Post-election thoughts

Like many progressives, I’m upset about last night’s election results. As a father, I worry about the country my daughter is growing up in when a man who brags about groping women can be elected president. I worry about friends who are Muslim, Latinx, transgender, and others and what this election will mean for them.

But, as Joe Hill said, “Don’t mourn, organize!” Here are some initial thoughts about where to go from here:

  • Solidarity: Some communities are especially vulnerable: women, people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ, low-income folk, etc. We need to stand together and defend the rights and safety of these vulnerable communities. This is especially important for those of us who are in not being targeted.
  • We need a better story: Hillary Clinton is a very technocratic politician. She knows the nuances and details of what can and cannot be done, and in that role never told a bigger story about where America is and where it is going. Donald Trump, on the other hand, told a very simple story, and he told it relentlessly, “The elites in government, media, etc. are corrupt. They are screwing you and this country. I’m the only one who will tell the truth and take them on.” He told this story relentlessly, and it resonated in a way the complicated but competent technocratic messaging didn’t. As we think of where to go, we need to find that simple, clear, engaging larger story to tell (as President Obama did in his first election).
  • We need to reach out of our comfort zones: Look at the maps. If we stay in our blue-district enclaves, we won’t win. Much of the outreach I have been involved in targets people who are already predisposed to agree. We need to go beyond that group and reach fence-sitters who are not there yet. This means, for example, doing diversity and inclusion work in communities that are not very diverse.
  • Anti-institutional sentiments are strong, have a basis in people’s real experience, and need to be addressed. From Brexit to the success of the Bernie Sanders campaign to Trump’s victory, we are seeing many eruptions of popular dissatisfaction with the technocratic solutions offered by our current institutions. I believe that part of the basis of this is a real instability from growing wealth inequality, rapid cultural shifts, and more. Falling back to technocratic answers of “trust us, we’ve run the models, this is for the best” don’t address the real anxiety people are experiencing.

On their own terms

Generation Change by williamhartz at flickr.comChurch members want new people to attend the church because they hope to lighten the load in fundraising events, keep dwindling programs alive, and support the diminishing budget. Sometimes it happens that way, but more often, if the members become intentional about ministering to younger generations, they will move away from assimilating the new people into existing customs and begin the process of forming new communities. (Carol Howard Merritt, Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation)

Yes, and that goes for grassroots organizations hoping to attract younger members, too.

The process of becoming intergenerational (or inter-cultural for that matter) is one of mutual transformation. We can’t both say, “we want new people with fresh perspectives and new ideas,” and expect the organization to do the same activities on the same issues in the same ways.

If we are to successfully welcome new generations or new cultures into our communities, our communities themselves will change.

Are we open to that change?

Welcome younger members, care for all members

I’ve just started reading Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation by Carol Howard Merritt, and I’m contemplating how her lessons about intergenerational church life apply to ICPJ.

As I consider our successes in recruiting, retaining, and involving younger people in the life of ICPJ, here are some common themes I observe:

  • ROLES: Many younger people first become involved by signing up for a specific, concrete role. Many of our younger members, activists, and donors first became involved by being interns, CROP recruiters, SOAW trip attendees or organizers, or board members.
  • RELATIONSHIPS: Our most involved young members are also the ones we’ve built the strongest relationships with. We have had more interns vanish than stay involved as members, donors, or volunteers. Those who stay involved tend to be the ones who were more involved to begin with and who had the strongest connections to ICPJ.
  • PERSONAL CONNECTION: relationships are personal. Yes, the connection to ICPJ as an institution is important, but I more often hear reconnecting members remark about a person than remark about the institution.
  • TRANSIENCE: Younger people move more. Many of our most active younger people are now less active. Some have left the area. Some have started families. Younger people tend to face more drastic and rapid changes in their lives. We have to be ready to welcome them in warmly, accept their departure or lessened involvement gracefully, and maintain connections so that they may re-engage.
  • IT’S PERSONAL: Personal connections are made one at a time. At the risk of repeating myself, the people who have been most involved and stayed most involved have done so through personal connections. You can’t automate that. You can develop community norms and organizational practices that support personal connection, but at the end of the day it still depends on people connecting to people, one person at a time.

While some of these observations are especially true for younger members, many also apply to people of all ages.

From these observations, I leave with several questions:

  • How can ICPJ (or any group) create more defined roles as initial contacts for new and/or younger members?
  • After people sign up for these new roles, how can we walk with them to increase involvement and connection?
  • How can we create practices (organizational and personal) to increase the connection among members, especially new members?
  • How can we treat people like people? That is, while ICPJ as an institution is concerned about members, donors, and volunteers, how can we also ensure that we honor, respect, and care for people as their lives demand changes in their levels of involvement?
  • What do our members need from us? How can we meet the needs of our interns, volunteers, and members in terms of community, contribution and professional development? (Coming from the Christian tradition, this question feels to me at it’s core to be, “how do we love each other?”)
Carol Howard Merritt

“Rally to Save the American Dream” remarks

I spoke at today’s Rally to Save the American Dream, sponsored by MoveOn. Here are my remarks:

My name is Chuck Warpehoski, I’m an interterfaith organizer. Some people would have us believe that the only religious voices on faith issues are conservative voices. I’m here to tell you that’s not true.

All the faith traditions talk about caring for the poor. Of course, the best way to do that is to give them good-paying jobs, and that’s what unions are for.

The Torah, the Jewish scripture, teaches that every seven years all debts should be forgiven. You don’t have to be Jewish to realize that this teaching might have a lesson for us as we face the foreclosure crisis.

The Torah also teaches, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.” (Deut 16:20) You don’t have to be religious to realize that this teaching is a challenge to a budget proposal that raises taxes on poor families while cutting taxes on businesses.

In Christianity, Jesus asked his followers, “Who of you, if a child asked for bread, would give him a stone.” The point is that we should care for our children and give them what they need. And you don’t have to be Christian to realize that this teaching says something about a budget that cuts funding to our schools.

Jesus also told his followers, “those who are not against us are for us.” That sounds to me a bit like solidarity.

Teachers, are you with us?

Students, are you with us?

Labor, are you with us?

Michigan, are you with us?

No More Useless Reports

"Didn't you get the memo?" by nataliej on flickr.comWhen I studied wilderness first aid at the United World College of the American West, one student asked, “how often should you take a patient’s vitals during an evacuation.”

The instructor replied, “Only stop an evacuation to take a patient’s vitals if the results could change your evacuation plan. Otherwise you are just delaying the evacuation.

Tonight I was talking with somebody who works on tech issues with nonprofits, and he talked about how managers often request reports because they like to know things, not so they can make decisions based on the data.

When you ask staff or volunteers to put time into inputting, exporting, or reporting data, you are taking their time away from other activities. It’s like interrupting an evacuation to take someone’s vitals. Sometimes it’s necessary, but you should know why you are doing it.

In an evacuation, there are times it makes sense to monitor an evacuee. You may find out they are in too poor of condition to carry them out and that you need to call in an airlift.

In a nonprofit, there are times that it makes sense to spend a lot of time on reports. You may need to adjust your direct mail program to improve member retention.

But sometimes managers, board members, or committee members will ask for reports without any idea how the data will be used, and we’ve all heard the stories of these reports that have been painstakingly created only to sit on the shelf unread.

So, before you ask someone to create a report for you, ask yourself if this information might “change the evacuation plan,” or are you just, “delaying the evacuation.”

How to make Congress hear you

Often I hear activists ask,  “does it pay to send an email to our Senators?” and “which is better, visits or calls to Congress?”

The recent Friends Committee on National Legislation newsletter has a great article starting on page 5 about how communication with Congress works, what the role of different methods is, and how things fit together.

It’s a great piece based on real data and feedback from members of Congress and their staffs. It is neither starry-eyed nor is it hopeless.

Here are 2 key points:

It is very important for citizens to personalize the messages that they send to Members. Congressional staff members have revealed in our research that they place more weight on communications that convey how a piece of legislation will affect their constituents. While you might wholeheartedly agree with the suggested text that FCNL provides for you, take the time to tell the Member why the issue is so important to you, personally. It’s not uncommon to then see Senators and Representatives go down to the Senate or House floor and say, “I received a letter from one of my constituents who told me how this legislation would devastate her small business.” Those are the letters that persuade Members.


Our research with Members and congressional staff shows that if a Member has not already arrived at a firm position on an issue, the most effective way to persuade her or him is through a face to face meeting.

It’s just a 2-page article, the whole thing is worth a quick read.

Polarization doesn’t just divide, it impedes

The summer before my first year in college I read Lies My Teacher Told Me, an excellent book about the errors and omissions in high school American history textbooks that gloss over the not-so-pretty parts of our nation’s past.

I loved the book, and I remembered seeing a copy on my grandma’s bookshelf. So one day, I tried to strike up a conversation with her about it.

That didn’t go too far.

I don’t remember her exact words, but the essence was that she doesn’t like books that point out the faults in our country’s history, and the conversation stopped there.

All too often the way we discuss American history in the United States leads us to the same place my grandma and I came to: a conversational dead-end. Either the conversation doesn’t go any farther (as it did with my grandma and me), or it goes forward with both sides having closed their ears, minds, and hearts as they open their mouths to shout their views.

This failure to engage other perspectives paralyzes us to be able to confront issues of economic vitality, race relations, the role of the U.S. military, or other important issues of the day.

The polarization of history

There is a polarization in the teaching of history. On the right, American History is a self-important, jingoistic ode to the greatness, glory, and grandeur of the United States. The U.S. is portrayed as a nation that has been an unblemished beacon of goodness in the world. This noble history stands against an endless siege of internal sedition and external threats.

On the left, American history is a litany of abuses, injustices, and exploitations. It is a nation founded to protect the wealth and status of white Protestant land-owning men, and its entire history is a catalog of wrongs against people of color, women, workers, Jews, American Indians, and other nations to defend the interests of the elites. In the face of this bulwark of oppression, a consistent counter-current pushes for liberation for the oppresses. Sometimes this counter-current succeeds, sometimes it is co-opted, but these efforts can never fully redeem the nation from its tainted history and belligerent present.

Truth lies somewhere in the middle (as it so often does), and most people’s views of history also fall somewhere between the extreme positions I’ve laid out.

Polarization and the Cyclops

With only an eye to the good or the bad of American history you can become a cyclops. Cyclopses were powerful creatures in mythology, but they were also monstors.

Adherents to both polarized positions are like cyclopses, the mythical monsters of The Odessey that had only one eye.

Physically we need two eyes to have good depth perception. With only an eye for the good or the bad parts of the American legacy, these polarized positions cannot see the fullness and depth of our country’s past.

And let us remember, while the cyclopses of mythology were huge and powerful (just like contemporary ideologues  can be), they were also monsters capable of extreme cruelty.

Going beyond polarization to keep the conversation open

The problem with both narratives is that they shut out conversation with other views and the ability to learn from each other and work together for a better future.

My grandma’s reaction to Lies My Teacher Told Me shows how the critical perspective of the left’s narrative seems anti-American and just focused on attacking the country. Likewise, the “America can do no wrong”  jingoism of the right’s narrative comes off as dishonest to those whose past ancestors have been done wrong by the United States, as well as those whose current communities don’t fully share in the promise of America.

An honest study of American history will acknowledge both the liberation and oppression in our history. Only a complete history is broad enough to include those whose hearts stir with the words, “liberty and justice for all,” as well as those whose hearts burn with the question, “when will my community see our liberty and justice?”

A Lesson from the Bible

One of the things I deeply love about the Bible is that it is make up of people who are always making mistakes–and who nevertheless are faithful to a higher calling. Noah got stupid drunk after he left the ark. Moses was a murderer, as was King David. Rebekah counseled Jacob to lie to his father and steal his brother’s blessing. The apostles are almost laughable in how often they get things wrong.

Part of the message of the Bible is that we do not need to be afraid to confront our mistakes and the mistakes of our ancestors.  We should take that kind of approach to the study of history.

A lesson from psychology

I’ve blogged before about research that shows that training programs that evaluate mistakes are more successful than those that only highlight successes.

Personally, we need to acknowledge both our successes and our failures to learn and grow. So too as a nation do we need to learn from and face the good and the bad in our history

I’m not calling for an end to conflict over history

When I say that we need to acknowledge the good and the bad, I’m not saying that we stop arguing over what those are. I have no illusions that the right and the left will agree whether or not the Vietnam War was a just war to stop Soviet aggression or an unjust war to prop up a corrupt and oppressive government. What I am saying is that in the debate, both the right and the left should be open to acknowledging that the government could have done good or bad things.

Why I think this is so important

I was recently assigned to serve the Racial and Economic Justice task force at Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice, and I’ve been doing a lot of reading to catch up.

I’ve been reading Courageous Conversations About Race as we look at how we can support efforts to close the achievement gap in local schools, and I’ve been reading Uprooting Racism as part of our upcoming Racial Justice Book Group.

Courageous Conversations quotes and article by Julian Weissglass discussing causes for the achievement gap which says:

“White people lack informatnio about the history and nature of the oppression that people of color have endured. They learn little, for example, about the genocide of indigenous people, the kidnapping and slavery of Africans and the oppression of their descendants, the military seizure of the southwestern U.S. territory from Mexico, or the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II…. Given the lack of information and the spread of misinformation, it is not surprising that white peopel do not always understand the feelings of native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, or Asian Americans.”

I agree with Weissglass’s point, and experiences like the one I had with my grandmother lead me to ask the question, “how can we create the setting in which white educators and conservative Americans will be willing to look at the mistakes in our history?”

Paul Kivel’s  Uprooting Racism does an excellent job to set the stage to make it possible for white Americans to explore issues of race and racism, and part of his strategy to do that is to avoid the blame game. He writes, “This book is not about whether you are a racist or not, or whether all white people are racist or not.” That is, he evades the temptation to put the discussion in cyclops terms that only see good or bad, that can only either indict or defend.

I believe a similar approach will help discussing the history of race or other difficult issues in American history.

This approach does not give the same self-satisfied sense of moral superiority that a polarized position does. But I’m willing to give up a bit of smugness for a better chance of connecting with people; opening ears, minds, and hearts; changing people’s perspectives (perhaps even my own); and thereby changing the world.

Keep learning, and keep your group learning

“Schools are not alywas ready to become places for healthy adult learning. In fact, a significant challenge to improving schools is that some educators are poised not to learn, but rather to posture as though they ‘know it all.'” Glen Singleton and Curtis Linton, Courageous Conversations About Race

Just as educators sometimes give up learning to rest on the easy comfort of the conceit that they already know all there is about how best to teach, sometimes organizers give up striving to be effective to rest on the easy conceit that they know all there is about how to make change.

Often I see this break down by generational lines. Sixties-era activists will talk about consciousness-raising, marching, and rallies. Millenial activists will talk about Facebook, social media, and social entrepreneurship.

The truth is, social change is hard. It’s complex. And we work for it in an always-changing environment against established interests that are always adapting to our tactics.

The only way we can achieve real change is to always be changing, to be learning, and to be adapting.

That means giving up any prejudice that we always march or that marches never work; that Facebook will mobilize people or that Facebook is a cop-out to substitute for “real organizing.”

And let me tell you a secret: the only way you will learn is if you consistantly argue, question, debate, and explore with people who have a different perspective than you. People who are older, people who are younger, people who are more secular, more religious, more scientific, more artsy, of a different race, with different skills, from a different country, they all have something to teach you about what makes change.

Listen to them.

Listen to your self.

Keep learning.

Keep adapting.

Because the powers that be certainly are.

The power of personal greeting

“Caterina Fake, one of the founders of Flickr, siad she’d leanred from the early days taht ‘you have to greet the first ten thousand users personally.'” — Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody

Whether it’s online or face-to-face, organizing is all about relationships.

You can’t automate relationships. You can’t outsource them. They have to be made on a one-on-one basis over time; again and again; by the tens, hundreds, and thousands.

Are you willing to fail enough to succeed?

“Open source ecosystem is a profound threat, not because the open source eecosystem is outsucceeding commercial efforts but because it is outfailing them.” -Clay Shirky Here Comes Everybody

For all we’re about change, sometimes community organizers can be very afraid of it.

We stick to the same marches, the same chants, the same fundraisers. We do what we’ve seen work in the past.

But if we’re going to be about change, we should be willing to try it for ourselves, even if that means trying out tactics that flop.

Be bold. Try new things. Be willing to fail your way into success.

Clay Shirky

picture of recipe card

How does the Internet change the way we cook up social change?

In Here Comes Everybody: