Sunday, December 04, 2005

Grist piece on Ganz

Harvard sociologist Marshall Ganz is interviewed in Grist. A former Civil Rights activist in the 60s, Ganz studies "social movements, and the ways in which leadership and direction are nurtured. Now he focuses on finding ways to revitalize democratic organizations, develop their leadership, and engage their members -- work that he says is critical to rebuilding a base of political power on the left," according to Dicum, of Grist. He has spent the last two years studying the Sierra Club, focusing on how membership organizations such as Sierra can better utilize their human resources to make change. Here are some excerpts from his interview:

Traditionally, membership associations, volunteer organizations, and advocacy organizations provided connective tissue between citizens and government, and public policy in general. There's been a substantial breakdown in that over the last 30 or 40 years, and it's left a vacuum.


The word leadership figures heavily in your work. What do you mean when you use it?

Leadership is not just someone giving a good speech. Leaders are people actually capable of mobilizing other people and getting them engaged in public life and public action. Participation isn't just a million individuals making individual choices: it's a social activity in which some people take responsibility to mobilize others.

This may sound simplistic, but leadership means knowing how to have a good meeting: how to hear all sides, how to make a decision, how to include different points of view. It's not a particularly mysterious skill set, but if people haven't been trained in it, or they've only learned it as individuals and not as a group, then they don't know how to do it.


do you see as promising sources for leadership on the left? Where do people get it?

I think if the Sierra Club buys into [the idea that it can be an incubator for leadership] it can have a huge impact on the environmental movement. Unions are [also] very important, the SEIU [Service Employees International Union] in particular, and a reenergized labor movement could really help with this. There's a lot of activity in new immigrant communities -- they're much friendlier to this kind of approach and have had more success with it. Churches have a lot of experience in working in the way that I'm describing. That's mainly benefited the right; it could benefit the left.

absent from that list are political parties.

Well, the logical thing would be political parties, and in any other industrial democracy it would be a political party. But we have such a screwy electoral system ... political parties have become marketing instruments: it's all about polling and about message and message delivery. There's really no investment in, interest in, or even understanding of organization building. In the 2004 election, even ACT [America Coming Together] and the other groups were all canvassing operations, which is simply a way of marketing person-to-person as opposed to marketing over the phone. But actually creating collective capacity, organizing groups, developing leadership, and creating organizational capacity? That wasn't happening -- that's what was missing.


For many years, the model of large organization in America was representative organization. Then, toward the end of the 19th century, corporate organization became an alternate model. One was about representation, the other was about control.

So now, as the interests and constituencies represented by large organizations like unions have been losing ground, and as this whole market thing has come to be so dominant since Reagan, and public institutions themselves have been increasingly viewed as illegitimate, everybody says, "Well, we gotta do everything like the private sector; we have to do everything like the market."

It means that creative, intelligent individuals can legitimate a way of operating that doesn't require them to engage with a constituency, to educate, to lead, to bring people together -- to do the kinds of things that people used to have to do to earn leadership in a large organization. It lends itself to a very elitist approach to social change.

Yeah, I've noticed a lot of executive directors recently calling themselves CEOs.

Oh yeah. They call them CEOs, they have marketing plans. See, the language is a real giveaway: the language expresses an understanding of how organizations work that makes them basically a question of command and control. And so you wind up with this pull to make advocacy groups look more and more like firms: with boards of directors, managers, efficiency tests, and so forth -- not as inclusive, mobilizing social movements or democratic organizations, which is a really different proposition.


Ganz's interview is highly pertinent to the Evolver Project, which we hope to develop into a large membership organization. The people involved in this, with a few notable exceptions, do not have the background in the kind of mobilizing organizations that he describes. It will be interesting to see if we can develop those tools and skills for activating other people and nurturing local networks.


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