My theory is, strong people don’t need strong leaders.”
- Ella Jo Baker, civil rights movement organizer
The “tyranny of structurelessness” was a term coined and popularized by Jo Freeman, describing the experience of organizations she was a part of during the women’s liberation movement. At the time, many organizers resisted the very idea of strong leaders and viewed formal hierarchies as an impediment to our collective liberation. Some movement groups protested hierarchies by discarding structure and division of labor altogether. One feminist organizer observed, “this apparent lack of structure often disguised an informal, unacknowledged, and unaccountable leadership that was all the more pernicious because its very existence was denied.” An example of unacknowledged leadership can look like a strong personality in the room dominating decision making. Folks tend to find that with a lack of structure, unconscious cultural hierarchies emerge to fill the gaps.
In contrast, other organizers combined their aversion to hierarchy with a commitment to participatory democracy. Ella Jo Baker, for example, advocated for an organizational structure called “group-centered leadership.” In this structure, leaders acted as facilitators tasked with bringing out the potential in others. People who built a following with their charisma, professionalism, or status, on the other hand, were expressly not the type of leaders that Miss Baker wanted to work with.
The organizers during the women's liberation and civil rights movements learned an important lesson about collective leadership: Decentralized power does not have to mean structurelessness! Through these lessons from our movement elders and ancestors, we’ve learned that in order to build resilient organizations, it’s actually culture that is the foundation of democratic practice. It is the “invisible” structures of cultures, values, norms, beliefs that shape the more “visible structures” of an organization.
Whether you’re in a worker self-directed nonprofit, worker coop, or traditional workplace, there will be culture, there will be structure, there will be power. We believe we must intentionally design for the power relations we desire instead of reproducing the oppressions of the dominant culture. Intention is a key component to liberation. Matching values and goals with the structures that will facilitate them is the key.
If you want to read more about tools, structures, and examples of democratic workplaces, check out this Law Center presentation, which inspired this newsletter. We also highly recommend Carol Mueller’s Ella Baker and the Origins of “Participatory Democracy.” Also check out this report on Feminist Co-Leadership called Mosaics & Mirrors. It's a beautifully designed mixed-media collection of research, stories, and tools from around the world to support the practice of co-leadership.
Black Futures looking bright in Allensworth
Image description: A blue sky full of fluffy white clouds above a crowd of people attending Allensworth Black History Month event earlier this month. Photo credit: Dezaraye Bagalayos
2022 was an extraordinary year for our clients Allensworth Progressive Association (APA). APA was established by Black township founders back in 1908 and now is a 501c3 nonprofit serving the rural community of Allensworth in Southwest Tulare County, CA. APA offers the Central Valley a vision that is both rooted in black and brown self determination, racial justice and cooperative development.
Through the support of the California Legislative Black caucus, APA submitted a funding request to restore and develop the community and Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park, then Governor Newsom allocated a groundbreaking $40 million to Allensworth. In the fall, APA was also awarded a grant of $500K from the CA Department of Food and Agriculture Beginning Farmers and Farmworker Training Program. With a focus on BIPOC farmers, the funds will be used to provide training in regenerative agriculture practices. The grant will allow training of the next generation of farmers and allow the Central Valley to grow food for its people and communities, even in the midst of climate disruption.
Pachama Mama Garden Ceremony
Image description: A smiling group of young and old people, Black folks, Indigenous folks, People of Color, and white allies standing in front of a fence with a painted mural at Homefulness #2. Many are raising their fists in the air showing solidarity. A few folks stand inside the planter box that will become the Pacha Mama Garden. Photo credit: Tobias Damm-Luhr
Our clients Homefulness held a beautiful community gathering on January 31st to ask of the community what food they want to grow in the Pacha Mama Garden at Homefulness #2 in deep East Huchin (Oakland). There was prayer, shared food, and a beautiful dedication of the garden. We felt privileged to witness the growth of Homefulnesses vision.