Democracy is hard work.
One of the highlights of the year 2019 for me was my visit with the Polish “Street Opposition” movement to share ideas on organizing and political strategy. In workshops in Krakow and Warsaw -- and many wonderful late-night conversations -- I shared some of my methods from Barack Obama’s campaign for president in 2008, Emmanuel Macron’s campaign in 2017, and work in collective intelligence in Morocco and around the world. Very often in our exchanges, however, I found that I was learning much more than I was teaching!
One of the great links between the Obama and Macron campaigns and the movements for democracy across Europe is the power of community organizing. With roots in 1930s Chicago and practiced in countries all over the world, community organizing is a tradition that draws on the intelligence of a community to build power and improve people’s lives from the bottom up.
I was trained in these methods by the architect of Barack Obama’s 2008 organizing strategy, Harvard Prof. Marshall Ganz. Marshall first learned the practice of community organizing in the 1960s in the fight for civil rights in Mississippi and for migrant farm workers in California.
Prof. Ganz identifies five core leadership practices of an organizer: public narrative, relationship building, team structure, strategy, and action. Public narrative establishes individual and collective purpose through shared stories; these stories form the foundation on which teams can recruit new members, assign roles, develop a theory of change, and take meaningful action.
Like the citizen-leaders of KORD, a community organizer is not a general who executes a strategy and commands an army; rather, an organizer is like the chef d’orchestre who helps others learn their instruments and make the music of their choice. An organizer is flexible where others might be strict; empathetic where others are ideological; selfless where others seek the limelight. An organizer practices the art of making things happen, and never does it the same way twice. This is the kind of mentality that has proven effective in difficult political times, such as those facing the democracy movement in Poland today.
What I learned in the stories from my new Street Opposition friends gave fresh colors a universal piece of wisdom: in every culture, in every type of community, people are hungry for shared purpose and motivated by the possibility of changing how power works and who it serves. Whether on a nationwide presidential campaign or 11 neighborhood volunteers in Warsaw, change is made possible by those who learn to organize.
Here are three learnings that were reinforced by my time in Poland, and which I recommend to you:
1. Master your own story before someone does it for you. Polish citizens have seen their history -- even the living memory of the 1980s and 1990s -- manipulated and exploited by those who oppose democracy and equal rights. What I admire about the Street Opposition is their refusal to let others tell their story of Polish values. Marshall Ganz’s “story of self”, part of the public narrative framework, helps you tell your own story well to build relationships of trust and common purpose. Compelling stories take practice!
2. Self-interest is not a bad word. As theorized by community organizing pioneer Saul Alinsky, we risk overemphasizing an appeal to altruism in creating a movement change. Supporters of democracy in Poland are showing how the crisis in governance is not just about high principles -- it is about ending the discrimination against your sister or stopping the corruption that costs your business money. The Street Opposition explains eloquently that a democratic Poland is the best guarantee of a safe and prosperous life for all citizens.
3. Help others build their own leadership. For community organizers, leadership is a not a status but a practice. “We do not yet have all the leadership in the world that we need,” says Professor Ganz. I was so impressed to see that the Street Opposition welcomes leadership from all its members -- this is rare in a political movement! But only by helping others on your team take leadership – and especially letting them make decisions and learn from mistakes -- will you build collective intelligence as a culture, not just a one-off exercise.
This is how collective intelligence is built and democracy is maintained – not with military force or corporate money, but with everyday citizens standing up for what is right, creating a common strategy, and acting with courage.
I will never forget the courage of my Polish friends. Your commitment to democratic values is an inspiration to the world.
Prof. Lex Paulson
Executive Director, UM6P School of Collective Intelligence
Former organizer Obama for America 2008