(the following was sent to the Common Ground leadership and other allies in early 2006.)

This is it!

figuring out how to be Common Ground

Dear compañer@s,

I write in solidarity, several days after leaving New Orleans. I invite you to read this letter in the spirit it is written: with an open heart. I will make bold statements to attempt provocative clarity; please remember that I'm painfully aware everything is much more complicated than this.

Over the three weeks of my direct participation in the life and work of Common Ground, I interviewed over thirty people and experienced various aspects of the formal and informal process of the organization. I learned more about the history of New Orleans, the racist context in which the "disaster of Katrina was made a tragedy", and the incredible reservoirs of cultural resistance in its black communities. Along with every single person I spoke with, I believe that Common Ground is doing powerful and important work.

Common Ground is coming to the end of a period of intense external pressure and internal conflict, as the organization struggled to deal with thousands of college students on spring break. Many of the site coordinators and other organizers deeply involved in that work have decided to leave Common Ground at the end of March; some have left already. There are various reasons for this, but dissatisfaction with process and concern that important lessons aren't being learned is often mentioned as a critical reason for leaving earlier than otherwise anticipated.

This is not the first time there has been this kind of crisis, and Common Ground has continued to grow. For many of the founders and long-term organizers, there is significant concern that time “invested” in process and communication work (debriefing, conflict resolution, developing new structures) is a waste of energy; there have been repeated examples of “pointless fiascos” that seem to justify this perspective.

I understand this feeling. Common Ground has achieved all that it has not through agonizing attempts to develop the perfect process, but by leaping into the fray, mistakes and all, with whomever was willing to join. And Common Ground has achieved more than anyone thought possible, weaving together black and white radical traditions (and a whole bunch of regular folk) -- perhaps more substantially than any time in the last 40 years -- to create a small, partial, but functioning social economy that supports dozens of fulltime volunteers, assists thousands of residents, and provides remarkable scope to explore and demonstrate the social relations of the world we want to become. As Malik says, “No one's ever done this before”.

But it's just for that reason that I invite you to consider Common Ground's struggles around organizational structure and support, trust and power, communication and respect to be at least as important as the houses gutted and clients attended, the actions planned and media worked. In a global political and ecological emergency, isn't the the key question whether we the people will learn to organize ourselves effectively in a rapidly changing environment of many different perspectives, identities, and values? Common Ground has taken us a big step forward. We don't have time not to learn from our experiences, our successes, our mistakes. Common Ground may change deeply, it may cease altogether, or it may grow exponentially; regardless, the activists and organizers who spend a week or a year engaged will carry their lessons into a thousand other projects and movements.

May those lessons be as complete as we can make them.

I intend this letter to provide my brief initial reflection of the situation of Common Ground, some perspectives on how Common Ground is functioning, and specific challenges expressed by various parties. I will conclude with some suggestions based on input from a wide variety of participants in Common Ground, to stoke conversation. An appendix includes information on my biases and a list of people interviewed.

But before that, a final introductory word. The people I met and interviewed at Common Ground are without exception committed, passionate, thoughtful, curious, perseverent, energetic, and strong. I know that several of you have deep suspicions and antagonisms towards each other. I know that all of us are human, frail, and susceptible to numerous faults and failings. But I deeply believe that each of you deserve to be respected, and that with enough open humility, listening, and understanding (even as you work and organize and fight), you can help facilitate grassroots organization capable of building a soulful, healing N.Orleans. And if that, why not all of us the world?

Walking, we ask questions. May we learn from our many answers, many wisdoms, many voices.

~-~*~-~

I ultimately intend to complete a polyvocal “political ethnography” of Common Ground. Most of the interviews I conducted were recorded, and I intend to make excerpted transcriptions and the full audio of those interviews available on the web, along with summaries that draw out divergences and similarities. However, that will take time; I decided to write this letter to allow some of the helpfulness and relevance of your collaborative reflections to be available for you right away, even if through my own voice.

This, then, is only an initial summary sketch rooted in my verbal memory, to be shaded in more fully as transcriptions and deeper textual analyses become available. More importantly, I hope that this work may stimulate ongoing conversation(s), in voice and text and perhaps online.

~-~*~-~

Areas of agreement

Common Ground is doing remarkable work. Formed in the days after the Storm by Malik, Sharon, and a couple white activist allies, it has grown by leaps and bounds in ways no one planned or predicted. Initially made up of a small but rapidly growing number of white radicals and organizers from around the country camped out at Malik's house (and his neighbor's yard!), the organization initially focused on a free clinic, distribution work, and tarping roofs in Algiers. However, it has rapidly expanded in a staged series of "crises": first expanding primary relief activities across the river into the upper 9th ward; then drawing in hundreds of additional volunteers into the cramped new Pauline St. quarters with the Roadtrip for Relief over Thanksgiving; then another deluge of college students over Christmas break, combined with expansion into the little blue house in the lower 9th ward; and finally with the nearly concluded "Second Freedom Rides" alternative Spring break, with over 2000 short-term college student volunteers. Over the same period, relief work has expanded into other parts of New Orleans and the region: Houma, Plaquemines Parish, St. Barnard Parish, and the Art Egg in mid-City, with smaller projects in Gentilly and New Orleans East.

Despite repeated internal and external challenges, this pattern of continued expansion into areas of critical need has allowed Common Ground to distribute more food and water, gut more houses, and see more patients than other agencies in its areas of operation. This expanding practical relief work, so palpably appreciated by city residents, is repeatedly identified by CG participants as a key source of pride and a reason for continued engagement. Nonetheless, each crisis has also been associated with a wave of “burn-out” and the departure of significant numbers of organizers.

At the same time, CG has rapidly diversified the scope of its activities. Beyond the "distro, gutting, clinic" core of standard relief work, a whole host of projects have been launched as part of the organization, generally through the inspiration and instigation of a volunteer with a particular passion. Such additional projects range from legal advocacy to bike repair, from afterschool programs to a newspaper, from a media center to a women's shelter, bioremediation to worker's co-ops, (online) radio broadcasts to re-evacuation preparedness work. A large proportion of long-term CG volunteers that remain in the region are now primarily involved in these projects.

~-~*~-~

Divergent perspectives

What is Common Ground's organizational ethos? Here is an attempt to outline some of the paradigms I hear people use:

  1. (Moving towards) standard authoritarian leftist organization, seeking to subordinate and expand its base to propel the power (electoral or otherwise) of its leader(s). Commonly a perspective of relatively recently-arrived anti-authoritarians, many of whom leave CG or remain peripheral to its organizing.

  2. A grassroots relief organization with a locally-rooted leader, similar in form to other charities but more effective because of minimized bureaucracy and greater opportunities for innovation. Associated with many non-radical or "liberal" participants, apparently an increasing proportion.

  3. A network of relatively autonomous project collectives, experiencing significant miscommunications and occasional micromanagement by a centralized collective of long-time organizers. Aspects of this understanding described both by relative newcomers and by some organizers in leadership roles.

  4. An "anarcho-military" organization (without guns), in which limited authority is given or taken for specific needs and tasks, and the capacity for a "centralized push" in crisis situations is afforded those with the courage to undertake it. Aspects of this understanding described by various organizers in leadership roles.

  5. An organic, ever-changing family of committed individuals organized under the principle of collaboration despite differences ("common ground"), united by bonds of trust and respect, like the Black Panthers but always open to change. Aspects of this understanding described by many long-time or founding organizers.

I think Common Ground includes all these dynamics and more; that is part of what makes it work and keeps it so interesting, but it also leads to significant problems as the organization grows. Originally small enough for challenges and differences to be smoothed over by direct personal charisma and friendship, Common Ground has experienced successive waves of new organizers resulting in functionally subordinate infrastructures (eg. the housing sites) in which coordinators don't have strong personal relationships with the leadership, Malik in particular. While the distinction between the Collective and the Relief organizations has been used to identify this changing situation, there is still a great deal of miscommunication and confusion over who is part of the Collective and how it functions. Moreover, even full formal membership in a decision-making structure doesn't necessarily address the breakdowns in informal communication and engagement experienced during organizational growth.

I think how to address growth is the key organizational challenge facing Common Ground.

The distinction between Collective and Relief is an initial formal recognition of the structure that has emerged organically. However, another model with greater differentiation has recently caught on among Common Ground organizers: “1's” are short-term volunteers, one or two weeks; “2's” are longer term volunteers (work crew leaders, special project workers, etc.); “3's” are project and site coordinators; “4's” are mediators and liaisons between inner decision-making circle in Algiers and “3's”; “5's” are core advisors and decision-makers with Malik.

Clearly this analysis strikes a chord, and is true in some valuable ways. Some people respond positively, emphasizing the importance of clearly defined roles. Others respond with resignation or distaste, particularly organizers that come from non-hierarchical political traditions. Even though most are willing to "endure" the foreign organizational form in the interest of solidarity, they experience intense personal angst and discomfort with it. This amplifies the difficulties all large organizations have with communication with the “higher-ups”, especially since many such organizers have little experience working with hierarchical organizations except to leave and/or attack them.

However, I think that what's crucially important, and is missed by the oversimplistic “1” to “5” analysis, is that Common Ground's “hierarchy” is exceptionally loose, fluid, and dynamic. Compared to most organizations of its size, there is remarkable access and engagement between different “layers”, opportunities for autonomy and innovation, and little workplace discipline or “class” distinctions in terms of living conditions or workload. Many organizers with a background in black radical or other more hierarchical traditions find the situation inefficient or presumptuous; it's a testament to the commitment and open-mindedness of everyone involved with Common Ground that they are willing to be engaged with such unfamiliar processes.

Example concerns of “3's” and responses of “5's”:

Important decisions are frequently made by central organizers (particularly those on West Bank) with limited direct experience or knowledge of “facts on the ground”. This undermines effectiveness of decisions. Relatively new and inexperienced (not to mention young and white) coordinators are expecting a level of authority that is inappropriate and that would undermine the capacity of the organization to be truly responsive to community needs, which are best known and understood by Malik and others.

Some members of core leadership yell at, and otherwise disrespect site coordinators. They do not show any understanding of the amount of work done, provide organizational support, etc. Coddled young privileged activists need to learn the world doesn't revolve around their needs, and if they're not up to the task they're welcome to leave.

Organizational decisions and practices effectively disregard health and safety (esp. of short-term volunteers). While as much as possible has been done to provide protection and medical support, short-termers are told they're entering a disaster zone, and it's presumptuous and patronizing to argue that college students should expect a danger-free experience when residents and long-term volunteers have had to, and will continue to endure far worse for much longer.

Example concerns of “5's” and responses of “3's”:

By threatening “strike action,” site coordinators are breaking solidarity both with the founders of Common Ground and the people of New Orleans. Without dramatic measures, central leadership is unresponsive to repeated pleas for help and suggestions for workable solutions to pressing problems, through the standard channels (ie. “4's” and coordinators' councils).

Organizers and activists with concerns and practical suggestions complain among themselves, rather than coming and discussing matters with Malik and others, or going out and implementing changes directly. There's no time; coordinators are drowning in work load! Moreover, a culture of distance, being overruled, and being scolded for 'insubordination' undermines confidence that new ideas will meet with organizational support.

Young white activists seem unwilling to recognize the need to follow local leadership of color and to learn humbly from some of the most experienced black radical organizers in the country. Local leadership is not fostering engagement of other community members in organization, undermining implementation of “solidarity not charity” and interactions outside of white volunteer subculture.

These and similar concerns and the responses to them have not yet found an adequate vehicle for expression and mutual understanding in Common Ground. Instead, they tend to be repeated over and over “to the choir”, reinforcing polarization, reducing the prospect of authentic communication when engagement does happen, and undermining opportunities for creative solution of problems and transformation of the organization. Many people on various “sides” of the divides feel insulted, angry, and frustrated by this pattern.

There is no easy or pat solution to this kind of problem, involving both organizational structure and personal relationships. But I think there are strategies that will help. I suggest a clear recognition that Common Ground is multiple things at once, a commitment to address issues that seem opaque or minimal from one's own perspective, and a willingness to try multiple modes of solution to a given problem. For example, breakdowns in communication can be addressed as they might be in a hierarchical structure (regular opportunities for reports, consistent feedback from leaders, creation of human resources infrastructure), and also in more informal ways (actively encouraging socializing across banks of the river, autonomously creating a new project focused on relationships, facilitation, organizing subs, and providing other forms of communication support).

Indeed, there continues to be deep commitment among Common Ground's leaders to a spirit of inventiveness and change, even as the scale of the organization makes it more challenging. This offers an incredible opportunity to organizers and activists from a variety of traditions to try out various tactics in a spirit of respect, camaraderie, and serious engagement with the questionable sustainability and potential for growth of our alternatives to Empire.

In that spirit, I close by offering the following ideas for new roles towards a more sustainable Common Ground, potentially grouped together as a “social ecology” project:

Plug-in person(s): Receives volunteer information from registration, meets with long-termers to get a sense of skills/availability, keeps database/rolodex of “personnel” and “job openings”, recruits internally (perhaps externally as well) for needed roles, solicits identifiable short tasks from project groups, etc.

Facilitation crew: Coordinates facilitation trainings, directly facilitates important meetings, etc.

Communication liaison(s): Focused on listening to concerns, gripes, frustrations, suggestions, affirmations, etc. and communicating in appropriate ways (respectfully, efficiently, directly) to relevant other parties; known, trusted, and respected position.

Ethnohistorian: Solicits, collects, archives, and presents various internal and external perspectives on structure, work, and lessons of Common Ground. Could include role of communicating history and dynamics of organization to newcomers, allies, and community members.

Sustainability support: Organizing substitutes for days off, (co-)counseling, R&R opportunities, massages, etc. Could include providing short regular news summaries of developments in Common Ground, N.Orleans, and the world (easy to feel cut off).

Conflict resolution (post-emergency): Developing group agreements, providing mediation, scaling up into group process (only) as necessary.

en la lucha,

.brush 3/22/06

Reflexivity and bias

Brush: white male radical activist and thinker, 30 years on this planet.

Personal political history: rooted in a wide variety of North American approaches and movements, from the anti-authoritarian white subcultures of forest defense, squats, train hopping, and street blockades, to the anarcho-patriarchal legacy of the rainbow gatherings; from global justice summit-hopping convergences to long-term wobbly union salting; from forming student housing coops to living and working with “informal settlement” organizers in South Africa; from academic conferences to lumpen crime; from spiritual wisdom traditions to apocalyptic revolutionary Christianity; and many things in between.

Global analysis: world history (for the last 500 years dominated by an emerging white supremacist, capitalist global Empire) is entering a period of deep uncertainty: apparently hard external limits to growth and resulting internal instabilities offer opportunities for unexpected, potentially positive systemic disruption and change.

Operating dogma: to be agile enough to respond to rapidly changing conditions, and to be capable of exponentially growing coherence in favorable circumstances, our primary work is to learn to build resilient, redundant, effective, and articulate relationships between the foci of transformation in all kinds of movements, communities, identities, and ideologies.

Self-appointed role: one part diplomat, one part anthropologist, and one part witch, with a side of self-management consultant. (But never happy without my hands and feet dirty.)

A partial list of interviewees.

(for audio recordings, see this index)

Recorded (in no particular order):

Suncere

Asha

Brian

Lisa

Danny

Jen

Chris

Eric

Annie

Lana

Tiffany

Topher

Lulu

Iggy

Kate

Koné

Davie

Mouse

Rain

Baruch

Aton

Luke

Genevieve

Djen

Alain

Sera

Cen

Unrecorded:

Kerul

Brandon

Mikkel

Air

Malik*

Shakoor*

Sue*

John*

Val*

Francisco*

(* limited scope)