Dear National Assembly Coordinating Council Members:

For those of you relatively new to the coordinating committee, my name is Andrew Lehman. Marcia Bernsten and I created and maintain the website with the assistance of Mark Stahl. Marcia and I resigned from the coordinating committee in February after realizing that what we seek to achieve as peace, justice and environmental organizers didn’t seem to be close enough to the process we were observing from our positions as members of the coordinating committee. We resigned, preferring to continue in our role as logistical support, rather than as organizers that endorsed a process we did not agree with.

Marcia and I did not want to generate any enmity or create any barriers to National Assembly achieving its goals, so we told Jerry, Jeff and Mark Stahl that we were backing out, but we did not tell the coordinating committee and did not go into the specifics.

Now it seems a good time to go over what we’ve observed. Inconsistent process, behavioral and verbal incongruities and differences in political philosophies have led to the specific consequences of a disappointing conference. I’m hoping that this contribution to the discussion might unearth some issues that would not otherwise emerge.

A primary difference between most activists and us is that Marcia and I focus primarily on process, meaning, the methods by which things get decided and accomplished. As web developers specializing in online tools for the American Left/Progressive community, we seek to enhance communication and cooperation among organizations within a state and across state lines. Through a growing list of volunteers, we work with nearly 900 national, regional, state and local organizations in almost 30 states Only two of these organizations pay for our services. See pjep.org and purplepolitics.org for some detail. Focusing on process, we pay close attention to horizontal (rather than hierarchical) structure, and we pay close attention to transparency and diversity. We seek to understand what it takes for organizations to work together seamlessly and then encourage that process. Integral to seamless process is clean structure. As web developers specializing in making it possible for organizations to work together in a united fashion, we’ve discovered that horizontal/transparent/diverse structure is integral to communication and cooperation characterized by trust.

The foundation of our work is to empower activists. Creating conditions that nurture the emergence of confident, empowered activists, giving them unique and powerful resources at their disposal, goes a long way toward encouraging the experience of national unity that we seek.

It became clear to Marcia and me that our goal was different from the goal of the majority of the coordinating committee. Marcia and I commit large numbers of hours and resources to creating a national infrastructure than can support a united U.S. Left. When we joined the coordinating committee (CC), we thought there was a large overlap in goals. What we discovered was that the CC and administrative committee (AC) had a narrower focus than Marcia and I were used to.

A narrow focus, in my opinion, created a number of barriers to achieving the larger goal of the Assembly. It is difficult to achieve national unity without taking into consideration the various groups and interests influenced by the decisions made while seeking that goal. I believe that the designers of the National Assembly project believed that they were acting in the best interests of the larger community by creating those barriers. In my opinion, these very barriers subverted those goals. The organizers of the National Assembly aimed low. The result was a disappointing conference.

There have been at least four barriers erected by the members of the CC and AC that have inhibited the goals of the conference. In addition, the conference was organized in several ways that disempowered those that attended the event.

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Barrier #1: A Stated Goal Limited To Creating A Single Day Of National Action.

The stated goal of the National Assembly was to create an entity that will compel the creation of a widely supported national day of mass action. It was established that the National Assembly would concentrate solely on that mission. The organization does not have to be a coalition or representational of the community at large in a way that the community at large feels reflected, mirrored or represented. Because the goal of the organization is confined to that mission, its ambition to be representational of the Left/Progressive community or to exhibit the features of a coalition is unnecessary.

In our opinion, this belief is a barrier to success.

There was a lot of confusion among many people that I talked to at the conference. These were largely people from the Midwest, folks I talked to among the booths and youth. Many people attending the conference were making an assumption that the conference sought to represent a wide spectrum of the Left/Progressive community and would seek to communicate to the assembled activists that this broad representation was the case. They were not clear that the sole goal of the project was to encourage a successful national day of action and that the organizers seeking to achieve that goal were not striving to mirror to the community at large the issues/geography/age/gender/diversity of those that had assembled. The difference between a network and a coalition, a distinction that the structural proposal sought to make, was not a distinction that was clear to many in the assembly for three reasons.

1) Another meeting was planned for next year.
2) A committee would decide how amendments would be integrated into the action proposal.
3) There were no alternative proposals on the structure of the network.

When we asked about structure early on, we were told that one would not be necessary, that the Assembly was not going to be a new organization in competition to those already established. If the network was important enough to have an elected body post-Assembly, why wasn’t it important enough to have alternative proposals on the exact structure of that network?

If conference attendees were respected enough to vote for those individuals that would influence the course of significant events in the future, why were they not provided the ability to participate in creating the structure that would inform the process engaged in by those elected officials? Calling something a network does not mean that democratic process does not apply.

Barrier #2: With Limited Goals, Limited Democratic Process is Acceptable

Unspoken assumptions of the National Assembly CC and those organizing the Assembly were that: 1) the Assembly itself does not need to work hard to reflect the larger community in terms of the many kinds of groups, ages, interests and geographic locations of those groups, 2) it is OK if the National Assembly seeks to exert influence on the established national peace organizations without specifically representing the various communities of the anti-war movement. Regardless, good-natured attempts to achieve the stated goals of the assembly did not need to be accompanied by a structure that would make it clear how the goals would be achieved. Efforts in these directions without prescribed structure were considered acceptable because the goal of National Assembly was narrow and specific.

Marcia and I are new to the Movement. Our experience is not deep. New to the CC about a month after its inception, Marcia and I made note of the stated policy that proposals for new CC members and workshops could be given to the AC, which would, without culling out proposals, then submit them to the CC to discuss. Marcia and I were confused when we submitted two women leader organizers from a region (the SE) not represented on the CC, whom we believed would have helped to provide some regional and gender balance. We then observed that they were not brought from the AC to the CC for consideration. The same thing happened when we submitted a workshop. Though we were told the process worked one way, we experienced that the process worked another way. I will not enumerate the number of occasions that this type of issue occurred. They were many. We were told on several occasions that democratic process was fully engaged and emphasized a nonhierarchical, transparent, diverse frame of reference. Clearly, we were operating with different definitions of the concepts.

Barrier #3: Deliberately Inhibit Online and Offline Networking

Enhancing networking between organizations and individuals participating in the project was perceived by the AC to be either outside the purview of the project or in conflict with the project’s goals. The goal of the National Assembly was promoted as narrow and specific. An emphasis on networking does not necessarily contribute to that goal.

Online networking tools, integrated into the website, were rejected by the AC. These tools came with the template used to create the Assembly website. Networking tools were rejected, I think, because they were perceived to be outside the goals of the National Assembly as interpreted by the AC. Specifically, the member of the AC dealing with the communications rejected the options for engaging visitors to the site in a number of different fashions – tools that provide an experience of personal empowerment familiar to the young. Organizations could have been offered an ability to form ad hoc coalitions online in order to propose and work on action proposals together. Organizations could have been offered email access to all organizations participating in the conference. Ongoing conversation vehicles were available. Resource storage was available for each organization. These features and other features were rejected.

At the conference, the name tags had only names but no state or city of origin or organizational affiliations. Networking was deeply inhibited by this omission.

There was no time assigned for conference attendees to caucus by state, region or area of interest, a procedure that would have provided an opportunity for folks to meet and work together who might not have been able to before.

There were no workshops on networking, online networking, social networking or working together across states or across state lines despite the fact that the Assembly calls itself a “network.”

There were no panel representatives specializing in this form of organizing, such as Democracy in Action, PJEP, MoveOn or one of the radical collectives.

Barrier #4: Might is Right

Another unspoken assumption of the CC is that old style muscle organizing is integral to achieving real world goals. Nontransparent, nondiverse and hierarchical behavior depends a lot on the definitions of those terms. Marcia and I observed several behavioral definitions in play. Without structure and clearly defined boundaries of behavior, individuals with the most authority invested by the decision-making body make decisions that are not based on agreed-upon-conventions (structure) but upon the conventions of their personal experience. By some definitions of good democratic process, there were ongoing abuses of authority by members of the AC. With these differing interpretations actively in play, there was no recourse, no mediating process available, no structure that could serve to guide. We were left with the primate first commandment, might makes right.

We are not suggesting that those in authority did not have good intentions. We are saying that more than one organizing paradigm was in play. The established paradigm was committed to specific barriers, enforced using specific behavioral and verbal conventions, barriers that inhibited the stated goal of the project, “national unity.”

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The Conference that Disempowered

As opposed to feeling empowered by the events of the conference, many there felt disempowered. Several ways the conference was organized contributed to that experience.

1) By being 1.25 days long instead of 3 or 4 days long, the conference provided little time to invest those that attended with an experience that they helped to make the event happen. The conference happened to them. There was little time to reflect back to the attending activists the contributions they came to make.

It could be asked, “What contribution did the attendees make?” Numerous amendments were submitted but not seen or heard. (This is still true. More than a week after the end of the conference, attendees are still waiting to see the document that their “votes” helped to create and may never see all of the amendments proposed by those who submitted amendments during the time allotted for submission.)

2) The website was used as an exclusively one-to-many broadcasting tool but performed that function poorly, with the exception of posting endorsers of the call. Calls to solicit actions proposals were late and not overt. There were no invitations to submit structural proposals. There was no posting of those organizations that planned to send representatives to the conference, which in our experience is the single most powerful tool that drives organizations to an event. Let people know who else is coming. Our requests to address these concerns were rejected by the AC.

3) The cost of the conference was high. I observed no discussion of the cost. The AC made these decisions. Evidently, the desire that the location be a union venue was integral to the decision. The cost of the rooms, after the discount was taken and the taxes were added, was $130 minimum. This cost was deeply discounting of youth and the underprivileged. We raised our concerns about the need to address the cost of the conference and the cost of housing. An allowance was made in the registration fees, but it wasn’t until much later that efforts were made to offer alternatives in housing.

4) Marcia and I observed an ongoing prioritization of a union agenda. This prioritization was one of several examples of this alternative/underlying agenda inhibiting the larger goals. The role of labor in the anti-war movement is very important, but is it more important than the role of any other contingency? For example, there was almost no attention to the perspectives of youth and youth organizing protocols. Youth network online. With the website stripped of online features, youth were disempowered.

5) The composition of the CC was posted late in the conference organizing process. Reasons were given for the delay. Establishing a pattern of less than complete transparency was unfortunate. The principal organizer of the conference, Jerry Gordon, was not promoted as such in any of the materials about National Assembly. It was intentional. With increased transparency comes an increase in personal empowerment. More information provides more opportunity to make informed decisions. Strategic decisions to offer less than complete transparency were an ongoing characteristic of the National Assembly governing body. I believe it was to encourage as large an attendance as possible at the event. The repercussion was that many that attended experienced buyer’s remorse.

6) We observed no efforts to collect feedback from those that attended the conference, on paper or online.

7) Workshops were designed to encourage attendance by important constituencies, with almost no input by individuals outside the AC or CC. Instead of allowing the participants/attendees to influence the creation of the workshops they would attend, the AC and CC decided for them.

) Attendance fell off from over 400 on the first day to almost 250 on day two. A third to a fourth of attendees were not in the main hall during votes, with as many as 100 people in the exhibition section at any time. Many people were not engaged in a way that would suggest that they felt that voting related personally to them.

9) There were almost no restaurants within six blocks of the hotel. An estimated 85 of the 405 registered activists attended the Saturday evening panels and speeches. Most attendees were across town eating super. There were literally no printed announcements and no announcements from the podium of Saturday evening’s events, which included UFPJ and A.N.S.W.E.R. presentations. Bringing these groups together to National Assembly was an important goal of the event and of the project in general as stated in CC communications. Yet literally no message was made to the assembled activists that UFPJ and A.N.S.W.E.R. would be on stage Saturday night.

10) No more than 220 people voted for an issue at any time. There are more than 4000 peace and justice groups in the United States. Those 220 people, instead of representing a fraction of those organizations, instead represented an even smaller fraction of this country’s activists.

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Good intentions are not enough to create a good event. Left politics as usual is not an answer. Something new is needed.

As I understand it, UFPJ chose to support IVAW’s request to have exclusive access to a particular stretch of days in March for the Winter Soldier project. There were not many other times to hold a national action at the time of the war’s anniversary given the conflicts with religious calendars. Without UFPJ agreeing to hold a mass action at that time, a national action was unlikely to be successful. That conclusion seems to be the opinion of several other national organizations that sought a united action.

The conveners of the National Assembly began the project seeking to influence the Left political environment in a way that would encourage national mass actions without starting a third national organization. They were seeking influence without an identity. I’m not sure it is possible, practically or philosophically. Still, they gave it a shot and are continuing their efforts.

For many of us, it is not just about a lack of unity among national organizations resulting in a lack of national mass actions. The founders of the National Assembly, seeking to achieve unity accompanied by national mass actions, bring to light the additional problems noted above. Our point is not that UFPJ and other organizations are failing in their positions or responsibilities. The problems are deeper. The problems are philosophical, structural and practical.

Philosophical Anachronisms

Fairly often, I find Left activists noting versions of Darwin’s theory of natural selection as a given when seeking social change. No single belief so deeply inhibits our ability to encourage our society’s transformation. The Left still embraces the origin story of our opponents, a story that has been dissolving for fifteen years. “Survival of the fittest” is dead. There is a new paradigm. It might be described as “transcendence through cooperation.”

Darwin proposed three evolutionary theories. The second and third were published after his theory of natural selection to explain those points where Darwin felt natural selection failed to support his observations. Darwin’s theories of sexual selection and pangenesis focused on the power of aesthetics in mate choice and the impact of the environment on evolution. Evolutionary developmental biology is a new discipline that recognizes the immense impact of the aesthetics and the environment on evolution. By believing that it is a dog-eat-dog, might-makes-right world, we subscribe to our opponents’ point of view. Not even Darwin believed this point of view.

Social Darwinism, which embraces a free market philosophy, is a particular story told in a very specific way, a rendition of Darwin’s work manipulated to support an elite perspective that the elite deserve their larger share of resources because they achieved those resources according to natural laws. The elites in our culture demand that these laws not be broken. It is time we enacted alternative legislation. It is time we tell a different story.

Alternative Structures

The emergence of the web and the embracing of that medium by the young and young activists provide a map of where, as activists and organizers, we need to go. The 60s are dead. The 30s are gone. A new set of tactics and strategies are appearing, championed by the young, techniques that we older organizers would do well to explore in great detail. Not the least of the benefits of these new tools is a whole new way to create and express structure. These new structures support the paradigm “transcendence through cooperation.” These new structures exist now and are providing a cooperation/communication framework used by hundreds of peace, justice and environmental organizations across the country. They are not being used by national organizations.

Horizontal communication, transparency and diversity can be deeply embedded in the very fabric of an organizational structure in ways literally not available before the last two years. One aspect of this new basket of tools, online social networking, is huge. Just this week, hundreds of participants, through the social networking on Obama’s website revolted and set up an alternative, unauthorized thread demanding that Obama reverse his position on FISA. Consider the potential for these tools to drive participants into the streets.

Practical Politics

Established national peace and justice organizations are mostly using old technical tools, such as one-to-many or conventional interactive websites and broadcast listserves. These technologies are almost fifteen years old. How the hell did the Obama campaign outflank the Left using cutting edge technologies? Money was not the issue. The issue was that leaders of our national organizations are stuck in 60s and 30s frames. The National Assembly is not the only organization struggling to find a way to transform the culture using our opponents’ origin myths, our opponents’ structure and outdated politics.

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Conclusion

Marcia and I are not technology geeks. We work closely with many Illinois organizations to drive activists into the streets by using conventional, tried and true techniques. Marcia or I have been on the central organizing bodies for literally every large protest event in Chicago for several years. Yes, we have an agenda, and it places technology at its core. Still, we’ve experienced the limits of technology. Integral to the success of the tools we’re promoting are the relationships established among organizers as they learn to trust one another as they seek to accomplish common goals. This communication is not designed or intended to disparage organizers doing their utmost to achieve social change. There are now alternatives available to what national organizations have tried. This email suggests that the alternatives hold promise and that it would be useful to examine them in detail.

Respectfully,

Andrew Lehman and Marcia Bernsten


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