The Hidden Role of Structure in Progressive Organizing
How six groups have pivoted to deal with changing conditions and challenges. Plus, when will Democrats stop acting like it's business as usual in Congress?
Is your organization a boat, a big tent, a house, a Rubik’s cube, a stool, or a fractal? Those are the shapes researcher Melanie Brazzell devised to describe the structure of six people-powered progressive organizations she studied for Building Structure Shapes, a fascinating new report for the Realizing Democracy project. What makes the report especially interesting is that she focuses on six groups that have pivoted their structures and strategies between 2015 and 2020 in response to new challenges (and a sense that their old approaches were out of date): the Sunrise Movement, Color of Change, United for Respect, ISAIAH, the NY Working Families Party and Florida’s StateWide Alignment Group. Each structure shape helps explain how an organization manages a tension with either membership, staff or its larger ecosystem.
She writes, “In our experience, movement leaders have an abundant vocabulary for talking about their strategies. Yet when it comes to their structures - how they shape their membership, staff, and coalitions - leaders are curiously quiet. If strategy makes up the brain and culture the beating heart of a social movement organization, then structure is the skeleton. Yet it often feels taboo to ask movement leaders to 'show their bones' (or their org charts) to others, despite the urgent need for frank conversation about the structures that best build people power.”
I’d go further and say that structure is where power in an organization is vested or hidden. There’s a reason every activist eventually bumps into Jo Freeman’s 1970 essay “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” Even if a group claimed to have no formal structure, like a consciousness raising rap group (sorry, we’re talking about a circle, usually women, who would get together to discuss women’s liberation, not Tupac Shakur or Public Enemy), Freeman’s key insight was that the lack of a visible structure didn’t eliminate power relations, it just masked them, often to the benefit of a small elite group. So when Brazzell points out that structure is rarely discussed openly by movement leaders, she’s gently pressing on a very important issue.
But power isn’t Brazzell’s main focus, utility is. That is to say, she’s interested in exploring how well an organization’s structure meets its needs as defined by its leadership. So, for Sunrise and Color of Change, their structures allow them to blend scale along with depth; both organizations have decentralized memberships, but Sunrise was designed from the start to be more in service to local self-starting chapters (hence the structure of a boat with a small staff and large sails to catch the whirlwind moments) while Color of Change started as an online petitioning group that is now putting down stakes in a variety of on-the-ground activities (hence the structure of a big tent reaching from the top towards the ground).
In the case of NY’s Working Families Party, the structure shape that best describes its organization is a stool, where various affiliated organizations (the legs being labor unions, community organizations and individual members) together build and hold up a permanent, independent entity (the seat) which in their case is a ballot-qualified third party that endorses candidates and organizes grassroots muscle for them. From my experience watching and occasionally participating in WFP activities, I’d say the stool shape is helpful but only if you imagine one that has legs of varying length and width which sometimes hit each other.
Brazzell had access to internal documents like org charts, funder reports, internal memos, and external media as well as quantitative data about membership and funding. So another wonderful thing about her report is its transparency. From it, you can learn that:
-Sunrise currently consists of 336 autonomous local hubs, nearly 7,000 members who have participated in recent high-bar actions, and 233,000 email subscribers. (Can I give Brazzell an “amen” for not referring to these latter people as “members”?) A distributed volunteer team built by Sunrise among its volunteers made 6.2 million calls in the 2020 elections. Its rapid growth has created real challenges around decision-making between staff and local hubs, however, and it is in the midst of a leadership transition and an effort to “re-frontload” its organizational DNA for the Biden era.
-Color of Change gained 5.8 million email subscribers in the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, on top of a six-fold increase in staff from 2015 that has been focused on doing more in-person work focused on electing progressive DAs, judges and prosecutors. It offers many on-ramps to participation, from tech accountability to Black representation in Hollywood to fighting evictions. Without giving up any of that wide array of options (big tent again), it is now talking more about giving its members permanent political homes that balance their own local projects with staff-led programs.
-United for Respect is, can I say charitably, all over the place. Born out of the OUR Walmart alt-labor organizing project funded by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, it is focused on organizing retail workers across the corporate sector. But it was stretched too thin to tackle the power-building opportunity presented by the COVID crisis and the pressures put on so-called “essential workers.” A success organizing laid-off Toys R Us workers, winning them $22 million in extra severance pay, vaulted UFR upward but the many campaigns it then tried to take on created stress between campaign staff and members. Leadership tried reshuffling teams by role rather than campaign (hence the Rubik’s Cube metaphor) but it appears that just stretched staff further. (The online organizer who single-handedly won the Toys R Us campaign is a friend of mine; the fact that they left UFR afterwards to work for a consulting shop is telling to me.) Another organization that has tried the Rubik’s Cube model is the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, where staff teams with various specialties work horizontally with different issue verticals and god knows how much money is spent on god knows what.
-ISAIAH, a decade-old faith-based community organization in Minnesota, is perhaps the most intriguing case study in the report because of how Brazzell unpacks the decision of its current executive director, Doran Schrantz, to radically restructure its staff after discovering that a top-down hierarchy had congealed, leaving member leaders and younger staff alienated. The group had become a traditional nonprofit with veteran staff competing to rise up the power ladder and avoiding the kinds of risks that could hurt their careers. Her solution was a new organizational structure that is a set of concentric circles, not a ladder, with its organizers at the center (each organizer being responsible for a room in the larger house). This central organizing table sets priorities and other staff roles act in service to that.
-Florida’s SWAG (StateWide Alignment Group) is fascinating because it is a collective infrastructure for communications, leadership development, field, electoral and policy work that unites six groups that first started talking about how to stop competing for funding back in 2014. It’s not a broad coalition; it’s a tighter “alignment” that enables those six groups to come together strategically across many ongoing battles. Brazzell writes, “They started with relationship building rather than institution building. They were inspired by Patrick Lencioni’s work on the culture needed to fix team dysfunction: trust through vulnerability, addressing conflict, collective commitment, holding one another accountable, and attention to results. Rather than pitching a big tent to maximize the number of groups in collaboration, SWAG went a mile deep rather than a mile wide.” In 2020, SWAG decided that staying low-key wasn’t helping and built a unified c4 formation called Florida For All, which continues to this day alongside each SWAG group.
Near the tail end of her report, Brazzell explores how members in each of these groups get to participate and hold their leaders accountable. I suspect it may be the first time a member of the NY Working Families Party has seen a chart summarizing how decision-making works there (see below). This section is pregnant with unfinished plans and possibilities. Color of Change, she reports, is investing more in supporting local member-run squads, “considering new structures that can expand squad self-sufficiency, perhaps through a dues-paying membership structure to resource squad projects, a national convention (a vision postponed by the pandemic), or a national member-led governance structure to set squad priorities.” The NY WFP is exploring ways of adding a fourth leg to its stool for movement groups that aren’t as well resourced as traditional 501c4s. It will be interesting to see how these experiments play out.
P.S.: The Forge is running a series of pieces/convenings around different parts of this report. Here’s the first one on the WFP. A second one on Color of Change should be out soon.
The January 6th Select Committee keeps producing revelations, but Congressional Democrats seem congenitally unable to convert them into political gains. That’s my quick take on the news that Federal district court judge David Carter says that “it is more likely than not that President Trump and [John] Eastman [one of Trump’s lawyers] dishonestly conspired to obstruct the Joint Session of Congress on January 6, 2021” and the news that Ginni Thomas, the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, was involved in the conspiracy. Democratic leaders seem to be taking this news the way they do everything else: as business as usual. Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said, “It’s much too early to talk about either [censure or impeachment]. I think we have to wait and see what the Jan. 6 committee finds.” Only one House Democrat, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN), has called for Thomas’ impeachment. Instead, a group led Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) have written the Justice asking that he recuse himself from any future cases relating to the insurrection. That’ll stop him! The internalized passivity of Democratic leaders does not bode well for the confrontation ahead, when the January 6th committee lays out its findings in full detail.
But unfortunately, for many in the Democratic leadership, Congress is mainly about business, not democracy. Business as usual means, as I noted two weeks ago, that prominent Republican House members who uphold Trump’s Big Lie and refuse to tell their own constituents that the election wasn’t stolen, like Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), who was elevated into the Republican leadership to replace truthteller Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY), have faced no consequences--even when Democrats hold the upper hand managing the minutiae of the appropriations process that resulted in this month’s massive $1.5 trillion omnibus spending bills. Like many other House members, Stefanik requested tens of millions of dollars in earmarks for her upstate New York district. Here she is bragging about the nearly $100 million in bacon she brought home. I dug a bit more and it turns out lots of members of the sedition caucus have been punished by House appropriators with large earmarks for their districts. Here's Rep. Chuck Fleischmann (R-TN), another House Republican who voted against certifying the results, speaking on the House floor earlier this month applauding all the “key wins” Republican appropriators like him got in the omnibus bill, like $1.9 billion to “build the wall” and $600 million for a nuclear weapons processing facility in his district. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA), who signed onto the state of Texas’ ridiculous lawsuit to prevent states like Pennsylvania from certifying their electoral votes for Biden, secured $22.8 million for her district and then had the temerity to vote against the very bill containing those earmarks. Rep. Beth Van Duyne (R-TX), another member of the sedition caucus, was rewarded with $55 million for her district. Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), another Big Lie backer, got more than $26 million. Rep. Tom Emmer (R-MN), another signer to the Texas suit, took home at least $10 million. And these are just examples from members of the sedition caucus who were the biggest requesters of earmarks. Can you imagine if next year the tables are turned, Republican appropriators will let outspoken Democratic critics of their party’s embrace of authoritarianism get millions in earmarks? I can’t.
It’s actually funny to read about people worrying that the return of earmarks, now called “community project funding” or “member-directed funding,” will increase the risk of corruption in Congress, when the rot that allows so many Members to deny the results of the election goes unaddressed. As best as I can tell, there’s only one organization currently pushing for the impeachment of Justice Thomas: TakeItBack.org, which was started by Rick Wieland, after his failed run for the US Senate from South Dakota in 2014, and which sits outside of the veal pen managed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Former Obama communications director Dan Pfeiffer says the only people who can ultimately hold people like Thomas and Trump accountable are us, by showing up for the mid-terms. He’s not wrong, but if Democrats keep failing to at least make an effort to show that they are serious about changing business as usual, their voters won’t bother.
—Related: Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick asks why Senate Democrats, other than Cory Booker of New Jersey, left Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson high and dry during her confirmation hearings last week.
Odds and Ends
—The most downloaded app in all of Ukraine right now is Air Alert, built by local developers to enable anyone with a smartphone to hear when air raid sirens are trying to warn them to take cover, reports Drew Harwell for the Washington Post. A general purpose civic app launched two years ago by the country’s Ministry of Digital Transformation now includes a feature that people are using to send location-tagged videos reporting the movement of Russian troops to Ukrainian intelligence.
—Related: Here’s a super site built by volunteers offering a number of real ways to help Ukraine as a foreigner.
—In other civic tech news, Dane Gambrell of GovLab has a bunch of great recommendations for the city of Madrid for how it can improve its public participation platform Decide Madrid. He notes, “While the DM platform originally attracted a great deal of attention, with nearly 400,000 registered users in the first three years, only one of the 28,000 proposals submitted by residents through the legislative proposals feature has been implemented by the city since the platform’s launch in 2015. Critically, the lack of outcomes from residents’ proposals may discourage individuals from engaging with the platform.” (It also seems a lot of them are upset about dog shit on the streets!)
—In case you missed it, the companies formerly known as EveryAction, Network for Good, Cybergrants, and Social Solutions have all been brought together under a new umbrella brand: Bonterra. NGP VAN, the political fundraising, organizing, advocacy, and email solution, will continue to operate as NGP VAN. ActionKit and Mobilize will be subsumed into NGP VAN.
—Speaking of NGPVAN, Minivan, the workhorse of canvassers across the Democratic ecosystem, has been updated. Responding to complaints about its user experience, the app now has a combined household and map view, hopefully allowing door-knockers to waste less time (and battery life) on switching back and forth. It also now makes it easier to filter addresses by odd or even and to optimize a route, though it remains to be seen if users will find these features intuitively easy to navigate. Not included in the update: any way for volunteers to report bad info in the voter file or to add info about new voters. Nor does Minivan do anything to make canvassing into more of a social bonding experience. So I’m going to keep my eye on Unified, which is still in development but stands to fill several gaps NGPVAN hasn’t bothered to address.
—It sure looks like Lobby3, a new effort (ahem, Distributed Autonomous Organization) to fund effective policy advocacy around the potential of the decentralized web launched by Andrew Yang’s Humanity Forward Productions, is a bit of a grift. At least that’s what I gleaned from this Twitter thread from Phillip Lietz, who accuses Lobby3 of ripping him off. They commissioned him to make art for an NFT that made $800,000; he got paid $500.
—Yotam Marom’s personal essay, What to Do When the World is Ending, is as inspiring now as when it was first posted at the beginning of March.
—Are we sleepwalking through war-time? Or worse, letting President Biden be pushed into dangerously escalating in Ukraine? In my latest Medium post, I ask why progressives aren’t doing more to push back against calls for a no-fly zone.