This past week I have been in Minnesota working with colleagues Jerry Nagel, Ginny Belden-Charles and Mandy Ellerton. We were conducting a second residential training in collaborative leadership with a number of planning grantees working in communities to make impacts on the social and economic determinants of health.
In this residential we spent a fair bit of time working on tactical community organizing, exploring how to teach this from the perspective of the Art of Hosting. The traditional tactics of Alinsky-style community organizing operate by creating strategic targets for action and mobilizing community power against those targets. It’s a zero-sum game. In the Art of Hosting community and the Berkana models of community organizing, we generally focus on purpose and seek to build strategic relationships and structures that create longer term, resilient and sustainable responses to changing realities. The challenge for us as teachers in this was to explore and find a way to teach both so that we could help people become resourceful practitioners of a multitude of strategies.
Both have value. Recent events in the Middle East, as well as down the road from us in Wisconsin showed the need and power for traditional community organizing to respond to acute injustice and to take advantage of timing. And while mass occupations of public spaces and state Capitols have their place, they will flare out if the participants cannot find a way to use power to sustainably and wisely over time. The danger with many revolutionary movements is that they seize power and later exercise it without changing the nature of the power dynamics itself. Top-down remains top-down, and the patterns of leadership and power-sharing remain in place. For revolutions of any kind to be truly transformative they have to work on both levels – visible power dynamics and underlying patterns that generate those dynamics.
There is a great temptation to reduce this space into a dualistic “love vs. power” choice. Adam Kahane’s recent work has explored this dichotomy from a position of how love and power can be complimentary resources in leadership practice. If you ask people, many will privilege one over the other. “You can’t expect autocrats to be toppled by love alone – you need to gain power.” Others will say that “the destructive exercise of power is what got us into this situation, and only building relationships based on love and respect will get us back.” Or as Martin Luther King famously said: ““Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.” In our group we had people who reacted in a strongly negative fashion to a discussion of power, because they perceived themselves as victims of power. In other situations I have found people will dismiss love as “sickly and anemic” and unable to make any real change at all. Reducing any of these dimensions to an either/or proposition will immediately drop you into a space of unresourcefulness, and that is NOT what we were after.
On our teaching team, we were well set to explore this dynamic. Both Jerry and Mandy have experience in traditional community organizing tactics, Alinsky-style tactical work in communities and organizing traditional political campaigns. Ginny and I are both students and practitioners of relational community development, both of us working a lot lately with using community building principles to work with change. And each of us has experience and curiosity about the other end of the spectrum so we were well placed to figure out an inclusive and transcendent framework that could be useful for our participants.
We began by defining some of the dimensions of a leadership space in which tactical action for mutual influence takes place. In other words, what kinds of strategies are useful for influencing people and participating pro-actively in change? We found three dimensions of action, which we set up as polarities:
Inquiry – Advocacy. From the world of systems thinking, this set of skills is well known. Balancing advocacy and inquiry is a key area for personal mastery to participate in deeper and transformational dialogue. Advocacy requires clear speaking, storytelling and compelling argument on behalf of oneself or a group. Inquiry requires openness, curiosity and a willingness to listen and be changed by what you hear. It is the domain of good, clear, non-judgemental questions.
Transactional – Relational. A transactional view sees the world as a space for negotiation, for winning and losing and where separation is useful. Relational practices and worldviews on the other hand bring us into each other’s sphere of influence in a way that builds sustainable alliances and systems of influence. It is important to engage in transactional activity sometimes, escaping from dangerous situations, demanding that an autocrat hand over power (and even seizing it from the person), negotiating and creating separate spaces of safety such as women’s centres, immigrant services, Aboriginal choice schools or First Nations governments. But for sustainability and co-evolution, relational tactics are important, building community around purpose. reintegrating a movement with society, letting go of a defined community of practice to allow emergence to take social innovation to the scale of an influential system.
Individual – Collective. Another key dimension that we discovered that gives the model a great deal of power and depth. There are times for individual actions and times for collective actions. Individual leadership can be power and visionary, the image of Obama as President. A powerful speaker can invoke what is called in Halkomelem “nautsamaut” – a powerful holistic collective single mindedness. On the other hand, people cannot work alone, and collective intelligence and effort is needed to undertake large scale and meaningful transformations.
If you place these three axes in relation to each other, you get a sphere, and that sphere becomes what we called “a space for action.” Within that sphere, many tactics and actions can happen, and depending on context, the actions will be considered right or wrong. Our goal then became exploring this space with an eye to creating resourcefulness in any given moment.
For example, the revolution in Egypt last month was a result of collective action based on relational strategies which took a transactional approach to shifting power in the state. Collective leadership assembled, demands were articulated, and Mubarak’s resignation was demanded. There was no place for relationship building with the old regime. By the time Mubarak held out his olive branch it was too late. The people wanted him gone and they wanted the power that was concentrated in his office to be moved to the people through a democratic constitution-building process. In this example there was no room for individual, relational inquiry. It was not the time for solo self reflection. Nor was there much in the way of a sole leader of the opposition movement. Democratic revolutions of this nature tend to have the occasional figure head (ElBaradei, Mandela, Havel, Gandhi, King,Tsvangarei) but the movement is run by groups and really powered by a mass of people. In situations where autocrats are overthrown by powerful individual figures (think Haiti, Cuba, Soviet Union, China, Liberia, Afghanistan, Zaire, Yugoslavia) the results become less democratic than autocratic, and often result in civil war rather than a peaceful transition of power.
Another example. On my home island, Bowen Island, we are currently engaged in a process to determine the feasibility of establishing a national park on our island. This has been a controversial proposal as it emanated not from a groundswell movement, but from a few hard working municipal councillors, some community advocates and the federal government. For the citizens of Bowen, the conversation has been vigorous and at times acrimonious as we faced an apparently dualistic decision between a future with a national aprk, or a future without one. We are a small community and relationships are very important. Many islands and small bounded communities have been torn apart by poorly handled land use processes. For us to succeed we need to not fall into the trap of advocacy for positions (especially as there is so little that can be known about the implications of either a park or a parkless future). It is not smart to be working alone, as we need collective intelligence and connection to come up with creative paths forward under either scenario. And if the work is transactional then we will be left at the end of the day with people who feel they have either won or lost something, with the serious implications for community sustainability over time. It seems to me that our choice is to balance advocacy and inquiry, to work primarily relationally and to engage as much as possible in a collective manner rather than by having individuals submit competing ideas. As an individual acting in this debate I have been less influential than times when I have been part of a collective voice.
So you can see that acting in this space is not about choosing the ends of any of the axes but rather about finding a sweet spot somewhere within the sphere of action where these three dimensions are balanced against the purpose and need of action.
In general what we teach in the Art of Hosting or arts of participatory and collaborative leadership, are strategies for leading in the relational half of this sphere, biased a little towards inquiry and balancing individual and collective practice. From this base, we can move to teach more advocacy by teaching storytelling models that build relations. We generally privilege work in the relational half of the sphere, because in general, the tactical world of change and development is not very proficient in these skills, and yet the transactional worldview is dominant in development work at the moment. People take transactional approaches to inquiry – needs assessments, gap analysis, studies, technical modelling – and transactional approaches to advocacy – report writing, lobbying, results based funding through RFPs. These activities are very familiar to community and organizational developers around the world. The leading edge of balancing that practice is seeking sustainability through relational strategies that help create restorative community and long term viability, which is work we do through the Berkana Institute All of these strategies and activities are useful, but there are times and situations in which some are more useful than at other times.
Practically applying this model should be very straightforward. Like any good framework it comes with a caveat that you can be in multiple places in this model at the same time. Defining and continually clarifying needs and purposes is very important. Sensing the call of the context is also very important. Waiting – a particular kind of active waiting, sensing the conditions and timing – is important too.
Action then proceeds using tactics and strategies that are appropriate to the times and the context. The leadership capacity needed to use this framework well is resourcefulness and a willingness to work with others who bring complimentary skills to the effort. It is also important that everyone remain open to mutual influence and inquiry so as to sense the best time to deploy appropriate strategies and leadership frames. Timing and trust is very important. Used well, I can see that this framework can be a powerful tool for mapping strategies and for generating and designing new ones.