Just so you know, bolded areas below are where I’ll be placing links in the future as more chapters are posted. Thanks for bearing with me.
The first thing I want to make very clear about group structure is this: structure is a reflection of a group’s purpose and often arises in the pursuit of that purpose and as a result of necessity. In the beginning, founders create a group, build it, and engage in various activities with it. In doing so, group-members work together and interpersonal bonds and relationships form as a result of working together. Structure, or something like it, almost inevitably arises as an organic outcropping of these activities and interpersonal dynamics. Hence, there will be leaders, there will be sort-of leaders, there will be members, there will be supporters and sympathizers, et cetera, even before any formal structure has been decided upon.
It is important not to try to impose inorganic and artificial structures on your group before it has even begun to actively pursue its goals or grown its membership. Structure—its nuance, its implementation, its administration, and the interpersonal dynamics that can arise from it—can all pose formidable distractions to your goals if they are adopted too early. It is very easy for someone to start thinking about structures and getting all kinds of idealistic images in their head for the “perfect” structure before your group has even gotten its fifth member.
So, if your group tries to adopt a structure, or form committees and elect a president, et cetera, and the structure doesn’t last, or if election results are not taken seriously, or if folks can’t properly delegate or be delegated to…in short, if your structure or election doesn’t seem to mean anything, perhaps this is because it did not arise naturally or as the result of organizational necessity. Perhaps it is not the right structure, or it is too early to be concerning yourself with structure. A group functions best when people work together, listen to each other, take each others’ instructions, and defend each others’ freedom because they have worked together and trust each other, not because some structure, however well-intentioned, tells them to do so. So that is important to keep in mind.
That said, in a two-pronged organizational structure, it is important to consider questions of structure because you are bringing together two different types of activist with probably greatly differing personalities and worldviews, and having answers to these questions can help avoid the kinds of hazards that can arise when different types of people work together.
In order for your group to grow and thrive, it helps if activists are given tasks and roles in areas that interest them whenever possible. One advantage of the two-pronged approach is that it provides a wide array of roles both for the “rebels” (for those who feel constrained by politics and rules) and for the “crusaders” (those who derive a sense of empowerment from them). Many people are somewhere in the middle.
Another distinction can be drawn: organizers of a revolution, versus administrators of that revolution. But they are both, in their own way, fighting for the revolution.
Revolutionary consciousness must be maintained within the reformist wing, and an understanding of the tactics in use by the reformist wing must be maintained within the radical wing. Full communication and a sharing of resources are necessary. Therefore, an extremely clear enumeration of principles and goals must be established from the outset, and it must be referenced and refined on a regular basis, if full understanding of the group’s tasks is to be maintained.
Here is a metaphor to illustrate my point. If you are trying to get to the other side of a river, building a bridge is one method of doing so, as is attempting to find a way around. Both ways are valid.
The bridge-builders should not criticize the go-arounders for wandering off to find a way around the river when they could be helping build the bridge, nor should the go-arounders criticize the bridge-builders for spending time finding materials and putting forth effort to build the bridge when they could be helping with finding a way around the river.
Rather, the go-arounders should be free to find their way around the river, and the bridge-builders should be free to build their bridge, and when the bridge has been built and is placed across the river, the go-arounders—who, having found a way around and are already on the other side—will be in a perfect position to grasp it and set it firmly in place, so that the entire mass of people, and anyone else who follows, can safely and easily cross the river.
The same dynamic applies in the student struggle. The radicals need the reformists, and the reformists need the radicals. The students occupying a building require the help of supportive students outside the building who choose not to occupy, but who are free to shout slogans, distribute literature, draw more attention to the cause, and work on supporting the occupiers with food and other necessities. This understanding of mutual need must be made as clear as the program and its methods. It is a more inclusive program, a more dynamic one, with more routes of recruitment and methods of success at its disposal, and a far greater net of appeal to cast.
Charterment: General Overview
The question of whether a radical student organization should be formal, by which I mean chartered and/or recognized by the school, or informal and free of both any bureaucratic organizational restraints and the student government money and recognition that are the supposed reward of those restraints, is a challenging one that can depend on the material conditions.
As an unchartered organization at MSU, SDS often used bake sales to raise money for our printing fees and other expenses. Then one day, while we were selling brownies and bananas in University Hall, the police arrived and informed us that no non-chartered organizations were allowed to sell food on campus. Why? The “reasoning” is twofold: a) all food sales on campus are contracted through the food provider, Sodexo, and b) we had “no authorization” and had not reserved the space. We fought it as best we could; Comrade Greg spoke to the uniformed and gun-toting cops for over an hour in the middle of the busy academic building. But there was virtually no alternative. It wasn’t the time to mount some sort of massive insurrection over some brownies. If we’d been chartered, and had gone through the process to reserve the space, et cetera, we (theoretically) would have had no problem. Yet the SGA funds (which come directly from students) to which we would have been entitled might have forestalled the need for a bake sale in the first place. So there you go.
However, I say “theoretically” above not merely rhetorically, but because being chartered is no guarantee of being left alone. SGAs and universities often use the “process” to complicate, restrict. and monitor student activity. At Montclair State, at least, there is a minimum of “events” each student group must hold in order to maintain its funding, and the SGA must give its approval to each event.
So, if a highly apolitical SGA doesn’t think your event is “appropriate,” they can deny you funding for it.
And if a chartered organization doesn’t hold enough events, they can lose their funding altogether. Why? Not because there is so little money to go around (there was a $1 million surplus in the SGA funds my Junior year and most every other), but because the SGA wants to be informed and aware of what the organizations are doing (and able to approve or reject “inappropriate” activities through their “democratic” vote).
This repressive tendency is euphemistically referred to as “managed activism,” and is a tool of the university administration to prevent student political awareness or involvement. Though SGAs are often generally unwilling to take political stances on anything of national or political importance, they are usually all too willing to impose their narrow view of what is politically acceptable, or “politically correct,” on a student organization. This illustrates the role of most SGAs themselves as defenders of the status quo, which I will discuss in a separate section.
So it is important to decide if the organization you are building wants to have to devote some or any amount of effort and attention to following SGA rules and regulations, and dealing with any other obligations attached to that (such as dealing with SGA legislators for the writing of bills, following posting procedures, or attending SGA meetings, where political items are often put last on the agenda as a repressive measure so as few people hear them as possible).
Being actively repressed by an SGA is not without legal recourse; organizations like FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) exist to assist students who feel their rights have been violated, specifically free speech rights. In 2014, the Students for Justice in Palestine at Montclair State chapter won a ruling with FIRE’s assistance that demanded SJP be allowed to distribute a specific political pamphlet calling for an end to apartheid in Israel, after the SGA attempted to prohibit such publications as “divisive” and “inappropriate” and imposed “sanctions” on SJP, fining it 5% of its budget. This was a victory for free speech, and demonstrated to the entire student body that the edicts of “authority” figures need not be deferred to without question.
Additionally, SGAs are often incorporated bodies, governed by laws like any other corporation that forbid discrimination against political beliefs and are compelled to uphold our civil rights. (And no, being a 501c(3) nonprofit, as many student governments are, does NOT bar them from engaging in political activity. This is a common myth). Being formally recognized by the SGA can add to a group’s credibility, recognition, and human resources among the student body, in addition to the monetary resources I mentioned earlier. Chartering may or may not be worth it; you have to decide.
Ideally, because of its monetary and PR benefits, chartering is the better approach, granted you have someone(s) in your organization who is comfortable and happy being in charge of overseeing adhesion to SGA rules and making sure everyone knows the important ones (without being a divisive, nagging, goody-goody bureaucrat about it). Additionally, if you install someone in the SGA to write bills for you and who knows the system, that further simplifies the process.
But these individuals must be committed to your group and its task, not half-assed about it. SDS at Montclair State was dechartered for not following some posting procedures, and while it certainly did not spell the end of anything, it did affect our credibility in some quarters. Not following that piddling procedure posed a perfect excuse for the SGA to silence the message reflected on the offending flyer. While bureaucratic repression of your message is often a sign that you’re doing something right, it is not something to be precipitated through neglect. If it was to be precipitated deliberately, as a tactic, well, that’s a different story. But still probably not a good one.
Let me be clear, however; SGA infiltration by active members of your group is a necessary part of the overall two-pronged approach, whether or not your group decides to become chartered. It does not have to begin immediately upon your group’s creation, but it must happen down the line.
Part of the potential advantage of being chartered is that it provides your group with concrete structure. There is usually an “executive board,” or e-board, consisting of a President, Vice President, Secretary, and Treasurer, or some variation thereon. Whether or not they are fully observed, the roles for these positions are predefined. Additionally, chartered organizations generally have constitutions that are created to define the group’s basic goals, its structure, and the rules that govern membership within it (I discuss constitutions in detail in another section.) In the hands of capable, hardworking activists, this strict structure could prove a boon for optimizing efficiency, identifying a democratic chain-of-command, allowing for the removal of ineffective e-board members, and clearly defining what the group “is all about,” among other advantages.
However, if the activists in your group are resistant to a structure that mimics that of the Establishment, and become unreliable in the face of it, or if they are against it on principle, then a non-chartered organization might be a better option. There is really nothing wrong with either way of doing it. (However, having chartered front groups is a good idea in the future. But I’ll discuss that later.)
Just as there are complications arising from being chartered, certain complications can also arise in an unchartered group. The question of structure often comes up, and whether or not to utilize common formalities as President, Vice President, et cetera, or perhaps to embrace a more horizontal structure as popularized by the Occupy movement, or to adopt no formal structure whatsoever and keep things “spontaneous,” “open,” and “fluid” (which can sometimes translate to “one or two people do all the work and everyone else just shows up if and when something gets planned.”)
The issue of structure can become a sensitive one, especially when everyone has gotten used to things being a certain way. Then, when someone gets frustrated with the perceived inequities or inefficiencies of structurelessness, they are viewed as a “bureaucrat” or “reformist” for wanting to foist all of this responsibility and accountability on people that wasn’t there before. Of course, if such a transition is handled poorly, i.e. insensitively or coercively by its proponents, such contempt would be at least partly warranted. Long-building resentments and interpersonal tension can boil over, leading to divisions and splits. Hence, it is good to figure out at least the basics of your structure earlier, when you see the signs that it might be a good idea, rather than later, when it may be too late.
All right, I’m going to cut through the B.S. and give you the honest truth: having no structure at all and actively resisting structure indefinitely is a bad idea. If you ever want your group to grow, there are a handful of benefits to having some formal, predetermined structure. In no particular order, here they are:
The first is the appearance of unity, organization, and “realness,” signifying that you, as a group, actually exist. The second is the establishment of leaders who constitute the public face of the organization and can speak for it, which is very helpful in building credibility. These folks can also be enlisted to run for student government office when the time is right, and having built a public profile, they may have an actual chance of winning.
The third is potentially having many different roles for people and new members, rather than everything being vague and undefined. The fourth is a chain of command—whether top-down, bottom-up, horizontal, or whatever—that allows decisions to be made. The fifth is the way in which a clear structure helps your group process a growing membership and gives new members a sense of belonging, of being an actual “member” instead of just someone who hangs out with the cool political kids. And the sixth is creating a means by which your group maintains its existence after you and its other founders/leaders have graduated.
All of these benefits highlight what, in my opinion, should be some of the priorities of any radical student organization. If any of these points are not met, the chance of success and persistence is greatly diminished. That is why I have provided my “Ideal Group Structure,” not as something to necessarily be strictly adhered to, but to illustrate the importance and necessity of certain leadership roles and to inspire your group to find its own way of fulfilling that necessity.
When Do We Need a President?
Your group may already have its leaders, who are often its founders, but when does an unchartered group need a “president,” a “secretary,” and the like? The answer is twofold: when the group has enough members and activities—meetings, outreach, disruptions, reading groups, long-term campaigns, et cetera—to keep track of that having some kind of internal bureaucracy may be helpful for keeping it all straight, and two, when the group is trying to create a public profile.
If no one can agree on a certain structure, or the structure cannot be committed to and is constantly being changed or removed, maybe it is too early to impose a structure on your group. Maybe its structure will arise over time, through the actions and behaviors of its members, or through necessity, as I said earlier.
However, the decision of whether or not to establish titled leadership positions should rest first and foremost on whether folks are ready and able to commit to and make the most of such positions. In other words, the positions need to actually mean something.
So if a group holds an internal election to elect its first president, folks need to accept those results as legitimate. The purpose of any structure is to define roles and allow for decisions to be made.
Leadership means leading: delegating tasks, articulating goals, integrating the concerns of members, and acting as the face of the organization and helping to establish its public profile.
It is important to remember that, when utilizing a two-pronged structure, the need for a public profile will arise; sooner or later, the people will need to know who you are if you want them to work with you on making the large-scale changes that you seek.
If your goal is to remain “underground” indefinitely, unknown, and ineffective, by all means spurn the concept of a public profile (and, I will discuss the topic of underground splinter groups, which act in concert with the above-ground group, elsewhere). If, however, you want to win the support of the people and, by extension, win the privilege of fighting for their interests, they are going to want to know who you are.
If you’re the type of person who feels that having your “role defined” is limiting to you as a person, then, again, belonging to a formal structure is probably not for you, but don’t project your fear of authority and positions and titles onto your entire group, because without any structure at all, your group’s ability to function (especially when its numbers increase) may be limited as a result.
A Note on Leaders and Followers
If we can agree that the purpose of structure is to create a chain of command, to allow decisions to be made, to facilitate a public profile, to allow the group to continue after you graduate, and to give roles and corresponding tasks to everyone in the group so that no one is burdened with all of the work, any activist who resists establishing structure out of hand needs to ask herself a question: despite my sincere progressive or revolutionary fervor, am I too afraid of commitment to my task or to this group to allow for formalized decisions to be made to which I am subject? Do I just not want to be held accountable if I lose interest in my role, or if our efforts fail? Do I just want the freedom to walk away at any time? If the answer is yes, then you should not enlist or run for any position because you are not a leader. At least, not yet.
This is going to sound harsh, but at present, you are not yet even a follower. You do not even follow yourself, at least politically. As a prospective activist reading this book, you probably are aware that something in this world is not right. You are ill at ease; you feel that society produces more unhappiness than happiness, more dullness than joy or vivacity. Your conscience reacts negatively to a general injustice that you perceive all around you. Yet, perhaps you do not yet possess an understanding of the specifics of that injustice—why it exists, where it comes from, who suffers from or perpetrates it—so your understanding of it is entirely emotional, not factual. Concrete convictions are necessary for concrete actions, or at least they certainly help, and a wholly emotional understanding of something doesn’t generally lead to concrete convictions.
If your mind changes, which it often does, you lose interest. You are unable to focus on any goal or endeavor, especially if it involves other people and their convictions. Does being this way make you a bad person? No. Not only that, but it is also completely understandable to be this way. Life is a confusing, murky mess, and the more you learn, often the less sense it seems to make.
Still, I think part of this inability to commit to certain ideas, goals, or priorities can originate in a fear of new ideas, and of being a follower of them. The prospect of embracing or “adhering to” certain ideas seems equated with an inability to evolve, adapt, and grow. If I was a prospective new member of a group, and the group’s leaders seemed inflexible and unable to articulate relevant answers to my questions, and they seemed dogmatic, reflexive, and insincere in everything they said, I probably wouldn’t want to be a member.
Sadly, many people in leadership positions—whether politicians, CEOs, and even our own parents—are like this. They push a doctrine that seeks our obedience, not our understanding. So it is understandable why someone, especially a younger person, would be wary of commitment to their ideas. This skepticism is actually a good thing.
One question you can ask yourself is, why can’t I commit? I sometimes attribute this tendency to what I call “ideaphobia.”
There are two forms of ideaphobia. The first is fear of ideas that seem complicated, such as political, economic, or philosophical ideas. One begins to feel “out of one’s element” when such ideas and concepts are being discussed, perhaps a sense of inadequacy, as though they doubt they will ever be “masters” of the subject matter as the “seasoned” activists seem to be. Often in these cases, the person’s mind opts for more familiar, safer, “lighter” territory, which might include subjects like sports, TV shows, craft beers, comics, art films, fashion, or any other “enthusiasm,” any other commoditized incarnation of consumer capitalist connoisseurism, none of which is inherently wrong or bad in and of itself.
See? Maybe I just gave you a little ideaphobia. Or at least a small headache.
It is up to the leaders and members of a group to avoid inducing this type of ideaphobia on prospective members, mainly by being willing to explain certain concepts and speak with as few acronyms and abbreviations as possible when necessary. But I’ll discuss this in the section pertaining to meetings.
The other type of ideaphobia is the fear that allowing the ideas or movements of other people to influence your moral or ideological development will limit your individuality.
This is very common because it is an extension of the dominant idea of “every man for himself” American-style individualism. If you’d like to read my personal experience with ideaphobia, which pertains to the ideaphobia of the artist, please do.
Being an ideaphobe doesn’t make you a bad person, of course, and it is undoable. Despite the widespread perception that we are “individuals” and possess “free will,” most people, including me, are follower-types, not leader-types. By that, I mean we function more effectively when expectations are given to us or determined in cooperation with other people, and less so when we try to impose expectations on ourselves. We don’t necessarily crave the spotlight, at least not when it comes to espousing political opinions. Yet we are as absolutely necessary to changing society as we are to keeping it the same. And students, young folks who are still discovering who we are, are rife with both types of ideaphobia. The Establishment knows this and tries to uphold it, because not knowing who you are makes you easier to control; you can easily be made to doubt yourself, your ideas, and your power.
The question is, assuming you seek a better, more just society, are you a good follower? Do you do what is required of you to accomplish the goal? Are you informed by what needs to be done rather than what you feel like doing at any particular time? Not “are you selfless?” but are you willing? Do you seek to become better armed with knowledge and experience to become more effective? Do you listen to the personal experiences of others and try to integrate them into your overall understanding, rather than rejecting them because they don’t fit your preconceived understanding of reality? Do you listen to your leaders (whether they are other students or read in books) and question them when they are mistaken? These are the trademarks of a good follower, one who seeks to become a leader.
And the trademark of a good leader is to empower others. Your group, and the student movement in general, should strive to inform and empower its activists to the point that they are all self-motivated and clear-minded, willing to take orders (or requests) and give them as the conditions require, and possessing a keen conviction based on knowing that we are right. If everyone was self-motivated, collaborative, communicative, and clearminded—a leader—there would be no need for structures of any kind. At that point, the formality of the structure disappears, and things just “work,” because we are all the same level of understanding, devotion, and purpose.
In the meantime, those who don’t seek to become leaders, who wish to remain unrooted and “free,” are still necessary to our task. Remember, all students are on the same side; we must try to bring as many “free people” into the struggle as possible, as supporters at least, and if we are failing, we must be willing to admit it is not because people are “naturally apathetic,” but rather that we are not communicating effectively (or perhaps we are targeting the wrong people with our message). We can’t articulate how our ideas relate to them or how their self-interest is negatively impacted by the status quo.
And, of course, there are those who simply resist any subversive idea out of hand (“compliance idealism,” reactionary protofascists), whose minds will never be changed, whether out of a knee-jerk distaste for anything that “rocks the boat,” or because they enjoying creating chaos and strife from a position of privilege. But I will discuss them more later.
But herein lies the beginning of identifying your group’s “natural” structure at its most basic level: it has its core (leaders), its members (good followers who strive to be leaders), and its supporters (the “free” people who, for whatever reason, can’t commit to the group but who may feel the same ill-ease that you do). And of course there are those member/supporters who can’t commit because their lives are too busy, with multiple jobs, family obligations, and the like. These pressing “real life” concerns are not to be trivialized; sometimes these folks are the most radical because they have suffered more of society’s injustices than the activist who has the free time to dedicate every waking hour to activism. And guess what? We need them too, very badly.