Milwaukee Amani United, like a butterfly trying to emerge from a cocoon, is an embryonic organization attempting to emerge from its status as a project of a larger organization into a membership, resident-led organization that can spread its own wings and fly. On this point everyone agrees, including the leadership core of Amani United and its parent organization, the Dominican Center. Getting there is never easy, but it is easy to forget how important it is to get the structure right from the very beginning, and that was the task for hours of discussion on a harsh spring evening in Milwaukee as Amani leaders gathered to take on this task.
Ironically, structure is so important, but why is it so hard to talk about organizational structure? I think there are a lot of reasons. Organizational experience and participation continue to plummet whether in unions, voluntary associations, scouting, church, or even the NRA. People just don’t have the cradle-to-grave kind of organizational attachments that were common fifty years ago. But, it’s not just that. The models are less transparent and less discussed.
Regular reports indicate that civic education is no longer a fundamental part of public education throughout the United States. Fewer schools teach it at all as a mandatory subject. People no longer know, even in a rudimentary way, how local, state, and federal governments work. There’s also every indication that confusion is by design rather than accident. Right now, in the standoff between Congress and the White House over information and transparency and the Trump administration’s refusal to respond to subpoenas, we can see a vivid example. Politicians and governmental employees at all levels don’t want the public to know how it all works or see behind the screen of TV, tweets, and press releases. Such concerted efforts to not make democracy work, make it harder even at the grassroots level for people of good will and intention who are trying to design a structure for their own organization to puzzle out exactly what their own democracy should be, making every choice hard and every decision difficult.
Trying to address this with the Amani United leaders, I devised a page-and-a-half “decision tree” or checklist of threshold structural questions with yes-or-no answers in some cases and little-more-none and similar multiple-choice selections when it came to accountability questions. Where people came to consensus most quickly was on the need to hold leaders accountable, and this might be part of the reaction to current organizational and governmental practice.
The hardest questions revolved around confusion over exactly what a nonprofit association is and what it can do as a nonprofit versus a tax-exempt nonprofit. Funders and others have so hopelessly blurred the lines that regular citizens simply don’t know the difference, forcing them to make kneejerk decisions that might hobble their futures without even understanding the choices they might be making. The other Gordian knot is membership itself. People are clear they want leaders accountable, but it becomes harder for people to easily sort out their conflicting desires to both be inclusive in their community and also be effective as an organization. Can just anyone be a member? Should there be classes of membership with different rights and obligations? Should members pay dues and agree to the principles of the organization? Can nonresidents be members of a community-defined organization like Amani United, and what should be done about property owners who may be absentee landlords.
Yes, these questions aren’t easy to answer in the best of circumstances, but once everything about organizational and civic activity is “throw the rock and hide the hand,” people are left clueless in trying to devise a more perfect union in their own organization.
What can I say? It’s a process!