When we do online to field organizing, we often rely on small groups that build a depth of community and trust. For those groups to work well, the leaders must share leadership and have a depth of skills that helps individuals in the group to heal, grow, and lead. I am excited to share this extended blog post from Justin Ruben about building decentralized leader-led networks, which looks to the 12-Step Movement for inspiration.
Justin is brilliant and funny. (His posts on Facebook about his children make me laugh out loud!) He is currently a fellow with the Center for Community Change. As the former Executive Director of MoveOn, and in other roles there, Justin helped to create MoveOn’s field organizing program and their local council leadership network. Before that he was a labor and environmental justice organizer.
In looking at AA and other 12-Step programs, Justin asks: how can we organize more people with fewer staff and still achieve significant depth of engagement? How is it that we do personal transformation at scale? Are there particular innovations and lessons from the Twelve-Step Movement that could be directly adapted to our work as social change organizers, or serve as inspiration for us?
I’m grateful to Justin for the listening, thinking and engaging he is doing on building network depth. I’d love to hear your thoughts!
PS. If you want to go further on AA and other examples of leaderless organizations, I highly recommend The Starfish and The Spider by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom, and this video by network thinker Clay Shirky on institutions versus collaboration.
Excerpt from Higher Power: Lessons for Social Change Organizing from The Twelve Step Movement by Justin Ruben
Here are some of the things that I think make twelve-step programs work well and are worthy of our consideration:
1. No Gurus. Personal transformation efforts are almost always pegged to charismatic leaders, who then become tragic single points of failure (usually of the “sleeping with adherents” variety). Instead of charismatic leadership, AA substituted a process that works, and a fellowship built around mutual support and storytelling. The principle of anonymity in twelve-step programs helps protect against cults of personality, local or national.
2. Taking the business out of most meetings. How many progressive meetings have you been to that were about as nourishing as a bowl of sand? How excited were you to go back?
The business of figuring stuff out together is often dull and annoying. But it seems like in progressive organizing, that’s often 95% of what we do. And when professionalized, middle-class-ish folks are involved, our attachment to being efficient and results-oriented that can make this reality particularly hard to change. There are multiple solutions to this problem. But, too often, we don’t solve it.
3. The conception of leadership. The way leadership is constructed in twelve-step programs—based on “service to” vs. “power over,” and in rotation—checks some of the worst excesses of ego that normally plague leadership. And the rotation forces groups to develop leaders on an ongoing basis, to boot.
4. Sponsorship. Sponsorship was one of the earliest innovations in AA, rooted in the 12th Step understanding that each AA’s sobriety required them carry the message to others.
Sponsorship seems to provide a level of support and accountability that most of us rarely get in our lives—someone who at first may drive you to meetings, take you to the movies, have you check in with them every day by phone or SMS; someone who you can call at any hour in a crisis, and who will guide you through the program, but insist that you take responsibility for your own recovery. When I compare this to the experiences I’ve had as a member of an activist group, or a union, or an outdoor club, or a synagogue … there’s literally no comparison.
5. Flexibility within a framework that’s relatively resistant to change. Each AA group is autonomous. And even the Twelve Traditions are framed as guidance from experience, not absolute rules. In some respects, the flexibility within the program has allowed it to evolve with the times. For example, as technology has evolved, everything from SMS to YouTube to the web has been adapted as a tool for spreading the message. These things have happened in part because no one needs to ask permission of the GSO to do them.
On the other hand, core elements of the program are extremely difficult to change. So far, this combination of tactical flexibility with fidelity to core principles has allowed AA and some other programs to survive and grow.
6, You can’t meet your own needs without meeting others’. To work the program, you have to serve. The 12th Step, and the entire culture, pushes people to service, especially carrying the message to others.
Find lots of other great insights in the complete article (PDF 206kb)