Negotiations Skills are Learned not Natural

New Orleans     After days of work on campaigns and the principles of negotiations, the leaders of Amani United in Milwaukee were ready to practice what they had learned.  The leaders divided into two groups, one representing the officials of the city’s transportation system and the other representing Amani United.  The issue at hand was a proposal by the city to reroute bus #80 which is a lifeline for the neighborhood to downtown, work locations, grocery, health and other services.

Negotiation skills don’t natural to people.  Rage is natural, while wisdom is earned, especially when it comes to making a case and winning from a position of relative powerlessness.  People would like to get along. People would like to believe their voice is important and heard, that their issues and interest matter.  Even when they know better, the natural tendency is to try to be reasonable.  And, then if that doesn’t work, the rage kicks in and becomes something that is no longer a tactic, but something uncontrollable.

We happened to have a camera on part of the role play, and it’s instructive even when it starts out shaky in the beginning as the tripod finds its footing, as anyone can see on the YouTube video on the ACORN International channel.

            The Amani team begins formally, but despite their preparations seeks a middle ground by asking questions of the official team, rather than clearly stating the position relative to their members or their demands.  The official’s team, very realistically, recalibrates what Amani had hoped was a negotiation over the route to just another input session where they didn’t have any authority to act, but were simply sponging up the anger.   Also, realistically, despite the commitments to have a chief negotiator and call caucuses, both committees fell back into old habits quickly allowing a free-for-all of back and forth to divert any hopes of the Amani team to win anything here.

After a break to get back on track in the first video, the second video shows a whole different approach.  This time the Amani team is more formal.  Question time is over, and left for the British Parliament.  Demands are more clearly stated, and the response is awaited.  The transportation team responds well by trying to deflate the demands as “valid questions” and when pressed over their authority to negotiate offers to refer what the committee demands to bigger bosses by giving them his phone number.  It’s on!

People learn quickly, and practice makes perfect.  I found myself laughing earlier in the meeting when there was some confusion and the acting chair didn’t call for quiet, but called CAUCUS.


No Matter the Context, Listening is Always Central in Organizing

Ann Atwater registering voters in NC in 1967

New Orleans       When community organizing makes it into the mainstream, most often it’s duck-and-cover because trouble and confusion is coming as the critical content and context of organizing gets diluted and dumbed down for mass consumption.  With some trepidation I read a guest column in the Washington Post by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove who directs the Ann Atwater Freedom Library in Durham, North Carolina.  His main purpose seemed to be promoting a coming film, but some of the stories he was telling about lessons from Ann Atwater, an African-American activist and organizer in the mid-60’s, whom he described as a community organizer, are worth sharing.

Wilson-Hartgrove tells this story:

I asked whether she [Ann Atwater] would teach me what she had learned about community organizing. “Well, it’s pretty simple,” she said. “I listen to you until I learn what you want, then I help you get it. When we get halfway to what you want, I’ll tell you what I want.” When genuine fusion organizing works, everyone benefits and everyone changes.

Atwater first learned community organizing from Howard Fuller, a charismatic young man who showed up at her door in the mid-1960s, when she was living in dilapidated housing in Durham’s segregated Hayti community. Atwater wanted basic repairs to the house she was renting, and Fuller helped her get them. Then he told Atwater he wanted her to attend a 17-week community action technician training. She emerged from the program with a clear understanding of how she could help others who faced the same challenges she did. She organized neighborhood councils in all of segregated Durham’s African American communities to demand equal access to government services and economic opportunity. Durham’s lunch counters were long since integrated, but Atwater knew all too well that she couldn’t afford to eat at them.

            I can’t vouch for the movie which seems to be about Atwater coming to some kind of terms and reconciliation with the local head of the KKK, but certainly a basic principle of community organizing is that conflict can create deep bonds, rather than division, if handled constructively.  Wilson-Hargrove goes on to make a point that is worth considering, even if perhaps a bit optimistic.

… as a young white man from the South, I was adopted into the freedom movement by Ann Atwater, the African American community organizer whose vision for fusion politics is its driving force. Because I knew Grandma Ann and the beloved community she welcomed me into, I know that true multiethnic democracy is possible. In the midst of the identity crisis we face as a nation, the organizing tradition that Atwater embodied is the strong medicine we need: It has the potential to break through the lie that has convinced us that for one community to win, another must lose.

If people will take that medicine, we need to give it to them by the truckload!