There’s an episode of The West Wing in which the President gives the State of the Union Address. It’s normal for the POTUS, the VP, the Speaker of the House, most of the Cabinet, and much of the White House staff to be present in the Capitol on that occasion. What if terrorists, or a misguided construction crew, were to blow up the building just then?
So they have to make some provision for that. The Secretary of Agriculture (maybe fifteenth in the line of succession) is left alone in the White House just in case.
The point: Sometimes it’s not good for everyone to be “all together”.
There are several reasons for this, and several kinds of “all together” that I could be talking about. People often speak of a desire for unity among (fill in the blank). Here I’ll talk about why this is not always desirable.
The West Wing episode only treats one concern: security.
– Don’t have all your major players flying in the same plane or sitting in the same room (at least when anyone knows ahead of time that they will be together).
That’s simple enough. But there’s more:
– Don’t all be identifiable as operating in the same organization.
– Don’t all be listed on one person’s computer.
But security is only one concern. Being “all together” is often just bad operationally. It doesn’t get the work done.
So who am I talking to? Why am I saying this?
There’s a certain strain of thought that pops up once in a while in activist meetings. I’ll call it the “Hillbilly Heaven” vision of organizing. Sorta like Mom wanting everyone to sit down to supper together, as if being together were an end in itself.
I have some experience in building coalitions, so let me rant for a while. Be patient. Return with me to the days of yesteryear…. illiterate times when people from a village 30 miles down the road probably had trouble understanding your speech, and many things had to be explained through pantomime and a very limited vocabulary.
Everybody knows the fable of the bundle of sticks, right? You can imagine some ancient Greek whose dialect is so thick he can’t explain it in words, so he has to pass this bundle around the room to make his point. Together they can’t be broken, but one at a time, they’re easy to break. “Unity is strength.” There are times when this is exactly the WRONG metaphor. If all the roaches in my old apartment had shown themselves together, I could have easily wiped them out with one shot of Black Flag.
HOW A COALITION WORKS (if it works):
To find a better pantomime, I’ll reach back to some terrible old short-lived tv series about King Arthur, who started as only one petty chieftain among many, trying to resist the Saxon invasion. He gathers the other petty chieftains, who each have their own domestic troubles and their own squabbles with each other, and asks who can move a certain boulder. They all try and fail. He succeeds by persuading each of them to lend ONE hand to the effort. This is to convince them all to put half their armies under his command.
Notice the significance of the ONE hand. They don’t trust each other, so keeping the other hand free is important in case somebody tries something funny while they’re all standing close together.
Using only one hand, they can stand sideways to the boulder, not crowding each other with their shoulders, so more of them can get a grip.
They also don’t stand around together after the job is done. The boulder has been moved, or the Saxons have been repelled, so they can go back to business as usual. Coalitions are TEMPORARY.
Enough metaphors. I’ll talk reality now.
When gathering a coalition (which is mainly composed of orgs) or a new org of any kind (mostly individuals), each person or org has things to contribute, e.g.,
– Free people/hours for relatively simple tasks, like babysitting a table, standing around with a sign, passing out literature, or just paying attention to the notices sent out by the org/coalition.
– Access to certain resources (money, printing services, vehicles for hauling)
– Skills (writing, editing, webery, speaking)
All these things are usually already being used, either in existing projects or in life maintenance for the people involved. Asking them to be used for the new project takes some out of ongoing pursuits. If the different orgs or people are willing to do this, there must be a reason for it.
(1) A new, immediate crisis has arisen that demands immediate attention, and is something that many different people and orgs can agree on.
(2) (once or twice in a generation, maybe) A whole new class of issues has arisen that demands a new, long-term organization to address.
The two cases demand very different approaches. Are you building a long-term organization, such that there will be permanent duties for people to take on and teach to their successors? Or is it a temporary arrangement with each org or person in a coalition just doing whatever it does best for the group effort, and then returning to its previous state?
That choice will influence how much you put into formally organizing the group, deciding on decision-making processes and such. If it’s temporary and ad hoc, and you generally agree on the immediate needs, not much formality is needed. A coalition forms because of an obvious need, and people jump to pitch in if it has a reason for being.
At some point, you might reach an interesting juncture. It’s one of the penalties of success. Though a coalition starts as a group effort from existing orgs, if it’s successful it will attract previously inactive people. Some people (usually the noobs, but not always) will see how this group has managed to get some things done, and say:
“Gee, couldn’t we do a lot MORE? If we addressed these other issues as well as what we’re doing now, then we could recruit people who are organized around those additional things to help us with what we’re already doing, etc.”
I say it’s usually the noobs because it’s the noobs who might be unaware of just how much everyone involved was doing already before the coalition existed, and how much more they’re doing outside the coalition.
Blessings on the noobs, of course. Without them, nothing new would happen. The burntout geezers like me would be stuck in old, irrelevant projects that drag on or die. If we’re not recruiting, we’re dying. Recruiting has a temporary cost, though, and a high one. There’s much to explain and much for the noobs to observe before they get a clear picture of how the one project that attracted them is only one project, only one group doing good work, only one way of approaching a problem. It’s easy for the old vets to get stuck in a cycle of “Let me explain this…” that sounds like “You’re wrong, you’re wrong….”
At some point in a noob’s education, the idea of uniting all these varied groups is likely to arise. It comes from a lack of understanding of why they exist to begin with. More of this later.
There is one kind of org that naturally tries to at least take a position on nearly everything: a political party. If you really wish to address everything to do with peace, justice, and sustainability, join the Green Party. You’ll very soon find out that you need to focus on something to accomplish anything.
HOW A COALITION DOESN’T WORK:
Someone declares that he has a coalition, gets other orgs or individuals to lend their name to it because they’re somehow afraid or too polite to say “no”, and then not much gets done under that coalition’s aegis.
Whoever is purporting to act as the coalition keeps inviting those orgs or whomever to meet as a coalition, but somehow most of them are just “too busy” most of the time.
The people participating in the coalition will wonder where everybody is sometimes, and say “Hey, why can’t we all work together?” This is sometimes a thin disguise for “Why don’t you all do what I want you to do?”
Reasons not to work together
What if all the people in the world who called themselves political “progressives” in some sense were subscribed to a single discussion listserve?
Right. You’d have to be out of your mind to subscribe to such a thing. You’d get millions of messages a day.
Ok, just the antiwar organizers in the U.S.? Ditto. Thousands.
Uh… just everyone who’s against the war in Orange County? Hundreds.
Keep in mind that the number of subscribers to a listserve is inversely related to the number of messages it puts out, and you have a pretty good analogy for how people’s time and attention for anything are finite, and not always fungible.
No one can do everything. No one can pay attention to everything, or even a large part of everything.
Even in the most minimal kind of “working together”, one weak link can drag the others down with time-wasting.
This is something to remember even when the subject of friendly little gestures like “endorsement” come up. That could be a whole rant in itself. When a person or org puts its name on something, it’s spending a bit of its good name (if it has one) to boost it. Sometimes this can be a serious, even risky decision. Sometimes it’s nothing. But just making sure which is the case can be a cause for long discussion in a meeting, and meeting time is precious. You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve seen people propose that a decision-making body do something without even providing any suggested text for the proposal that they’re supposed to pass. They expect the “endorser” to write it all up from scratch, and research what it is they’re endorsing from scratch.
And then we get to explain to the noobs how we don’t have time to even think about a proposal that they refuse to articulate.
Reasons for why they don’t all do what you want them to do:
– They want to have personal lives
– They don’t like you.
– They think other things are strategically more effective.
– You may have forgotten the really big deal that follows, and alienated them.
RESPECT FOR DIVERSITY
There is one kind of “unity” that is always desirable, without exception: staying on topic.
When your group, org, or coalition is formed, it presumably has a certain short list of issues that are its reason for existence, and a certain scope of activity that people expect it to engage in. If you don’t have some kind of agreement about this, you have nothing
If that list of issues is important enough to form a coalition about (one more dang group to keep track of), it must appeal to a pretty broad variety of people. That means diversity in the group.
There is much random chance in a person’s values and group associations. Just as the family into which one is born is the biggest single determinant of religion or party affiliation, it’s just a question of what each person has run into, and in what order. Asking someone to abandon a group relationship, or change beliefs about an issue, can be as pointless as asking them to change religions.
This can be a good thing. Just as biodiversity helps to assure that SOME form of a species will continue after a disaster has wiped out most of it, diversity among organizations and approaches to a problem helps to make it likely that ONE of us will accomplish something.
That’s what some people don’t get, and hence comes that legendary “circular firing squad”.
If you want an effective coalition, it will be broadly based. That means there will be people in the room with whom you strongly disagree on issues that the coalition is not addressing. Many people who object to corporate “free trade” favor immigration restrictions. Many people who oppose war object to legal abortion. Many people who favor privacy, limited police powers, and rejection of AIPAC have a residual loyalty to the Republican Party. Many people who think a society must take care of the poor and disabled do so for explicitly religious reasons. With any of these people, mainstream “progressives” could waste vast amounts of time arguing about what they DO NOT NEED TO TALK ABOUT to do the job that they’re there for.
If you look around the table at a coalition meeting and know that there’s little disagreement on major social issues among the people there, then your coalition has FAILED.
Do you have so many allies and resources that you can afford to alienate people for their (maybe temporary) disagreements about projects that you’re NOT working on at the moment?
And are you absolutely convinced that there’s no chance of ever changing their attitudes about those other issues?
If you answer “No”, then there’s a very simple solution, when working in coalition: Talk about those other issues on your own time. Not on coalition listserves, not in coalition meetings, not in any context where anyone could say that you’re doing coalition business.
One of the easiest things for a provocateur to do toward breaking the group up is to keep bringing up red herrings. Only a group with a strong sense of what they’re there for will survive.
One hand on the boulder, one free for other things.