Five Organizational Practice Myths, Part 1

Putting Roots Through the Rocks:

DC’s HAFA & Five Organizational Practice Myths

Last December I wrapped up six months as occasional facilitator for a dynamic and always-shifting, community-based food justice initiative in the District. Healthy & Affordable Food for All (HAFA) is a cross-section of the people who grow, prepare, distribute, serve and consume food in DC, and overall those with the most to gain from increased access to – as you can guess – healthy and cheap food options. At any given point last year HAFA engaged from two dozen to over 200 people on a daily basis in thinking and talking about and creating more connections to food production and healthy food access.

I learned a lot – about how to stay grounded in the actual needs of the group, how to use ecological principles as guideposts and form reflecting immediate functions as opposed to whatever structure the group “should” have. I think HAFA’s success debunks several mainstream myths about how organizations should function – myths that are like old stories, or rocks, being eaten away by new roots.

Background: Healthy & Affordable Food for All

(In the first 5 minutes of this video organizer Zachari Curtis and others explain HAFA’s approach to food justice)

Inspired by groups like the Detroit Black Food Security Network and Detroit Food Policy Council, a group of community activists set out several years ago to convene a space for food justice coordination across the District, where the eastern third of the city has one grocery store for every 75,000 or so inhabitants – and plenty of empty lots, some of which are being turned into vegetable gardens.

Many similar initiatives in the District have been led largely by paid advocates and allies with college degrees; HAFA organizers seeking to renew and re-center the group last spring knew it would need to reflect the working class and low-income communities and communities of color who comprise east of the river neighborhoods.

To do that, in 2012 they experimented with nontraditional ways of convening and engaging people in:

  • Visioning – a food chain embodying HAFA’s values
  • Learning – about food resources, the economy, video production and other skills
  • Community Building – through Community Brainstorms and food-oriented cultural events
  • Leadership – creating many levels of entry and participation

It’s worth mining their experiences in 2012 for lessons in what’s possible with staff- & volunteer-driven community projects seeking to have a broad impact while following energy and community leadership that already exists.

Five Myths in Organizations

Myth 1: A Firm Structure Is Important

After starting out with a traditional open coalition structure, in which representatives of advocacy organizations met ostensibly to plan policy-focused community engagement activities, HAFA decided to experiment with a more grassroots convening that de-centered the monthly “big tent” get-togethers. Instead, together with recruitment activities, members were encouraged to attend weekly Workgroup Meetings to share skills and personal histories, learn about food issues and plan upcoming Community Brainstorms. (Community Brainstorms brought together people in a particular neighborhood, like residents of one public housing complex, or food system workers, people involved in the prison system, or to look at food through the lens of privilege, as a co-facilitated discussion with community members. Later, the ideas and reports generated during the brainstorm were coded and given back to those who attended, along with invitations to continue connecting with HAFA). 

HAFA leaders then set out to discover what “this group, right now” needed that it couldn’t accomplish within the workgroups. They didn’t want more decision-making authority to automatically fall to staff, even though staff would be more likely to be involved due to their higher level of responsibility. Coalition meetings can be alienating for new members, and HAFA wanted to create spaces that were inviting for newcomers, and particularly for people unused to working in formal coalitions.

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