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How to manage rules and regulations of an activist group?

Community Building Asked by Benjamin Márkus on September 3, 2021

Background: I am part of a small activist group (10-15 members) that both works on ongoing projects but still is actively developing a long term strategy. The latter means the organizational structure and fields of activity are not set in stone.

An issue we keep struggling with is how to (in lack of a better word) manage our rules and regulations, that is how we organize meetings, how we keep count of who’s a member and who is not, how to prevent unnecessary hierarchy, how to facilitate the flow of information, etc. In short: how to keep track of the procedures that we agreed upon and found to be working for our group.

The way I see the problem at this point is that there’s a continuum of possible choices ranging from no rules at all to a very rigid and detailed system of codes of conduct regulating all possible activites relating to the group. Neither of those extremes is desirable, but at the same time both end of the spectrum has it’s own advantages. If rules are not written down it automatically means they are flexible and able to adapt to new situations the group faces. On the other hand it means that they are subject to collective forgetting and abuse by people who do not like or agree with them, as there’s no clearly defined consensus to hold them accountable to. Detailed and collectively agreed upon regulations solve this issue for sure, but they require a lot of extra attention and time to adhere to and to keep them up to date, something a small activist group like ours simply has no resources for.

Our group has chosen something closer to the case of detailed written down regulations, but in practice we do not adhere to those rules quite a lot of times, which tells me something needs to change here. An obvious solution would be simply to move closer to the loosely regulated end of the scale but I’d like to avoid the undesired consequences of that.

So my question is whether there are time-tested methods to do this that solve as many of these issues as possible or at least make the compromises clear so it can be an informed choice rather something we keep struggling with?

One Answer

I help to run an activist group that is larger than you describe, but whose active core of people who are actually doing things is not much larger, perhaps a few dozen. We don't have rules exactly. We have a code of conduct, and we have guiding principles. These are of course vague and aspirational, but that's a feature. Two examples:

  • we decide by consensus, not by voting, and we take as long as that takes. Other people's deadlines for a decision don't change how we decide.
  • we must always prioritize the safety of our most vulnerable members.

There are others, but these will do for discussion. Now when there's a decision to be made, someone can say "We should x" and someone else "we should y" and as they explain their reasoning, sometimes someone else will be "but x puts our vulnerable members in a position where they might not feel safe" and then others might be "oh, right ok, let's y" or they might say "no, I don't think it does" but at least the conversation is being guided by our principles.

We did worry about bad actors hijacking our process and we feel that very specific rules, especially around voting, quorum, time limits, and so on make that more likely, not less. I've experienced this myself in many in-person groups going back to the 70s. The people who can stay up all night (while all the regular folks leave the meeting because they have to work tomorrow) end up running the show. Either by having votes while the regular folks are gone, or by calling for quorum and ending the meeting, or whatever. Go for consensus and gentle agreement. If there's someone misbehaving and trying to run things alone, deal with that as that. Don't pre-deal with it by having 20 pages of rules. The bad actors will use them against you in the end anyway. They have more time for that.

Answered by Kate Gregory on September 3, 2021

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