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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 August 23, 2005 12:00 PM


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