Friday, June 8, 2012

Awakening a Sleeping Giant


NEA vice president Lily Eskelsen's Netroots Nation keynote last night addressed the attacks on NEA.  She spoke of how we are on the front lines, because eliminate us, and the 1% takes away the largest single institution defending the middle class.
I saw this coming years ago.  I always believed that my union should be much more proactive in reaching out and embracing the aspirations of other working people, even if that occasionally meant compromising some of our institutional priorities.  I believed that vigorous action when others, such as private sector unions, were the front line would protect our union. 
Too late.
This why I have always had an interest in progressive causes and have tried to learn from leaders of other unions. It’s why I provide as much support as possible to groups like the Vermont Workers Center.
There is a tension between my interest in collateral circulation with other activists and my union's need for control.  In internal conversations concerning member engagement one point always stands out:
The problem with membership engagement is that you end up with....engaged members.
Engaged members make mistakes.  Engaged members may not have enough experience because they haven't had a chance to make mistakes.  They may do things that contradict the leadership, either accidentally or on purpose.  But if they just pay other people to be activists, they never learn how to be active themselves.  Lurking in the background: an awakened membership may well make different demands on its own leadership.
In order to have a truly engaged and effective membership, union leadership and staff have to give up control.  Engagement is the only recourse in the present crisis.  The equation looks like this:  There is a tradeoff between institutional control and member engagement.  Member engagement is the last, best source of power in the current struggle.  For our union, therefore, survival involves giving up control.  That's scary for some people.
Real organizing means helping people to find their own voice, not teaching them to parrot yours.  What better group to do this than an organization of teachers?
Awaken a sleeping giant of engaged teachers.  It's the only way.

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4 comments:

  1. Steve,
    You've describes the situation in Philadelphia. With over 10,000 members, the PFT has had more of a one-way monologue ("Action this Fri - wear Red shirts!") than a collaborative dialogue.

    I asked PFT president Jerry Jordan and communication officer Barbara Goodman about the need for dialogue. Both agreed that better teacher engagement was needed, but that it was an issue of capacity. Unions are being hit so hard that there is the feeling that there is little room for anything other than crisis mode.

    Teachers also feel overwhelmed.

    But the ONLY solution to the crisis is to facilitate member engagement. I'd like to see 2-year, UbD-style engagement plan that awakens the giant.

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  2. Gamal,
    Note: you talked to Jordan and Goodman. That makes you an engaged member. Who better to start this dialogue than you? Did they say, "Go get'em Gamal, how can we help you?" No, they brought up the capacity issue from what you said. My state NEA affiliate is about the same size as PFT. I have the same conversations here. We are not under attack the way you are in Philly, and I get the same sort of (non) response. Your leaders are good people, just like mine, but they have got to become conscious of the tension between the principles of democratic engagement and political control.

    The only way to build capacity at this point is through democratic engagment of members - the old resources, especially the money, are shrinking. The political influence of unions is clearly waning, even in the Democratic party. Doubling down on the things that worked 15 years ago is a strategy for self annihilation. We need a new path, and Gamal, you, and people like you, are essential parts of the solution.

    Perhaps you need to initiate that 2 year UbD style engagement plan instead of waiting for your leaders....Hand it to them on a silver platter. Then there will be no arguments about the capacity to do the planning. That capacity exists - it is you.

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  3. Very well stated, Steve. I am passing this post on to other local leaders.

    It took several years for me to become involved in my local Association - not because I didn't want to be involved, but because I couldn't break into the closed, micro-managed circle of people who controlled activities. Though we say that this mindset has changed, we have a long way to go.

    Your reply to Gamal is especially powerful, and I plan to make one sentence my mantra: "Doubling down on the things that worked 15 years ago is a strategy for self annihilation." Absolutely.

    Thank you for sharing this wisdom.

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    Replies
    1. Jen,
      Thanks for your reply and thanks for sharing with local leaders. Please also share on Facebook and Tweet - that's incredibly helpful in getting the word out. This sort of critical friend message isn't going to resonate well with communications people in the unions (let's just say this piece is not going to make my state affiliate newsletter), so we need to use the power of the internet to keep the conversation going.

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