The person who raised the question prompted this mini-series concluded that social change takes “groups of people organizing together [and] taking visible, observable action in the world to help create change.” In this next post I want to take on the extension of the practices and consciousness of nonviolence to the group and organizational level.
Maximizing Willingness for Efficiency and Sustainability
Two challenges that people face when coming together to organize and work for change are how to function together efficiently in the face of different opinions and wishes, and how to sustain the energy over time. Focusing on willingness as an organizing principle of group functioning addresses both of these challenges.
Willingness is distinguished from preference on the one hand, and from any notion of what should happen on the other hand. Attempting to reach decisions that everyone is happy with is likely to result in more meeting time in groups than most people can tolerate, and is one of the obstacles many people experience to wanting to go to meetings and commit to working with a group. Even with time and heated discussions, often fatigue and resignation result in some decision being arrived at rather than a fully chosen decision that is acceptable to all.
In my experience, to reach collaborative decisions we need only focus on what people can live with willingly and distinguish is from what would be their most desired outcome. With sufficient facilitation skill and attention, many decisions can be arrived at with surprisingly little tension and within a timeframe and level of engagement that are much easier for people to experience. The essential tools are the capacity to identify and create collective ownership of needs, and the skillful application of a search for willingness rather than preference. The underlying principle is the unwavering commitment to having everyone matter, holding everyone’s needs with care. Both the commitment and the skills are necessary to be able to maintain togetherness in the face of differences.
On the other end of the spectrum another common challenge results from doing things because of thinking they should happen rather than because we are truly willing to do them. Taking action based on “should” thinking can often breed resentment or burnout. I am more and more able to accept having things not happen rather than having them done without true willingness, so that whatever does happen can be sustained over time without stress. I think of it as a deep discipline to be willing to let go of whatever has no one willing to do it. I was inspired in that growing commitment by the words of Thomas Merton: “To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence.”
Leadership and Power
One of the challenges I see to people organizing to create change is what I see as an aversion to power and authority. After experiencing the ways that power can be used to create so much harm, many are understandably challenged to see a useful role for the exercise of power, and prefer to create leaderless groups in which everyone participates equally and fully in all decisions. As I already suggested above, in the absence of skillful facilitation such practices often result in conflict, and/or inefficiency, and/or lack of decisive action (often, though not always, as some groups do function for years on the basis of fully participatory consensus).
If we are to succeed in organizing large masses of people to create a world that works for more and more people in more and more ways, we will need to figure out how to offer effective leadership rather than no leadership at all. I envision structures that empower people to take leadership and responsibility and offer support and feedback to those who do. Instead of abdicating power as a way to ensure we don’t recreate structures of domination, I see a possibility of shifting from using power over people to using power with people, in ways that attend to everyone’s needs. The challenges are immense and yet surmountable.
In my next post I plan to attend to two remaining pieces to complete this mini-series: what are the kinds of actions that people might take which would be consistent with a nonviolent approach to social change, and what are the systemic implications of a needs-based approach to social organizing.
After the fact: before the next post I ended up posting 2 parts of a response to this one, to which I am linking here for anyone who wants to read the whole mini-series sequentially.