Finding David: organising as craft

“Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”  Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni

I’ve recently begun a new organising role, moving from North Nottinghamshire to North London.  The two worlds could hardly be more different: in London there are any number of external campaigns to take your fancy, there is an incredible churn of organisers (the foundation of initial relationships of an alliance), and there is a sense that institutions are not “cool” – the secular liberals have won the fight on this one.

The result is this (though this isn’t just a “London problem”): the participation of an institution in organising becomes the participation of an “ambassador” – a member of the institution who meets regularly with the organiser, and participates in the campaigns of the Broad Based Organisation (BBO).  This relationship begins just as an ambassador from country to the UN or the EU would begin – with delegation from the institution to their BBO, followed by reporting back – but soon enough the delegation from the institution stops happening, and the ambassador becomes an ambassador for the BBO within their organisation.

In a politician or ambassador, this can feel jarring, and in organising, the effect is the same. In addition to this are a number of particular problems, briefly outlined below.  The first two are practical, but the third is the most important – it is about justice, and meaning:

  1. Risk of burnout – when the responsibility of holding an institution’s participation sits on one person’s shoulders, it’s too much work
  2. Risk of the relationship – what happens to that organisation’s membership of the BBO when the key person leaves, dies, or is otherwise distracted?
  3. The institution is not challenged to think about itself, to hold the tension of participating in public life, to think about what it means to support its people and understand its tradition. This is the most important of the three – it is where the richness, joy and beauty of this work comes from.

Core Teams: The World as it Should Be.

It’s at this point in training, in a conversation or in a book, that an organiser may introduce the concept of “core teams” – the sun-lit uplands of organising.  They answer the challenge raised by the Ambassador Model, they provide beautiful model for how you can support the development of organising within institutions.  They are the world as it should be!

A core team is a team of trained people within an institution who hold collective responsibility for the organising work (internal and external) that their institution does.  They are a cross section of the institution – from the leadership to the fringes – and do everything, from running actions and listening campaigns, paying dues and spotting new talent.

Hooray! We have an answer! This is how we should be organising.  But the road to the summit is much more difficult than identifying the summit in the first place.

Much more difficult.

We need to recognise that this is difficult – for organisers, but more importantly for leaders.  When they are outside of their institution in the BBO having 121s, building something new – they’re in unchartered territory.  When they are inside their institution, they have to face up to the awkwardness of interminable meetings, crumbling roofs, and seemingly intractable, long-simmering politics.  There is heavy, heavy baggage in the relationships within an organisation.

Leaders know their institutions better than organisers: while they may be willing to take a leap into the great vision offered by the organiser of the BBO, they are less willing to accept grand visions in their own institution: they know what will and won’t work.  We must start in the world as it is, and accept that there is no model of perfection, no outcome we can sketch – only shared challenge and struggle.

Sculpting David

There are three broad techniques in sculpture, that highlight different techniques open to us as leaders and organisers.

  1. Casting or moulding. These techniques use an intermediate mould or cast containing the design to produce the work, allowing the production of several copies.
  2. Modelling. This technique uses a framework to shape or build up the work from the material, applying layers to make the sculpture
  3. Carving. This removes material from existing block or lump, for example of stone or wood – in the process “revealing” the sculpture that was inside.

These techniques can be seen at play in organising – and in thinking about core teams.

  1. Casting or moulding. The organiser “brings” the core team model to all the institutions they work with and asks them to respond and set up their own team according to the mould they are given – the institution is shaped to fit comfortably within the BBO.
  2. Modelling. The organiser shares some of the principles of a core team as a framework, and asks institutions to put their own touches on it.  The result is a hybrid that may work within the institution, but that is still, fundamentally an external creation.
  3. Carving. The organiser works with key leader(s) on a process of discernment and discovery – searching for the essence of the institutions, and their people.  The core team is made in reference to a model, but it is built of the fabric of the organisation.

At its best, the work of organising is carving.  Organising is a craft, built on universals – truths about how the world work that exist in people and institutions.  Our work is not to bring a magic toolbox or inaccessible mastery – our work is to chip away and find it where it is: inside.

This is a process of seeking, curiosity and enquiry, rather than one of framework or model, though there are some key principles in carving out core teams in institutions:

  1. This is a shared endeavour – the key leader you’re working with must also be up for exploring this.
  2. The organiser (and the leaders) must do the work – 121s in an institution – to gain the trust of people in the organisation, to understand its traditions, stories and foibles, and to spot talent
  3. There is no end goal – where you can sit back and say “we have here a perfect core team”. The sands are always shifting – and if they are not, it is the job of the leader, and the organiser to make them shift.

David

One of the finest examples of Renaissance sculpture is Michelangelo’s David, which was carved out of a 10 ton block of marble.  Michelangelo spent two years sculpting David, though the block of marble had been quarried for the project 40 years earlier and had been worked on unsuccessfully by at least three sculptors before him.  Apocryphally, Michelangelo was asked how hard it was to sculpt his masterpiece.  He is said to have responded: “It is easy. You just chip away the stone that doesn’t look like David.”

And so we must start where we are.  In the world as it is, not the world as it should be.  With the block of marble, not with David himself.

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