There are many things I cannot fathom. How have the cells in my body kept themselves organized and nourished all these years? And in a way powerful enough to sustain this well-functioning system known as “me!” Likewise, how have redwood forests emerged and generated stable ecosystems for thousands of years? In general, how does such aliveness just ...happen? How does it thrive through self-organization, without blueprints and bosses?
If the best things in life — and life itself — happen without plans, how do we apply this insight to our organizations and cities?
Probably most of us living in industrialized society have a hard time imagining how community self-organization can enable a city to thrive. We’ve also failed to confront how conventional city planning has undermined our thriving.
In the US, city planning has long been a weapon of white supremacy. The first zoning laws were tools of segregation. Zoning continues to sever the functions of our lives into disparate pieces: residential, civic, agricultural, commercial, industrial. When communities bring these functions back to our neighborhoods to support local survival and flourishing, such as by using homes for community gatherings or food distribution, zoning laws can quash such efforts. Overall, zoning perpetuates cultural genocide by preventing people from practicing traditional and diverse ways of living based on cultural, indigenous, religious, and non-mainstream practices. Zoning laws are suppressing the visions of many of the 2,300 groups that Sustainable Economies Law Center has given legal advice to. One client, Homefulness, has been struggling for years with the Oakland Planning and Building Department regarding housing built by and for unhoused community members. Recently, the suppression reached a point where Homefulness and their allies, including my Law Center coworkers, briefly occupied the Department’s office with tents and held a demonstration about the injustices continuing to be perpetrated by the Department. We desperately need to change this system to allow self-organized solutions to flourish and not be restricted by old ways of thinking.
As a result of limited imaginations and a lack of experience, the City of Oakland is making another tragic mistake in undertaking a massive top-down planning process. Conventional city planning has been wholly inadequate in addressing the growing inequality, racialized displacement, widespread homelessness, and many other crises impacting Oakland. We cannot afford to let such a process push aside the powerful potential of self-organizing solutions.
But City staff and politicians are indoctrinated and pressured to work in a system of command-and-control. The organizational chart of Oakland’s Planning & Building Department shows a comically deep hierarchy:
If I were stuck in the confines of that hierarchy, I’d likely have a hard time imagining how the best things for our city are likely to bubble, sprout, spark, and sputter up from every corner of our community. In fact, I might even find such sputtering to be a threat, if it doesn’t fit in the roles and the boxes drawn for management and enforced by the City bureaucracy.
I escaped hierarchical work environments 15 years ago, and have been able to see and live the power of self-organized communities. Sustainable Economies Law Center has given legal advice to more than 2,300 grassroots groups, microenterprises, and cooperatives in and around Oakland. These groups have let me witness the beautiful ways that people come together, listen to each other, collaborate to solve tough issues, provide for each other, and adapt.
And the Law Center itself has been a rich space of self-organization. We began as a loose group of volunteers initiating projects in response to activities percolating up around us. We planned legal workshops for urban farms, passed legislation to legalize home-based food business, and created countless other projects that we couldn’t have predicted with a “Strategic Plan.” When we became a workplace, Law Center staff kept the self-organizing spirit alive by collectively creating a system for worker self-direction. We’ve shared our approach with many others on our website and cofounded the Nonprofit Democracy Network, and we continually adapt through our own learnings. We’ve resisted the urge to create rigid plans, roles, and rules. We spread our work and decisions to many semi-autonomous circles and groups. Our participatory budgeting processes bring forth ideas and help nourish projects that emerge throughout our organization. We coordinate all of this through making and keeping good relationships, dialog, and listening to feedback that informs how each of us moves. It’s alive.
All of this primed my reaction when, in May of 2021, the City of Oakland put out a Request for Proposals, seeking a planning firm to manage a process to create the General Plan 2045. I started to wonder: How can what I’ve learned about self-organization be applied at the level of a city? I got excited and read several articles, reports, and guides about “community-led planning” and “participatory planning.” Some guides called for robust community consultation and engagement, but many led back to the same place: Planning decisions ultimately being made at the top.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. Most nonprofit organizations – including many calling for “community-led” planning – remain steeped in hierarchical culture. They have hierarchies of power and responsibility that limit the potential for bottom-up emergence in their own activities. There are executives earning six-figures, while on-the-ground community organizers earn a fraction of that. This reinforces the idea that special knowledge and status are required to steer the organization. And if most nonprofit organizations are not questioning their own structures of dominance and control, why would they question the power-concentrating nature of city planning?
What could it look like to have a city shaped by self-organization, undisrupted by top-down systems of control? Many cities throughout history have thrived this way, as highlighted in the excellent new book, The Dawn of Everything. For example, the ancient city of Teotihuacan, in what is now Mexico, supported as many as 100,000 people to thrive in robust housing and neighborhoods for hundreds of years without top-down governance. Art from that era shows a lively and creative culture, without depiction of rulers, royalty, or domination. More broadly, we have so much to learn from countless living systems and indigenous communities that thrive through self-organization. To learn more, I suggest Jeremy Lent’s book, The Web of Meaning, and adrienne maree brown’s book, Emergent Strategy.
So how do we transition to self-organizing systems at the City level, beginning from where we are now: ensnared in systems of command and control? I started to imagine it, and wrote this cartoon story called Oakland Space Odyssey 2021. In the story, city planning is replaced by a loosely coordinated ecosystem of community gatherings where people learn, deliberate, and do things together, all centered around major life events of our neighbors: births, coming of age, and arrival in elderhood. I called the story “sci-fi,” but it felt like something we could easily make real. Furthermore, such a vision brought me a lot of hope and happiness.
Soon after, I realized how threatening self-organization is to the current power structures. Bureaucracies and politicians are not only incapable of seeing the wisdom of self-organization, but their status and salaries are threatened by the very concept of self-organization.
I learned this when, in response to Oakland’s RFP seeking a planning firm to manage the General Plan 2045, Sustainable Economies Law Center staff helped convene a coalition of 35 organizations called The Oakland People’s Plan (TOPP) to make a bid to facilitate a bottom-up planning process. TOPP submitted this visionary proposal and this work plan, which included participatory budgeting of the ~$8 million set aside for the planning process, and a system for generating policy proposals from the ground up. Our budget included an equal pay rate for everyone involved. We brought highly reputable planners onto our team, but had them take an advisory role at a reduced pay rate similar to what community organizations would be paid, to prevent concentration of power in the hands of professional planners. Our vision was to leave much of the design up to an emergent process. Our Scope of Work stated:
“There is grave risk of reproducing the white supremacist practices of paternalism, power hoarding, and resource control, even in how we approach this proposal. This is why we’re not coming with a pre-baked plan for:
- All the work that will be done
- Who is doing the work, and
- How all the money will be spent.
The more we pre-define things, the more we take away the power that Oaklanders can have in this process.”
TOPP itself was an example of the power of self-organizing, because we came together and made these proposals in a matter of weeks. Without a defined coalition structure, but driven by shared values, several people coalesced organically, loosely coordinated outreach to build the coalition, held a public discussion, had seven open meetings for the 35 coalition member organizations, had many meetings for smaller working groups, and had countless one-on-one conversations with people in allied community groups. A group of nine people synthesized the vision and presented it to the City.
Ultimately, TOPP offered a powerful gift to Oakland, and the City refused it in favor of the usual dominance-based and White supremacist approach. TOPP offered to create countless ways for Oaklanders to express their aliveness and ingenuity through self-organized planning projects not yet imagined. The City, in turn, hired and committed $5.7 million to a for-profit, hierarchical firm. The firm, Dyett & Bhatia, put forth a scope of work that – on close inspection – shows White and Asian planners are to be compensated at hourly rates 20 times higher (see p.130-133) than nonprofit staff doing community engagement, as shown here (p. 85). Based on the color photos of the planning team and the estimated hours and compensation for each person involved, it appears that Black people were anticipated to do 2.1% of the planning work (611 of the 29,034 hours of paid work described in the Dyett & Bhatia proposal). This is outrageous in a city that was majority Black before waves of displacement.
In early 2022, the Planning process began with “community workshops” to shape the Housing Element. In these workshops, planners invited community ideas and input, but without any transparency about what the planners would do with those ideas. Some TOPP member groups showed up and people shared their personal and sometimes heart-wrenching experiences of housing insecurity. The planners had no space in the meetings to digest this. Rather than listen and empathize, we saw planners dismiss, belittle, and placate. We asked: If the current Housing Element is failing miserably at meeting local housing needs, how can we ensure that we can bring transformative ideas to the next Housing Element? The City still hasn’t given us a clear answer.
What can our communities do? Oakland’s current planning process is doomed to reproduce structures of power, domination, and White supremacy, and it will continue to suppress the potential of community self-organization. It will sap our community’s resources, energy, and aliveness, and drown it in a General Plan that won’t benefit us. We should call out these problems, demand to halt the process, and demand that the City begin supporting self-organized solutions.
But the ability of local community groups to unite and bring these demands is compromised. The City’s process has actively divided the community in the General Plan process. The City of Oakland purchased itself a $2.7 million dollar shield to protect itself from attacks on the plan process itself. The City put out a second RFP to hire a “Community Consultant” that would collaborate with the Department and planning firm on community engagement for the General Plan. Several local nonprofits competed in the process, and the City ultimately contracted with a newly formed group of 12 local organizations that calls itself Deeply Rooted. Several great people and organizations are part of Deeply Rooted, and we are happy they have a role to play. At the same time, if we call on the City to halt and rethink the General Plan Process, we’d be undermining the $2.7 million that is set aside to compensate our community allies. It’s hard to know what to do in this divisive situation. But we also need to be honest with our allies: Deeply Rooted is deeply rooted in hierarchies. According to their proposal, at the top of their pay hierarchy, staff of Just Cities are budgeted to receive $200/hour, and at the bottom, the talented leaders from the Black Cultural Zone are budgeted to receive $12-$33/hour (see page 85). Let’s be real: Deeply Rooted is not equipped to support true bottom-up community planning when it is creating the same old hierarchies.
What are the solutions? We all hold the solutions. Rich and infinitely diverse, responsive, and adaptive solutions are all around us, and we need only support them to emerge and flourish. We need the City to stop disrupting and dismissing them, and we need the City to stop dividing us. We need to call on our city and cities everywhere to abandon the cults of hierarchy and of city planning. Not only is self-organization powerful and effective, it is quite possibly the only way that we can tap the full brilliance of everyone in our communities to face the crises we have now and that lie ahead. Oaklanders can come alive through self-organization in ways we can only begin to fathom.