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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 August 24, 2005 12:00 PM


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