As we imagine an alternative society, we should think about how we will create something more collective, something where all people have a voice. Most of us come from a tradition where a select few make large impactful decisions for social justice organizations. Organizations have practices that at times feel inadequate and inaccessible for all. How do we move more towards a democratic collective process?
These questions come to mind as many movement organizations are wrestling with creating collective democratic power internally. How can processes be more transparent in the organization—and how do we balance that with some need for confidentiality? How do we balance legal obligations/liabilities and honesty? Without a strong reorganization within movement, we will lose the opportunity to build power collectively.
As a Black woman, I have experienced moments when trust was gained, which built a strong collective process, and when trust was broken, which deterred us from achieving our vision moving forward. In one job, I was in a fast-paced position and was overspent/overextended mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. I did not have the tools to advocate for myself nor did my manager have the tools to support me. Other political factors in the organization created an environment of competition. The organizational culture pushed us to try to seize individual power via positions of authority. This layer made my relationship with my manager intense. My manager was competitive with me. Overall my boundaries were not respected, and I didn’t feel safe to move the work forward. I never regained trust with that manager. And I found myself in a similar situation in another organization later on.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Even though managers have power over their employees, in another workplace, when I was also in a fast-paced environment and working many hours, I was able to advocate for myself because my manager engaged in open, honest dialogue with me. I didn’t feel like I was in competition with them. My boundaries were respected. I could share concerns without feeling threatened.
So that’s the question: How do you create a collective project and build trust among coworkers, and especially between managers and employees in a social justice organization? And if trust is violated, is it possible to reconcile and move forward?
Creating a collective project
Non-profit managers can create collective projects within their organization by trusting their employees and sharing information and authority. In my current organization, good managers have always allowed space for my leadership as an organizer. A good manager provided the room to have authority and autonomy in my work. I shared in both the accountability and responsibility for executing the plan.
I recently stepped into the co-executive director role and I will continue this approach with the people I supervise. I want to continue to build an organization where power is collaborative.
It is difficult to build collective power. Nonprofits struggle to meet the moment of intense pressure to bring change to communities in structures that are not collaborative and don’t have the foundation to hold the weight of such an aspiration. Governing collaboratively requires radical bravery.
Reconciliation and rebuilding trust
Can we rebuild trust within organizations once it has been broken? In both of the negative examples I shared above, it might have been possible to rebuild trust if my manager had been willing to engage in an honest, principled conversation. That might have provided clarity on where the differences were and what assumptions were being made from both sides.
Instead, in both cases, the organization’s response was to transfer me to another manager. Rebuilding trust requires that we do the hard work to confront differences and grow. This requires solid managerial skills.
Reconciliation in non-profits needs a paradigm shift into grounding the internal work in principled struggle. The principled struggle process is based on the idea that we need to openly discuss differences and work to understand all perspectives on the situation.
We should look to other examples of reconciliation, where people fight to build collective projects after great harm has been done. This is hard because as a society, we don’t see many examples of reconciliation. Rather, we see processes of conquering and power struggles among groups.
Native Americans and African Americans continue to push the country to reconcile the atrocities done to their communities. Often the response is hatred and disregard. We as a people have been harmed over and over by our government. We have not seen examples of collaboration in power. Instead, we have experienced a complete denial of our humanity.
Collaborative power in society
Our focus should not just be internal in our nonprofit organizations. We can’t just see collaboration in power/shared power on the grassroots level. We must reimagine a government for collective power.
How do we reconcile strategically in a country that wishes to cast our needs, our humanity down the drain—with the waste? As strategists, organizers, and leaders we must demand more on electoral campaigns, specifically our elected leaders. We must demand co-governance.
Our elected leaders need to demonstrate collaborative power, shared power. Responsibility and accountability run across and side by side. America’s founders did not share power—they sought it. They killed, stole, and never offered reconciliation.
Now we, the global majority, must demonstrate what shared leadership looks like. What does it mean to seek collective care and collective access to human needs?
Already we have paradigms like participatory budgeting and many more ways to create co-governing in our society. We have processes such as listening sessions, town halls, and committee hearings. We need more avenues for citizen participation in governance, such as advisory boards with real decision-making power.
Strategically, we must support electeds who stand for the greater good, not just the few, who stand for more than what is seen to be politically possible in the moment. We must support and create opportunities for co-governance leadership.
Let’s demand that representatives share their privilege with the most oppressed in our society. Let’s reimagine a government that governs a country for collective good and well-being.