The organizer has to have really deep conversations,
really nail the dialogue.
- First impressions
- Organizing and state policy
- Strategy and organizing
- Picking issues
- Working with groups
- Future of organizing
Energetic and energizing, Deb says what she thinks and is eager to clarify when you misinterpet. She knows the history of community organizing and development. She digs deep into where people are at and assesses the nature of how things change, considering “inside” and “outside” forces within a community, or even a family.
Deborah was one of the first people in Community Farm Alliance (CFA) – and was involved before there was a board or it was incorporated.
These days, a primary focus is state policy. On behalf of the CFA and its members, Deb Webb facilitates lobbying state legislators.
“I couldn’t have predicted that my job would have changed nor that CFA would be so involved in state politics, but it’s where the need is right now.” About four years ago, Deb said, the CFA board was at a turning point when they “dug into a state tax-incentive package”. “We saw $50million of public money go to help a large corporation set up corporate farming, while we wore ourselves out trying to get $10,000 to hire a business consultant. We thought what is really for the public good? And how we can pretend that we’ll get anyway when there are these imbalances?”
“We couldn’t do it alone and we’ve been building partnerships with other like-minded organizations across the state.”
Deb says these days that she does what it takes to testify before a committee or just be visible when voting occurs. In one recent case: “Although we waited from ten in the morning until ten at night in order to testify, at the end of the day we had 50 people there waiting with us, and a bunch from western Kentucky – that was a victory for us.”
“It’s a matter of supporting family farms and farming communities. With the cut in tobacco quotas, farmers experienced over a thirty percent cut in their income this year. This has ramifications throughout the entire community. Some counties pay for their schools through property taxes, but this year farm values have plummeted. How are these schools going to be funded? What’s going to happen to the kids?”
In discussing strategy, she takes a practical course and pushing what needs to be done as far as it can go against the status quo without compromising the project itself.
“It used to be working on issues and projects that were grounded in people’s lives …those were the times for local community organizing efforts.” In those days, organizing agricultural communities operated on several basic principles. “They were questions that organizers would ask of groups to consider and we used them religiously in picking issues. The principles became so integrated into how we operated that I think we’ve internalized them, particularly the core group at CFA. We have a much more sophisticated board than when we started through lots of self-training and experience.”
“Community organizing has become more sophisticated over the years and things we did ten years ago wouldn’t cut it today.” However, organizers still need to have a set of skills and attitudes similar to those in previous years. There is a greater demand and need for additional skills. Old skills with a new twist are: ability (the skills and the “sense”) to develop strategies for accomplishing organizing and project goals, the people skills to nurture communities and develop membership. Newer skills are the ability to read and analyze policy, understand its impact to the community and the ability to communicate this. With the explosion of the internet, organizers need to be more educated and be able to do research.
CFA organizers are “campaign managers” in that they are to make community leaders “look good.” They are know how to listen to them and how to communicate issues to them. They are not to “get in the way” of the leaders and how to help lead. The organizers “loyalty should be completely to the membership of the area they are working”, not to get nor receive credit for any of the projects they have facilitated. Organizers subsume their egos.
“From my viewpoint, key leaders would ideally become organizers, but they don’t want to do it. It is contradictory to what they have known as a leader. However, we have set up a fellowship for a community leader to develop skills needed for organizing today. For instance, this year’s fellow is a past president and he will be receiving a 10-hour week income supplement to improve his reading and writing and other communication abilities. We are looking at having the fellowship be endowed. We found that past presidents, in particular, were relieved to have their presidency over, but were left wanting to continue being involved in the efforts.
How do you pick organizers? Deb saids NGOs don’t always get to pick organizers, because there’s such a high turnover and not many people coming into the business. What she does do though, is identify the people that don’t have the fundamentals, like attitudes toward rural communities and belief that people can organize for their self-interest. “Grassroots organizations have always had trouble building and retaining staff, and we’re no particularly successful at it today. There’s a typical pattern for losing staff.” Some forces are external to the NGO. “Some young people try organizing on their way to a ‘real’ job. There are no accrediting institutions. You can’t explain it and there’s no support system (parents saying “when are you going to get a real job?). There’s no training at the university level and no understood career path one would take to be an organizer. Organizing is not recognized as a job, much less a prestigious job and it requires that you work a lot without taking credit when projects succeed.”
Then there are internal forces that put pressure on those entering organizing. “It’s on-the-job training – that’s the truth of it. NGOs could collaborate on training and creating a support network for organizers in the field, help with a network of folks to help with building skills, addressing emotional needs and a social community. We could do formal recruitment which enables all organizations to share from a large pool of applicants. For example, the non-profit that we share this building with guided a young man to us when he applied for one of their positions. They took a look at his experience, background and interests and felt he would be happier with us.
We need to have people constantly coming through the door. We’ve worked out an internship program with the university. It doesn’t necessarily reflect badly on the NGO to have people leaving. It could be that it’s “not their cup of tea.” Or they take another job, that’s another aspect of today’s job culture, we would just like them to stay in the area or at least stay in the non-profit sector. On top of the contradictions (above) the work involves long hours with relatively poor pay. Deb says CFA is bringing the payscale up. In addition, we have been teaming up our staff with other NGO staff and telling our people that they need to find a mentor and a support network and this is part of their job responsibility and so they should take the time to build up these relationships. With these relationships in place, we hope that it will be a further incentive to stay either in the area or in the work, or both.
- Have a knowledge base that is helpful to the team and the community.
At least someone in a team must have an agricultural background, and someone from Kentucky.
- It is really great when you have someone that both understands rural farming communities and is from Kentucky and has all the abilities mentioned before. We’ve only come across one person in the last ten years who fits that bill. When somebody from outside the state comes to work in rural Kentucky it takes awhile for outsiders to adjust to culture. There is also a distrust of outsiders that the organizer would need to work through before the organizing could start.
- Organizing requires listening and more listening, but not passive listening. Usually problems occur or difficulties arise when “conversations are not deep enough, so that the organizer is not nailing the conversation. There’s no amount of role-playing, training, nor evaluating that can help build this skill.
- You’ve got to talk to people and learn how to talk their language.
- You’ve also got to learn how and when to push the conversation so that you go deeper or even to say anything at all.
- It helps when someone can observe someone else in the act, practice and continue observing – people come with different communication abilities.”
Picking an issue to work on meant answering some questions.
- Deeply Felt: Is the issue deeply-felt by the group you’re working with? Are there enough people to work on the issue that feel deeply about it? <<li>Organizable: Can you organize around it?
- Realistic: Is there some certainty that issue can be realistically worked on – is it realizable?
- Immediacy: Does it have immediacy? Can the goal/issue be worked on immediately? Is the group motivated to work on it immediately?
- Specific: Is it specific enough to work on? The goal/project/issue has to be phrased in on a scale that makes sense to people and where progress can be measured to some degree. Large, hard to define issues are not candidates, such as improving sustainability of agriculture in Kentucky.
These basic questions can be remembered with the acronym DORIS.
The facilitator has a subtle power within the group that he/she must recognize and use judiciously. Deborah notes that “Not all people are equal in a group meeting.” This goes for the facilitator as well. It’s not only what you do and how you do it; facilitation is about who you are as well. When you enter a room, you are still a person and are capable of the same petty and trivial attitudes and motivations as everyone else in the room. Remain truthful to the group, and having no hidden agendas. Fundamental to working with groups is the belief and keeping the faith that people being able to do their own analysis and finding a solution that works for them. Facilitation is as much asking questions that help draw people out and bring everyone’s perspective before the group. “The facilitator needs to have questions that help lead people through the discussion to the problem and then through to the solution(s).
A dilemma common to any group: no-one in a group is created equal. Deborah has found that “There are people who may not realize that they aren’t clicking with anyone in the group. There are those that are understand concepts centering around community and collective efforts and seem to be faster than the rest of the group. There are those that are really articulate and may not intend to dominate the group, but consequently they overwhelm the group. There are many more scenarios and all of them challenge the facilitator to keep the group believing that everyone is equal and deserving of opportunity and respect.”
How to give everyone what they need in order to be “on the same page?” Don’t sweat it, but make sure there are plenty of meetings and maintain patience. In the meantime, look for and create opportunities for people to level out. Look for small projects that seem like they can’t fail. Small successes, “no matter how small”, are vitally important to keep the group glued together and believing that together they can achieve a better future.
Debb notes that her suggestions are standard rules of practicing facilitation. A few other rules have to do with the attitudes of the facilitator and how they play out. “Everyone knows that you meet on people’s turf, not yours. You meet on their time, when they have time, not when it’s convenient to you. And when the facilitator takes on an aloof air, like they are above everything, then people will think they don’t have anything to say”.
“Our society rewards people when they have the answers, so no-one wants to admit they don’t have the answer, but it also means we look to the “expert” who seems to have the answers although they probably don’t have answers appropriate to the situation. Changes in perception and changes in confidence and comfort with working collectively all take time. It also take patience in order to allow people to go at their own pace. People and institutions change slowly and over time…. What we as facilitators have to do is identify the ‘enemies of quality.’”
“There is no more public life in America anymore; we are working all the time, then we plug into the television, and move from town to town. We don’t know the community we live in and seldom do we know our neighbors. American society no longer has public spaces where people can gather in groups, have conversations and test out ideas and perceptions. We have to reinvent public spaces and in the meantime, we need to help people talk first in a group before we can expect people to open up and share about themselves and their ideas.” Perhaps some of this reluctance to open up in a group is from a growing mistrust of government and social services. People have stopped thinking of government as a public asset and so there’s no need to organize around legislative issues.
Deb notes that we [American society] has built in unrealistic expectations of how people learn and change. We expect that after a few meetings and the group will have already come up with a goal and a strategy to achieve that goal. It doesn’t work like that. We are all adults, but we’re not used to working in groups or even looking at these issues, much less thought about them. We might as well be kids when it comes to learning all these things, and as such give ourselves the time we need to come to an understanding of it.
Deb suggests that when training facilitators/organizers it would be useful to them to set up a “series of successes with facilitation, so they can feel good. They get bad at facilitating when they get nervous or scared and don’t know what to do next.”
Facilitation “is teaching, but keeping yourself out of it. The facilitator is not a blank wall, you have to know some stuff, but you can’t know everything. But over, around and through it all, facilitating means allowing the group to do their own evaluation and create their own solution.” “There’s not a model you can pick up and apply everywhere, you really need to speak to people from where they are.” In Deb’s case, “organizing has changed over the last decade. The practice of organizing also needs to change with the times.”
Extension is facing an unsure future like the farmers are. There is uncertainty because the number of farms are declining – who is extension going to serve? Large corporate farms? Probably not. Although Kentucky is a bit different than the Delta states. Kentucky never had large farms, they have been small and many until recent decades, while in the Delta portions of Arkansas and Mississippi n early all farmland was in large plantation holdings at the start.
There is the overwhelming perception (from where Deb is sitting) that ag has no future and there is an overriding foreboding that family farm agriculture will be no more in the short future. There’s nearly an audible “we’re going down” feeling among tobacco growers in Kentucky. We can be assured that at least 80 farmers will show up at one of our informational meetings where we talk about what is happening in the legislature over the tobacco settlement. We don’t even advertise, really, for the meetings, it’s just word of mouth. “They are scared to death. Scared about what’s going to happen to them and yes, they are looking for hope, but not expecting any…. We still say that they need to join the fight, “if you don’t do a thing, you know what won’t happen.” “They don’t want to hear about new businesses nor be shown examples of farmers who have successfully diversified and/or found alternative marketing mechanisms. They will tell you all the reasons and more why it won’t work here or for them. What you have to do is get them talking about any kernel of an idea they have. They have already lost over a third of their income overnight because Philips Morris cut the quotas twice this year. You just need to keep insisting and encouraging them to share what ideas they have been thinking about.”
“The worst thing you can do in this circumstance is demonstrate a success story. They don’t want to be told what to do. And look what’s happened everytime someone told them what to do. The feeling is ‘I’d rather go out on my own than on somebody else’s ideas.’ And some people are just ‘dead’ no matter what; they are too old, too indebted, or too sick. It’s just a matter of time.”
CFA and others are “struggling with how to get the message out. We are need to organize more people and this will mean going beyond farmers – that the issues have become bigger than farmers.” “If you organize you want to change something, so by definition you are out of the mainstream. We walk around with all sorts of contradictions like this and yet try to work against the perceptions that keep people from their own self-interest which predominantly cooperative in nature. We are clinging to this perception of an American as the rugged individual, which is anti-thetical to cooperating and group action…. Organizers are trying to help people see that whatever problem they have, others have it and working together we have a better chance to solve it.” An example of this is when the board president of a local dairy association said to me that there are too many dairies. “I nearly died, but when I dug into it more, I learned that Kroger had offered a good price for milk if all the dairies had at least two hundred cows.” Kroger was dictating through an annual financial incentive how many dairy farmers would need to change their operations and practices. It didn’t matter if the dairies were the right size for the farm and the farmer.
“Community organizing and community building is the foundation. There is no guarantee that community economic development is doing any good for the people unless the people are involved from the beginning.” In regard to economic empowerment zones or block grants, “money doesn’t create the fights. Divisions are there before the money came, but the money enables the divisions to appear.”
What do you think of institutional change? (longest silence ever – a good ten seconds or more) I’m discouraged. Yeah, just discouraged (repeats several times). I don’t know, Jim.
Federal institutions are not a focus of CFA. There’s been a decrease in federal monies and policies – that’s not where the action is. Progressive federal policy activity has “dried-up”, nobody is talking about our issues there, so it’s a waste of our time to lobby there.
I see that the farming economy in rural Kentucky is about to go into a full-blown crisis. Nature of the community is changing and I wonder if our methods are sufficient for these changes. We have recognized that we need to have someone who knows the media and works on media relations at least part-time. She does constant fundraising; full-time and all the time. CFA is older and the world is changing, how we operate consequently changes.
The future of organizing will mean more collaboration. “We belong to the Kentucky Economic Justice Alliance, a cooperative of non-profits through which we are building the support and training for staff. While it’s not good that there are staffing problems, but it’s reassuring to know that everyone is having similar problems and it’s helped us see that by working together these issues might be better resolved and we’ll have stronger organizations as a result.
“We also belong to an informal network of southern non-profit organizations, called “Southern Organizing Coop”. It consists of 18 NGOs across the south which meet and network to make organizing better in the South. ECHO, KFDC, and TURN are some of the NPOs. This coming May gathering will the third year they will have met as a coop.”
“Why have many farmers lost their own history? There’s a great history of organizing both within the United States and throughout the world. Some the greatest and most profound organizing has come from a complete lack of basics,” i.e. lack of food is a great motivator.
Today, and even more in the future, the focus of organizing will become corporations. Where before, “government was the one in control over public sector and private sector,” now it’s “the corporations that are controlling.”
A big problem with organizing is that “we don’t have time for the one-to-one to cut through and find out where these anti-self-interest perceptions are coming from, and what is the process for people to start thinking in these terms. I think that it’s largely the one-sided messages that farmers have been getting from buyers, corporations, media, and state and federal legislation. We need to figure out how this happening if we are going to insulate farmers from these destructive attitudes.”