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August 29, 2005

Exploration: Blueprint for Revolution (part 4)

[NOTE: This document was added to the blog on September 6, 2005]

Well, apparently I have enough material in me for a fourth installment. Once again, this is not so much an essay as a brain-dump -- getting all the various practicalities of activism out of my head so that I'll be able to reshuffle the pieces into formal essays later.


Thinking once again at the national level, I'm interested to note that specialist organizations seem more effective than generalist organizations. Think about the early 70s when the National Organization for Women (NOW) is really expanding quickly. The dialogue about women's rights is at its early stages in the popular mind, so it's possible to conceive of an organization with enough committees to cover every women's issue. Thirty-plus years later, the various feminist issues are now championed by separate organizations -- if not separate movements. Getting women elected, abortion, domestic violence -- each cause deserves its own focus.

With regards to YL, the national organizations that I'm familiar with (e.g. NYRA, ASFAR) are still very generalist in nature: their manifestos lay out many various issues that we see as hanging together. Is this a stage in the growth of the movement? Maybe we'll be evolving in the right direction if we establish an anti-curfew movement with a national coalition, and another that deals only with voting rights, and so on. On the other hand, I've noticed in looking at feminism that while the activists have become pretty specialized, there's still a need (particularly among men) for groups that show how all the issues are related. It seems to me like there's a gap right now that needs to be filled -- there should be an organization (or two) at the national level promoting a "101" level of anti-sexist awareness.


There's a strong impulse to found an organization. We can see that the problem of adultism is going to be around for a while, and we can think of lots of issues that we want to tackle... So we want to pledge our commitment to tackling all these issues by creating a group with an infrastructure that will allow it to last for years to come.

This may be a mistake. It takes a great deal of effort to maintain the existence of an organization. It also takes a great deal of effort to spearhead a political campaign. The work that it takes to simply maintain the organization may get in the way of actually doing the work that it's supposed to support. You can find yourself in a position of having endless weekly meetings where you're trying to figure out how to get more members -- but no one's going to join because you're not actually tackling the real problems, you're only promising to do so once enough people are present. If your energy is limited -- and it usually is -- it may make sense to dive into working on a political campaign; if you start making progress, that will interest people in joining you.

Youth groups are particularly prone to turn-over. If you yourself aren't going to be a part of this organization for several years to come, trying to stabilize the internal structure is probably a bad use of energy. Do something that can get done -- and be called "finished" -- during the year or two or three that you can personally give.

The wish for an ever-lasting youth organization is related to setting up a multi-issue group: you see that there's lots of work to be done. Again, rather than trying to tackle the vote and the curfew and discrimination against youth at a chain of restaurants, you'll probably do better to focus your energy on a single project. ...If you have 45 or 50 youth actually attending your meetings, rather than a typical maximum of 15, then maybe you're ready to branch out!


Suppose you've settled on trying to eliminate the curfew. There are (at least) two major approaches to how to construct your organization for this purpose. On the one hand, you can frame this as a Youth Rights issue, and thus name your group "Youth Rights Portland". If you do this, you'll be attract people who believe in youth rights as members, and the name of the group will keep people coming at the issue from this angle.

On the other hand, you could name the group something like "Project No Curfew". By making your group's campaign part of the name, you're able to attract anyone who wants that goal -- even if they wouldn't endorse a broader Youth Liberation agenda or ideology.

I've seen a conflict of opinions on this matter emerge (and boil over) several times, in various contexts. One faction wants as many people involved as possible, and doesn't care who's involved -- so long as they agree on this one issue. Another faction feels that you shouldn't ally yourself with groups that would be against you in other contexts. For instance, during the 80s there was a coalition against pornography that included both some feminist groups and some religious conservative groups. This created a lot of controversy in the feminist community, activists being unhappy with the company they found themselves keeping.

In identity politics, putting the issue first may also lead to problems within organizational meetings themselves. When men and women work together against sexism, whites and blacks against racism, adults and youth against adultism, there is potential for members of the oppressor group -- though well-meaning -- to engage in typically oppressive behaviors. At worst, members of the oppressed group can feel that their organization has been stolen from them. In less severe situations, it can simply feel like the men / whites / adults can't be confronted for their bad behavior, because they're "one of the good ones".

Adult allies bringing their patterns of oppression into an anti-adultism group can be an argument for youth separatism. I am not in favor of pure separatism -- for practical reasons: adults have valuable resources that youth stand to benefit from. However, I do think it's important to confront oppressive behaviors, even when coming from one's "allies". The compromise I advocate is building processes into youth organizations that encourage youth to discuss words and actions that "stung" either when they happen or at the end of each meeting.

This practice of "processing" does have the potential to take up valuable time when one is in the middle of a campaign. When one is tight-for-time in the middle of a campaign, in fact, is probably when conflicts are most likely to arise. Having the campaign fall apart because group participants are too busy processing is unacceptable. Still, being in the habit of dealing with "stings" during times when the group is not under pressure can help build a trust that gets the group through the more challenging periods.

[Another strategy for naming organizations that I should mention: to pick a slogan that responds directly to the opponents' criticisms. For instance, in Oregon civil rights for gays and lesbians have been called "special rights" by opponents. In response, one of our most powerful organizations has dubbed itself "Basic Rights Oregon". This naming strategy may be a more advanced concept, since it comes into play when the opposition is already well-organized. Most of the activism I'm discussing here begins in a context where the opposition has not yet organized itself.]


It can be difficult for representative organizations to do political activism. If you initially set up your organization so that people could be dues-paying members, then you've probably implied that your group exists to serve their will. If there are board members who are periodically elected to their positions, this impression is strengthened.

Having a base of many members strengthens your position as a voice for a community -- you can say "I speak for the 500 dues-paying members who elected me". However, how do you choose to serve them circumstances are changing quickly?

For example: Suppose you've had a meeting with a the mayor, in which you gave her the text of a new law that you'd like passed. She says she'll think about it. A week later you find out that she has decided to bring the proposal to the city council for a vote -- but she's changed the wording. In some ways you'll get what you want -- but in other ways you may actually lose ground. The vote is in three days. What do you do?

On the one hand, you could decide that having been elected by your membership, they trust you to make decisions in cases like this -- so you decide to either support or oppose the new text on your own, and the members can vote you out of office later if they didn't like your decision.

On the other hand, you could try to call an emergency community meeting. Community members could talk about their opinions in person, so you'd know how they really feel, and you'd probably get ideas that you wouldn't have had on your own. But because you may only be able to give 36 hours notice before this meeting, attendance may be pretty bad.

I've been through dilemma very similar to this, myself. You may never find yourself in this situation, though... Let me come at this from a different angle.

The smaller the group you are in, the more likely it is that you'll be able to arrive at agreement. The larger the group you have, the more diversity of opinion there will be, and the more difficult it will be to reach a consensus. Politics are inherently matters of opinion. If an issue is not part of your mission statement -- if perhaps it has recently emerged and you are trying to respond -- then you may not be able to unify your membership and rally them behind the cause.

A small group, a "cadre", does not have this problem. When your activist group is only as big as the number of people who are in your meeting room, then you can make decisions without being concerned about what non-participating members think.

Again, I seem to be making an argument for single-purpose organizations. When I was with the Portland Bisexual Alliance board of directors, we tried to be a one-stop all-in-one organization. We had social events, educational events, and political events... But while the leadership was committed to doing politics, many of the members were purely interested in social events, and were disinterested in the projects that we hoped to rally their support behind. Had we approached politics as a cadre rather than from a "serving the members" point of view, we would have saved ourselves an amount of grief.


The "Portland Bisexual Alliance" was poorly named, not being an "alliance" as I understand the term.

An "alliance" is when two or more groups share common values, and support each other's work. The alliance may result in collaborative projects, or it may be more loose -- a sort of network of like-minded groups.

A "coalition" is a collection of groups that band together to work on a single issue. The participating groups may disagree on all other issues, but they agree to set those differences aside for the sake of achieving this one goal.

[I learned this distinction at a Portland Women's Crisis Line training at least a decade ago. Possibly from Guadalupe Guajaro?]

When you're pursuing a political project, often you'll want other organizations to support your work. You try to establish as broad a coalition as possible, to give the appearance (if not the reality) of community support.

Over time, you're more likely to get support, and more likely to be seen as a trusted organization, if you develop relationships with the groups you want to be working with. In practice, what this means is that you go to their meetings, you staff a table at their events, you show up at their protests in solidarity, you invite them to coffee to get to know them better. It's great if you can get multiple people from your group to come -- but as a leader, getting to know other leaders personally, getting to the point where they know who you are -- that's valuable.

But you also need to not be disappointed when they say "no" to joining your coalition. Consider for a moment if the roles are reversed -- if another group asks you to be a part of their coalition.

The easiest requests to deal with are for a donation of money or for a simple endorsement. Your group can discuss the matter and send off a check or permission to add your group's name to a list of other supporters. You do that, and your commitment is done.

Things get trickier if the other group wants you to actually collaborate. When I was running a board, my policy was that representatives from other organizations were always welcome to attend our planning meetings to present their case. You don't need to decide in advance whether or not your group collaborates -- you can decide on a case-by-case basis. After hearing what the other group is trying to do, you discuss how closely aligned your aims are, whether there's overlap between the membership of their group and the membership of yours, whether you have adequate energy to take on another commitment, and so on. ...Coalition work isn't such a simple matter when it's someone directly asking you for a contribution!


There are several debates about how to do politics that are likely to never go away. To an extent you can circumvent them by making some decisions about the nature of your organization when it is first being formed.

(1) Bridge-building vs. Confrontation

This is largely a matter of style. Do you want to challenge the people who oppress you? Show them how outraged and angry you are? Condemn bad behavior in no uncertain terms? ...Or do you want to peacefully educate the people who have done harm -- arriving at a sense of understanding and friendship?

In my opinion, both styles are valuable tools -- it's really just a question of when each one is appropriate. A confrontational style can often get people's attention, so that an issue will get dealt with rather than ignored. On the other hand, when you're trying to get a person or group to change, they ultimately need to feel like there's a potential solution. If your group will be against them no matter what, then there's no motive for change.

(2) Separatism vs. Partnership

If you are an oppressed group, should you welcome members of the oppressor group into your organization? Strict separatists want to prohibit members of the dominating group for several reasons: to prevent take-overs from within, to allow the minority culture to flourish, to allow space for healing...

Activists who prefer partnership tend to feel that separatism excludes, and therefore is a matter of doing the same behavior that we complain about. There are men, whites, adults (etc.) who are strong supporters of anti-oppression causes -- and there are women, blacks, and youth who are against the cause of liberation. Shouldn't belief rather than body be the criterion for involvement? And, if a world of equality is the ultimate goal, shouldn't this be embodied in the organization itself?

As I've said many times before now, I am in favor of a compromise: organizations where oppressor and oppressed work together -- but where members of the oppressed group are given special encouragements to speak up when their "allies" (presumably unwittingly) do things that hurt.

(3) Cultural pride vs. Melting pot

Should members of minority groups try to emulate and fit into the oppressor's culture -- or should they work to reclaim and celebrate their own unique heritage? Youthful character-traits, clothes, music, etc. have frequently put down by adults. "Youth spaces" where these things are celebrated can help youth feel pride in who they are, shed conscious and subconscious shame for not measuring up to adult standards.

However, using slang, and dressing in youth fashions may lead to adults dismissing youth activists rather than listening to them. Politics may not be the best time for self-expression. Recall that African-American protesters in the Southern civil rights struggles of the 60s wore their Sunday best. Youth wearing formal clothes, such as suits, who may look like National Honor Society students, may (or may not) make the better impression at an election day protest about youth not being allowed to vote.

I think there's a place for both approaches. Self-expression motivates youth to become part of the movement. I think we want to create more room for youth to be themselves... Trying to dress, speak, and act "adult" is a form of costume that one can put on when necessary. ...But then, I don't believe that either "youth" or "adult" cultures are natural and real -- both seem artificial to me, so I'm happy to mix and match. My preference is to transcend age entirely.

(4) Unified front vs. Taking care of our own

Oftentimes "progressive" leaders will make the argument that the various liberation movements (feminism, black empowerment, youth lib, etc.) will never succeed alone -- we need to all band together into one big movement. These leaders may point to ways in which oppressor groups set oppressed groups against each other, and thus let us keep each other down, saving them the work.

However, an organization only has so many people -- no one has time and energy to take on all issues at once. Sometimes one group has been asked to put their agenda on the back burner, to work on the "more important" issue first. Sometimes groups on the Left -- Socialist groups in particular -- have actually infiltrated other movements specifically with the intention of subverting them, bringing them around to doing the other movement's work. Being back-burnered or infiltrated isn't OK. If we don't fight for ourselves, who will fight for us? And who knows our agenda better than we do? A progressive agenda might have a hundred points on it -- our small agenda might have only ten -- which is much more workable.

I believe in a realistic progressivism. It is worth our while to learn as much as possible about other oppressions. Because we ask others not to oppress us, we should care about not oppressing others. Furthermore, learning about other groups means we don't have to reinvent the wheel -- our own oppression becomes more easily understood when we look at the suffering of others and how they have struggled. We should take on coalition commitments when it makes sense to do so -- and always be open to hearing other people's requests for help.

(5) Role of Allies

I have talked about this above, so I will say little here except to note this as a perennial point of contention. Some people feel that anyone who believes in justice should be welcomed into the movement. Others feel that the subjects of oppression have special knowledge about it and deserve special considerations in the process of doing activism. Me, I feel that members of the oppressor group are not universally evil, ignorant or untrustworthy -- but that because we are often unaware of our own oppressive behaviors, those who want to be allies should be careful not to take over groups (voluntarily removing themselves from votes, for instance), and should take extraordinary measures to make themselves safe people to criticize, should criticism be needed.


There are a number of types of political functions that an organization can fulfill. In part, it is worth considering these because it is difficult for a single organization to undertake all tasks. Thus, at the local level and at the national level, a healthy movement should have a variety of organizations.

(1) Watchdog Group

A watchdog group pays attention to known opposition groups or government bodies (state legislature, county commissioners, city council, government agencies, etc.) or media outlets. A watchdog group may or may not take action in response to current events... But someone has to notice that things are going wrong if anyone's going to do something about the situation.

(2) Lobbying & Legislative Activism

There is work to be done to prevent bad laws from passing, to strike down bad laws on the books, and to propose good new laws instead. This work can be done at the federal, state, county, or city level.

(3) Court-based Activism

Good laws aren't worth much if your community doesn't know how to use them, can't afford lawyers to pursue their cases, or judges interpret those laws in ways that render them ineffective. There is work to be done teaching youth what youth they have and how to use them. Legal defense funds can be set up to help youth get lawyers to help defend them. We tend to think of the legislature as the only place where laws are shaped -- but putting our energies into a significant court case can be just as effective (or more so!) in terms of pushing the legal system in the direction we want.

(4) Against Media Defamation

There are biased or downright inflammatory articles, advertising, and entertainments being produced all the time for TV, newspapers, billboards, movies, the net, etc. Letters to the editor, protests, etc. can use these items to our advantage, pointing out oppression when it occurs and critiquing it.

(5) Education

It can be argued that education is not true activism because it does not directly address power. However, running workshops or producing videos is a time-honored way of attempting to win support for your views, which perhaps means translates into more activists joining your group. [Beware training oppressors how to discriminate simply without getting caught!]

(6) Social Events

Social events are decidedly not activism. However, helping establish a community is a first step towards mobilizing that community to activism.


Activists want to mobilize their communities to action. However, this can be difficult to do when a population -- such as youth -- has not even recognized itself as a community yet. We want youth to care when a new anti-youth law is created, for them to get angry and get working to stop it. But if youth haven't developed their perspective as a youth, it's almost as if the law deals with someone else.

Let me take a moment to explain how people get involved in activism and why they stay.

People get active when an issue directly affects them, in a deeply personal way. Lots of issues effect you, but you're not so bothered that you care to do anything. ...Having a friend or partner who cares deeply about an issue means that that issue impacts you in a personal way.

People get involved in groups because they know someone else who's going. It's very hard to walk into a room of strangers; it's much easier to come along with a friend. Really, nearly all social change happens because of the bonds that people have with each other. This is why good activists know put effort into getting to know quite a few people quite well.

People stay involved in groups, and become committed to a larger movement, because the ideas that they hear help them make sense of their lives. A movement that gives you a worldview is a movement that becomes home.

...Because youth organizations have such high turn-over, they must constantly concerned with recruiting new activists. The first step is not necessarily a hard-sell to join (which too often means just giving money to become a member). The first step can be to ask questions. Host a community forum about what issues matter most to youth in your community now. As youth work on answering this question together, they begin to see themselves not just as "people" but as "youth". This is probably the first step towards mobilizing the community -- and it's an action that doesn't necessarily have an immediate outcome. It's outreach, but without too forceful of a hook.


In much of my past writing I have been extremely skeptical about parents' ability to be allies -- the motivation to stay in control is so strong. However, I have recently been reevaluating this position. I am seeing pockets of radical parents emerging, such as the readers of "Hip Mama" magazine. I don't know how closely our ideologies align -- but there's potential.

Parents are a valuable source of money which could go toward hiring lobbyists to watchdog the state legislature. They are also a constituency that would have a voice that is well-received when it speaks up in legislative struggles. However, I think that YL would want to try to assert some standards for what constitutes acceptable parenting and acceptable participation in the movement, in order to prevent being steam-rolled.

I've been imagining (but haven't yet written) a sort of domestic bill of rights -- a set of entitlements that parents of conscience voluntarily extend to their offspring. Ex: I will not spank or hit; I will not invade the privacy of your room; you are allowed to call me by my first name; you can choose your own name; you will not be constrained by a curfew; I won't prevent you from dying your hair, wearing clothes of your choice, getting a tattoo, etc; and so on. A document such as this might be a good core document for radical parents to organize themselves around.


I seldom talk about what sorts of activism an individual can do -- even though an individual is very powerful on their own. Rather, I'm always talking about groups and organizations. Why is this? Because I believe that groups are the social unit that will push forward social change. Working in a group has several key advantages over working as an individual.

Working in a group gives you courage. Alone, you are full of doubt and uncertainty. Being with people who believe what you do gives you confidence. They support you in taking risks that you'd never actualize on your own.

A group is smarter than an individual. When you discuss something together, you come up with many more ideas that you would alone. You get different perspectives, you come up with more solutions. And if you're wrong, you're more likely to discover it if there's a friendly group to check your thinking. [This collective intelligence can also be very useful when you're actually in a meeting with an authority!]

A group is taken more seriously than an individual. If you go into a principal's office alone with your complaint, s/he can fairly easily dismiss you. But if a group of eight students come in together, the complaint has much more weight to it.

Adults aren't used to hearing youth speak as a group. Adults generally only listen to one youth at a time (when they're listening at all). When a group of youth all speak together, their voices take on a different quality: it's as if all youth are speaking. Rather than just listening to individual persons, an adult feels like they're listening to what youth as a group feel.

Working in a group you can get more done. You pool your efforts, each taking on a few small tasks, and something very large can be accomplished.

A group continues to exist even if it loses a member. When a cause is important, you want someone to keep working on it. Creating a group is a strategy for making a force in the world that will continue on even after you've left it.


Here is a very basic principle. We act as if an organization is a person that can do things, some kind of giant robot that we can order around. In reality, there is no organization -- only the individuals who work under it's name. The organization is an illusion. It's worth perpetuating: people on the outside take an organization more seriously than they take an individual. For the sake of the illusion, the people who are making it happen don't emphasize their own unique identities and contributions so much -- they contribute to the group project. And yet, it is absolutely crucial that the activists on the inside remember that the organization is only themselves. If there is work to be done, someone at the table is going to have to do it. Talking about what "we" should do is a waste of time if no one is volunteering to be the individual who takes on a specific task.


An activist's most powerful tool is one-on-one, face-to-face conversation. I'm not exaggerating -- most powerful tool.

If you want to raise money, the most effective way to do so is to ask. Make a list of everyone you know. Make appointments to meet them at coffee shops. Tell them what you're doing and why you need money, and then ask them for a specific amount. Wait silently, let them consider it. Then they give you some money, or they don't. Maybe they can give you time volunteering instead. ...You're far more likely to make money this way than by sending letters to strangers.

Politically too, make a point of inviting people out to coffee. Get to know the other political leaders in your town. Get to know the members of your organization. When you know about the lives of these people -- and they know about you -- they're no longer strangers, but rather acquaintances whom you can call upon. Knowing something about their lives gives you better knowledge about their motives, their interests, what kind of time and money they can bring, etc.


Too many people seem to think that you can do activism entirely via email. Not so.

Email is notoriously bad for group discussions. If you want to plan something, do it in person -- or at least over the phone. With correspondence, there's too much opportunity for a tone of voice to be misread. Or for someone to not respond to an important point. Or for the reality of a situation to not set in. These things are quickly dealt with face-to-face.

Face to face, you have much richer conversation -- there are facial expressions and tones of voice. You can talk much faster, progressing through much more material. There's a physical sense of commitment to each other.

Use email for invitations, RSVPs, and reminders. Do all your planning face-to-face.


Before you leave a meeting, always figure out when and where you're going to meet next. Leave adequate room for this discussion on the agenda. [This point should be under "how to facilitate a meeting".]


Justice and fairness aren't very compelling issues. Pain and suffering are. Legislators tend to be pragmatists rather than idealists. If you can't dramatize how a problem makes someone suffer in a practical way, they probably won't be interested.

Furthermore, I'm not sure that we should be interested, either. On a theoretical level, there are a lot of things that aren't fair. However, ultimately I think we should be devoting our energies to lessening real suffering in the world. I've sometimes described this in terms of "bread and blanket" issues. Feed the hungry, give a blanket to people who are cold. Issues that are purely a matter of pride matter -- but keep them in perspective.





...On youth turf.


(disrupt & occupy city hall; election day protests; take back the night marches)

Posted by Sven at 12:00 PM | Comments (0)

August 25, 2005

Exploration: Blueprint for Revolution (part 3)

[NOTE: This document was added to the blog on September 6, 2005]

The past two days I've been writing about the nitty-gritty details of doing activism. After 23 pages, apparently I still have more to say! I'm seeing several threads in this material that I might later pull out and hone into more succinct essays.


The two main options for how to make decisions as a group are either use a "consensus" process or to vote. Personally, I favor voting.

The idea of "consensus" is that a group can talk about a decision that needs to be made until everyone is in consents to a particular option. This can be an extremely long, convoluted process. It can take 3 hours, 6 hours, 12 hours or more to arrive at a decision... And often there will be long tangents, talking about other matters that seem to have a bearing. Nonetheless, this is a process that can work -- even with very large groups (e.g. 50+).

Making decisions by a vote is a way to arrive at a decision more quickly. The downside is that you may be skipping the work that brings about a sense of unity, which ultimately leads to rifts in your organization.

Consensus and voting don't have to be at odds. When I'm facilitating a meeting, often times I get the impression that our discussion has led us to a point where everyone pretty much agrees. At this point it's useful to speak up with this observation: "I think we've reached a consensus. Does everyone agree that what we want to do is __________?" [It's important at this point to echo back to the group what it is that you think they all agree about.]

Another important thing to understand about consensus is that you don't have to be 100% in agreement to move forward: a person can decide that while they don't entirely agree, they're willing to let a decision pass. This is perhaps one of the most important things I know about participating in decision-making -- that I don't always have to get my way. I can decide that my differences of opinion really aren't all that important: "I don't entirely agree, but I'm satisfied enough with the current solution to let this pass." I can also have very strong differences, and decide that it's OK if the group goes forward nonetheless: "I have to say that I strongly disagree with this decision, but for the sake of moving forward, I can let the group go in this direction."

In an organization that votes, you can create complex rules about who gets to vote. Usually it's easier just to go with a simple majority. However, if the vote is extremely close, a facilitator might want to suggest further discussion, to try to hammer out some more differences.

If you've got a legal status as a non-profit, your by-laws may require that you have a certain quorum of members present to vote. It's very frustrating if you don't have enough present to move forward! If you are a small group, I recommend having a policy that whoever is present at a particular meeting constitutes a quorum, so decision-making can move forward. Even so, if only two of you show up, it probably behooves you not to make any drastic decisions without more people present.

In order for a vote to occur, someone actually has to say "I think we should vote on this now." As a facilitator, part of your job is to notice when a vote is appropriate and make that proposal. People can say that they don't feel they're ready for vote, and discussion continues -- but there's nothing wrong with making the proposal.

Oftentimes there seems to be more disagreement in a room than there actually is. It can be very useful occasionally to ask people for a "straw poll". Ask: "So if everyone was going to vote right now, how many people would say yes? I just want to have an idea of where we stand." The results of the straw poll lead to new options. You can decide that discussion needs to continue, or that the group really is ready for a vote -- or if there's only a small minority of dissenters, you can either ask them if they're willing to step aside, or what would quell their concerns.

There are several ways to run an actual vote. You can write your decision on a slip of paper and put it in a hat. You can get complicated and print out ballots, making sure that only people who are qualified to vote are allowed to. You can ask people to verbally say "aye" or "nay". You can ask people to show thumbs up or thumbs down. You can ask people to raise their hands. Personally, I find raising hands tends to be easiest. Most decisions don't need the formality of writing on slips of paper; it can be confusing to count votes when a vote is verbal; and it can be difficult to see people's thumbs (especially if they want to wave them sideways to show that they're ambivalent!).

A nicety of voting that I recommend is to not simply ask "all in favor?" -- but to also ask "all against?" and "all abstaining?" If you're not going to win a vote, it's nice to feel like your vote is being counted, rather than just stopping when it's clear that the majority agrees. Also, a person may have reasons to remove themselves from a vote -- they should be allowed to show that, rather than being accidentally counted as a vote against.


It's very easy for one leader to stay in power for a long time. This can lead to feelings on the part of other group members that this leader really owns the group, and if you disagree with them frequently... Then what's the point of being involved?

Leaders are often the persons who do the most work. To an extent, the fact that you're willing to do a greater share of the work of an organization is what gives you the right to lead it. It can be extremely frustrating to be criticized for having too much power by persons in the group who want a say, but refuse to do any of the work.

Oftentimes, leaders don't want all that power, anyway. They would rather that other people would do more work, so that it's not all on their shoulders. This can lead to resentment towards the other participants. "Why am I the one who has to do all the work?"

One strategy for sharing power that can be effective -- especially in youth-led groups -- is to have a rotating chair and co-chair. The chairperson has a term of two or three months, during which the co-chair learns from them how to the job. Their most important meeting outside of the general meeting is probably the one where agenda items are brainstormed. [This is something that can sometimes be done over the phone rather than in person.] At the end of the two or three month term, the chair steps down, the co-chair comes into power, and a new co-chair is elected.

With regards to people brainstorming what the group should do without offering to do any work... An important thing to understand about organizations is that it is impossible for an organization to do anything. An organization is an illusion, the fiction that a group of people are actually one more powerful person. In reality, there is only you and the individuals sitting at the table with you. It is an important practice to get into, to stop talking about what the group should do, and instead talk about who in the room can do what.

As a facilitator, when I hear a discrete task that needs to get done -- for instance putting up posters -- I pick someone who I think might be willing to do that job and I ask them directly if they'll do it: "Morgan, can you take care of putting up the posters?" It's may be a little uncomfortable at first, feeling like you're singling someone out -- but when you ask lots of people during the meeting to take on tasks, it seems less so -- and people start to volunteer to take tasks as soon as they've been identified.

Many organizations start out by creating positions that they think should be filled: publicity director, political director, social director, etc. In my experience, this is an ineffective way to run a group. A person may take on a position without really knowing how to get the job done. They will feel isolated and guilty for failing. If, instead, you discuss what concrete tasks need to get done in the group, then people who know how to do the task and have the energy to do it can identify themselves. A leader does NOT have the right to force a task on anyone, even if they said they'd take a position. Everyone has the right to say "no" when asked to take on a task. People also have a responsibility to say "no" if they aren't going to have time to take on a task. For the sake of having realistic expectations, it can be very useful to talk about what's actually going on in people's lives -- find out who has time and who doesn't.

When a leader feels overworked, they're often told "you need to learn how to delegate!" I find that this is fairly useless advice. The best way to share work around is to talk about the work in a meeting, and ask specific individuals -- not the room as a whole! -- if they're willing to do certain jobs. How many people seem to interpret "delegation", however, is to think that committees should be formed.

I recommend against creating committees. People think that what you should do is brainstorm all the tasks that there are to do, and then create a committee for each of them. You quickly discover that there are far more tasks than people in your group. Instead, if a task really does seem like too much to do during your regular meeting time, then suggest that there be a special meeting to deal with this topic later. Ask who would like to attend such a meeting; if no one does, then there simply isn't will to pursue the project at this point in time; if more than one person wants to attend such a meeting, then they're in charge.

...This resolves a potential conflict that committees raise. Suppose you have a committee whose job it is to come up with a T-shirt design. What if they spend a long time making their design -- and then when they bring it back to the group, everyone else hates it! Does the T-shirt committee have the authority to make a decision, or do they need an OK from the rest of the group? If they put in a lot of work, it can be crushing to find out after the fact that the group gets to veto their work. ...By working with meetings rather than committees, you either attend the work meetings or you give up your right to have a say in the decisions being made. It's a general principle: for the most part, the people doing the work have a right to control their project.

The idea that a group shouldn't have committees applies in formal non-profit organizations, too. I was on the board of the Portland Women's Crisis Line for about a year and a half. Originally the group had seven or eight or nine committees that we were supposed to keep staffed. However, we only ever had between nine and fifteen board members. The solution that was recommended to us by an outside consultant -- which worked out well -- was to have just two committees: the executive committee and the development committee.







Posted by Sven at 12:00 PM | Comments (0)

August 24, 2005

Exploration: Blueprint for Revolution (part 2)

[NOTE: This document was added to the blog on September 6, 2005]

[I'm breaking my own rule and trying to pick up an essay I was working on yesterday. The preceding 12 pages were written in 3 hrs 15 min on Tuesday Aug. 23. Today is Aug. 24.]

I can see maybe four sections emerging: (1) the national level, (2) how a movement gets subverted, (3) direct action tactics, (4) running a local organization.

Beyond these, there are clearly more topics: etiquette for adult allies, why limit adult participation, how to draw age lines within a youth organization... Perhaps these topics are all a subset of the "running a local organization" topic, since they seem to belong in that context.

In the meantime, I had several additional topics that I was thinking about addressing yesterday that I didn't get to.


We have terrible role models for being a "leader". We think a leader is a president or a general or a teacher who commands other people. Don't think of it that way. If you want to be a leader, you'll have the power of initiating events -- but once they're under way, everyone's opinions have fairly equal weight. You'll also have a fair amount of power in terms of setting the agenda of meetings -- but again, this is largely about being more prepared for the meeting than other people in the room, not controlling discussion with an iron fist. If you've prepared an agenda (a list of topics that you think should be discussed), people will pretty much naturally look to you to guide them through an evening.

A leader is the person who decides a meeting needs to be called and invites people. A leader is the person who decides that even if no one else attends, they will be at the designated meeting place on time. A leader takes it upon themselves to make sure that meetings continue, and does whatever is necessary to ensure that they do.

Being a leader often doesn't feel fair. Shouldn't other people be helping more? People seem to depend upon you to do this organizing work, when they should be responsible for it too. Being in the lead can be tiring. But you take on the job because you think it's important that a group should exist, and when you look around you don't see anyone else stepping up to the job. Everyone would rather that someone would do the work of changing the world for us. The impulse that makes you a leader is: "well, I guess if I don't make this happen, it's not going to happen at all."

Oftentimes the job of being a leader merged with facilitating meetings. You might say that being a leader breaks down into two parts: what you do outside of the meeting in preparation, and what you do as a facilitator during the meeting.


(1) Meeting length.

One hour is almost always too short to get much real work done. Three hours is too long -- people get tired and cranky. Two hours is standard meeting length. An hour and a half can be a nice compromise if people are feeling like meetings are eating up too much of their lives -- but when business isn't finished by 8:30pm, these meetings often stretch into 2 hours anyway.

Start on time. Easy to say -- but more difficult in practice. Youth frequently have transportation problems; it's not uncommon for someone to show up 30 or 40 minutes late. Don't accommodate this behavior -- even if there are good excuses or a person calls to say that they're on their way -- if you do, meetings will start increasingly late, and people won't want to come at all. If you make a practice of starting when you say you're going to start, people will try to be there on time because they know they'll miss the meeting otherwise.

There's an almost universal acceptance that meetings actually start ten minutes late. If you think no one is going to show up, you don't have to stay after waiting 30 minutes -- and leaving after just 20 is acceptable. Waiting for an hour for someone who promised they'd come but never shows up is incredibly demoralizing, and an intolerable waste of your time. Being a leader does not require that kind of sacrifice from you!

...By the same token, end on time. This can also be difficult in practice. If you say you're going to end at 9pm, but everyone is in the middle of a heated debate, what do you do? You interrupt. Which can be hard. But at five minutes to nine, you have to pause and draw people's attention to the time. You say: "I think this conversation is going to take more time than we have. Do people want to stay another half hour? If not, let's talk about scheduling another time when we can continue this conversation." ...What you're doing is asking for people's permission to continue. That way people have an option to opt out, and don't feel like they were forced to stay against their will, unable to leave for fear of interrupting.

(2) The agenda.

Meetings tend to be much more productive if you have an agenda. It sounds fancy, but it's not so bad. You just try to think of all the topics that you're going to want to cover in the meeting, and then write them down.

There are several ways introduce people to the agenda. You can have it written down in front of you and verbally tell people what's on it. You can make photocopies and pass them around. You can get a big piece of paper, tape it up on the wall, and write the agenda there with big markers, so everyone can see. This last option is the most "professional" and has some advantages to it -- it also requires that you haul big clumsy pieces of paper, markers, and tape around with you. The worst option is to write down your agenda, but not tell anyone what's on it -- simply telling them from time to time that everyone has to move on to the "next topic" now.

If everyone can see the agenda, on big paper or on photocopies, then it's customary to quickly (1-2 minutes) explain the items and ask if anything has been left off that people want to add. Most often the answer will be no. If someone has something to add, though, it's your job to suggest a where in the agenda it should fall, and write it down so it doesn't get forgotten.

(3) Time-keeping.

There are only so many topics that you can cover during a 2 hour time-span. Before the meeting, it's a good idea to estimate how many minutes you want to spend on each of your agenda items. Write these estimates on the agenda itself so everyone can see.

When people are suggesting additional items, that's also a time when they can suggest that you'll need more (or less) time for particular topics. Anything that involves ideology is likely to take a long time (45 min - 1 hr, or more), and it's unlikely that you'll arrive at consensus in just one night. Projects that involve concrete actions can be dealt with more quickly.

These time estimates are merely estimates! Don't try to stretch a discussion out to 30 minutes if it reaches a natural conclusion at 15. And don't be surprised if a topic you thought would take 5 minutes winds up taking 40 -- that happens even to the pros.

However, don't just let your time markers pass silently because conversation is heated. It's your job to interrupt the flow and draw attention to time. I advise against simply cutting conversation off -- being the leader doesn't make you dictator -- and people will begin to resent a brusque style. Instead, I recommend "renegotiating for more time". Simply say: "Our five minutes is up; can we renegotiate for more time? How about five more minutes and then we cut it off? Is that enough?" By doing this, everyone has some control over the schedule.

Trying to pay attention to the conversation and the clock at the same time is always difficult. A very good idea is to ask at the beginning of the meeting for someone to be "time keeper" -- to let everyone know when the time for each topic is up. Help the time-keeper by not writing your agenda in terms of "7:30 - 8:00 discuss fundraising" -- the exact time is likely to change. Instead, write "discuss fundraising = 30 min" -- that way the length of time is relative.

A nice tool to have along is a kitchen timer that beeps. Even if you have someone else doing time-keeping, they too can get caught up in discussion -- and they too can feel awkward interrupting conversation. The beeping alarm takes the burden off of them for interrupting, and you don't have to constantly be paying attention to it.

Another nicety of time-keeping is to not just suddenly say "time's up!" -- instead, say "we've got 5 minutes left on this topic". It allows participants to collectively decide whether they have time to wrap up a big topic, or if they want to renegotiate for more time. When you're suddenly out of time, there's more pressure to just keep going, rather than manage time responsibly.

I've discussed this in lots of detail -- it sounds more complicated than it really is.

(4) Introductions.

Typically, the first two items on an agenda are: (1) OK agenda, and (2) introductions / check-ins.

Introductions are appropriate if you're hosting a workshop or meeting of people who don't all know each other. The basic intro is: name, your organization's name, what you hope to get out of this meeting. It's nice to spice this up with things that help you get to know the people at the table. The questions can be serious or silly: Why did you first get involved in Youth Lib? What matters most to you about this work? Who is someone that inspires you? What is your favorite fruit?

There's enormous room for creativity in introductions -- there are lots of games you can use to get people in a good mood and get their energy up. That's a whole essay unto itself! Most of the time in a two-hour meeting, however, you won't have time for these things.

Check-ins are similar to introductions, but it's like you're asking participants to stop and introduce themselves to themselves. How do you feel emotionally? Physically? Spiritually? What are you bringing with you from your day? What would you like put aside from your day, so you can be wholly present here? These questions can be particularly useful when your group is working on emotionally charged issues with each other. If you draw attention yourselves as emotional beings at the beginning of the meeting, it's easier to acknowledge the emotions in the room later on when things get heated.

A word of warning. Figure that it takes 3 to 4 minutes for each person to introduce themselves / check-in. If you've got eight people at a meeting, you can easily use up half an hour checking in -- which may be more like 45 minutes if people arrive late. Take care not to eat up all your work time just getting started!

(5) Facilitation.

I'm a fairly hands-off facilitator. I try to notice who hasn't been talking much and occasionally ask them if they'd like to add anything. Do this gently -- it's not fun to be put on the spot, forced to talk when you really don't have anything to say. A nice stock phrase to use: "Is there anyone who hasn't spoken yet who'd like to say something?"

Some people feel that facilitation should involve encouraging people by comments such as "that's a good point, John" or "Mary, what do you think about that?" In my experience, this is heavy-handed. People feel less free to talk on their own -- they wait for the facilitator to prompt them... Ultimately the facilitator wonders why no one speaks up on their own. Me, I advise becoming comfortable with pauses in the conversation. It's OK if there's a short period of silence -- someone will speak up to fill it, and it doesn't have to be you.

Having said that, there are points in conversation where it seems like conversation has come to a dead stop. I find it's very useful to brainstorm some questions before coming to the meeting -- that way, I'm prepared with new angles, and can reinvigorate the conversation when it slows down. Avoid yes/no questions. [This aspect of facilitation is really more appropriate for when you're in a discussion group, rather than when you're in a business meeting.]


The essence of any meeting or event is this: (1) there is a meeting place, (2) a date, (3) a begin time and end time, and (4) one person who is committed to being present to speak.

If you are making a poster for an event, these are the four basic pieces of information that you must include. ...Always mention the day of the week, not just the calendar date. Always include the street address of the location where you'll meet. Oftentimes you don't have to publicize who precisely is going to speak -- you simply need to say what the content will be. Example:

Friday, Sept. 20
7 - 9pm
@ Common Grounds Coffeehouse
4321 SE Hawthorne
Discussion: How can we eliminate curfews?

This formula works for all kinds of events, with minor adjustments. If you've got a rock band playing at a dance club as a fundraiser for you... If you're hosting a rally in a public park with twelve speakers... If you have a guest speaker coming to a bookstore after hours... If you're hosting a community discussion about what political issues youth currently feel are most important... These are all essentially the same event -- all that varies is where you meet, and who the person guaranteed to be speaking (or singing) will be. ...The person introducing the event will always be you.


There are groups where everyone is essentially an equal participant. You can have an ongoing support group, discussion group, "consciousness raising" group, etc. where everyone is there because they are personally benefiting from the meetings. When a person feels that they aren't getting as much out of it anymore, they leave.

Another sort of group exists to host such events. The members of this group plan when and where the discussion group will happen, they attend and facilitate -- but their personal investment is in making sure that other people in the community are served. When one is concerned with taking care of the community, then there's a greater concern with things such as publicity, public meeting spaces, and facilitation. In addition to the discussion group then, there is a second set of ongoing meetings dedicated to planning future events.

Activism can be accomplished at either level.


Not many -- but a few -- people grow up in households with activist parents. For most, activism is alien territory, and pretty daunting. In my opinion, it takes great courage to get involved in activism -- it's in bad taste to complain about the "apathy" of the uninvolved.

Let's talk about how one becomes committed to activism in terms of levels.

At the first level, activism seems almost imaginary to a person -- it's nothing they've considered getting involved with personally.

At the second level, a person is aware of an active group -- almost certainly because a friend is involved -- and becomes curious to attend. It takes a large amount of courage to finally attend, and there's a strong sense of not belonging, and fear that the other participants will condemn one. This is the curiosity phase, exploring.

At the third level, a person has sufficiently enjoyed attending a group that they come back. At first irregularly, then with loyalty. There's a sense of belonging. This is the membership phase.

At the fourth level, a person takes responsibility for the perpetuation of a group. Quite possibly it's because there's a crisis where a previous leader is leaving, and it seems that the group will disappear if one doesn't personally make sure that it keeps meeting. This is the step from participation into leadership.

At the fifth level, the activist now explores other groups. There's an interest in the cause in general, and how organizations in general function. The original organization may end; the person may have multiple memberships. The activist has transcended their particular group and moved on to a position of activity / leadership in the larger movement.


I want to return to the topic of direct action. I talked about interacting with various authority figures and what sort of research is useful. Here's more detail.

[Note that direct action pretty much only works with institutions. It's not designed for shaping public opinion, shifting the attitudes of your average adult, e.g. eliminating stereotypes. Activism, as I understand it, can use the system to punish adults for prejudice, and teach youth how to navigate the system -- but it's not for changing their minds. Changing minds is the work of propaganda (a loaded word, I know). For that sort of goal, host workshops, put up posters or billboards, write persuasive articles. Be aware, though, that what you are doing is only dialoging with people's opinions -- not actually changing the rules that we live by.]

(1) What level of government is involved?

The curfew exists at the city level and at the state level; it does not exist at the federal level. Prior to an amending the U.S. constitution, the voting age for state and federal elections varied; the amendment gave the U.S. government the power to set the voting age for states -- but the age at which one may run for office at the state level still remains under the control of the states. For whatever issue you want to tackle, it's important to discover what level the relevant law exists at: federal, state, county, or city.

It is easier than ever before to find the original text of the law that you're wanting to change. Most cities and states now have their entire legal codes online. It's daunting at first to look at the texts of laws -- but it's exciting, too, to see them in their raw form. Explore. Slowly look into these online realms. Believe it or not, the texts of laws are reasonably readable by your average human being.

(2) How does law-making happen at that level of government?

It's important to understand the big picture in terms of how, say, your city council functions. If you can find your state or city's legal code, you can probably also find an explanation of how proposals for laws get turned into law. Still, if you know an activist who works at this level, it's even easier to ask them to meet you at a coffee shop and then pick their brains, asking every question you can think of. That's how I learned most of what I know in this area.

Some questions to ask -- because these things vary from state to state, or city to city. [I'll focus on a city council, because it's a simpler structure.] How many city councilors are there? How long is a term? How long as each councilor had their position? Are there term limits? Which city bureaus (e.g. water, the police bureau, etc.) does each councilor oversee -- or is the mayor in charge of all bureaus? Does the mayor have a veto? How many votes does it take to pass a law? Do the councilors get paid, or are they volunteers? Do they meet part of the year, or all year round? Do they work every year -- or every other year? What positions are elected in your city, and which ones are appointed?

(3) Where exactly do governmental meetings happen?

Those are basics of the governmental structure. Here are some more specific, practical things that you should find out, too.

Where does the city council meet? When do meetings occur? Are meetings open to the public? Is the public allowed to speak at the meetings? If so, where do you have to sign up?

If possible, I strongly recommend actually going to a city council meeting, just to physically locate the building and get a feel for how meetings work.

(4) Who are the people sitting in the seats of power?

What are the names of the councilors? What districts do they represent? Where are each of the councilors' offices located? What are their phone numbers, and what are their secretaries' names? [ALWAYS treat secretaries well -- they're much of the real power in the government!] Are there specific times when each councilor is available to meet one-on-one with the public?

And, as I said before, google each of the councilors -- find out what their pet issues are, what their career prior to becoming a politician was, what laws they've passed previously, etc.


City and county level politics are reasonably approachable -- there tend to be only 5 to 9 council members involved. State-level politics are more challenging -- because there are many more legislators involved, a larger volume of laws are being passed each year, and the state capitol is often a longer drive away.

Particularly toward the end of a legislative session, there can be mere hours notice before a bill gets a hearing. If you want to make a statement before the relevant committee at this point, you may need to be prepared to drop what you're doing and hop in a car to rush to another city.

This is one of the reasons why state-level organizations tend to hire paid lobbyists. You need someone at the capitol building keeping an eye on what's going on. [It can be very effective for like-minded organizations to share a paid-lobbyist.]

Posted by Sven at 12:00 PM | Comments (0)

August 23, 2005

Exploration: Blueprint for Revolution (part 1)

[NOTE: This document was added to the blog on September 6, 2005]

I've got some ideas, but haven't outlined anything yet. So I'm just going to start writing and see where I end up. If I'm lucky, there'll be material that I can do something with in a more organized essay.

Based on what I've recently seen on the NYRA online forums, the Youth Rights movement is desperate for ideas about tactics -- how to recruit people to the cause, how to effectively win battles. I've been chewing on these questions myself for years, and can't say that I have the final answers. However, I do (apparently) have a lot more experience working in political movements than the vast majority of folks in NYRA -- and much of my curiosity has been devoted to questions of movement-building, which can benefit Youth Rights. I've worked both on the local level, with the Portland Bisexual Alliance -- and on the national level, with the National Organization for Men Against Sexism.


The hub of a movement we imagine as an organization which commands the chapters. This is a military metaphor, and not how things actually work. There are a couple of options.

You can have a chapter structure, where local groups are affiliates. The benefit to them is the feeling that they're attached to something larger than just their own work. The national leaders, however, may find themselves asked to mediate in local conflicts that they don't feel qualified to intercede in. Chapters may challenge each other, and ask the national leadership to excommunicate a group. This is not a franchise like "Taco Bell"; the national HQ is very poorly suited to make such decisions. The best you can do is set down general principles that all chapters must adhere to; if the ideological questions are ambiguous or controversial, then you probably just have to live with the suffering.

You can also have a national congress / convention structure. This, as I understand it, is a direction that U.S. Socialists have pursued. Each year, representatives from around the country get together and argue about directions and policies. There's a vote, and everyone goes home from the convention with a commitment to pursue a certain direction, or abide by a new policy. While in theory, you've got a more focused movement via this route, it also buys you a lot of in-fighting. Groups that are insistent about their own point of view splinter off. Sometimes the national group splits in half; sometimes you just lose a single chapter. An additional down-side for youth is that sending a representative to the congress annually is a huge burden; most youth don't have the money, vehicle, or time-off to make such trips. To an extent a congress can be imitated using online forums -- but really there's nothing that can the energy and clarity of face-to-face meetings like this.

I suppose on the opposite end of the spectrum from the congress structure is the network. With a network, there are no trappings of membership -- simply a list of groups that feel they have enough in common to share ideas and resources with each other. Where you lose in terms of a sense of unity, loyalty, and strength -- you also gain, in terms of avoiding conflict and splintering. There are no pretensions of agreement, so people can have their disagreements, but still feel that it's worth associating with one another.


I'm going to focus on a national organization that uses a chapter structure, since that's what I'm most familiar with.

National organizations tend to be mostly smoke and mirrors. Frequently there are only a handful of chapters, and their connection to the national group may be in name only. The national organization perhaps doesn't have an office, it's just nine or fifteen really committed activists who make a road-trip once or twice a year to see each other. In reality, it's probably just one, two, or three really strong personalities who put themselves out into the media as spokespersons. ...And that's OK. This is just how things work.

The value of a national organization is largely symbolic. People in their home towns can point and say "Look, a national organization exists!" to acquaintances who won't take the cause seriously. People who are isolated can pay some money, get a membership card, and feel like they're part of something larger than themselves. Or, they can pay their money and feel a bit less guilty about not being activists, because they're paying someone else to do the work. [That's probably the main reason why people give money. It's fee for service: I'm paying you to change the world for me.]

But what is a national organization actually good for? Less than you'd think. Suppose I'm a national organization -- just me, Sven, myself. First of all, I need to have a directory of organizations around the country that I want to work with. Compiling that list is challenging work in itself! Once I have it, there are basically two things I can do with it.

One. I can create or collect posters, tri-folds, and booklets, and send them out to the chapters. That's the essence of being a "national clearinghouse" or a "resource center". Notice that there's going to be substantial costs involved: photocopying or printing materials, postage to mail them out. Nowadays you can do a lot with PDF files online -- that's an option; but you may feel uncomfortable making all your best thinking available to the opposition as well. This is also more or less what a "think tank" can do -- but if you're wanting to promote "best practices", then you're going to need to get some additional deep-thinkers to join you... To help find out what's been tried, evaluate the options, and draft recommendations.

Two. If I'm a national organization, then I can come up with a great idea for an action, and then recruit as many local organizations to participate as I can -- all on one day, giving the appearance of a unified movement. For instance, we could declare that October 20th (completely random date) is National Anti-Curfew Action Day, and get youth in 20 cities to all hold marches / candle-light vigils. Or, we could ask youth from all over the country to descend on Washington D.C. for a "million youth march" (a very expensive and likely-to-fail option that I don't recommend).

So, in my opinion, those are the two things that a national organization is good for: sending out resources to chapters, or organizing chapters to all do something at the same time.

What national organizations actually do most of the time, unfortunately, is try to get money. I'm not saying that we shouldn't raise money -- I just don't what this confused with actually creating social change. Imagine if you will an organization that does nothing at all; it just has a name: "The National Alliance for a Perfect Utopia". Based on the name alone, you can recruit members: $20 apiece for a year long membership. Say you get 1000 people to become members; that's $20,000 -- just enough to hire a part-time employee. But wait, we're still not doing anything! At this point, the organization may decide that to give members value for their money, there should be a quarterly newsletter. The organization's not actually doing anything; the board of directors doesn't have a physical HQ and only meets once a year; and there's only one real gung-ho activist willing to do any work... So the organization goes into debt to put out just two newsletters, both of which are late, and the organization has now gone into debt because it didn't have enough money for printing costs and postage -- it was all spent on the employee.

Don't let this happen to you! If you can assemble an address list, then you've got what it takes to do national-level activism. Membership dues and paid employees are what makes you a business, not necessarily a force for social change.

All that said, there is one more potential function for a national organization that I failed to mention. If you're in Washington D.C., you're in a position to do lobbying. That is a function that can be useful to a national movement -- but it's entirely dependent upon location.

Oh. Hm. Other options... You could collect a legal defense fund. That would be a pretty good use of funds collected from members -- although how you would choose to disperse the money, I don't know.

You could host a national conference. Since you're preaching to the choir, I hesitate to call it social change -- but it does have a function. Functionally speaking, however, it does fall into the "everyone do something at the same time" model -- rather than everyone go to a rally, you're asking them to go to a conference.


[After an hour of writing, I just took a break for a few hours, to have dinner.]

Looking back at some of the stuff I just wrote, I realize that I've wandered into another topic, which deserves it's own heading. It's not exactly about how to organize a movement -- rather, it's about how to recognize an "national organization" which isn't pursuing its proper mission -- social change -- but is instead purposelessly sucking money out of its constituents. One could make a very reasonable argument that such a group is exploiting the community that it claims to serve. I won't rebuff that argument -- but neither will I champion it.

It's entirely plausible to have a well-meaning group of activists trying to create a national organization who are simply unable to do so. They may be stymied by not really knowing what the organization should do, not having enough gung-ho activists with time to spend, by the distances that have to be crossed to meet. If a group is simply ineffective, some would argue that it should dissolve, in order to clear the way for a new organization to form. I don't think I necessarily agree. When one group ceases to exist, there is no force of nature compelling a different set of people to emerge. Furthermore, there's no reason why a second national organization can't emerge while the first exists. Having two (or more) national organizations could easily be seen as a sign of a movement's health, rather than its demise.

Please note that my comments are not pointed at NYRA. Rather, they are more informed by the controversies I listened in on while on the leadership council of NOMAS some years ago. The principles transcend the organization; I think they're illustrative for any group that's trying to embody a national movement.

A national organization can vacuum money out of its constituent community simply to line the pockets of its employees, without producing any meaningful change...

Another problem scenario involves national spokespersons. To have an impact on the national stage, we imagine that the organization must have a face -- a person who is authorized to speak to the media. Expect internal conflict if/when that spokesperson publicly says things that several leaders within the group don't agree with. If you don't have an actual building for an HQ, if the group only meets once or twice per year, then this is likely to happen. You need a fairly close camaraderie amongst your core activist group in order to feel like you're all "on board" with policies and "on message" when speaking.

Sometimes -- and from what I've encountered, this doesn't seem like an uncommon scenario -- there's really just one charismatic leader who's running the organization and acting as its spokesperson. You need to have a strong will, strong opinions (which is different from ego), to pursue social change at this level. It's an understandable position that one can arrive at. However, the more one becomes a benevolent autocrat, the more likely it is that one will lose connection with the constituency...

In the world of activism, a lot of people say "I can only speak for myself" or "I can't speak for all youth" as caveats. A leader who speaks publicly claims the right to speak on the behalf of others. He or she asserts authority to do so by having a constituency that has elected him / her, or by being gregariously connected to many people in his/her community, by having studied the written history and opinions of the people her/his community. ...You start looking like a "self-appointed leader" without legitimacy if those things don't exist. And then, if you're also the sole person getting a salary... You look like a fraud, financially exploiting an already oppressed group.

I am aware that Alex Koroknay-Palicz, president of and spokesperson for NYRA, has just been given a the first paying contract with the organization. Again, my comments are based on other organizations I am familiar with. I see that Alex could be heading into an ethical snarl during the next few years, but withhold judgment, hoping that this situation will not go the direction that others have.

Perhaps another section title might be "aborted revolution" or "the sham revolution" or "sham national organizations". ...This section's such a disruption, it would probably be best to move it to the end of the essay, as a warning. Possibly to another essay entirely -- still, the topics of self-appointed leaders, cooptation, front groups, sham organizations, and other ways that a movement can go wrong, are important, and need exploration somewhere...


Parents, teachers, and other adults can be important political allies. But they can also destroy Youth Rights organizations from within. I am increasingly thinking that one could plausibly found a group called "Adults for Youth Rights". The trick to it would be to clearly articulate what is required of members / contributors / participants to avoid co-opting the authentic, youth-led YL movement. That would require several position / policy papers, and I wonder what it would take to get a core founding group to agree to these...

Radical parents are a group that has been coalescing on its own. There are parents who unschool their kids, and readers of Hip Mama magazine... They're a source of money, labor, physical resources (vehicles, meeting spaces), that I don't think we can afford to pass up. I've been imagining a "household bill of youth rights" that such a group might form around. A core set of principles for what democratic public schools should look like might also be a founding document for a similar group for teachers. I've often looked at teachers as an enemy of YL -- but what I must remember is that within any group, there are conscientious objectors. Still, we must be very careful not to let even well-meaning teachers steal control of the movement from youth themselves.

There is an etiquette for adults who want to work with Youth Liberation that I have written about elsewhere. It involves simple but important things, such as not interrupting youth while they're talking, being careful not to just talk to the other adults in the room, moderating how often and for how long one talks (let youth talk, too!), and abstaining from actually voting when the time comes for youth to make their decision.

I often talk about "by youth, for youth" organizations. Within the realm of organizations that might be called "youth lib", there are: (1) groups that exclude adults entirely; (2) groups where adults are involved, but youth are in control; and (3) groups where adults and youth participate as equals ("multi-generational organizations"). I am in favor of option #2 rather than option #3 because #3 so often slides down the continuum to an undesirable option: (4) youth participate, but adults are in control. Nonetheless, I want to be very clear: I believe that option #2 is preferable to option #1.

Organizations that have no adult involvement have several major problems to overcome. Youth are inherently a high-turnover group. There are ways of building recruiting into the regular activities of an organization; nonetheless, having adults onboard helps create stability and "organizational memory". Adults have access to vehicles, meeting spaces, photocopiers, etc. that youth typically don't. Perhaps most importantly, adults -- including those whom have recently aged out of Youth Liberation -- have knowledge about how to do activism. Youth can do meaningful activism within a nine-month period (before the "summer bomb" hits), and they can do it with almost no resources -- but if you don't know about how activism is done, then you're really stuck.


Protests are often thought of as synonymous with activism. In certain situations they are useful -- but they are only one tool. On their own, they can be nearly pointless.

The very core of activism -- as I understand it -- is "direct action activism". This is theory that I learned from SPIRIT (Sisters in Portland Impacting Real Issues Together), but which is borne out in other reading and workshops I've encountered.

In "direct action", one identifies a target decision-maker, and leverages them to make a specific decision-maker in your favor. That's one of the most important sentences you'll ever learn as an activist, so I'm going to say it again: In "direct action", one identifies a target decision-maker, and leverages them to make a specific decision-maker in your favor.

Who is a decision-maker? It's a mayor. Or a city council member. Or a county board of commissioners member. Or the head of a school board. Or a school board member. Or a police commissioner. Or the head of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission. It's a person who has the power to make a decisions regarding your issue. Typically someone who has other people working for them.

How do you leverage them?

Set up a meeting and talk to them. But first, do as much research as you possibly can. Maybe you don't have a lot of time to google them and find newspaper articles -- that's OK. Go with what you've got... But the more about them that you can find out, the better you'll be able to talk with them. Find out what kind of issues they've supported before. Find out where they go to church. Find out who gave money to their political campaign. Find out what their spouse does for a living, where their children go to school. These things help you figure out how to spin your usual talking points just for them.

If talking to them doesn't work, then you start building public pressure.

Get as many people as possible on your side. Authorities typically have public meetings. When you go and speak at these meetings, bring as many people as you can with you. If possible, make them visually identifiable -- wear shirts or pins that you've made, or silently hold signs in the meeting room. See if you can get other organizations to join you in your cause, e.g. a teacher's group, a union, a crisis line, a youth shelter, etc.

I could say a bunch more about specific tactics in a campaign like this, I'm going to leave it there for the moment.

[Note: How do you bring people to your side? Face-to-face conversation, and then directly asking them for something. That's the most powerful tool. Ever.]


A "movement" doesn't exist but for its local organizations. Really, there's just not that much that a national organization can do! Spend some time looking at the age laws... Most of them are state or city level, not federal level. Winning issues at the national level is premised upon building a foundation of support at the local level. First we win victories at the city, county, and state levels -- then we'll be able to approach federal laws. In fact, our local victories are likely to have a ripple effect: our state representatives will take their opinions of what's going on at home (good or bad!) with them to Washington D.C.

A caveat to begin with: we don't necessarily need to build local organizations. Fighting a campaign and running an organization are almost two separate issues. A campaign, if you're lucky, may only need to run for 2 - 12 months. You can run this kind of campaign out of people's living rooms...

Running a sustainable organization, on the other hand, doesn't necessarily lead to initiating (let alone winning) campaigns. There's plenty to do just to manage meetings, even if they had no content for discussion!

So, let me take a moment to address doing activism without an organization.

Meet at someone's home. Don't bother with setting up a power structure; use a set of rules that I learned from the Lesbian Avengers (paraphrased): (1) Anyone can bring an idea for action; (2) if you raise and idea, you're responsible for spearheading it; (3) people in the group can either participate in the action, or choose to abstain -- otherwise, there is no discussion.

...This last rule is the key one. Getting everyone to agree can be difficult -- if not impossible -- and the arguments that it takes to get to consensus may be so exhausting that people simply drop out, out of frustration. Using a system like this may not be as coordinated as one would like -- which can be frustrating if you're working on a big campaign -- but at least it actually results in actions -- and it discourages people from making proposals that they aren't willing to do any work towards, themselves (a huge time waster!).


You don't need a fancy meeting space, certainly not a building of your own. You can meet at someone's house -- but I would advise against it. When you meet at someone's house, you're imposing on someone's hospitality -- few people can offer up their home with regularity; you're going to have to find another meeting space soon. And private homes are often away from the areas that have common reference points; people get lose the directions, and even with directions get lost on their way to the meeting. And -- particularly for YL -- there are issues of having to leave by a certain time, particularly with parents watching over the proceedings.

Free public spaces are better. Public libraries often offer meeting rooms -- if you sign up for them far enough in advance. Sometimes youth-oriented dance clubs or music venues will let you use their space -- but it may depend on having a personal relationship with the owners. College campuses are OK -- although increasingly administrations are restricting student groups' ability to host outside groups. Youth drop in centers can be pretty good. Meeting rooms held by other organizations are particularly good (e.g. the Urban League, Cascade AIDS Project, etc.). One of the big benefits of volunteering for other causes is winning friendships that literally open the doors to such resources.

Meeting at restaurants has pros and cons. Restaurants (Denny's I've noticed in particular) can get irritated at "boisterous" youth and arbitrarily make rules that prevent good use of the space. Still, it can be nice to have food -- particularly if you're meeting in the traditional 7-9pm time block. Me, I'm very proud of having run board meetings in Taco Bell for several years -- everyone got fed, and most of the meals were for under a buck! ...Coffee shops -- they're probably where I've had more meetings than anywhere else. Ideal, if you don't have more than about six people there.


The best days to meet are Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday, between 7 and 9pm. Mondays, people tend not to be thinking about their week yet; Friday night people have started their weekend; and on weekends people are off doing other things. Friday and Sunday nights are probably the worst times to meet. Nonetheless, any time that you can get people to commit to is a good one.

Most youth don't carry a calendar or planner with them. Don't bemoan it -- work around it. It's easiest to remember a meeting that happens every week on the same day. Avoid changing your meeting time around each week unless you have a very small group of committed activists (five or less) who you know to be conscientious about such things. If you're not going to meet every week, meeting every other week is easier to remember than "first and third Thursdays" or "second and fourth Sundays".

I advise against meeting only once a month in the belief that it will give people more time to get work done; most work is done immediately before a meeting -- you'll get the most work out of people when they're meeting 2-3 times a week. Meeting once a month -- or worse, twice a year -- tends to be very demoralizing: you carry the guilt of not doing the work you've committed to, everywhere you go. It is talking with other people that gets us energized.

Send out reminders -- this dramatically improves turn-out, for adults as much as for youth. Some people are phone people, some people are email people; use both modes if you're able.

It's extremely difficult to keep meetings up during the summer; I advise against even trying. People travel. And not having the imposed schedules of school, etc., that exist in the spring and fall, there's less context for a structured existence. Psychologically, we're conditioned to think of summer as time off -- we subconsciously feel that we should be resting, and rebel against work. ...And it's too hot!


time, place, person to talk
introducing agenda - default leader
clear on when to start and end. don't wait to start late. end on time or "renegotiate"
nicety: who hasn't spoken; don't interrupt; introductions; ground rules unnecessary


consensus vs. vote; stepping out of the way
sharing leadership, rotating & apprenticing
calling the vote
straw polls

Posted by Sven at 12:00 PM | Comments (0)