Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Our Deepest Fear: Part I - The Organizing & Collaboration Gap

Our Deepest Fear

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There is nothing enlightened about shrinking
so that other people won't feel insecure around you.
We are all meant to shine, as children do.
We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us.
It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

- by Marianne Williamson from "A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles"

Most of you are probably familiar with this poem from the movie "Akeela and the Bee", recited so very powerfully by Laurence Fishbourne. In the movie, the context of its recital was really a call to excellence and an exhortation to conquer our fear not of failure, but of success. In the days when I come away from meetings with neighborhood leaders and community groups shaking my head in frustration, this poem often comes to mind when I am struggling to understand why we can't seem to get out of our own way

It is the the crisis of black leadership. There is a critical shortage of effective black leadership in America. Simply put, we have too little of it, particularly in our organizations. Across the board, black led organizations seem almost incapable of exercising principled, effective, strategic leadership. This phenomenon holds true across the spectrum of black organizations, from churches, to national service organizations to community development corporations. Whether you're talking about homeowners associations, civic organizations, block clubs, local chapters of national organizations, black greeks, or political organizations, effective, accountable, strategic leadership is few and far between.

The result of this is underperformance at the local and national level by african american led organizations. I see it every day. What am I talking about when I say a lack of leadership? Organizations that operate without a budget. Organizations whose board members can't coherently tell you what their organizations do and why, verbally or in writing. Organizations that don't systematically and routinely assign people to tasks and require accountability for those tasks to be accomplished. Organizations that are dysfunctional as hell, but think that a funder, or investor will give them major dollars to support their organization. Organizations that have no strategic plan or have not or cannot chart a future course for their organization 2-5 years out.

Three overarching issues top my list of stuff we are getting wrong at the neighborhood level. You tell me if the following rings a bell for you when you examine what organizations are doing at the grass roots level in your town.

  • We don't organize or collaborate effectively with each other
  • We have low levels of organizational capacity
  • We do not practice disciplined, strategic thinking and planning

Right at the top of the list of things we do that are keeping us down is a failure to collaborate. We appear to have lost the ability to get in a room, find common ground and develop an effective plan of action to solve problems in concert with one another. We fail to do it within organizations and we fail to do it across organizations. Two examples generally speaking:

In the faith community: black neighborhoods are typically home to large numbers of churches who are routinely touching the lives of hundreds of people, but we fail miserably at harnessing that people power effectively. Ministers have personal leverage that they wield to lesser or greater effect to advance church goals. Sometimes they even band together to combine their personal leverage and manage to have some effect, but this is rare. What you almost never see them do is truly mobilize the people of their congregations to effective political action and when it does happen, its a march and my loyal readers know our stance on marches.

Here is an experiment in congregational organizing I'd love to see: take your average black neighborhood and you can probably find 10 churches. The ministers from those churches all establish an Neighborhood Policy ministry in their church or whatever you want to call it. Each church gets 5 people to commit to it. That's 50 people. Each month, those 50 people do three things, in concert: they write a letter to a public official or corporate decision maker on an issue that affects the neighborhood. They make a phone call to a public official or corporate decision maker about a neighborhood issue and they each donate $5. In twelve months, that's 600 letters, 600 phone calls and $3,000. That's not a huge amount of activity or very complex organizing, but its way more than happens in our communities now and would yield tangible results. That's just a small step towards greater effectiveness. The reality is that most black neighborhoods are home to more than just 10 churches. Increase the number of churches involved to 20, 50 or 100 and do the math. Mobilizing in this fashion yields results, but we don't do even in this minimal amount, yet we are mad when our neighborhoods get passed by for investment over other neighborhoods.

Our grassroots organizations: Most cities with a significant presence of african americans are home to a variety of african american organizations, like Jack & Jill, 100 Black Men, the NAACP, the Urban League, BDPA, Urban Bankers, Greek letter organizations, etc. Those organizations are typically engaged in a variety of activities and almost without exception, they have some level of involvement with youth (potentially an ineffective duplication but thats a differrent conversation). What you don't see happening amongst these organizations is collaboration. I'm willing to bet you in most urban areas that the leadership of these organizations have never gotten in a room with each other to talk about mutual goals and objectives. Here's an experiment in collaboration. The leadership of local organizations should be intentionally talking to each other once a month. Keep it simple, lets start with a brown bag once a month, where people start sharing about what they are doing, how they are supporting it and how they could work together to accomplish something larger and more powerful than they can separately. If you really wanted to be ambitious, you'd make it a facilitated process. The bottom line? Black organizations are not working together anywhere near as much as they could and should and we are experiencing underperformance in service to our communities.

Why is this is a problem? Because in a world where resources are scarce and becoming more so, collaboration is the name of the game and organization empowers neighborhoods to obtain the resources they need. Organized neighborhoods will obtain resources for development, unorganized ones will not. Organization is critical because the kinds and levels of resources necessary to impact our neighborhoods across the country are resources that are delivered by institutional partners like city, state and federal governments, corporations and foundations. Institutional actors like these cannot work with unorganized entities. They require some structure at the neighborhood level which operates at a high enough level of organization to interface with them, and to use the type of resources they provide including being able to account for how those resources are used (this gets to the issue of organizational capacity, which I'll talk about in Part II). Collaboration is essential because you can attract more resources when you are operating in partnership than when not, because you leverage more resources for greater results and that makes your efforts more competitive when evaluated against competing efforts by the public and private sectors that provide capital and financial support to neighborhood efforts.

In summary, we're not effectively organizing in our communities. We actually have massive amounts of organized people power readily at hand in our faith community, but we most often use this resource in rudimentary and unsophisticated ways that fail to harness the power of people acting in concert. We're not collaborating either. All too often, we're not working together, we're fighting each other. We've got to see beyond our individual agendas as community organizations to ask the question, "what can we do together that we could not do do we create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts?"

Is what I'm saying resonating with you? Do you see these same critical deficits in operation in your local community? Your neighborhood? In the organizations you are involved in right now? How do we start getting out of our own way?

Next Up:
Our Deepest Fear: Part II - The Capacity Deficit