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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.



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Entries since May 2012

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U.S. Professors to Clinton: Respond to Boko Haram with Diplomacy, Development, and Demilitarization

May 22, 2012 ·

Reposted from Dr. Carl Levan's homepage.

Nigeria's National Security Advisor is visiting Washington, D.C. this week, and Secretary Clinton has been under pressure from Republicans in the House of Representatives to formally designate Boko Haram a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO).

The US-based academics, however, argue that formally labeling Boko Haram an FTO would "limit American policy options to those least likely to work." In particular, it would:

  1. Internationalize Boko Haram’s standing and enhance its status among radical organizations elsewhere.
  2. Give disproportionate attention to counter-terrorism in bilateral relations at a time when economic ties are expanding and a robust multi-faceted relationship has emerged.
  3. Undermine Nigeria’s progress on the rule of law in two ways: First, by effectively legitimizing abuses by security services that Human Rights Watch and other organizations have drawn attention to as urgent, ongoing problems. Second, President Goodluck Jonathan is pushing the National Assembly for Martial Law. Historically, such measures have been followed by broader political instability.
  4. Impede humanitarian assistance and possibly independent academic research.

I was one of the letter’s initiators, along with Peter Lewis from SAIS and Jean Herskovits from SUNY – Purchase.  I will be giving a brief talk on Boko Haram at a conference sponsored by the Jamestown Foundation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace on Tuesday, June 19, in Washington, DC. 

To see a full version of the letter, with details on each point we made to the Secretary of State, click here (pdf).

The Lineup: Week of May 21-27, 2012

May 21, 2012 ·

In this week's OtherWords editorial package, Margot McMillen explains why the opposition to a new kind of genetically engineered corn is growing as fast as the hardy superweeds it's supposed to destroy. Get all this and more in your inbox by subscribing to our weekly newsletter. If you haven't signed up yet, please do.

  1. Crushing College Dreams / Marc Morial
    On the very day that student loan debt reached the $1-trillion mark, Senate Republicans blocked a vote to extend the 3.4-percent interest rate on student loans for another year.
  2. We Can't Afford Energy Subsidies and Tax Breaks / Ryan Alexander
    Energy subsidies are obsolete, ineffective, and a huge waste of valuable public resources at a time when we are rummaging through the couch cushions to find loose change to pay for our ballooning deficits and debt.
  3. Let's Resist Herbicide-Resistant Crops / Margot McMillen
    For farmers, fishermen, and consumers working to rebuild the fragile local food economy, a new kind of corn engineered to withstand toxic weedkillers is a disaster.
  4. The Truth's Liberal Tilt / Jason Salzman
    There's no media bias in citing facts about Obama's record.
  5. Remembering Charles Colson / Donald Kaul
    Tricky Dick's master of dirty tricks became a Christian prison reformer but was no saintly do-gooder.
  6. Feeding Obesity / Jim Hightower
    The "Heart Attack Grill" takes pride in food that's deep-fried.
  7. The State of the Military-Industrial Complex Is Strong / William A. Collins
    If weapons orders get diverted, so do campaign contributions.
  8. Passing the Top Hat / Khalil Bendib

Passing the Top Hat, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

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

The District Has a Youth Unemployment Crisis

May 16, 2012 ·

DC youth between the ages of 16 to 19 are in crisis. They are experiencing unemployment levels 2.3 times the national average, reports the Justice Policy Institute in their latest research brief Working for a Better Future.

The brief takes a look at the collateral effects on youth who do not have access to jobs, such as higher rates of juvenile justice involvement, negative self-image and disconnection from their community. It also provides compelling evidence for the District to invest substantially more into dynamic long-term job training and placement assistance programs that incorporate job skills development, mentoring, job placement, and innovative program completion incentives like a GED and adjudication expungement. There is a generation of young people who are growing up without the skills and experiences to prepare them to contribute in meaningful ways to their lives, families and communities once they reach adulthood.

Often, I find myself in conversations with people about local DC youth and the popular perception is that these kids don't want to try and take advantage of what's here.  It's true that, on the surface, the District has a wealth of programs set up to "engage, train, and employ young people. Too often, however, this work is fragmented, uncoordinated, and focuses on the quantity of youth served over the quality of intervention." And once through these programs, young people have little to show for it and run the risk of having more encounters with the justice system, becoming a victim of crime, and limited and low-paid work opportunities. The District has a responsibility to make sure its youth in the juvenile are equipped to succeed by offering quality programming that promotes public safety and opportunities for self-development.  

The following are examples of successful programs operating in DC offering comprehensive programming that results in positive changes in the lives of DC youth:

  • Youth Build U.S.A - serves low-income young people ages 16-24.
  • YearUp - focuses on IT skills training and has a mission focused on helping young people overcome barriers to success due to criminal convictions.
  • STRIVE - seeks to "transform the lives of at-risk populations by providing support and training that lead to livable wage employment and societal reintegration."
  • JobCorps - a residential education and training program for youth ages 16-24

The report offers the following policy recommendations:

  1. Invest more in quality employment programs for youth that includes efforts to link youth with work that interests them, has potential for advancement and development, and connects them to their community.
  2. Dedicate more resources in the wards with the most need to access the job market.
  3. Use evidence-based models that have been shown to positively impact youth.
  4. Ensure that employer partners accept youth who have successfully completed job preparedness programs regardless of justice system contact.
  5. Consider innovative incentives for increasing youth participation in programs.


The Lineup: Week of May 14-20, 2012

May 14, 2012 ·

In this week's OtherWords editorial package, Sam Pizzigati puts Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin's discarded U.S. citizenship into context and Booth Gunter discusses the grim conditions young inmates endured at a for-profit prison in Mississippi. Get all this and more in your inbox by subscribing to our weekly newsletter. If you haven't signed up yet, please do.

  1. No Country for Rich Men / Sam Pizzigati
    From Manhattan to Monaco, the world's wealthiest people are disconnecting into a class of stateless transients.
  2. Operation Lip Service / Chris Toensing
    A year after President Obama promised that Washington would stop buttressing autocratic regimes, Bahrain's popular revolt is still being crushed.
  3. Bank of America's Healthier Roots / Scott Klinger and Chuck Collins
    Founder Amadeo P. Giannini built a booming business while helping others improve their lot and their communities.
  4. Meting out Injustice in Mississippi / Booth Gunter
    Prisoners, some as young as 13, are being brutalized in facilities owned by private companies that exist solely to turn a profit.
  5. Our Ruinous Game / Donald Kaul
    Football fans have a high tolerance for pain -- in others -- and show little sympathy for the plight of the players who now are seeking redress for their injuries.
  6. Coddling the 10 Percent / Jim Hightower
    To reel in these mid-level richies, bankers are offering to pamper them lavishly.
  7. Abortion Politics / William A. Collins
    Although its opposition to abortion and family planning probably won't foment a landslide away from the Catholic Church, the steady erosion of membership is increasing.
  8. USS Excess / Khalil Bendib

USS Excess, an OtherWords op-ed by Khalil Bendib.

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