Erika Bleyl, LSRJ Summer Intern, (University of Washington School of Law)
“Strong people don’t need a strong leader.”
- Ella Baker
At the LSRJ Leadership Institute, I took part in a conversation about non-hierarchical organizing. Like most conversations on the subject, we mostly focused on what non-hierarchical organizing even is. Yet the fact that a group of intelligent, creative people cannot envision what non-hierarchical organizing looks didn’t surprise me. It indicates that we live in a world that is built on hierarchies.
At a conceptual level, non-hierarchical organizing is a strategy that operates on the philosophy that people should “disinvest from the notion of the messianic, charismatic leader who promises political salvation in exchange for deference.” Instead of the messy, unrealistic, and unproductive process that many people envision, collective organizing focuses on actual impact and less on individual prestige, which ultimately ends up being more effective and sustainable.
There is no rigid, agreed-upon conceptualization of non-hierarchical organizing, since the whole purpose is that the organization structure is consensus-driven and collective-based. However, here are some of the basic tenets of the way I think about it:
- We must unlearn our conventional notions of leadership. A better way to approach non-hierarchical organizing is instead of thinking of it as leader-less, thinking of it as leader-full. Leadership is not necessarily the problem – but leadership that disempowers the masses is.
- Rotate/decentralize leadership. This can be delegated using community agreement (e.g. designate two people for each meeting to co-facilitate and take notes).
- Every member should have a meaningful role. Instead of assigning people arbitrary titles such as “Secretary” as resume-builders, think about each member’s skill set, how those skills can contribute to the larger movement, and what skills can be learned in order a build a stronger, more robust group.
- Rethink what success means. The focus should never be on individual prestige.
- Operate on consensus-decision making.
- Many people hesitate to implement this because they are afraid it will be too time-consuming. However, consensus-decision making doesn’t have to mean that every decision must be thoroughly hashed out for hours. You can collectively set a deadline for people to submit their responses and resolve issues.
- Requiring consensus does feel time-consuming in the moment because it requires everyone to really listen to each other and hear everyone’s voice. But in spending that time, you get a large group of people who feel dedicated to contributing to the movement because their voices are heard, rather than 1-2 people who do all the work and later get burnt out.
- Remove the thinking that the people that do the work are of lower status than those that decide what work to do. In fact, ideally everyone in the group is doing some of both.
- Keep in mind that professionalism is a form of respectability politics. It is important to challenge what kind of appearances, organizing relationships and strategies gets deemed appropriate, effective, or “part of procedure.” Collective organizing should be creative, not reliant on normative scripts.
- Emphasize skill-sharing. One of the more frequent barriers to people stepping into roles of leadership is the lack of skills around even basic things such as how to reserve a room. The more you focus on training (particularly early on), the more you build group capacity.
- Take the time to get to know each other and build relationships. People communicate better when they have a relationship with the group, and feel more invested if they like the people they are working with.
Resources for non-hierarchical organizing
- AORTA: http://aorta.coop/
- Linda Stout, Collective Visioning, Berrett-Koehler Publishers (2011).
- Community Accountability: Emerging Movements to Transform Violence, https://communityaccountability.wordpress.com/social-justice-journal-issue/editors-introduction/.