It takes people to make change. A lot of people. People who are willing to speak truth to power, to call their representatives, to write letters to the Editor, to take to the streets, to sit-in and die-in, to risk arrest, to share their stories.
Movements for change also needs leader-organizers. People who are willing to do the long, steady, sometimes slow work of reaching out to neighbors, friends, colleagues, acquaintances and getting them plugged-in. And then to do the nitty-gritty, follow-up work that it takes to keep those folks engaged beyond a single action or moment.
ROP recognizes that in every rural and small town there are capable and committed individuals with strong progressive values who want to make a difference in their communities. At the heart of ROP’s work are its efforts to find, support, mentor, train and nurture these individuals as they become the leaders and organizers of their own, locally-led, autonomous human dignity groups.
Questions for reflection
The Developing Leader-Organizers Collection (related interview excerpts, documents, tools and essays)
Movements and the groups that make them up need all kinds of people: charismatic personalities to inspire, strategic thinkers to plan campaigns, computer whizzes to run websites, etc.
So what is ROP “developing” leaders to do or to “lead”?
As a statewide organization, with just a handful of paid staff, and the ambitious goal of maintaining strong, human dignity groups in all of Oregon’s 36 counties, ROP’s primary focus when it comes to leadership development has been to identify and work closely with a small number of individuals in communities across the state who can do the day-to-day work necessary to keep their own local groups active and growing. In other words, ROP has prioritized the identification and development of volunteer organizers.
To ROP, a good leader = a good community organizer. ROP staff coach new and emerging leaders in the critical work of identifying, communicating with, and engaging potential supporters – fostering organizing skills such as: facilitating group meetings, developing and managing a list of supporters, building relationships with and coordinating volunteers, planning events and campaigns, media work and diligent follow-up (and follow-through!).
Equally important, ROP staff invest time and energy in deepening local leaders’ political analysis. For ROP, an effective leader is one with strong critical thinking skills, who can analyze a broad array of issues within a values-based framework, understand the intersectional nature of oppression, identify points of intersection between seemingly disconnected problems or issues, and encourage their peers to do the same.
- Watching for “bright lights” at community events or meetings. Every time ROP organizes or attends an event, staff take note of the participants. Who in the crowd is asking thoughtful questions? Who is eager to talk about next steps and future plans? Who volunteers to take on follow-up tasks? These are the folks that get a “star” next to their name on the sign-in sheet, the people that ROP staff will make sure to call in a few days, and invite to coffee the next time they are in town.
- Using petitions and surveys. A petition or survey can not only build and show public support for a cause, it is also a low-pressure and (generally) socially acceptable way to approach neighbors and strangers, start a conversation about politics and controversial topics, explore their interest and proclivities, and ask for contact information to follow up.
- Partner with pre-existing networks to identify people who share a common set of values and concerns. In ROP’s founding years, the Oregon Coalition for Sexual and Domestic Violence was that network. It had a dependable presence in every county, and all staff and volunteers attended anti-oppression training by state mandate. Even if local OCADSV staff didn’t have the energy or time themselves to help start or lead a new group, they usually knew people who did. Often there is no such pre-existing network or partner to be found. Then ROP staff (with the support of a local contact) will identify or “map” who in a community is in leadership and might be supportive of human dignity organizing. This has included local campaign leaders, county elected officials, program leads or directors of social service agencies, liberal leaning ministers or faith leaders, chairs of local chapters of environmental or civic groups, and union leaders.
Relationships as Primary
Leadership development is a fundamental part of what ROP does. Indeed, ROP’s mission is “to strengthen the skills, resources, and vision of primary leadership in local autonomous human dignity groups with a goal of keeping such groups a vibrant source for a just democracy.” Yet, as former ROP Co-Director Kelley Weigel has pointed out, “we did not have a formalized [leadership development] program. Nor do I think that’s what was needed.”
ROP’s work of leadership development is best characterized as informal, context-specific, and—most importantly—highly relational. Through one-on-one phone calls, regular correspondence, and coffee dates, ROP staff help local leaders think through their organizing challenges. They listen. They provide leaders with emotional support, affirmation and motivation. They offer concrete ideas and suggestions for moving forward. They offer to put leaders in touch with peers in other communities who face similar issues. Sometimes, the most important thing an ROP staff organizer can do is to hold a mirror up and help someone recognize themselves as a leader.
Such an approach requires – and results in – real relationships. ROP staff seek to develop authentic relationships with local leaders, relationships marked and sustained by a high degree of trust, candor and intimacy. These relationships are built over time, during late-night discussions over cups of tea long after the meeting has already ended, and long car rides on the way to retreats on the other side of the state. They don’t end with the close of an election cycle, or when a local leader needs to step back for a while to focus on a family crisis. Ideally, they can weather disagreement and allow for real accountability. Such genuine and long-lasting relationships lend our movements depth and endurance.
Questions for Reflection
- What does it mean to be a “leader” versus an “organizer”? What does our movement, your group, your community, need?
- Where would you begin identifying local leaders in your county or city? What roles will they play, what tasks will they do and what kind of skills, support and training will they need?
- What strengths, skills or knowledge would be most helpful for organizing staff to bring to local organizer-leaders in your community?
- How can a highly personalized, relational approach to leadership development happen on a large scale, with many individuals?