Five Organizational Practice Myths, Part 2

(Continued from Part 1)

Myth 2: Everyone Should Be Equal

For many of us who believe everyone should have equal privileges and human rights protections within society, it’s not a big leap to assume that there should be equal participation in our organizations as well. But not everyone participates as equals – some have a more personal stake in the issue, or are taking more of a risk, or bring more resources and expertise, or have more time to spare, or show up as mentors and leaders. Nico Amador has pointed out that this value of equal participation sometimes shows up in the misplaced use of “taking stack” at meetings. Other groups strive to create the appearance that there is a “flat” leadership structure, even though some people are always more involved in leadership tasks than others.

Before HAFA re-branded and re-centered its work last spring, it was driven by policy advocates who worked on food issues for a living. Not all of them were onboard with shifting gears to create space for more leadership by community residents — which also shifted the group’s membership to have more people of color and working class volunteer members. Although some advocates expressed alignment with the equity perspective being articulated by HAFA leaders, few continued to show up to support the new ideas now being generated by new HAFA members who closely reflected the communities with least access to healthy food. Most of the paid advocates dropped out of day-to-day involvement.

HAFA also incorporated equity principles to make sure those with most at stake could participate, like always providing free childcare and culturally-appropriate food, and only making decisions when the people with the most to say about them could be in the room.

Also, Advisory Space meetings were open to all, but only Activators were given the responsibility for decision-making. Holding the distinction between Activators and Observers was not always graceful, but it allowed HAFA leaders to clearly demonstrate the leadership “path” forward to newcomers, and made clear the group’s value of transparency. And, above all, their trust. No special expertise was required to begin participating as an Activator, just an interest in supporting the work of HAFA.

And given that a few members were also paid organizers, organizational rank issues surfaced at times, which the group didn’t shy away from discussing. “Make sure all the Bread for the City staff are in different breakout groups!”

You can check out a few videos of HAFA events:

 

Myth 3: We Must Follow A Plan

The group’s activities – Community Brainstorms, big events, conference presentations, solidarity actions with other groups – were all guided by project-specific plans and broader intentions for food justice work. But HAFA avoided the trap of writing an unnecessary strategic plan. Instead, the group took regular breaks from day-to-day work to ask the questions, “Where are we going? How are we doing? What’s going right here?” They prioritized staying present with their immediate reality, rather than returning to where they had been at the beginning of the year.

Adrienne Maree-Brown and others have written about this principle as “emergence”:

emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions. rather than laying out big strategic plans for our work, many of us have been coming together in community, in authentic relationships, and seeing what emerges from our conversations, visions and needs.

Using this principle supported HAFA’s desire to center the experiences of people with the least access to healthy food. Instead of imposing a nonprofit culture on a volunteer-led group, HAFA has allowed the group to develop its own work culture. By following the energy of volunteer leaders in communities of color, HAFA has continued to stay relevant culturally as well as politically. This has meant losing some support by people more committed to nonprofit advocacy culture and who are more comfortable working within the planning container of a fiscal year – but that may be only temporary, it’s still early in the life of the group.

Myth 4: Stick to the Plan!

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