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.

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Community Organizers in Kenya Struggling with their Roles

the whole gang at COPA Kenya

the whole gang at COPA Kenya

Nairobi    A highlight whenever I’m in Nairobi is the opportunity to meet and dialogue with community organizers who are part of COPA Kenya, the Community Organization Practitioners Association of Kenya, and a unique professional association of organizers. We had what they call a “sharing” in which ACORN Kenya’s organizers, David Musungu and Sammy Ndirangu joined with the elected chair of ACORN Kenya and laid out the six year history of ACORN’s work in the Korogocho slum in Nairobi, and I briefly described the work of ACORN around the world, followed by questions from the dozen organizers who attended.

ACORN organizers, Sammy and David, prepare for COPA Kenya meeting with chair of ACORN Kenya

ACORN organizers, Sammy and David, prepare for COPA Kenya meeting with chair of ACORN Kenya,  Daniel Kairo

COPA Kenya’s roots go back more than 20 years to an equally novel training program funded by Misereor, the German Catholic Bishops fund, where Dennis Murphy and other organizers from the Philippines were brought to Kenya to train community organizers and in some cases the best of the lot were brought for further training in the Philippines. Some of the senior organizers at our meeting spoke of being in the second or fourth groups that were part of the initial trainings and through COT, the Center for Organizer Training in Kenya, generations of community organizers have continued to go through the six month initial training or the advanced training. The legacy of that experiment continues through COPA Kenya and the creation of a unique culture of organizing and the special sense in Kenya of community organizing as a profession.

Florence Juma, one of the senior community organizers

Florence Juma, one of the senior community organizers

The presentations and questions quickly underscored the uniqueness of ACORN Kenya’s work especially the fact that it was membership-based and dues driven. Several of the community organizers in attendance identified themselves as “consultants” now, working for various NGOs or the government to interact with the community. Others were engaged in programs around education or health in particular areas of the city. One said she was on the “job corner” looking for work. Another was both a consultant and working for a rural women’s empowerment group. Several were in agency work.

In the Q&A I shared the donor trends in the USA that were defunding organizational formation, leadership development, capacity building, and infrastructure and instead privileging specific tasks for campaigns and envisioning community organizations more as outreach tools than empowerment projects in their own right. I was briskly informed that in Kenya donor-driven work had led to the devolution of community organizers to little more than outreach workers and liaisons to the community for years to most organizers dissatisfaction.

In became clear in the question and answer session, as several offered examples of their work, that for some the roles of an organizer had become very confused. Several seemed to frame their work and experience as more of a mediator between government, business and the community. In a language confusion that turned out to be heated and perhaps profound, several organizers saw their roles in “prepping the target,” as including discussions with the target before an action or meeting with the community, taking the mediator role past a comfortable line for many organizers.

Everyone agreed the conversations were clarifying and helpful and parted in good spirits, but there was a lingering cloud for me. There was some confusion about the role of our elected chair and whether or not he was seen, which he expressly denied, as a community organizer successfully emerging from the community, as opposed more appropriately as a leader. The notion of developing leaders seems to have declined in importance for many now by necessity who were trapped in agency and NGO work for livelihoods. An organizer detached from an organization where accountability to members is a condition of employment and leaders are democratically elected and supported and determine an organizer’s tasks has become rarer in Kenya, and organizers are struggling with their roles and unhappy about it, which was disconcerting to me.

An organizer without an organization is a fish out of water, drowning on the shore.

debating the issues during the Q&A with the organizers -- pick best

debating the issues during the Q&A with the organizers

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