September 23, 2010

The Congressional Black Caucus, Social Innovation and Learning from the Tea Party Playbook

Last week, I had the surreal experience of attending the Congressional Black Caucus Legislative Conference in Washington D.C.  As a self described reluctant republican, it was quite odd to be entirely surrounded by hundreds of fairly liberal, partisan black democrats from around the country.  The CBC is a pretty big event.  I have never attended one before.  I was sent as an emissary to do some relationship building with our congressman, a CBC member.  The CBC conference had a very large number of workshops which participants could attend and I can't help but think that most of those workshops, if not all, were full of examinations of problems and very thin on solution sets. In fairness, most of my time was spent tending to the job of relationship building upon which I had been sent, so I only attended one of these workshops. Nonetheless, I feel safe in my assertion.

Perhaps my dominant takeaway from the event was a sense of frustration at how wholly sold out to the democratic party political agenda the CBC is, and given that they represent the people who elected them, how ensnared by democratic political objectives African Americans are as a political constituency.  This would include our national organizations such as the NAACP, the Urban League and nearly all related causes.  If the democratic party were an industry and black mainstream socio-political organizations were agencies, we'd call whats happening regulatory capture. Because we have become so entrapped by the democratic party agenda, we have little leverage to pursue what my blogging compatriot Constructive Feedback calls our "permanent interests". CF says he is on a quest for "ideological regime change" WITHIN the Black community.  Today, that formulation of the issue is really resonating with me.

CF's chosen strategic approach is agitation.  He manages to agitate me often, but my visit to the CBC and some recent reading have me convinced that while agitation is certainly a necessary starting point, we've got to move beyond that to disruption of this status qou, education and activism to reestablish a multi-generational understanding of our permanent interests and the capacity to effectively pursue them.

So, how do we do that? I won't pretend to have a full blown answer to the question, but here are two elements I think would be foundational to the effort: 
  1.  A radically decentralized political and social movement focused on the pursuit of our permanent interests which can end run the entrenched and captive office holders and national organizations and change the political culture of the black community.
  2. Legions of social entrepreneurs populating this movement employing tactics that recognize our permanent interests and use entrepreneurial principles to organize, create, and manage ventures that make social change and create social capital.
My inspiration for these  elements as important bedrock items in achieving ideological regime change in the black community came from  two disparate bits of information I was exposed to yesterday.  The first was an analysis of the organizational structure of the Tea Party movement, published in the National Journal  by Jonathan Rauch titled "How the Tea Party Organizes Without Leaders".  The article is well done and worth a read.  Rauch does a deep dive on the structure of the Tea Party movement.  He highlights the Tea Party's self description of itself as not a spider, but a starfish structure movement (cut off a piece, it grows back, and a piece can generate a new starfish vs. a spider which if you knock it in the head, you kill the whole organism). Tea Party members take the inspiration on this from the book The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations, a business book by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom,  published in 2006.

Rauch came up with some takeaways that  I found interesting and which immediately starting me wondering about the opportunity to use this same organizational structure to affect the black community's political situation.
  •  First, radical decentralization sidesteps the dangers of over centralized authority; external co-option, internal corruption, and gradual calcification, all three of which prevail with most of the mainstream black organizations. Decentralization is inherently resistant to all three of these strategies. 
  • Second, the system is self-propelling and self-guiding.If a good or popular idea surfaces in one part of the network, activists talk it up and other groups copy it. Bad and unpopular ideas fizzle out and the movement lives on even as people come and go.
  • Third, the network is unbelievably cheap. Everyone is a volunteer. Local groups bring their own resources. Coordinators provide support and communication, but the heavy lifting is done by the grassroots.
In short, the Tea Party organizational structure allows organization to happen fast, to adapt to change and to engage large numbers of people very quickly and cheaply. Interestingly enough, as Rauch points out, the Tea Party's approach is not necessarily new.  He references the work of Polletta and David Meyer,  UC Irvine professors who authored The Politics of Protest: Social Movements in America, who cite the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee of the 1960s as a group which attempted a movement using the same type of organizational structure.  SNCC eventually dissolved from internal dissension and a healthy dose of FBI/Government surveillance and repression.  SNCC didn't have the benefit of tools the Tea Party enjoys today, namely the internet and other forms of instantaneous, cheap person to person communication to fuel their movement. The Tea Party is using such tools to become a powerful and disruptive force acting upon the GOP establishment and their having a real effect. I would argue that the black community could produce equally disruptive effects upon the democratic political hierarchy that has captured our officials and organizations in their ideological grip.

The second bit of information that inspired point #2 above was a presentation by Amy Pearl, director of Springboard Innovation, on social innovation during the Indiana State Housing Conference.  Among other things, she talked about creating a new type of social venture, the sustainable non profit.  The defining, game changing element of such new entities is that they would be "investable" and capable of using profit-seeking ventures to generate social and environmental good. These social ventures would be at the forefront of a transition from philanthropic to capital markets in various sectors. They would represent blended value investments that tack social considerations on top of financial considerations in assessing the value (and valuation) of social enterprises.  Inasmuch as such ventures must vie for funding and investment to scale their generation of social and environmental benefit, they have to demonstrate good-old hard-currency profitability. Pearl's organization actually manages a website that serves as a functional stock exhange where you can buy shares in these social ventures. I think these ideas have some scalability and applicability to an ideological regime change movement within the black community.  This is a tall order, but very much in the realm of the possible.

Now, both of these foundational elements have negatives.  Rauch notes that it is still yet to be demonstrated if the Tea Party's energy and impact can be sustained beyond the November elections or beyond 2012. Headless organizations are better at opposing things than agreeing on the right affirmative alternative and its difficult if not impossible to negotiate compromise because there is no leader.  If you visit Pearl's organization website, the  "investable" social ventures highlighted there all strike me as well and good, but not necessarily applicable to the down and dirty of the average inner city hood. The vibe they give me is that these are the social ventures dreamed up by suburbanites, not people who listen to Public Enemy. They are nice, but they are not edgy, they don't fight the power.

That said, I think that in these two ideas lie the framework of a practical, sustainable movement.  The Tea Party is doing it now. I believe in these ideas are the beginning of the ideological regime change in the black community that Constructive Feedback, and myself, so fervently wish for.
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