in patriarchy and white supremacy, we have created blueprints that give advantage to white Christian cisgender men, and that disadvantage women, people of color, native communities and people who are LGBT. Many of these blueprints have served to keep certain communities in poverty. For example, following World War II, during an era in which America greatly expanded its middle class through housing policies, African American families were denied access to this wealth accumulation through redlining by banks and restrictive housing deeds.
Powerful corporate interests have and continue to play a huge role in shaping the blueprint. Decades ago, as a result of lobbying from the auto industry and highway builders, elected officials changed the blueprint to encourage the use of the automobile and to disincentive mass transit. This change ultimately made billions for the auto industry and companies that build highways. It also led to low-density communities and the paving over of farmland and wilderness.
The blueprint is dynamic
The blueprint is in constant flux. Year to year small changes happen and at times big changes take place. Prior to the election of Barack Obama, we had a blueprint that caused millions of people to go without health insurance. With the passage of the Affordable Care Act, Congress and President Obama made a fundamental change to the blueprint. While the ACA is imperfect, it represented a sea change in American public policy, similar to the passage of Social Security and Medicare. It not only extended health coverage to millions, it marked a fundamental shift toward the notion that health care is a human right.
We elect the people who write the blueprint. As we elect people who hold different interests and values, those leaders make changes to the blueprint. At times, legislators will seek to write the blueprint to their own political advantage, as when legislators put in laws that suppress voting or that carve out districts that help them get reelected. Legislators will also pursue changes to the blueprint that enrich them personally, as when we see millionaire members of Congress vote for deregulating industries in which they hold assets or when they go work for those industries after leaving office.
The blueprint is a code of values.
Ultimately the blueprint is a code of values. A city budget, for example, reflects what the elected officials of that city value and what they do not value. Often when we expose where government spends money and where we underinvest, we discover numbers that can be shocking, such as the cost incurred by incarcerating a young person verses investing in prevention and diversion programs.
The blueprint also plays a role in determining human worth, valuing some groups and devaluing others. In our history scarred by systemic racism, we have had policies in place that treated Native Americans and African Americans as subhuman. We denied marriage equality to couples who are LGBT. Policy documents describe people who are undocumented as “aliens.”
The blueprint structures relationships
Finally, the blueprint determines the nature of many relationships in our society. It determines your rights as an individual and what power other people can hold over you. It defines what a doctor, a teacher, or a police officer can and can’t do. If you are a parent, it determines under what conditions may government remove your child and place your child in the foster care system, or if you are incarcerated, if your child can visit you.
Public policy shapes how police interact with communities. In 2018, following the police killing of Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man, we discovered that police are largely shielded from accountability by a state law known as the “Police Officer Bill of Rights.” The police union asserted that the Stephon Clark shooting was legal under this state law. Groups are now seeking to change this policy and redefine when it is appropriate for police to use deadly force.
Organizing to Change the Blueprint
Organizing is about changing the blueprint so that it reflects values grounded in justice, equity and fairness. In order to make significant changes to the blueprint, we need to build organizations that have the capacity to compete in the power arena year after year. We build people power and we organize our financial and human resources to win policy changes and to influence elections. With every win, there is the inevitable backlash. In order to seize opportunities, to work on policy implementation and to fight the backlash, we need organizations that are in it for the long haul.
We conduct research to make the blueprint visible and to understand options to change the blueprint. We look for allies inside institutions and in the policy area who often know what needs to happen but need others pushing from outside to move the change. We take action to exercise our power, to create constructive tension and to move our solutions forward. Action can take many forms but must be built upon a solid understanding of current policy and the changes we need.
Implications for organizers
Get the blueprint
As organizers, we need to get our hands on the blueprint. We need allies who bring special expertise in understanding and interpreting the current blueprint and how it needs to be changed.
Analyze the blueprint
We need to develop an analysis of who gains advantage from the blueprint and who is disadvantaged. We need to look at the blueprint from the perspective of values: who is valued, and who is devalued. What does the blueprint say about our priorities?
We often find ourselves spending huge amounts of resources and time dealing with the conditions created by the current blueprint. While this is important and necessary, we also need to take a proactive stance and propose changes to the blueprint that represent a shift in values and priorities.
Significant changes to the blueprint usually take years to win. When PICO first started organizing on health coverage in the late 1990’s, the state of California had policies in place to make Medi-Cal difficult to access and maintain for families with low-income children. As a result, large numbers of children were uninsured. Over a 20-year period, PICO and its allies won expansions in coverage so that today, almost all children have health coverage, including children who are undocumented.
Build power and organization
Building powerful organizations requires the day-to-day work of building relationships, conducting research and laying the groundwork for action. Power is built gradually. Only through building influential organizations are we able to compete in the power arena and contribute to making long-term change.
In a new paper, I explore the intersections between two dynamics having an enormous impact on the country: cannabis legalization and the opioid epidemic. I look at the intersections between these two dynamics and suggest that, through policy development and narrative change, we could seize this opportunity and change the direction of the country when it comes to drug policy and addiction. If we take what we have learned through decriminalizing and legalizing cannabis, and add to the analysis the tragic lessons from the opioid epidemic, we can begin to see a new consensus that prioritizes harm reduction and prevention over stigma and punishment.
In the 1980’s, the Partnership for a Drug Free America ran a commercial that showed a rat confined in a cage drinking from a cocaine-filled water bottle. In ominous tones the commercial told us that the rat would choose the cocaine water over regular water to the point where the rat starved to death. This commercial was based on actual research and was part of the larger effort in the 1980’s to raise concern, and hysteria, over drug use.
A researcher, Bruce Alexander, observed that the rat in the cage experiments were always conducted with one isolated rat. He wondered what would happen if the rats were given access to drugs in an enriched, social environment. He created Rat Park, a place in which rats were housed together and given access to great food, toys, and rat camaraderie. It was Rat Party. In this experiment, both the solo rat and those in Rat Park were given access to plain water and to morphine-laced water.
In the isolated cages, the solo rats turned to the morphine water bottle. In Rat Park, rats largely ignored the morphine-laced water. They had better options.[i]
This research raised the question if addiction and drug abuse has as much to do with environment and connection as it does with the nature of the drug itself. The reality is that large numbers of people regularly use a range of drugs (alcohol, marijuana, Xanax, cocaine…) recreationally and that most people don’t get addicted. Those who get in trouble and have their lives derailed by drug abuse are more likely to be disconnected and in an impoverished, stressful environment. They are also more likely to have experienced trauma and abuse as children. Frequent drug use becomes a way to cope with loneliness and reoccurring negative emotions and to get numb.
Our punitive response to addiction often makes things worse. We stigmatize drug users and lock them up; we put them in a cage and isolate them; we make it harder for them to get jobs. We create the conditions for ongoing drug dependence and crime.
I grew up in Rat Park. I went to school in pre-Prop 13 California, a time in which we had well-funded schools and recreational programs. I participated in science labs in elementary school and enjoyed frequent field trips. I learned to play the guitar in a free summer school program and played sports in free city-sponsored rec programs. I was fortunate to grow up in a caring family. While drugs and alcohol were around me, I viewed them as a distraction. In the jargon of youth development, I grew up with strong “protective factors.”
As more and more local governments and states permit legal marijuana businesses and collect revenues from those businesses, we have the opportunity to invest those revenues in young people and to increase the protective factors that surround them. We have the opportunity to build Rat Parks. In doing so we should take into account the history of the War on Drugs and prioritize investments in black and brown communities that were targeted by law enforcement and which experienced great trauma as a result. These communities typically experience the highest rates of poverty and have the greatest need.
In making these investments, we can create enriched environments and over time reduce substance abuse among young people and adults. Investments alone aren’t enough. We need to remove stigma and change policies that treat those struggling with substance abuse as criminals. Our actions to decriminalize marijuana are a great first step. It’s time to apply these lessons to opioids and other drugs as well.
[i] I first learned about the Rat Park study in Johann Hari’s book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. I am aware that some have questioned the validity of the research. However, it's important to note that there is extensive, parallel research on the positive impact of enriched environments and relationships in the field of youth development. The Search Institute (www. search-institute.org), for example, has spent decades identifying critical assets in the lives of young people and how those assets protect young people from a range of risky, destructive behaviors, including substance abuse. As with Bruce Alexander’s research, the Search Institute stresses the need to create positive healthy environments and caring relationships for young people to thrive.
In the mid and late 1990’s, a couple colleagues and I were helping organize parents to improve schools in South Sacramento. As we met with parents and formed parent organizing committees, we encountered a real disconnect between the schools and their families. In these schools in which most teachers were white and most families were of color, some teachers viewed the parents of their students as uncaring or even dysfunctional. Parents often experienced the school to be unresponsive and intimidating, and some were told that they were to blame for the low achievement of their children.
In each school, we came across a few teachers who did home visits. These teachers were different. They had a different view of families in the neighborhood and felt supported by their parents. Parents adored them. These teachers and parents worked together as team to foster a sense of belonging in the school and to improve student achievement.
We became determined to spread what those teachers were doing throughout the school. Working with parent leaders and teachers, we developed a training approach and secured a small amount of funding from the district. In a few years, this model began to spread across the country, mostly by word of mouth and through the support of teacher unions. Teams of teachers and parent leaders traveled to other states to provide training. Today, 20 years later, the organization we created, Parent Teacher Home Visits, supports home visit efforts in 20 states.
During the formation of the strategy, two concepts in systems change work helped guide us: positive deviance and appreciative inquiry. These concepts represent an alternative to the usual top down approaches by helping groups create change from the inside out.
Positive deviance is a process first utilized in efforts to improve child nutrition in Vietnam during the 1990’s. Child health workers found that while most children in a very poor region suffered from malnourishment, there were some children who were healthy and well nourished. The workers set out to discover why and found that these families fed their children a little differently. They included sweet potato greens, shrimp and crabs in their children’s diet and fed them three times a day rather than twice. These families were positively deviant from the norm. Rather than bring in a solution from outside “experts” and rely on outside funding, the workers and volunteers from the villages worked to spread the practice to other families through peer to peer influence, moms teaching other moms. In a short period, the percentage of well nourished children grew to 85 percent.
We took a similar tack in our work with schools in the early years of organizing. We looked for examples of strong, vibrant parent teacher relationships that were outside the norm and then we found ways for these teachers and parents to train other teachers in the home visit approach. We found the solution right there in the same “dysfunctional” schools; we just had to look and listen.
In appreciative inquiry, changemakers begin where people experience positive energy and feel empowered. This starting point is different than the usual deficit-based approach that focuses on a problem and then seeks to address the problem, often making the problem bigger and even more overwhelming. Our brains suffer from a negativity bias and go quickly to binary “us vs. them” thinking, and to blame. In the politics that swirl around school reform, blame is a constant. In appreciative inquiry, we start with questions that surface what is life-giving and what inspires people. These questions reroute the brain, away from deficit to strength, and from negative energy toward the positive. In this model, people come together, driven by shared hopes and dreams, to create change based in their own experiences.
In teacher home visits, teachers visit families not because there is a problem but because they want to build a relationship with the family and want to get to know the student better. They bring a powerful question to the visit: “What are your hopes and dreams for your student?” This question unleashes an enormous amount of positive energy. Parents often say that no one has ever asked them that question. Teachers and parents work together to make those hopes and dreams a reality. Teachers rediscover why they went into teaching in the first place. They walk away from those visits feeling like the community heroes that they are.
As I look back on the twenty-year history of Parent Teacher Home Visits, I find the experience reaffirms the value of working from the inside out and of placing a fundamental trust in the ability of local communities to develop solutions. Change that comes from a sort of neocolonial, top-down approach or that is driven by blame game politics rarely sticks; it disappears after a few years and leaves little behind. When change grows organically and spreads, as with teacher home visits, it’s a sign that the strategy is grounded in the experience, values and vision of the people the strategy is meant to serve. A strengths-based strategy rekindles hope and belief in ourselves and in one another, and in doing so, it activates leadership at a grassroots level.
For those new to nonprofit management, and particularly for people new to the nonprofit director role, carrying the responsibility of fundraising can be overwhelming, and even paralyzing.
It’s one of those “awake at 3 am worrying about cash flow and the pending grant proposal” jobs.
In my years of leading nonprofits and of coaching directors, I’ve come to believe that the single most important factor in having fewer 3 am moments has to do with fundraising habits.
When something becomes a habit, we do it regularly, with little or no intentionality. Habits are ingrained in our brains and neural circuitry in such a way that we perform the routine without much thought.
Here are my top five fundraising habits:
#1: Pay attention to fundraising at least weekly, if not every couple of days. Fundraising is not an add-on; it’s a central part of your job. Just like mission, you do it all the time.
#2: Strengthen relationships and build new ones: Funders give to people they trust and believe in. The more you engage donors and foundation staff as partners, the more they get to know you, and the more money you will raise over the long term. If funders hear from you infrequently, when you are desperate to raise funds or have a report due, you’re not engaging them.
#3: Constantly look for new funding sources: Keep your eyes open for potential donors and when you spot one, reach out. The only way to keep your head above water long term is to expand your funding base. Keep an eye out for new and emerging donors through researching the supporter lists of groups similar to yours. When you attend a fundraising event, pay attention to which donors are listed as supporters on the event program.
#4: Ask, ask, ask: If a funder has turned you down, apply again in their next cycle. No is not forever.
#5: Control your expenses: Often we ignore the expense side of the ledger. Have clear policies in place to limit travel and meeting expenses. Don’t allow non-performing staff to linger in a rut. Either provide them with additional support, adapt their role to fit their strengths, or counsel them out.
These habits are key to surviving some of the basic realities that come with the territory and are constantly working against you. These realities include:
If you are in the executive director or fund development role and are someone not naturally drawn to these habits, what do you do? What does it take to learn new habits? This is a tough one. We have all experienced times in which we know intellectually that we need to act a certain way, but we mostly do what we always do, and repeatedly get ourselves in hot water as a result. That said, here are a few tricks that might help:
It’s easy to spot organizations whose top level staff lack fundraising habits. These organizations tend to go through boom and bust cycles. They get a large grant or donation, stop paying attention to fundraising, then run out of money. They consistently overspend their budgets because they pay little or no attention to expenses. They are regularly putting out emergency appeals. They can’t hold on to strong staff. Who wants to work for an organization that struggles to make payroll?
Our ability to be strong fundraisers and money managers is very much connected to the attitudes we were raised with as children toward money. Some people find it nearly impossible to ask others for money because as kids, they learned that money was something you never spoke of. Or they were raised in families with few resources and they simply learned to not ask. Asking for money can feel undignified.
In the nonprofit world there a numerous other challenges we face. The funder world is mostly white-led. Directors of color and women often encounter bias and have to prove themselves in ways that white men do not. Foundation program officers are a mixed bag. They can be helpful, and they can be really terrible. Really terrible. Don’t get me started.
When taking on the challenge of learning fundraising habits, it might be useful to think of times when you have learned a new habit. You never exercised, but a few years ago you learned to frequent a gym. You learned to not react angrily to certain situations. You became a more attentive parent or spouse. What did it take? How can you replicate the pattern through which you learned those new tricks?
Finally we’re all in the same boat, with the same sharks circling us, and it helps a lot just to talk with others about it. I’m married to a nonprofit director and we talk about it daily. Not that I recommend it. Get coffee with others who are in your role.
You’re doing amazing work! When people learn about your efforts and your impact, they will want to support you!
Across the country, racial justice organizers and advocates are turning the tide of the failed, racially biased War on Drugs by changing laws to reduce mass incarceration. This is a growing, vibrant movement, primarily led by people of color and by those who have experienced incarceration first hand.
It’s time for the vast array of children’s advocacy groups to join this movement in a more visible and assertive way. It’s time for those who advocate for preschool expansions, for children’s health insurance and for public education to get with it. It’s time.
Mass incarceration is a kids’ issue.
Mass incarceration has hurt kids in a profound way. It has been a major driver of generational family poverty; it has caused kids to grow up without a parent; it is a source of shame, humiliation and stigma. It is a source of lasting trauma.
According to the National Resource Center on Children and Families of the Incarcerated:
An Education Week article summarized the impact:
Studies show that parental incarceration can be more traumatic to students than even a parent’s death or divorce, and the damage it can cause to student’s education, health and social relationships puts them at higher risk of one day going to prison themselves.
As with mass incarceration, the African American community is bearing the brunt of this trauma. Yale University found that one-quarter of black children born in 1990 had a parent in jail or prison by the time the child was fourteen.
The War on Drugs has been a War on Black Children.
Latino families have also been disproportionately impacted and have experienced a collusion between the drug war and anti-immigrant deportation policies. Kids can be separated long term from a parent who is arrested on a minor drug charge and then deported.
In my experience, children’s advocacy groups are typically white-led, while the racial justice movement is led by people of color. This may explain why many children’s advocacy groups have yet to take a clear and consistent stand in support of ending mass incarceration. Those of us who are white, including myself, are distant from the problem.
It’s time for us to get behind and support those leading the way; it’s time to endorse the bills and the ballot measures and to put time and resources into educating the huge base of white children’s advocates about this issue.
One big step forward in the campaign to reduce mass incarceration is to decriminalize marijuana. Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow notes that arrests for marijuana possession account for nearly 80% of the increase in drug arrests in the 1990’s. 
Thousands of kids have lost their parents to prison simply for marijuana possession. That has to stop.
A terrific documentary Invisible Bars has just been released that illustrates these issues. See the trailer here.
 Sarah D. Sparks, “Parents’ Incarceration Takes Toll on Children, Studies Say,” Education Week (February 24, 2015).
 The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, (New York: The New Press, 2012), 60.
In their new book on the Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign, Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything, Becky Bond and Zack Exley tell some great stories about their volunteer-driven campaign strategy and in doing so lift up “rules for revolutionaries.”
The most salient rule is “The revolution will not be staffed.”
During the Bernie campaign, Zach and Becky held a fundamental belief that people, when given the opportunity, the respect and the structure, would step forward, act on their values, and would become a driving force in campaigns at the highest levels. They challenge us to face the truth that “There will never be enough money to pay all the organizers the revolution needs.”
Becky and Zach share how their strategies evolved over time and how they turned more and more of the campaign over to volunteer leaders, including having volunteers organize phone banks, teach each other how to organize and to run the campaign’s technology.
“Most of the hard work will be done by teams.”
In the Bernie campaign, volunteers built thousands of teams across the country and through those teams, people held one another accountable to getting the hard work done. In the middle of most teams was a not a paid staffer, but rather a volunteer.
“The revolution is not just bottom up; it’s peer to peer.”
In a peer to peer strategy, the organizing grows exponentially because the dynamic goes beyond the usual “organizer to volunteer” dynamic to “volunteer to volunteer.” Once volunteers are recruiting their friends, family members, and co-workers in a structured way, then the math really takes off, beyond addition to multiplication.
“Give away your passwords.”
The book is stocked with examples of how technology can support the creation of teams and the capacity of volunteers to recruit and build relationships with one another. But to grow exponentially the paid staff have to give up a degree of control and provide volunteers with access to campaign technology.
While I believe the book overall makes a real contribution to our thinking and know-how about grassroots campaigns, I do have a few bones to pick with the authors.
The writers recognize that the Bernie campaign failed to focus on race and multi-racial leadership, and they stress the importance of grounding a campaign in a racial equity perspective. But while they offer this recognition, they do not integrate this perspective in their strategies and thus remain at a superficial level throughout the text.
In addition, there were several parts of the book in which I felt the authors overstated their case and were dismissive and uninformed regarding other organizing experiences. At times they skimmed along the surface of topics that required more time and analysis. It’s easy to use dichotomies to make your case (in their case, “big verses small,” “new verses old”), but binary thinking is simplistic and doesn’t really contribute to a deeper understanding of the field.
Becky Bond and Zach Exley, Rules for Revolutionaries:How Big Organizing Can Change Everything (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2016).
Most people expect organizations that take a public stand in support human dignity and social justice, whether those be nonprofits, religious or private sector groups, to live out their values internally as well as externally, to “walk the talk.”
To live out values in a coherent and consistent way, I want to suggest that organizations would benefit from being deliberate about practicing what I think of as “social justice management.”
At the core of this management approach is an embrace of the unique potential of each person. In this practice employees are not automatons or just a means to an end; they are recognized to be the single most important resource held by the organization. Organizational leaders strive to create a learning environment in which employees at all levels have access to some form of personal and professional development, and are connected to the organization’s mission. Human development is a holistic process, and employees are viewed as whole beings.
In addition to this orientation to the human person, a social justice management practice includes a commitment to supporting equity and the hiring and advancement of people who do not bring to the workplace the advantages of growing up in a middle class or affluent environment and who have not benefitted from forms of racial and gender privilege. For white-led organizations this means not only hiring people of color but pursuing their advancement and co-leadership in the organization. It means supporting LGBTQ people in leadership roles and encouraging people to bring their whole selves to the workplace.
Often organizations will hold to certain hiring standards based on academic degrees, absence of criminal background and/or work histories. These standards create a contradiction. The organization advocates for the marginalized but then effectively excludes people from those communities or backgrounds from working inside the organization.
This commitment to equity in hiring and advancement also needs to include young people and the willingness to invest in preparing emerging leaders of color, women and others who have historically had less access to career paths.
The practice of social justice management, with its focus on human development and equity, is fueled by the dynamism of inclusion. A strategy that intentionally includes and invests in those who are often marginalized generates a kind of creativity, energy and intelligence that a more traditional hierarchical approach does not. I have witnessed this in many settings over the years when an organization decides to take an inclusive approach to young people. When an organization invests in the leadership of youth of color, it creates a dynamic quality to the organization that brings multiple benefits.
Finally, in an organization practicing social justice management, we find basic policies that support people and families: health insurance, retirement benefits, parental and family leave, and support for LGBTQ employees and people with disabilities. Just as we challenge government to treat budgets as moral documents, we must also view our internal budgets as moral statements. How are we investing our own funds to support people?
I’m sure what I have written above will strike many managers as aspirational, and it is. Less established organizations struggle to provide adequate pay and benefits. In the crunch of an organizing campaign, we all can function as automatons, just trying to get through the tasks and meet deadlines. What matters though is to be clear about where we are trying to go and who we are trying to be. To be explicit with our internal values and to have internal discussion and reflection on how we can do better leads to growth over time.
I think it’s also important to stress that the “cause” does not justify bad management. Sacrifice for the cause does not justify treating people badly or underpaying employees. There is no rationale that justifies an abusive work environment.
Large gaps between an organization’s external values and internal practices and policies do great damage to an organization over time and erode an organization’s ability to deliver on mission. In these organizations, staff experience burnout, stress and disillusionment. We see high rates of staff turnover, and a legacy grow of burned-out former employees.
The practice of social justice management depends heavily upon organizational leaders who have a personal commitment to self-awareness, self-reflection and to their own on-going spiritual and moral development. In many ways, the internal culture of an organization mirrors the internal life of the CEO. In our internal life, if we seek to rise above an egocentric view of the world and to grow habits of relating to others grounded in appreciation, gratitude and curiosity, we will create a pattern that others will seek to emulate. These types of leaders are essential to the development of powerful, magnetic and influential social justice organizations.
Jim Keddy assists social change organizations in growing their capacities in community organizing, advocacy, policy analysis and development, organizational growth and fundraising.