During the COVID-19 pandemic and racial justice uprising of 2020, amidst exhaustion, confusion, and tension, staff at Movement Alliance Project (MAP) came to a breaking point and decided to take a four-month pause from external work to look internally. Bryan Mercer and Hannah Sassaman, current and former leaders at MAP, vulnerably share the process they went through and examine how confronting conflict avoidance—both across the organization and between the two of them as leaders—allowed MAP to choose purpose, strategy, and be transformed in the process. In this first part of their story, they lay out MAP’s path to naming the fear of conflict at the root of its difficulties. Part 2 will explain how MAP walked through conflict to clarity.
The breaking point and making the choice to pause
Philadelphia summer makes you surrender. Days start hot enough to sweat and stay that way until well after dark. We had all already surrendered to so much that 2020 summer. First the pandemic put millions out of work, closed schools, strained social connection, and placed our communities under constant threat of illness. Then, after George Floyd was murdered by the Minneapolis police, surrender turned to rage in our streets. As two leaders in a long-standing Philadelphia-based community organization, Movement Alliance Project (MAP), we jumped into the thick of those urgent fights.
But as we showed up—in the streets, on coalition zoom calls, and at budget hearings, fighting for affordable access to the internet in the midst of the shutdown, connecting people to mutual aid projects to meet community needs, and demanding our city’s budget invest in communities instead of policing—our hearts sank in exhaustion and sorrow, because we’d seen this before and would again.
Without deep organization—a place for those thousands marching to go and a strategy to channel their power towards a world we all deserve—the protests would ebb. And in their wake, the political machine that defunded schools, cut taxes for the rich and lavishly funded the police would continue its stranglehold on power. Our Philadelphia neighborhoods and communities, segregated and alienated from each other by design, would continue to pay the price.
As the external conditions of 2020 rocked us, we started to understand longstanding major internal contradictions inside MAP, too. MAP had grown rapidly over the last five years, winning multiple major campaigns, securing hundreds of thousands in funding for community coalition building, technology justice, and media making work, and beginning a fiscal sponsorship program serving 14 projects.
We were always changing direction, chasing newer, bigger things after each success.
We grew as we won campaigns, expanded networks and relationships, and got into new battles as a part of new coalitions. This led to us having over a dozen different areas of work within the organization. Staff felt split in too many directions. The intensity of 2020 exacerbated exhaustion and problems with work-life balance for everyone from the policy and campaign staff to the administrative and finance staff. On top of this, we changed our organizational structure to expand capacity, which included creating a formal leadership team of new directors. With years of inconsistencies in hierarchy and supervision, our staff was confused about decision-making in the organization and pointed out imbalances in compensation that we didn’t account for in the restructure.
This combination created a lot of tension on our team. So in the Fall, we held a week-long Staff Advance (others may call it a “retreat”) where we set out to address the issues coming up and slim our work down to focus on our central purpose. But in those few days, it soon became clear that we actually didn’t have a clear sense of our organization’s purpose.
During this Fall Advance, we asked ourselves questions like “What is MAP uniquely positioned to do?” And we got vastly different answers from our staff.
As we tried to make choices on what we should and shouldn’t focus on as an organization, we spent our days asking questions that led to more questions. Despite our best attempts, one week just wasn’t enough time to solidify our purpose with clarity. We needed much more time and a very intentional process to sort this out. But we were facing large crises in our communities, and felt called to respond.
The same month, Walter Wallace Jr. was murdered by police in West Philadelphia. The pain hit us right at home this time, and the rebellion started up all over again. As we sprang into action and reaction, feeling the cycle repeat itself broke us. Seeing an entire community erupt in rage again, be attacked by police again, while being ignored by a city apparatus that would not see their pain nor hear their cries again broke us. Knowing that our efforts couldn’t truly meet the challenges we saw broke us. Knowing we had no real internal clarity of our movement’s collective strategy to meet that challenge broke us.
“We can’t do this anymore,” we admitted, our tears caught in our throats. In a political moment of seemingly constant crisis, completely stretched to capacity in every facet of the organization, something had to give.
After years of sprinting, we asked ourselves: what might be possible if we just stopped?
What might we be able to accomplish if we let go of the urgency of the news cycle and strived for focus? So that fall—in the middle of campaigns, with ongoing grant commitments, despite all the pressures telling us not to—we said “no more” and decided to build the “MAPOut,” a process that would require us to fully stop all external work for four months as we determined the true purpose of our organization at this moment in history.
Building the MAPOut and creating the space to pause
Just stopping our work felt almost impossible; we’d never seen another organization truly do it and had never done it ourselves for more than a week. It felt like we were abandoning our communities and our partners. But we couldn’t ignore the glaring reality: being in the middle of every fight helped us feel and seem useful, but it did not build power.
So we created a process to wind down all of our external work to a place where it could gracefully pause without leaving anybody hanging. We had lots of conversations with our current and past partners, our supporters and funders, and even political actors we’d worked with closely over the years.
Every conversation felt like a risk, like we’d let our people down. But after our comrades’ initial surprise came curiosity. What would arise from such a process? And to our surprise after curiosity came encouragement. Our people wanted us to take this time and were excited to see what we’d learn and how we’d transform.
We took a deep breath, and collectively built the MAPOut into what it needed to be: something expansive and intentional. Every member of our staff worked for months in teams to plan the process, from late 2020 through early 2021.
- One team made sure we built in breaks to allow for some recovery and re-grounding from the sprints of the past years, and planned a beautiful team-building process that would prepare us for the work to come.
- Another team designed a five-week political education program helping ground our whole team in our founding and history, the ways in which racial monopoly capitalism shaped Philadelphia and technology in our city and world, and how movements for justice in those twin fields were flowering now.
- The third team put together a program where we’d reflect on our impact and our history, and choose our future. We hired BJ STAR, a master facilitator with the Wildfire Project, to guide us through this high-stakes decision-making process with our entire team.
Conflict avoidance at the root
As our entire staff began working together to make the MAPOut possible, we started to unpack how we got to this point. How did we become an organization with 15 program areas? How did our strategy take the shape of something we’d later name the “spaghetti monster”—a noodly mix of tactics, without a clear endpoint or connection, tangled in a delicious but inadequate ball?
We studied the history of our organization. For 15 years, we’d built a big arc of relationship-building, winning, and trust. Our organization had a history in media making to unite poor and working people’s organizations, and then, training communities to use internet and media making tools. Following that, we’d won groundbreaking campaigns around internet access and corporate accountability. We built effective coalitions on issues of mass incarceration and political power. But we didn’t choose that work from a place of clarity about our organizational strategy.
At different moments in MAP’s evolution, instead of intentionally saying ‘no’ to old things, we just kept doing more–essentially saying yes to all things.
Now, our work was a mix of projects rooted in our legacy with media making, national and local campaigning on tech justice, and convening and building capacity with groups in Philly.
As we conducted a survey of our partners to ground our assessment, we began to understand that our organizational confusion was visible to our comrades, too. Many of our partners had no idea what our purpose and role in our movement ecosystem was supposed to be, either. They appreciated that we often filled gaps and created pathways for powerful work that wouldn’t have happened without us; but they weren’t sure if we were campaigners, media-makers, or conveners. It confirmed our suspicions that rather than building capacity of other groups in the ecosystems that included us, we were shapeshifting into different forms so that we could be the capacity.
Our brilliant facilitator, BJ, shared something that helped us start to understand why we’d landed here. They said “at the heart of confusion in purpose is conflict avoidance,” and urged us to study Yotam Marom’s Moving Towards Conflict For the Sake of Good Strategy. Yotam’s piece touched us deeply; it felt like a mirror to us (and maybe will to you, too):
“Many of our social movement organizations don’t have a strategy to win. They do not have a clear grasp of their own purpose, don’t truly know why they exist or what their role is, don’t have clear goals they hold themselves accountable to, don’t run programs that add up to something greater than the sum of their parts, and lack a viable plan to grow to the scale necessary to face the challenge. There are lots of reasons for this, but conflict avoidance is one of them, because conflict avoidance is fundamentally the inability to really face the truth. How can we formulate good strategy if we don’t tell the truth?”
These words shone like a flashlight in our attic, revealing conflict that existed inside MAP at its highest levels and across the organization. We cooked up this spaghetti monster not only because we were overzealous and too driven by urgency, but also because we weren’t brave enough to disagree with each other about MAP’s purpose and have principled struggle over those disagreements.
As two people leading the organization for over a decade, we’d buried disagreements on strategy and work style that’d been between us for years. Hannah led our work organizing for tech justice, coalitions, and campaigns on one hand, and Bryan led our work expanding movement infrastructure and capacity building in Philly on the other. We’ve worked closely together in the struggle for years, oftentimes in beautiful flow. However, we stepped on each others’ toes, Hannah sometimes taking up too much space, and Bryan shying away from taking a position to avoid conflict or critique. And we were both underdeveloped in what strategy meant, and in the real costs of not making hard choices.
We’d meet together to plan and advance our growing organization, but let too many of the big questions hang in the back of our throats. Working feet from each other in our West Philadelphia office space, our siloed phone calls on our different projects echoed off the embossed-copper ceiling of our street-level office. Our feet shuffled on the floor under our desks as we worked and pointed at different sides of the wall in the cramped back office room.
It felt too hard to ask the endpoint and purpose of so many different kinds of projects: how would they make our enemies weaker, our people stronger and more cohered? Despite decades of campaigns, many successful, we weren’t ready to fight about choosing a path that would make real winning possible.
By holding ourselves back and each other back from conflict, and continuing an organizational and movement-wide practice of avoiding conflict and principled struggle, we stunted what was possible inside MAP. This also meant we limited what was possible for our movement partners, and for our relationship as comrades in the struggle for human liberation. And now our unspoken disagreements were manifesting as at least two distinct areas of work stretching our entire team’s capacity as if we existed at opposite ends of a rubber band.
As we moved deeper into the MAPOut it became clear: if we weren’t going to be brave enough to face and embrace conflict, we wouldn’t be able to choose a clear purpose for the organization.
We had avoided conflict inside MAP for a long time, because of many different fears. We even realized the confusion about the addition of a leadership team was rooted in conflict avoidance. We weren’t brave enough to have an open dialogue with our staff that might bring up disagreements, so we brought on a new leadership team without much explanation or discussion–and our team was not clear on the purpose of it.
Avoiding conflict helped us survive as people—protecting us from hurt, from loss. We’re taught that all conflict is destructive and results in pain. We all carry pain from past experiences of conflict—personal, community, and movement traumas—inside of us. If we face and embrace conflict, it might mean that some of our fears could come true. We might get hurt. We might lose a big sense of stability or comfort in the shape of the organization as it was, and there was the real chance that some of us would leave or change our positions. But beyond that fear existed the possibility that if we embraced the conflict about the purpose of the organization, that conflict would help us grow and transform into a new, more strategic, shape. This conflict might be generative for us and our communities and struggles for years to come.
Featured image: Movement Alliance Project members at the end of their MAPOut process. Photo by Bryan Mercer
This piece was drafted by Hannah Sassaman and Bryan Mercer, with vital editing support and review from Clarise McCants, Devren Washington, Shari Bolar-Martray, and Jenessa Irvine. Major thanks to all of our comrades for holding us through this process. We’d love to hear your feedback: email Bryan at (bryan ‘at’ movementalliance.org) and Hannah at (hannah ‘at’ peoplestechproject.org). The article first appeared on Medium: https://medium.com/@movementalliance/how-mapout-changed-us-e5a0c2ae0f5d