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October 31, 2013

Organizational Evolution

As a social change organizational development consultant, I often enter organizations where there is a crisis. The leaders have been running on fumes for so long that they’ve forgotten that they need regular (and sustainable) fuel for their work. Conflicts have festered so long that relationships are eroded; front line staff are exhausted and overwhelmed by exposure to violence. The structures that organizations create in their first year have not evolved by their thirtieth, so that the core is not strong enough to support the depth or breadth of the work.

I have worked with many leaders (and maybe even been one of these leaders myself) who couldn’t say no to unreasonable demands by colleagues, coalitions partners, or funders. I have worked with so many (and maybe even been one myself) folks who held their authority with ambivalence and couldn’t use power productively. Who avoided conflict with colleagues even as they boldly challenge systems and structures on the “outside”.

I come to this work as an activist. I’ve been working in the movements to end violence against women and girls and violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender communities for my entire adult life, since I helped to found the rape crisis center at my college. My first job out of college was as a community organizer with an anti-violence organization.  We organized volunteers to canvass the neighborhood when the police wouldn’t respond after two lesbian women of color were attacked in their home, and kept vigil with a gay man after his life partner, whom his family thought of as his roommate, was murdered on the street where they lived. We trained health and social workers to respond to LGBTQ, and HIV affected folks victimized by bias crime on the streets, by intimate partner violence and sexual assault in their homes, and by police indifference and brutality. We trained community members and survivors to support one another and advocated for policy reform on the local, state and national levels. I loved this work. And I left it when the unspoken conflicts, toxic leadership and vicarious trauma took too much of a toll.

I think that our anti-violence organizations can be places where we live our vision for the world:  places where we hold one another accountable with love, where we build and exercise power with one another, where we challenge one another to bring our full selves to the task of creating the world we deserve. I believe that our organizations can be places where we learn to hold and honor complexity, where we negotiate authority and role with transparency, where we practice decision making that is both strategic and participatory, where we experience equity and inclusion on an every-day basis. When organizations are practicing their values everyday, more power is available for the work of social change.

As an organizational development consultant and an activist, I think a lot about what it will take to intentionally evolve our organizations in the direction of transformation. I think it has to do with challenging some of our models about non-profits, reimaging organizational possibilities and having the courage to ask some critical questions about how we are organizing ourselves for social change.

  • What is the relationship between working to end violence and how we take up power and authority? About how we manage conflict?
  • How do we make room for our complex and diverse identities and experiences of oppression, privilege and political power? How do we honor difference while seeking common ground?
  • How do we reimagine leadership in our own images? Transform what we’ve inherited about leadership and management into what we need to fulfill our visions of justice and equity communities?
  • How do we build the human infrastructure —ethical management, equitable policy, self-care, mutual accountability, and authentic connection--that we need to sustain ourselves and our organizations?
  • What do we need to build organizations that can adapt to changing conditions and to liberate our work from organization structures when/if we outgrow them?

What are the questions about organizational transformation that you are most curious about?

Art by lizar_tistry