Champion-Thinking and Managing Up

Last week, I read a newspaper article announcing a well-funded initiative to combat a pressing social issue in San Francisco. The funding was a composite of private sources and the issue was one that a small number of local and unintentionally lean nonprofit organizations have been working on for decades.

I raised an eyebrow and commented off-handedly to a friend that I hoped that the new organization was making sure that long-time advocacy groups were at the planning table, since they were the ones who most understood not just the local terrain but also the root causes. My friend shot back with a surprising level passion, assuring me that the process would be authentic, that root causes would be central to all strategy, and that the money would be well spent.

As we both dug in our heels, relevant details emerged. On my end, it was that I give a large (for me) monthly donation to the (under-funded) nonprofit that most works on this social issue, and that I deeply admire the organizer who leads the work. For my friend, it was that the person who had been chosen to lead the new organization was someone she'd worked with before, someone who "lives and breathes" root causes.

I had utter faith in my champion. She had utter faith in hers.

We were both delusional, of course. The social issue on the table is so huge that neither my champion nor hers can tackle it alone, not even with their vast resources of experience, on the one hand, and big pot of money, on the other. And even while they might benefit from working with one another, our champions needed something else to succeed: us. Not just my friend and I, but our whole community.

We all know that phenomenon – we get excited about a campaign, we plug in and devote our time and money to it, a champion emerges. We congratulate that champion and express our faith and devotion, and then we head on back to Facebook, defending them no matter what for the first few months, and then dropping them like a hot starchy tuber when they don't perform the way we want them too.

This "champion-thinking" is culturally embedded at every level – from putting complete faith in small nonprofit executive directors to Barack Obama. We build them up, and then we watch our champions fall from on high, holding them and only them (not systemic obstacles, not our enemies' well-funded counter-strategies, not our own lack of support) accountable for their perceived failures.

It's a tough time for maintaining insider empathy, though. Our democracy is under assault and showing signs of deep damage, and yet many of our elected officials seem coolly removed or worse, no matter how many times we flood their voice mails, stage die-ins outside of their offices, and present them with petitions with signatures from huge swaths of their constituencies. For years we've been saying, "We need to hold our elected officials accountable to the base!" but there's one big problem – our elected officials don't really speak that language. They aren't from the base.

Even our progressive and liberal elected officials aren't grassroots-affiliated (though how much and when and why this matters is more complicated than you might think.) Take for instance California's senior US Senator, Dianne Feinstein. Feinstein, whose father was a surgeon, followed a trajectory to public office that included graduating from Stanford University, working in San Francisco city government, and then being elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. After running a failed gubernatorial campaign, two years later Feinstein won a special election to the US senate and has been installed ever since, the very definition of a career politician.

But our elected officials who actually do rise from the base don't do much better. Many of our "homegrown" candidates succumb to the pressures associated with seeking re-election, for instance, including taking campaign money that creates constituencies that are not us. Those of us who initially supported them sink further into our couches and make increasingly cynical posts on Facebook instead of volunteering for the next campaign with what we are pretty sure is the next false-promise candidate.

The California Bay Area activist and writer Randy Shaw has a prescription for champion-thinking in his book The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century. Shaw encourages using a "fear and loathing" strategy to stay on top of elected officials – i.e., "We're with you when you're with us, and against you when you're not." But one thing I have been able to count on for years is this – Shaw will always be more cynical than I am. Perhaps it's a cynicism born of experience, or perhaps it comes from somewhere else. But Shaw and I do agree that "champion-thinking" is flawed thinking, and much of Shaw's anger, and our collective anger (Shaw's, mine, and possibly yours) comes from that feeling of betrayal that we get every time another champion disappoints us.

But, what if rather than using tools like fear and loathing, we scrapped the whole idea of champions completely? What if we assumed what is to me a given – that whether our would-be champion is someone as far removed from the base as Dianne Feinstein or as close to our root-cause thinking as my friend's incoming, privately funded organization leader (you remember him – from up at the top of this blog post?), our champions are only as good as our ability to maintain authentic, productive, mutually accountable relationships with them. In other words, we need to get more strategic about managing up.

Years ago, I was working with a grassroots organizer, and I asked him about a certain commissioner that was serving on one of Bay Area public housing boards.

"Yeah," he told me. "We actually lobbied really hard to get her in place on the commission, but since she's been appointed, we haven't heard from her."

The organization he represented was in the throes of denouncing this commission, very publicly. But in pressing a bit further, I learned that no one from the organization had reached out to the commissioner after her appointment. The expectation was that she should be calling them. Meanwhile, the commissioner was getting phone calls every day – from for-profit developers who were working against the causes that my grassroots organizer friend cared so deeply about. 

I suggested monthly check-in calls, but I could tell that the idea didn't appeal to the organizer. And I could see why. For many of us, the drama (and I don't mean that in a negative way) of "holding accountable" holds much more appeal than the mundanity of a monthly check-in call. I mean, hello, t-shirts, heat in the streets, chants, FLASH MOBS, yes -- vs. agendas, scheduling, rescheduling, disagreeing but keeping the door open for another day, yawn. (All those things in the first list, by the way, are powerful means of getting what we want as well.)

Yet, that hard work now can be a profound investment for the future. We have local appointed and elected officials, agency staff, and even well-funded organizational leaders who disappoint us every day. They are also our most likely candidates for state and national office in the future.

Someday, we will have more home-grown candidates who will also follow that trajectory. They will profoundly disappoint us also. The only way we can hope to mitigate that disappoint is to work just as hard as we demand that they do for accountability, to hold ourselves mutually accountable to the base, to start while they are young (in office) and to always make it more appealing to them to be one of "us" than it is to be one of "them."


Laurie Jones Neighbors is an independent consultant and educator who specializes in developing, implementing, and assessing programs and educational experiences in support of equitable political representation and local, regional, and national decision making by low-income communities and communities of color.