Tree SilhouettesOver the last year, I have found myself in several fairly interesting discussions about community development work. Not in the nature of actually building empowerment within communities or the struggles associated with that but something just as significant. Everyone knows this type of work takes time, effort, energy, dedication, collaboration and plenty of other elements in the mix. Reflecting through a social justice lens this also means that we have to look at community work through the complexities of culture, communities, privilege and class to name a few.

So what was the discussion around? The precarious nature of internal dynamics of organizations.

Frequently, I had conversations with friends, workers and acquaintances over the frustrations of internal dynamics and structures. The conversation usually starts with comments surrounding their voices were not readily heard, continuous structural changes, and overall diminished sense of empowerment. The workers essentially become disenchanted and either leave or just stay until their contracts end. All this to say, this nature of community organizing lacks a sense of desire for others to replace them.

Is this call for alarm or should we just keep pushing on?

I see this as an issue of harm and alarm. Why? Well, the mandate of most progressive organizations seeks to engage, empower, and extend aid to communities that they target or work within. I wholeheartedly believe that most organizations start out this way, as they aspire to engage community first. But then as they obtain funding from grants they have to implement elements of ‘efficiency’ or ‘productivity’ stipulated by funders in order to achieve the organizations goals (read: the goals stipulated by the money they receive). It is true that being responsible to funders is important, but is it essential that these funders receive numbers and figures in order to prove the money was not wasted. This dynamic is problematic especially when addressing community issues that may not show ‘results’ in 2-3 years without significant changes. But this article isn’t directed at funders so I’ll leave it there.

In fact, this productivity model does disregard the importance of the important work required internally to make dynamics and structures are functioning properly. Without healthy organizations we end up doing work in communities in unhealthy reactive ways. In tackling this internal work we take time on building solidarity, compassion, and challenging unhealthy dynamics means that we are “being the change we want to see in the world” (Ghandi). The significant aspect of this is not entirely apparent at first, but I believe that if we cannot empower the people that we are working with — or that they feel empowered — how are we to empower the collective nature of community? We can’t it’s just that simple. If we build hierarchies within our own organizations does this not just encourage the same dynamics within communities that we work with? But wait we wanted collective community building…

private propertyThere’s another extremely serious problem in this scenario. Within movements of empowerment we strive not to withhold the power of knowledge! But productivity models also lack the capacity of expanding the degree of knowledge of workers — it ensures specialized knowledge. I fear that these models then reinforce models of hierarchy that are less inviting to traditionally marginalized folks. Folks that may not be able to pay for more advanced education. It also places the knowledge at the top of the organization when in fact everyone ends up doing equal amounts of work.

It also ensures that some folks are paid more for their knowledge when in fact newer workers might be introducing useful and essential knowledge from other experiences. For me, the key here is that everyone’s life experience should be of some importance, rather than prioritizing one source of knowledge specific to a community organization. Sure degrees do aid us in obtaining frameworks to do our work, but it doesn’t exactly mean that we have ‘obtained’ or are more ‘enlightened’ then someone actually working on the ground.

As a pro-feminist, I also see the nature of such environments placing white men as the ‘experts’ and ‘top’ regardless of their capacity and knowledge to do so. People have also commented on how some organizations that uphold feminist principles can also replicate the same dynamic. Feminist principles reinforce empowerment, emotional and mental health support, avoiding burnout, and sharing collective knowledge. Simply stating that we are enforcing these principles is not enough without actually having policies and *listening* to workers when they sound the alarm of troubling dynamics and issues.

To be direct — this means we need more empathy, understanding, and collective internal work. This places all voices at the forefront of the organizational direction, and dismantling the privilege landscape of education, sex, class and marginalization. Let’s not brush this with a light brush either. This can’t be something easy to hear — as easy as it is to be aware of your own privileges. But what it does do is rework the organizational focus away from a one-sided direction to something more open to flexibility. It breaks down power. And sometimes we disagree with others, but trying to understand their motives (read: empathy rather than ego) is essential to moving forward!

Who cares right? We have work to do in the community…

Well sure we do. But the reality is that unhealthy dynamics within the organization leaks out into your community work. Not feeling empowered in your own work (internally) means that you don’t feel charged up to empower others in their own work. This is fundamental! It’s pretty clear that people can sense negative dynamics within organizations, and feel less sense of attachment to them. This is the absolute opposite goal of community organizations…

What is it going to take?

Creativity! Pushing beyond the boundaries of what we know and already use and seeking out other sources. There are millions of models out there that exist, have been used, are successful and proven to work. Other models failed and don’t work that well, but one can figure that out by asking other organizations. It is also going to take moments of uncomfortable transition in which we, as workers, embrace the fact that we don’t entirely have all the answers. Especially, for all those males out there, such as me, whom have been raised to ‘have’ all the answers rather than to do more listening then suggesting.

UntitledBack in the day, when I worked for The Otesha Project (Australia) and The Otesha Project (in Canada) they had interesting strategies for addressing issues of collective knowledge. They would write down various roles within the organization on queue cards. *Everyone* rotated around the group and chose one card at a time, and as a result people inevitably selected a role that they licked but also that they felt were super ‘shitty’. Next year they would reroll the same strategy, and those that had run the role in the past would mentor those that had not. Utilize such structures increases shard knowledge, promotes collaboration, and diversified knowledge of all folks. And the best part… it means that knowledge privileges can be *flattened* as the sharing of knowledge means that different skills, abilities, privileges, and discrimination are not prioritized.

As anyone knows I’m a big believer of utilizing consensus models to ensure stronger factors for organizational change. In using these structures we attempt to dismantle power by allowing everyone to have a voice in discussions. But the folks I have talked to speak about feeling disenchanted with models of consensus for various reasons: time taken to make decisions, lack of cohesion, exhausting debaters, and more. These types of issues occur when workers are not properly trained in consensus and simply thrown into a group situation they deem as being a debater corner. Well actually no we aren’t standing on a soap box and debating we are working *together* to come to resolutions for better collaboration and continuity.

And by training I mean a full workshop that addresses group dynamics, runs scenarios, and exposes unhealthy roles played in everyday group work (i.e. privilege of knowledge, debaters, poisonous discussion blockers, disengaged & angry, etc.). Yes I brought it back to the uncomfortable work that needs to be done. In participating in these models, we have to be conscious of our own participation, encourage participation of *everyone*, and work collectively towards answers and hope. The trouble being that we bring our own learned patterns that can dismantle these processes even when we think we are helpful.

An example of such a role might be the Poisonious Discussion Blockers (PDB), as I like to call them, who tend to block all discussions and resist change to move forward. In a hierarchical structures, these discussions would be solved by the person ‘at the top’ who would make the final decision. Problem solved! Yeah right with plenty of work-hating individuals to boot. But what about the PDB? Well I imagine they aren’t intentional in their actions, but they contribute the most deconstruction to the process. The point of consensus is to work collectively on a solution and not block a discussion outright. Being creative in interventions takes the ability to disagree, but suggest alternative, meld your ideas with someone elses, and work collectively towards something sustainable. Otherwise, you end up with work-hating individuals and a few folks ‘not-at-the top’ making decisions, because everyone else becomes frustrated, tired, and upset.

Also, providing open spaces to discuss policies that address anti-racist, anti-sexist, and oppressive environments. Being open to accepting that ones experiences is not the experience of everyone elses. I think that is totally key in building collective flowing environments that are successful and safer. By having many anti-oppressive policies we have something to fall back onto as well.  AND more importantly it means that we support and respect those that might traditionally find work environments extremely marginalizing.

Take away…

I believe that it all comes down to recognizing the true power and privilege that we all have within organizations. Doing justice work means that we have to recognize our own roles, privileges, and contributions to internal issues. This comes from positions we hold, access to certain systems/funds within organizations, skills we have learned, and the privileges that come with our gender, race, culture, language, and upbringing. Addressing these things is uncomfortable and hard, but inevitably will aid in resisting consistent disempowering dynamics that exist. It also places a greater focus on empathy, understanding, and collective work that will spread to the communities that we work within. This alongside embracing creative solutions means that we can build alternative models that support one another, and no longer reinforce systems of oppression and lack of empathy. Like a tree we have to start somewhere to plant roots to build something stronger and more long lasting than the every so popular mainstream examples we have to work with.

I totally don’t profess to have all the answers… sooo got some suggestions or comments? Throw them down on the comments forum I’m keen to hear of other solutions.