Liberatory Governance… and belonging

Liberatory Governance… and belonging

How do we organize ourselves… in a world where everyone belongs?

Of the many barriers to living into a world where everyone belongs, this question feels fundamental: how do we organize ourselves? What might it look and feel like to work in an organization without coercion, without domination hierarchies… where everyone belongs?

So today I want to talk about governance. The term sounds bland, but I think it’s sexy: it is the magic that makes everything else possible, and the curse that can undermine even our best work if we don’t pay attention to it. I like this simple definition from the WeGovern community:

Governance is how we choose to be together.

Zen priest and movement strategist Norma Wong names what we all feel, looking out at the world, our institutions, and our movements:

Governance as it exists right now is in collapse.

While I think about governance at every level (family, organization, nation-state), today I want to focus on the scale of an organization, network, or collective: a group of people with a shared purpose and defined membership.


No transformation without governance

I want to thank Brandon Dubé in particular for pushing me, and Building Belonging, to embrace governance as a tool of transformation, and to explore sociocracy in particular. He helped remind us: if governance is about how we choose to be together, then by definition we are all involved in governance all the time, every day, in all of our relationships. Kali Akuno, one of the founders of Cooperation Jackson, agrees:

Governance is just how we make collective decisions together.

In a previous post reflecting on the nature of power, I adopted Priya Parker’s simple definition: “Power is decision-making.” Following this logic, governance is about making visible how power operates, and treating the question of how we wield power with intentionality.

I love Ted Rau’s delightfully provocative question and book: “Who decides… who decides?” If you really sit with it, it’s a radical question, and one that helps distinguish acts of leadership (someone has to speak first, to take responsibility for initiating or facilitating a conversation and the act of collaboration) from acts of domination (preventing others from speaking, my way or the highway, etc.).

Here’s the thing: I’ve come to believe that there is no durable path to transformation without attending to both the process and structure for how we make decisions together in a collective context. As Sean Andrew, Louise Armstrong and Anna Birney explain:

How we relate, work together, and organize are cornerstones of change making… Governance is central to any form of organizing or organization creating change.

We’ve been socialized to view governance as something annoying that gets in the way of “doing the work.” I want to flip this conventional understanding to expose a deeper truth: practicing good governance is the work; without it, anything we create will ultimately be fragile or even antithetical to our aims. As john powell reminds us:

If we don’t do things at a structural level, the structural level will undermine the progress we are making at the personal level.

What we agree on

To generalize broadly we can divide governance into two aspects: structure (think org charts, roles and decision-making authority, etc.) and process (how we make decisions, how we relate to each other). While the two are of course inseparable, today I want to focus primarily on structure: how do we embed the principles of liberatory governance in our org design?

Specifically, I want to distill three foundational principles that practitioners seem to agree on. Of course this is just my subjective perspective; I very much welcome generative pushback and other efforts to synthesize a broad and diverse field.

1. The opposite of coercion is consent

In a world where everyone belongs, we don’t want coercion. As Zakiyya Ismail notes:

Wherever there is coercion, there is oppression.

Dominant culture organizational hierarchies enshrine coercion: “bosses’“ are elevated above other workers; disobey your boss and you risk getting fired. In his beautiful handbook on Mutual Aid principles, Dean Spade notes:

Our society runs on coercion… Most of us have little experience in groups where everyone gets to make decisions together, because our schools, homes, workplaces, congregations, and other groups are mostly run as [domination] hierarchies.

Because we lack practice, too often when we seek refuge from this authoritarian model we make the mistake of swinging to the opposite extremes: either rejecting structure altogether (all hierarchy is bad! inevitably leading to the infamous “tyranny of structurelessness”) or demanding an overly rigid homogeneity that calls for universal consensus. As experiments like Occupy Wall Street have shown, relying only on consensus (everyone agrees on the way forward) is both inefficient and can allow bad-faith actors to impede progress… itself a form of coercion.

The antidote is consent-based governance. As Stas Schmiedt notes:

Consent is how we operationalize liberation.

There are a range of methodologies emerging that seek to codify what a consent-based governance structure/practice might look like; my favorite thus far is sociocracy, a concept given life by the team at Sociocracy for AllThis article by Ted Rau is a great introduction, and here is a helpful companion piece distinguishing consensus-based governance from consent-based governance. To be clear: majoritarian democracy (what we purport to practice in the United States) is NOT based on consent. Majority rule doesn’t seek to integrate minority objections; it seeks to overrule them: in my view, that is a coercive system.

The core idea is that the bar for action is not agreement but willingness (a term I prefer to “tolerance”). People can (and must!) object to a proposal that they believe will undermine organizational purpose, but that objection is not a veto: it’s naming an issue that must be addressed and integrated into an improved proposal before it can move forward. The assumption is that the proposal will move forward once the objection has been integrated.

It’s a subtle but radical shift that provides the basis for everything that follows. As the folks at Circle Forward note:

Consent is the foundation for an entire governance system.

2. Structure codifies, reflects, and creates culture

OK, we’re organizing around consent: this is already a radical departure from dominant cultures (and organizational structures) predicated on coercion. But precisely because we have so little practice/training in operationalizing consent, we need help. Our structures have to support us, individually and collectively, in practicing different ways of being. In his comprehensive study about how change happens, sociologist Damon Centola concludes:

We don’t make decisions as individuals; we are reciprocally influenced by the environment and people around us… It is largely the structures in which they are embedded that determines whether things work well or not.

On this all the practitioners I follow agree: the structure both reflects and creates culture; it serves to codify how we relate to each other. Tracy Kunkler explains:

Governance is how we set up systems to live our values, and leads to the creation, reinforcement, or reproduction of social norms and institutions. Governance systems give form to the culture’s power relationships.

The folks at Brave New Work name the implication for our org structures:

Whatever we want to be true about the way we relate, is it in the system, is it in the structure?

Taking this question seriously underscores the importance of governance. If we acknowledge that our default patterning is shaped by systems of oppression (white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, etc.), then without intentional effort—and lots of practice!—we are likely to repeat those patterns in our organizations. bell hooks names the challenge:

To build community requires vigilant awareness of the work we must continually do to undermine all the socialization that leads us to behave in ways that perpetuate domination.

Without a structure that supports us in practicing these more liberatory ways of being, we will find ourselves struggling. I love this vulnerable share from Dana Kawaoka-Chen documenting her own efforts at culture-change inside her organization:

Even if I as the executive director had a vision for another way of being, I did not have the organizational structure in place to reinforce a different set of values, which allowed the default operating system to prevail.

3. We want a decentralized structure that enables people to share their fullest gifts

Here we begin to wade into murky waters. I think practitioners generally agree on three things:

  1. Liberatory governance systems must be decentralized: there is no central command and control structure.
  2. The structure must seek to, as Alanna Irving notes, “align power with responsibility.” And I would go one step farther: to align responsibility with authority: whoever is best-positioned to act (as a function of the healthy expression of power, whether derived from knowledge, capacity, or relationships) has the responsibility and authority to act.
  3. The structure must help maximize and channel “discretionary energy” in service of our shared purpose. (Indeed, this has long been one of my core definitions of leadership: the ability to inspire and support others in tapping into the fullest expression of their gifts… and sharing those gifts in support of the collective).

Emergent paradigms seek to solve for these concerns; frameworks like sociocracy do a good job of speaking to the first two points here. While in theory sociocracy can also provide a structure to unlock and channel people’s gifts, I have yet to see it work like that in practice… for reasons I’ll get into below.

Where we still struggle

There is so much that is difficult about this… even as the promise remains tantalizing and delightful when we taste it. As Ericka Stallings notes,

This lack of knowledge about how to operationalize liberatory values exists because we’ve never actually experienced it, so we are almost imagining it into being.

I want to name here three of the core challenges I see that we haven’t yet collectively found a way to effectively navigate. These are areas of experimentation and practice in real time among all the organizations, networks, communities, and collectives that I see on the cutting edge of this work (groups like Wildseed SocietyChange ElementalResonance Network, the Fierce Vulnerability  Network, the Post-Growth Institute, the Thrive Network, and Open Collective, among others).

1. Leadership, agency, power, and self-governance (structure alone will not set us free)

There are books written on each of these topics, but the dynamic I want to highlight here turns on the question of agency (defined as the capacity to exert power).

The general pattern I observe splits along lines of privilege and marginalization. Those socialized into power and privilege, once they become aware of that socialization and not wanting inadvertently to perpetuate domination, shrink from exercising their power: they abdicate their agency (white people in multiracial space, e.g.) At the same time, people marginalized and oppressed by dominant culture have a hard time feeling safe enough to exercise their rightful power. Everyone is afraid to take on the responsibility that comes with leadership, especially amid the radical complexity of proposing a course through uncharted waters… and make decisions that will inevitably have an impact on other people.

The result can be a leadership vacuum, where no one is taking the action that all can see is needed. Gopal Dayaneni names this as one the biggest obstacles we face on the path to liberation:

The primary barrier is our ability to democratically self-govern… The practice of self-governance is the hardest thing. We have to make the hardest decisions, and we don’t have any practice.

Instead, we often look to the structure, or to others with more visible forms of social, positional, or structural power, to get us unstuck. But this misses the point. Quanita Roberson offers this provocation:

So much of what we are struggling with as a culture is that we want everything to be external so that we don’t have to take responsibility for what is actually ours to do.

Norma Wong puts it simply: “Transformation requires agency.”

Self-organizing is dead: long live self-organizing!

So here’s the paradox. On the one hand, I agree with Gopal Dayaneni, who declares:

The future must be self-organized.

And I agree with Alanna Irving, who asserts:

I believe there is no such thing as “self-organizing”—there is always work to be done and a skillset required to coordinate people to move together toward a larger shared goal.

The challenge I’m naming here has to do with coming into right relationship with power: our own, others’, and power as made visible and reflected in organizational structure. For self-organizing to work, individuals have to assert agency: to take responsibility for making decisions with and on behalf of the collective. This is by definition an act of leadership. Nwamaka Agbo frames the challenge:

We don’t what it means to lead, until we have to make difficult decisions and take accountability and responsibility for those decisions… collective decision-making still requires that we make decisions.

2. We don’t know what to do with money

If power, agency, and self-governance is hard… that difficulty increases by a degree of magnitude when we introduce money. Two things were clear to me in launching Building Belonging: I wanted to avoid the funder-appeasement / movement-capture trap of the nonprofit industrial complex; and I wanted to avoid the opposite extreme of relying entirely on a volunteer-based community without any money. Both situations risk reinforcing the very power dynamics I want to escape: the gatekeeper model of elite access to funding, or volunteer networks that end up becoming becoming playgrounds for the privileged.

And there’s more: I had a sense that money is one of the most transformative realms of practice available to us; as Orland Bishop reminds us, it is humanity’s largest unconscious agreement.

I love this entire interview with Gopal Dayaneni, where he explains:

The primary reason people pay their rent is because they have no alternative ways to meet their housing needs… It’s not primarily the coercive power of the state or corporations. Rather, we are forced to comply without consent because we have no meaningful alternative.

So even as we focus on developing more liberatory ways of working with money (gotta pay rent!), that’s only half the work: we also have to be devoting energy to meeting our individual and collective needs outside of that system. If we are to transition to a post-capitalist world where everyone belongs, here’s what feels clear to me.

  1. We have to find ways to meet our needs outside of the money/exchange paradigm (see e.g. this recent post from Mike Strode, exploring some creative ways of flowing value and meeting needs outside the bounded system of money)
  2. We have to use money to meet our needs in the interim while we remain tethered to that paradigm (see e.g. this discussion of challenges and experiments from Francesca Pick)
  3. We have to be proactively engaged in both levels at the same time (I love this example from the DisCO cooperative: finding ways to honor the value not only of traditionally remunerative work but also of care work and pro bono contributions)

I’d love to see more examples like DisCO intentionally exploring this space, anchored in indigenous and intersectional feminist principles.

3. Navigating conflict and impact

On this point Kazu Haga is blunt:

The greatest barrier to living and building beloved community is how we navigate conflict.

He may be right: everything else is navigable if we have the skills to transform conflict; not much is possible if we don’t. This has been my consistent lesson from all my work understanding and trying to transform oppressive systems: they depend on separation. Oppressive systems cannot sustain themselves if we have the ability to repair ruptures and reconnect what has been severed. Indeed, I love this definition of leadership from Marcella Bremer, channeling Otto Scharmer:

Leadership is connecting what was separated.

How can we embed accountability and conflict transformation in our structures, when these are fundamentally relational capacities? As Sean, Louise, and Anna remind us:

The nature and quality of our relationships is the foundation of any governance.

I don’t have great answers here. It feels clear to me that a big piece of the work is re-wiring how we understand and relate to conflict: from something bad to be avoided, to Malidoma Somé’s beautiful definition:

Conflict is the spirit of the relationship asking itself to deepen.

My own evolving sense is at minimum every organization/network/collective needs two things:

  1. The structural equivalent of a help line: where do you go when you find yourself in conflict and unsure how to proceed? I love Alyson Ewald’s idea (from this podcast) of creating a “conflict celebration team.”
  2. A community-wide commitment to building capacity to navigate conflict, individually, interpersonally, and collectively. This includes trainings and practice, drawing on a growing range of methodologies (I like the framework offered by Deep Democracy, and the skillsets named in Nonviolent Communication, e.g.)

And of course, to name the elephant in the room here: upstream of everything we’re working on is trauma. If we want to come into right relationship with power and agency, hold the tension of navigating money as we transition toward post-capitalism, and transform conflict… we need to find ways individually and collectively to heal from trauma.

Structure is not a panacea. We are still human beings inside of whatever structure we create, with all of our foibles, unhealed trauma, and limited capacity. I’ve written elsewhere about trauma, but need to name it here.


An invitation to practice

If you made it this far, I want to close with an invitation to action, and to feedback: what resonates? What doesn’t? What are you seeing? This work is incredibly difficult… and incredibly liberating, when we find ourselves in structures of belonging.

The WeGovern Community reminds us:

Governance begins with each of us: in practice, in relationship, every day.

I like the way Kim Tallbear expresses our humble aspiration:

We are not trying to get it right, we are trying to get it less wrong, through practice.

Brian Stout is a systems convener, network weaver, and initiator of the Building Belonging collaborative. His background is in international conflict mediation, serving as a diplomat with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Washington and overseas. He also worked in philanthropy with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, before leaving in early 2016 to organize in response to the global rise of authoritarianism and far-right nationalism. He recently returned to his hometown in rural southern Oregon, where he lives with his wife and two children.

originally published at building belonging

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