Expressive change at the grassroots
  • My friend Alex Megelas has been organizing a monthly Geek Out event that I’ve had the joy of going to a few times over the past year. The idea is pretty simple: gather a bunch of interesting people and a bunch of games and crafts in the same room on a wintery Saturday afternoon and let them loose on each other for 7 straight hours. It’s a beautiful thing.

    A little while ago, Alex asked me if I’d like to do a short presentation on Organization Unbound at one of their gatherings. I jumped at the offer because I loved the idea of bringing a conversation about organizations and social change into such an informal, fun-filled space. At the same time, I had doubts as to how many people would want to stop their games to engage with me and of those who would, how many would connect to the themes that I was excited to share.

    In the end, I found the experience to be quite fun and thought-provoking. What sparked my thinking the most was the interest some folks had in exploring how expressive change relates to more grassroots social change initiatives- informal volunteer-driven groups that organize without all of the burden of formalized mission statements, budgets, policies, grant-writing, and strategic plans (like Open Source groups, Hacker spaces, or even Geek Out itself).

    Rennie and I have spent most of our time thinking about and with more formal organizations because they are the kinds of social change initiatives that we had both personally experienced and felt disenchanted with. However, informality is a big part of what Organization Unbound is meant to explore. It is the formalities that have been built up over time as “just the way things are done around here” that seem to separate us from the deep meaning and messiness of social change work. So it is the informal spaces that exist in organizations that we’re interested in nourishing and creating more of. The question of how expressive change relates to groups that are primarily informal in their structure and processes is a question that I’d love to explore. Our experience thus far suggests that even the most informal group of people can function in ways that are vastly incoherent with their deepest values and that some of the more institutional settings you can imagine can feel quite vibrant and engaging. I don’t think form is a determiner, although it can certainly hinder or help our movement towards a more expressive state.

    Pondering the relationship between informality and social change  got me thinking of a TED talk video my friend Sarah suggested I check out. It’s a fascinating story of a group of writers in San Francisco who bought a space to house a publishing business, and before they knew it had, in quite an organic way, brought to life a strange hybrid organization that interweaved a publishing company with an after-school tutoring program with a store that sells pirate paraphernalia for kids. I love how emergent and creative the process of developing the organization was…an organizational improv of sorts: Check it out

    April 19th, 2010 | Tana Paddock | 3 Comments

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3 Responses and Counting...

  • Alex Megelas 04.19.2010

    I think that your post raises a neat reflection about language and the barriers it creates to framing social investment… Like – when you talk about informal spaces as being ‘volunteer-run’. In some ways, the term feels hugely limiting and seems to come with a whole lot of implications that don’t necessarily bring ‘full-participation and engagement’ to mind…

    Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill and Le Tigre said it best when she declared that “it only really matters if your best friend gets it”. It feels as if informality in spaces isn’t significant for the extent to which it differs from ‘structure’, it’s significant for the extent to which it allows people to interact directly with one-another with humour and kindness.

  • It’s an incessant to and fro between upholding democratic, objective processes and adapting and responding to initiatives that come from within… not unlike the present struggle between the PM’s office and Parliement!

  • I totally agree with you, Alex, about the limitations and barriers that the language we use creates. I’m constantly unhappy with using words like “volunteer” and “organization” because it reinforces the kinds of energies and thoughts that I personally want to break out of. However, I also don’t want disconnect from the dominate world that we live in. It’s an interesting tension to live in…
    Your reflection on informality vs. structure as it relates to humour and kindness really resonates with me. It’s a beautiful way of thinking about these crazy contraptions that we create to structure our work together!

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