What makes a good leader

Aug 10, 2023

From Leadership Development to Co-leadership Creation. 
Moving From Helping to Sharing

Eyes on the Floor

The youth council was wrapping up its first meeting. Ellis and Kay had been thrilled to see 15 young people turn out. “They really seem interested in the job fair. This is good!” Ellis whispered in Kay’s ear as they moved on to the last agenda item. The teens agreed that a job fair inviting possible employers to the school on a Saturday would be exciting and doable. Kay had her concrete activities to help the kids; Ellis could see a way for companies to give back. Given the energy in the room, the two young organizers were on a roll.

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“So who can help with the flyer?” Kay asked the assembled group. Suddenly all eyes were on the floor, searching for some invisible speck of dust that only the teens could see. The energy in the room was replaced with an uneasy quiet.

“Come on, guys, a couple can help with the flyer, and I only need two people to come with me and speak to employers. What do you say?” Ellis was trying not to sound desperate.

Finally, Cece, one of the older members, shyly raised her hand. “I’ll sit with you, Kay, but I don’t know anything about flyers. You gotta show me.” The group seemed relieved that one of theirs had spoken at last. “That’s great, Cece, great! So who else? You know, you’re the leaders of this council. You get to make the decisions and lead this council, not us.” Kay was firm as she spoke, Ellis nodding alongside her.

Quiet descended on the room again. Robby spoke up at last. “Aww, Ellis, Kay, you’re the leaders, not us. We haven’t done this stuff before, you know. You guys are in graduate school! You know that you know more than we do, you know?”

The group laughed timidly at the repetition but did not disagree. “I can’t talk to some employer! What would I know what to say?”

Ellis and Kay looked at each other in consternation. Their ideas on leadership development included the young people in central roles from the beginning. While initially excited, the teens were suddenly backing off any real responsibility. What were they to do? They couldn’t make them participate; if they tried too hard, they’d lose them all. But if the young people did next to nothing, they’d never feel a sense of their own empowerment. Having a project that left young people as dependent as ever was just as upsetting.

The young organizers headed back to their favorite diner. Their organizing teacher had mentioned dilemmas like these in class, but up close, the lack of leadership in the council felt less like a dilemma and more like a mess. What could they do now?

Introduction: Community Practitioners, Leadership Development, and the Modeling of Democratic Experience

As they are finding out, Ellis and Kay’s first brush with recruiting people to lead their own cause can be fraught with both personal anxiety and strategic tension to expand participation and involvement. Most of the organizing literature addresses these issues under topics of community engagement, issue development, and the choice of topics and targets (Homan, 2004Netting, Kettner, & McMurtry, 2008Rubin & Rubin, 2007). This emphasis is a necessary part of any organizing campaign and its strategic development; the reader is invited to use the Community Toolbox’s terrific tools (cited at the end of this chapter) for the concrete steps one can take in addressing engagement, member recruitment, and target selection.

As we shall see, such activities are about far more than these tasks, as important as they are. They are also about how leadership is formed and the dynamic interplay between group members and their assumptions about what democracy means. While the majority of social work literature on leadership still tends to treat the work of leadership development in a descriptive manner, such an emphasis is incomplete.1 While informative, most leadership literature neither captures the dynamic interplay between organizers and developing leaders nor makes clear how the creation of new leaders is fundamental in framing the contours of civic engagement within a democratic society.


1For example, one leading macro text devotes three pages to leadership with a focus on the different schools of organizational management and leadership (Netting et al., 2008, pp. 288–290). Other works have a broader focus on describing the types of members inside an organization or campaign, ranging from its central leaders to activists and participants (Homan, 2004Rubin & Rubin, 2007) without emphasizing how people develop as leaders.


Of course, as Ellis and Kay’s experience suggests, one’s initial foray into leadership development can cause anxiety, difficulty, and concern for any community practitioner. As we saw in the last chapter, the dynamics between organizer and members begin with the strategic push for commitment—the member pull-back from involvement; later it can turn into member push for widespread changethe organizer tactical pull for long-term effectiveness. This role strain constructs its own tensions between group members that are partly overcome through the community practitioner’s growing awareness that such push–pull dynamics are a necessary part of a campaign’s development, as much a part of the job as creating flyers, holding meetings, and setting agendas.

But more is at play than role tension between macro practitioner and group members. As was made clear in Chapter 1, what kind of leadership we as a nation seek and how such leadership is expressed in terms of decision making, sharing power, and collaboration is now at play in ways not seen for more than 50 years. For the community practitioner, never before have Gandhi’s words, rephrased by the leadership writer Peter Senge (Senge, Scharmer, Jaworski, & Flowers, 2004), been more apt: “Embody the change you seek.” How an organizer recruits people, works with them on their decision making, handles social tensions affected by power and oppression, and critiques as well as supports their work will construct the type of democratic experience between leader and led that he or she believes is possible.

In short, over time, a community practitioner’s actions have the potential to embody the transformative possibility that as the organized gain power, the organizer loses none. Expressing Steven Covey’s (2004), notion of win–win as 100%–100% in concrete form, the way a macro practitioner goes about her or his work is a powerful opportunity by which genuine democratic experience spreads through our society and captures the imagination of a new generation of activists and citizens. Given the collapse of other forms of leadership in our economic and political spheres, we seem to be at a historic moment where Paulo Freire’s (2000) emphasis on the slow, gradual process of dialogue between helpers and helped that necessarily begins with the frustrated anxiety of the organizer alongside the fear-driven apathy of the organized can be transformed into the shared democratic experience of mutually interdependent leaders, activists, and members. For as Freire (2000) wrote, “Liberation is thus a childbirth, and a painful one” (p. 49). This chapter explores how the birth of this transformative experience for the organized and the organizer can occur.

Thinking About Leadership

We need to begin with current ideas on leadership because leadership is so central to all forms of macro practice. We will address some of these issues in later chapters as organizers move on to positions as directors, supervisors, and executives. Here, we start when the organizer has little or no formal power, and yet he or she is involved with building lasting campaigns and expanding people’s organizations. Interestingly enough, in countless discussions with organizers, I have found their lists of accomplishments always related to programmatic development/campaign success that came to be run at least in part by community members. It seems clear that leadership development is to community organization and macro practice what social functioning is to clinical work (Saleebey, 2008).

That so cherished a hallmark of macro practice continues to be so underdeveloped in the organizing and macro practice literature itself is surprising (Austin, Brody, & Packard, 2008De Pree, 19891993Heifetz, 1998Senge, 1994). While there are numerous workshops and training programs on developing grassroots leaders (from the Midwest Academy to the Center for Third World Organizing), their work tends to focus on the techniques of leadership rather than on the methodology of leadership itself. With the exception of Eric Zachary’s (1997) study of leadership training for South Bronx parent leaders, little work distinguishes grassroots, community-based leadership from other, more traditional forms of managerially based models of leaders and their teams. It is as if leadership development is so universally agreed upon as a given objective of practice that it never dawned on anyone to study it as it actually takes place between the organizer and the organized.

Not that there has been little research on leadership itself. A quick google of the term leadership in 2009 leads to 16 million hits, while leadership development has an astounding 32 million! A more careful perusal, however, shows the focus is on the development of individual leaders, who in turn inspire, motivate, and develop their teams. Whether at the esteemed Center for Creative Leadership (http://www.ccl.org) or the well-known and respected Center for Third World Organizing (CTWO;http://www.ctwo.org), the focus has consistently been on locating individuals to lead others from a paradigm that assumes limits on how one can lead and who can do so. While some, such as CTWO, are greatly committed to recruitment from communities others might ignore, the basic paradigm that transforms whether or not power can be shared over time has remained the same.

Qualities of Leadership for the Macro Practitioner

The work on leadership itself has had some profound insights over the last 25 years that can be of real benefit to anyone involved in macro practice. Overwhelmingly written by and for the corporate sector, there are four primary themes related to a person’s leadership capacity that are deserving of note here:

  • Developing the capacity to distinguish urgency, importance, and one’s use of time to handle the essential demands of one’s workday (Blanchard & Johnson, 1981Covey, 199920032004Shepard & Hayduk, 2002)
  • Developing one’s personal mastery to better discern what is actually happening as opposed to what one perceives as happening. Through this internal attention to her or his ways of thinking and acting, the leader is also able to engage insystems thinking, that is, an ability to examine the underlying problems and issues that impact an organization’s development or a campaign’s long-term strategy (Argyis, 1991Schön, 1991Senge, 1994Senge et al., 2004).
  • Developing servant leadership in the way in which one works with others in a collaborative and “serve first” manner. Inspired by both the classic writings of LaoTze and the teachings of Jesus Christ, the work emphasizes that one must serve before leading as a key to one’s lasting legacy (Greenleaf & Spears, 2004). Several educational theorists, such as Bolman and Deal (2003), Covey (1999), Sergiovanni (2006), and Heifetz (1998), also reference these characteristics as essential components to effective leadership.
  • Emerging recently from the human service field, a transformative leadership model has emphasized the notion that “if the work is sacred then so are you” so that those working in macro practice recognize that their long-term ability to create a lasting legacy through small, sacred acts each day includes self-care as fundamental to both personal well-being and the model of leadership one hopes to inspire in others (Burghardt & Tolliver, 2009).

The capacities to distinguish urgency from importance and to effectively use one’s time were most powerfully put forward through the work of Steven Covey. Starting with the key insight that a person’s ability to slow down his or her reaction time between receiving a stimulus and giving a response was at the heart of effective management, Covey’s original work can be of great value for macro practitioners, who are bombarded with the stimuli of campaign and organizational demands each and every day. Covey went on to see that what could help a person become more reflective and less reactive was to distinguish what was an urgent and important demand from an urgent and unimportant demand. The first set of demands, falling into what he called Quadrant I, were real crises and actual deadlines; what fell into the other (called Quadrant III) were problems and issues that never should have happened in the first place: others’ missed deadlines, unreturned phone calls, and missed meetings. The exhaustion and frustration of spending so much time on these Quadrant III activities in turn led people to spend time on passivity-inducing, mindless activities in Quadrant IV, ranging from gossip to mindless net surfing.

One of Covey’s key insights was therefore to work with leaders on what was important but not urgent in Quadrant II: long-term planning, relationship building, and self-care. His seminal work has helped countless managers, leaders, and others to see that how one carefully used time, including incorporating Quadrant II activities into one’s daily life, was fundamental to long-term managerial and leadership effectiveness (Covey, 199920032004).

Personal Activity

Take a moment to create Covey’s Four Quadrants:

  1. Urgent & Important
  2. Important & Not Urgent
  3. Urgent & Not Important
  4. Not Urgent & Not Important

In reviewing your week, list the activities in the four quadrants. Once completed, identify Quadrant III activities you’d like to lessen and add in new Quadrant II activities that would help achieve your objective (better planning, relationship building, etc.). See Steven Covey’s (2003The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People for more on this topic.

Developing personal mastery and systems thinking so that the underlying causes of problems and concerns could be the focus of leaders and their teams. Masterfully synthesizing and building upon his MIT colleagues’ work on personal reflection and critical thinking, Peter Senge’s (1994The Fifth Discipline focused on the mental and emotional faculties necessary to both work collaboratively and delve into what he called systems thinking, the ability to understand and connect the underlying and often interrelated causes of most organizational problems. While his work initially focused on the dynamics of the business cycle, he and his colleagues have gone on to work with both educational institutions and environmental organizations.

To use an example of interest to a young macro practitioner, through systems thinking, one would assess a problem like poor reading scores in a school and through deep reflection and practice develop a campaign that would focus less on an immediate improvement in test-taking instead, he or she would emphasize the interrelated causes of a lack of parental inclusion in a school’s life, the transfer of experienced and skilled teachers to other districts, and an imbalance of financial funding across the city or state. With each causal factor requiring different campaign targets and activities, the organizers could use one set of objectives to rally support for the other, deepening the campaign’s effectiveness without losing sight of the immediate demand for test score improvement. (See Chapter 7 for a fuller discussion of this process of strategic development.) Such systems thinking is obviously critical to long-term strategic effectiveness and to effective leadership.

Senge’s (1994) contribution extended beyond systems thinking, for he also brilliantly described the qualities of individual perception (called personal mastery) and thought processes (identified as mental models) that are needed if systems thinking is to occur. Personal mastery refers to how one develops the increasingly effortless ability to perceive “what is” in the world without judgment, projection, or intimidation. Such a quality noted by many commentators about President Obama is his cool demeanor in assessing and responding to grave economic and political problems.

Senge used the lovely example of the difference between a new, inexperienced potter and a master artisan to explain personal mastery. The new practitioner labors mightily to grab onto and shape the wet, porous clay around her wheel, only to create at best a misshapen, albeit well-intentioned, pot, saucer, or bowl. Ten years later, the inexperienced potter has evolved into the master artisan who seems to throw that same spongy clay while barely moving her hands, only to have a work of art appear soon after. The personal mastery of the artisan is the skillful, open, and flexible way she has applied herself to the same task over which she labored so intensely 10 years earlier. Developing such personal mastery in the effortless interpretation of the economic, political, and social forces that shape a macro practitioner’s life is, Senge (1994) would argue, fundamental in developing the kind of strategic insight one needs as a macro practitioner in order to have long-term impact on the systems that affect people’s lives.

To do this well while working with others also requires attention to what Senge calls the mental models one brings to thinking about the tasks at hand. As is made clear in Chapter 2, on tactical self-awareness, one of the ways people express their mental models is through their primary focus on either the tasks or the process of work. Senge clarifies that what one is drawn to, cognitively, may be about a specific type of content and the meanings we attach to certain words or actions. While to the young practitioner this may all sound like too much of a good thing, a brief mention of a few words used in a jobs campaign like Ellis and Kay’s can make clear it is not: employers/bosses, minimum-wage job/entry-level position, and opportunity/access can all mean very different things to different people in the same conversation. Is a boss a threat or an ally? Is a minimum-wage job a first leg up or a symptom of structural racism and sexism? Is access an example of fairness or unfairness?

Senge argues that the awareness of meaning we attach to powerful words used in problem solving as well as to the task or process focus of how to solve those problems helps a leader better work with others so that a more collaborative approach to our work together can occur.

Reflective Questions


On personal mastery: Reflect on an area of difficulty in your campaign or program. Assess (with others, if possible) assumptions about what is the problem at hand by imagining the benefits that come with the problem remaining unchanged. Who benefits? What is a new way to imagine the difficulty that might free up you and the group?

On mental models: Reflect on your approach to an ongoing campaign or program issue: How much of it is overly task oriented? Process oriented? What needs to be emphasized more to make the campaign even more effective?

Greenleaf and Spears’s (2004) contribution of servant leadership is valuable because they directly extend the role of leader into the relationship with those with whom one works. Equally important, they document the types of qualities one must have to be successful: less directing than serving. The qualities they identify are listening, empathy, healing, awareness, persuasion, conceptualization, foresight, stewardship, commitment to the growth of others, and building community. Many of these qualities are not unlike the best of what a social worker does: Listening, empathy, healing, awareness, and conceptualization have all been written about in most introductory texts (Mattaini, Meyer, & Lowery, 2007Netting et al., 2008Saleebey, 2008).

Greenleaf and Spears’s (2004) emphasis on foresight and commitment to the growth of others is clearly a powerful example of what macro practitioners do in leadership development as well. Foresight, or the ability to forecast future activities based on events that may not have happened yet but are foretold by the actions of others, is embedded in the push–pull between an organizer and those with whom she or he works. Such foresight is the basis of a powerfully constructed and dynamic practice where the macro practitioner is where the people are at plus one. Seeing such a skill as something to pass on to others as they develop their own talents is what Greenleaf and Spears identify as a way to diminish the potential elitism that successful forecasting would otherwise create in some. (Who truly needs others if only you can forecast what’s next?) Their recognition that a leader’s forecasting ability increases rather than diminishes his or her role in developing others for sustained growth in a community is of real value for effective macro practice.

Personal Activity

Identify someone in your group, preferably someone not already in a formal leadership role, whose actions suggest real leadership ability. What are those actions? Why do they suggest the ability to lead? Reflect on different types of leaders the group may need. After identifying the person, engage in ongoing conversations with her or him that pose questions and issues in ways that elicit personal reflection as the person considers her or his role and responsibilities in the group.

A more human services–based transformative leadership model has built upon the work of Senge and colleagues (2004) and the Theory U paradigm developed by Otto Scharmer (2007). Working from a paradigm concerned with long-term environmental devastation of the planet, Scharmer’s work traces how teams of people, whether organizations or communities, must move through the fear, judgment, and cynicism that cloud reform efforts before they can arrive within themselves at the possibility of cocreation and communal well-being. Applied within the human services field, a transformative leadership model has emphasized the small, daily actions of meaning between leaders and managers and those with whom they work as the pivotal measure of an organization’s capacity to build a sustained, democratic community.

Transformative leadership places primary emphasis on the idea that “if the work is sacred, then so are you.” Here the authors pose a challenge of self-care to all social workers, macro or micro practitioners alike (Burghardt & Tolliver, 2009). By making both self-care and small actions with others as the sacred measure of a leader’s effectiveness, the work provides concrete examples of how embodying the change you seek comes to life among those in agencies and communities. Whether you’re practicing politeness with everyone who enters your agency, maintaining a neat and well-lit agency lobby, embracing social diversity as an asset and not a threat, or engaging in systems improvements as a form of leadership development, this model offers ways to inspire others without bonuses and to make a legacy through genuine service rather than the formal position one holds.

Personal Activity

Reflect on your self-care and its impact on your own leadership style and internal balance inside the campaign or program of which you are a part. Where in the day can you add in more self-care, whether it’s walking to and from work, taking 10 minutes to meditate each day, or spending down time with a good book? Can you make a sacred commitment to yourself to practice the Second Golden Rule: Do unto yourself as you seek to do unto others?

From Individual Leaders to a New Paradigm for Co-Leadership

While the above and other works offer meaningful insights as to what individuals may do to inspire and motivate others and to live a life of integrity, the idea that macro practitioners can work with others in ways so that all participants are transformed together is still underdeveloped. This is not surprising; leadership models from the corporate sector have little reason to address the conditions from below that emanate from people without power unless they affect the bottom line. Social work values related to self-determination understandably are not part of such a model.

However, when the stated organizing outcomes are progressive, the inattention to the type of leadership being developed can undermine long-term successes in terms of altering power and decision making. For example, the well-known Midwest Academy, a citizen action training center, provides thorough, direct action training for grassroots activists. At the same time, its core essentials of direct action place little to no emphasis on leadership styles and the relationship of the leader to group members that is any different from traditional, hierarchical models.2


2Midwest Academy’s five-day direct action workshops list the following topics: (1) identifying the problem; (2) turning the problem into an issue; (3) developing strategy; (4) bringing people to face the decision maker; (5) the decision maker reacting to the group; and (6) winning, regrouping, beginning again. None of the dynamics of power as related to the internal development of the group and members’ long-term awareness of themselves as consciously distinct leaders are developed. See http://www.midwestacademy.com.


So we find that a hallmark of our work is well researched for corporate organizations and yet much less understood among those working within communities. This confusing irony increases when we consider one of the standard yet equally understated techniques of daily organizing work in this training process: the use of ourselves as models of leadership. If, in the role of enabler, facilitator, advocate, broker, and so on, we are presenting a style of leadership that implicitly constructs what we want others to emulate, it would seem that we need clarity on what we are about, too. We therefore better know a bit more about our own daily roles in our presentation of leadership models, including our manner of decision making, how open we are to suggestions, how well we share power, and our own comfort with a genuinely diverse set of leaders and activists.

To do this, of course, means understanding why such knowledge is important in an ongoing relationship, a skill that goes beyond any simple self-assignment into a role category like liaison or advocate. As this chapter will suggest, we have the potential to be even more effective if we can learn to incorporate other social work methods into our work; doing so may make it possible to focus our attention on the full range of human relationships, both personal and political. We may then find that instead of socially reproducing a set of leaders consistent with standard notions of hierarchy, deference, and so on, we are creating leadership alternatives quite different from traditional models. After all, if we start with the idea that leadership development is not a hallowed goal but a process by which people change themselves and the organizers as they work together on common organizing tasks, then what goes into that process itself will actually determine long-term, sustained transformation among those with whom we work.

Using casework skills for transformative leadership. Seeking a more transformative model of leadership explains—perhaps ironically—why casework interviewing and assessment techniques can add so much to a macro practitioner’s work. Casework interviewing skills are important in organizing precisely because the unstructured nature of most community organizing settings heightens the vagueness of the interpersonal process within one’s work. As community-based practitioners, we seek people out and conduct interviews on the street, in bars, over lunch, and in crowded rooms. While hardly conforming to the classical contextual specifications mentioned by Garrett, Donner, and Sessions (1995), the shifts from highly content-specific to person-specific experiences that develop in organizing (almost spontaneously at times) occur with remarkable frequency and must be attended to if a person is to be seen in his or her entirety.

Indeed, I will argue that when these events occur, a macro practitioner is confronted with an opportunity of tremendous consequence for her or his work. Not only may trust be deepened between two people as they learn from each other about what at first may be perceived as extraordinary (nonstrategic/nonorganizational) issues in each other’s lives; if developed correctly, it is also possible for the now personally engaged individuals to begin extending the mechanics of leadership development into the realm of what Freire (2000) calls critical consciousness, or what I will more concretely call critical reflection in action. As we shall see, this process expands leadership training beyond the immediate work itself (which will be limited and thus highly pragmatic) and instead takes it toward larger social concerns that may necessitate deeper transformations in society—and different types of leadership.3


3It is no accident, for example, that women’s movement rap sessions were called consciousness-raising groups. The intent of these groups is to explore and give support to individual women’s problems and, in the process, to consciously connect those parts of their problems that are rooted in social conditions. They then explore personal and social issues and how they intertwine to develop not just leadership (a personal goal) but leadership in new forms, that is, without the patriarchal forms of leadership promulgated by men (a social goal).


I cannot underscore enough the point that your use of both case and community organization skills is not simply to broaden your professional role. If we assume that critical reflection in action demands an ability to intuitively feel and intellectually understand the way in which the world is organized, this joint mixture of skills becomes the sine qua non of engaged practice. To begin with, one crucial but often overlooked fact about most organizing situations and leadership is that organizers, unlike executives, initially are expected to undertake leadership development within a context of perceived failure. Often, of course, the failure is not of the group’s or individual’s making. The responsibility or blame may lie elsewhere, but that does not change the immediate perceptions of the group as to why they are working together.

This is why our purpose in the development of strategic practice, as discussed in Chapter 4, is to heighten the underlying tensions between what people may perceive about the world and how the world actually is. By definition, those perceptions, no matter how legitimate they may have once been, create an impression that previous community efforts failed to correct problems still needing to be resolved. The experience of having lived with these feelings of at least partial failure imbues people with a touch of resignation, self-blame, doubt, or confusion as to who is right or wrong. People are going to feel uncertain about how much of their problem is due to their own ineffectiveness and how much is beyond their control. This uncertainty will surface in different situations. The practitioner, in recognizing where people are at, will therefore have to focus on altering both the situation andpeople’s perception of their past failures regarding that situation. To do otherwise would be disrespectful.

In short, there simply is no way to divide out process and content for the critically reflective organizer concerned with leadership development, even when concrete objective tasks may be great and potential systemic change is difficult. The way we work with people will greatly influence what those people do, not only in the short-run campaigns of meaningful direct action, but also in addressing the long-term needs for new models of leadership that confront present power relationships in dramatically new form.

Reflective Questions


In what ways can you demonstrate respect for where a group is at by legitimating why they perceive things as too difficult without creating a sense of defeat? Can you show respect and challenge them at the same time?

Developing Leadership on the Ground: The Dynamics of Grassroots Leadership Development

Historically, there have been three dominant strategic alternatives used by organizers to get at the complicated process of developing leadership: (1) changing the situational problem to the exclusion of leadership development; (2) developing leaders who are grounded in organizational, not critical, consciousness; (3) developing critical consciousness, or critical reflection in action.

1. Changing the situational problem to the exclusion of leadership development. This highly concrete, direct action approach gets the job done (wins the rent strike, maintains the fiscally troubled senior center, etc.) but doesn’t take measures to see that the success will be maintained. While undoubtedly stated in terms of self-determination, it actually furthers dependency by shifting the participant’s focus of dependence from outside agents of unfairness or oppression to the organizer’s more benign but still hierarchically positioned role. Michael Reisch (Burghardt, 1982), writing years ago when he was an activist in the antinuclear movement, thoughtfully wrote about this tendency among some of the leaders involved in the Shoreham, Long Island, demonstrations:

Some of the activists believed that change would be initiated if they worked for the people. What this course of action effectively did was to impose a world view on the people, rather than dialogue with them about their views and those of the (grass roots) organizational leaders. As Freire noted, “This practice is incompatible with a truly liberating course of action, because it replaces the slogans of the oppressors rather than helping the oppressed ‘eject” those slogans from themselves.” (pp. 87–88)

Their method of organizing, while grounded in objective reality (the need to get rid of nuclear power), used an imposing process of intervention that short-circuited the development of a people’s understanding of their own potential for being agents with the capacity to change that reality.

2. Developing leaders who are grounded in organizational, not critical, consciousness. This is easily the most common form of leadership development that takes place within community organizing and other forms of macro practice. It is also understandably popular, for the constraints facing the practitioner—for example, the perceptions of failure, the limited resources and urgent demands for action, and so forth—breed in anyone the desire for immediate results. We therefore latch on to quick ways to establish someone—at times almost anyone!—to serve as a group’s leader. The techniques to keep that person in that leadership position, which range from flattery to guilt, are in actuality forms of objectification that socialize him or her to use the same techniques on followers in the future.

This short-cut process has accidentally created two dangerous problems: First, it tends to exclude the vast majority of the group from leadership and instead fosters a view of organization that is hierarchically skewed and potentially undemocratic. Second, it perpetuates the use of techniques that cannot ground a person within a changing social context (which would demand constant attention to the process of how one attempts to change those conditions) but rather fosters reliance on the manipulation of others. A well-travelled and almost burnt-out organizer reiterated his experience with some tenant leaders he’d helped train in the past:

I don’t quite understand it—people come and people go, but they just seem to stay the same. I go into a few buildings, get a lay of the land, and find a few people ready to work. Then things go fine for a while during the initial action …but every group but one has lost its group after a year or so …a lot of the original people just give up, or don’t care. …[How did you work with the leaders in each group? How did you train them? Or didn’t they need any?]

Training? You have time to train somebody in a rent strike? Seriously, though, I’d work with one or two who seemed most interested. Most of those [people] had more enthusiasm, which makes it a lot easier on me. And most had talents, too, but not in this work. What I needed to do was take their talent and direct them toward the group. I’d latch on to them … try to make them feel good, help plan their agendas and all the meeting details, and afterwards boost egos and correct a few points. A lot of effort goes into that kind of work, doing hand-holding, reassuring people over the phone, all that “stroking.” The key was to make them feel good enough so you’d get the job done right and people in position to carry on afterwards. (Italics added)

You can see right away that there’s a lot that’s right with this organizer’s approach. He wants to get the job done correctly, which means he’s willing to train others to lead their groups. He’s willing to take the time needed to work with their developing leadership needs, without giving up the central rent strike tasks. But what is the nature of the training? There were two points specified: immediate facts on how to deal with organizational detail and ego-boosting. The former related to a set of techniques that was divorced from the social context itself (most meeting skills can be learned and are applicable to any situation). Leadership training never generated issues that would, for example, tie in the previous lack of leadership to other social problems or generate discussion about the set of reasons people were encouraged to be passive receptacles of others’ efforts at change.

The latter use of ego boosting, by definition, excluded much of a person’s life from the organizational experience itself. Not that a person doesn’t need to be congratulated for work well done; it’s just that respect isn’t simply a function of making someone feel good. The organizer, by objectifying the group’s needs into sharply delineated organizational and ego-salving tasks, was himself perpetuating a model of leadership devoid of the critical reflection necessary to creatively act within the world. For all his good intention (and decent rent strike work), he was creating a model of leadership devoid of attention to the changing social context that would have made the group interventions more meaningful for the members and himself. By objectifying his work into differentiated categories of organizational and personal solutions, he never could develop a conscious method of organically joining people’s reactions and needs to the larger context of the organizing effort and the social world in which that effort was a part. Freire (2000) comments as follows:

Critical and liberating dialogue [between the oppressed and the organizers] which presupposes action, must be carried on with the oppressed at whatever stage of their struggle for liberation. The content of that dialogue can and should vary in accordance with historical conditions and the level at which the oppressed perceive reality. But to substitute monologue, slogans and communiqués for dialogue is to attempt to liberate the oppressed with the instruments of (their) domestication. Attempting to liberate the oppressed without their reflective participation in the act of liberation is to treat them as objects that need to be saved from a burning building; it is … to transform them into masses which can be manipulated. (p. 65)

While requiring patience that can at times seem in short supply, to have taken the time in the midst of the work to pose issues for mutual problem solving would have laid the groundwork for understanding that a campaign is often a long-term tactic used to better the changing social and personal conditions of its membership. People may not need ego boosting as much as a chance to learn concretely how to analyze and interpret the problems before them in their own words, be it their perceived individual struggles or those flowing from the organizing situation itself.4


4See Chapter 7 for an example of Freire’s (2000) problem-posing model that Eric Zachary has developed inside his educational justice organizing efforts.


They then become active people in the situation, not things-for-organization. In short, the organizer’s above mistake in the midst of much good work was in not validating a person as a human being with understandable doubts, misgivings, hopes, and aspirations attached to the group’s ongoing efforts—a far more important organizing goal than that found by stroking an individual in order to create an organizational tool (a group leader).

Personal Activity

Review a recent campaign you have been involved in.

How were members encouraged to become leaders, if at all? What concrete activities were used to develop them?

  1. ______________________________________________________________________
  2. _______________________________________________________________________
  3. _______________________________________________________________________

In what ways were they involved in their own development? In what ways did their own ideas and suggestions influence the direction of the group?

  1. ______________________________________________________________________
  2. _______________________________________________________________________
  3. ______________________________________________________________________

In what ways did they influence the organizers?

  1. ______________________________________________________________________
  2. ______________________________________________________________________
  3. ______________________________________________________________________

3. A far different model of organizing is found in developing critical reflection in action. An example of how this leadership methodology is put into practice was discussed by Debbie Harris (Burghardt, 1982), a community activist working with seniors, as she analyzed certain interactions between a group member and herself. As you will see, there is little direct attention at all to developing leaders.

[This man had been monotonously disruptive to her and other group members.] This man had one major area of interest, which was the high cost of beef and the importance of importing larger quantities. I tried to listen (over the year), but two things interfered with truly hearing and responding: (1) the man spoke endlessly, repetitively, and somewhat monotonously; (2) I’m a vegetarian and somewhat turned off to meat issues…. Most everyone else seemed fed up with him too. …

Finally I met with [him] for another reason—to work out publicity for a congressional representative involved in our Center. We then started a serious discussion on import/exports, price controls, the cattlemen’s lobby, etc. I realized he had a good sense of the topic, but was frustrated by lack of direction. Everyone listened, but no one discussed it with him. “I’m just an old man who likes to talk a lot.” But for once I really heard him, argued with him, questioned him, and found we were really communicating. … We are now actively seeking ways to work on this [meat] problem. … I believe my decision to really take him seriously and actively work with him is having an effect on our relationship. He is beginning to give me feed-back on my role as the worker—something I really want. It seems like a two-way dialogue is developing here! (pp. 93–94)

The organizer in the previous rent strike example worked with group members as tactics to be maneuvered into positions of organizational responsibility. Harris directly worked with people on individualized needs that transcended the organizational context (which saw only an old man to ignore) in order to both help him and improve her own skills. Instead of ego boosting, she argued; in place of working only to achieve immediate organizational needs (publicity, which would have left her frustrated), she tried to communicate with the man on his terms. In the end, this genuine person-in-situation approach increased the group’s resources (a new project with active membership involvement extending beyond the gentleman) and heightened the likelihood that her own organizing skills would improve through ongoing feedback.5


5It’s interesting to see that Harris (Burghardt, 1982) gave what she herself had wanted: feedback that included disagreement, not just words of praise. This obvious but often ignored process is a key element built into critically conscious practice, but one of the hardest for a person to develop. It takes both a recognition of its value and tactical self-awareness to do this well. For example, if you are uncomfortable in highly structured situations, don’t set up highly individualized meetings with people where this kind of dialogue is going to be attempted for the first time. Your own awkwardness probably will make whatever negative feedback you have to give and receive appear to be more powerful than it is meant to be.


Harris’s approach to leadership development will be discussed in greater detail later. What is so distinctive here is her willingness to implicitly validate the elements of failure in this man’s situation by confronting the parts of his immediate concern (the meat) that were overstated or incorrect. It wasn’t a matter of stroking at all, but one of confronting him as a person with quite real qualities of strength and weakness. In her willingness to take his arguments seriously—seriously enough to disagree with him—she was beginning to reach toward the deeper social issue embedded in his obsession: his being politely listened to because he was an old man. The rent strike organizer would have tried to set up a meat import committee, telling him how this information would eventually help others; those from the “let’s do it for them” school would have set up a committee and plunked him down as its token chairman while they did other work.

Other forms of leadership training would have had leaders, but neither would have dealt with the individual in a manner that altered his own consciousness of his situation or how he could change it. Like so many strike leaders trained by the Brooklyn organizer, he probably would have dropped off in activity as soon as the immediate tasks were over (and the ego boosting had stopped). By immersing herself into his world through engaged conversation (Wheatley, 2008), Harris necessarily began altering the relationship they had. She would be a bit less certain; he would be able to respond more fully and could intuitively perceive himself as more than a tactic for manipulation. His effectiveness naturally increased in all areas of work.

Personal Activity

Reflect on a person in your group who you hope can develop as a leader but who seems to have issues that get in the way of her or his development. Modeling yourself after Harris’s approach, what would you include in that conversation about you and your perceptions of her or him? About what you saw as necessary to succeed? About what she or he brought to the work and where there were challenges?

Once completed, what can you commit to change and work on? What will you request of her or him?

Let’s return to Ellis and Kay as they struggle to understand these dynamics with their field instructor so that they can work more effectively with the teens.

Gone Fishin’?

Ellis and Kay both looked at their field instructor with a mix of fear and longing. Megan Newman was a smart, no-nonsense supervisor who managed to be warm and direct at the same time. While her smile was genuine, for the moment her emphasis was on being direct.

“Look, guys, you can’t get a group of young people together, get ’em all fired up about jobs and job fair campaigns and all, and then turn around and immediately expect them to volunteer. People can like the idea of something without believing they can do anything about it. You gotta address that fear while you do the work.”

“Address the fear while doing the work? How do we do both? I mean, won’t they get distracted if we focus on their emotions? You know, some of them don’t do that well in school. Why would we bring up stuff that reminded them of other failures?” Ellis’s brow was creased with concern.

“Like Ellis said, we can’t stop and just do therapy with them.” Kay sounded as anxious as she felt. “Geez, there’s so much to do in a campaign like this. It’s already on us to make it happen!”

Their field instructor leaned forward. “So let’s pause for a second.” She looked at them both, her manner calm. “Tell me something, what is your biggest fear with these kids?”

“That we won’t get them jobs, or even if we do, they won’t have learned anything about themselves. You know, the ‘teach a man to fish’ thing won’t happen,” said a worried Ellis.

“That it’ll happen in ways where they’re no different than they were when they started. That the two of us didn’t matter a bit.” Kay’s normal upbeat manner was gone from the room.

“Those sound like real fears.” Newman’s voice remained calm yet direct. “Do either of you work with people elsewhere in that way? You know, expecting that so little will happen, unless you both work hard?”

“I had that happen in high school. Worked on a breast cancer awareness drive and ended up doing all the work,” Kay replied.

“What’d you learn from that?”

“Never again! I saw just killing myself got the job done, but I was a wreck when it was over.”

“I had that happen in high school, too, only the reverse. A group of us were supposed to get involved in Black History Month, inviting speakers and whatnot. The teacher did the whole damn thing. I felt like a cipher.”

“So you’ve been burned by doing too much and you doing too little. Did you repeat those mistakes?”



“So why do you expect to repeat them with these kids?”

Ellis and Kay both looked perplexed. Kay spoke first. “I just got so anxious about making a difference as an organizer I forgot all about that. Old habits die hard, sometimes.”

“I see these kids and I want so much to happen, but don’t want to impose myself on them, that I just left off thinking, period, I guess,” Ellis managed a brief laugh at himself.

“So, isn’t it possible you might be projecting your own anxiety onto these kids? Turning what’s a normal hesitation to get involved into something far bigger than it is?”

Kay and Ellis looked at their field supervisor and silently nodded in agreement.

“So in reality, you each can use your own experience to work with these kids, right? By reflecting on our own history, we can often find ways to help people locate their own reasons for why they do what they do.” Megan’s smile was brighter now. “And then maybe they can more easily get through that impasse.”

Kay and Ellis looked at each other again, this time with relief. “Hey, I think we just got a dose of that problem posing the prof was talking about!” said Ellis. ‘A little casework for the sake of organizing…very interesting!”

“Yeah, instead of giving us answers on how to work with the kids, you asked us things to get us to reflect on our own experience to arrive at our own answers.” Kay was beaming now.

“And not impose our own anxiety on them,” Ellis laughed. “We’re the basket cases, not them!” The others joined in the laughter. Ellis turned serious for a second, focused. “We have to trust that the young people can get there in their own way, too. If we let them have their fears without making it a huge deal, then they can get to their strengths a lot quicker.” He looked more relaxed than he had in a week.

Their field instructor just leaned back, her hands behind her head. “Hey, guys, one more thing before you meet with the kids again. Don’t forget to leave your fishing poles home, okay?”

Ellis and Kay both high-fived their supervisor as they left the room. Megan Newman high-fived them right back.

Personal Activity

How can you utilize Ellis and Kay’s field instructor’s approach? What experiences of your own can you use in working with others on leadership?

Joining the Personal to the Social as a Vehicle for “Naming the Word”

This kind of problem posing with people as you go about the rigors of community practice sounds nice in this Ellis and Kay case study, you might be saying, but how can you do it in the actual work? A meeting with your field instructor is one thing, but what about when you’re in the midst of a real meeting with community members? After all, practice in a community-based setting is often so unfocused that these nuances of communication seem a bit much. How can you really expect to do more than the rent strike organizer? And before we look at how to do this, why should we bother?

Obviously, the joining of personal concerns as part of a longer-term critically reflective process while organizing is no small matter. To recognize this is to grasp the essence of what Freire (2000) means by “naming the word.” By being able to recognize a person with her or his individual needs, problems, and strengths, especially when the recognition occurs in the midst of activities that usually relegate such “personness” to superficial consideration, you are making a powerful political statement about how you view history and the organizing that takes place within it. It is a history created with people, not for people.

By seeing the person more fully through these actions, you suggest a definition of history as a history of subjects, of people who choose, in countless ways, to act on the world with others. As Harris’s (Burghardt, 1982) example makes clear, by taking the risk to engage with an individual as fully as possible, including acknowledging mutual doubts and fears, when such engagement is not organizationally necessary in the short run, you end any implicit objectification of others that may have been unconsciously communicated through the rest of your work. Your problem-posing actions begin to bring to life what Freire (2000) meant by “the word”:

As we attempt to analyze dialogue as a human phenomenon, we discover something which is the essence of dialogue itself: the word. But the word is more than just an instrument that makes dialogue possible; accordingly we must seek its constituent elements. Within the word we find two dimensions, reflection and action, in such radical interaction that if one is sacrificed—even in part—the other immediately suffers. There is not one word that is not at the same time a praxis (a joining of reflection and action). … An inauthentic word, one which is unable to transform reality, results when dichotomy is imposed on its constitutive elements. When a word is deprived of its dimension of action, reflection suffers as well, and the word is changed into idle chatter, into verbalism, into an alienated and alienating “blah.” … On the other hand, if action is emphasized exclusively, to the detriment of reflection, the word is converted into activism. The latter—action for action’s sake—negates the true praxis and makes dialogue impossible. Either dichotomy, by creating inauthentic forms of existence, creates inauthentic forms of thought, which reinforce the original dichotomy. (p. 87)

Translated a little less abstractly, the process of leadership development cannot be elevated to dialogue capable of generating critical reflection in action if a practitioner’s conception of the task is either all goal directed (action) toward political ends, which stifles personal attributes of the people who are integral to that action, or so process oriented (reflection) toward making individuals feel better about themselves that one ignores the objective circumstances that brought people together in the first place.

Ellis and Kay wanted to create action, including young people’s leadership. When they were met with resistance, their own fears and initial objectifying of the teens led them to personal resignation and a loss of group momentum. Only as their supervisor got them to reflect on their past experiences as they began their own high school projects could they reflect on how valuable such problem posing might be for the young people. It would be through this reflection joined to action that they then could commit to genuine responsibility for the jobs campaign. Ellis and Kay would now engage the students in their fears about commitment by admitting to their own as well. The words spoken then have the authenticity Freire wrote about because both the organizers and the organized are speaking together from the same mutual regard and understanding that there are good reasons to fear working on a campaign together.

This is why the joining of casework and community organizing skills within the same practice framework means much more than just multimethod innovation. For example, knowing when a person’s reaction to new and untried leadership responsibilities has a personally concealed meaning is the essence of your own praxis that Freire referred to in the previous quotation regarding reflection and action. Your awareness of how these two parts of an individual’s organizing and personal lives may be interacting reveals your own willingness to explore reality as fully as the client is in fact perceiving and living it—even when that exploration is not directly or pragmatically beneficial to you or the campaign at hand. In making this linkage of the personal and the social, the possibility of dialogue that can transform the world opens up.

Saying the word is not the privilege of some few persons, but the right of every one. Consequently, no one can say a true word alone—nor can he say it for another, in a perspective that robs others of their word. Dialogue is the encounter between [people], mediated by the world, in order to name the world. … [Therefore] human existence cannot be silent, nor can it be nourished by false words, but only by true words, with which [people] transform the world. To exist, humanly, is to name the world, to change it. (Freire, 2000, p. 87)

As Debbie Harris’s actions suggest, for the practitioner to engage other people as fully as she did is no minor act, even though each interaction may be brief. Her conversations with an elderly man were doing precisely what truly engaged practice demands: looking beneath an obscure political statement to see a man personally crying out to be seen. On one level, she used her casework skills to engage him in a way that heightened the man’s motivation, increased his organizational resources, and cut down his obsessive chatter. But in a deeper, more political sense, through her engagement she had exposed herself to the risk of being perceived poorly, of presenting herself, with her emotional ideas and arguments, in as open a way as the older man had done earlier. His later involvement was in part a function of having begun to “name the word” with Harris in a way that transformed the world—his world, the one that had previously denied him any engaged place within it—and hers, where she now had an ally and organizing partner and not just an elderly drone.

It was not just that he saw himself differently; simultaneously he saw her differently. Instead of being the great organizer who could assuage his needs or resolve his difficulties, Harris, by arguing with him, by getting angry, was exposing herself as a person with emotions, needs, and uncertainties. While Ellis and Kay would be at a different level of conversation with the teens because they had worked together so briefly, the dynamic interplay would be the same. Through this conversation in the midst of their campaigns, the elderly man’s growing ability to see himself as a subject of history was in part based on removing others like Harris from a position of total authority that left him only to follow—an object to be used by others, one to obsess over silly topics and needless issues. The ensuing dialogue was so meaningful not only because it was honest but also because it defined the way in which certain people act together. Instead of a cranky old man being helped by the tolerant organizer, there were two people sharing information—and themselves—so that they might better the organization. In short, the organized has gained power, while the organizer has lost none. In such small acts, a transformation of the world is begun.

Group Activity

At your next small-group meeting (perhaps of leaders or a subcommittee), build into the agenda time for members to reflect on an issue where the group seems stuck. Pose questions that seek their genuine input regarding possible answers. Model your own struggle to get things right by speaking to your own difficulties on an issue you dealt with in the past. Make sure your focus is on the internal effort and personal challenge it took to arrive at a solution and not just the eventual success. Invite the group to go through a similar process; use your listening skills to pose follow-up questions so the group probes deeply for answers beneath the surface.

No one meaningful organizing experience can move you to transform the entire world, of course—a lot more critical reflection in action involving huge numbers of people will be needed for that. But this book is explicating a leadership process that can transform the world by the way an individual or group perceives that world, their place in it, and their actions upon it. Freire’s (2000) critical consciousness is not some magic elixir that unleashes the bottled-up urgings of the masses into societywide, transformative upheaval. It is simply, yet profoundly, the way in which people together learn their rights and responsibilities as subjects of history so that they may choose to act on it as fully and as purposefully as conditions of their epoch will allow. It speaks of self-determination in both personal and political terms, never isolating either in ways that allow others the chance to manipulate and distort their place in acting on the conditions of their lives.

If you assume, with Berger and Luckmann (1967), that reality is both objectively determined and subjectively perceived, your direct engagement with both these connected aspects of life as you organize will allow people to engage more fully in their history,including you. For as they make history, you necessarily become part of it, mutually exploring ways to improve the total reality of your lives together. That you will all be doing so at this momentous time of American history when leadership and authority are being re-examined as they heretofore have not been for generations makes this experience all the more important.

The Use of Interviewing Skills in the Midst of Organizing: Joining the Micro to the Macro

The use of casework and community organization skills within the same practice signifies a practitioner’s ability to engage in the primary subjective (how people see things) and objective elements (the measureable problems one is concerned about) of another’s reality. In turn, this deeper awareness communicates openness and respect of that reality so that others more fully reveal themselves with you. False distinctions between helper and helped are dissolved without sacrificing the genuine contribution each can make to the other’s life. For the organizers, then, the use of casework interviewing skills can help him or her transcend the immediate organizational constraints imposed by the singular dimension of macro practice to a deeper critical consciousness that actively incorporates the personal within the political.6


6Let me add here that there is another vehicle that allows personal and social issues to be joined in a manner that actively fosters new and heightened social consciousness: the tremendous social upheaval wrought by widespread social movements like the civil rights movement in the 1960s, the labor movement of the 1930s, and the lesbian/gay movement of the 1980s. What is being written about here is not a substitute for such movements but an adjunct to them when such movements do not exist—and one that can be used during them, too.


As Garrett et al., (1995) introduced their classic work:

If we zoom in our discussion to be directing our attention primarily to subjective aspects, to feelings, emotions, and attitudes, it is because we recognize that they are as important as the objective facts themselves and are much more likely to be overlooked. … We listen to the undertones, because the underlying subjective of “worry” (for example) may be caused by an objective situation that may not be apparent at once. (p. 176)

In other words, at times, paying attention to the emotionality of a response may be the key to a larger or deeper social problem. (This was the work Ellis and Kay’s field instructor was inviting them to undertake.) In microcosm, it forces one to always deal actively with what Berger and Luckmann (1967) have identified as the primary dialectic of societySociety is a human product. Society becomes and is an objective reality. Man is a social product. Or, put in terms of macro practice and leadership development, society can be described as follows:

  • The activities of creating the world (through macro practice)
  • make a new world (an organizing campaign’s outcomes plus new forms of leadership) that then
  • shapes us anew (as subjects of history)
  • as we begin a new form of practice together (dialogue/critical reflection in action)
  • transforming the world together.

This dynamic, engaged, and transformational process has necessarily linked the interpersonal (subjective) and the macro (objective) parts of life together in an unending series of interactions that demand mutual exploration. Only as this mutual exploration—known as dialogue at last!—occurs together can the world of our macro practice be understood and changed in ways that model genuine self-determination for all. Or, as Freire (2000) might have said, to name our word with others is to transform our world, too.

Personal Reflection

Reflect on a campaign or program where you began to think differently about yourself and the people with whom you worked in a positive, energized way. What happened that led you to see your potential for acting on the world in a new and more powerful way? How could you create similar conditions within your own group?

Getting Back to Basics

So, in getting back to basics, what are the specific personal issues in the group or individual that you need to be aware of? And in what situations that can affect a group’s organizing are they most apt to be present? In answering the last question, we can’t forget that community-based practice doesn’t lend itself to the more easily controlled structure of most casework interviews. Personal issues that one would deal with are hardly scheduled in advance, and the immediate subject may have nothing to do directly with the individual. Nothing would be more ludicrous than stopping a highly charged group discussion about taxes and service cuts to explore a particular issue in greater depth because of one or two people’s personal intensity about the matter. At the same time, it would be remiss of the organizer not to note such intensity as a reason for later follow-up. The assessment skills found in casework interviewing are designed to help you make follow-up a real possibility, and with it, a chance for genuine engagement together that may broaden the actual meaning of “leadership development.”

Besides your own use of tactical self-awareness, which can help you be aware of those situations in which you’ll be most effective in picking up others’ personal cues, you must begin by knowing what to look for. Garrett et al. (1995) list six items still used today: (1) recurrent reference; (2) opening and closing sentences; (3) concealed meaning; (4) association of ideas; (5) shifts in conversation; (6) inconsistencies and gaps.

Recurrent references and opening and closing: We’ll begin with two processes that overlap in similar ways in both organizing and casework. When people refer again and again to the same issue or begin and end their presentations with the same topic (or one that otherwise hasn’t been mentioned), you are getting an indirect message that in some way, this subject matters beyond the topic itself (like the man concerned about beef). Whether the repetition is personally or politically motivated will depend on myriad factors, including the hidden agenda to purposely obscure other items from the practitioner’s view. Perhaps noting the intensity with which topics are referred to can help you differentiate between the personal and the political, but one must be careful with intense political convictions that create powerful emotional responses. In general, it is best to be aware of their potential importance as a beginning to a deeper understanding of the group or individual with whom you are working. Given its relatively open presentation, the chances are that follow-up can be easy.

Association of ideas: The way a person connects different ideas is often a function of that person’s particular history, where powerful past emotional experiences will create distinctive reactions in individuals that are unique to them. In my experience, however, the distinctive association of ideas often relates to cultural differences. For example, not everyone thinks in linear, future-oriented, cause-and-effect terms, not because of lesser conceptual ability, but because of the particular environmental demands under which they live. I learned this while working in the Morrisania section of the South Bronx, still one of the poorest neighborhoods in New York City. The leader of the storefront action group was an exceptionally talented and perceptive formerly incarcerated man, a 35-year-old African American, who at times made no sense to many of us White, professional organizers in the group. His ideas always seemed to take leaps of logic that were rarely understood. A few people were convinced it was because of a lack of formal education.

However, one day it clicked for a few of us: his frame of reference (thus the association of ideas) was intensely present oriented. The past was over and forgotten, and the future was to be dealt with only when it arrived. Examples were therefore always couched in highly personal terms that rarely included cause and effect. Powerful ideas were developed through the use of metaphors. (“This meeting best be like Slick’s head” seemed a little obscure to us until we met Slick and his smooth, bald head.) Once understood, the metaphors were as rich and subtle as any abstract, intellectual statement, but the tendency at first from our own mental models had been to denigrate the pattern of thought itself.

A community practitioner must understand the different contextual/cultural variations that breed varying ways of presenting ideas before analyzing potentially emotional meanings behind those ideas. Instead of forcing others to adopt your frame of reference (which will undoubtedly cause resistance!), you have a chance to broaden your own mental model, learning new ways to express ideas that are equally valid and smart.7 In turn, we begin to communicate a form of openness with others and a respect for different abilities that then frees people to present themselves as fully as possible.


7This does not mean that in broadening your frame of reference you start trying to talk like other people. There is nothing sillier (and more condescending), for example, than to see Whites trying to talk Black. While it is understandable that many Whites come to love the beauty and smoothness of Black language patterns, it is another thing to start trying to use them (a phenomenon that happens only when they’re around Black people, by the way). It sounds artificially stilted, ignores the rather clear reality that one isn’t Black, and is the equivalent form of condescension found in statements of understanding another’s oppressive conditions that are referred to in Chapter 6. By being yourself and talking naturally, you communicate far more realness than any mawkish attempts to “get down” with others, and it’s much more likely you’ll win acceptance and respect from them.

This relates to Freire’s (2000) important insights regarding “the banking system of education.”


Concealed meanings: Organizers and macro practitioners, in their tendency to be task oriented, can grow easily irritated with people who don’t stay with a particular topic but seem to wander from the main points of a discussion. We perceive their reaction to certain topics as attempts to disrupt or impede the work of the group, when in fact it may be that their reactions signify far more than obstructionism. (This is especially true if the people don’t have a history of obstruction. If they do, then that has to be dealt with in more political terms.) Indeed, when a person tends to overreact consistently on a particular topic or uses such a topic to digress, there may be a much more personal struggle occurring that needs tending to before the person can refocus energy on the group’s larger tasks.

A good example of how concealed meanings can be harmful to the flow of your organizing yet revealing of an individual’s need occurred at a New York City–wide labor support group that had formed after another projected round of layoffs. One of the steering committee members, a well-respected activist, became irritable every time anyone used the term rank and file or rank-and-file group. Normally a quiet and even-tempered speaker, he would angrily demand the floor and go on long harangues about the “philosophy of the rank and file,” attacking others for their use of the term, even though their comments were rarely controversial. (The support group had about 100 different trade union activists from across New York City in its membership. For it not to discuss the term rank and file would be like a caseworker avoiding the use of the phrase psycho-social when discussing a client’s background.)

A number of people grew angry with him, including me, but requests to tone down his comments made little headway. Remembering Garrett (Garrett et al., 1995), I finally suggested quietly to him (away from the group) that maybe something else was going on to upset him. I suggested we talk together at a later time. While he was initially furious with me, he agreed, and later we were able to get beneath his antagonism.

His angry responses were symptomatic of his gnawing disappointment and frustration in having been unable to build a rank-and-file group within his own union local. While it was not a problem of his own making, he tended to blame himself for the failure of the organizing efforts. Because he had used the term rank and file in the leaflets to his fellow workers, the phrase once had been filled with the hope of rekindling solid democratic traditions in his union. With his organizing efforts smashed by leadership maneuvers, hope had turned to bitterness. In turn, the combination of blaming himself for the rank and file’s defeat and his own dashed hopes had emotionally redefined the term in ways having little to do with the support group he was now part of. When used at our meetings, the term didn’t make him obstructionist; it made him feel his hurt. While our discussion hardly did away with his pain, it did clarify some of the reasons for his overreaction. Not only were his comments more helpful in the future, but the personal recognition of how badly he felt due to the organizing failure helped him resume a much more active role in work designed assupport for rank-and-file groups!

Shifts in communication and recurrent references: It is natural that interviewing people in highly fluid, disruptive situations will undercut the smooth flow of conversations. Talking in the street, at a coffee shop, or on a cramped bus may be more common to our work than carrying on structured interviews in office settings, so it is quite possible that shifts in conversation or recurrent references have as much to do with the noise from the kids next door as from conscious or unconscious needs to avoid certain topics. At the same time, this is not always the case, and a community practitioner needs to learn the difference between objective circumstance and subjective feelings that interfere with straightforward conversation. As Garrett (Garrett et al., 1995) noted, people may be too uncomfortable with material to carry a discussion further or may unconsciously connect seemingly disparate thoughts.

Nevertheless, this ability to ascertain latent content is perhaps one of the most valuable skills an organizer can have. Such skill can allow one an initial entry, both personally and politically, into the personal hidden agendas of a group or of its members. As in the previous example with the rank-and-file activist, people miscommunicate in order to communicate more fully than they consciously dare. It is your willingness to dare to look beneath the surface on such issues that may begin generating mutual dialogue later on.

Individual Activity

Reflect upon a recent interview/discussion with a community or coalition member whose influence matters in the group. As you review the discussion, were there any of these dynamics perhaps at play that require further follow-up (recognizing the humbling risk in doing so)?

  1. recurrent reference
  2. opening and closing sentences
  3. concealed meaning
  4. association of ideas
  5. shifts in conversation
  6. inconsistencies and gaps

Make sure to speak of your perception of what was heard without insisting that it occurred. Ask for clarity, not correctness. And seek support from your micro colleagues, too!

The effective joining of casework and community organization skills, then, goes beyond multimethod work. By being able to interject personal awareness of another’s individualized, emotionally based struggle in a macro practice situation that does not objectively demand such attention, you begin to subvert previous assumptions about how people function, what political activity is, and so forth. Slowly, together, you alter perceptions of the world and how to act on it through your own personal mastery: What is—especially what is limited, determined, and oppressive—may not be exactly what was once perceived. As Freire (2000) said, in naming the word together, the organizer and the organized begin to transform the world—as coleaders.

Micro Meets Macro Up Close and Personal

“So, Kay and I met with a number of the local employers last week. Some of them seem interested in your group. They said they need good summer help. But they—”

“‘But’?” Eduardo interrupted quickly. “I bet there’s a whole buncha ‘buts,’ aren’t there?”

“And why they say ‘good’ summer help? Some of ’em want ‘bad’ summer help, too?” Jacqui got the whole group laughing with her sarcasm.

Ellis looked briefly at Kay, taking a deep breath as he did so. She could see he was making an effort to follow their field instructor’s advice, but it wasn’t easy. “Hey, I hear you. You’re right to be skeptical.” Ellis paused, letting his words sink in as he collected his thoughts. A few sets of eyes looked up from the invisible spots on the floor they’d been examining to watch him more closely. “When I was in high school, I got involved in a project where I ended up feeling worse than when I started. I never wanted to work in a group again.”

“So why did you? I mean, what got you involved again once you’d been burned?”

Cece’s question seemed to animate them all.

“I don’t know, really.” Ellis was searching for words, a little unsure of himself as the group moved further and further away from the tasks he was more comfortable with. “Actually, a while later a group of us read about a nearby family whose house had burned to the ground. We did a food and clothing drive just to do something. Felt pretty good to be helping out.” As uncomfortable as he was, Ellis found himself moving to firmer ground as he spoke. The group members were listening intently.

“So, yeah, I guess I got going again because it felt right. Took a while, though.” He paused again, letting his words sink in. “We all have our reasons for not getting involved, right?”

“Eduardo, sounds like you’ve been burned like Ellis, too,” Kay followed up. “Were you?”

Eduardo looked embarrassed. “Nah, not really. I don’t have problems with groups ’n all.” He made a sweeping gesture around the group. “These are my buds, ya know what I mean? Hangin’ with them is a good thing.” He paused for just a second, his voice momentarily quiet. “Just never had no luck lookin’ for jobs.”

The room stayed quiet, but only for a second. “Been there, done that,” Jacqui replied.

“Got tired of it all, too.”

The group members kept talking for a while about their failed experiences with the job market. Some of them spoke about their parents’ difficulties in finding and keeping a well-paying job. Ellis and Kay would check each other out, making sure their time together wasn’t turning into a gripe session. Every once in a while they would pose a question that came from a teen’s comments. After about 20 minutes, Kay spoke up.

She, too, was nervous. “I’ll be honest, I never had these problems. I was this popular White girl in my school, so I got afterschool jobs pretty easily. You guys sure have gotten the short end of the stick on that.” She paused again, still nervous for having said so much about herself. “The truth is, my problem with groups was different. I would get involved and then do all the work! It was terrible. I’d do a project and be fried when it was over because I’d worked so hard.”

“Yeah, I worry about that, too,” Cece replied. “I mean, I want to help, but I just can’t do too much. I help my mom at home and all… .” Others nodded their heads in affirmation.

“So how about we do this together? Ellis and I can approach the employers, and a couple of you can keep track of who says ‘yes’ and who says ‘no’ or ‘maybe.’ Then we’ll help with resumes, while you recruit some more of your friends to the job fair … .” Five young people signed up to do tasks over the next week. Eduardo and Cece agreed to be the cochairs of the group as well.

Later that afternoon, Ellis and Kay adjourned once again to their favorite diner. Along with their coffee, they treated themselves to a cheese Danish.

Personal Activity

Using the above case as a guide, re-examine your approach to posing issues with a group you are working with. What is your example of your own struggle for the group to reflect on? How can it serve as a bridge to breaking down possible resistance?

Today’s Historic Challenge: Reconstructing The Macro Practitioner’s Stance for the Creation of Co-Leadership

It is important to stress here that the above casework techniques, if not joined to the dynamics of the organizing or management process itself, would be as limiting as any other dichotomized approach. Not to do so means that over time, those who engage in casework would tend to overwhelmingly focus on intrapsychic dynamics, while macro practitioners eventually tend to exclude all but political, economic, and programmatic issues from their activity. This turn toward method rigidity, initially unintentional among practitioners, occurs because most practice methodologies fail to incorporate the dynamics of self-change within their frameworks. This, in turn, limits their ability to maintain an active, engaged form of critical reflection with those with whom they work. In fact, too often a social worker performs her or his role without fully recognizing the powerful institutionalized influences upon that role—which, over time, affect one’s stance in the world. This coleadership development process requires a much deeper interplay between methods that impact us all for a genuinely transformative process to occur.

Second, one problem-posing group session is hardly sufficient to build coleadership in new, critically reflective forms. One needs both patience and persistence in the development of authentic relationships together in order to give birth to real coleadership. The development of a critically reflective practice is impossible if the practitioner and community members do not work together at weaving these two elements back and forth in their work over a significant period of time. Debby Harris (Burghardt, 1982) did not take the risks she did, including her own upset, in the first month or two of working together with the seniors.

If community organizers and managers lack the patience and persistence to weave multiple method techniques into one’s work, they will inevitably succumb to the pressured habits wrought by the primary expectations of the job. And why shouldn’t they? After all, a social worker, no matter her or his underlying beliefs and commitments, will be hired to do what the agency has advertised for all along; the caseworker, for her or his ability to provide concrete services and casework interventions; the organizer, to engage in more collective, organizational/community work.

Operationally, this means that the agency will more quickly reward those who maintain its order and punish—or at least ignore—those who seek a redefinition of how the world—the agency—views those with and without power inside the agency. Without the conscious interjections of some methodological factor to buffer this push toward routinization to do things as they have been done, work comes to be performed in ways that unconsciously maintain the larger social order by accepting the world—in terms of agency roles—as far more objective and outside of one’s control than it really is.8


8Berger and Luckmann (1967) go on to discuss this phenomenon in terms of reification:

To what extent is an institutional order, or any part of it, apprehended as a non-human facticity? … [Does it become] reified [seem to exist apart from people’s actions and perceptions on it]?

Reification is the apprehension of human phenomena as if they were things, that is, in non-human or possibly superhuman terms. … Reification implies that man is capable of forgetting his authorship of the human world, and further, that the dialectic between man, the producer, and his product is lost to consciousness.

Narrowing the discussion [on the dialectic of society] to the matter of roles, we can say that, on the other hand, the institutional order is real only as it is realized in performed roles and that, on the other hand, roles are representative of an institutional order that defines their character … and from which they derive their objective sense. (p. 61; italics added)


Social workers’ roles become static and rigid, in the simplest terms, when a caseworker is assumed to engage in and is rewarded for only intrapsychic clinical interventions and the organizer/macro practitioner for only strategic, organizational interventions. By removing each practitioner’s role from a critically reflective engagement with others and himself or herself, one implicitly accepts the institutional order as it is. Each practitioner has abstracted the intervention’s human essence into dichotomized terms, easily dividing interpersonal and community–social life into stark method choices of either micro or macro work. As the larger world is only partially apprehended by the caseworker and organizer through this approach, well-intentioned people go on to perform in agency roles that have unnecessarily stripped away the potential for the critical reflection in action discussed throughout this chapter.

Reflective Questions


Review your and others’ roles inside your agency.

Where are they overly rigid? What could be added/modified that would add more micro to macro? Macro to micro? Identify concrete ways the agency would benefit. What training skills could each offer the other?

Thus, many social workers’ interactions with others take on a static and objectified quality as the varied psychological and social phenomena are worked on with respective—and seemingly alternative—diligence. The organizer tries to develop leaders, but like the Brooklyn worker, she or he finds consistent intrapersonal roadblocks to engaged involvement and falls back on ego boosting to get things done. The caseworker works hard with the clients of different backgrounds but finds so many objective problems that he or she eventually prefers to work with people of like social characteristics so that meaningful clinical work can take place. And, of course, hierarchical relationships between client and worker never change. People consciously continue to see themselves as liberal or even radical, but meaningful change through engaged worker–client interactions becomes increasingly difficult. Rewards are then sought exclusively elsewhere, such as in other professions, publishing, or a change in job status.

Personal Reflection

Review your own job and what you are doing. Take some important but not urgent time and see where there is room for either macro or micro activities. What have you been letting slip? What can be added or shifted to deepen your own role flexibility?

In order to perform differently, you must find within your practice paradigm ways to break down tendencies toward static role definition. Freire’s (2000) critical reflection in action points in a generally helpful direction, but it needs specificity in terms of macro or micro practice. Therefore I would argue the following:

  • First, the use of critical reflection in action carries with it an element of risk that, if accessed consistently over time, keeps you alive to the potential for transformative change (however modest) within the process of your work.
  • Furthermore, the primary risk for each practitioner will be in the consistent use of the less dominant domain of his or her primary method. For the organizer, it is the risk in intuitively trying to understand the personal strengths and needs of community members, which may necessitate deeper interpersonal interventions; for the caseworker, it’s the risk in intuitively understanding the social and political factors of a community member’s life that may demand some form of macro intervention.
  • Risk is therefore not about whether you’ll do your job. It’s the concrete, ongoing exploration of the live tension between the recognized yet often silent polarities embedded in any engaged practice relationship. The silence means they can and often will be ignored at times, but not that they are unimportant. For, as anyone who has stepped out of formal role expectations knows, such risks create the possibility of transcending the constraints of any one form of practice. Through your willingness to consistently use intuitive skills, you have taken a leap into areas less known and less certain for yourself (and for the agency that your stated role functions represent).
  • In this leap you are exposing the vulnerability all of us experience but that many roles are expected or required to hide—except in the role of client or community member.
  • This is why risk helps you transcend a practice situation’s limits: Your more open vulnerability resulting from your use of intuition creates an immediate sharing between community member and professional. For as the community member begins to experience a relationship with you in both agency- and nonagency-defined interactions, there is a far greater likelihood that he or she will begin to see that his or her own roles can be defined by not only failure but also strength.
  • Your grappling with the personal (or, for the caseworker, the social) material in ways that you are not necessarily comfortable with or institutionally rewarded for forces you to approach the agency-defined person in need more as an equal than as someone to be helped by you. Freire’s dialogue has begun.

This is why the consistent use of risk, such as Harris’s, is as potentially radical as Freire (2000) suggests in his discussion of critical consciousness. In naming the word, one is transforming the world not only in some objective sense, but also in the socially conscious way of consistently redefining perceptions of the way the world is between an agency worker and community member.Instead of rigidly defining what is between worker and community member as an unchangeable relationship in terms of power and sharing, you are developing your personal mastery with others. Such personal mastery, developed over time, allows you to more effortlessly present yourself with others in ways that allow for mutual exploration of your world. As Harris (Burghardt, 1982) found out, her argument with her community member was a catalyst not for permanent disagreement but mutual feedback and support on the different tasks of the seniors’ group. Over time, each participant needed and got feedback, and each had skills to offer in the process of building their organization.

After all, as Harris recognized, her own self-determination depended in part on her ability to stay attuned to the shifts in her practice experience, both personally and politically. Furthermore, her ability to understand a person’s individual problems in the midst of organizational demands showed more than multimethod dexterity. The risk in attempting to go beyond the defined limits of her organizing role in her intuitively based confrontation had meant sharing her own personal vulnerability. Instead of concentrating only on the intellectual tasks of the group (action), she used her intuitive sense of a person’s struggle (reflection) to begin creating critical consciousness (the joining of action and reflection). Not only was the client changed, but so was she—to a method of practice that actively understood how to go beyond imposed agency limits and static role definitions. Naming the word had indeed begun to transform the world for her and those with whom she worked.

The Actual Process of Naming the Word in Coleadership Development

There are three interconnected phases to this process of coleadership development between the organizer and the organized. As aprocess of engagement, there are no definite limits to the beginning or ending of one phase or another; likewise, the consistent use of different skills is not an unending repetition of intuitively expressed techniques. They must flow organically from the situation itself; your own developing personal mastery on what is and isn’t possible together will obviously help along the way. After all, there is a job to do, and you aren’t expected to search for transcending, trust-inducing experiences at the expense of immediate tasks at hand. Besides, there must be enough joint activity before you can establish any genuine relationship capable of transformation.

Phase One: Active Work and the Sharing of Self

As stated earlier in the chapter, the initial work between a community group and a practitioner will carry with it the implicit failure of the group to have previously achieved, in some way, its own stated needs and/or interests. Regardless of origin, this sense of failure is fraught with the dangerous potential of maintaining established role patterns accepted by the institutional order: You enter to help, showing your concern; they accept your help, following your advice. Even if you create a viable campaign, dominant patterns of leadership remain embedded in the entire practice situation. Self-determination cannot occur.

Therefore, the contradiction here is to present yourself as skillful in the completion of the group’s tasks (your reason for being there in the first place) while simultaneously open enough as a person to suggest a more mutually determined definition of the problem and how to end it. At this stage, this means performing the work but sharing yourself. Ted Finkelstein (Burghardt, 1982), at the time a neighborhood organizer working with tenants in the Bronx, wrote a good example of how this can happen:

At first, when organizing in an emergency situation like this one was, there is little time for certain sharing to develop trust together. You have to get the work done, and that’s all. But a while after the emergency repairs had been completed, Milton (a new tenant leader) came back to the office. He needed to use the phone to make calls. I attempted to show him how to get the City Emergency Repairs Program involved in his building. We ran into many obstacles. The day became a real learning experience for both of us as we spent literally five hours on the phone with various agencies trying to overcome major snafus in the building. An instant respect and admiration for each other’s style grew as we in our own ways tried to deal with the City. … Our anger and tempers soared as we met resistance at every turn. Laughter and talking were the only things that kept us from going insane. By the end of the day we were talking with each other, not at each other. … By the time of the next meeting Milton had told most people what we had been through. It appeared a giant burden was off everyone’s shoulders at the start of the meeting.

Ted and Milton had emphasized work, but what was going on underneath the activity was a fuller, more complete presentation of self in subtle yet clear ways. In the midst of work there was admitted frustration, anger, and laughter, along with “instant” respect for each other’s styles. The organizer’s role expectations demanded activity that centered on the housing bureaucracy. Finkelstein’s particular openness and sharing of himself also communicated a message about the method of leadership that, because it was based on his willingness to risk exposure of himself in personal terms, went far beyond formalized definitions of his professional role. One must remember that the work had begun in failure and with a call to Finkelstein for help. His answer could have fit their assumptions, and those most commonly expressed and sanctioned by society, by exclusively doing the job for them.

The radical nature in this stage’s process is not just in confronting these assumptions, but in Ted’s beginning to demand new “modifications” (as Freire, 2000, calls them) by the oppressed to what leadership (and help) really can be: mutual, shared activity.The practitioner, it can’t be forgotten, is being observed by those who work with her or him as much as the reverse for what level and type of skill she or he is bringing to bear on the problem (a directly stated theme) and for less conscious examples of how the world is, such as images of authority, the degree of following demanded in a request for help, and so on (the indirectly stated theme in this phase).

The key problem for the organizer is to present herself or himself in such a way that these indirect themes begin to be externalized in a manner that allows for the emergence of community members as increasingly equal partners and participants. In this slow incubation and birthing as leaders, they become aware that their heritage has as much resonance within the organizing process as does a macro practitioner in her or his more formally institutionalized role. If the organizer and the organized can begin to do this together, they both begin a process of decoding old themes of internalized oppression that until then have continually limited the definition of the problem situation to its objective characteristics. Freire (2000) writes:

In general a dominated consciousness which has not yet perceived a limit situation in its totality [that it is not solely of their own creation] apprehends only its epiphenomena [surface level] and transfer to the latter the inhibiting force which is the property of the limit situation [passivity bred by fatalism and a sense that change is impossible].

This fact is of great importance for the investigation of generative themes. When (people) lack a critical understanding of their reality, apprehending it in fragments which they do not perceive as interacting with consistent themes of the whole, they cannot truly know that reality. To truly know it, they would need to reverse their starting point: they would need to have a total vision of the context in order subsequently to separate and isolate its constituent elements and by means of this analysis achieve a clearer perception of the whole. (p. 104, italics added.)

These dynamics, while written obscurely by Freire (2000), underscore why tactical self-awareness can be of such importance to an organizer’s effectiveness in redefining what leadership and power sharing can be (see Chapters 2 and 3). By definition, tactical self-awareness is always conscious of context (including, in part, the way others perceive that context). During this initial phase of organizing, you can therefore use the presentation of your self in ways that begin to sweep away Freire’s epiphenomena (the small details of everyday life that show people both how the world is and their own limits within it) so that a new vision of the context stands before them.

Reflective Questions


Reflect on an organizing activity with community members. What skill sets did you bring to the work? In what way were you overly rigid, staying locked in a stance that revealed little about you as a person? Where could you have been more open in ways that could have demonstrated a positive need for support?

By using your skills and simultaneously being tactically self-aware enough to present yourself as a complete person with your own needs and varied skill sets, you begin suggesting a far more radical image of what that context could be like. Decoding one’s sense of the world can’t take place by simply talking about a different, more equitable world. It occurs through some jarring of people’s perceptions so that old ideas and assumptions about the world and their place in it can fall away and new ones begin to be constructed. Obviously, much of that jarring will come through the ongoing attempt to better social conditions. This is why organizing campaigns, with their emphasis on reconstituting the social (and personal) order, are so important. They attempt so much that people taking part sense that things—including them—really can change.

Such transformation can take place on a much lesser scale in even the most quiescent periods or with modest resources. The need to alter how people perceive themselves and the world of which they are a part is a constant. The question, then, is will there be active attempts at a more radical transformation or not? The active engagement of a practitioner with community members in altering how people work together can prove to be as exciting as Berger and Luckmann (1967) imply in their analysis of how change occurs:

A “recipe for successful alteration” has to include social and conceptual conditions, the social, of course, serving as the matrix of the conceptual. The most important social condition is the availability of an effective plausibility structure, that is a social base serving as the “laboratory of transformation.”9 … [And] this plausibility structure will be mediated to the individual by means of significant others, with whom he must establish strongly affective identification. No radical transformation of subjective reality … is possible without such identification…. These significant others are the guides into the new reality. They represent the plausibility structure in the roles they play vis-à-vis the individual….And they mediate the new world to the individual. The individual’s work now [begins to find] its cognitive and affective focus in the plausibility structure in question. (p. 55; emphasis added)


9This is why an organizer needs to be organically grounded to strategies of potential change that need neither naive nor fanatacized consciousness to be successful.


In the larger society, this is in many ways the role that Obama’s presence on the national stage has played for so many Americans. His ascension to the presidency has recreated the plausibility structure of so many who see in him a hope for both his leadership and their own place in American society. A macro practitioner plays a similar role on a much more modest but not unimportant stage. This is why an organizer’s small personal acts, dealt with consistently, plausibly create so much transformative potential: the worker makes practice—the community member makes practice—the worker/community member transforms practice. The context has shifted from one in which formal authorities make history (you, the skilled yet distant professional) and objects receive that history (the deferential, thankful community members) to people acting as subjects of history—together.

Phase Two: The Demand for Sharing the Work

The primary contradiction of the first phase for the practitioner was shaped by the demand for professional skill and personal need. While always emphasizing the socially mandated activity of the group, dynamic tension is located within a consistent presentation of vulnerability where none is expected in the practitioner’s role. In this second phase, the dynamic tension is reversed by locating the contradiction between the demand for quality work and an expression of the client’s strength. The process of altering previously constructed, well-internalized roles that have supported the institutional order doesn’t rest with just the macro practitioner. Even as the organizer’s formal role definition is being broken down in Phase One, it doesn’t follow that others working with him or her will immediately change. As every experienced practitioner knows, cause and effect is much too slippery to be reduced to a singularly powerful variable. (And, in fact, to assume otherwise in this instance would further condescend to a community member’s actual reality.) Just because you change doesn’t mean others have to!

Nevertheless, eventually the needs in the organizing process subtly reverse themselves. You may be consistently revealing yourself more fully in your personness by having some vulnerability in how you go about your work, but now it is time to demand that community members assert their full selves by exposing their strengths consistently, too. If you don’t make this demand, you may succeed in developing your own legitimacy and respect in the group, but solely as its leader. (For example, how often have you heard community members refer to a presumably excellent and highly popular professional in terms of how the group couldn’t survive without her or him?)

Here, then, the ongoing conversation between practitioner and community group members must shift (Wheatley, 2008). If a rigid institutional order is to be undermined by changing ideas about leadership, then signs of deference and internalized oppression must begin to be broken through. The practitioner realizes this for his or her own good; after all, to remain in Phase One may create a sense of well-being and, eventually, a type of charismatic charm, but the vulnerability has obviously been false, for positions of responsibility remain the same. No world will be transformed by that!

Indeed, on some level this personalized yet traditionally ordered pattern of interaction may seem to suit community members just fine; here you are, working skillfully and responsibly, and you’re a nice person to boot! However, the purpose of developing critical reflection in action together is not to find a new leader but to transform the way in which people act on the world together as coleaders. Your skill and vulnerability have combined to suggest that the old themes of authority and excellence need not be rigidly constructed—and, at the same time, that failure and lack of authority aren’t necessarily synonymous.

Thus, the crucial moment (often repeated!) during this second phase will be the conjuncture of where community members assume responsibility for certain actions that could be performed by you (and perhaps were earlier) and the type of respect given for this work. If you truly respect them, you will risk demanding success and will be willing to openly, honestly provide constructive feedback for unsatisfactory performance. You must dare them to be seen as being as fully human as you have attempted to be. That dare can be frightening. You need to be aware of the difference between genuine, personal inabilities to act and internalized forms of oppression that, while beginning to be broken through, continue to exist. But the daring must begin during this phase.

Just as tactical self-awareness was a primary instrument in the earlier phase, here what matters is your willingness to try to intuitively distinguish between personal problems of individuals who cannot do some things and those attitudes and behaviors of internalized oppression one can now risk giving up. Finkelstein (Burghardt, 1982) related such an incident that occurred while doing the tenant work.

[After two developing leaders did not show up at an important meeting they had promised to attend—one that Ted had gone to on his day off] … later that week I paid a visit to Milton. Che was there also and I had to overcome my nervousness and let them know what I was feeling. I told them I felt they not only let me down personally but they let down the building. They apologized for not showing but they did not feel it was totally their fault. They then volunteered to handle all the arrangements for our next meeting. It had really been tense, but I think they respected me because I had confronted them. … We discussed the seriousness of the work if they were to become responsible for a lot of it.Although I didn’t intend to, I gave their commitment level a jolt of reality. They responded with new vigor, and honestly, they pledged to administer the building to the best of their ability. (pp. 143–145)

There had been, of course, a great deal of activity preceding this shared encounter. Finkelstein never could have given effective constructive feedback if he himself had not been through a previous process where he exposed his own limitations and frustrations that identified his humanity to the group. He had worked with them for months, so his words were within a context of now socially understood actions. Likewise, his demands were based on no-longer-acceptable behaviors that were maintaining outmoded, oppressive patterns of dominance–submission rather than on personal problems these individuals may have still had. His ability to make such distinctions had developed through previous conversations where others’ personal issues, such as family strife, alcoholism, and so on, had been touched upon. This clinically focused past activity now made it possible to raise demands that signified a respect for their strength, a desire to share work as equals. The consistent attention to matters in the past, flowing out of the intuitive risks taken between practitioner and client, now made possible his demand of social accountability.10


10Dennis Saleebey (2008) speaks of this when he writes about client strengths and capacities to grow.


Group Reflection

In a work group, initiate a discussion of the difference between internalized oppression and having personal problems. As the discussion develops, note that the former is connected to dynamics of social power between groups and individuals that foster a continuation of dominant–subordinate arrangements, while personal issues may relate to individual problems and abilities that may hinder a person but are not related to such power relationships. Note as well where dynamics of internalized superiority may be at play here. Be prepared to make this kind of discussion ongoing rather than a one-time activity.

The demands were flowing organically from a leadership problem that was in the process of redefinition—one still similar in its objective context of the tenants’ campaign but moving toward mutual effort and sharing. These demands cannot and will not be legitimated with respect from the oppressed if they are not viewed as flowing from a common position, one of joint concern among equals. Only when this latter state exists can your demands be heard and respected.

The future commitments and responsibility evident in Milton and Che (as well as Harris’s meat expert) did not happen because of external pressures. They responded in a newly engaged manner because through those demands they experienced the dynamic tension found in a new problem situation in which they naturally assumed new roles to resolve the problem … as leaders.

This isn’t a smooth process, of course. The ebb and the flow between old and new behaviors and expectations necessitate an engaged involvement over a long period of time before a real consistency develops between all participants. We shouldn’t burden ourselves with the false expectations that this type of work can occur with any more symmetry than anywhere else. To do so is to delve into the romanticism and abstraction born of distant theorizing, the type that never lives (both personal and political). Lasting change of this kind is based on months and years, not days and weeks. If one has confidence in people—including oneself—that such change can and will occur given a consistent application of these measures, then one can more easily accept the pattern of change in practice.11 (An example of this approach will be seen in Chapter 7 in the parent leadership work undertaken by Eric Zachary.)


11This is not to say that one can easily accept the pace of change since so much of that is determined by present social conditions. The point here is to recognize the pattern of change within socially quiescent periods and then to mobilize practice efforts with a pattern of consciousness that makes future historical periods much more open to momentous change.


Phase Three: From Leadership Development to Critical Consciousness: Naming the Word, Transforming the World

As stated at the beginning of the chapter, the primary flaw in leadership development has been its perpetuation of a model of organization that inevitably doomed its community members to an unending cycle of marginality. By simply emphasizing the dichotomy between leaders and followers in a context implicitly based on their initial failures, there is little way for a macro practitioner to do more than re-create old patterns of domination with new, benign faces. However, through an awareness of how to join casework and organizing skills in ways that tap the political and personal dimensions of a person’s entire life, it is possible to redefine the problem situation in ways that go beyond the ordinary definitions of leadership and reach a collectively shared, mutually supported coleadership born, again and again, through critical reflection in action.

Your ability to organically move back and forth between intellectually and intuitively focused issues within the practice situation (a critically reflective skill) frees you both to present professional skills and to risk personal vulnerability in ways that begin restructuring the themes of how a problem situation is defined. Tactical self-awareness allows you to be comfortable in exposing your own needs for support and the inevitable fallibility in parts of your performance without falling apart.

The risks you take here suggest an engaged entry into the actual situation others are living through, not as being the same for all, but as being felt and experienced by all, and that therefore its change is necessary for the well-being of practitioner and community member alike. This is what legitimates the later demands of mutual, reciprocal responsibility for the group’s actions. A professional’s vulnerability has ironically awakened community member strength, which now allows for shared activity between equals. The institutional order, at least in terms of the role definitions of how our problems are defined and acted upon, begins to change. And the subjective alteration of reality carries with it the potential for objective change later on: “Man, the social product, makes society, the human product” (Berger & Luckmann, 1967, p. 11).

This is why to name the word is to indeed transform the world. While hardly equal to the drumbeat cadence when thousands march, the quiet sounds of mutual dialogue and genuine conversation between people once perceived as helping and being helped may soon make deeper reverberations than some might expect. You work and converse together so that as many people as possible develop as subjects of history, choosing how you will act within it. The application of these skills, shared with others and changing as the situation warrants, if successful, then develops the final irony to this model of leadership development: When it is done effectively, people come to realize they don’t need individual leaders at all!

The Community Toolbox

The Community Toolbox has a number of significant skill sets for practitioners seeking to further their leadership development skills. Some of them can be found at http://ctb.ku.edu/en/tablecontents/chapter_1013.htm andhttp://ctb.ku.edu/en/tablecontents/chapter_1014.htm.


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