A Practical Guide to Co-option

Also published in Occupy! #4. Occupy! is an OWS-inspired gazette, published by n+1.

Almost immediately after a small band of activists first occupied Zuccotti Park in September of last year, many in the movement started expressing concern about potential co-option by more established and moderate forces. These concerns have become more central in 2012, an election year. Wariness is certainly warranted. But angst about an over-generalized sense of co-option may be an even bigger problem. We cannot build a large-scale social movement capable of achieving big changes without the involvement of long-standing broad-based institutions. OWS should actively and strategically forge relationships with many of these institutions, while preserving the role of OWS as an “outsider” force.

Good problem to have

In the wake of the initial successes of Occupy Wall Street, establishment Democrats&#151including the White House&#151started clamoring to figure out how to ride the anti-Wall Street populist wave. Some Democratic Party strategists asked what electoral use they might get out of the new movement. Judd Legum of the Center for American Progress (CAP) told the New York Times in early October that “Democrats are already looking for ways to mobilize protesters in get-out-the-vote drives for 2012.”

The hypocrisy of a party that is deeply in the pocket of Wall Street trying to ride an anti-Wall Street surge was widely ridiculed. Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald scoffed at efforts “to exploit these protests into some re-branded Obama 2012 crusade and to convince the protesters to engage in civil disobedience and get arrested all to make themselves the 2012 street version of OFA [Organizing For America].” Greenwald was right, and was echoing a widespread sentiment inside Zuccotti Park and the other occupations around the country. Very few of the committed folks sacrificing time, safety, and comfort to make the occupations and street protests happen are going to switch uncritically into re-elect Obama mode.

And yet, something important is missing in many movement conversations about the threat of Democratic Party co-option: namely that this is a good problem to have. This is what political leverage looks like. Grassroots social justice movements haven’t had much leverage for a very long time, and over the past months we’ve finally gotten a taste of it. Having leverage allows us to frame the national discussion and to pull things in a social justice direction. In a very short time span, Occupy Wall Street dramatically shifted the dominant national conversation from a conservative deficit framework to a critique of economic inequality and the political disenfranchisement of most Americans.  

How often is a genuinely grassroots social justice movement in a position where it’s framing the national narrative, and where the major political parties are reacting to us? Having this kind of leverage is perhaps the most important thing in politics. Without leverage, all you have is a political analysis. Trying to engage in political struggle with an analysis but no leverage is like coming to a gunfight armed only with the truth. Good luck with that!

So, in political struggle, when powerful forces want to co-opt your momentum, that means you have leverage, and that’s a good problem for a grassroots movement to have. Serious movement strategy conversations about the threat of co-option should start with this happy realization. Yes, wariness of establishment and “moderate” forces is certainly warranted. But generalized fears of co-option can have a paralyzing effect on our ability to activate a broad spectrum of allies &#151 especially if we uncritically lump together and dismiss every national organization, labor union, community organization, etc., that engages in any electoral work or even legislative work.

Even if you concede that establishment forces want to co-opt a more radical agenda &#151 well, so what? What does that even mean? It means that different groups and institutions have different agendas, and they’re always looking for ways to further those agendas. NEWSFLASH: We all have this in common! We all have agendas, and we’re partial to our agenda over others’ agendas. It is certainly true that more established institutions tend to command more resources than dynamic new configurations like Occupy Wall Street &#151 and that established groups tend to get stuck in their ways, and even to sometimes actively resist more radical accelerations of change. This is part of the terrain that we have to map and understand. But we should do this with an eye to finding and cultivating allies within institutions &#151 not to dismiss the institutions wholesale.

The worst thing we could do right now is make Occupy Wall Street into a small “radicals only” space. We cannot build a large-scale social movement capable of achieving big changes without the involvement of long-standing large membership institutions, including labor unions, national advocacy organizations, community organizations, and faith communities. Radicals never have and never will have sufficient numbers to go it alone. We have to muster the courage and smarts to be able to help forge and maintain alliances that we can influence but cannot fully control. That’s the nature of a broad populist alignment.

If we are to continue building on the momentum that Occupy Wall Street kicked off, we can’t treat institutions and individuals as if they were one-dimensional characters with simple and permanently fixed motives. Larger membership organizations can be complicated, and their programs and politics are often a mixed bag. The temptation for radicals is to focus on everything they’ve ever done wrong (i.e. all the things that radicals don’t like). But many of these institutions and movements began with premises that are not so far from our own. We have to figure out how to invite them and the people inside them to shift and to change. This includes institutions we don’t align with on every issue and who have disappointed us in the past. Achieving significant changes requires building broad alliances. While of course there are lines to draw (e.g. we should never align with organized racists), generally we can’t afford to be puritanical when it comes to building a broad movement.

One Co-option at a Time

Social movement theorists have a term for the sort of co-option that Occupy Wall Street should prize: infrastructure co-option. Nascent movements become mass movements not by building their own infrastructure entirely from scratch or recruiting new volunteers one at a time, but by “co-opting” existing institutions and social infrastructure into the service of the movement and its goals. The Civil Rights movement went big when existing institutions&#151especially black churches and schools&#151came to identify strongly as part of the movement. Organizers provided opportunities for members of those pre-existing institutions to make this new identification actionable and visible. This was cultivated to such an extent that, eventually, to be a member of certain institutions implied active involvement in the Civil Rights movement. When this happens with enough institutions, the movement gets a huge boost in capacity. And capacity means power.

Over the past few months many organizations and constituencies have been watching Occupy Wall Street, trying to figure out whether and how to relate to it. These organizations&#151including faith communities, the NAACP, MoveOn.org, labor unions, community organizations, and many other groups&#151understand how they and their members are affected by the crises that Occupy Wall Street has named and confronted. Some of them are already engaging in important ways, explicitly as part of&#151or in support of&#151Occupy Wall Street. And many more have long been engaged in work that clearly aligns with the movement’s core values&#151and probably even deserve some credit for helping to lay the long-term organizing groundwork that helped create OWS.

But there are still significant barriers standing in the way of broader constituencies conceptualizing themselves as part of a 99% movement and getting actively involved. The first and most obvious barrier is that many groups haven’t really been asked to get involved. During the first couple months of OWS, if a group wanted to get involved, it was typically a matter of them taking the initiative to approach us and ask what kind of support they might provide. Usually the answer was some variety of “Come down to Zuccotti Park” or “Stand up against Bloomberg for our right to occupy the park.” Often the groups that wanted to support OWS simply showed up. While this kind of involvement made perfect sense when we held the park, it’s clear that we now have to come up with other ways for more people and groups to take action as part of the 99% movement.

This is a critical transition for Occupy Wall Street and the 99% movement. Remember that Occupy Wall Street kicked off with a well timed call-to-action, a ripe target, some planning, and a lot of crazy luck. As a result, OWS has understandably had more of a culture of mobilizing than of organizing. It’s been a little like a group of folks who don’t know anything about farming who arrive at a farm at harvest time. There’s delicious food everywhere, and all they have to do is pick, pluck, and gather it. And eat it! “Wow,” one of them exclaims, “farming is awesome! Why would we waste our time cultivating the soil? This food is delicious! I want to eat it all the time! This is working very well. We should just keep doing this &#151 all the time!”

Occupy Wall Street has been something of a harvest moment. It pulled thousands of people out of the woodwork who’d been waiting for something just like this to come along, and who were in a place where we could carve out time from our lives to engage it. But movements need hundreds of thousands if not millions of active participants to become mass movements. It’s difficult if not impossible to activate those kinds of numbers by just taking public action with the hope that other like-minded individuals will decide to join you. We need more on-ramps and more ways to be involved &#151 for folks who might not yet feel comfortable camping out at a public park.

More than any other factor, people get involved in social change because people they know and respect provide an opportunity for them to get involved. In their essay Collective Identity and Activism: Networks, Choices, and the Life of a Social Movement, Debra Friedman and Doug McAdam cite proximity to movement activity as the single biggest factor for why people become active in grassroots change efforts:

Structural proximity to a movement, rather than any individual disposition, produces activism. Although individuals differ in their dispositions, the opportunities afforded by structural location relative to a movement determine whether they are in a position to act on these dispositions. Empirical support for these positions is unimpeachable.

In other words, while many people hold beliefs compatible with Occupy Wall Street, a very small percentage are currently taking action on those beliefs &#151 and a primary factor for why some people have become active is simply that they encountered opportunities provided by people close to them who are already active. This is why our growth has reached something of a plateau. And this is why it is now critical that we meet with folks who are movers and shakers in other social networks and institutions. That’s how the 99% movement can grow at the rate we all know it needs to; by activating whole swaths of society at a time.

But we have to approach those movers and shakers in the right way. Our “asks” of organizations shouldn’t be overly prescriptive. We have to start by establishing relationships. The term infrastructure co-option suggests a kind of functionalist attitude; as if a movement uses existing institutions in order to accomplish movement goals. One could look at the Civil Rights movement, point to core leaders, and argue that they exploited existing institutions to advance their agenda. But such an assessment would be wrongheaded. Civil rights leaders cultivated relationships with other organizations based on shared self-interest. This was a process of courting trust, cultivating deep collaboration and accountability, and making good judgments about the kinds of actions and messages that would resonate with different constituencies. Leaders had to act boldly, but also humbly.

Movement Season & Election Season

All of the above gets so much more complicated in an election year. Occupy Wall Street is an outsider force. It should remain an outsider force this year. If it were to endorse candidates or a particular political party, it would immediately lose all of its value and leverage. Our job is to push from the outside.

But that’s not at all to say that we shouldn’t have a strategy for engaging with the energy and media attention of the election season. We should. And how we do it will seriously affect our ability to continue to grow this movement, to be seen as relevant, to cultivate alliances, and to leverage power to effect real change.

As an outsider force, one of our biggest tasks is to set the terms of debate. For decades now, the terms of debate have shifted further and further to the Right, as conservatives united under a shared anti-government (i.e. anti-social spending) narrative, and progressive forces, fractionalized, waged mostly defensive campaigns to limit damage on an issue-by-issue basis. Interestingly, the rightward direction was probably no more apparent than in the case of the 2010 midterm elections, where the so-called Tea Party shifted the national debate into something of a moratorium on taxation and government spending on social programs and infrastructure. While the Tea Party’s agenda was deplorable, there are some lessons we might glean from aspects of their model (of an outsider grassroots force shifting the debate). To be clear, Occupy Wall Street is not “the Tea Party of the Left.” To our disadvantage, we don’t have nearly the financial backing that the Tea Party enjoyed via the Koch brothers and other major funders. Nor do we enjoy our own major cable news network that mobilizes people to come to our rallies. But to our advantage, because of our genuine independence from big corporate backers, we have been willing and able to tell the whole truth: not just that the government is broken, but that there were particular institutions and people who broke it. In other words, we have been willing to name Wall Street, the big banks, and the one percent as a culprit, and this naming rings true to a lot of people (even including some from the Tea Party base).

As recently as August of last year, anyone watching the mainstream news might think that the national deficit and social spending was the biggest problem facing the nation. That was a pretty impressive feat by the Tea Party. A month later, however, media outlets were at long last shifting their scrutiny to the consolidation of political power by the extremely wealthy, and the corresponding political disenfranchisement of the 99%. That shift should have happened long ago&#151that analysis should have long been commonsense&#151but it’s still an achievement that OWS can be proud of. And if we can keep that as the dominant framework&#151as the new commonsense&#151through the election season and beyond, we will have accomplished a great deal.

But many questions remain. What do we do, for instance, when candidates start to run on platforms that explicitly name “the 99%”? This is already happening. Are they co-opting our movement?

Yes, they are, in some ways. But, really, of all the slogans in the world, “We are the 99%” may be the one most difficult to claim exclusive ownership of &#151 after all, it’s a slogan that invites an overwhelming majority of people to identify with it. Moreover, there’s another way of looking at this: in some ways we are the ones who are co-opting them. At the very least, we are co-opting their speeches with our rhetoric. Once someone starts running on your rhetoric, you then have more leverage over them. You are better positioned to expose them if they’re just giving lip service to your ideas without any intention of delivering. And for all the horrendous limits of the two-party system, still a slate of candidates who get elected pledging to take on the big banks gives us a lot more to work with&#151as an outsider social movement&#151than a slate of candidates elected on a pledge to cut social spending. And more importantly, it keeps the momentum on our side.

Another important question has to do with how we engage allies who do endorse candidates. Many labor unions, for example, are likely at some point to endorse President Obama’s reelection bid. Some already have. And some will surely endorse specific state and local candidates. We’re an outsider force. We should never endorse candidates. But is it possible to ally around specific actions with organizations that also endorse candidates?

It has to be. We join up with others where we can, and we depart where we depart. If we call for an end to corporate personhood, for example, we should welcome as many co-endorsers as possible, including organizations that endorse politicians &#151 and even politicians themselves. Welcoming politicians’ endorsements of our goals doesn’t mean endorsing those politicians. This is an important detail, and it requires a precise threading of the needle. As an outside force, we have to take all politicians to task, regardless of party. But the details of how we do this matter. We need to pressure politicians and candidates, and the best way to do this is to ask them hard questions and provide pressure that pulls them in our direction (or put them on the defensive). If we ask good questions that resonate with the people who hear them, then we’re doing our job well. If, on the other hand, we make general statements like, “It doesn’t matter who you vote for, they’re all the same,” then we’re being needlessly belligerent to our allies and potential allies (without even putting politicians on the defensive). An organization focused primarily on reproductive rights, for example, will understandably be very concerned about whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney occupies the White House. We can take candidates from both parties to task on an array of other issues without spurning their reasons for deciding to endorse a candidate.

+++

Every once in a very long while, an “earthquake moment” hits and shakes the foundations of the political landscape. In an earthquake moment, structures that you long took for granted may suddenly display new features. Perhaps a structure was built on a hitherto invisible fault-line, and the quake splits it right down the middle. Someone who had felt constrained within her institution before the shake-up may now see and seize openings to move the institution in a bolder direction. And this is more likely to happen if organizers from Occupy Wall Street&#151the visible catalyst of the earthquake&#151approach longstanding institutions to strategize together about how they might engage with this moment. An earthquake moment is a time to invite people to engage. It’s not a moment to keep people in boxes, or to draw rigid lines. It’s a moment to hammer Wall Street, the big banks, and the political system that has been fixed to serve only the very wealthy and powerful. Our task now is to activate as many people as possible into action. And this has to include people we wouldn’t necessarily choose to have as our best friends.

Seek Common Ground (Beautiful Trouble – Essay 4)

When disagreeing with someone else’s ideas, it can be tempting to engage in narrative attack; to make a direct attack on one narrative from the vantage point, and in the language, of your opposing narrative. For example, when someone wraps climate change-denial views in the rhetoric of creationist beliefs, it is tempting to directly attack the climate change denier’s whole belief system. Once a narrative attack is made, persuasion becomes nearly impossible because the attacked person feels that their whole belief system is under siege. Change becomes impossible.

A narrative insurgency approach, on the other hand, examines the other’s narrative framework, learning the component parts and looking for points of connection. Rather than directly attack a creationist’s whole belief system, for instance, a “narrative insurgent” looks to foment home-grown insurgency against the most problematic beliefs by identifying ally beliefs and seeking to reinforce them. When speaking to creationists about environmental issues, for example, emphasizing humanity’s mandate to care for God’s creation can be an effective point of entry.

If we are to transform the political culture, we need to think not in terms of attacking opponents’ views head-on, but rather in terms of fomenting homegrown insurgency. The root of the word insurgency is “rise up.” Insurgencies rise up from within. Narrative insurgency rises up from within a cultural narrative, transforming that culture from the inside out.  

The narrative insurgent’s approach, well executed, can be very effective for identifying and drawing out allies: in this case, creationists who care about the environment and are uneasy seeing it ravaged for the sake of private profit. By repeating and positively reinforcing this message in the context of ongoing engagement, the belief that we should care for the earth can be strengthened within the given community’s complex collective belief system.

Narrative insurgents do not reject problematic narratives wholesale, but distinguish between those components that are allied, hostile or neutral to their cause. They embrace as much of a cultural narrative as possible &#151 the allied and neutral components &#151 and encourage the further development of the allied components, using these as the foundations for their organizing efforts with and within the given community.

This approach doesn’t mean always avoiding direct confrontation with harmful narratives and beliefs. It’s more like a preference for finding common ground and utilizing positive reinforcement whenever possible. Ultimately there comes a time when a destructive narrative becomes untenable to a critical mass of people, and when a new polarization will be useful (e.g. during a revolutionary moment). The strategy here is to lay the groundwork that necessarily precedes such a moment: to feed the allied components within a narrative until they are strong enough to burst out of the old framework.

Narrative insurgency only works if applied in the context of accountable relationships with reliable feedback loops. A change agent learns the intricacies of cultural narratives not to deceive people, but to communicate common values in a language that holds meaning for large numbers of people. While she may often disagree with others, she still values and even empathizes with their perspectives. She is forgiving toward shortcomings, always rooting for people, always finding something worthy of praise. Over time, narrative insurgency becomes second nature: we don’t feign identification with the allied and neutral components within another community’s narrative or culture, because our orientation is to connect with people wherever and whenever possible.


This is one of several pieces by Jonathan Matthew Smucker published in the new book Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution. Assembled by Andrew Boyd, the book includes short concept pieces about grassroots action, activism and organizing, contributed by more than 70 authors. Order it here!

Still Winning: Occupy Wall Street & the World We Want

A Brief Account: The Growth and Repression of OWS

Occupy Wall Street celebrated its two-month anniversary by taking the streets of New York City in a full day of mass direct action. We celebrated the hundreds of occupations that have sprung up across the country and around the world. We celebrated the hundreds of thousands who have participated by marching, carrying out civil disobedience, and putting their bodies in motion. We celebrated the millions of people across the globe united in their willingness to join this movement in whatever ways they can. We celebrated in the many thousands in cities all around the world.

At the same time, much of the status quo goes on. New austerity measures are being passed right under our noses, the homeless remain without homes and the jobless without jobs, the wars carried out in our name continue, wealth goes on being concentrated further and further into a few hands at the expense of the many. And in the face of this movement rising in opposition, the state and capital have responded with violence both physical and ideological, intended to suppress demoralize us &#151 camps being cleared out by riot police, organizers targeted for arrest, teeth and noses broken, kids and grandmothers pepper-sprayed.

It’s only a drop in the bucket in comparison to the violence experienced in marginalized communities or at the hands of American imperialism, but it represents a critical moment in the development of this movement. It is not a coincidence. We are being taken seriously. Maybe we should be flattered.

Reassurance: We Are Still Winning

We are building a global movement, and elites are beginning to mobilize the incredible power at their disposal to do it whatever damage they can &#151 media and scholarship to discredit us, laws and regulations to constrain us, and sheer violence to repress us. Yes, they are paying their think tanks to undermine us, collecting their mayors on conference calls to strategize about us, mobilizing their shock troops to beat and detain us, and whistling to their lap-dogs in the press to tell the stories they want heard.

This is what happens when genuine movements emerge with enough force and potential to be taken seriously by those with power and privilege. This is what happens when movements grow stronger and more diverse. This is what happens when movements take root in the public consciousness. Make no mistake about it: They are fighting us now because we are winning.

In moments like these &#151 when protest becomes resistance and power mobilizes to confront it &#151 it becomes important again to stop and remember why we started fighting in the first place, and what it is we want.

A Reminder: Why We Fight and How We Win

We each come to this movement with our many different scars and traumas, our many goals and dreams. We come from different places, with different needs. We are here together because we share an understanding that our different issues come together, that the systems of oppression we are challenging not only intertwine and coexist but actually produce and define each other, that we can only defeat them by having a deep, holistic analysis and by presenting one another with a real vision for what might be instead. We agree that we need to build something new in the here and now, while fighting those forces that keep us from doing so.

We fight because people’s needs really aren’t being met, because there are simple and systemic reasons for that, because it is unacceptable, and because there is an alternative. We fight because we oppose injustice intellectually, but also because injustice makes us sick to our stomachs. We fight because a system in which homeless people freeze outside of empty homes does not deserve to exist, because a system that allows for people to go hungry while there is an overabundance of food is unacceptable. We fight because the economic and social systems governing our lives have proven themselves to be totally incapable of meeting the minimum criteria for a just and humane society, and because we are sure as hell it doesn’t have to be this way. We fight for other people, but also for ourselves &#151 because none of us get to live out our full human potential within the institutions that dominate our lives today. We fight because another world really is possible, and because we demand it for the people around us, our friends, our kids, and ourselves.

The stakes are high. We have a responsibility not only to fight, but to win.

We win when we build diverse mass movements led by the most oppressed people in society. We win when that movement becomes a dual power &#151 a movement able to prefigure the values of a free society and laying the seeds for it, while fighting the institutions that oppress and exploit. We win when that movement becomes one where groups have the autonomy to carry out their own struggles while finding solidarity in a shared analysis, vision, and strategy. We win when we manage to transform the struggle from the symbolic to the real &#151 a struggle that reclaims land and space in order to truly create an alternative and meet peoples’ needs, one that truly disrupts business as usual and prevents the classes that dominate and exploit from continuing to do so.

Yes, this new world is being born &#151 slowly and painfully &#151 and in order to win it, we have to tell its story.

The Story: Another World is Possible

Perhaps the first story we must tell is about the world around us. These systems that encourage us to compete and exploit, that force us to make war and torture, that compel us to literally wipe ourselves off the planet by damaging it so thoroughly, have no future. They are not only unethical and unnecessary: they are simply and truly impossible.

But the most important story is one of possibility: Another world is possible.

A society that is ecologically sustainable, liberating, intimate, warm, and creative is possible. Not only is it possible, but it must be. We can have a political and economic system that we all control together, one that is equitable and humane, one that allows for people to self-manage and act in solidarity, one that is participatory and democratic to its very roots. We can live in a world where people have the right to their own identities, communities, and cultures, and the freedom and support to express them. We can have a society with institutions that take care of and nurture our youth, elderly, and families in ways that are liberating and consensual. We can have a world where we actually get to live out and express our full human potential. We can, and we must.

We tell a story that shatters the myth that there is no alternative, that people don’t fight back, that we can be bought off. We tell a story that smashes cynicism and identifies it as nothing more than a defense mechanism to protect us from following the rabbit hole that leads to rising up. We tell a story of autonomy within solidarity, equity alongside diversity, peace bound with justice, struggle intimately linked with beauty. We tell a story of how our scars give us the wisdom and courage to change the world.

We tell the story ourselves, tweet and tag it, film and sing it, write it with our arrests and our bruises. We tell it at work and in school, on the picket lines and during demonstrations, at our occupations and sit-ins, in the jail cells where they put us when they are truly afraid of the power we hold. We tell it by fighting in a way that reflects the values of the world we are dreaming of, and by creating as much of that world as we can while we fight.

We are not alone. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and we stand among friends.

Conclusion: Hope

Throughout history, people have struggled, risen up, and succeeded. All over the world, there are people fighting, building, and dreaming. All around us, people are laying the seeds of the world we are fighting for &#151 from their bedrooms to their workplaces, from the ways we produce and consume to the ways we teach and learn. All around us, workers are going on strike or taking control of their workplaces, students are walking out or taking control of their schools, communities are rejecting the political and social institutions that oppress them and creating their own. People are taking control of their lives, their communities, and in some places, their governments. And it is only the beginning. A movement is being born, and there is so much beauty in that &#151 so much potential, so much hope.

Then, also, there is hope in you &#151 hope in us. The world is waiting.

Yotam Marom is a political organizer, educator, writer, and musician based in New York. He has been active in the Occupy Wall Street Movement, and is a member of the Organization for a Free Society. Yotam can be reached at Yotam.marom@gmail.com  

#OWS: We are ALL leaders!

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What is the difference between saying none of us is a leader and saying all of us are leaders?

At first glance these two phrases may seem like two ways of saying essentially the same thing. We believe in organizing in a way that is more horizontal than vertical. We believe in equalizing participation and resisting social hierarchies.

But the word leadership can mean a lot of things. There are things we associate with leadership that have nothing to do with hierarchy. Taking leadership can mean taking initiative on moving a project or task forward. It can mean looking for what is needed in a group, and stepping up to do that thing.

These positive group-serving associations with leadership are the reason why there’s an important difference between the idea of “no leaders” and the idea of “all leaders”.

If we are part of a group that talks about having no leaders, this phrase can inadvertently make us overly hesitant about stepping up to take initiative. It can create a group culture where as individuals we become reluctant to be seen as moving something forward &#151 because our peers might see us as a “leader”, which would be a bad thing.

But if we really want to change the world, we will need a lot more people stepping up to take initiative. The more initiative we each take in our work together &#151 the more skills we learn and hone &#151 the greater our collective capacity will be. Building our capacity means increasing what we are capable of achieving together. It means building our collective power. And building up our collective power is one of the most important challenges of grassroots organizing.

We need to build a culture where we’re all invited to step up. That means stepping up in ways that also make space for others to step up &#151 where others feel invited to step up and take initiative too. Stepping up can mean actively listening and learning from others. Stepping up can mean taking time to reflect on how different people can be socialized differently around leadership. For reasons that often have something to do with socialization around our genders, “race”, age, economic class, or other aspects of our identities, some of us are predisposed to speak confidently and to take on more visible leadership roles. While others are often predisposed to speak less in the group, or to take on less visible roles. So, stepping up can also mean recognizing and valuing many different forms of leadership in the group. And it can mean looking for leadership potential &#151 for strengths within the group that are latent, waiting for the opportunity to become active.

If we’re all leaders, we can also take leadership by stepping up to support each other and hold each other accountable in our work together.

But if we stay in the framework of thinking we should have no leaders, why would we be inclined to seek to develop more leadership in our movement? If all leadership is viewed negatively, we may develop a “circular firing squad” group culture, where we tend to cut each other down and we hold back because we’re afraid to stick our heads up.

We need a movement where we are constantly encouraging each other to step into our full potential and to shine as individual leaders who are working together collectively for a better world.

So, let’s all be leaders. Let’s step up and do this.

#OWS: Welcome Visitors & Plug In New Participants

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Three Tips for Plugging People In

Bringing in new participants and volunteers is essential to an occupation-or any group or organization-that wants to grow in size and capacity.  The momentum of the Occupy Wall Street movement has quickly attracted a lot of people to occupations across the United States and around the world. But attracting or recruiting new people to your occupation or group is only the first step.  Getting them to stick around is a much bigger challenge.

The good news is that there are tried-and-true methods you can use to plug new participants and volunteers into tasks and roles that will build their investment and leadership in the collective effort, and will increase what you all are capable of achieving together.

1. Greet and get to know newcomers.

When someone shows up at your occupation, march, rally, or action, they are indicating an interest. Greet them!  Find out about them!  And don’t just invite them to come to your next meeting.  Even the most welcoming and inclusive groups tend to develop their own meeting culture that can unintentionally make new folks feel like outsiders.  To increase your new participant retention rates, take a few minutes to stop and talk with new folks.  Get to know the person.  Find out about what attracted them to your effort.  You might ask about what kinds of tasks they enjoy doing, what they are good at, etc.  If that goes well, you might ask them how much time they have.  You can tell them more about what’s going on with the effort – and discuss with them what their involvement could look like.  While this level of orientation requires some time in the short-term, it saves you time in the long-term – because more people will plug into the work faster, and stick around longer. It may make sense a working group to take on the ongoing task of greeting, welcoming, and orienting new folks.

2. Accommodate multiple levels of participation.

In short, some people can give a lot of time, and some can give a little. Organizers with more time on their hands should avoid projecting their own availability as an expectation onto others. A foolproof way to drive new folks away from your occupation or group is to consistently ask them to give more time than they are able to give. Instead learn what kind of time commitment is realistic and sustainable for them. Help them plug into tasks and roles that suit their availability. Check in with them about how it’s going. Are they feeling overextended, or would they like to take on more? Take responsibility for helping new folks avoid over-commitment and burnout.

3. Make people feel valued and appreciated.

If you want to inspire people to stick with this burgeoning movement for the long haul, make them feel valued and appreciated. It’s basic. People like to be around people who respect them, and who are nice! If we want to compete with the myriad of often more appealing options for people’s free time, then we have to treat each other well and take care of each other. Notice and acknowledge new folks’ contributions, however small. Make time to check in with them outside of meetings. Ask their opinions often: What did they think about the meeting? the event? the action? Bounce your ideas off of them and ask for their feedback.

Occupy Wall Street: Small Convergence of a Radical Fringe

Why haven’t the protests on Wall Street sparked a prairie fire of populist rebellion across the country? Why, when Adbusters called for “reinforcements” did these not magically arrive? Why, if the protesters represent the feelings of “99% of Americans” have so very, very few of those represented bothered to support the initiative in any way at all?

Isn’t just about everyone furious with Wall Street right now?

Yes, but turning latent sentiment into coordinated collective action is never as simple as a mere call to action.

But it’s easy to see how a contingent of radicals could come to believe the delusion that the right call to action at the right moment is how mass rebellions are ignited. This formula for instantaneous revolution ignores quite a few essentials, including context, organizing, and leadership.

Context matters. Wall Street is not Tahrir Square. The United States is not Egypt. We have very different cultures, economic conditions, and political structures. Just because something on the other side of the globe seems awesome and inspiring to you, doesn’t mean you’ll be able to replicate it here. And trying to do so shouldn’t be your starting place.

Organizing matters. A notable “Tahrir Square” moment in the United States was November 30, 1999, when over a hundred thousand people effectively shut down the ministerial meetings of the World Trade Organization in Seattle. It was quite inspiring. Unfortunately, just like now, a lot of young radicals wanted to magically and formulaically replicate that everywhere, and attempted to do so at similar summits for the next two years, with diminishing returns. Seattle was only possible because of the grassroots organizing that had been steadily building in much less flashy, less glorious campaigns for the previous decade (e.g. anti-NAFTA organizing).

If your big introduction to collective action is a moment like November 30 in Seattle, it’s quite understandable, however mistaken, to try exclusively to replicate such magic. It’s like arriving at a farm during the harvest. Wow, all this delicious food is everywhere, and all you have to do is pluck it from the vine! You just want to keep harvesting and harvesting &#151 why would anyone try anything else?! That the harvest was only possible through planting, watering, and diligent tending (including weeding!) escapes your notice. And this isn’t entirely your fault; if the farm had more resources, your elders would be taking the time to give you a better orientation.

Leadership matters. In a call to action, it matters who is making the call. Their legitimacy among already constituted social identities matters. It will make a difference, for example, if the call to action is being made by the head of the AFL-CIO, by prominent religious leaders, or, say, by Adbusters. You’ve got to start with a realization that there are plenty of reasons why people would not want to go to Wall Street to take action. They have other commitments in their lives, including jobs and families. And they might get arrested or hurt. However, in moments of real social upheaval a surprising number of people often prove willing to make significant sacrifices… if they think their sacrifice might actually make a difference. People are more likely to believe their efforts will make a difference when they are being asked by leadership that has already earned their faith and trust. (This leadership can be institutions and organizations, not just charismatic individuals.)

These mistakes are not entirely the fault of the brave young radicals who are taking the streets. The smallness and fringe-ness of the Occupy Wall Street protests is symptomatic of a much broader cultural pattern. This is part of a world in which politics is more about individual self-expression than about strategic engagement. This helps explain why the freak flag flies so freely at the protests, and why protest “organizers” probably didn’t approach the leadership of the AFL-CIO or the NAACP to try to build buy-in from social bases that are bigger and broader than their own small self-selecting circles. Radicals, like a lot of other people, are caught up in their own self-selecting, self-reinforcing information universes. A few nodes in their network put out a call to occupy Wall Street, all their “friends” repost and retweet, and suddenly it seems that the whole country may just be on the brink of revolution.

Disintegration of the American Public (pt.1)

Kevin Drum has a post today at Mother Jones titled Everybody Hates Everybody Else. Based on a recent Bloomberg poll (see the pie/donut chart below), he concludes that:

…what it really means is that everybody hates everybody else. Democrats all think Republicans are responsible for screwing up the country, and Republicans all think Democrats are responsible. The only difference is that Republicans can’t decide who they hate more, Obama or Nancy Pelosi.

Half the country is a bogeyman for the other half of the country, and vice versa. Whoot!

Now, from the outset of any discussion of this phenomenon, I think it’s indispensable to name that this is not a symmetrical equation, with the two sides mirroring each other, both equally culpable in the same exact ways.

But disclaimers aside, I don’t think those on the progressive-leaning side of this culture war can be fully excused for our part. Nor do I think politicians are the only ones to blame. It’s really fun and easy&#151and quite understandable&#151for progressives to spend a lot of time pissing and moaning about conservatives and also about politicians. But it can be disempowering too. We are currently not organized in a way that gives us much leverage over many politicians, and we’re even less capable of influencing the attitudes of our hardest opponents. Focusing attention on the most extreme conservative statements of our hardest opponents can be an important thing to do tactically… from time to time. But to have our whole progressive media universe revolve around such stories is not only excessive, it’s also self-defeating. We get caught up in a story of being the powerless enlightened minority whose unfortunate fellow citizens are hopelessly backward. Now, while there may be some truth to this feeling, dwelling excessively on it is more a matter of venting than about changing something.

Don’t get me wrong. The need to vent is fully understandable. Venting helps us feel sane, and helps us feel connected with others who feel the same as we do. It’s part of the process of building our self-selecting progressive social circles. Venting about politicians and conservatives serves to signal others that we belong. We’re not so different than politicians in this regard. The modern public relations techniques employed by politicians are not much more than a scaling up of the signaling behavior all of us engage in intuitively, in our more manageable sized social groups. We’re signaling that we belong. (Sure, we’re also signaling our values.)

So yesterday I was talking with a friend who I know to be an excellent grassroots organizer at their college campus &#151 who has helped to win some impressive uphill battle campaigns. My friend was lamenting about a new class where he’s a teacher’s assistant. The class has a progressive-sounding name and course description, so my friend was surprised, disappointed, and somewhat alarmed that the group he’d been assigned was comprised almost entirely of jocks. I listened to a stream of jock stereotypes, before entering into quite an argument with my friend.

This is college, I argued. If you can’t reach out to people who have different interests and who cluster into different social groupings now, when will you ever be able to do so? This is exactly what’s wrong with our social change efforts, I thought to myself. Activism has become its own specialized thing, where self-selectors congregate and become content to associate mostly with themselves; who develop their own specialized signals of belonging; who, however friendly amongst themselves, tend to feel exclusive to outsiders; who too often become afraid to engage&#151to really, genuinely, deeply engage&#151people who are different from themselves, outside of their activist spaces.

Social transformation is what happens in everyday spaces with all sorts of everyday people. Activism should not be it’s own magical refuge from the world, but a conscious intervention in the world &#151 woven into the fabric of our everyday lives.

We need to move beyond a culture of blaming and venting and dismissive attitudes. When you label someone a jock it makes you think you know a lot more about them than you do. It’s the same if you label them a hick. Or a conservative or a Republican. They become one-dimensional characters &#151 objects that we talk about, instead of human beings who we stretch ourselves to genuinely engage.

I’m not arguing that progressive change agents should spend all our time talking to our hardest opposition. That wouldn’t be a useful allocation of our limited time and resources. But the tendency to constantly talk smack about people who we deem to be less enlightened than ourselves doesn’t tend to stop with our hardest opposition. It tends, rather, to seep into everything and to unnecessarily cut us off from a lot of potential allies. It is the opposite of what grassroots organizing used to mean.