Last night, Bryan Bell of Design Corps (and currently in residence at the GSD as a Loeb Fellow) held a panel called ‘Sparking Social Change,’ with Maurice Cox, Marshall Ganz, and Duarte Morais.
Maurice Cox—professor at University of Virginia’s School of Architecture, former mayor of Charlottesville, Virginia, and recently the Director of Design for the National Endowment for the Arts—presented his organizing/planning work in the early 2000s for the ‘New Rural Village’ in Bayview, Virginia. In this farming community composed of descendents of slaves, there was abject, grinding poverty: he quoted local community leader Alice Coles, who said that "Some people have lived and died here and never flushed a stool.” They were living in shacks and drinking water polluted by their own sewage. But they had a cohesive community and leadership, in Coles and others, who already had come together to successfully fight a state plan to build a maximum-security prison where they lived.
Cox explained how he and his team worked with people there: they “met with people where they were at.” At first, they held meetings on Coles’ patio; when their group outgrew that space they went to the church; and when they outgrew that, they went to the gymnasium of a local school. The Bayview residents were used to starting their meetings with a prayer circle, and Cox respected that and other traditions that they were used to. It took six years from when they started meeting with people in Bayview until they had the new village—affordable houses on land that they owned, together with a market, community center, laundromat, day care, clean water, and an economic base to help residents earn a living wage—and Cox explained how these meetings—the sharing of stories and building of relationships, were able to sustain their momentum and commitment for the project during that time.
It was not a fast process, but the upside of all of that work was that the residents not only embraced but owned the process themselves. Beyond constructing buildings and other physical infrastructure, the community was able to develop its capacity for leadership and determination to continue improving the conditions of their lives. He closed his presentation with the aphorism: “Nothing about us without us is for us.”
I was too brain-dead last night in my post pin-up state to take more notes, but there is really fascinating media coverage of the Bayview project available if you’re interested: Early in the process, The Washington Post brought national attention to Bayview’s poverty after Coles brought the NAACP to inspect local conditions. In 2003, 60 minutes featured the organizing work of Alice Coles. And in 2004, a documentary film called "this black soil: a story of resistance and rebirth" was released.
Marshall Ganz, lecturer in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School (and one of the consultants who developed the organizing model and developed leadership capacity for the grassroots organization of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign), was the next speaker.
Ganz built on some of the themes that Cox brought out, starting by quoting Alexis de Tocqueville, who said that "in a democracy, knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all forms of knowledge." Combining, Ganz insisted, is not just about aggregating individuals or individual opinions—something which we do all the time today—but rather, it requires really associating with each other, to learn and develop new, shared interests. Even people who don’t seem to share much can come together in this way through storytelling: when people talk with each other in a way that allows them to share the narratives of their lives, they are able—without denying either person’s story—to develop a new, third story that they can share. Ganz has done this recently with high-level Israeli and Palestinian officials (“and not the peace loving ones”). By having them each talk about what originally motivated them to join their work, they were able to find that they held certain values and stories in common. This has not yet, of course, brought peace to the Middle East, but it’s a start.
How can we bring about change when we’re fighting from a side that lacks in power? Power, Ganz explained, has to do with peoples’ need for each others’ resources. "If your need of my resources is greater than my need of your resources, who has the power? Whoever holds this imbalance has the power to influence." But there’s also a difference between resources and power: “a community may lack resources but doesn't always lack power.” And he talked about the Montgomery Bus Boycott to explain this distinction.
In Montgomery in the early 1950s, busses were white in front, black in back; and an armed deputy stood in the middle patrolling a no-man's land. “The bus was a microcosm of the deep inequality in the society.” But despite the deep racial inequalities in Montgomery, black people there had their bus fare, which they could choose to withhold. “In the end, you got not only desegregated busses but a community that is organized and that has power.”
Ganz used this to segue into a bit of an advert for his (and his colleagues’) teaching at the Kennedy School’s Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations. At a certain point in his work in the civil rights movement, he said that he discovered that “communities don't do this naturally. It takes the craft of leadership and organizing.” The leaders of the civil rights movements learned their trades in unions and in the Southern Baptist Church. So leadership—which Ganz defined as “accepting responsibility for enabling others to achieve purpose under conditions of uncertainty”—can be learned. (Note: Ganz tipped his hat to Ronald Heifetz here, talking about how leadership as such doesn’t exist in easy times. In easy times, we just continue doing what we’ve been doing; it’s the adaptive work of dealing with uncertain and difficult times that requires leadership.)
Ganz breaks down the leadership work in organizing into five parts. Each of which, he says, is a natural process, but needs to be done with intentionality in an organizing situation:
1. relationship building
2. storytelling: “developing a shared motivation for action: it’s not ideas that move us to action, but the heart.” As St. Augustine observed, there’s a difference between knowing the good and loving the good.
3. strategizing: “turning what you have into what you need in order to get what you want.”
4. action: translating this into concrete action on the ground that can be evaluated, and upon which more can be built.
5. structure: need to find a leadership structure somewhere between chaos and authoritarianism. And Ganz works with what he calls a “cascade model, or distributed team leadership.”
Ganz is a wonderful speaker, and he gave us many gems. Here are a few, a bit out of order:
"If you want to make change, you have to learn to compensate for a lack of resources with resourcefulness."
In response to a question about the best book we can read on organizing, he suggested the Holy Bible, saying that Exodus 18 is pretty good in describing the task of delegating, and that the David and Goliath story describes strategy.
Near the end of the panel discussion, Ganz talked about how destructive capitalism has been in hollowing out civil society in America. “The path we’re on now is a deeply destructive one. But I'm hopeful.”
And he asked us, as designers, what kind of spaces facilitate or inhibit peoples’ ability to not only aggregate, but to really associate?
Thanks for reading!
P.S. My computer ran out of juice before the third speaker, Duarte Morais, gave his presentation. But he talked about his work helping communities develop tourism in a way that is on their own terms.
Lectures and exhibitions, news and events, now primarily from the Bay Area! Please note that all live blogs are abridged and approximate. If you want to see exactly what happened, in many cases a video of the event is posted online by the event's hosts.