You Are The Ones You Are Waiting For: Successfully Working With People You Already Have

We could [do this really cool thing], but we don’t have enough people yet.

Ah, recruiting more activists to come to meetings before moving forward with plans to change the world. Having worked with a lot of activists I can tell you this is one of the most common ways people get derailed.

Truth is, you are the ones you are waiting for. Why would you delegate your readiness to be the change you want to see to a mythical army of people you haven’t met yet? They may not exist. But you, brilliant feminist, certainly do.

When you believe in yourselves and work together, small groups of people can be incredibly successful to seed cultural change, force a bad actor to change course, or create or implement a new policy. Many times I’ve pulled off successful actions with small core organizing groups sized anywhere from three to 10 people.

Using a small core organizing group doesn’t preclude you from having a large event where many people show up — and it means you don’t have to keep calling meetings expecting all those people to show up until you give yourselves permission to act (under those pretenses, that day may never come).

Still don’t believe me? Anthropologist Margaret Mead knew a thing or two about peoples and cultures. She said so, too:

“Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead

So ready to get cracking? Here are some additional tips for successfully working with people you already have:

If you’re a leader, be a feminist. Delegate. Listen. Lead in the shape of a circle (emphasizing interconnections and intersections) rather than a triangle (emphasizing hierarchy). It’s not just the right thing to do — it works better.
Although some people never get this memo over the course of a lifetime, it’s especially common when first thrust into leadership to believe that you need to prove you can do it all by yourself and/or tell others exactly what to do and how to do it. That’s a disaster! Not only will you burn yourself out and drive people away, your activism will suffer as a result. More thoughts and more skills create more opportunities to kick ass.

Leadership is working through other people. Orient your thinking around what your small group can accomplish together to boost your odds of success.

Activity: Have everyone go around the room and say three things they can do really well (in the context of an action or campaign).
I love this activity! You may think you know your friends and colleagues, but chances are you don’t know what skills each other has. Next time you’re together, take the time to each say three things you can do really well, such as negotiating, or writing, or editing video, or dealing with difficult people in crisis situations, or logistical details or … Chances are strong you will learn about skills within your group you weren’t aware of before. This becomes really helpful in divvying up tasks.

Due to socialization, it’s more common for women to announce what we can’t do. Affirming what you and others can do is power.

Make sure everyone gets included in discussions.
Some people like to talk. Some people don’t hesitate to throw out the first idea or reaction when the room is silent. Some people are comfortable speaking up in the middle of a spirited conversation. The people who don’t fit in this category have insights no less valuable, so it’s up to you to be a feminist and make sure everyone is included in the discussion. If someone hasn’t spoken in awhile, ask them directly what they think. Or think back to the skills activity and ask them “so what about this from a, for example, photography perspective? Any additional thoughts?”

Elevating the softer voices in a room is one of the most important aspects of feminist leadership. At a micro-level. At a macro-level. Practice it routinely.

Everyone has a job. Every new person who shows up leaves with a job for next time.
Being part of something larger is what energizes people, but don’t mistake sitting there and soaking in other people’s work as filling that hole. Successfully working with the people you already have means engaging all of them. Make sure everyone has a role. Want people to come back (especially first-timers)? Don’t ever leave a meeting or an action without a new activity for everyone to do. That could include something as simple as an invitation to join a celebration potluck after a demonstration, or agreeing to research a policy before coming to the next gathering.

Both new people and existing people are precious. Don’t just treat them that way, acknowledge their worth by explicitly including their presence and their work at your next gathering.

Use the people you already have to recruit people for your big day(s).
Publicizing is great — do it online, do it through social media, do it through likeminded associations, do it through reporters and public relations, do it through public calendars and bulletin boards — but don’t just do that and expect your big crowd to fall out of the sky and into your event. Leveraging the core organizing group you already have means counting on your people to bring people to show up on your big day. Depending on the scale of what you are doing, you might want to ask everyone to commit to bringing one friend to the delivery of a formal letter to a decision-maker (just promise me you’ll record what you’re doing and post the video online), or you might want to ask everyone to commit to recruiting 50 signatures for your petition.

The people you already have are your most important asset, and that includes not just their skills but their networks. Use them or lose them!

A bias toward action is the seed of feminist change. One of the best ways to foster that bias is to believe in, and work with, the people you already have. The likelihood that someone is going to mythically appear and give you permission to move forward is low. The odds are statistically against your favor if you believe that holding meeting after meeting will somehow give you enough people to suddenly believe there are enough people to do something more than meet again and hope for more people. But your ability to kick ass is omnipresent. So grab it and go!

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