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The tyranny of activist flakiness

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I just led a workshop on decision-making and structure for organizations.   Participants wanted to talk about accountability, and what you can do to make sure people do what they say they are going to do.

I have decided to publish this article in order to start the conversation around this important issue. 

Please post comments.  How do you deal with flakiness in yourself and others? 

This article explores the problem, causes, consequences and possible solutions to one of the bigger unspoken problems facing social change organizers -- flakiness.

There are two behavioural qualities that when exhibited by the same person at the same time equates to one of the worst criticisms you can say to an organizer. Flakiness. You’re being flaky if there is a discrepancy between what you said you were going to do and what you actually did, which is nothing or very little. Flaking is also exhibited by a demonstrated lack of reasonable effort or intention into completing or resolving the task in the first place.

Flakiness is a contentious issue; people reacted strongly when I asked to interview them for this article; some rolled their eyes remembering all the times that "other" people have flaked on them; others acted defensively, as if I was about to interrogate them. This article was written in reaction to working as an organizer on an all-volunteer direct action campaign to protest the fifth year anniversary of the war in Iraq – we created one of the biggest direct action mobilizations in the country for this period, but the exhausted, cynical narrow-minded side of me (temporarily) vowed to never work with certain flaky people again.

Flakiness is a problem for many reasons. Jen Angel, KPFA producer and past-editor of activist-magazine, Clamor, argues that on a basic level, flakiness negatively impacts the overall quality of the project you're working on. "Say you're planning a conference and one of your speakers flakes. As a result your conference is probably not going to be as good as it could have been because that speaker is not there. Since events like this are the building blocks of our social change movements flakiness taxes our long-term goals as well."

Secondly, flakiness weakens the interpersonal glue -- the bonds -- between advocates, which is a key measure of a movement's strength. "When someone flakes on me I feel disappointment and frustration towards that person," says Rob Smith (not his real name), a campaigner with a national environmental group. "I feel like I don't want to work with them again. I also often feel stressed because it often raises my own workload."

Max Bell Alper, lead union organizer with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), describes flakiness as the worst thing that can happen when you're organizing workers. "When you're organizing a workplace everyone has to be able to trust and depend upon each other to take increasingly riskier actions collectively to challenge the bosses. When people flake it breaks that trust."

One of the most dramatic tests of worker solidarity is a strike campaign. Striking is hard. It involves actively confronting people, and often these are people you know. a deeply uncomfortable activity, even for those who are paid to do it). often people you know -- and asking, demanding, imploring -- that they do not enter the worksite so you can secure better working conditions, and risking your livelihood in both the job you have, and the industry overall. Future employers don't look favorably on worker-organizers. A worker's ability to re-secure their job after a strike depends upon the solidarity amongst the workers within their building and industry, and their allies; the higher number of allies and workers that agree to walk out and stay out until the demand has been met the greater the chance the worker will return to work with better working conditions.

The negative consequences of flaking in a strike are analogous  to flaking in other social change situations as all people-led social change struggles depend upon people working together to challenge power holders. Be it making a flier, organizing a rally, or agreeing to make a phone call – when you don't do it it lowers trust and thus reduces the chances of people taking bigger risks together, such as launching health cooperatives or engaging in risky actions.

So why do people flake, and what can we do to reduce this problem?

One common reason cited for flaking is that things come up. Unplanned and unforeseen emergencies, such as health concerns, sick children and relationship breakups are a part of life. Often activism -- particularly unpaid activism -- is done in addition to a busy life that can't easily absorb new responsibilities or challenges. Activism, as such, is one of the first things to be cast aside in times of increased burden.

Rob Smith thinks activists should think carefully before saying yes to a project as taking on a project requires sacrifices that should be taking very seriously. He explains: "If you’re already a busy person slotting in activism requires taking something out of your life." Maybe that means dropping out of yoga class, delaying graduate school, taking a pay cut, forsaking children. "And this is not to say that a mantra of martydom should be promoted in activist circles but a reminder that we are privileged. For many middle-class people in North America activism is still a choice. This stands in contrast to the countless people who are active because they face serious and immediate repression. Take it seriously. And say 'no' if you can't do it. A no is a hundred times better than a false yes.

Angel ponders why we say yes to things that we really don't have the time for. "Maybe we feel compelled into saying yes because our politics indicate that we should support this issue. Maybe it's because people haven't realized that there is a discrepancy between what their hearts want them to do, and what their bodies and schedules are capable of. Or perhaps we feel we should say yes because we perceive there's noone else who can do the job."

For Angel, the solution lies in there being more organizers so that already active people have less pressure on them to over-extend themselves. Until we reach that ideal world, Angel also thinks we need to cultivate a culture of realistic honesty, where people are honest about their capacity to get involved, particularly during the preliminary stages of planning so folks can identify and train someone else if need be, and organizers plan projects that reflect the available work-capacity.

A culture of honesty must also extend to holding each other accountable after flakiness has occurred. In the field of volunteer-led activism it's uncommon for the flakiness to be outed and discussed with the people responsible in a constructive way. Why don't we do more of this? Smith argues that it's because constructive criticism in our culture is frequently considered tantamount to a personal attack and is thus avoided. "People just don't want to upset or offend volunteers," he says. "The need for people to get involved is so acute that most organizers are genuinely happy for any support from folks at all. In order to make sure the person feels valued and appreciated we tend to focus on the positive, on the 50 per cent the person actually did as opposed to the 50 per cent they didn't." This level of unaccountability contrasts to the workplace where people risk losing their jobs -- which they are often financially dependent upon -- if they don't meet their responsibilities.

Max Alper directs the blame to the task-assigner, arguing that flakiness is mainly a result of bad organizing. "When you're organizing workers you need to engage people in terms of what they actually want and it's often improved material conditions for themselves and their families, more money, more health care benefits," he says. "It's also an organizer's job to make sure they know that organizing collectively is the most effective way for them to solve some of their problems. Workers are dealing with poverty, with surviving, with the legal system. You need to make sure they're prioritizing organizing." Alper cautions that organizers also need to ensure that workers feel that have a valuable and important role to play in the campaign and that they're not just a body at a protest. "The bottom line is that if workers aren't coming out it's because they're not choosing to prioritize this work, and that’s because the organizers are not doing a good enough job at motivating and empowering workers to get and stay involved in a strategy that is in their best interests."

Angel cites causes of flakiness that posit responsibility on both the organizers and the flakers. For her, flakiness is often a result of unclear or inadequate communication, and a lack of clarity around who has power. To give an example: say you're in a meeting and you agree to the coordinate the speakers for a scheduled rally. Other meeting attendees interpret the task as "you are bottom-lining the rally, making it rally no matter what, and that includes selecting, contacting and organizing all the speakers. Fellow meetings attendees are available to support you. You, however, interpret the responsibility as merely turning up on the day of the rally to act as a stage manager, coordinating the speakers, and that it was still the group's responsibility to make the rally happen. Without a detailed clarification of the process and the responsibility this kind of discrepancy in task-interpretation is common.

Similarly, Kristian Williams maintains that the solutions to flakiness reside in building better organizational structures. Williams works with Rose City Copwatch, a Portland-based group that monitors police behavior and educates citizens on their legal rights. Flake rates on important tasks at Rose-City Copwatch are "almost unheard of." According to Williams, the most serious incident of flakiness the group has ever experienced was when one member dropped out of the group and failed to return her keys.

These low flakiness rates were not created by luck. Rose-City Copwatch organizers deliberately crafted an organizational structure that institutionalized responsibility and accountability. Today, Rose-City Copwatch has a two-tiered structure composed of volunteers and core members, the later sets the group's direction. Volunteers become core members by making a commitment to join the group for six months. Core members make transparent, accountable and clear commitments to each other by writing up their own work plan and presenting it to the other core members for discussion, amendment and eventual approval. Everyone has a buddy that checks in on them to ensure they stay on task. If things aren't getting done then the group discusses the problem from a goal orientated perspective, asking what do we need to do make this happen instead of accusing specific people of failing. Williams says that flakiness is less a result of sheer laziness and more often because the task is too vague or big, or that it relies on someone else doing something that hasn't been identified yet. "If there are other reasons -- such as they're not interested in doing it or they're overworked -- then that becomes clear and we assign it to someone else."

Williams points out that the biggest flake in the group right now is himself. But Williams calls himself a responsible flake. He had a good excuse: after publishing a book, he was asked on tour for six weeks during his six month commitment as a core member. He gave the organizers ample notice and he assigned someone else to take on his responsibilities, in this case the assistant volunteer coordinator who shadows the volunteer coordinator for six months before taking over the role.

Given that flakiness isn't going away, it makes sense to build in buffers that help groups weather the inevitable, such as ensuring that skills and knowledge in the group are shared by rotating responsibilities. For Alper it means inviting more people than you need to reach your goals. In fact, flake-resistant mechanisms are part of a good organizer's standard operating procedure. Organizer manuals recommend that if you want to get 100 people to a demonstration, you'll need to get double that to say yes to coming (200) which requires inviting 400 people in the first place.

Despite our flakiness we're still making change. I'm sure some civil rights activists in the 1950s and 1960s were disappointed by their friends who flaked out of voter registration drives and protests.  The civil rights movement still achieved huge improvements in the rights and conditions of African-American people.  But I can't help but compare us to what we could be if didn't tolerate a culture of flakiness, if we had a movement of people that kept their word, that were honest about their capacity and really, really trusted each other. Isn't that something to commit to?

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