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 Part 1 of their story, they laid out MAP’s path to naming the fear of conflict at the root of its difficulties. Here in Part 2 they lead us on MAP’s path through conflict to clarity.
Debating strategy and making a choice
As we embarked on the final phase of our process, BJ helped ground us in the skills we needed to disagree with emotional intelligence. They skillfully guided us to communicate directly with each other, and pushed us to dig down more if we glossed over unspoken disagreements. All of this hard work helped us understand each other much more deeply, and served as excellent preparation for our strategy debates.
Yotam, building on Richard Rumelt’s work in Good Strategy, Bad Strategy, says the most important part of strategy is making a choice:
“Strategy is all about choice. It is about saying no, sharpening a position through disagreement, narrowing focus. It requires the will to remain in tension long enough to expose the deepest misalignments, the skill to actually enter into serious disagreement and emerge from it stronger.”
We started the work of identifying the big choices we had to make. Using the framework of a strategy kernel as our guide, we understood that organizations are best positioned to address one single challenge, but there were a few that we’d been trying to tackle. The critical role technology plays in exacerbating oppression is one challenge. The under-resourced and disconnected infrastructure of Philly’s movement ecosystem is another challenge. The vacuum of community media telling untold stories is yet another challenge. We had to choose one.
We could no longer pretend that all of these areas of work could live under one strategy.
We had big questions that seemed impossible to answer: Would we choose tech justice work over Philly movement infrastructure and capacity building? Would we split our organization so that some of our staff could move forward on one strategy while the other staff move forward on the other? We resisted, but BJ helped us see that we were strong enough to make a choice. Our entire staff team wrote strategy drafts arguing for different options in a huge two-day debate. We disagreed with each other but, with more practice in generative conflict, those disagreements didn’t break us. Disagreeing allowed us to narrow our options down to the best possible purpose for MAP.
After honestly examining the core tenets, strengths, and weaknesses of MAP’s work, we all chose to focus MAP’s new strategy on strengthening the movement infrastructure in Philadelphia. We didn’t do that because the other work wasn’t important or crucial to the larger project of human liberation. We chose this strategy and future for MAP because after our years of work and study and months of the MAPOut, we knew that the challenge of Philly’s under-resourced and under-connected movement ecosystem was one we could take up and make into our full purpose.
But the other challenges MAP wasn’t taking on still had powerful foundations upon which to grow. Because of that, we also decided to create two new organizations: People’s Tech Project, to give dedicated resources to building power around how our movements engage with technology as an aggravating force in society today, towards winning their vision of human liberation, and the People’s Media Record, to house a community media archive we’d recently secured a major grant to develop.
We had to make the hard choice to split the organization into three parts in order to let each of those three core purposes — and the staff who chose to lead them — flower and thrive.
For the two of us, making this choice to split up the organization was a mix of deeply hard and liberating. We were forced to face the years of imperfect and even sometimes unprincipled communication between us that was a big part of bringing the organization to this point.
In one long conversation with Bryan, when Hannah faced the idea that she might have been leading with a lot of pessimism, and might be holding onto MAP as it had been because it felt comfortable and safe, her heart beat fast. Was fear keeping her from growing and from facing the loss of change? Instead of choosing purpose, was she picking comfort and belonging? She made a commitment then to practice choosing change and purpose, and to create her own sense of belonging. Choosing that purpose meant believing in the power of her own work and all of our work together, and working on transcending the pessimism that is so easy to fall into in our society.
When Hannah and Bryan took the time to talk through some of the cracks and fault lines in their working relationship, Bryan realized that he’d become well practiced in avoiding saying no, fearing conflict would come with it. He long took an approach to ‘try and do it all,’ even when he believed other work would suffer. Of course, after years of not addressing conflict head on, both Bryan and Hannah had built up resentments about their differences in priorities and approach. An approach of ‘keeping the peace,’ left Bryan vacillating between disinterest in some work and anger about other efforts. And in relationship to Hannah, Bryan built a barrier to expressing his feelings that did a disservice to them both. MAPOut gave Bryan a chance to realize that hiding his position was a bigger risk than honesty, and choosing to practice generative conflict with Hannah and across MAP and the movement he is committed to, was the actual path to make more possible for his leadership.
Across the larger organization, we all definitely knew this was the right path for MAP at this moment. But this decision had a major set of implications. While we maintained three core aspects of our work in this split, there were many other projects in our spaghetti monster that we had to sunset and say goodbye to completely. There wasn’t anything ‘wrong’ with these areas of work, but they didn’t fit into the strategies of the new organizations. The staff who built those projects and helped them flourish from inception had to confront the loss of those past efforts. We also had to accept that we wouldn’t be together as a staff team anymore. We had to figure out how to support most of our staff to find new roles inside these new organizations or support them to transition out and into other parts of the movement ecosystem.
For many of us, choosing trust in the midst of such uncertainty was the hardest part. Some staff had been let down by leadership before. How could they trust leadership now, through this delicate transition? As we shed old senses of self to build new teams with clearer purpose, how would we stick the landing?
Easing transition with intention
The MAPOut was transformative for every one of us — the hardest emotional and intellectual work many of us had done in years. It required leveling-up in the practice of trust and in choosing trust, despite heavy conditioning we had as individuals and as a group to doubt each other. Building an implementation plan that focused on successfully transitioning all of our projects — those becoming new organizations, those sunsetting, and those transferring to being led by trusted partners — helped.
We created a cross-department project management team for the transition period that gave a real opportunity for staff beyond the directors to set the pace and timeline of our organizational priorities. The directors team also worked to embrace our leadership instead of shying away from it, clearly stating the decisions we were responsible for and owning our decision-making power (DARCI became a go-to tool throughout this period). This clarity gave us all some structurein the midst of a lot of uncertainty about where these choices would ultimately leave us.
The whole organization had to “trust the process.” We studied a tool, the Organizational Change and Transition Curve developed by William Bridges, which taught us that we couldn’t rush the pace of transition. We had to end MAP as it was, let go of what it could have been, and traverse a confusing neutral zone of neither here nor there as we implemented our new strategies. Only then could we commit to the new and live into our new beginnings as new organizations. We’d played a vital role. But that role was changing now.
We were letting go of who we were, and who we could have been, in order to embody who we had to become.
This was real for us organizationally, but also personally. For both of us, this process pushed us to face big emotional truths about ourselves and our working relationship as leaders. In this process, the two of us have been pruning and transforming the working relationship and comradeship between us. It has meant working to grow a new relationship that follows the function of our new organizational forms and relates to how MAP and People’s Tech’s different strategies will together help lead to a liberatory future.
For Hannah, this means making the choice to lead People’s Tech Project as its executive director, to shepherd the crucial work of its strategy, and to accept the trust and support of comrades near and far to take this role on fully. To do that, it also means feeling the grief of losing MAP as it was, of choosing this change. For her, strategy is in a dialectical relationship with grief, and the act of mourning what was powerful about the past is letting her live into her unique leadership at the intersection of community organizing and the national movement for tech justice.
For Bryan, this means stepping into the risk that comes from being vulnerable to feedback, while also holding the reins of the organization decisively. It means leading with vulnerability and unlearning that male leaders should be expected to hide the emotional impacts of the work. That looks like not shying away in the moments that call him to state disagreement, and not hiding the feelings of frustration or anger that shape how he is showing up in the work. To do that, Bryan is leaning on the somatic practices he’s learned over the years and sitting with discomfort rather than rushing or brushing past it. As they say, the only way out is through.
For us together, this change means both of us have a chance to build on our history to meet this moment in ways we never have before, that we couldn’t previously imagine. Choosing purpose, and our compassion and love for each other, eases this change. And knowing we are both on the revolutionary road — building a world where we can make true liberation become real — eases this change too. So much of this transformation is possible because of how we’ve developed as people, organizers, and fighters at LeftRoots — a project aimed at building strategy and strategists who can win socialism in the 21st century.
Every one of us at MAP — administrators and techies, communicators and managers — helped craft, debate, and choose this strategy and its implications.
We learned here that all staff and leaders at an organization should understand how strategy is developed and implemented, and their role in testing it and making it real.
We learned that we must give strategy a structure. The costs of splitting the organization into three new forms and transforming our purpose was heavy. But the costs of not doing it were heavier. For these strategies to be tested fully, they needed different forms so that we could reach our goals of human liberation and play our part in history.
As we write this, the air of Philadelphia is warmer every day, and the possibility and risks of another summer face us. The staff of each project — MAP, People’s Tech Project, and People’s Media Record — are getting ready to celebrate our transitions to these new forms together with a day at the beach.
But this time, this summer, we have more than surrender. We have a plan. Strategy is a theory, an idea of how each of our projects can address a particular challenge, the distinct roles we’ll take on to solve them.We’ll need connection, compassion, clarity, and care to test our hypotheses, and to make new ones as we learn and grow.
This world tells us only to surrender, that there is no alternative, that nothing else is possible. But we are proud and committed to fighting for a new world, a world we all deserve, alongside all of you.
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
Featured image: Movement Alliance Project staff.