Friday, 5 December 2008

How to Be a Democratic Party Activist

As we move into the exciting new world where the Democratic Party is the party of Government and as we absord the hundreds of thousands (millions?) of new activists and supporters generated during the campaing, I realy hope that all of you will continue to stay involved and to push for the policies and candidates that you care about. But as much as I want us to be strong and principled in how we go about our activism, I also want us to think about the STYLE of our activism.

Recently I responded to a complaint on one of the Obama Groups about a local Democrats Abroad chapter's apparent failure to engage fully with their members. Now, I have no way of knowing whether this individual's concerns were valid or not, but I did think it was useful to remind all of us Obamaites that if we are going to live up to Barack's example we need to follow his example by applying the GOlden RUle. Below is my advice written specifically for that group, but applicable to all those who seek to make Change in politics.

1) Empathy. No matter what your disagreements or concerns may be with the leadership - remember that they have their own problems. Democrats Abroad is a 100% volunteer organisation - there is only one paid staffer, and she is based in Washington. As a result, DA officers are often trying to do a full time job in their free time, often for little or no thanks. Yes, there are always ways that they could be working harder, especially to engage and involve their members but sometimes they are simply overwhelmed trying to get through the day. As a result...
2) Present Yourself as the Solution, Not the Problem. Remember, if you walk up to them and say, "you do a terrible job of engaging with your members you should be ashamed of yourself. Why aren't you...." there is no incentive for that person to listen to you - they see you as a problem and instantly their motivation is to get rid of you. But if, instead, you say, "I know that it can be a real struggle to manage our interactions with members so that there is a real consultation process in place. I had some thoughts about how I might be able to help with that..." suddenly you are taking a burden off their shoulders. But make sure you really do follow through on the suggestions you propose. Have practical steps in mind that will help you get there, and be prepared to work with them to be flexible about how that might happen (E.G., "OK, you say we don't have the money to build a website... could we do an e-mail dialog?").
3) Listen as Much as You Talk. Sometimes I've seen 3 or 4 people stand up in a meeting to make the same point or I've seen people totally ignore explanations and clarifications that are offered. This quickly becomes annoying and makes it seem like you are not respecting the other people in the room. If you have a strong view, sometimes it's a good idea not to jump into the discussion right away but rather to hold back until most people have had their say and then demonstrate in your statement that you've heard and understood the others' point of view. (Frankly, this is how I think the leadership ought to be treating their members, so it is only fair that we offer them the same courtesy.)
4) Be Concise. Your point is all the more likely to be heard if it is well thought out, clearly stated, and brief. A 20 minute diatribe will cause people to tune you out (possibly forever) but a 30 second statement of the problem followed by a 1 minute proposal and recommendation will be listened to with attention.
5) Don't Get Personal. Even if you violently disagree with someone's views on an issue, work hard to make sure your comments are directed at the area of disagreement, not the person. Attributing someone's views to their personal circumstances ("That's so typical of a rich lawyer") or to their innate bad qualities ("You don't care about grassroots movements at all") suggests that you oppose them personally, not their position. And strangely enough, no one is going to go out of their way to work with someone they see as fundamentally hostile to them. But if your objection is issue-focussed there is room for them to change their mind or, if you lose the argument anyway, to become your ally on a future issue where you might agree.

I hope that you will continue to try and play a constructive role in Democrats Abroad, or in your local party wherever it may be, because we really do need to continue growing a strong, member-led, ground-up organisation.

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