Sunday, October 21, 2007

One On One Interviews: Intentional Relationship Building for Organizing (Community Organizing and Urban Education)

Here is another of my introductory lectures to organizing. I just wrote this one this week, so it is very much a first draft (more, even, than most of the lectures). Click here for the text of the complete lecture and here or the complete series.

Community organizing groups are made up of relationships between individuals. Of course, this is not all that holds them together. Long-term groups depend on a loyalty to the organization and its historical relationship to the community. And, as we will discuss later on, the specific issues that a group works on can draw in commitment. But at the base level, at its best, a community organizing group is made up of relationships between individuals.

[I want to emphasize that I’m speaking of the ideal of this model of organizing, here. The fact is that the one-on-one process described below is very time intensive, and in my experience not enough leaders (like myself) really take the time to do them in the numbers recommended by the model. This, of course, raises questions about how effective this model is, since if people don’t actually “do” the one-on-ones, then they aren’t working. But the argument is that stronger organizing groups do. So let’s assume people do complete them, for now.]

“Community” is not something that is given in particular neighborhoods or cities. In the inner-city today, for example, people often do not know their neighbors and may actually fear some of the people who live or congregate on their blocks. Mobility in these neighborhoods is high, often for financial reasons, so it is harder for a coherent sense of geographic identity. And even when people do know each other, studies indicate that in poor communities relational ties generally don’t cross social class lines. In other words, poor people know other poor people, and more well-off people know those with economic situations more like their own.

Angela Davis argues that:

it is extremely important not to assume that there are “communities of color” out there fully formed, conscious of themselves, just waiting for vanguard organizers to mobilize them into action. . . . [W]e have to think about organizing as producing the communities, as generating community, as building communities of struggle. (cited in The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, p. 161)

As we have noted, in Alinsky’s day there were many local formal and informal organizations that might be seen as reflecting aspects of a local community. Today, this is less true, not only in poor areas but in suburbs full of relatively isolated families as well. As Robert Putnam, among other scholars, has pointed out, the problem is not that people today don’t belong to any organizations at all, or that they don’t volunteer to help others. Instead, what have been lost are collections of people who see themselves as an ongoing, relatively permanent “we” that can act as collectives. Volunteering with Habitat for Humanity or at a local school, participating in a 12-step group for some addiction, etc., don’t necessarily produce the kinds of collectives that organizers are looking for. Again, churches represent one of the few exceptions to this trend.

However, as our reading on gender and organizing pointed out, these older organizations often functioned in a fairly hierarchical and patriarchal manner. While Alinsky might have found what he felt were authentic “native leaders,” the groups these leaders led were often less than participatory in their internal functioning. And even when they were more participatory, members may not have really known each other that well outside of their common participation.

Both of these issues can be as true today of the churches that many organizers work with. Organizers often find that churches fail to recognize the vital functions played by people who are not central leaders. And even though people may recognize each other at church, the fact is that most members probably don’t really know much about the people who sit around them in the pews (or on cushions, or whatever their tradition is).

As our last reading on more recent approaches to congregational organizing noted, today’s organizers don’t simply draw from churches as sources of “people.” They actually try to intervene in them. They try to get pastors, who seem sometimes to treat their parishioners like children, to think more about how they might play a more “empowering” role. They even make theological arguments, trying to convince those who think religion shouldn’t get involved in “dirty” reality that Jesus and Mohammed and others wanted their followers to care for this world, that they should care about their “works” as much as their praying. They try to help religious people understand that many of the key figures of their scriptures (like John, Abraham, etc.) acted very much like organizers. I remember, for example, a tense moment at an organizing training I attended where the facilitator directly challenged a Catholic priest about whether he was really willing to let go of some of his control over his “flock.”

We are not here to argue about whether they are right or wrong about religion. The important thing is to understand how organizers generally think, although I am, of course, open to any questions you might have. There are many religious traditions and cultures that find it difficult or impossible to embody this kind of attitude. In the end, you will need to decide what you will take away with you from our course, what you find convincing and what you don’t, what fits with whatever religious tradition you might hold dear. But even if you don’t “buy” key aspects of this argument, there may be aspects that you find illuminating or that you can appropriate in creative ways to serve your own beliefs and needs. Again, I won’t judge your responses by whether they are “right” or “wrong” in their opinions, although I will be examining whether you understand the perspective we are studying in this class.

One of the key ways organizers try to intervene in and “improve” the associations they recruit into their organizing groups is through the process of one-on-ones.

What Are One-One-Ones?

A one-on one interview is a “public” but “personal” interview with another individual.

The interview is personal in the sense that it often gets into quite intimate stories about someone’s life. Of course, it is always up to the person being interviewed what they are willing to share. But the fact is that people in our society are rarely asked such personal questions by someone who is actually interested in the answers. We seldom are asked to share our stories, and people are often quite willing to do so.

The interview is “public” according to the definition we discussed a few weeks ago in that your goal is not to generate an intimate friendship (although this may also be an eventual result). Instead, your aim is quite pragmatic and instrumental. You are trying to link this person in to a larger group, giving them and the organization more power to make the kinds of changes they would very much like to see in society. You want a “public” not a “private” relationship with this person.

Partly in order to help the people you interview to understand the “public” rather than “private” nature of these interviews, that you are not approaching them to become their “friend,” one-on-one’s are generally set up in a relatively formal manner. You don’t usually just start chatting with someone without warning. Instead, you ask someone to meet you in a particular place at a particular time so that you can talk with them, get to know them, and help them understand your organization. This formality is important because it sets the stage for what is going on. From the beginning the person knows that you are approaching them in the role of a leader or organizer and not as a private individual who just wants to chat. You approach a person in your role as organization member and are trying to recruit them as well

One-on-one interviews have three key goals:

  1. To develop a “relationship” with an individual that you can draw upon later.
  2. To discover a person’s “passion,” which will help you hook this person into particular issues they may be “self-interested” in working on.
  3. To ask this person to do something specific for your organization or group.

This is traditionally the list of aims, but there is actually a fourth goal:

(4.) You want to evaluate whether this person is worth the “trouble” of recruiting and drawing in to your organization. Is this someone who seems reliable? (Is this someone who is likely to be disruptive in meetings or can they disagree and engage without throwing a wrench into the entire process?) Are they passionate about anything enough to keep them engaged over the long-term? Remember that “public” relationships are, in the ideal, driven by self-interest, the need for “respect,” and a willingness to hold others accountable and to be held accountable oneself. A person may be perfectly useful as a participant to call into a mass action, but not someone you want as a leader.

Be careful about making such decisions too quickly, however. It is really impossible to know for certain how someone will act in an organization unless one has worked with this person. Further, characteristics like race and gender can bias our perspectives without us even knowing this. And we have already noted how our society tends to disparage the “leadership” activities of people who work more in the background instead of out front like a familiar patriarchal leader. Sometimes the people who look great turn out to be “terrible,” and the people who look terrible turn out to be great (although often in ways you may not have predicted before).

To read the rest, click here for an MS Word document.

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