Dominant Cultures

The “Power” Problems With Consensus (and How You Can Fix Them)

Photo: via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo: via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Consensus would seem to exhibit the highest form of collaboration, trust, and transparency.

But what if consensus was frequently used to uphold the interests of the powerful and their interests?

When I first heard about the idea that consensus decisionmaking was a growing tool for those strengthening injustice, I was very resistant to the idea.

“But consensus allows for everyone’s voice to be heard!” I remember saying in my head. That’s because I aimed to have consensus decisionmaking systems in any meeting I was a part of.

Thus, while having the people’s “voices heard” may be true in some cases, those with the most resources often can steer the decisions to the status quo or even more in their favor.

This squelching of “radical” efforts, despite people’s desires for significant change, has even become institutionalized in the culture that advocates for the “moderate.” This slide towards the “middle ground” nearly always supports those in positions of power.

So what are some specific issues with consensus? Below I’ll show some of the ideas that have profoundly shaped my thinking and then show how we can ensure consensus models actually fulfill the intent of active participation.


Problems with contemporary consensus


The seemingly “inclusive” consensus model can hide social power dynamics. The group needs to openly acknowledge the role of privilege and oppression, and seek to address them when they occur, otherwise some people may dominate the conversation.

Consensus systems can lend legitimacy to the powerful/elite. It can be very easy for a privileged group (e.g. a large or wealthy organization or an outspoken individual) to take shelter in the consensus system and cry out that their needs are not being met. This may lead to the group sacrificing the needs of many to placate needs of a single privileged entity.

Remember foundations and other organizations use asset-based planning and consensus models to divert changemakers. The authors of Contesting Community note that institutions invested in current systems focus on these models, as alternatives to social change models, because they avoid conflict/oppositional strategies and tactics that may actually impact wealthy funders.

Pushing decisions toward the middle or a small group, without resolving issues. In particular, those with social privilege (e.g. white, male) are often the biggest culprits of using consensus group processes to move decisions closer to their desired outcomes. Sometimes one or a few people can force the group to make a decision that goes against the desires of the majority.

Knowing the “tricks” of consensus-based processes. Just knowing how consensus works is a huge benefit since there are so many elements to it. So some people, whether intentional or not, can use this to their advantage in achieving their aims.

How to make positive consensus systems


Prioritizing quieter and less frequent voices. For example of two people have their hands raised, choose the one that has spoken less or is a bit more reserved. It’s important to develop this as a group practice so everyone understands why.

Use multiple meeting processes. Design breakout sessions, individual writing sections, and partner shares to bring out the ideas of the whole group and help inform a more robust consensus decision.

Have an “in-tune” facilitator that addresses injustice. As noted in the previous section, there are many ways “power” can appear even in a seemingly horizontal decisionmaking system. So having a facilitator who can spot these dynamics quickly and address them even faster is essential.

Recognize consensus models aren’t the most appropriate for every situation. There may be situations where a consensus system just gives too much voice to those perpetuating injustice, so you may need to use an alternative system of consensus or go with something different altogether.

Create norms that specifically address disruptions, power, and privilege. Intentionally layout expressions of oppressive dominant culture (e.g. one or a few people doing most of the talking, only following one meeting process/style [such as a strictly “logical” one without creativity or emotion], or listening more to certain thoughts/ideas at the expense of others).

How do you use consensus effectively without limiting anyone’s participation? Leave a comment below!


Why Social Change Efforts Need to Reevaluate Branding

Photo: the NICE. via Jessilyn Brinkerhoff
Photo: Catalyst Communities. via Jessilyn Brinkerhoff

I was having an as-usual invigorating talk with Nathan Jones at the Northwest Institute for Community Enrichment (NICE) about how to better show the connections between the NICE Consulting’s new “Annual Program” and Catalyst Communities.

The “Annual Program” is all about training  groups to lead their own Catalyst Communities. Catalyze Communities are designed to create “tangible improvements with members of their local community, develop fulfilling and effective methods of enacting social change, and truly engage with one another to enrich the Northwest.”

As we were talking Nathan mentioned that he’d been thinking about highlighting the connection between the two programs direct, by making the “Annual Program’s” name an extension of Catalyst Communities.

Obviously these two programs that mutually support each, should be easily recognizable as connected. We don’t need to “reinvent the wheel” and come up with entirely new brand names for every single program we do.

This simple concept Nathan pointed out makes perfect sense since Catalyst Communities already has a great brand name (i.e. “sparking community change”).

I’ve seen the two main mentalities in the social change branding spectrum, and we need to find a good juggling act between the two.


1st Mentality: Branding/Marketing is sneaky, so we shouldn’t have any


While some corporate marketing can certainly be duplicitous, that doesn’t mean we should abandon our ideas to brand our efforts.

One way of looking at branding is a way for folks to recognize a images and stories and connect them back to your organization’s work, but remember branding is important for many reasons!

While we shouldn’t replicate “sneaky” business practices that attempt to mislead people, we have the advantage of promoting programs that have a uniquely positive impact on communities.

So the next time you hear someone say “I don’t like branding,” see if you can bring the conversation around to how you can conscientiously use branding to help people see the connections between all the great work you do.


2nd Mentality: Branding/Marketing is great, so we should brand everything!


The other common response I’ve seen to branding is that people get really excited and want to brand almost everything they do.

Branding should be used to show connection and build trust in the work you do.

While a little enthusiasm is great, it can easily get really confusing if you’ve “branded” all 10 of your major programs. This might make folks think a different organization puts on all these different initiatives.

So the next time you hear someone say “Ooh let’s brand that,” it might be a good idea to remind that that 2-3 brands for your organization is probably enough!


Juggling the right amount of branding


Depending on the scope of our work, we should “brand” a few of our key initiatives (e.g. the NICE has it’s Catalyst Communities with its own brand), but avoid having so many that it’s hard to easily/quickly recognize the relations between programs.

If you’re a small organization, you probably will just want your main logo and possibly another for one of your major projects (unless you just have one and then you should just stick with your main logo).

The main thing to remember in all of this is that a brand is your symbol of authenticity, expertise, and trust. People should immediately see your brand and remember it as one that constantly brings great results.

One way to evaluate the effectiveness of a brand is to consider:

  • Recognition

  • Consistency

  • Emotion

  • Uniqueness

  • Adaptability

  • Management

If you don’t have a clear brand, or one that doesn’t take into considerations all of these 6 elements, then it can be a little harder to build up this visual recognition in people.

If you have too many brands, then people will get confused and may miss some of the important work you do.

Just think about some of the organizations you admire the most and what you feel when you see their logo/branded initiative. That’s what you are working to create with your own branding efforts.
Interested in learning about training to lead your own Catalyze Community? Signup on the NICE Consulting site to learn more!

Privilege and Oppression

Modern Government Suppression of Progressive Social Change

Photo: Wikimedia Commons. via Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons)
Photo: Wikimedia Commons. via Wikimedia Commons (Creative Commons)

I’m currently reading Jaclyn Freidman and Jessica Valenti’s incredible anthology Yes Means Yes!: Visions of Female Sexual Power & A World Without Rape and many of the writers mention how influential INCITE’s seminal book The Revolution Will Not Be Funded has been on their thinking.

In particular these authors point out that community organizations (e.g. rape crisis centers and incest resources) that rely on government funding have to temper their desired calls for change, with blander and more moderate proposals.

These organizations used to operate with a mentality of “us,” but now have a client/worker model that adds significant distance and contributes to depoliticization.

One of the biggest issues is that it funnels nearly all funded efforts to supporting sexual violence survivors with services, rather than also including funding for addressing root causes of the violence (e.g. “macho culture”).

This diversion of activism to only providing social services, also happens across the whole nonprofit and grassroots organizing realm.

Unfortunately, I’m seeing firsthand how this process only continues to increase.


Expanding the definition of “lobbying”


This week I attended the Environmental Health Disparities & Environmental Justice Meeting put on by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), which convened people from community organizations, academic institutions, and government agencies.

This specific meeting was intended to “Set an action agenda for EHD [environmental health disparities] and EJ [environmental justice] research.” Meaning how can organizations tie their research to real action.

Facilitators and participants mentioned that one of the most common refrains from these gatherings is that “government agencies don’t provide enough funding to take action.”

In this context, the action they are referring to occurs when organizations find environmental justice/health disparities in communities and then they want to address them.

However, the U.S. government is very unwilling to fund actions that directly tackle these challenges, mainly because that would mean criticizing polluting industries from tire manufacturers to pork producers to fracking companies.

At one refreshingly open session “Conflicts over Research that Identifies Community Impacts of Environmental Exposures” (i.e. research that could hurt a company’s reputation), people talked about getting shutdown/intimidated by both government and industries representatives.

Government officials get their funding from political leaders, so if these same government officials accept research that condemns corporate funders of politicians, well then their own funding is in jeopardy.

Also, as the meeting organizer NIEHS discovered, industry will do all in its power to stifle any findings that identify potential damaging impacts of their practices.

This session felt like a release for all participants to finally talk about this issue openly, since it seems to only be talked about outside of the offices.

While this one session packed full of people at all ends of the organizational spectrum seemed to invigorate both me and other participants with its truthful analysis, the next session quickly brought us back to reality.

The next session innocuously titled “Using Research Results to Improve Environmental Public Health” talked about recent policy decision for many government agencies to expand the definition of “lobbying.”

Anything that has a “call to action,” gives data to an EJ group advocating for cleaning contaminated sites, etc. will now be classified as “lobbying.”

This change came about due to House Republicans objecting to the use of some grantee funding by research groups (e.g. a tobacco researcher identifying who the tobacco lobby funds).

Now if I was part of an organization receiving government-funding trying to present findings at a public hearing and saw that action needed to happen, with these new rules I would be forbidden from doing so.

The tension and disbelief in the room was palpable. Folks were incredulous that these new policies were put into place since it endangered all of their EJ and EHD work.

Though everyone who came to the mic to speak was against the policy, the facilitator just said they were just presenting what the higher ups had decided based on the current “political climate.”

So if you’re like me and keeps a small bit of hope that our government institutions might start to shift in a positive and action-oriented direction, then these new rules are a pretty stark reminder events are continuing to go in the wrong direction.

To me this is another clear indication that we have to find ways to escape reliance on government grants and contracts because conservative elements will, for the foreseeable future (due to the entrenchment of conservative influence at all levels of government), seek to increasingly diminish how much we can act for justice.

The outrage at this meeting from government, academic, and community partners was a nice sign, unless we have the ability to speak out and address neutrality, then policies/research will bend towards injustice.

So while the distancing from government funding creates new challenges for our already cash-strapped organizations, it is important to remember there are other successful funding models (e.g. member dues).

Even though our institutions may wish to suppress social movements, at this meeting right now I am again reminded that the majority of people want significant changes and are willing to speak out.

We just have to continue speaking out and mobilizing both in our internal and extended communities.


The Cross-Issue Project Planning Template Designed for You!

This week I’m going to be co-facilitating a workshop at the Environmental Health Disparities & Environmental Justice Meeting.

I’m super excited to delve into effective community outreach practices for environmental justice initiatives!

While working on the workshop, with the incredible health experts Ana Pomales (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry) and Barb Allerton (Pennsylvania Department of Health), I created a template on “Cross-Issue Project Planning.”

In other words, how can we implement projects that further the cause of multiple issues (e.g. health, youth development, and food access)?

I had the opportunity to work on a perfect example of a cross-issue project, which we called the “Soil Kitchen.”

Philadelphia’s River Wards area has significantly high levels of lead, lots of youth, and food access issues. We wanted to start a project that hit on all of these issues, so we finalized ideas for putting on the “Soil Kitchen” .

The Soil Kitchen was an innovative effort to test soil samples for lead contamination, while also educating children/families and finding alternatives for them to grow food using raised beds away from the lead contamination.

The 1st of hopefully many events happened in May 2013, and now organizations are considering how to expand this initiative across the country!

So how can you create your own “Cross-Issue Project Plan?” Let’s look!


The Cross-Issue Project Plan


Key Issues


Challenge – what are the specific issues in your community?

As I’ve wrote about previously, we need to connect issues to a broader analysis. For this event, if we just focused on lead contamination, I doubt we would have been able to accomplish as much as did when we connected it to youth development and food access.

When developing your project/campaign/event, try to expand how you can propel forward change on multiple issues.

Here’s the “challenge” we aimed to address with the Soil Kitchen.

“The River Wards have significantly high levels of lead that can be dangerous to the community’s health. The River Wards area has a high concentration of kids and families who are more susceptible to the negative health impacts of lead. In addition, there are significant food access issues, but an interest in urban gardening.”


How are you specifically going to address the issue? Consider how you can address the root cause of the issue (and not just the symptoms).

Below is what we decided to do for the Soil Kitchen.

“The Soil Kitchen event will provide community members the opportunity to have their soils analyzed for lead contamination. The program will focus on making sure families understood the increased risks of lead among their children and how to promote healthy practices. In addition, the Soil Kitchen will host workshops specifically for youth and families wishing to grow food safe from lead contamination.”

Differentiate the Scope of SMART Goals

Just as a reminder, SMART goals are important to make sure you intentionally plan out what “success” means. SMART stands for:

  • S=Specific

  • M=Measurable

  • A=Audience-focused

  • R=Realistic

  • T=Time-bound

Also, make sure to break up your goals by time (e.g. long, medium, and short).

Below are a few goals we had for the Soil Kitchen (most of which we exceeded!!!):

  • Example long-term goal=The Soil Kitchen event will help initiate EPA involvement in addressing lead contamination in the River Wards communities by September 2013

  • Example mid-term goal=Through the Soil Kitchen we will analyze 50 soil samples by the end of the event in May 2013

  • Example short-term goal=Finalize details for 4 resident-led workshops by March 2013




Depending on the scope of your organizing, you may need a more elaborate strategy than others.

This post won’t be getting into the specifics of how to create a detailed strategy, but for this just think about strategy this way “What’s the main process by which you will accomplish your goals?”

How are you going to make sure your actions form an intricately connect whole, instead of just many actions that sorta support each other.

For our Soil Kitchen example, we really wanted people to have long-term alternatives to reducing exposure to lead. So we outlined this first step of our strategy (remember there can be multiple levels to your strategy!) to hit on all these issues.

The Soil Kitchen organizers’ main strategy was to reduce the negative implications of lead soil by improving the community’s ability to have raised bed urban agriculture and holding youth-oriented workshops where parents learned about how to reduce their child’s exposure to lead.


Partners to Potentially Involve

Who are some community, nonprofit, business, or government partners who can help support this project?

Now are partners came together pretty quick because of previous collaboration, but most times you will have to think a little bit harder about who to involve.

If we did start from scratch without any partners, here’s what this part of the plan would have looked like.

Example partner

  • Name=New Kensington CDC

  • Reason/Goal for involving partner=To ensure appropriate community outreach and identify potential residents to lead workshops


Backwards Timeline of Tasks/Actions

Backwards timelines are just the same as long-term planning, except you make sure to start with what you want to achieve at the end and work back from there.

Backwards planning ensures that you set attainable goals, actions, and time periods for accomplishing your aims and do not have a lot of work to do at the end of your project/campaign to catch up.

Here are some key elements to consider when creating your backwards timeline:

  • What are the key areas to plan out (e.g. logistics, outreach, working with partners, etc.)?

  • What are some benchmark dates?

  • Who’s responsible for completing each task?

Example appreviated backwards timeline

  • Thank Soil Kitchen partners by May 15th, 2013 – Drew/Ana

  • Evaluate Soil Kitchen event for successes/challenges by May 11th, 2013 – Whole planning team

  • Soil Kitchen event on May 4th, 2013!!! – We created a separate full agenda since there were so many pieces for the day-of

So that’s it! You’ve got the steps you need to start planning your own cohesive cross-issue project!

This Wednesday I’ll be co-facilitating the workshop with Ana and Barb and there’s one section where we’ll be having folks create their own plans right then and there. So I can’t wait to see what people come up with!

If you want to follow how the Environmental Health Disparities & Environmental Justice gathering is going for me or how the workshop went, follow Organizing Change on Twitter to keep updated!

Privilege and Oppression

Want Climate Justice? Then Support Indigenous Sovereignty!

The climate change movement continues to demonstrate how to build cross-issue strategies.

We must go beyond the desire to “focus on one issue at a time,” even though I know it follows the traditional Alinsky-style organizing model.


“What’s connects indigenous sovereignty and climate justice work?”


Photo: Tar Sands Blockade via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo: Tar Sands Blockade via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Nearly everyone I have ever organized with, whether from indigenous or non-indigenous peoples, has described the climate justice movement in terms of a moral struggle against unjust impacts of climate change.

With this ethical stance in place, replacing persistent colonialist structures of control over indigenous peoples with sought after self-governance is a natural extension for those striving to fight oppression.

At an even more fundamental level, native sovereignty would make natural resource management, such as coal and oil, more in line with desired limited extraction (with the acknowledgement that many communities would still face tough choices of whether to use nonrenewable resources or not).

For those like myself who wish to fight climate change on moral grounds, must also extend our efforts to not only the impacts of burning fossil fuels, but also to questioning who controls the land and the ability to extract those resources.


Making steps in the right direction


Many of you know that the indigenous rights movement is already a step ahead in terms of cross-issue efforts, due to its continual support for action on climate change.

Now we just have to get the same commitment from a broader range of climate change folks (e.g. following the great collaboration between and indigenous organizers).

The climate justice movement has often publicly described the disproportionate impact climate change has on indigenous communities and the need to have them more involved in climate discussions.

However, I’ve noticed it’s taken a bit longer for those same climate change activists to direct calls to advance the cause of native peoples to control their own resources and land.

Currently, I see the alignment between the climate change movement with indigenous sovereignty, stemming from the emergence of the Idle No More Movement in the past year as an example we need to build upon.

The Idle No More Movement, led by First Nations in Canada, has put a spotlight on the sovereign rights of indigenous peoples, while denouncing the continuing impacts of colonialism.

With many climate change organizations announcing their solidarity with Idle No More, we’ve got to continue the momentum and push for granting indigenous self-sufficiency.


Next steps for the climate movement


There are many places where the climate movement could support the move for indigenous sovereignty; however, the best place to start is to follow the calls from indigenous communities themselves.

From within the climate movement, we need to incorporate clear and persistent calls to action, messages, and analysis of how to build a cross-issue emphasis that takes into account the struggle of native peoples for their rights (e.g. the Idle No More Movement).

This should come from folks at all levels of organizing.

With an anti-colonial perspective, the climate movement can advocate for the moral claim for indigenous sovereignty and their right to decide how to use their natural resources.

Native communities have joined in the climate change struggle, now is time for much more of the climate change movement to join with their allies for Native rights to self-determination.

Campaigns and Planning

How to Expand on These 4 Community Organizing Fundamentals

Recently I was preparing a training for a fantastic group of folks at a growing civic association about the core components of community organizing.

I thought it would be fun to highlight a community organizer/organization that really represented each of the 4 main elements I covered, along with expanding on ways the group could really practice these important principles.

I was so energized by creating the training I thought I would share it with all of you! Let me know your thoughts on how you would expand on these fundamentals in the comment section below!


1st Fundamental: Leadership Development

Photo: Ella Baker Center via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo: Ella Baker Center via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Leadership development is about increasing an individual or group’s skills to demonstrate their own abilities.

One of most influential, but little known. initiators of leadership development efforts was Ella Baker. Ella Baker was a hero of the civil rights movement by helping grow the capacity of numerous new leaders (e.g. through the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee).

Potential processes/techniques for you to continue, expand, or adopt


  • Recognize leadership in multiple forms – not everyone is a great speaker, but they can still be a great leader! How can you encourage all organization members to grow?

  • Prepare for leadership rejuvenation – how can you start preparing people to be leaders before an opening arises (e.g. start encouraging someone to think about joining the leadership team before there is an opening)?

  • Expect and push for the best from people – even if someone doesn’t think they can “be a leader” or achieve something, we must never forget to show our dedication and belief in an individual’s ability to be who they wish to be. How can you identify in advance how someone wishes to be “stretched” in their abilities?

  • Develop leaders instead of identifying leaders – In Rinku Sen’s incredible organizing book Stir It Up, she describes that instead of just picking out folks who’ve had the opportunity to express some level of leadership, we need to invest significant resources to build confidence in people who wouldn’t have considered themselves “leaders”

  • Build collective leadership (i.e. many leaders with less hierarchy) – Ella Baker said “Strong people don’t need strong leaders,” which highlights this idea that we should rely on a committed team, not just a few individuals. How can you build a strong team where everyone contributes equally?


2nd Fundamental: Base Building


The Desire for “Radical” Change is Greater than I Imagined

Photo: Sarah Witherby via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo: Sarah Witherby via Flickr (Creative Commons)

A few weeks I mentioned my surprise about learning how many people in the U.S. were actively seeking alternatives to capitalism.

I first read those statistics a few months ago (sometimes I need to let posts ferment), and since then I’ve continually noticed how many people are truly seeking deep and “radical” changes.

“Radical” in this case meaning to truly address the “root issues” of our time and to implement intersectional and strategic initiatives.

From those just starting out in their organizing work to those who would never consider themselves an activist in any fashion, I hear people talking about how the need for change has never been higher.

Despite the media and our dominant institutions doing an excellent job of normalizing our oppressive systems, there remains this spark for making significant changes.

The main reason this attitude towards the “radical” becomes hidden, is due to the fact that we do not have an outlet for our radical thoughts.

These radical ideas and actions need long-term support and infrastructure, but we are still far away from having the capacity to truly bring about them on a large-scale.

However, a far graver issue is that we are often unwilling and/or unable to have these conversations with those that we are closest with.

I remember I was always so nervous bring up “radical” ideas (e.g. that we need to find alternative to the Prison Industrial Complex) and I would be unsure how folks would respond.

I still experience nervousness and uncertainty when discussing the need for deep changes, but I have a new frame around this dialogue.

I now see that my family, friends, and community want to have these conversations with me. They want to get to know me and know what I believe and am passionate about.

By talking about our radical views, we both support our own self-development but we also contribute to the lives of those around us by sharing ourselves with them.

Though there might still be topics we are not ready to talk about with all of our family, friends, and community, we should find the folks we are willing to talk to and build our community of support.

For me, the frame of talking to those around me about my radical views = contributing to those around me was all I needed to feel more comfortable with my nervousness/uncertainty.

I’m still learning about the ways that work best for me in having these discussions, but I’m definitely feeling much more confident in my ability to do so.

So whenever you are feeling alone with your “radical” thoughts, just try talking to someone you never expected to share your views. You might just be surprised to find they share your views.

Thanks Jeremy Blanchard for the brilliant coaching on this topic and helping me better share with others!

Off-line opportunity=talk to one person who you’ve been wanting to share your “radical” views with. What thoughts, ideas, or actions would you like to discuss? Talk to one person and see how this leads to authentic dialogue.

Privilege and Oppression

6 Ways to Forge an (In)Justice System According to the Zimmerman Trial

Photo: Werth Media via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo: Werth Media via Flickr (Creative Commons)

I’m just getting back from Philadelphia’s Justice for Trayvon Martin Day of Action, and the rallying cries of the march rang throughout the city.


“No justice….no peace!”

“We are….Trayvon!”

As we walked down Market Street from Love Park, the unified voices echoed off the buildings and reminded all we still seek Justice for Trayvon and all the unacknowledged people who have died due to the entrenchment of white supremacy.

Our shouts mingled with actions across the country and demonstrate the movement for racial justice (and beyond) will continue to grow as long as oppression reigns.

While not surprising, the verdict in the Zimmerman trial reminds us how firmly ingrained racism is within our “justice” system.

So if you’re looking to build a terribly marginalizing system, then the Zimmerman trial is a good place to look for inspiration.

6 ways to continue a legal system perpetuating injustice


While the George Zimmerman trial is just a single example of how our “justice” system upholds white supremacy every day, the case shows that those continuing injustice have some key practices at their disposal.

So here’s how the Zimmerman trial illustrates how to build an (in)justice system.

1. Enact laws to protect the privileged

If you want to keep ensuring those with social benefits from their identity, then the legal system is your ally.

A Texas A&M University study found the “Stand Your Ground” laws had a clear racial bias and showed whites are 354% more likely to be found “justified in killing a black person than a white person who kills another white person.”

One of the clearest summaries of this trend, came right after the decision in the trial. On Twitter @jsmooth995 tweeted “The fundamental danger of an acquittal is not more riots, it is more George Zimmermans.”

Now the law has sided with this extreme abuse of power and hidden racist antagonism as “self-defense”

2. When you can’t be openly racist, remember you can still use “dog whistles”

Zimmerman’s defense team, from the trial’s opening, made sure the narrative focused squarely on Martin as the aggressor and Zimmerman as the “victim.”

By attacking Martin’s character and saying he planned on attacking (e.g. by saying he “armed himself with concrete”), the defense team made sure to find ways to keep the image of the “violent, black male” as the dominant one for the jurors.

But obviously the prosecution team could expose the apparent racism right?

3. Enshrine “colorblindness” into the system

After the judge decided the prosecution couldn’t use race as a factor in the case, it left key (or “the key”) elements out of the argument for Zimmerman’s guilt.

As soon as you say race is a “non-issue,” then you automatically know there’s an issue.

The judge’s decision is part of a larger trend, even extending to the Supreme Court, of disregarding issues of blatant racism.

4. Keep making things easier for those with wealth

While Zimmerman was not rich himself, the hundreds of thousands donated to him helped make up for part of this difference.

This shows that if you have the power of racist laws and some financial backing, then its going be much easier for you to succeed whether you are on the defense or the prosecution.

5. Rest easy knowing it’s more than a few people upholding white supremacy

While having a near all-white jury certainly helped protect the racist “Stand Your Ground” laws in this one case, as long as the dominant institutions, cultures, media, etc. remain so too will the ideology of white supremacy remain.

As the first point I wrote about, these and other laws keep protecting the privileged and disregard any facts that could expose whiteness.

6. Smooth over complex dynamics and ignore the realities of institutionalized privilege

Trayvon Martin is a symbol of what happens for many communities of color, that just by walking around near a predominantly white community you are immediately viewed as “suspicious.”

By glossing over Zimmerman’s aggressive attitude to take matters into his own hands and ignore the 9-1-1 dispatcher (who said he shouldn’t follow Trayvon), the role of “macho” culture remained hidden.

These are challenging discussions, but by not even having them presented in the case, their hidden role continues.

Exposing the (in)justice system

Judith Browne Dianis, Co-Director of the Advancement Project, reminds us that we must continue to expose this system based on racism and fear, but at the same time we must honor Trayvon’s life.

She also highlights the grassroots events happening across the country propelling forward a movement for racial justice that should “continue on until each and every young man of color in America can walk the streets in any of our nation’s neighborhoods unafraid, knowing not only that he is safe, but that his country walks beside him.”

In Philadelphia and across the country, the marches demonstrate this commitment.

Follow Judith Browne Dianis on Twitter to keep up-to-date with her calls for racial justice.

Campaigns and Planning

After “Winning,” Our Campaigns Must Continue to Push!

Photo: Incase via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo: Incase via Flickr (Creative Commons)

After a major campaign victory feelings of elation, hard-fought joy, relief, and a sense of accomplishment fill the room.

Especially if you’ve been working for months or years on a campaign, it’s the time to celebrate and recognize those on your team for their constant dedication.

You may know that this “victory” is just a small step forward and there is still a lot of work to be done.

But does the rest of your team and the media have the same idea that “the campaign must continue?”

It can be easy for the media, and even some folks on the team, to accept the work as “mission accomplished.”

Even if they know there is still “work left to be done,” people may feel like they finished the major work and it’s only a matter of time before the rest “falls into place.”

This period of slight shifting down the campaign’s momentum, whether intentional or not, can have a few negative consequences ranging from losing committed volunteers to the opposition implementing stall tactics.

For this reason, we must be prepared to push the rest of the campaign and convince the broader public of the urgency of continued action.

By fostering a strong desire to propel the campaign forward, even after “winning” the big victory, we can make sure the end results are long-lasting.

Post-victory: campaign pitfalls and how to neutralizes victories


What should we be aware of in the wake of a victory? What would you try to do if a campaign on the side of institutional oppression won?

Below are a few examples of could be done to minimize a project’s progress, whether you are the one trying to push forward or if you’re trying to hinder regressive developments.


1. Stall tactics.


One of the most common ways groups on all sections of the political spectrum use to reduce the impact of a campaign.

This can range from environmental groups using stall tactics (e.g. tree sitting and human barricades) in order to bring attention to an issue, have time to issue a lawsuit, or change a piece of legislation to groups keeping proposals “in committee” or have a big media event saying “steps will be taken/the issue is being looked into.”


2. “Pouncing” on slowed momentum


Many organizers know that the real work often begins after the celebratory victory; however, sometimes other priorities or reduced enthusiasm can keep us from propelling the struggle.

This “slowed momentum” can be either real within the organization or perceived by the broader public, but what matters is if you’re ready for both.

If a group’s prepared, then they could take advantage of this dip in a campaign’s efforts to go on a quick offensive and really slow or even reverse momentum.


3. Bypassing the victorious campaign


Even if a campaign achieves it’s intended outcome, that still leaves room for the opposition to just find another way around it (though it may be significantly more costly for them).

For example, due to the constant activism to continue pushing against the Keystone XL pipeline oil companies have started to look for alternatives to transport their oil (e.g. moving oil by train).

In this case I have no doubt that no matter what those fossil fuel corporations try to do, those dedicated activists will continue the struggle! But this shows how carefully we need to consider alternative options the opposition may take to “bypass” our victories.


4. Co-opting success


The tactic of “co-opting success” occurs when an individual or an organization “accepted defeat,” but in actuality transform a victory away from the original intent of the activists to fit their own ends.

Elizabeth Martinez gives a clear, but disappointing example, in her book De Colores about the triumphant 1993 student protests for a Chicano Studies Department at UCLA.

Martinez writes “By spring 1998, the UCLA Chicano Studies struggle had come to seem like a classic case of those who win a victory being shoved aside by the administrators of that victory, who then betray its purpose…At every step, students were being neutralized and their promised advisory role blocked.”

This shows the administration used the students’ success to further their own goals instead of respecting the intentions of the broad-based student mobilizations.


5. Continuing the struggle!


Not giving up and escalating your efforts is one of the most important ways to diminish a negative/oppressive “victory.”

This is also what we must do even when we win (e.g. activists pushing for marriage equality AND other equal rights issues such as employment  immediately after the recent Supreme Court decision).

After going through this list of what happens when campaigns appear to “slow,” it shows we must prepare our campaigns to “keep pushing” to ensure our accomplishments last long after our organizing!

Your activism can look very different after the “victory,” but the important element to keep in mind is to find ways to both show your internal organizers and the external public/media that you’re going to continue this work for the long-term.

So let’s still make sure to celebrate huge accomplishments and recognize the hard work we put. But let’s also create a culture where folks understand the “big victories” are just part of the process and we’ve got to “keep pushing!”

What are your thoughts on what else we should be aware of when pushing forward our campaigns?

Organizational Development

How to Use Humor to Support Your Cohesive Team

There’s no getting around it…social change work can often be seriously draining. No matter what field you are in, there will always be those times when things get stressful.

I know that whenever I feel stressed, I’m not able to show my usual self and that makes things even more difficult.

So when I think about the work environments where I feel the most effective, they are usually the ones where the organization seeks to support all members throughout the year, and not only in stressful times.

One of the best ways to have a year-round encouraging organizational culture is one where people can express themselves and contribute their background to the organizational culture.

Whether this takes the form of creative design or finding ways to work beyond just the computer, the most important element is that group’s plan to bring out the best in their members.

In upcoming posts here at Organizing Change I’ll be looking at a few ways organizations can support member self-expression, but today I want to look at the role of humor and how it can help promote a more effective and collaborative team.

I used to have a strict division between work and the rest of my life when it came to using humor. I thought avoiding saying anything humorous would mean I was more focused and would help me accomplish my work better. Or I would think that it was “unprofessional.”

Then I realized I could use humor to actually support myself and my team.

I cannot remember the exact moment I started using humor more frequently, but I think it was around the time I gained more confidence in myself as an organizer. Once I felt more sure of myself at my work, then I slowly gained the ability to share my “outside-of-work” personality.

In my own small way I helped bring both a little humor to those around me and also encouragement for others to share a bit more of themselves. What made this work, was that I used a little bit of levity to elevate the level of energy in room, but without being a distraction.

Before I talk about how you can bring both high spirits and an increased focus to your group, let’s look at when humor can be detrimental.


When humor can have negative impacts


While my main aim with this post is to show when humor can be helpful to a group, there are also plenty of cases where it can be incredibly damaging. Below are a few ways and what you can do to counter the negative actions and language.

Humor can add to organizational stress. If the jocularity is ill-timed, forced, confusing, or communicated poorly then people can become frustrated or just be annoyed. Especially if things are already stressful, then you need to be considerate and use humor appropriately.

Humor can be oppressive. The Gender Blender Blog notes how humor often serves as a tool to normalize and perpetuate oppression. They continue by stating “Humor is used as a way to shame and silence people so that they fail to question or challenge the underlying meanings embedded in the oh-so-innocent joke.” In these cases we must be proactive in addressing the “jokes” and highlighting their impacts.

Humor can distract from the group’s main work. One of the most common reasons folks try to avoid humor is that they think it will distract from the task at hand, and in many cases it does. Excessive witticism should be tempered to a considerate level.

Humor can reduce creativity, if used to diminish an idea or forced. Humor can reinforce “the tendency to reject novelty and innovation” writes Wout Gijsbers. Or if forced, can be irrelevant and, subsequently, reduce others’ appreciation for your creative ideas. So we just need to ensure that frivolity is always genuine and supports those around us.


Why you should appropriately incorporate humor into your team


Photo: Sin Amigos via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo: Sin Amigos via Flickr (Creative Commons)

So now that we’ve covered some ways in which humor induce a negative environment, let’s see how to make it a wholly positive attribute of an organization.

Use genuine, consistent humor to decrease organizational stress. Getting people to smile can be a great way to help folks relax and thus be even more productive in their work. This in particular is an important way to limit the amount of stress before it even arises.

Stimulate learning by increasing laughter. A study published in the Monitor on Psychology found that classrooms that had the intention to make students’ laugh were helpful in “reducing anxiety, boosting participation and increasing students’ motivation to focus on the material.” These results directly apply to working with our teams.

Foster sharing and emotional expression through humor to build team cohesion. Wout Gijsbers notes that humor often serves as an “emotional glue” that unites team member during both good times and tough times. This occurs through “shared laughter” and “team spirit” that increase the sense of camaraderie.

Use humor as a tool for releasing creativity. It makes that if you’re less stressed then you’re better able to think of many different opportunities. That’s why humor has some of the most well-known cognitive benefits.

Every organization has a different culture, so you’ll need to carefully think about how it applies to your team. Just address negative humor and allow positive humor to express itself in the way that works best for your team

If you’re interested in looking at some other ways organizations can help support the self-expression of their members (e.g. spirituality, creativity), click here to sign up for updates on Organizing Change’s posts!