10 lessons from a sharing economy organizer

This post by Mira Luna originally appeared on Shareable, an online magazine that’s all about—you guessed it—sharing. 

Get Down and Dirty Oakland!

Community organizing in action: 400 Oaklanders at the Laney College Community Garden for the Get Down and Dirty work party.
(photo via 350.org on Flickr’s Creative Commons)

I frequently talk with amazing social innovators that have great ideas, but don’t know how to implement them through community organizing.

It’s something that you learn by doing and takes years of on the ground experience, self-reflection, and feedback. I also studied community organizing in school and with groups who do trainings, which was helpful in getting a framework to examine why and how what I do is effective or not.

After 10 years as a practitioner, it seems community organizing is more important than ever. Occupy Wall Street is powered by participatory organizing structures. Community organizing was central to Obama’s successful 2008 presidential campaign. And new sharing economy companies like Airbnb have on the ground community or city managers to help build trust among users and grow their businesses.

So whether you’re a neighborhood leader, worker coop member, politician, or sharing economy entrepreneur, community organizing can help you better serve your community.

Here are my top 10 lessons from 10 years of community organizing that you can use today:

1. Involve the communities you want to work with from the very beginning to get their perspective on what you are doing.

Offer them something in return for their input. Especially involve different kinds of people you want to work with. If someone sees only people with green hair working initially on a project, they might think, “that’s a project only for green-haired people,” and people with purple hair might feel uninvited or simply uncomfortable at your gatherings.

2. Listen well and communicate.

The best community organizers listen to the people they work with rather than imposing their ideas. They adjust their projects based on feedback, sometimes even scrapping the project for an emergent idea coming from the groups they listen to.

But don’t take too much of their time. Think of specific questions and ways they might want to participate. Don’t drain their interest with endless debate, mandatory meetings, or bureaucracy, unless they really like that kind of stuff and have the time.

3. Make room for people and groups to participate, including leadership roles, project ownership, and increased responsibility if they desire that.

Offer them something in return for their participation, especially if you are working with low income communities (don’t be a parasite).

4. Adapt to the circumstances, and be willing to let go.

Community organizing is like improvisational dance. Only if you can gracefully respond to changing circumstances—including your own role, position, and ideas—will your project thrive. A healthy dose of humility and fluidity in project design go a long way.

5. Clarify your vision and values.

Try to work with people who at least share your basic values. When conflict arises, you will at least have some common ground to stand on and move forward. Lack of shared values, even in one group member, can sometimes tear an otherwise healthy group apart. Clear vision and values will help you figure out how to affect change and practice what you preach.

6. Have faith and tenacity.

If you can get past the phase where you feel as if you are going out on a limb with your project, you will hopefully notice people starting to express excitement about and commitment to it. This means you should keep going despite obstacles, because you have an idea that has staying power. Next you may need to convert the project to a functional organization.

7. Make your organization open but structured.

Use transparency methods, open meetings, accountability, and involve your members, clients, employees and/or volunteers as much as possible without being too cumbersome and dragged into trivial details. Delegate noncontroversial or minor tasks to committees, but involve as many stakeholders in key decisions as possible.

Try to get consensus. Only if you have buy in will you get willing volunteers or employees to execute it. Because of this, I believe consensus is more efficient in the long run, IF people have training in consensus and communication.

8. Relationships and partnerships are the crux of community organizing.

Be a good partner by communicating regularly, helping your partners, and asking them for support. Reciprocity and communication build healthy two-way relationships that are the strong foundation of a community organization.

Create ways for people in your organization to take care of each other (like gift circles or rewarding with timebank hours) and your organization’s partners (e.g. give free tickets, classes, or reciprocal publicity). If partners’ needs aren’t being met, the partnership will not last.

Imagine and map your organization as web of overlapping and nested circles of participation, impact, and responsibility. Nurture your relationships at all levels from clients and consumers to producers and funders to community members who are influenced by your work, and all other stakeholders. Think how this web can become more connected, participatory, and stronger, which will make your work overall more powerful.

9. Create a safe space for people to criticize without retribution, including your partners.

This will help your project or organization grow and mature and will help you appear responsive to critics, maybe even converting them when they realize that you care what they think. For local businesses, this may mean a paid focus group with community organizations, members, or leaders.

Value everyone’s perspective—everyone has a piece of the truth. This will also help confront unspoken hierarchies that may threaten your group’s culture. Have a skilled mediator on hand for challenging conflict.

10. Have fun together.

Take time to just enjoy each others’ company. Eat and play together, have bonding time. Studies indicate that most relationships that thrive have a greater number of positive interactions than negative ones. People tend to add things up.

If you have good times together on a regular basis, the bad times will seem more like a bump or a curve in the road than the end of the road. Make the work itself enjoyable. As activist Emma Goldman once said, “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution.”

Do you have community organizing tips of your own to share? Let us know in the comments!

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Idea File: Mapping Kibera and other slums


Kibera photo by khym54 (Flickr/Creative Commons)

Today’s idea: Map Kibera

For many of us, all it takes is a few clicks to find out what’s nearby. The first thing I do when I’m restaurant hunting, for example, is go to Google Maps. Same goes for when I’m traveling.

But there are still areas that literally aren’t on the map. Nairobi’s slum Kibera, for example, was displayed as a forest on official documents until late 2009 when a group of volunteers set out to change this. Realizing the tremendous value a simple map could have for this city within a city, the group trained Kenyan youth in GPS and data editing. The result was an ever-evolving digital map that displays all of the community’s resources – hospitals, schools, food kiosks, gas pumps, Internet cafes, and more.

Why we’re adding it to the Idea File

  • Community empowerment. The tool taps into one of our basic human needs: recognition. Instead of focusing on a lack, why not create a map that highlights existing assets?
  • Practical resource. The map increases residents’ knowledge of the area, thereby increasing access to resources.
  • Stake in own development. While the initial idea was from non-Kenyans, it was the local youth who implemented the project. From the process they learned concrete technical skills and built a sense of ownership.
  • Open technology. The platform accounts for rapid changes; anyone can go in and update the map.

How you can replicate it

First, see if the need for a digital map exists. If it does, participants can identify starting reference points, such as existing paper maps or firsthand knowledge. A clear view from space using Google MapMaker also helps.

You’ll need a lot of people to capture all the resources. Reach out to community members via traditional word of mouth, or through social networking sites such as Facebook. Once you have the information, a good tool to use is OpenStreetMap. For easy editing, MapQuest is surprisingly complementary.

Throughout the process, engage residents in its creation and provide opportunities for learning. Let the community take ownership; if you’re an outsider, they, not you, should be in charge of the map’s maintenance.

Caveats and considerations

Because creating the map ideally involves a lot of people, the potential for mistakes can be huge. But if it’s a peer reviewed process, where people are constantly checking to make sure the data is correct, then the mistakes can be lessened.

Once the map is completed, it can be a challenge to make the up-to-date version accessible for those who don’t have access to the Internet, or whose knowledge is sparse. One possible option might be to put an editable version of the map on residents’ mobile phones.

What else can you do after the map has been filled in? There are plenty of initiatives to glean lessons and inspiration from: Ladies Mapping Party, Ushahidi, Groundcrew, GeoCommons, Crowdmap, Managing News, and DC Foodshed just to name a few. Any others come to mind?

Written with the help of Scott Stadum, User Engagement Analyst for the Sunlight Foundation.

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Does social media really mean the end of social revolution?

“The revolution will not be Tweeted,” claims Malcolm Gladwell in this week’s issue of The New Yorker. Bringing us back to the early 1960s and the U.S. Civil Rights Movements, Gladwell writes that huge upheavals coming from social unrest that led to major change happened precisely because of a lack of texts, tweets, and Facebook friends. The social change mini-revolutions that happen today are smaller scale and have less impact than ones like the Civil Rights Movement due to the fact that the tools that drive them rely too heavily on the weak bonds between members of social networks. Further, being that online social activism is based on ease of participation — people end up making very little personal sacrifice, a necessary component of any social change movement.


Via flickr user david_shankbone (Creative Commons)

Gladwell seems to think that these aspects of social networking might have hindered the civil rights movement by decentralizing the authority of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the N.A.A.C.P., destabilizing the strong, in person bonds of the movement’s members, and letting people “participate” without having to make the huge sacrifices that were required to stage sit-ins, march, or speak out in public, risking abuse, jail time, and even death.

But what about the large scale social revolutions that are happening today?

Social networks don’t seem to have eliminated protests, even if it might be true that they are not being driven by them. Look at the extremely well organized students of Buenos Aires, Argentina who have essentially taken control of 30 city public schools to protest deteriorating conditions. These students became highly organized offline, inside their classrooms. But, when thousands of people gathered to march in the capital earlier this month, information was shared via social networks, increasing participation and pushing the protesters’ message to government officials and traditional media outlets.

Yes, movements that have a lasting societal impact are going to happen offline. For every hundred thousand people that “like” an initiative on Facebook, nothing is going to change unless at least a fraction of these people show up at rallies, donate, or vote in upcoming elections. But, didn’t only a fraction of people participate in the Civil Right’s Movement? Hopefully, the real power of social media is making information about a movement’s progress and how to participate more visible and accessible — hopefully increasing the percentage of people who will take things offline, and make real sacrifices for their cause.

[This blog entry appeared on an older version of Idealist; any broken links are a result of having re-launched our site in Fall 2010.]

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Groupon's G-Team: Support Causes, Cause a Scene


Illustration via the G-team site

If you haven’t heard of Groupon, it’s a pretty simple concept. It’s difficult to bargain a deal with a major retailer on your own, but if you were to team up with a couple of thousand of your closest friends, your collective consumer power would go way up. Groupon steps in to harness the power of its ever growing community (since most of us don’t have a few thousand close friends) to get businesses to offer exclusive deals in exchange for a guaranteed number of sales. In essence, Groupon is crowdsourcing a bargain.

Groupon’s new project, G-Team, will apply the crowdsourced bargain model to help connect local causes and movements to people that “want to do good, have fun, and make a real impact.” G-Team campaigns can help community organizations, fundraisers, and initiatives for social change reach a wider audience, hopefully letting you, the changemaker, “achieve something awesome that you couldn’t have done alone.”

For fundraising, nonprofits could ask the Groupon community for enough small donations to get over a programmatic financial hurdle. Host events or other programs open to the public? Consider adding a deal for registration that also has a volunteer service commitment attached.

G-Team campaigns are local, run for a short amount of time, and support causes that the Groupon community cares about. In addition, they’re only for specific projects and only succeed if they reach a ”tipping point” (just like the Groupon bargain of the day).

The pilot G-Team project is up and running in Chicago. To stay updated on its progress or to find out how G-Team could partner with your organization or cause, click here.

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