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How to do it better? - The Life and Thoughts of Zach

Oct. 7th, 2003

05:56 pm - How to do it better?

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Ok let's try to get something creative and useful out of all that silliness in my last (friends-only) post. szasz feels that some organizations "...work by figuring out, on its own, what it thinks it can get from contributors, and then TAKING IT FROM THEM. Rather than be true communities where people can get together and make a contribution, they've gotten nasty old lives of their own, like some kind of Terry Gilliam-inspired contraption."

How would you (not just szasz, but any of you) structure a community collective in a way that would prevent loud voices from dominating and the organization taking on a life of it's own that might get out of sync with the needs of the community? Key goals are that community members should have an easy time getting involved, should not feel overwhelmed by process and contention, and supporters who are not actively involved in the process should be able to trust that their support is going to a broad community serving organization and not just funding pet projects.

I happen to think that the IMC succeeds at a lot of this and that where it fails the failures are minor and represent interpersonal personality conflict issues rather than structural issues. If you are familiar with the IMC, do you feel that it has fundamental structural issues and what would you think might work better? Whether you are familiar or not, do you think it is possible for a community organization to solve/address the issue of personality conflicts in structural ways?

Brainstorm. Everyone promise not to debate anything raised here. I just wanna see exploration of different ideas. Wild proposals. Crazy utopian dreams. Pragmatic solutions. Cynical admission of impossibility. Whatever.

Comments:

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From:kateorama
Date:October 7th, 2003 04:33 pm (UTC)

I have to be (facetious?) first

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My first thought was: personality and psychopathology testing for all would-be members. Even if you only used it to decide on how to deploy people... I'll answer more seriously later.
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From:zarfmouse
Date:October 7th, 2003 04:40 pm (UTC)

Re: I have to be (facetious?) first

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Haha! That'd be funny. If everyone at IMC had a livejournal you could just sneak the personality test in as a meme and everyone would do it for FUN. :)
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From:juvenilia
Date:October 8th, 2003 07:14 am (UTC)
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my sarcastic answer: mass medication of those who insist on playing power games.

my serious though quite pessimistic answer: quite honestly, i don't think it's possible. just about everyone i know who has been drawn to the "SCENE" (because it is, even though it doesn't involve white belts or striped shirts or leetle tiny black framed glasses) has been drawn there out of a love of debate, and by the idea that their ideas are the right ideas. getting certain people to admit that they're wrong is virtually impossible. occasionally they will admit it when they are vastly out-numbered.

as for personality conflicts, i personally don't want any of mine aired in a structured way. i prefer to just dislike the people i dislike, like the people i like and do what i do. in the long run, i really don't give a shit about the people i don't like. i have absolutely no use for them.
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From:kateorama
Date:October 8th, 2003 09:22 pm (UTC)

you're onto something

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I definitely agree that people drawn to the "scene" love to debate, hear their own voices, and feel right. The thing I notice, though, which inspired my earlier comment, is that "causes" and needy people have a mutual attraction (kinda like needy people and controlling people in relationships). Actually, to be more direct and less politically correct about how I see it, I think that political activism attracts (creates?) a lot of whiny, brittle, strident, neurotic people. And when you put all those whiny neurotic egos together in one room, it's not pretty. Everybody takes it all personally, and every decision is about me me me, and the ideal of consensus turns into a requirement for everybody's feelings to get aired in their full glory.

Granted I'm not involved in any of this stuff now, so I could be wrong. But the descriptions I hear from people, and many of the people I know who are involved in the various organizations (including some good friends), seem exactly like what I remember, and it still fits my interpretation.

RE: What Charley said about organizations "taking things" from people, I think he was riffing off a conversation we had a while back with some local activist folks... I think the point wasn't that people are being dragged into activism, but that once they get involved, it is decided for them how, and how much, they will participate, sometimes based on belittling or insulting assumptions. And then they are sucked dry of whatever they have to give, and then if they want to contribute in other ways, they are ignored or put back in their place or outright "sanctioned" (socially). (Charley confirms, "that's about right.")
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From:zarfmouse
Date:October 8th, 2003 10:04 pm (UTC)

Re: you're onto something

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Any idea on how to deal with the inevitability of neurotics in activist organizations? Different facilitation techniques? More non-political social activities to increase mutual empathy and trust? Hire a few dozen massage people to wander around giving backrubs during meetings? Pot? Mandatory psychological therapy sessions for all members? Creation of only short lived organizations? Is it hopeless?

As far as the sucking dry goes. I've seen that sort of thing almost happen to me fairly often. I usually deal with it by having a near nervous breakdown running away and coming back after they've all figured out how to live without me (and I've figured out how to live without them). There are definitely a number of ways in which I'm limitted in my activism now because I've taken on a certain amount of responsibility that I can't drop and I can't take on new things unless someone else takes on my responsibilities. Is that the kind of thing Charley is talking about (I know I should ask him directly, but while you're speaking for him... :) )?
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From:szasz
Date:October 9th, 2003 09:33 am (UTC)

it's storytime

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Let me anonymize the observation by inventing a fictional scenario that riffs off your first paragraph, but which parallels what I've observed.

Kate decides to join a local activist organization. They're big on queer rights, something she believes in, and she wants to facilitate panels, write columns, protest, that kind of thing.

Except the leadership[*] of this organization has just decided that meetings have been too testy lately, so they want mandatory psychological therapy sessions for all members. Aha, Kate's a psychologist and a damn good therapist! So *THAT* is what her contribution will be.

"But I really wanted to get out there and get the word out about queer issues," Kate protests.

"Yeah, yeah, but see, our meetings have been really stressful lately, and we're not getting anything done, so we all need some help, and that's really the best way you can contribute to the cause."

So now what? She can do her day job all over again as her community volunteer work (she loses); or she can say "fuck you", give them a Bronx cheer, and stop participating (everyone loses).

Or she can ignore her "assignment" and write newspaper columns and protest anyway, but my direct observation of this kind of dynamic says that she'll be ostracized for not being a "team player", she'll get told "We're starting to doubt your committment to our organization", and she'll get those sad-faced clucking sounds at meetings. She becomes bitter and disillusioned, and eventually stops participating, and again everyone loses.

I've seen this happen to friends of mine. And without even joining or participating, just showing a little interest, it was so clear that my role was simply going to be assigned to me that I immediately lost whatever interest I had.



[*] it doesn't matter if this is a "consensus-based" organization without "leadership"... there will be a few strong personalities that will dominate any group meeting and their opinions will prevail. Come on, we all know this is true.
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From:zarfmouse
Date:October 9th, 2003 10:54 am (UTC)

Re: it's storytime

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Yah, I'm quite familiar with this kind of pigeonholing of people known to have specific professional skills. And you are right about the strong personalities taking leadership roles.

My strategy is to just ignore the strong willed people trying to stick me in a computer fixing box. I tell them no. I make it clear how much such activities leave me feeling burned out. And I go organize folk shows. Of course, I'm probably one of those strong dominating personalities myself so this option may not be available to everyone. And I had the advantage of coming into the organization without anyone knowing who I was, so they didn't have any expectations of me.

I've always considered it a major advantage that a) I'm not in the same age group, haven't taken any classes with, haven't been in other organizations with, and don't have a prior friendship with most of "leader" IMCstas and b) I've never slept with anyone who regularly does anything at the IMC.

Let the record show that every time recruiting you (Charley) to do networking stuff for the wireless project has come up when I have been around (since well before we started communicating on LJ) I have pointed out that it seemed like a major imposition for us to ask such a huge favor of a person who spends way to much time as it is working on that crap. If you ever wanted to do something completely different and unrelated to computers at the IMC, I'd be happy to personally kick anyone's ass that tried to make you do otherwise. And I still feel bad about greeting you on LJ all those months back as a mere computer god. :)

Maybe that is the solution to add to my list. Ass-kickings.
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From:herbivorous
Date:October 12th, 2003 01:44 pm (UTC)

Re: it's storytime

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See, I just don't get that sort of behavior. Fer chrissake, it's *volunteer work*. To me, in my experience, that means you say, "YAY! what are you willing to offer!" and then cheerfully accept whatever help you can get. If this means that your webdesigner friend asks to help in mulching a garden instead of doing the webdesign that really needs to get done for your organization, so be it. Maybe your webdesigner friend is sick unto death of webdesign and would REALLY like to play in the dirt. Who knows? I simply don't understand that sort of behavior. If someone is willing to help, than it's in remarkably poor taste to try to dictate to them what they should or should not be doing.

But then, I've been accused of being a rational and sensible human being before, too.
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From:kateorama
Date:October 9th, 2003 08:06 pm (UTC)

oh right, answers

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I can't come up with a generic answer for the neurotic activist issue. "It is what it is."

As for ensuring that (1) loud voices don't dominate unreasonably and (2) the group doesn't get out of sync with community's/members' needs... well, shit, you'd think somebody would've come up with something by now.

I'm not sure how IMC does things, but I've always thought it's silly to pretend that all decisions, no matter how minor, must be made by the entire group. Further, if committees are assigned to make some decisions, then no quibbling afterward! For cripes' sake.

As for loud and energetic people running everything, well, limiting the amount of time/turns people get in meetings, and asking everybody at a meeting for their input (rather than waiting for people to volunteer) can help. Also limiting the number of committees someone is involved in. Sure, it all smacks of hierarchy and rigidity and, oh, I don't know, something terribly insulting and non-leftie... but if kids don't play well together, you have to show them how to do it. And if people are full of shit, they should prevented from spreading it onto everyone else.

Organization taking on a life of its own? Hey, family systems do it, why wouldn't activist groups (or any ongoing group, for that matter)? In family therapy, you might intervene (to avert or correct problems) by assigning a subset of people to play their role to the hilt (i.e., the passive people get even more passive), forcing the others to adjust their behavior to keep the system balanced. Risky, but it can work. Or you could assign everyone to express their own opinions, but in the role of someone else in the organization. That'd make for a fun meeting, hmm?

Giving people assignments where they can feel "mastery" can help. And yes, I think that social contact outside the organization and all its happenings would be useful too.

You could hire a psychologist to observe and make recommendations. :) (not me. you couldn't pay me enough to deal with all that stuff. I want to keep liking "you people.")
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From:zarfmouse
Date:October 9th, 2003 10:08 pm (UTC)

Re: oh right, answers

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I'm sorry if some of the answers to some of these questions seem obvious. A lot of the answers you are giving are things that we do, try to do, or at least pay lip service to the need to do.

I'm kind of purposely NOT describing what _I_ think the IMC does well or what we do poorly or what I think we should do because I LIKE the organization and think it is highly functional. But I keep hearing these complaints at the edges that the organization is shutting them out. So I want to hear people say, without prompting what they think the organization _should_ be like.

I'm particularly interested in the opinions of folks like you and Charley who have independently expressed a general distaste for the idea of dealing with the IMC. I wonder what kind of organization you _would_ be interested in working with OR if you've come to the conclusion that working with community organizations is doomed to be self-defeating.

I'm interested to know how someone like Faith could feel so let down by the organization and still want to do the books.

I want to see lots of (even obvious or already implemented) ideas all spilled out (and this isn't the only forum in which I am going to try to gather these ideas) with as little prompting or "defense" from me as possible. And I want to talk to lots of people one on one and see if we can slowly start to figure out what we are doing wrong (and what we are doing right) and what we can do differently.

Eventually, I want to know learn if there is ever any possible hope of having some of the folks who have bad impressions of, bad experiences with, or bad expectations about the IMC to ever ENJOY some IMC thing on any level. I may not be able to learn that until the organization actually changes for the better and I actually see new faces.

I dunno. Right now I just want to listen though because I know I don't do that enough.

Thank you for taking the time to write down the things you have.


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From:domystic
Date:October 8th, 2003 08:10 am (UTC)
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i'm not going to the embassy tonight but it's not bc i hate everyone. it's just that i have to see spearhead.

as a long term group groupie my assessment is that the processing y'all are doing right now is pretty much par for the course. not everyone is accustomed to processing. a conscientious facilitator is important to keep trolls from taking over. i myself am a fan of posting big signs saying "be generous" all over, but that's more of a household thing. a lot of folk think that having lots of food at big meetings helps - as long as one moves beyond the lentil stew and cornbread phase. let them eat cake, please.

i am in the medical school library & 2 librarians are behind the desk quietly singing 'california uber alles' to one another.

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From:juvenilia
Date:October 8th, 2003 09:17 am (UTC)
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come home. i'm bored.
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From:domystic
Date:October 8th, 2003 12:26 pm (UTC)
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you said that at 4:17 pm? how long have i been sitting here anyway? i will march myself home RIGHT NOW. xxx
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From:juvenilia
Date:October 8th, 2003 02:12 pm (UTC)
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no, i said it at like 11:17. what the hell kind of crack is our computer ON?

it almost made me late to class today.
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From:desert_fox
Date:October 8th, 2003 12:20 pm (UTC)
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Spearhead...woo! I might be there.
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From:revjack
Date:October 8th, 2003 01:41 pm (UTC)

Fire with Fire

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>How would you (not just szasz, but any of you) structure a community
>collective in a way that would prevent loud voices from dominating and the
>organization taking on a life of it's own that might get out of sync with
>the needs of the community?

Any structural solution would simply slow down the self-righteous loudmouths while they figured out how best to play the game. The only effective way I've found to really negate the self-righteous loudmouths is to encourage more egalitarian loudmouths to distract them while the quiet do-gooders actually get something done.
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From:boannan
Date:October 10th, 2003 09:35 am (UTC)
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I really don't know anything specific about the IMC except what I've heard from zarfmouse, but I have had experience in other activist groups (and management by consensus groups -- hell, the coop I lived in was management by consensus! and it could take hours for us to figure out what color the sponges in the kitchen should be. ;)

and I think I agree with most of what's been said, especially that weird group dynamics seem unavoidable, even in idealistic organizations. There are always take charge people, passive people, aggresive folks, shy folks, people who don't want to lead meetings, people who do want to and do, and people who do want to and don't.

In my experience, consensus based decision making is not all it's cracked up to be. It certainly gets everybody involved, but the flip side of that is that everyone's forced to be involved, whether they want to voice an opinion or not. Despite all its virtues (and it's got them), it takes forever, provides the perfect battleground for the loud opinionated folks to keep everybody at the table listening to them argue, and doesn't allow room for people who might disagree with the proposition on the table but don't really care if it goes one way or the other.

I think that having a small executive-type committee where a fewer number of people make strategic decisions after getting input from everyone interested in giving input works really well. The people who want to be really involved will typically get themselves on that committee, and everyone else can comment but doesn't have to make the final decision.

Of course, this all focuses on efficiency -- how to get the most stuff done quickly in a small amount of time. For some groups, that's one goal, but the very process of consensus based decision making is an ideal that's important to the group's identity. I think in those cases you just accept that consensus based decision making is a priority and may take some time and energy away from other activities the group does.
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From:samwize
Date:October 15th, 2003 12:31 pm (UTC)
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Set up a hierarchical cell structure. Each cell (no more than 5 people) gets a vote. Plurality wins. The hierarchy is used only to organize larger projects. Something like that might be a good directio to explore.
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