Inside/Out: Democratic Participation and Economic Justice in Our Own Organizations

admin January 30th, 2008

We are living in political times when the progressive left is generally perceived to be in disarray. Though thousands of nonprofit organizations, both large and small, are working on a wide array of social and economic issues, we are often disconnected, lacking a united vision and effort, protective of turf and competitive with one another for limited sources of funding. Moreover, the majority of our organizations do not have a base of politically-educated constituencies who can move issues. The power of information, ideas, access to people, shared leadership, collectively developed vision and strategies is in the hands of a few, often the director and senior staff rather than dispersed throughout the organization and its constituency. Consequently, the progressive left is lacking the numbers of inspired and politically involved people necessary to mount a movement. There is something wrong with how we are conducting the business of social change.

One difficulty is that we are fighting the major oppressions of our time and trying to create a better world, but we are not living the values we want society to embrace. That’s exactly what many young and/or new organizers often say is at the heart of the problem: we are conducting our organizations as though they were a business, reflecting the same structures of board rooms and CEOs or “executive” directors where the power is held primarily at the top—as are the highest wages. Young/new organizers often say that the biggest struggle they face is not with opposing forces in society but with the politics of their organization that allows them little voice, leadership or mobility. They come to social change work expecting organizations that pursue justice to be different from for-profit organizations; they expect them to mirror the politics they espouse. They expect them, above all others, to be the place where they can bring their whole selves. When justice organizations follow authoritarian and anti-democratic internal policies, many of these young/new organizers are disillusioned and leave to seek places where they can live their politics and have a chance to grow.

During a time in which large numbers of people in this country have lost faith in the political process and in both elected leaders and community leaders—so much so that people do not vote or volunteer in their communities—perhaps the most important thing that could happen would be the restoration of the public faith. We may not be able to restore it soon in our government or corporations, but we can change the institutions we have created ourselves, where we live our vision of a just and equitable society. Among nonprofits, that change would require creating a closely woven but transparent fabric of integrity: matching our internal organizational politics to the external political demands we make. That is, if we demand equality, we must practice it within our organization. If we do not practice our core values, then why would anyone want to join us in our pursuit of justice? If our work in communities focuses on democratic participation and economic justice, then we must practice it internally: justice and equality begin at home.

Here are some of the critical questions for social change organizations to use as an inventory of our internal work:

Democratic Participation

1. How are decisions made? Are all of those who are impacted by the decision a part of the decision making? How do you do an internal power analysis?

2. Who sets the agenda? 1-low is work assigned? What are the systems of accountability?

3. How is access to information (people, ideas) shared? Who gets to attend meetings, conferences? Who speaks to the press? Who is allowed to be the voice of the organization in public and decision-making places? Who interacts with the board?

4. How does in-house education take place? Are there funds for staff education?

5. How does one take on leadership? How does one advance?

6. How is the constituency involved in each of these questions? Decision-making, agenda setting, access to information, political education, leadership?

7. Are traditionally underrepresented groups (people of color, les/gay/hi/trans, poor people, people with disabilities) aggressively recruited for staff?

8. Does the staff do intensive work on barriers such as racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, ableism, to make sure that the organization welcomes all voices and makes a place of equality for them?

9. Who is not at the table when you meet?

10. How is the external politic of the organization practiced internally?

Economic Justice

1. Who does the fundraising?

2. Who determines salaries and raises?

3. Is there more than a $15,000 gap between the lowest paid and the highest?

4. Are health benefits, travel allowances, etc., the same for everyone?

5. Is childcare provided for meetings, events, and staff travel?

6. Who decides how resources will be apportioned organizationally? Are all of those who are impacted by the decision a part of the decision making?

7. Is there money for enabling your constituency to attend meetings outside your community?

8. How is the external politic of your organization practiced internally? Does your organization reflect the world you want to create?

These are simple but hard questions for groups that have progressive politics and work within old structures that mirror the practices of the corporations we criticize. When we can change them, we will create a blue print for how society can be different—beginning with us.

Suzanne Pharr



February 2001

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