Please leave this field empty
Institute for Policy Studies
RSS Feeds RSS Feeds

A few well-written words can convey a wealth of information, particularly when there is no lag time between when they are written and when they are read. The IPS blog gives you an opportunity to hear directly from IPS scholars and staff on ideas large and small and for us to hear back from you.



Blog Roll

Baltimore Nonviolence Center
Barbara's Blog, by Barbara Ehrenreich
Blog This Rock
Busboys and Poets Blog
CODEPINK's Pink Tank
Democracy Now!
Demos blog: Ideas|Action
Dollars and Sense blog
Economic Policy Institute
Editor's Cut: The Nation Blog
Energy Bulletin
FOE International blog
Kevin Drum (Mother Jones)
The New America Media blogs
OSI Blog
Political Animal/Washington Monthly
Southern Poverty Law Center
Think Progress
YES! Magazine
US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation

IPS Blog

Entries tagged "resilience circle"

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

For Real Change, Build Relationships: Resilience Circles & Occupy Wall Street

November 10, 2011 ·

What do Resilience Circle members think of Occupy Wall Street?

“I think they’re crazy for sleeping in the rain,” says Carol Poole, a member of my Circle in Boston. Carole is 78 and has been running our church’s Food Pantry with her husband for 30 years. “But they are definitely doing something good.”

“Somebody’s got to get the word out, and the more attention to these issues, the better,” adds Ann LeBlanc, a food pantry volunteer who is unemployed. “People need food, they need jobs, and health insurance. This is one way to get people to talk about these issues.”

Travis Bonpietro, a Circle facilitator from Gorham, ME, is currently camping at Occupy DC. “We take care of each other, and try to truly hear each other,” he says of Occupy DC. “In a way, it’s like a giant Resilience Circle!”

Travis urges Resilience Circle members to visit Occupations. “Members of Resilience Circles have a lot of experience actually discussing the issues of our day,” he says. “That can be a huge contribution to the movement we’re building.”

When Resilience Circles talk about social action - in Session 6 out of 7 in the curriculum – we talk about building a new economy with well-connected and vibrant communities, true democratic decision-making procedures, and resource-allocation that respects the earth’s limits.

This discussion is based on what we learn about the limits and problems inherent to the “old” economy – such as how it siphons wealth to the 1% at the expense of everyone else.

Resilience Circle members are excited to see message being amplified by Occupy Wall Street.  “It’s about time we all got together after 30 years of diverting money to the wealthiest people, and letting our country go rotten,” says Thomas Atwood, a facilitator in the Bay Area. Thomas is featured in this video about Occupy Palo Alto made by two other Circle facilitators, Aaron Castle and Candace Anderson.

More importantly, we talk about social action as something members might do as a group, not just as isolated individuals. The curriculum takes its time getting to this stage, letting people get to know each other and find ways to help each other.  This creates a firsthand experience of solidarity. From there, groups talk about how to “change the rules” and make a better world.

Occupy takes that understanding of social change and magnifies it to a huge scale. The movement is letting relationships take shape before jumping into demands or solutions. And as many have pointed out, its participatory lifestyle prefigures the world it wants to create.

Still, it’s essential to get to Session 6 and social action eventually. “I understand that the movement is taking its time to find its voice and its message,” says a Resilience Circle organizer in North Carolina. “That’s smart and appropriate. But I also hope it can embrace mature forms of democracy, leadership, and delegation. That’s going to be critical to get the most out of all this amazing energy.”

As the volunteers at the Food Pantry make clear, the challenges we face are huge. To address them, we need a strong, smart movement.

“You see people coming in for food, and the pain on their faces just breaks your heart,” says Mary Mahony, another volunteer. “For most of them, you know it’s embarrassing to even be here. How bad it must be for them to ask for help.”

I ask if they think Occupy will benefit the people served by the Food Pantry.

Ann hesitates. “It takes a long time to see a direct impact,” she says. “Changes have to go through so much bureaucracy.”

“This economy is so out of hand,” says Carole. “I don’t know what will help at this point. I had a man come in to the pantry today who hasn’t eaten in four days. I give out 56 bags of food per day now, it used to be 11 or 12.”

But Travis and others think there’s reason to hope, and they’re putting their lives and bodies on the line to make it happen. “I quit two jobs to be here, dropped two classes, and will have to fail two more,” he says.

Is it worth the sacrifice? “Absolutely,” he says. “I’m sick of just talking, I’m so excited to be doing something. This movement is having a real impact on the things we hold dear - like equality, and opportunity, and real democracy. That’s what Occupy means to me, and that’s why I’m here.”

Sacrifice, relationship-building, real discussion. We don’t know the answer yet, but the potential for lasting change looks bright.

Travis will be sleeping at Occupy Maine all winter. Contact Sarah Byrnes if you want to help him buy some sub-zero gear.

Photo credit: Chris Wieland, Creative Commons license, via Post Carbon Institute.

Unconventional Wisdom: Fighting with Love

July 14, 2011 ·

Growing up in Pittsburgh, I saw my share of playground fights. Most were minor scuffles and nothing was like the bullies here in Washington trying to win the brawl over the budget by throwing a single knock-out punch.

This shouldn't be a fight. Not because the issues at hand aren't worth fighting for, but because we are all suffering and we should be seeking common solutions.

In the wake of this economic crisis, IPS piloted a new program to support small "Resilience Circles." These groups of 10-20 people enhance personal security through connections, exchanges, and networks. "Helping each other is at the heart of the experience," program coordinator Sarah Byrnes explains. "Little exchanges…help us slowly stretch our muscles for helping each other. They create relationships that can prove essential when hard times fall."

The Circles remind us all that by helping each other, we can climb out of crisis. This weekend, over 1,500 house parties are planned. Sign up for one, join the conversation, and become part of the solution.

While millions of Americans suffer economic distress, leaders in Washington seem to be both deaf and blind to their situation. This week, IPS helped lead the Caring Across Generations Congress that brought 700 people to Washington, DC. Many participants briefed lawmakers, including Senators Al Franken (D-MN), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), and Claire McCaskill (D-MO) on the hardships facing an aging population and the workers that provide home health care for them.

With Medicare and Medicaid on the chopping block, the crisis for seniors and people with disabilities is becoming as urgent as the crisis facing the workers who are caring for them. "By addressing both sides of the caregiving relationship there's an opportunity to affirm shared values and find solutions that can address the needs of all," writes IPS expert Tiffany Williams.

Reporting from the conference (and hosting a panel as well), GRITtv host Laura Flanders noted, "The Campaign, one of the most remarkable coalition efforts yet, has a plan: value caregivers, forge good jobs out of bad, give quality home health care to those who need it — and create two million jobs while you're at it!"

From Main Street to Wall Street, IPS is proposing new ideas and concrete solutions to the crisis. Keep an eye out next Tuesday for a new report from the New Economy Working Group, "How to Liberate America from Wall Street Rule."

No matter what agreement is reached in Washington in the coming weeks, our economy won't improve without all of us working together. The Institute's campaigns, by putting people at the center, fight the economic downturn with the strongest weapon available: love.

Unconventional Wisdom is the Institute's bi-weekly newsletter. To subscribe, click here.

Building Resilience: The New Economy in the Shell of the Old

June 13, 2011 ·

This post originally appeared on Shareable.net.

On a Thursday night around 6 p.m., people gathered for the fourth meeting of my Resilience Circle. We were in the social hall of the local Congregational Church, a big churchy room with folding tables and chairs. The meeting started with a potluck. The Clearys arrived with some pickles and olives they’d preserved themselves. In her softly unassuming way, Sarah Cleary began talking about how easy it is to can some of your own food.

Luka, the facilitator, called everyone together and kicked off the session with the exchanging of “Gifts and Needs.” Participants had written their gifts – things they could offer – on one set of note-cards and their needs on another. Luka himself started. “I can give bike tune-ups,” he said, placing a note card into the center of the circle. “And I’d love to learn how to hem my own pants.”

A few moments later, after two others also said that they’d like to learn to sew, Sharon offered to run a sewing class for the group. And moments after that, I was somehow scheduling a time for the pastor of the church to cut my hair, a skill she had learned around the edges of her divine pursuits. A dog-sitting/child-care exchange began to bud. People began brainstorming about how to find and share a 20-foot ladder. Lots of folks offered to help Sarah weed her garden in exchange for veggies. I asked her if she could help us organize a community-wide canning workshop.

Exchanges like this are popping up in Resilience Circles around the country, sometimes known as common security clubs. We like to say we’re slowly “flexing our mutual aid muscles” since they’ve gotten so badly out of shape.

I began working as the Resilience Circle Organizer about six months ago, having just ended a job in a non-profit focused on policy change. At that job, we worked ruthlessly and relentlessly for financial reform and, ultimately, saw the passage of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act. We were in the midst of the perfect opportunity to start creating a new economy through federal policy. Wall Street had just crashed our economy. There was widespread agreement that the banking sector should be reined in. What better moment to end the practices that drove us off the economic cliff?

But as most people know, this didn’t happen. The sad truth is that the new law takes some great steps, but doesn’t get the job done. Even sadder, funding for the agencies which are supposed to police Wall Street is now at risk. This could torpedo the reforms in one of those horrible off-the-radar moves that Washington is so good at. All this to say that attempting to do policy change as an organizer or regular activist is damn hard. It’s draining. How can we keep up our energy when it seems that no matter what we do, the rules always favor the rich and powerful at the expense of the rest of us?

For me, Resilience Circle organizing has been the perfect antidote to this sense of helplessness. With or without Washington on board, I now see that small groups of people can – and are – creating a new, shareable, and sustainable economy from the ground up. And in this time of overwhelming economic uncertainty, people are exploring a new kind of security based on community ties instead of the acquisition of stuff.

In Resilience Circles, we say three things need to happen to make a transition to a new economy: we need a new story about the economy that dismantles the myth of “recovery;” we need stronger communities; and we need new “rules” – i.e. new policies befitting a democracy instead of rule by a corporate elite. To make this happen, Resilience Circles learn together, engage in mutual aid, and take social action. A (free and open source!) curriculum provides a guide for facilitators to lead groups through seven initial sessions. From there, groups pick their own projects and self-facilitate.

I now see clearly that connected communities are essential if we’re to beat the rich and powerful elite who keep the system rigged. No matter how many e-mails we send, isolated individuals calling for change can easily be ignored, whereas networked groups of committed citizens can get things done. And, community keeps us motivated and energized by showing us that we have lots to offer each other. Cheesy as it sounds, it shows us that we have lots to share, from hair cuts to veggies to a 20-foot ladder.

All of this is slowly unfolding in my Resilience Circle, and in the Circles I talk to around the country. It’s transformative, hopeful, and fun.

Get involved – start or join a Resilience Circle in your neighborhood. Visit our website for info.