Drew Cordes

The Oppressed Shall Lead: Advocacy Through Empowerment - Part 2

Filed By Drew Cordes | May 22, 2013 12:30 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement
Tags: community organizing, grassroots, LGBT activism, LGBT politics, membership-based organization, participatory democracy

Author's note: Part I of this essay is available here. As I was working on this essay, Sylvia Rivera Law Project released "From The Bottom Up: Strategies and Practices for Membership-Based Organizations," which is a much, MUCH more thorough, concise and effective resource on this subject than I'm able to produce from my own thoughts, by my lonesome, with a blog post. What follows is a very general outline and some suggestions. For anyone interested in community organizing and advocacy, I highly recommend "From the Bottom Up," as well as some other works I'll list at the end of this piece.


nutsbolts.jpgBecause the theory of grassroots mobilization is easier to talk about vaguely in print than put into practice, and because I want to give anyone reading this (my fellow trans* people especially) some rudimentary tools and instructions to actually go organize and get some shit done, let's talk nuts and bolts.

These basic instructions are by no means exhaustive and problem-free. Sprawling tomes are written every year about organizing and advocacy, but with the few words I have in a space like this, I thought it would be good and productive to sketch out some guidelines. Besides, no matter how much research and reading you do, there will always be unavoidable problems. Solving them has more to do with inspiration, motivation, cooperation, and gruntwork than intimate knowledge of the organizational histories of labor and social movements.

So, no more of Part I's rhetorical academic onanism. No more Foucault. How do we create communities, coalesce, organize, and act effectively?

1. Identify and engage in your community. Go out. Go to events. Go to your local queer/trans*/women's/social justice centers. Go to open mics. Go to lectures or panel discussions on queer topics. Don't have a center or any events near you? Start one with your friends and your friends' friends. It doesn't have to be big and fancy -- many famous and powerful organizations started in living rooms. Be social. Be friendly. Go drinking and join the inebriated camaraderie of strangers. Even if some outings turn out fruitless, you'll probably end up having fun, getting drunk, or getting laid in the process. Frankly, not bad consolation prizes as far as I'm concerned.

A lot of times, the first few seemingly fruitless interactions just lay the rails for future advancement. I can't tell you how many times I've looked back on my life and thought: "I was pissed and disappointed I went to that event at the time, but because I did, I met Person X, who then invited me to that party where I met Person Y, who was a writer for the local newspaper and ended up doing a story on our cause, and then Person Y later introduced me to Person Z who helped organize that meeting with the police chief."

Honestly, stuff like that happens all the time because I'm constantly going to events. Sometimes it feels like my fondness for alcohol and bars (both queer and straight) is both a smart career move and a radically savvy political strategy.

2. Hitting critical mass. As you invite more friends along to these events, parties, discussions, gatherings, or barhopping outings, they'll eventually hit a certain size; that's when it's time to organize. After hitting these social circuits for a while and forming some connections and close friendships, you'll get a feel for people's interests and be able to identify a core of queers and allies interested in social justice. During the formation of these connections, have some conversations about politics. Air some opinions on state and national issues, as well as the unmet needs of your local community that aren't necessarily even political. Naturally, some people will be more informed and opinionated on certain things than others. That's OK. Diversity of knowledge and experience is actually a good thing. Try to identify some common problems that people bring up.

If you already have a critical mass of friends and acquaintances who are interested in this stuff, congratulations! You can start at step 3, which makes things a bit easier.

priorities.jpg3. Formation and identifying the mission. If there are queer/trans*/women's/social justice groups in your area already, evaluate whether they're specifically tackling the problems and needs you and your peers are identifying, or if this work is only one part of a broader mission. Evaluate if these groups are working on behalf of your oppressed community, or if they're mobilizing and empowering your oppressed community to lead the fight itself. Try to discern whether forming a new group would needlessly duplicate existing efforts or justifiably address unmet needs.

If and when you decide to actually form a group: promise food, at least for the first few meetings. I'm not kidding -- it's necessary. Even passionate friends and acquaintances can be prone to apathy and lethargy. Free food will get asses off couches. Promise food and they will come.

Many groups come together because of a prominent issue (HIV, marriage equality, sexual violence), but a singular, specific issue isn't always the motivating factor, nor does it have to be. In fact, member participation will likely yield an array of gripes and shortcomings. Don't be intimidated by the undoubtedly long list of problem areas. After taking stock of your numbers, time and resources, whittle the list down to problems the group believes it's able to tackle and prioritize them through discussion. It's still worth maintaining awareness of problems beyond your scope, though, to give your efforts context, and just in case you run into a person or group that can tackle them but needs to be persuaded to do so. (Sidenote: Hone those persuasion skills. More on that later.)

4. Process and leadership. There are many ways to do this and many opinions on which way is best. Part I of this essay makes clear my belief that participatory democracy is the best choice, as well as the reasons for why. To reiterate: Your means must reflect your ends. If your goal is trans* justice and empowerment across lines of race and class, then it should be evident that your leadership (especially), membership, decision-making process, and actions are part of that solution. This is not to say that you shouldn't welcome allies, but if you find the group you've gathered is all middle-class white people of a certain age, well then, repeat step 1.

Through an always-respectful participatory format and diverse membership, the most pressing needs and goals for the community can be identified, along with the strengths, weaknesses, resources, and personal connections of each member. The contributions of those members can then be focused on those strengths and optimized for the benefit of the greater group. Members should specifically discuss who they know in positions of political or community leadership. Who you know can help a lot. (Shocker, I know.)

You will need some sort of leadership or guidance, people who are willing (eager, if possible) to do the organizing, outreach and facilitation. Y'know, the gruntwork. Any power that these leaders have must be channeled into those gruntwork efforts, and not into decisions, judgments, and dictating actions. Leaders should be constantly encouraging other members to talk through the issues, share their opinions, and arrive at consensus. They should repeatedly stress respect for others in the discussion as a guiding principle of discourse.

Leaders should ideally put their opinions or recommendations last, if they're required at all. When in doubt, leaders can just stick with posing questions: "What does everyone think about this?" "Is this something we can or should take action on?" "What are some ways we can raise the visibility of this issue?" "Do we want to talk about this issue next time and move on for now, or should we try to hash it out at this meeting?"

Whatever the group's goals -- be they political or setting up a community support group -- members will have to reach out to others, both inside and outside the group, and do some persuading. Persuasion is a delicate art, and very different than arguing and debating. The goal of debate is the intellectual beatdown of one's opponent. This tends to be the default method of discussion these days, particularly in cases of disagreement. Our inner voices egg us on, saying, "They're wrong. They're so wrong. How can they not feel bad about how wrong they are? Make them see how wrong they are, and make them feel bad about it." Of course, good luck getting them to admit that they're wrong and change their mind. It just doesn't happen.

Persuasion, on the other hand, is gently guiding someone through a subject with leading questions and probing comments until they eventually come to see that your ideas fit their position all along. The only way to learn how to do this is to jump in and start doing it.

5. Growth, perpetuation and structure. The beauty of participatory democracy is that when everyone feels like their voice is heard and contributes to the decisions that are made, members feel they have a stake in the group's existence and success. They feel responsible for it. They identify with it when socializing with others out in the world, and they become natural recruiters for new members. The group becomes part of the community, and this ensures its continued existence.

A group might have a couple well-organized or charismatic leaders who are able to get a lot of work done and achieve the group's goals largely on their own. However, when those leaders have to leave the group or step down because their term is up or because of unforeseen circumstances like illness, relocation, a new job, burnout, etc., instability and chaos will threaten its existence. This is why member participation and group decision-making is so important. When everyone has a stake in the group, others will not hesitate to step up and fill a void.

to-do-rainbow.jpgThis also is why leadership posts must turn over with regularity. The more people who can have a turn in a leadership role, the more responsibility they will feel for the group's perpetuation. Term limits are essential. Perhaps members could be allowed to run and serve as leaders more than once, but continuous, back-to-back terms risk imbuing certain people with more power and sway while leaving others feeling marginalized or disempowered. As for how to determine leadership, well, survey the group and ask how they want to do it (nominations, volunteering, open voting, private ballot...). After all, decisions should be made through consensus.

When and if groups reach a certain size, setting up committee structures for specific projects and steering the aim of the group as a whole is much more efficient than trying to pack everyone in and talk through all the issues in general, full group meetings. Forming committees also provides a chance for more members to take leadership roles in each of those subsets, which, as just mentioned, promotes perpetuation. The discussions and acts of these committees should be accessible to other members who might be interested, and should be transparently presented to the larger group with some regularity as well, so everyone feels informed and can contribute if they so desire.

6. Troubleshooting. There will be problems. There will be frustration when progress seems slow or unmeasurable. There won't always be consensus. Not everyone's views will always be met exactly. When this happens, stress respect for each other's perspectives. Be patient and don't react rashly. No one should discount the value of dissent. Dissenting opinions often get the group to examine subjects from unforeseen angles, broaden everyone's awareness, and often result in strategic compromise.

If after much deliberation it's apparent that the group cannot reach full consensus, explore whether members can pursue multiple methods without too much ideological conflict. For example, if the goal is as general as increasing trans* visibility and people differ on the best ways to achieve that, there might be space for two or more camps to work on their own methods or projects. If the goal is specific language in a public policy, however, there might not be. You can't please all of the people all of the time. Some members will be willing to accept that and realize that their opinion might prevail the next time around, while others will feel sidelined. If people are consistently at odds with the prevailing opinion, they might choose, justifiably, to leave the group. Allow them to do this with respect, and always be open to their return if they've also shown a commitment to respect and cooperation. If they haven't exhibited respect and cooperation, the best interest for the group's continued functioning, regrettably, must come first.

The last thing I'll say in this oh-so-brief primer is this: do not forget to allow time to focus on the positives and have some fun, instead of always casting critical eyes on areas that need improvement. Celebrate your victories. Seeing that you made a difference is rewarding, but it's those few chances we get to truly celebrate those victories and congratulate and thank each other for the efforts we put in that keep people passionate, fulfilled and eager to keep fighting.

You can do this. It's not easy, but it's also not impossible. It's work, but it's good work.


A short, short list of highly recommended reading.

1. "From The Bottom Up: Strategies and Practices for Membership-Based Organizations" by Sylvia Rivera Law Project

2. "Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics and the Limits of Law" by Dean Spade

3. "Freedom Is An Endless Meeting: Democracy in American Social Movements" by Francesca Polletta

4. "The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex" by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence


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