Building A Movement: Prefaces and Visions

Opinion: ‘We, who openly work for social justice, often make an assumption that we all share the same vision. This is the biggest obstacle to success in our work.’


I believe that the entire possibility for social change, for evolution and justice, exists within each person.

Within each person.

I believe that there is a limited set of stories out there, and that in each person’s life you can find those stories wearing grooves into the psyche, the body, the heart. This is what gives humans the capacity for compassion, for empathy, for change. We feel so alone, and yet we see our personal stories everywhere. And where we don’t see our exact story — the story we want for our lives — we concoct a story.

We then come together, creating organizations and institutions where we can feel like we’re in a community, a place for our stories to align. But we debate and plan from our individual place of storytelling, often mistaking it for a common reality. But we’re not starting in reality.

And we wonder why we don’t succeed.

This is the context in which I do organizational development, and I am going to write about it. My goal is not to get everyone to live in reality; I can’t find a compelling reason to do that, and I think it’s an assumption that there is one reality. But if we could get people to think in terms of a common vision, engaging themselves in a common story, then, I think, we could get somewhere.

So it all starts with vision.

We, who openly work for social justice, make an assumption that we all share the same vision, and I propose that this is the biggest obstacle to success in our work. We speak in abstract terms when telling the story of our success: we want peace, justice, equality, love — when these abstract concepts align, it will feel right, all good. I say all the time, ‘My vision is a world in which all people have enough, are heard, are loved, can live beyond survival.’

One of the reasons we are able to get away with not being clear about our vision is that we rarely reach the conclusion, that goal.

Over the past few years, I’ve seen love and betrayal, great battles, beginnings and the ends, the dirty money and the drugs, the emergence of a new crop of saints and sinners. And I’ve seen most of this in meetings!

Perhaps we have not focused enough energy on the personal transformation it takes to become the sort of person who could exist in that world of our visions. Perhaps you cannot align with others until you have a sense of who you truly are. Then there is no limit to what you can believe, what you can dream of, and then you can imagine self-determination, evolution beyond our physical limitations, understanding the point of our existence.

My vision then, more precisely, is seeing leaders transform themselves first, and use their transformed minds to evolve as many communities, institutions and organizations as possible into tools for our collaborative pursuit of justice.

As a first step to that, I want to see an end to judgment in our interactions with coworkers, allies and partners, our communities, supporters, leaders and our loved ones.

This is the first in a series on organizational development, based on the lessons of 10 years. It’s sort of like a decade check-in. 10 years is not a lifetime, not even close. Still, if I’ve done anything consistently in my life, it’s been in the last 10 years, and it’s been watching and learning from organizations that grow and triumph or fail. The idea of writing a series of pieces that can serve as snapshots of what I’ve seen is a bit daunting, but bear with me. I think I might be able to make it interesting.

How organizations develop excites me, because how people communicate and grow community excites me. I think the changing of the world is an issue of communication, and if we are communicating clearly, then changing the world is the least of what we can accomplish. And! I don’t think it’s hard, this communication of which I speak.

For instance, using a collective communication model, here’s an effective way to develop visions:

1. Tell everyone who is invited to a meeting, to reflect in advance on what their vision is. Ask prompting questions: What would success look like for your group? What impact could you have in your community?

2. Once folks are all in the room, have them take 20 minutes or more to write out their vision, free write, get it all out there.

3. Then ask each person to go through and highlight the core points of their vision that they want to bring to the group. Put all of those up in a common space — a flipchart, chalkboard, something you can all see. As much as possible, look for places of shared group concepts and ideals.

4. Now folks get a chance to knock anything off the vision that isn’t shared. That doesn’t mean it’s no good, it’s just important to make a distinction between a personal vision and what the group wants to do.

5. Finally, review what you have left. This is a starting point for your shared vision, and can inform conversations to follow.

Once you get on point with the vision, there is an order to things. After vision comes an assessment of resources, then goals based on your vision funneled through your resources. Then you develop programs that will meet those goals, using your resources to reach the vision. You assess on a deeper level the skills of your team to complete these programs and make sure all needs are covered and everyone is in the right place. You create a timeline of the whole picture, working backwards from the vision being achieved (perhaps after your lifetime). Plan as well as you can all the way down to what you need to do in the next moment. Document your work, evaluate whether your programs are meeting your goals, are you actually moving towards your vision, and you adjust if you are failing.

I’ll write in more depth about each of these pieces in the upcoming monthly features, but in every single organizational experience I’ve been a part of, following this order led to work getting done and change happening. And the opposite has been true — if there wasn’t a deep belief in and understanding of a common vision, the trickle down effect was a devastating waste of time, financial and human resources.

(Eds Note: Be sure to catch Adrienne’s next feature with more tips on organizational development in March by signing up to our weekly newsletter now. This feature is a part of "Building a Movement" — a series of opinion pieces in which a new generation of progressive leaders and organizers share their vision, strategies and reflect on the lessons learned. To submit your story idea, email us.)

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