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Entries tagged "affinity groups"

For Real Change, Conversations Not Debates

October 4, 2012 ·

No matter who wins a debate or ultimately the election, we know our nation and our communities will continue to face complex economic, ecological, political, and social challenges.Talking over the fence

Our challenges are compounded by a culture of isolation and disconnection. The skills we need to build connection and empathy may not come as naturally as they once did. Mainstream culture encourages us to separate from each other—to be “independent” and “self-made”—despite a growing body of evidence that our brains are actually hard-wired for connection.

Community organizers in the field report that Americans revolve around an axis of “overwhelm” these days, as they struggle to access the services that they need, educate their children, maintain a middle class lifestyle, or merely survive. Why are volunteer hours for community service or membership organizations plummeting? Why do so many of us refuse to let their children play outside? Precinct walkers at election time rarely find anyone at home, and many who are refuse to answer the door. Why is it increasingly difficult to get a response from a voicemail, email, or even text message?

Given our challenges, we just can’t afford this level of disconnection. Isolated individuals cannot create real social change. It’s up to networked communities to do that.

That’s part of why people have been forming small groups like Resilience Circles and social action affinity groups around the country. These groups are a way to relearn skills of mutuality, consensus-building, story-sharing, and real listening. They form an essential piece of the architecture of social movements built on solidarity and relatedness.

But pulling together a small group can be a real challenge. People are likely to be puzzled at first if you invite them to join one. That’s where the art of conversation comes in.

Labor and community organizers have been using a practice called the “one-to-one” conversation for generations as a way to build networks, enhance relationships, and enlist people in their work. A one-to-one can be defined as a structured conversation where you authentically share your story with another person and listen to theirs. Based on your commonalities, you invite the person to work together. It’s a great way to invite someone to join your small group, or if you’re not trying to form a small group, it’s a great way to build relationships and learn more about your neighbors’ concerns.

"Small consciousness-raising groups... were the lynchpins of the labor movement, the civil rights movement, and the women’s movement."

We have found that if you begin a regular practice of inviting others to have deliberate, one-to-one conversations, you’ll find it rewarding. You’ll enhance your story-sharing and listening skills, and you’ll learn to focus more on your relationships than on specific outcomes. One-to-ones teach you a whole lot about how other people see the world, which can deepen our commitment to social change and make us wiser organizers.

The down side is that they can feel risky. No one likes to experience rejection, and unfortunately you aren’t likely to hear an enthusiastic “Yes, I’ll join you!” at the end of every conversation. It’s best to prepare for a range of responses. No matter how skilled you are as an organizer and conversationalist, some people will say “No” to your invitation. Some will say “Maybe” (which generally means “No”). Some will say “Yes,” but won’t show up. Some will say “Yes,” show up, and then drop out. Some will say “No” today, and “Yes” later. And luckily, some will say “Yes” and become valuable contributors.

We can’t get around doing this. We can’t build a strong movement without actually talking to people in person. This isn’t an ‘extra’ when it comes to organizing or social change. As Cesar Chavez reportedly said when asked by a student how he organizes, “He said, 'First, I talk to one person. Then I talk to another person.' 'No,' said the student, 'How do you organize?' Chavez answered, 'First I talk to one person. Then I talk to another person…'”

You get the point. Talking is organizing. So let’s get the conversation started.

How to Initiate a Conversation

You may be able to use this form of conversation spontaneously. Perhaps someone will off-handedly mention their frustration with potholes in the roads or their fears about their kids’ student debt load. You can take the opportunity to ask more questions and make your call to action (“I’m forming a neighborhood group, you should join me” or “I’m forming a group to talk about our economic concerns”).

If you’re serious about forming a small group, however, you will probably need to be more deliberate. An easy way to get started is to invite someone you already know to meet with you for about a half hour at a neutral public site, like a coffee shop or a park.

Our culture can be suspicious of open-ended agendas, and you don’t want people to think you’re starting an Amway business. So go ahead and be clear about what you want. For example, you could say, “I’m forming a small group for mutual support, and I’d like to have your input,” or “I’m concerned about [our schools] and want to hear your concerns too,” or “I think that a lot of people are struggling with economic stress alone, and I want to ask you what we might do to support each other and do fun stuff together.” If they want to talk then and there, be sure to set aside enough time for a focused conversation.

The important thing is to make a friendly, honest invitation that fits your own interests and values. Not everyone will say yes, but some will—and each new invitation builds your skills and confidence.

Small is Beautiful

Each time you build a new relationship, you are creating social change. As the PICO Principle says, “Small is beautiful.” The single biggest missing component of today’s social change movement is the small consciousness-raising group. Gatherings of this type were the lynchpins of the labor movement, the civil rights movement, and the women’s movement. They empowered people to learn new ways of speaking about their pain and doing something about it.

We can only hope that we haven’t yet created such a powerful culture of “overwhelm” that it’s too late to sit together and take support from one another’s counsel. No one makes social change alone.

For more information and resources to start a small group, visit www.localcircles.org

How Small Groups Can Power Big Change

May 17, 2012 ·

As a general rule, as communities grow, they lose social cohesion. There is a tricky tension between growing a group and a maintaining sense of personal belonging for members.

Like other voluntary associations, social movements struggle with this. But we can learn important lessons from the places that have figured it out—even from unlikely places like Saddleback “megachurch” in Orange County, CA.

Over 20,000 people attend Sunday worship at Saddleback, and yet members experience a strong, deep sense of belonging. That’s because Pastor Rick Warren has created “a church out of a network of lots of little church cells—exclusive, tightly knit groups of six or seven who meet in one another’s homes during the week to worship and pray.”

In other words, the secret is small groups.

Progressive social movements don’t often take inspiration from conservative megachurches. But the lessons about organizational structure may be worth a second look. (Hat tip to Dave Pollard for pointing this out.)

Say a new activist works up the courage to attend a forum or rally. She may find herself part of a large, anonymous crowd. Of course, it is essential to provide such open spaces for people to join the movement, and it’s essential that we make them welcoming and inviting (like a Sunday worship service). But people don’t stay deeply involved with a movement for long if they don’t make connections with others.

So we should ask: within our movements, are there opportunities to join a small, closely knit group? The group that will become your glue to the overall movement? That is structured not just for work, but for support and community?

Historically, this small group has been called the “affinity group.” The term can be traced back to the Spanish Revolution of the 19th century. In congregations, it’s called “small group ministry.” In the women’s movement in the 70s, small groups were called “consciousness raising groups.” Call it what you want, but the basic concept is the same: you’re human, so you need support and connection. You won’t really stick with a church or a movement that fails to provide these things.

Affinity Groups in Social Movements

Not all affinity groups are meant to last for the long haul. Some form to prepare for a single direct action and disband afterwards. But this structure is worth noting too: how much easier would it be for new activists to take part in direct action if they were supported by 5 or 10 others who were looking out for them?

Certain direct actions have required participants to be part of an affinity group. “To sign the ‘Pledge of Resistance’ against US invasion of Nicaragua in 1983, you had to join an affinity group,” recalls organizer Dakota Butterfield. “Signing the Pledge meant either risking arrest or supporting those who were risking it. That’s not something that should be undertaken as an isolated person.”

Some of the affinity groups whose members signed the Pledge of Resistance had formed in other movements: feminist, LGBT, religious, or anti-war. Some were from the anti-nuclear Clamshell Alliance, another movement that very successfully leveraged the involvement of affinity groups. This points to an important historical difference between now and the early 80s, when affinity groups were part of many movements. These groups could easily shift to new issues as the times changed.

Affinity groups do continue to meet today. Morrigan Phillips is part of one in Boston that is focused on preventing cuts to public transportation. “We’re a little group of seven people who can respond to calls for action,” she says. “When there’s a rally or protest, we get together to make signs. We go to the rally together. It’s way more fun than going alone.”

Morrigan was also part of affinity groups during the big anti-globalization actions of the 2000s in Washington, DC. “I was part of one that met for years,” she says. “The anti-World Bank actions were deliberately based on the idea that activists should be in affinity groups. There was a structure of coordinated groups, rather than individuals.”

Creating a Participatory Structure

In some cases, affinity groups are the basis of the decision-making structure for a campaign or movement as a whole. For example, during the Pledge of Resistance, each group sent a “spokes” (spokesperson) to council meetings. These meetings used consensus to make decisions for the whole.

“Part of our work was educating people on the consensus process,” explains Dakota. “Consensus doesn’t mean unanimity. People had to understand that to ‘block’ something, you must be truly unable to let the group adopt the decision because of a deep, principled objection.”

Affinity groups themselves often operate using consensus. “That’s where the learning really happens,” says Dakota. “The close relationships in the small group encourage personal reflection. You have to really wonder, ‘Why am I blocking this?’ And you discover motivations and concerns you may not have known you had.”

Importantly, a spokescouncil structure based on small groups embodies the participatory kind of society we’re fighting for in the first place. As War Resisters’ International puts it, “affinity groups and spokescouncils challenge top-down, power-over decision-making and organising and empower those involved to take direct action.”

The Organizing Challenge

As a nation, we seem to be constantly better at keeping each other at a distance. That means we aren’t so good at the skills required to live in community and use consensus: real listening, compromise, self-awareness, personal reflection. “We don’t have a cultural norm of spending the time with each other,” says Dakota. “We participate in things, even in social movements, as individuals rather than in connection with others.”

“The close relationships in the small group encourage personal reflection. You have to really wonder, ‘Why am I blocking this?’”

In this context, it’s radical simply to try and make connections with each other—to get closer rather than farther apart. Because moving in this direction is radical, it can be hard.

But we ignore the small group dimension of organizing at great peril. If we somehow won all of our political goals, but still couldn’t figure out how to live in community, what have we really accomplished?

Our communities will continue to be challenged by the unfolding times; by the housing crisis, cuts to services like public transportation, job market instability. As we rebuild our community and consensus-making muscles, we’re better equipped to deal with all of this as it hits our own backyards. For all these reasons and more, it’s time to form an affinity group.

For information about forming affinity groups use these free resources: What is an Affinity Group?5 Tips for Forming an Affinity GroupA Guide to your Affinity Group’s First Meeting

This article originally appeared in YES! Magazine on May 16, 2012