On the Architecture of Community

الأربعاء 02 حزيران 2010

Marshall Ganz on People, Leadership and change

Interviewed by Ruba Asi

GanzAdvisor to president Obama’s campaign on community organizing and leadership development, and professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, Marshall Ganz is an architect of community whose work aims to develop leadership to enable communities to use their resources to achieve their purposes.

Ganz grew up in Bakersfield, California, where he cultivated a growing concern for political inequality in the U.S. He entered Harvard College in the fall of 1960 but left a year before completing his studies to volunteer in the 1964 Mississippi Summer Project. After discovering a vocation for organizing, he spent a 28 year leave of absence indulging in community organizing work to empower and enable minorities, and returned to Harvard afterwards to continue his undergraduate and postgraduate studies. Upon completing a Ph.D. in sociology at Harvard, he joined the Harvard Kennedy School faculty in 2000. He now teaches graduate and undergraduate students organizing, public narrative, and moral leadership; trains practitioners with community based organizations, advocacy groups, faith communities and unions; and researches leadership, organization, and strategy in social movements, civic associations, and unions and their role in public life. His first book, co-authored with Theda Skocpol and Ariane Liazos, What a Mighty Power We Can Be: African American Fraternal Groups and the Struggle for Racial Equality, was published in 2006. His new book, Why David Sometimes Wins: Leadership, Organization and Strategy in the California Farm Worker Movement was published in May 2009.

Mr. Ganz is visiting Amman to hold a community organizing training workshop with community activists and advocates from across the country. Ganz will also be giving a public talk under the title of “People, Leadership and Change”, hosted by the Amman Institute for Urban Development, today Wednesday the 2nd of June, 7:00 pm at the Hussein Cultural Center, Amman.

I had the chance to interview Mr. Ganz on community organizing, its role in enhancing citizenry and how that may be applied to the context of our local communities.

RA: Do you see grassroots social activity as a necessary commotion that emerged as a reaction triggered by top down hierarchal systems or did it exist prior to that?

MG: I think that the impulse for people to collaborate with one another is as ancient as anything, its foundation of human society, there has always been a struggle to balance individual and community, a balance between the interests of the few and the many; it is about creating the right kind of balance. The impulse of people to collaborate with one another to discern their common interest and work on behalf of these interests is as ancient as any culture.
Different times, different ways, different places. My own experience began in the States, it was a response to a racial regime and segregation which was fundamentally denying the humanity of a whole segment of the population, so organizing was a way to counter and balance that.

RA: What was the prime reason that led you to dedicate your career to organizing?

MG: Being a young person in the 1960s in college and witnessing the civil rights movement that was sweepingly transforming the country, wanting to be a part of the solution and not a part of the problem. Young people, by nature, are drawn to the work of change.

As a young person at that time in this country the civil rights movement was in its peak, after working in the south in 1964-1965 on the summer Mississippi campaign I returned back home to California, the place where I grew up in and where similar struggles were going on, but this time it wasn’t African American, it was Mexican Americans fighting to form an organization for farm workers. I think for me it was an extension to the same challenge of race and inequality and how to rectify this issue, that for the next 16 years, then I turned to politics to find ways for ordinary people to make their voices heard in political life, so it’s been a consistent theme.
When people are faced with profound inequalities they have to organize to adapt and that takes good leadership, and so a lot of my work has been about developing leadership to enable communities to use their resources to achieve their purposes.
I think that young people have a particularly important role to play in steering change, not because young people have nothing better to do. I think that generational change is often one of the most important dynamics of social change.
It’s related to the rhythm of things, the only constant throughout one’s lifetime is change; the one challenge always is how to adapt to change, life changes and the world changes, especially in the times we’re living in. The question is how to adapt to change, I think that the mistake that sometimes people make is in thinking that tradition is all about keeping things the way they are, tradition could actually become a resource of change.
To me it’s not like it’s either tradition or no tradition
, it’s the question of what we draw from our tradition to enable us to face the challenges. Throwing out the whole thing is as problematic as resisting to change.

RA: You played an instrumental role-if anonymous- in mobilizing the Obama campaign, would you agree to say that the success of the campaign gives credibility primarily to the organizer?

MG: In the Obama campaign, as in any major success there are a number of elements that come into play, a lot of different of factors, a part of it was the organizing, it was an important piece of it because it was a way in which millions of people who had been inactive and had just been turned off to politics could play a meaningful role in the campaign.
It was particularly important because Obama was like an outsider candidate, he was not an establishment candidate, it’s hard to remember now but when he announced presidency back in January 2007 most people thought it was a joke. He was an outsider and as an outsider you have to build your own base of support, you can’t rely on the existing institutions because they’re going to be lined up with the insider, and so most of the established institutions within the Democratic Party here were lined up with Hillary Clinton.
Organizing was the way in which Obama established his own base of support. Obama understood how to put into words the desire for change that was out there to the public, not through issues & policy, but through his capacity for narrative, and through his capacity for translating values into action.
There were two rounds of organizing, the first round was prior to the primary elections and the second round was prior to the general elections. A whole round of organizing contributed to winning the primary elections, especially in relatively small states like Iowa and North Carolina which varied considerably from bigger states like New York and Minnesota. The primary votes took place in January 2008 while the organizing started in March 2007; the work went on for essentially a year. Organizing, coupled with a very careful use of the media and the internet, and a terrific fundraising capacity also using the internet.
For what I have done most of my life it was very exciting to have an opportunity to really acquaint a whole new generation with the basic tools of organizing, and that’s what we got to do. We trained 3000 full time trainers how to mobilize other people in order to make change.

RA: What was the key challenge that faced you as an organizer in that campaign?

MG: I think the biggest challenge was creating the balance between head, heart and hand. The power of motivation, the need for strategy and the skills needed to implement these strategies on the ground. It‘s similar to the difference between theorizing a building and actually building, not to forget the amount of courage and imagination needed to do this.
So keeping those three factors in relationship with one another, under the pace and at the scale, was really challenging, to actually keep up with the needs .There was a constant need to develop our leadership, the capacity to organize depends on the continuous development of leadership capacity. So you grow as fast as you are able to develop leadership, and keeping up with that was a great challenge.

RA: Do you see the role of the leader essentially as one of a reformist?
MG: I think of leadership less as a position than as a kind of work. The definition I always use for leadership is “accepting responsibility of enabling others to achieve purpose under conditions of uncertainty”. For me, leadership is about responsibility, it’s about purpose and the fundamental condition is uncertainty. When everything is totally predictable, we don’t need leadership, we follow the habit, the pattern of routine, whereas leadership confronts the new, the contradictory, and in this sense it’s a creative skill.
Leadership could be exercised from positions of formal authority and it could be exercised from positions of not-formal authority. Teaching leadership is not teaching people how to be in a powerful position, it’s how to motivate people out of a sense of shared value, how to build the relationships needed to create shared commitments, how to design structures that enable collaboration, it’s how to strategize, it’s how to connect outcome to action, it’s how to take action. So we basically structured the training around these five practices; leadership practices, enabling people to collaborate together to achieve purposes.

RA: What constitutes the moral duty of a leader?

MG: I think there are four things.
The first is the responsibility to challenge one’s community or, one’s constituency or, one’s people with the need to confront realities that need to be confronted. It’s not about doing what everybody wants, it’s also not about telling everybody else what to do. The other side is in confronting those realities to mobilize hope over fear, to mobilize empathy over isolation, to mobilize a sense of self worth as opposed to self doubt. I think that leadership that tries to mobilize out of fear, isolation and self doubt undermines itself and compromises its moral ground. So, to me, the moral content of leadership is about hope, self worth and empathy, to the extent that we are able to operate exclusively out of these elements and make change.

RA: Without gaining a people’s trust, a leader cannot leap forward .How can a leader build bridges of trust with the community?

MG: I think the most effective leaders develop a community’s sense of trust in itself. In other words effective leadership is not “count on me and I will do this for you”, It’s “ work with one another and together we can do this”, and it’s very interesting during the campaign to see the contrast between  a candidate that says “vote for me and I will fix everything and solve your problems for you and the candidate who says” if you vote for me you are going to have to join me in figuring out what to do about this mess.”

RA: For many, the mere thought of public participation is strictly associated with scenes of voting and elections, how do you see this concept expand to comprehend more diverse and multi-faceted forms of social activity?
MG: Voting is a very thin from of participation comparing to much more active forms of participation in community problem solving, advocacy for community needs. Again there is a whole range of ways of how to do this, people do this in religious contexts, secular contexts, social contexts, the richer a community is, I think, in opportunities for people to collaborate with one another in these kind of ways the stronger it makes the community and puts collaboration in a much meaningful context. In some circumstances, such as that of the Soviet Union, where they actually had elections, it didn’t really mean much because of the way society was structured. There was so little opportunity for people to collaborate with one another outside the framework of the state structure. Developing civic capacity, or community capacity or social capital is crucial. This process is not rocket science, I think its natural, people need to be supported , it needs to be legitimate, people need to learn some basic skills and tools, but it’s a natural form of human interaction. As I always say, the biggest inhibitor of human interaction is fear, the less people are fearful the more able they are to trust one another, collaborate and try new things. The question is in how to create a setting in which there is more hope than fear and this is a critical challenge to any leader.

RA: Public participation and social activity are often viewed as the magic elixir to many of society’s conflicts and troubles, do you necessarily believe that introducing organization is the answer to our very varied and different community dilemmas?

MG: Anything that claims to be the answer is probably not. Core problems of inequality that turn into poverty and lack of education, these kinds of problems don’t go away by magic. I think its naive to think they do .Of course community organizing can help because it enables people to play a role in solving their own problems.  But it’s not magic, it’s not an elixir, it’s a piece of a much bigger puzzle, but it’s an important piece because what it does claim is that people do in fact have resources that they do not recognize they have, which might as well be mobilized and used if they worked collectively, but this is not the coming of a Messiah.

RA: Security of habitual routine is relatively high in some Arab communities, whereby these communities have cultivated an ingrained tradition of unquestioned belief in the grand authority of government, what do you think could be the first step towards unleashing this inertia to get the wheel going?

MG: You are probably at a better position to speak to that, I have no expertise in that part of the world, I am learning. However, I do think that the key begins in enhancing people’s own sense of their own worth and value, their own sense of efficacy and capacity, not only as individuals but in relationship to one another and that requires some form of action if it is going to be real.
If we look at the early emergence of democracy in the states, I recall there was a publication under the title of “habits of the heart”, on the skill of developing the habits of the heart, of collaboration of imagination. It’s almost like creating opportunities, certain kinds of spaces within which  people learn to become more interdependent perhaps less dependent, I don’t want to speak to the society of Jordan I  could speak about American society.
You see the reason why I keep coming back to the question of hope and fear, whether we call it empathy or solidarity or love. Community as a source of courage not as a way to hide from the world, there are two different ways to look at it, and sometimes people cultivate that in faith communities, in work place organizations, neighborhoods, recreational activities, it is not confined to any one place. I think it depends on the political, cultural and social context, where the places and spaces are, where people could develop their capacities.

RA: Urban governments realize that civil activism turns service-recipients into servants of society,  thus relieving government from full responsibility. Do urban governments have a role in promoting social activism? And how could that be achieved?

MG: The trade off is: on the one hand activism may relieve government from certain service related responsibilities; on the other hand it now has to respond to people as citizens and not as clients. It all pours in the question of: Am I a citizen or am I a client?
If I am a citizen, then I have a voice and so I may say to government here’s what I need or here’s what we need, it requires a different kind of relationship with community leadership. A lot depends on how appreciative municipal government is of developing a collaborative relationship with community leadership, however the instinct is often to create a “patron/client “relationship as in” I give you the services you give me your support”. Now what that does is create a passive citizenry, in a collaborative relationship I understand I have to hear from you and work with you but then again that’s part of taking your responsibility in solving your problems.
One of the trickiest things is: if I am trained as a bureaucrat, if I am responsible of administering
social services, I am focused on the most efficient way to manage my employees to provide these services, now I am probably not trained to engage with community leaders and come up with collaborative solutions.
RA: So do you see the need for government to train its employees to become more citizen-centered?
MG: Absolutely, it’s crucial.
We’re actually in process of running a doctoral program in leadership at the graduate school of education, we received 1200 applicants to the program and only 25 of them were admitted. Schools in this country are a big problem. When approaching the problem, we approach it as if it’s a factory production problem. So, it’s like “how do we create little widgets that can read?” rather than “how could we create education in the community?” Education is about creating parents, as much as it is about creating teachers and students and of school leadership.

What is the appropriate relationship of urban government to community leadership is a big question and it is not peculiar to any one part of the world. It’s also a question of reactive versus proactive roles in community.

RA: In your opinion what does it take to make a dependent community grow into an autonomous self-organizing entity?
MG: It’s a question of identifying sources of leadership within the community, supporting that leadership in coming together, developing enough trust in terms of shared values and common interests that they can begin to work together to identify ways to use the community’s resources to advance their interests .In some cases this could mean greater community collaboration like in credit unions or community day cares, in other cases it requires more effective mobilizing of community voice as advocate to make claims on other powerful institutions that have resources that the community needs,  whether its resources for education or housing or safety etc. I think it’s beginning to build the collaborative capacity right on the ground, but I believe it requires  collaboration of cross-community, these problems are often unsolvable at the level of the local community, it requires a form of association and federation across localities to empower and support each other.

RA: Which better describes your inclination, the statement that believes in leaders that are born or one that acknowledges leaders that are made?

: Some people are endowed with more talent or interpersonal skills. It’s important to understand leadership as a form of social interaction; it’s not a personality trait. It’s a way by which community gets certain kinds of work done. Martin Luther king grew up learning the meaning of leadership within the context of his community, his father was a Baptist minister and so it is an issue of what conditions do we create under which people could acquire leadership skills and practice it. To me that’s the question and how to make that most broadly accessible and available. In this country in the 19th century large civic associations were a major leadership school, there were fraternal organizations and societies for the advancement of this sect or the other, trade unions and farming organizations, and they were all like schools were people learnt basic leadership skills. And so a society, organization or community could well be very rich at creating opportunities. I tend to think of leadership as a set of practices, a variety of forms of social interaction  that have to do with motivation, strategy and purpose, and I think that how this work can be done can be organized in a variety of ways. In some cases there is one person trying to do it all and in many cases there is a combination of people, what equips people to be successful as a leadership depends on how leadership is being handled in that organization or society. In other words if leadership is all positional and if authority is in the hand of one individual it’s very different from shared and collaborative leadership.
I’ve been involved in work and studies on job dissatisfaction and it turned out that symphony musicians had the highest levels of job dissatisfaction. They were trained, creative, talented individuals who were put in a machine were the music conductor told them everything they had to do. So there is a group of musicians that decided to organize a conductor-less orchestra in New York. They have leadership they just don’t have a conductor. They figured out a way of doing the leadership work without having the one dominant personality that tells everybody what to do, so there are different ways to organize. I think it’s important to appreciate the fact that there isn’t one size fits all. On the question of leadership that is born or leadership that is developed, my thinking is that it depends on what you mean by that, certain people have talent for motivation and interpersonal skills but how that translates into effective leadership depends on a whole lot of other factors as well.

RA: Could we say that an organizer is the invisible hand of change, an anonymous leader that pulls all the strings behind the scenes?
MG: I think sometimes that is a very effective role to play and sometimes it isn’t. Gandhi was leading the independence movement in India and he rejected formal political leadership roles. Not because he was quite behind the scenes but he chose not to enter politics, to step out of politics and exercise his leadership in a different way. I think it really depends on the circumstances and what’s required, sometimes it can be very effective, I do believe in transparency, though. If someone is the organizer and not the outside leader this needs to be recognized, to me the invisible exercise of authority is problematic, because accountability is a crucial dimension for keeping the exercise of leadership healthy and if it’s not visible it’s very hard to have a public or private accountability.
RA: But that’s interesting in a way because your involvement in the Obama campaign wasn’t all that visible, it had a somewhat anonymous feel to it?
MG: Well it wasn’t deliberate, it wasn’t as if it were a big secret or anything, this was, for me , an effective way to make my contribution, and there are people out there who need the recognition more than others. I mean I do not have political ambitions and people who have political ambitions need public recognition.

RA: So in a nutshell, what are leaders made of? in one word?
MG: I come back to integrity; I think that’s the bottom line.

RA: There is an unmistakable chemistry between the social activist and the city. Do you see a city as the primitive cradle of public participation? And does this self-organizing activity essentially relate itself to urban settings?

MG: Cities have historically been the crucibles for learning and development (not to degrade the countryside) and change. If we go back to ancient times, cities were the crucibles out of which new understandings developed, so there is a deep affinity between cities, change, learning and creativity. I was in Toronto for the weekend to do some training, and there is a city that works, it’s very different from a lot of American cities, where many of these cities are struggling with problems of inequality. Toronto works, I am a fan of cities and I think we have to make them work.
RA: Do you think that perhaps the city is the first place where inequality had historically occurred?
MG: I think that when we start getting big inequality it usually starts with agriculture. If we resort to ancient times, there are certain kinds of cities which were mostly imperial, royal and religious centers, not centers for production, to the extent that they became locations of trade and commerce, then I think they became locations of creativity, because they grew into sites of cultural exchange and diversity, unless they were forts or temples they were centers of governance, and it’s when they became places of trade and commerce that their character changed.

RA: How would you advise a leader on fighting cynicism and apathy?
MG: Cynicism is usually a rooted disappointment. It’s a result of shattered hope that transforms into pain and is related to isolation and fear. I cite here the experience of the Black people of America; cynicism outrageously prevailed among the black community. Obama’s Success was transformational in every way to this community.
I think here that hope is the cure to cynicism and my definition of hope that I frequently use is
“Belief in the plausibility of the possible as opposed to the necessity of the probable”. Because you see, we are often inclined or accustomed to associate what’s most likely to happen with what will actually happen, we tend to think that they are the same thing when they are not, in social science they are not the same thing, our creativity resides in possibility.

RA: What is a public narrative and why is a public narrative an integral part of any campaign?

MG: A public narrative is an essential leadership skill. The two key challenges when faced with uncertainty are of two natures, Strategic and Motivational, and they are both critical.
Public narrative is a way to do the motivational part of leadership, how to articulate to others values, to confront people with the need for action, and the fundamental moral role of relationship of one to others to values. If one looks at literature on ancient religions and teachings such that of the Hindu tradition there is constant reference to the need to for courage and where to find sources of hope , and in this regard most cultures have found ways to find courage for collective action.
A public narrative is about bringing intentionality to people, for something natural to become mindful and interactive. An efficient leader should be a good story teller- caution that this means not that he should be a liar but someone who is particularly good at narrating stories that convey moral truths.
Traditional storytellers, a “hakawti” for example may exercise a certain form of leadership. Traditional tales and stories in themselves constitute a depository of a culture’s legacy and heritage of wisdom, of its collective aurally transmitted truths. To hear a traditional storyteller is to listen to the moral ground of a culture.  The capacity to cut through cultures through story telling is tremendous.

**Ruba is an architect and urban designer at the Amman Institute for Urban development, a not for profit think tank in the field of urban governance and planning. She has previously worked at the Amman based practice of Ammar Khammash. Ruba has also contributed to a number of publications related to the making of places.

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