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When I was 19 years old, I helped lead students of my state university in Ohio to vote to pay our campus dues and join the United States Student Association (USSA). This was the late 1980s, almost a decade into the Reagan-Bush devastation for poor and working-class people here and abroad. USSA was a national organization made up of hundreds of thousands of college students –– mostly from public universities and community colleges –– fighting for full and free access to higher education for everyone and teaching ourselves to build power and to campaign for a broader vision of economic and racial justice.
For the next five years I worked with USSA, first as a member and then as paid staff. Grounded in this formative experience and the shifts it taught me to make, I want to challenge all of us who have the privilege of holding a paid job in a progressive base organization to understand the roles we can most powerfully play in relation to that base as it builds its power to change the world.
This article is my contribution to the conversation Maurice Mitchell jump-started in “Building Resilient Organizations.” I’m bringing a sharp and narrow focus on the sacred trust that the paid staff of base organizations must hold with that base and their precious resources, how tensions play out differently in base organizations, and how we can do the mission-critical work of building resilient and powerful base organizations while creating sustainable practices and work culture for staff.
I want to assert that in base organizations (distinct from other types of justice-seeking groups), paid staff people have a special stewardship responsibility, a particular necessity for self-awareness, and an imperative to function first in the service of that base and its vision rather than putting their own individual political tendencies or career aspirations first.
Before proceeding, I’ll share a deep appreciation for Maurice –– for his purposeful intervention, his blunt talk, his groundedness in power and strategy, and his willingness to put himself out there on such fraught terrain. Regardless of how much of what he’s said that you agree with (and for me, it’s a lot), he’s done a service for the movement and deserves our gratitude.
Why this conversation is different in a base-building organization
In the 1980s and for decades after, USSA’s Annual National Student Congress brought together hundreds of delegates representing all the campuses. There were strong affirmative action guidelines, instituted by vote of the members which ensured people of color, women, LGBTQ students, those with disabilities, older students, and other key constituencies were represented among the delegates. Each year delegates spent three to four long days and nights drafting and voting on an issue platform, electing a 60+ member student board of directors representing the regions and constituencies, and electing a national president and vice president who would serve in full-time paid roles for the following year.
These executive officers coordinated the work of all members and the board, which met in person several times a year. They were also responsible for hiring and supervising a small staff which organized and supported the work of the student leaders and members on USSA’s priority national and state organizing and campaigns. USSA was majority funded by dollars students voted to contribute –– like union dues –– supplemented by philanthropic contributions.
It was in my final two years in college that I was a member and activist within USSA, participating in issue campaigns, growing the base by recruiting students at other public universities in my state, and helping rebuild our state-level Ohio Student Association. When I graduated, I was hired by the USSA elected leadership to join the staff. Most staff were recruited from among the membership. Staff and officers served only two to three years, so people in those roles were never too far removed from the experience of being a student and volunteer organizer.
Since then, I’ve spent over 30 years as a full-time paid staff person, mostly in base organizations, always guided by the principles instilled in me during my time with USSA. I’ve been a frontline organizer, lead organizer, campaigner, and trainer in grassroots base organizations locally and nationally. For the past 20 years, I’ve played various organizational management and leadership roles. I’ve also spent a great deal of time in volunteer leadership as a board member or chair of several movement organizations and as an informal advisor or peer coach to fellow organizers and leaders on strategy, organizational development and culture, staff management, and team building.
As I note above, my contribution to this conversation is specifically focused on base-building organizations. By this I mean organizations that (1) focus their mission, identity, and strategy on organizing a base and volunteer leadership among a defined constituency at a scale and strength that builds the power needed to win their vision; and (2) develop structures and programs where the base and volunteer leaders play an active and meaningful role in setting direction and strategy as well as carrying out the shared work. Building powerful base organizations at scale with broad and deep ownership and leadership by the base is the most important element of any realistic path to a truly just society and economy.
Because base organizations exist to build and wield the power of the base in service of their vision, and because a base organization’s resources are either contributions from the base or philanthropic contributions given in their name, the conversation about organizational dynamics and staff roles in such groups needs to be different.
A sacred trust calls all paid staff and leaders of such base organizations to steward these resources and to have the struggles and the vision of that base front and center when decisions are made about the use of those resources. This includes using resources for the payment of staff’s wages and benefits. Paid staff jobs and paid leadership roles can only exist in these types of organizations thanks to the contributions made by members, or raised in their name. It’s in that context that our organizations should strive for sustainable practices as employers of the paid staff members.
Being a good employer and having sustainable employment practices will work differently in a base movement organization than it would in any other kind –– be that a for-profit enterprise or a non-profit that isn’t building a base. The way sustainable time off from work can be structured will be different: it can and should be generous and flexible –– but it has to align with the reality of organizing. Meaningful staff development and career advancement will take different shapes and time frames: new organizers should get intensive hands-on training and staff development regularly. But they’re unlikely to be promoted to lead or manager after only six months in the role and the training and development should be in service of getting better at building a powerful base and organization. Staff roles in deciding goals and strategy will be different in a base organization (where they’re supporting members and leaders in deciding) than in a capacity-building intermediary, a think tank, or a narrative strategy shop (where paid staff may be the primary or only deciders).
Roots of staff tensions and misalignment in base organizations
Maurice’s outline of “Common Trends” and fallacies is right on target. Outlined here are focused thoughts on the key roots of the tensions he identifies and how they operate differently in a base organization.
Activists being hired for organizer jobs
When our organizations hire people who are actually activists for jobs as paid staff organizers inside a base-building group, it almost always creates serious tension and mis-alignment of expectations among the staff and leaders of such organizations. As an activist in social change work, one engages by taking individual actions, motivated by personal values and experiences, and informed by personal politics and tactical preferences –– and, sometimes, by joining with other already like-minded fellow activists to do these tactics together. (Maurice discusses a related point under his heading “Activist Culture.”)
Activists play critical roles in our social change movements, but being an activist is dramatically different from being an organizer. As an organizer in social change work, one: (a) identifies the existing leaders within a defined constituency and develops their strategic capacity; (b) supports those volunteer leaders in their work of recruiting and building a membership/base, defining a shared vision with that base, and developing that base’s collective power; and (c) facilitates the development of an organization as a durable vehicle for that base and leadership’s power. (See Jane McAlevey’s No Shortcuts and Hahrie Han’s How Organizations Develop Activists for smart work on organizers, leaders, and activists.)
An organizer’s work often involves engaging with people who don’t already have a shared politics (with the organizer or with each other), creating the space where those leaders and members can struggle constructively together and build that shared analysis and vision, and then supporting them in acting on their shared strategy to bring more and more people into the fold and campaign powerfully for change. An organizer is often like the quiet behind-the-scenes soccer coach who during practice offers lots of guidance, skills training, and inoculation against the other team’s strengths. Then, during the game, they’re calmly sitting on the bench and trusting the team and their elected captain, the one identified as a leader by their colleagues, on the field.
When base organizations place people with the skills and temperament of activists into paid staff jobs as organizers, problems can arise from the mis-match between an activist’s skills and temperament and the outcomes that an individual organizer should be held accountable to produce, and also from the mis-match with the base-led way that such organizations should be set up to make decisions about priority and strategy.
Paid staff being too removed from the base
Longtime organizer Gordon Whitman once posed a thought experiment: Imagine how many total paid staff of progressive organizations there are in the US. Surely it’s thousands. Now, estimate what percent of them spent all their paid hours today talking only to other paid staff of nonprofits, and none with their base. The number might be unsettlingly high if measured.
Too many paid staff in movement organizations, including in some base organizations, have little regular engagement with existing members or with the base communities being organized. Disproportionate amounts of paid staff’s time is often spent in meetings with each other; with paid staff of other movement organizations; or with donors, consultants, elected officials, etc. This often insufficient connection between paid staff and the base or base communities, and the misallocation of precious organizational resources that it reflects, are an important contributor to the tensions and contradictions at issue here.
If staff spend most of their time with other staff, hearing mostly each other’s tactical ideas, being exposed mostly to each other’s experiences and worldviews, it can lead to demands, strategies, or tactics that are not resonant with the base or not consistent with the fundamental purpose and theory of change of the organization. It can also contribute to a sense that staff experiences in their jobs and staff working conditions are the primary measure of the organization’s value, rather than organizing the base, building power, and changing the world.
A base organization’s core purpose becoming a side concern
Paid staff also sometimes conflate the questions of their own working conditions and employee experiences with the organization’s core purpose. In some extreme cases, questions about benefits, schedules, and employee experiences become the primary focus of an organization, taking the place of focus on the social and economic realities faced by the organization’s base communities, the conditions in the external world that the organization exists to change.
Yes, our base organizations should strive for progressive and sustainable employment practices and respectful staff operating cultures, and it’s absolutely possible to do so in a balanced way while also building powerful base-centered organizations. The nature of employment practices and operating cultures should also be the subject of periodic and transparent processes among staff and leaders, whether that be through a collective bargaining agreement or other forms. Senior organizational leaders and staff managers can and should be constructively challenged by colleagues during such processes, all while holding the principle of stewarding the base organization’s resources.
Things get out of balance when endless staff debates over these questions consume an organization and it’s no longer functional on its mission. Things risk running counter to an organization’s purpose when unrealistic proposals for staff working conditions and roles could make it seem oblivious to the struggles in the real lives of its base and communities.
Sometimes, base organizations strategically choose to hire paid staff from the same community and economic background as the base or from the membership itself. Often the job at the base organization will put those staff into a different economic situation. It’s critical in these cases to bring an added nuance to managing the tensions while also remembering that, even if a paid staff person used to be a member or is from the base community, they are now a staff person and need to transition to staff-appropriate roles.
Thoughts on sustainable staff practices in base organizations
These are beginning thoughts on solutions and sustainable staff practices and how they should operate in a base organization that is staying true to the principles and core purpose of building the power and enabling the agency of the base. Staff managers and senior organizational leaders have special responsibilities here, so the list starts with them.
Develop consistent high quality 1-on-1 staff supervision
Poor-quality individual supervision, and organizations’ failure to acknowledge or address it, contributes considerably to the staff dissatisfaction and dysfunction plaguing so many progressive movement organizations. Effective 1-on-1 staff supervision and development is a skill and an art. Being a really good organizer (or communicator or operations person) won’t automatically mean being good at supervising and coaching other people in that work. But this is often how groups choose supervisors.
Organizations need to ensure they provide serious training for supervisors, ongoing systems to define clear standards for good supervision, peer support to meet the standards, and accountability when those are not met. Consistent high-quality supervision with the following dimensions is necessary for creating healthy and functional staff teams and effective durable organizations:
- Creating the conditions and providing the reasonable support and tools for staff to succeed, including engaging staff in defining clear goals, roles, and expectations.
- Holding all staff accountable regularly, clearly, and fairly on the expectations for their work.
- Supervisors publicly holding themselves and each other accountable in a manner comparable to staff accountability.
- Constructively taking action when a staff member’s work is not meeting expectations, reasonably and meaningfully offering chances and means for improvement, and doing this fairly and evenly with all staff.
- Responsibly making hard decisions when prudent stewardship of the organization’s resources for base building means a given staff person is not the right fit for a given role.
Identify and develop effective senior organizational leaders
Being good at something doesn’t automatically mean being good at building and leading an entire organization devoted to that thing. Neither does being a good fundraiser or charismatic public speaker mean someone will inherently be good at leading an organization or sustaining a healthy culture.
Of course public communication, fundraising, and attracting broader support are essential elements of base organization leadership. Also important are the skills of building a shared vision among members and staff, supervision as noted above, managing organizational resources, designing internal systems, assessing and managing risk, understanding and relating to broader movements, and leading by example in all aspects of work and accountability.
Just as each staff person should have a clear and comprehensible set of roles and expectations, senior organizational leaders need this too. Most often base organizations, with all their complexity, will require multiple people playing a suitable and complementary set of organizational leadership roles which are made clear to all staff.
Know when it’s time to leave (as a staff member)
As a paid staff person, when you no longer feel aligned with the basic strategy and approach of a social change organization with a base, it may be time to leave and find another organization that is aligned with your ideas. Of course, healthy movement organizations, especially ones with a base and volunteer leadership, should regularly have internal discussions and constructive debates over priorities, strategy, and tactics. In a base organization, these debates should center on involving volunteer leaders and members themselves, while also including –– in appropriate roles –– paid staff and organizational leadership. That’s a crucial way organizations get smarter and more effective. But it is not healthy for paid staff of a base organization to try to supplant their views for those of the membership or leadership, or to use the organization’s and the members’ resources (which include staff’s paid time) to pursue strategies or tactics that are misaligned with the purpose and theory of change that the base and leadership have chosen.
Know when it’s time to leave (as a staff manager or senior leader)
Not everyone can or should stay in a paid staff role in the same organization forever. This goes for managers and senior organizational leaders too. As with all staff, this may be because one no longer feels aligned with the theory or direction. But for managers and senior leaders there is also the fundamental principle of any thriving movement organization –– especially a base organization –– that it should be constantly bringing in and developing new people and leaders. Senior leaders should always be developing members and staff to grow in the organization, so at some point it will be time to responsibly move on to make space for someone else’s leadership. Any effective staff manager or senior organizational leader should always be able to name the staff members and/or member-leaders they’re currently prioritizing for investment and development and provide concrete examples of how they’ve done it recently. Ask them.
If senior leaders or staff managers do not recognize when it’s time to leave, healthy organizations need to learn when and how to responsibly and respectfully encourage them to do so.
Design base organizations with base building and power at the center of all aspects
This is especially true for staff structures and staff-involved processes, but this principle applies to all aspects of a base organization. Structures and processes for strategy-making, work-planning, culture-setting, staff input, and staff accountability should always have at their center a focus on base-building and power-building to achieve the organization’s vision. Staff roles and influence in organizational decision-making and staff pathways for advancement should foreground those staff contributing the most/best to base-building and power-building. This will include staff with commonly defined “organizer” job responsibilities, but it can and should also include staff with other areas of responsibility such as operations, fundraising, communications, policy, etc. In a base organization, these jobs and their responsibilities and expectations are hopefully significantly focused on how they support and contribute to base-building and power-building, and they should be recognized accordingly when they do.
Instead of departmental titles, individual demographic identities, or louder voices defining staff structures and influence, centering organizational design and decision-making structures on base-building effectiveness can create and reinforce a culture and shared expectations that lead to building and exercising more power –– and to fulfilling the organization’s core purpose.
Remember and remind each other of the sacred trust
Lastly, everyone whose paid job is in the “spade work” (as Ella Baker called it) of building a base and its power and leadership in the fight for justice, should always remember the privilege and remind each other of the sacred trust that is at the core of such a job.
Convergence is pleased to be co-publishing this article with The Forge.