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.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Step One of grassroots organizing

There are a large number of options available to the would-be organizer. The difficulty in starting your own grass roots group doesn't come from a lack of options or a lack of issues -- or even a lack of possible support from some kind of larger group which would be sympathetic to your efforts -- but the place where the would-be organizer gets caught, I think, is in the starting and in the continuing. This post will be about the starting.

As I mentioned before in Organizer Pedagogy, what you choose to do should be tailored to your local conditions. But that's not a helpful way of stating things when you don't have a teacher on hand to get started.  What counts as "local conditions"? In what way do they matter? How does that help you choose correctly? I think it important to highlight that your local conditions make it difficult to give advice on where to start. But the lesson to take from this, I think, is to be open to changing your plans as you collect people together. They likely have good points, and have things to teach you. An organizer collects ideas from people and willingly implements them, and tries to find ways to make groups work together in spite of their apparent disagreements. They don't have a grand vision to impose on others (even if you do have a grand vision or goal which drives you, you have to be open to other's grand visions and goals, and move with the tactics proposed)

However, these are good rules to think of after having started, and once you're in the process of moving towards goals. In the beginning you need structure. You need a plan. You need an idea. And, you can't impose that idea on others. You can only tell people the idea and look for people that think -- to some extent -- that it's a decent idea.

This is step 1: Forming a core group.

A core group is a group of people that care about an issue -- local or national -- and will be willing to follow through in setting up events. You'll find many people that agree with your idea. You won't find as many people -- perhaps very few out of those who do agree, in fact -- who are also willing to follow through in doing. Ideas always sound cool. Work is. . . well, work. And the work is what you need a core group for -- the core group brings new ideas, allows you to distribute out tasks, and allows you to pool resources and contacts to get things done.

What does a core group do?

A core group sets up community events. For example, suppose you want to educate people on the poor in your community so that they'll get together for a food drive. For that, you'll need fliers to tell people about the event, a speaker who can educate those who show up, and a list of people who promise to bring food to such and such a place as well as to ask others in their respective circles to bring food to the drive. For that you'll need a date, a time, and a place. You'll need to secure that place at that time by talking to the person who owns the place and securing permission. Do this by showing the owner your flier which you'll be passing out, and explaining the goal of your food drive as well as the problem that the food drive is meant to address.  Once you have the owner's permission, begin fliering in the neighborhood where people tend to congregate (city halls, churches, schools, public events, parks). Do this by telling the person you meet in the street that they now have a flier. I always say, in a friendly tone, "Here, have a flier!" It's better to say this than to ask, because you don't get as much out when you ask questions. Then, have the event, and have a location where people can bring food, and after the fact let people who donated know how much food you gathered and how its helping out the hungry.

Any of these tasks -- from talking to the owner, to fliering, to speaking at the meeting, to making the flier -- can be distributed out through your core group. That way you're not the only one doing the work, and don't get burned out, and you have input from multiple sources on how it will be carried out (usually making it better), and making it so your resources aren't the only ones going into the project.

That's what a core group is for. That, and drawing strength from one another so that the things you're doing -- when they seem hopeless and worthless and not effective (and there will always be times when you feel this way -- will continue to be done. Burnout is a serious problem. And, it's good to have friends in doing these things so that you can combat burnout.

The strengths of a core group make forming a core group the first step of community/grass roots organizing. Find responsible friends who care about the issue, and meet once a week to discuss what you can do, whose going to do what, and holding each other accountable for the doing.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Wichita City Hall Speech

Today I spoke to Wichita's city council on possible policy changes they could implement to address the problem of police violence in the city. The text is as follows:

The city of Wichita has a problem with police violence. I say that the city has a problem because these are not isolated incidents, the result of a few “bad eggs”. We have stood outside of city hall to inform the public of the most egregious signs of this problem – the five killings of the past year – and in the process of informing the public, I and others have been told stories of their interactions with the police. In many situations the police act with undue aggression: Many officers draw weapons when they aren’t needed. They fire upon suspects unnecessarily. Many officers train that fire for center mass, rather than aiming for the legs or utilizing their tasers. They act in the capacity of soldiers rather than in the capacity of peace keepers. And then, based upon our interaction with the local government and the police department, the police do what they can to cover up their mistakes and preserve their integrity.

As of right now that integrity is lost. Those who interact with the police, or who have been paying attention to the unfolding of the past years shootings no longer trust the police department. This is bad for the community and for the police department – especially the good police in the police department. If this breach of trust continues we can predict a perpetual tug-of-war which will continue to degrade police and community relations to a point where it won’t matter if a given police officer is actually a good officer. The fact that he wears a badge will be enough to distrust him or her. This mentality must be combatted. The current situation in Anaheim, California should be evidence enough to show why this is an unhealthy attitude that needs to be addressed.  The city can address this attitude through three actions which are easily accomplished by this city council. When I previously spoke to you, Mayor Carl Brewer, I was directed towards the law department. From there, I received an email which read:

“…our office generally does not initiate code changes. Most requests for new code provisions or amendments to existing code provisions comes from city staff, are based on changes to state statutes made by the Kansas Legislature or are at the direction of the City Council. I would suggest that you contact the City Clerk to get on the public agenda to discuss your proposed ordinance ideas with the Council.  If the Council desires to pursue your suggestions, they can direct our office to do so”

Based on this response I believe that I am addressing – and was addressing – the appropriate authority.
I don’t have the time to go into specifics. So what follows is a general outline of the three actions I propose.
First, the city council needs to move to ensure justice for the victims and their families,  The families deserve stricter judiciary proceedings than the review given by our DA. Nola Foulston has not found a single police officer guilty of excessive force in her service.

Second, the city council needs to implement policy changes which will de-incentivize the use of lethal force by police officers. There are times and places where violence is necessitated by the police. But the police, as of now, are using lethal force excessively. Companies, such as Cessna, use a review process when things go wrong and put people on leave without pay to investigate the incident. We need to somehow implement this into the WPD’s policies, or into the city ordinances, for police officers which utilize lethal force to give them an incentive to use non-lethal force.

Lastly, the city council should move to subject police actions to community review by an independent, community-based review board with subpoena powers. In the event of a shooting that review board should meet immediately. The board should not be appointed by City Manager Layton’s office because the community needs to be able to trust the review board. The board should have subpoena power to ensure that information on a given shooting isn’t solely controlled by the police department. Other cities, such as Las Vegas, have a board with subpoena power which reviews complaints and attempts to represent the people’s concerns with the cities policing powers. Having this board outside of the cities appointment would ensure that information released on questionable cases is more balanced, and that people could trust that board to carry out its tasks.

I urge this city council to consider these three actions, and move – within your capacities – to implement them to re-establish trust between the people and the police, and help prevent these tragedies in the future. Thank you.