Monthly Archives: May 2008

Could I be wrong about consciousness raising?

Thomas Clarkson, British abolitionistI pretty critical of activists’ focus on public education. Sometimes I wonder if “consciousness raising” is a waste of time.

But the story of Thomas Clarkson proves me wrong.

I read about Clarkson in Adam Hochshild’s Bury the Chains, an excellent book of the history of the abolitionist movement in England.

Hochshild gives high praise for the role that Clarkson played in the abolition movement, saying that it was when Clarkson decided to become involved was the “single moment at which the anitslavery movement became inevitable.”

How did he get involved?

He learned about the injustice of slavery.

He was competing in a prestigious Latin essay contest, and the more he researched slavery, the more the injustice of the situation weighed on him. It “wholly engrossed [his] thoughts,” and he abandoned his plans to become an Anglican clergyman and instead devoted himself to abolishing the slave trade.

I think we focus too much on raising awareness and too little on promoting action, and I seriously doubt the activist refrain that “if they only knew…” then they certainly would take action (whoever “they” are).

Thomas Clarkson shows that sometimes when people learn about an issue, then they do take action.

And sometimes, the impacts of this consciousness raising ring through the history books.

Learning more from a post-action debrief

Generally when I review an action or event, I use a simple plus/delta evaluation: what went well and what could we change (delta is the mathematical sign for change, it’s more pro-active than saying plus/minus).

In You Don’t Have to Do It Alone, the authors offer a more elaborate reflection tool. It asks:

  • What did we plan for?
  • What happened?
  • Why did it happen?
  • What were the key events?
  • What assumptions did we make?
  • What have we learned?

What I like about this model is that it puts more emphasis on not just learning from what happened at the event, but also learning and refining the planning that brought us to the event. It goes deeper.

The authors also point out that it is vital to include different people in this review. You will find very different answers to the question, “what happened” depending on who you ask.

Will I actually use this evaluation system?

I don’t know.

Sometimes it can be a struggle to get an all-volunteer group to do any review at all. I will copy these questions into my Palm so that I can have them ready and try them out for a future event (if I remember that they are there).

Make the ask feel special

invitation by tracyhunger on flickr.comIn You Don’t Have to Do It Alone, the authors share the following story:

Julie [one of the co-authors] once received an invitation to a garden party at Buckingham Palace hosted by the Queen of England. Yes, that Queen of England. Julie had to sign a receipt when the invitation was delivered. The envelope was stamped front and back with “Lord Chamberlain Buckingham Palace.” It was addressed in beautifully handwritten calligraphic script. The message on the card itself was embossed in gold. It began with the words, “The Lord Chamberlain is commanded to invite . . . “

Talk about a special invitation. Julie still has it. The Queen, and the Lord Chamberlain, could be sure she would attend.

How different is that from the mass email “could anybody help with . . .”

This over-the-top invitation makes a point that you and I can learn from, even if we don’t have a Lord Chamberlain to command.

Your best chance of getting somebody to say “yes” is to make sure that the ask feels special to them.

There are many ways to do that: a personal phone call, a specially-printed invitation, a phone call from a big-wig. Even just personalizing your email so they know you wrote to them and not to fifty people at once.

You may not have gold-embossed stationary, but you can still make someone feel special.

And when you make someone feel special, they are more likely to say “yes.”


bonus observation: Did you notice the specific, compelling details in the description of the invitation? Wasn’t that more impressive than a bland “Julie received an invitation from the Queen of England”? When writing, these kinds of concrete details help paint a vivid picture in your reader’s mind. It’s worth recording them.

I forgot all the statistics, I remember the stories

story time by sea turtle on flickr.comLast Saturday at the Michigan Policy Summit, Jim Hightower drove home the power of story and narrative when he reminded us that, “Martin Luther King didn’t say ‘I have a policy paper.'”

Nonetheless, I heard plenty of statistics that day.

And I’ve forgotten them all.

But I do remember the story that Amy Goodman told about a military family who lost their son to a suicide after he came home from Iraq.

It was a spellbinding story, you knew where it was going when she talked about his obsession with weapons after he came home from the war, and how his parents had to keep sharp objects away from him.

You knew where it was going when she told about how he asked his father to hold him one night.

You knew where it was going when she described his father coming home to a quiet house.

And then she told how his father found that his son had hanged himself in basement, and the last time he held his son was cutting him down from the rafter.

I don’t know if I’ll ever forget that story.

I also remember the story of the mom whose toddler was sick over the holidays. Many babies have times when they don’t keep food down, so for the first few days she didn’t go to the hospital.

By New Year’s Eve, though, the child was still sick, and Mom knew it was time to go to the doctor. There she found out her child had tried to become a human piggy bank, and a quarter was lodged in the toddler’s esaphogus.

She didn’t go into the details of the New Year’s Day surgery, but I’m certain she was terrified. She did tell us about the bureaucratic nightmare she faced when the bills came due.

You see, even though she had insurance, she was changing insurance as of January first, so her carriers and the hospital fought to try to get each other to cover the bills.

I don’t remember how much the anesthesiologist cost, but I do remember how hard it was on this woman to go through that. And even if I don’t know the dollar amount, I know there was a lot of wasted money as people fought to get someone else to cover the bill.

There is a time and place for statistics. They are important for analyzing alternatives.

But if you want something that people will remember, don’t give them a factoid, give them a story.

Why have discussion and opposing torture become controversial?

In Amy Goodman’s opening remarks at the Michigan Policy Summit, she told the story of some students in New York and their fight against censorship.

These drama students had developed a play that enacted soldiers’ words about the the war in Iraq. They learned their lines, built the sets, but their principal told them they could not perform it at school.

Why not? “The play is too controversial when it deals with war.”

Of course, artists make lousy slaves, so when the New York theater community heard about this censorship, they rallied to the students’ support. The students got to present on a major New York stage, and the play got more exposure than they ever would have at their high school.

Why did this strike me so much?

Because right now my organization is organizing to support the National Religious Action Campaign Against Torture “Banners Across America” campaign to invite houses of worship to display banners that simply say, “Torture is wrong.”

One local pastor declined, saying “we don’t want to hang controversial banners on the Church.”

When students are denied opportunities to provoke discussion of the most important social issue of today and when pastors are afraid to declare “torture is wrong,” because it is too controversial, we live in dire times. We live in a time when we need to fight for the soul of America.

I don’t mean that the way that Billy Graham means that, calling for a religious conversion.

Rather, I mean a fight for our conscience. A fight for our values. A fight for open discussion.

We need a fight to live in a nation when it is a matter of course that students discuss social issues.

We need to fight for a world in which saying “torture is wrong” is controversial, and that we don’t even have to worbanner because the belief that torture is wrong runs so deep and is so uncontroversial that even the thought of U.S. sponsorship of torture is inconceivable.

For some things, there should be no controversy.

Michigan Policy Summit re-cap

I agreed to guest-blog for Mark Maynard about the Michigan Policy Summit last weekend. And I figured, hey, if it’s worth posting once, it’s worth posting twice. So here are my thoughts on the Summit.

Number one thing that rocked: The best part of the summit was the way it brought the Michigan progressive community together.

When 800 people from all over Michigan and all areas of the progressive movement come together, you know that’s a good thing.

I had the chance to hear what ACCESS is doing about immigrant rights and what Transit Rider United is doing to promote rail transit Michigan. I also had the chance to tell the Unitarian Universalist Social Action Network about the Torture is Wrong banner campaign.

It was a great chance to build a stronger, more cohesive Progressive movement in Michigan.

Number one thing that sucked: For all this great group of people, they didn’t find a good way to get people connecting with each other. Most of the summit was based around the people listening: listening Amy Goodman, listening to the workshop leaders, listening to Jim Hightower.

There’s not a lot of chance to make connections there.

Next year when I go (and I am definitely going), I may just skip the workshops and use that time to talk to people.

Other things that rocked:

  • Amy Goodman was incredible! She was magnetic in the way she presented the need for progressive change.
  • Jim Hightower was also incredible. He was also funny, and we could use more funny in progressive politics.
  • The afterglow at the end of the conference was a highpoint for me. I really enjoyed the chance to re-connect with friends from across the state.
  • Some of the workshops were excellent. I attended the “Putting it all together” workshop on options for healthcare reform, which was an excellent primer on the different models of health care reform in the U.S. I learned a lot there. I also heard very good things about the communications workshop by Dan Farough of Progress Michigan.
  • I enjoyed visiting the information tables by various groups across the state. Since the agenda didn’t promote much conversation, this was my best chance to connect with partners and potential partners across the state.

Other things that sucked.

  • I’m glad that the regional breakouts tried to create a space for discussion, but the groups were so large and the structure so weak that we never got to real dialogue, only serial monologues.
  • Some of the issue workshops were painful. I don’t need you to read me PowerPoint slides that I could read myself telling me statistics I won’t remember trying to convince me of something I already agree with.
  • The organizers try hard to promote racial diversity, but as with the progressive movement as a whole, they still have some work to do.

The Policy Summit has a bold goal: to unite the progressive movement in Michigan across issue silos. That’s a tall order, especially for just an eight-hour summit.

So while I have my complaints, I think they are doing an excellent job, and I’ll definitely be back next year.

The danger of homogenaity

Photo by Daveybot on FlickrJust a quick follow up to my post on who to invite: it’s downright dangerous to have decisions made by people who all think the same.

First, their decisions won’t have the strength of multiple viewpoints.

Second, the decisions will face more opposition when they come to the larger group.

I saw this recently when the City of Ann Arbor was considering creating a greenway through the city. In good municipal fashion, they convened a greenway committee.

Who signed up to be on the greenway committee? The people who are passionate about a greenway!

Now I’m not a greenway advocate, so when I look at their decision, it doesn’t have legitimacy to me, because I don’t think it really looked at the issue in a comprehensive way.

Another example: a local Catholic parish used to have a Life Committee (or some such group). In Catholic social teaching, the sanctity of life leads the Catholic Church to oppose many things, not just abortion and euthanasia but also war, poverty, and the death penalty.

But the Life Committee just cared about abortion.

They were a faction.

And they lost legitimacy for it.

So, if you want to create a faction that will promote a narrow perspective (and there is value in this, to be sure), by all means, only seek out the hard-core fringe of people who would volunteer themselves to be on that committee.

But if you want sound and balanced decisions that will have more legitimacy in the wider community, then you have a harder task ahead. Then you need to recruit not just people who already agree with you and think like you, you have to recruit people with different perspecitves.

And then the hard work begins…

you have to respect those different perspectives.

Who should you invite to collaborate?

One of the things that I like about You Don’t Have to Do it Alone is that it invites us to be thoughtful about the things we often decide on auto-pilot.

For example, who we invite to participate in a project?

Often the answer is “whoever we can get.”

You don’t have to however challenges us to:

  • include more people
  • consider what types of people you need to include
  • consider when in the project you need what types of collaboration.

In terms of the considering the types of people to involve, the authors identify six categories of people to include:

  • people who care;
  • people with authority and responsibility;
  • people with information and expertise;
  • people who will be personally affected;
  • people with diverse points of view;
  • people who are considered troublemakers

I have a board member who is an expert at this. She has an excellent grasp on the fact that difficult decisions need to include a variety of people: people with different perspectives, people who know the topic, people who can get it done.

She also knows that you can sometimes prevent a lot of opposition from troublemakes by getting their involvement as the start. That way they aren’t opposing you at the finish.

And as a bonus, you often get a better, more informed decision by including them.

What kind of help do you need?

"I want to get lost" by Xabier.M on flicr.comLast month I took a personal mini-retreat and learned came to an important realization.

I don’t know how to ask for help. I tend to insist on doing everything myself.

So, true to form, I’ve started to read about how I can do better on this. Yes, that’s right. I’m not asking for help to learn to ask for help. I’m doing it myself when it comes to getting over my obsession with doing it myself.

And I’ve found the perfect book for me, or at least the perfect book title: You don’t have to do it alone.

The authors talk about how to create effective involvement in projects, and the first step the identify is to ask, “What kind of involvement do you need?

They identify 4 types:

  1. Know-how involvement: Somebody knows how to do something you don’t know how to do, or they know how to do it better, and you need their know-how.
  2. Arms and legs involvement: Think of a barn-raising, or a park cleanup. You need help to carry out a task that is just too big for you. Or maybe it’s not the best use of your time to do it all yourself.
  3. Care and commitment involvement: The other common phrase here is “buy-in.” This kind of involvement is to ensure that people are on-board and committed to a chosen decision, project, or endeavor.
  4. Teaching and learning involvement: this is the king of involvement where people learn and grow and develop in their ability to complete a task or shoulder a responsibility. This kind of involvement is a big reason why I think it’s important for ICPJ to have interns.

Those are the 4 involvement types listed in the book. To them I would add a fifth: Leadership involvement. Sometimes there’s a project that just won’t happen unless someone else takes the reigns and says, “I’ll make sure this moves forward.”

At ICPJ, as a volunteer-based organization, many of our projects depend on volunteer leadership involvement.

I find this taxonomy useful because it helps me thinks more clearly about what kind of involvement do I need in various projects. In fundraising, it’s a bit of all of them. With structure changes and strategic planning, it’s less about arms and legs and more about care and commitment. Knowing that helps me fine-tune how I approach getting involvement in each of my projects.

And yes, so far I still figure that out on my own.

Leadership Without Heirarchy: The Network Model

spider web by Wayne's World 7 on Flickr.comCommunity builders Valdes Krebs and June Holley write, ‘Without active leaders who take responsibility for building a network, spontaneous connections between groups emerge very slowly, or not at all. We call this active leader a network weaver.’

In Alison Fine’s Social Citizens Discussion Paper, she describes how millenials (the under-30 crowd) see leadership as less top-down and more side-by-side.

How can this be?

Because the emerging model of leadership isn’t based on the power of a hierarchical command-and-control mechanism but more on a dynamic network of connected individuals.

Will it work? I don’t know. It’s a good fit for ICPJ, because we are so volunteer-based that command-and-control doesn’t work anyway.

But here’s the thing. Even without control, there is a place for leaders.

Leaders build connections.

Leaders inspire followers–willing, volunteer followers, that is.

Leaders weave the network of community.

Yes, if we’re all together in a web, we still need spinners (or spiders) to help create it.