An Alternative to Organizations – II
IF A NEIGHBORS GATHERING IS NOT AN ORGANIZATION, WHAT IS IT?
What do I mean by an ‘organization’ ?
I don’t mean an alternative to organizing. For instance, if I have knives, spoons, and forks in a drawer, I don’t mean an alternative to separating each according to its kind and giving each kind its own compartment. There is, I’m going to argue, a difference between organizing things and organizing people, or perhaps I should say, allowing people to organize themselves or a group of people to self-organize. Or, using different terms, organizing objects and organizing subjects. The objects in a drawer cannot organize themselves. But subjects can and do organize themselves – IF they are allowed to do so. By subjects, I mean all life forms.
What do I mean then? I mean by “an organization”, every group of individuals who decide to work together in an organized way for a common purpose such that they become an organization. This includes religious groups, charities, businesses, social clubs, homeowners associations, political parties, environmental groups, clubs, etc.,. The key words here are “an organized way”. The “organized way” of organizations is to treat others as objects or things rather than as subjects or persons. I suggest that an organization is a machine which we create composed of people.
An organization is created when a group becomes organized in a way that creates these characteristics:
- Membership. A boundary is established between those who are in the group and those who are outside.
- Hierarchy. Members are ranked according to levels of decision making and/or control and derive status according to position and label (boss, chief, owner, manager, foreman, etc.,).
- A corporate identity: A name which separates the group from other groups, often including additional symbolic representations, ie., a flag, logo, song, handshake, lifestyle, etc.,.
- Organizational links. The group becomes related (as a group) to other groups, within the group, without, or quite often both. The group may develop sub-groups such as committees, boards, staff, etc., or it may have horizontal relationships with other groups in a network. (So what’s wrong with groups?)
- Imposed order. Order is established through obedience/submission to a controlling authority such as rules, constitutions, by-laws, etc., and/or the decisions of other members.
There are pros and cons to creating an organization. It is my belief that, all things considered, the cons are many times greater than the pros and that before a group decides to become an organization, they should consider an alternative. An alternative that I offer as an example is the neighbors gathering that my wife and I held in our home in a suburban neighborhood in North Port, FL. The gathering adopted certain principles which can be found here: http://neighborsgathering.net/home/principles/
So, let’s take a look at our Neighbors Gathering and these five characteristics and see if they apply. We can look at what I intended for the gathering to be when my wife and I invited our neighbors into our home, and I can discuss what the gatherings were from my experience.
(1.) Membership. The first article in the list of principles of gatherings shows my intent to be inclusive, to not put a boundary between us and them.
Neighbors are welcomed without regard to religion, politics, race, social status, wealth, gender, age, sexual preference, or ability to tell jokes.
Coming out of a fundamentalist Christian background and having been persuaded to accept and then later reject the theology of 5-point Calvinism and the division of humanity into the elect and non-elect, I wanted to see if it was possible for humans to get along with each other in spite of differences. If we couldn’t, I thought, there was no hope for global peace and an end to war. I’ve been called an idealist and have been accused of being naive about “human nature” but my experience of the gatherings convinces me that it is possible, and, I might add, preferable. Our soul is enriched by having a diversity of friends and neighbors that we care deeply about who differ from us. A diversity of worldviews, when added together, provides a much bigger view of the world. And yet, I’ve been told, that if we want to have deep intimate sustained relationships with one another, we must be “like-minded”. This assumes that if one’s mind changes while in a relationship, the relationship becomes estranged, families become separated, friends are shunned, couples become divorced. This assumption, I believe, is like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Gathering only with others who are like-minded leads to (1) dogmatic beliefs and opinions, (2) a lack of critical thinking skills, (3) alienation, and (4) isolation -all evil attributes of tribalism.
It takes both practice and teaching, I believe, to learn how to relate to those who don’t share our customs and traditions, beliefs, ethnicity, and worldview. In our suburban neighborhood, neighbors lived for years next door to each other in ignorance of one another’s first names. And they would drive several miles to attend different churches. In spite of proximity, they were strangers to one another. It’s why, in order to experience intentional community, people will relocate in order to live next to like-minded folk. This is why I described our purpose in creating a gathering as learning to be neighbors rather than being neighbors, and that becoming a neighbor involved caring for those who differ from us.
The purpose of these Gatherings is to learn how to be good neighbors; to create intentional communities of neighbors within walking distance.
Our gathering consisted of neighbors who were Catholics, Baptists, Lutherans, New Agers, agnostics, atheists, liberals, conservatives, anarchists, and a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds. One family barely spoke English. One first time visitor, mistaking our gathering for a Christian meeting suggested that we pray following another neighbor’s emotional sharing of a recent experience. There was an awkward silence of not knowing how to deal with the suggestion until I explained that not everyone there shared the same idea of what or who God is and so, therefore, a prayer would be uncomfortable for some. But, those who shared the common belief that God is a caring benevolent Being would probably also be of the opinion that this God is aware of the needs of each of us and of what we share with one another when we gather, and so we could consider the telling of these stories of our experiences with one another as a form of prayer. That seemed to satisfy the visitor – especially when followed by hugs all around. Politics were discussed but not argued over. Strong opinions were tolerated, not encouraged, and tempered by friendship which we did not wish to risk losing.
(2.) Hierarchy. At the very first gathering of neighbors in our living room, neighbors were kind enough to allow me to give a rough outline of why we had invited them into our home and our vision for future gatherings. At the second meeting, I took ‘charge’ again and handed out my prepared agenda. We gave each neighbor a three-ring notebook into which I hoped they would put each week’s agenda and any other materials handed out at the gatherings. Fewer and fewer neighbors showed up each week until, at one point, only one neighbor from across the street (“Faithful Joe”) came to keep us company. I stopped printing up agendas and we continued to hand out invitations door-to-door which included some neighborhood ‘projects’ for neighbors to participate in. Rather than an agenda, we did continue to maintain a simple structure of meetings which allowed me to step into the background and facilitate the self-organization and spontaneous order of each gathering. More neighbors started to show up. Later we suggested and introduced the idea of a ‘talking stick’ as an aid to storytelling. The stick was a symbol of our “Egalitarian” ethos, the shared authority to speak and share ideas. On more than one occasion, when I would try to interrupt a neighbor holding the stick, the sharp end would be pointed at me in a threatening manner. Humor was used as an effective means to keep me and others from trying to dominate. Anthropologists have noted the place of humor and other methods used in egalitarian “primitive” societies to resist the efforts of those attempting to gain a dominant position in the community.
(3.) A corporate identity. We did have a logo of sorts –
It was intended to convey a message of inclusivity rather than an identifying symbol. And the name, “Neighbors Gathering” is generic, more of a description than a label. The closest we came to a particular identity was to call ourselves the “La France Area Gathering” – which we seldom used because there was no need to distinguish our gathering from others. There were no others – although it was our vision to have a network of gatherings throughout the world.
(4.) Organizational links. We almost became linked with another organization (SCOPE) through my recruitment and assignment as a VISTA volunteer. The organization was interested in my community creating activities and wanted to exploit our gathering as an example and as a project under their purview. Many non-profit organizations depend upon government grants to fund their expenses such as staff salaries. SCOPE applied for and was awarded a grant to improve neighborhoods and wanted to channel money to our neighborhood through me and, of course, under their supervision. When I refused to accept the money for our neighborhood, I was “fired” (how do you fire a “volunteer”?). When I asked what we were expected to use the money for, it was suggested, that we could buy food for our weekly potluck dinners. Of course, that would have been completely contrary to the sharing ethic I was trying to foster, and the metaphorical significance of the food – that sharing food is sharing life. Besides, some of the food came from our neighborhood garden.
The question could be asked about the status of our relationship to other gatherings if others were created. Would we have become an organization? My vision was for a “Rhizome Structure of Organization” with each gathering interdependent yet self-governing. I hadn’t yet given thought to the nature of organizations or why groups should avoid becoming one. At no time, at least as best as I can remember, was there a conflict between the gathering and the autonomy of individuals. There was cooperation between neighbors on projects and events, but no binding commitments. And I think that is one of the lines that are crossed when a group becomes an organization. When an organization has an organizational link with other groups, it has the power to make binding commitments on behalf of individuals within the group. At that point, the group transcends the individual. It becomes a ‘machine’ and the individual merely a part. I hinted at this relationship when I wrote,
An organic organization is dynamic and open to unpredictable changes. A mechanistic organization, on the other hand, attempts to control input and output. A machine is efficient and controlled, but it is also dead.
(5.) Imposed order. As I wrote above, there were no binding commitments between neighbors and the group. There were times when requiring certain commitments were suggested, such as the requirement that a neighbor work in the garden before they could help themselves to part of the harvest, and that only neighbors who showed up at the gatherings consistently could participate in any group decision making. Those suggestions were never accepted. However, again, there were no group decisions which were binding on any individual neighbor. Before I was even familiar with the term, our gathering operated on the basis of stigmergic collaboration. In other words, neighbors self-organized themselves and nobody told anybody else what to do. Order emerged, it was not imposed.
Well, so what if a neighbors gathering is not an organization? For many, if it is not an organization, it doesn’t count as anything. When a group enjoys doing something together or wants to do something as a group, it’s almost automatic – someone will try to organize them and appoint themselves as the leader. Only a short time will pass before rules for the group will be created and criteria will develop to decide who’s with us and who’s not-us (them). A name for the group will be chosen. Eventually titles will be given to leaders to give them ‘official’ status. ‘Business’ meetings will be governed by Robert’s Rules of Order (possibly disturbed by snoring!).
The “way of organizing” is a well-worn path leading to increased productivity and efficiency. It creates order out of chaos. It is also the path to boredom, alienation, imprisonment of the soul, loss of innovation and creativity, control and domination, and away from the Spirit of Community. The increased productivity and efficiency found on this path result in increased consumption of the world’s resources and the destruction of habitat for all humans and our non-human kin. The “way of organizing” is a mimicry of life by a machine with human parts. It is a fairly recently discovered path relative to the existence of humans on earth. We’re discovering that it is the path to extinction.
Another path is usually ignored, hidden, or rejected as too ‘primitive’ or lacking certain qualities such as ‘leadership’ or having someone ‘in charge’. This path also produces order from chaos, but not at the cost of individual autonomy. It is the self-organizing way of all organisms. It is the way of life.