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Structuring our Beloved Communities?

I wrote this piece for Contributoria, as my longest exploration of how we organise for social and environmental justice, since the publication of Anarchists in the Boardroom. It looks at the messy relationship between the kinds of organising structures we use, and the kinds of relationships we create. And I got to speak to some truly inspiring people in the process! Enjoy!

'I LOVE HUMANITY! LET'S FIGURE THIS SHIT OUT TOGETHER!'

Photo credit: shankbone on Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/shankbone/6193404069/sizes/l

In the early days of the US civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. used the phrase ‘Beloved Community’ to describe the kind of change he was working towards. The Beloved Community expressed a way of organising that made non-violence and compassion both its means and its ends, and placed strong relationships at the core of wider social transformation. The phrase, initially coined by philosopher-theologian Josiah Royce, articulated the idea that organising based on Love will create a culture of Love in its wake. King said:

“Love is creative and redemptive. Love builds up and unites; hate tears down and destroys. The aftermath of the ‘fight with fire’ method… is bitterness and chaos, the aftermath of the love method is reconciliation and creation of the beloved community. Physical force can repress, restrain, coerce, destroy, but it cannot create and organize anything permanent; only love can do that.”

The King Centre describes the Beloved Community as “an overall effort to achieve a reconciled world by raising the level of relationships among people to a height where justice prevails and persons attain their full human potential.” But what does the Beloved Community look like when we get past its romantic broad-brush prose? And how can we organise ourselves in ways that align our methods with the visions our social change organisations and movements are trying to create?

The chicken-and-egg of structures and relationships

“I often say to people,” Margaret Wheatley tells me over Skype from her Utah home, “if you get the room set-up right, you’re at least 60 per cent of the way towards creating what you want.”

While seemingly a far cry from the ideals of Beloved Community, Wheatley has spent decades exploring what helps people to work meaningfully together, primarily in organisational settings, and places great importance on structuring the kinds of spaces we gather in. Her first book, Leadership and the New Science, became a best-seller in 1992 and offered a glimpse of what human leadership might look like if it followed the organising patterns found elsewhere in nature. She is deeply critical of hierarchy and over-specialization and an advocate of self-organising and individual autonomy.

“If we’re creating a good process – people are highly engaged, self-motivated, thinking again, feeling creative,” she tells me, “what we’re really doing is reintroducing people to what it feels like to work well together.”

But to what extent is ‘working well together’ something that is created – by place or process – and to what extent does it emerge through the individual relationships involved? Or is this simply a chicken-and-egg conundrum that leads in an unending circle? Even if the ‘relationship/structure’ question is ultimately rhetorical, the exploration remains a critical one if we are going to find better ways of organising our communities, organisations and social movements towards something resembling a Beloved Community.

The political is personal

Following King’s articulation of Beloved Community, the feminist movement in the 1960s made a quantum leap in Northern/Western understandings of social change with the articulation that ‘the personal is political,’ grounding each of our lives in the wider social dynamics they are a part of. More recently, new social movements have traced this relationship back again, looking at how widespread system change is dependent on deep reflection about the kinds of individual relationships we choose to form together. In other words, the political is also personal.

Marina Sitrin lived in Argentina for several years in the early 2000s. An American activist and writer, she documented and took part in an emergent form of organising – Horizontalidad (or horizontalism) – that offered an alternative to the top-down structures of most political parties, unions and NGOs.

While many of our current organising structures were initially used to bolster the iron-fist management practices of the industrial era, horizontalism emerged in worker-occupied factories, neighbourhood assemblies and direct actions undertaken by unemployed workers after Argentina’s economic collapse in late 2000. Hierarchies were flattened, management teams disappeared, decisions were made via consensus and actions were taken collectively. Sitrin has written two books about her experiences there, offering eloquent articulations of horizontal organisational forms that have influenced countless social movements around the globe in the past decade.

“In Argentina,” Sitrin explains to me from Berlin, “the focus was on creating a new relationship where people could be heard, and finding that in that process it was developing… new ways of thinking about oneself, a new dignity.”

It is around this ‘new relationship’ that Sitrin’s work meets with Wheatley and others at the more progressive end of the organisational spectrum, grounding organising in the transformation of the relationships between those involved. “We are all bundles of potential,” Wheatley opines, “that manifest only in relationship,” highlighting that if we are to realise our individual or collective potential, it will be based on the quality of connections we are able to form with one another.

Liberation via Structure

Kiran Nihalani is a founding member of The Skills Network, a women’s collective based in Brixton, South London that organises cooperatively around directly-democratic principles. She finds it hard to distinguish between the means and the ends of organising, as have so many others – from traditional charities to revolutionary armies. “It is difficult to separate structures and relationships,” she tells me via email. “They feed off each other… [the structures] help people think about their relationships with others in the group (and people outside it) in a different way.”

In societies built on deeply unequal power dynamics, we often need to be reminded of equality, wherever we are used to finding ourselves in the social pyramid. “I would be a proponent of a little more structure,” Marina Sitrin cautiously encourages, based on the relatively loose methods used by most of the non-hierarchical groups she worked with in Argentina. “Structure helps facilitate more horizontal relationships.” Making explicit reference to King’s idea of Beloved Community, Sitrin continues:

“Beloved Community …doesn’t just happen magically; we’re coming with so much baggage… people are coming from the system where [they] are so divided from each other and so alienated from each other, and alienated from themselves, that we need help in relating to each other in an equal way… We need help with structure to not permit certain behaviours. And if we agree to those structures ahead of time, collectively, there’s nothing hierarchical about that.”

Similarly, Peroline Ainsworth, another founding member of the Skills Network adds:

“…in our context, where people are so used to feeling ‘less than’, realising that everyone gets paid the same rate, deciding on paid to unpaid ratios together and seeing that you can participate in making formal decisions is crucial.

…the nuances of interpersonal relationships, although they are important, need to be combined with the really objective structural stuff to make it real for people. …This is an essential starting point in situations where a lot of people are so used to being made to feel unequal, even though they are told that they are equal.”

Another core member of the Skills Network, Hannah Emmons, described the liberating nature of their organising structures as follows:

“I think if those [non-hierarchical] structures and processes didn’t exist… [members] would be exactly where they felt they belonged – at the bottom … that they didn’t matter. So the structures we put in ensure people know that they do matter, and they are relevant, and what they have to say is worth hearing …[In] the hierarchical state, there’s always someone at the bottom, and unfortunately the majority of the people coming through our doors, they believed they were at the bottom of that hierarchy. So …when we’ve kicked off the hierarchical structure, for the first time in ages for some of them in a public space, they are equally important as everyone else in the room.”

But are alternative structures enough to undo all the ways we inevitably adopt bits of the structural inequalities that surround us, when we have been raised in deeply unequal societies? Tana Paddock, co-founder of the South Africa-based Organization Unbound project, says this:

“Those experiences live on inside of us and we’re going to replicate them… So what do we do when these patterns come up? …No structure can keep them down. No structure can rid our inner selves from those patterns.”

The question then becomes: are non-hierarchical structures and processes enough? Or do we need to think beyond these nuts and bolts if we want to foster our own Beloved Communities?

The shortcomings of non-hierarchical organisation

According to Paddock, “the form should always grow out of the experience. All the time, no matter how beautiful that form looks from the outside, it can eat us.” While no advocate of hierarchy, Paddock is also dubious of the focus many social movements since the 1960s and 1970s have placed on non-hierarchical structures: “The feminist movement was hugely successful in experimenting with ways of flattening hierarchies,” she argues, “but in doing so they became quite ideological. And thus the ideology started to overrun everything else.”

Paddock stresses the need to stay open to a range of forms, and that those forms must remain responsive to the people in the group, and the contexts they live and work in. “Structures are certainly helpful,” she says, “but they are only helpful if they grow out of relationships,” pointing to various experiences where “pushing the structure on the people just because of a philosophy of participation can end up having the opposite result in practice and in experience.”

Similarly, in North America and Europe, the concept of horizontalism has become rigidly associated with the particular form of consensus decision making used by Occupy and the 15-M movement in Spain since 2011. The experiences of some participants in both movements reinforced the thesis of Jo Freeman’s 1970 essay , ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’ in which she argued that soft hierarchies simply replace formalised power when formal hierarchy is removed. In some of these protest camps, the rigid adoption of a particular form of decision making ended up placing power in the hands of those most versed in that process, often silencing those less familiar with the intricacies of ‘jazz hands,’ ‘blocks’ and ‘speaker stacks.’

Sitrin echoes Paddock’s sentiment about ensuring structures grow from the place they are being used, describing a far less dogmatic understanding of consensus in Argentina: “Horizontalism doesn’t necessarily mean any form of consensus… it’s that the group together decides what makes most sense for that group without anyone having power over other people.”

She continues by highlighting that in many of the neighbourhood assemblies, “there was no formal consensus process at all… People referred to consensus, but what they meant was finding agreement with each other by seeking a compromise in a conversation.”

Wheatley, too, warns against the wholesale adoption of any particular structure or process:

“The issue for me is getting hooked on one, and only one [process]… so it’s all that you know how to do. It’s just like people assumed I always want to sit in a circle [when facilitating a session]… I would urge people to stay with their game here and not get hooked on one particular practice.”

When relationships transcend structures

While in theory non-hierarchical structures are more egalitarian, this is not universally the case in practice. In fact, does an on-paper hierarchy necessarily create inequality, any more than a flat organisation automatically creates egalitarian relationships? Tana Paddock began to wonder about this question when working with a community organisation that had adopted a very traditional management structure:

“This place seemed to develop this really embedded culture of strong relationships and trusting relationships, so much so that no matter who came in, in those positions, they were forced to work in that way because it was so embedded in their being as an organisation, as a collective. …I’m in this place that looks on paper to be very structurally hierarchical, and it’s the healthiest place I’ve ever been, and it had consistently been like that for years and years. So it’s not just reliant on a charismatic leader or someone who’s really good at relationships, it seemed to really develop this really deep way of working, despite the structure… Who am I to say, ‘No! You should be a flat structure!’?”

Many of us have experienced moments where particular organising relationships become so much more than how they are described on paper. Peroline Ainsworth of the Skills Network describes some of the relationships she has there as feeling more “like equals than most relationships I’ve had in my life.” While they have initially been shaped by formal process, they have become “something that is more than and exists beyond and between the formal structures.”

This is further reflected in Hannah Emmon’s description of the day-to-day application of the Network’s decision making process, where a culture of ongoing dialogue has often come to supersede the formalities of consensus:

“The more important decisions which really need everyone, we do ensure there is everyone… However on smaller ones, I think we’ve got mini-versions of consensus, where… you turn to the next person [and ask their perspective]. Nothing in Skills happens completely individually… before anything is finalised it always comes back to the group before the next step happens. …We are always… conferring with each other.”

Amongst Argentina’s primarily Indigenous-led defence of the land movements, formal rules were often eschewed in exchange for a culture of direct discussion, and when needed, confrontation. According to Marina Sitrin:

“When faced with the challenge of different kinds of political parties… trying to infiltrate [assemblies], they tend to not have rules that [those parties are] not allowed to participate, but… a culture of calling them out. Which is a step forward.”

While this hasn’t always been the case within these movements, Sitrin sees this type of constructive confrontation as an improvement on the culture of passivity that pre-dated it. Rules become less necessary if you have a culture that offers collective accountability. “Once you have good trusting relationships,” Margaret Wheatley adds, “you can sit on the ground or meet on a bus and it all works … over time [structure] becomes less important.”

What does it all mean?

So let’s recap:

• Non-hierarchical structures can help us challenge the parts of ourselves and others which have been negatively shaped by wider social inequality and injustice.

• But those structures, just like their hierarchical counterparts, can become oppressive when used too rigidly, playing into wider social privilege and bestowing undue influence on those who know the systems best.

• Relationships may transcend the structures we create, though if we want them to do so in a positive way we still need to be very conscious of how we relate to one another.

Rather than juxtaposing structures and relationships, perhaps a Beloved Community is more about the intent behind them? “When you’re creating structure, where is it coming from?” Tana Paddock asks me pointedly. “Is it coming from a place of fear, of what could happen if you didn’t have that structure, or is it coming from a place of wanting to generate something positive?”

“Most institutions,” she asserts, “are created out of fear. Rules and structures are created [because]… something bad happened and you don’t want it to happen again, so you create a structure or a process or a regulation to keep it from happening again.”

If we start from a place of fear – expecting the worst and focusing on avoiding it – how much more likely might we be to create the very patterns we are afraid of? Many traditional organisational policies start by telling people what they can’t do, and end up spawning the kinds of dishonesty and carelessness they aimed to avoid. Might some of our most-seemingly democratic and participatory organising structures have the same effect?

Imagine if we organised primarily with the intention of liberating human potential? While the prevalent use of horizontalidad amongst Argentine social movements reflected widespread intent to create equal relationships, the specifics that emerged in groups varied vastly. And while the Skills Network remain strong advocates of consensus because they want to correct the powerlessness that so many of their members feel in wider society, it hasn’t stopped them from adapting their understanding of consensus to fit the needs and aspirations of those members.

In other words, there is no silver bullet that will address the rich complexity of human dynamics, but if we think more about the intent behind each structure, each process, and each relationship we form on the path to creating a Beloved Community, we may just find we get there along the way.

Thank you to Contributoria for commissioning this piece and making it available Creative Commons!

Photo credit: shankbone on Flickr







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Posted in campaigning and equality and flexibility and hierarchy and power and social change and trust.

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More Like People is an association of freelance consultants, facilitators and trainers, working primarily in the voluntary, community and campaigning sectors in the the UK and elsewhere.