Friday, August 15, 2014

Different strokes for different folks

There are many roles folk can play in doing politics. Each role is important for having a functional campaign or organization. There are multiple ways you can divide up these roles, but what follows is a fairly simply and oft-used break out of responsibilities:


Now, when you begin, you'll likely be taking on all three roles at once. So it's hard to differentiate. But it's worthwhile to note that when working with others that this is a very usual way of dividing up organizational structure. You need more activists than leaders, and you need more leaders than organizers. Also, responsibility increases as you move down the chain. Even though this is so, I put activists up on top -- not because it's harder, but because in the end, if you're a leader or an organizer, your power is derived from your activists.

What are activists?

Activists do things to further a goal. Rather than just agreeing with you [your base], they'll go the extra mile and allocate time or money or both to your mission. They're committed to making it happen. Your base will think you have good ideas, and out of your base you'll get activists that make those ideas happen. Now, it tends to all be volunteer time so you can only do so much with that. That's important to realize -- and relates back to my previous post about taking care of yourself -- but it's still a lot more than most folk are willing to give.

Activists are rare, comparitively speaking .They're gold. Without activists you got nothin'. Never let your position as leader or organizer go to your head, because ultimately you ain't the one doing it -- you have more responsibility and all, but it's your activists that matter.

Them's the breaks.

What are leaders?

We can expound on this for way too long. I have been guilty of doing so before. A good rule for knowing whether someone is a leader [and not a good rule for making yourself into a leader] is that leaders have followers. Done, and done.

There's much pontification on the ephemeral nature of leadership. "Don't worry too much about it" is my advice. There's no magical formula. If you become a leader at one point, you may not be a leader at another point. Leaders come and go, and it's a good experience for everyone to get regardless -- because then you have a stronger whole.

On the other end of the spectrum, if you do this stuff enough, you'll probably run into folk that want to challenge the notion of leadership, and act like it doesn't exist. The best advice I have is to agree with them -- because, ultimately, leadership is ephemeral, and as such, it can't be controlled very well anyways. Mostly all these folk mean, in the end, is that they want things to be equal, which is certainly accomplishable even if leaders happen to emerge.

In the end, whether someone is a leader is more a product of circumstance and the values that people hold within a group. They'll follow people they trust and respect, and you'll want to find people who not only can earn trust and respect, but also -- if you're lucky -- actually deserve that trust and respect because they have good judgment.

But, do not fret too much about it. What's far more important is just finding people who will work together and trying to work towards your goals. Leaders will likely emerge in the process.

What is an organizer?

An organizer is something of an ephemeral concept, as well. They're the person who is responsible for some strategy or campaign to be seen to completion. They connect people together who would work well together. They're good at spotting leaders as they emerge.

There is much that can be said, but the gist is that an organizer doesn't have time to be an activist, and doesn't have time to be a leader, because being an activist requires time to do actions, and leaders require time to see to hteir activist's needs. Organizers just make sure things go alright, which can mean sometimes picking up an activist role, sometimes picking up a leadership role, and ultimately just making sure people follow through on the things they say they'll do. So you need people skills, you need contact information, and you need an incredible amount of patience -- as well as a sense for power dynamics, and how things in the world of organizations work.

At first, when you begin trying to engage government -- or whatever it is you want to organize within -- you'll be the activist-leader-organizer super hero. You will likely burn out if you keep doing that. So keep looking out for others that might be on your side. But until then, you are what I like to call "the boot strap". Just know that it's going to take, like, FOREVER to get anywhere. And I mean FOREVER. So don't set your expectations too high. Just get to work and patiently do what you can do and TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF.

As I noted, there's a lot that can be said for each of these roles. These are just some notions -- notions I had to learn the hard way by screwing up a bunch. I'm hoping that by at least having the words and a general gist on them that can help any other boot straps out there.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A counter-intuitive rule

Advice that I've never been good at transmitting...

There's a time in every activist's life where they became "Politicized" It doesn't necessarily happen all at once, but there's a story behind every activist where they sort of "woke up" to the importance of what they're doing. The difficulties in trying to bring in others is a subject related but different from today's blog post. This is the more important advice that's so hard to transmit: The one counter-intuitive rule which is important for every newly "awaked" activist to understand.


It's exciting when you first realize that you, with your mind, your hands, your will, can actually do something about what you care about. You come out of a slump where you were used to always being handed the world as some kind of passive observer that had to accept what was given to them because . . . well, because. And now, YOU CAN DO SOMETHING!!!! YESSSSSSSS....

Very exciting, by all means! I don't want to damper that enthusiasm. Sometimes, that enthusiasm is all you have to keep yourself going. And that is more what I want to speak to.

While you are excited now, the struggle is called struggle for a reason. And while there's a danger in thinking that things take time -- because perhaps you don't do anything, then, or you just accept what someone else says -- the struggle does, in fact, take time. Social systems move sllloooowwwwwwwwwwwlllllyyyyyyy.

And so what I want is an activist that I'll see around five years down the line, even if it means seeing them only once a month in those five years, rather than an activist that I'll see every day for 6 months who then disappears because they've lost all their energy. Their sentiments and enthusiasm remains, but they've burned out.

It seems counter-intuitive, but doing very little over time is more important than doing A LOT, now that you've AWOKEN, and then killing yourself. You're only human. You have actual needs -- social, professional, physical, esoteric, and so forth -- and power is only one out of many, many needs. You NEED to take care of your other needs. It can seem so harsh -- I mean, depending on your issue, you could [literally] be dealing with life or death issues, and are you really going to choose seeing this baseball game on Sunday when you could be doing research on the police officer that killed your close friend?

And my answer to you is -- YES. Yes you are. And you are going to watch the ball game on Sunday not because you don't care about your friend. You clearly do. You clearly care about the topic. You do things to further the struggle. But you're going to do it because you have many needs, and you're going to actually do better in the struggle if you're still around five years down the line than you are if you burn out in 6 months.

It seems counter-intuitive, but I can't even count the number of activists I've seen flash in the pan just like that.

Which is why I say I'm very bad at transmitting this advice. If there was a better way for me to tell people I'd surely use it. But that early enthusiasm is almost addicting. It keeps you powerhousing, and you think that, with just one more meeting, you can call it quits and go home and feel accomplished.

But the struggle doesn't work that way. It's not a job like building a house is a job. It's a struggle.

And I need you there later down the line, so in order to struggle, you just make sure you take care of yourself.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

"Be pragmatic!"

One notion I've come across ten thousand times over is the notion of practicality.

As in "I'm just doing what's practical...", or the more oft-used expression, "You can't do that, you need to be practical..."

While there's something to be said for making better or worse decisions within politics -- after all, if there wasn't then there'd be no skill to learn in the first place -- I want to highlight this notion because I believe it's a phrase used to stop people from acting against the interests of those already in power, to such and such a degree, at least.

Let us take the case of voting for the lesser of two evils.

It will often be said by an organizer that the lesser of two evils isn't great, but it is better -- and so, you ought to vote for such and such a person. Then, on top of that, you'll have folk who don't really know much better repeating this line of argument, as if our social spheres were natural, physical laws which we have no influence over -- and that you therefore must accept the lesser of two evils.

While it is true that many people are not willing to do the work required to change what our choices are -- for it is a good deal more work than simply going to a poll and registering your opinion -- it is also false to say that there's nothing more that can be done.

Similarly: an organizer will often dissuade more rambunctious ideas from being implemented in favor of, say, a petition or speaking to city council or voting for such and such a candidate. While there are decent motivations -- often times -- for directing action in this manner, it is also simultaneously false to presume that this is always the most pragmatic course of action.

It is a safe form of action. And unsafe actions have consequences which can be deeply demoralizing to an uprepared group of activists, which can destroy a movement.

However, even though this is so, it's also the case that if we are willing to put up with the inevitable and sometimes harsh consequences that, if planned out well, we can get more movement on such and such a proposal by breaking the law than we can through usual means.

The reason why the safer avenue is pragmatic, according to the day to day of political action, is because people are not as committed to their ideals as they like to tell themselves [I think this is a human feature, not something to be lamented, just something to be known], and they will be crushed by the powers that be -- meaning, idealogically, they'll retreat and take up other beliefs -- if they go out on a limb, and risk more than their reputation.

Further, there are already organizations in place which understand these standard methods. If we find other ways to penetrate decision-making apparatuses [legislators, owners, city councils, county boards, etc.] then we are [possibly] a challenge to those who are used to brokering power in the name of their particular cause. It's not a zero sum game, but folk like their positions and don't like the idea of being threatened out of them. So, if you take the pragmatic approach then you'll be within the box those brokers are used to dealing with.

Now, there's often reasons why those brokers are the brokers -- they often know what they're doing, and it really is genuinely safer to use avenues which are in place. But on the other side of things I think it's important to highlight how it is they have gotten their venerated positions -- not by the means they presently proscribe for folk wanting grievances addressed, but through the use of direct action.

And direct action can be much more scary and risky than usual methods for doing politics.

But it's also how power is actually won. If that be our goal then it's actually much more pragmatic than any program or procedural method proscribed by present power brokers.

And that's a very important thing to know.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Maybe once again. . .

I was beginning to write a "Farewell" post on this blog. It seemed past due for a post, and as I was looking at some of my older material it struck me just how much I've changed since starting this gig up.

But as I wrote the farewell I tripped across an explanation to keep this going.

The reason I started this blog was to keep myself sharp on the material I was learning in chemistry class, and give a resource to people who might need it to help them learn the material.

The philosophy posts were in a similar vein, in that I thought people should know more about philosophy, and writing about philosophy helped me to learn.

These are the posts that get a lot more traction on the site, I've noticed. And I have learned, since my last few posts, just how different politics and science really are. [hypothesis: why scientists are not politically involved...]

Including how each ought to be taught.

That is to say -- I began all wrong, and that wrong-ness is reflected in my posts. I was treating it far too theoretically for it to be of practical assistance to people. And people really ought to -- in the same way they ought to be familiar with science and philosophy -- know how to engage the seats of power.

Even more than philosophical speculation, there is a real dearth of knowledge or understanding with respect to really doing politics -- a kind of sense that politics is dirty, inane, or hopeless.

It is my belief that these attitudes only benefit the exact sort of people who are more than willing to make politics this kind of game -- but, even more so, that they only work to the advantage of those already in power.

How to, exactly, overcome such frustrations among the non-political, the de-politicized, and so forth -- these are questions I think about a great deal. And, unfortunately, they aren't the sort of questions which one can check against a professor or a text book. They don't even work in a similar vein to the more academic realms which motivated this blog, initially.

But then -- that doesn't make politics any less important. And, truth be told, most of my traffic [these days] comes from google searches related to either Kant or chemistry -- probably students looking for answers, and [so I can hope] getting a little direction on their questions so they can pass their exams.

And given the title, and just how many mistakes I've made [and continue to make, and think about, and try to correct] in all these various realms of reflection -- even though I'm a very different sort of person, and what I think about is very different, I came to think that I [perhaps] ought to consider continuing along this line, keeping all the embarassing speculations from before to tag along.

Perhaps you'll see that, no matter where you're at now, you can become at least passingly proficient in political matters.

I can hope.

And, at the very least, I don't have to bother figuring out all the annoying aesthetics again. ;)

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Two Problem People

In grassroots organizing there are a number of problems that need to be worked out in the moment. There are likely other sorts of people that need to be dealt with, and in different kinds of ways, but the two kinds of people I'm talking about here are people who could potentially be beneficial to your group.

These are the talkers and the dictators.

Talkers and dictators are potentially beneficial to your group because they have a passion for the topic. That's why, usually, they're talkers or dictators. Talkers can even be beneficial in their trait of talking, it's just a matter of ensuring that this talking is directed correctly. Dictators, on the other hand, are passionate but their dictator trait needs to be altered.

Dealing with talkers is a matter of organizing procedure. Talkers like to talk, and often talk over others, or will draw out their comments at length while reitterating some of their points. Starting the meeting off with the rules of discussion, which includes a "stack", a time limit, and a talking stick is a good way of dealing with talkers. You need to be polite but firm in censoring anyone in a meeting as a facilitator, reminding them that the reason you're interrupting is because there are others who would like to speak and deserve a turn. Reminding the talkers through a 1-on-1 of the procedures and why they're important -- keeping group unity and ironing out disagreements which could lead to a malfunctioning group -- is a good precursor to productive meetings. Remind people that meetings should be as short as possible so that we can all get on with our lives and get over the boring, grueling, but necessary part of organizing.

Talkers are great in scenarios that aren't directed towards group decision making or ensuring that people's feelings aren't hurt. In my experience, talkers are great speakers, agitators, media relations people, and intellectual defenders of the more timid in the face of an aggressive talker who may be against your side. Talkers are also talkers because, usually, they're passionate, so talkers are loyal. They are a great asset to any grass roots organizing. The persona just needs to be reminded, from time to time, that others need to be able to talk too, and they can be reminded through the importance of following procedures when group consensus is trying to be achieved.

Dictators, on the other hand, I've had less luck with. Perhaps there's a good way to address dictators. So far, in my experience -- though the dictators are passionate -- their attitude towards others tends to drive people away. They expect people to follow their orders, and are upset when they don't. Usually dictators, again in my experience, are just inexperienced organizers. They're passionate, they've dreamed many good dreams, they want to reach the end-goal, but they haven't had much experience in actually organizing people on the ground without any authority to back them.

So far the best thing I've been able to do with dictators is to push them out of the group. They're upset, which isn't good, but dictators ruin collective group dynamics and the possibility of growing your group or its good repute in the community to be worth it. I've tried to show dictators what it takes to be a good organizer -- being open to criticism, not taking criticism personally, attempting to blend people's desires into a super-tactic/objective that is conducive to what you're organizing on, politeness, being willing to work before asking others to do so, working with people's schedules, being understanding of people's lives, trying to work with a quid pro quo attitude towards those with resources that could help your cause but aren't necessarily aligned with the cause -- but for the most part, the whole "working with others" aspect of organizing doesn't suit the dictator's personality as much. And without other people, you're not bound to get much done.

So, unless you're particularly awesome with working with people -- and I consider myself to be decent -- I'd suggest politely telling the dictator that they can play well with others and showing them what that entails, but tell them that the dictator attitude -- specified as a person telling others what to do and expecting others to do those things without placing work into the project and without considering their needs -- needs to go, or they do.