Some people feel inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr., to do service projects. But the U.S. civil rights movement that he led was not about days of service, it was about days of confrontational action. Think about the hundreds of action groups that grew in the North as well as the South, many winning campaigns against racial discrimination. They mobilized and radicalized people; that movement gave me my first experience of civil disobedience.
Some of those early groups, of course, flourished, and some fell apart quickly. Since then we've learned a lot about how to start action groups in a way that increases their chance to thrive, wage a campaign, learn from it and grow. To celebrate King's holiday, I'll share some of the wisdom that has accumulated, often through trial and error.
The steps for beginning a group are not really as simple as a food recipe, but I'll take the risk of writing this in a recipe-kind-of-way. Remember that every situation is always unique. You'll need to think with friends through each step, adapting to your circumstances.
Ask who can hold the vision. Maybe it's you who can picture what the group will be like when it is up and running. That makes you the "holder of the vision." But maybe that's not your gift. Find someone who can do that for the group. The vision-holder doesn't need to be the iconic "leader." In fact, it's probably best to drop the idea of the leader, and instead look for the gifts that, brought together, provide the team-leadership your group will need to move forward.
The visionary you want doesn't get lost in detail, doesn't spend a lot of time reasoning things out, doesn't focus their efforts on helping people feel good with each other, and doesn't get impatient when there's not action right away. The vision-holder is someone who can imagine what the group needs to look like and feel like and sound like when it's up and running, and beyond. If you're lucky, you'll find more than one person with the gift of holding this kind of vision (and hopefully they'll agree on what it is).
Ask who can analyze the situation and place it in context. Once you have a broad vision, you'll need to assemble the relevant factors, list the considerations, get the statistics together and track the history of action efforts on the issue. Find the person who can research the oppressive structure you're targeting, who can identify the various forces that are contending with each other and assess their strengths. Maybe you'll be lucky, again, and find more than one analyst to divide up the work.
Ask who can "make the rubber hit the road." A group may have a vision and an analysis and never become an action group because it gets lost in generating options and doing cost-benefit analyses! To pull off a successful action, you need someone who can mobilize others to decide on a plan -- not endlessly debate it -- and then implement it . You'll need to find one or more people who bring that gift. You'll never be an action group without the sort of person who led her basketball team to victory, or who convinced his high school friends to jump in a car and head to a nearby city for a demonstration or a rock concert.
Ask who can tune in to the feelings of others. There are plenty of groups that have had the analyst and visionary and in-charge activist but have gotten demoralized and split because they had no one to provide glue, to notice the underlying conflicts that needed to surface, to pay attention to the individuals on the margin who were being overlooked in the excitement. It's as true in the Internet age as it has always been: Every successful group has at least one person who keeps track of the membership as a whole, a shepherd who looks after the flock and resolves conflict before it blows up in everyone's face. If you don't have this gift yourself, find a couple of people who do and explain to them their importance. For some reason shepherds often undervalue their own importance; let them know they have a key part to play.
Groups come and go; the more successful ones include (usually by luck) the four roles of visionary, analyst, driver/warrior and shepherd. Keeping these roles in mind from the outset can save you the time and disappointment of relying on hit-or-miss approaches like assembling a random collection of your friends in a room and hoping you can get a successful group out of it.
George Lakey is the director of Training for Change. He has led 1,500 workshops and activist projects on the local, national and international levels. He has written several articles and books on strategizing for activism, including (more...)