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Where Do We Begin?

By: Abdelrahim Saleh

Where do we begin if we want to become more involved in our national struggle?
Here are some fragmentary remarks.

We may begin by considering the following questions:

What can we do and how can we do it? Are we going to organize? Who will support our efforts?
What is a good idea for our first action? (It should be simple, focused on a major concern, and increase the group's visibility). How are we going to reach out to others? And, how do we organize a general second meeting and invite the active members of our community?

If we decide collectively that we need to organize then we must make a special effort to remain friendly with all other groups that have similar goals. Friendliness can replace the common tendency toward competition with the potential of cooperation. I think inter-group cooperation is the engine of real progress in our exiled arena.

Planning:
Planning is necessary if we want to avoid wasted activity, and make our collective efforts count. It should move from the general to the specific, from the big picture to the small, from the long term to the short, from "what" to "how". Our planning should entail:

    · Setting goals.
    · Devising a strategy to achieve the goals.
    · Devising actions to achieve the strategy.

We really need to look beyond the obvious to find good strategies. And we must know how do our strategies score? We could generate ideas for strategies that will lead to our goal(s), and then decide which to pursue. We need to test alternative strategies by asking:

    Does it have strong group support?
    Is it specific enough? Or is it easily attainable?
    Will it have an immediate visible impact?
    How will we know when we are near our objective(s)?
    How do we measure progress?

To be effective, we should pursue no more than one or two objectives at any given time. New groups should begin with small projects having a high probability of success over the short term.

Plan the action:
We need to generate ideas that will lead to our objective, then decide which to carry forward. Once our group defines its mission and agrees on an action, we need to create an action plan. This action plan should include a time frame; an ordered list of tasks to complete; persons responsible for each task; a list of resources required including materials; facilities and funds. We need to keep action plans flexible so we can respond to the unexpected. One good way to identify a group's priorities is to ask people to write their views. Facilitators then help the group arrange the suggestions and notes into clusters with similar characteristics.

Acting:
Once we have completed the necessary groundwork, we need to act. Surprisingly, from our past experience many groups never get around to acting. Many of our groups in exile talk about action but are essentially organized on emotional basis. Still others keep members busy with organizational housekeeping, committee chores, internal politics and passing of declarations and resolutions. While many interest groups gets together just for discussion, pressure groups tend to work best when acting accompanies talking. Otherwise, they tend to shrink to a few diehards for whom "nominal belonging" has become a way of life.

For best results we must organize around a single umbrella issue. Sometimes an issue can serve to invigorate a new organization. However, lobbying or organizing around a hot issue can be a waste of time if it leads to a hardening of positions. Too often, Libyans of the opposition have worn themselves out in fights that might have been resolved to everyone's satisfaction through collaborative problem solving that focused on common interests rather than personal positions. Until recently, most of the books written about group organizing have taken a battlefield approach, because it used to be thought the only way to influence public decision-making.

Structure:
We should have as little legal and hierarchical structure as possible. The right (open and transparent) amount is just enough to address our goals. In an attempt to become "legitimate", many small groups decide they need more structure. Unfortunately, this can lead to spending more time on the needs of the organization than on the reason for getting together.

Non-profit organizations or societies:
Traditional organizations frequently wind up as registered non-profit entities. The advantages of non-profit status are few, beyond less circuitous access to certain sources of funds. On the other hand, non-profit status means having to follow the legal rules, reporting requirements and organizational structure required by law (federal or local). Another good advantage is tax deductibility for supporters.

Networks, Cooperatives, Collectives:
Many grassroots organizations seem to work better with a flat structure as free as possible of complicated boards, directors, and chairs. Flatness, or the absence of an organizational hierarchy, does not mean the elimination of individual roles or responsibilities. It does mean the end of people with over-riding authority over other people's work. We have to avoid the common mistake of involving small numbers of people heavily. We must strive to involve large numbers of people lightly. Flat organizations, which emphasize horizontal connections, seem to be the best bet for involving large numbers of people in a way that the heavy burden of volunteer work is shared lightly.

Traditional structure:
Traditional organizational structure seems to dry out the grassroots. Nevertheless it continues to be recommended by many citizens umbrella groups in North America. The most successful traditional organizations have:

1. An elected leadership
Some groups elect a board, a set of officers - a president, one or two vice presidents, a secretary and a treasurer. In order to include people doing important work, some expand the leadership group into a steering committee that includes the chairperson of each committee. Leaders should be elected on a regular basis at well-publicized membership -- real or virtual -- meetings. One or two people should not try to run the organization. When that happens others become less involved.
2. Regular -- real or virtual -- meetings
3. A newsletter -- traditional or digital
4. A means of delegating tasks and responsibilities
5. Training for new members
6. Social time together
7. A planning process
8. Working relationships with power players and resource organizations. Power players are people with the ability to make things happen: politicians, owners of key businesses, media people, heads of key government departments, heads of agencies, foundations, corporations, associations and the like.

Committees and Task Forces:
Committees and task forces are the main way jobs are shared and conducted collectively. They make it possible to get a lot done without anyone getting worn out. Standing committees look after a continuing group function; task forces carry out a specific task, then disband. Both provide members with a way of getting involved in projects that interest them. A large, action-oriented group might have the following standing committees: coordinating, publicity, membership, outreach, publications, fundraising, and research. Many professional people prefer the short-term projects of task forces, to the work of permanent committees. Ideally, members of committees and task forces are made up of people selected by the whole group rather than by people who are "self-selected"! If the whole group is confident in a task force or a special committee it should empower the subgroup to make most decisions on its own. To keep everyone working together, committees and task forces should regularly report back to the whole group.

Coalitions:
If we intend to tackle a large issue, as I suspect, then we will need allies. We have to approach other potential organizations, agencies and active individuals. A coalition requires that all participants have a clear set of expectations and get together regularly to develop a friendly working relationship. A coalition works best when established for a specific project, and then allowed to lapse when the project ends.

On Leadership:
Good leaders are the key to community organizing. They do not tell other people what to do, but help others to take charge. They do not grab the limelight, but nudge others into the limelight. They are not interested in being "The Leader", but are interested in creating more leaders. They recognize that only by creating more leaders can an organizing effort expand and succeed.

Model the effective leader:
We must set realistic expectations. Nothing pleases a group more than tangible success. Smart leaders will steer the group toward things it can easily accomplish.

Divide-up and delegate work:
Divide-up tasks into bite-sized chunks, then discuss who will do each chunk. Make sure everyone has the ability to carry out their task, then let them carry it out in their own way. Have someone check on progress. People do not feel good about doing a job; if nobody cares whether it gets done or not.

Show good appreciation for work well done:
Recognize people's efforts in conversations, at meetings, in newsletters. Give thank you notes and other tokens of appreciation. Give certificates and awards for special efforts. Respect all contributions no matter how small.

Welcome criticism and conduct self-criticism:
Accepting criticism may be difficult for some, but members need to feel they can be critical without being attacked. Recognizing and admitting mistakes through periodic evaluations will keep the group focused on goals and maintain high morale. Those who accept leadership roles must accept responsibility as well.

Help people to believe in themselves:
Effective leaders build people's confidence that they can accomplish what they have never accomplished before. The unflagging optimism of good leaders energizes everyone.

Inspire trust:
People will not follow those they do not trust. We need to always maintain the highest standards of honesty. Good leaders air doubts about their own potential conflicts of interest, and about their own personal limitations.

Herald a higher purpose:
People often volunteer to serve some higher purpose. Leader should be able to articulate this purpose, to hold it up as a glowing beacon whenever the occasion demands. Good leaders will celebrate every grassroots victory as an example of what can happen when people work together for the common good.

Convince others they can lead:
We must make the practice of leading transparent. Invite others, especially the young, to lead. We must not allow a few to try to run the whole show, or do most of the work. Others will become less involved. And the active few will soon burn out.

Visibility:
If we want to expand the number of people who know what we are doing, we need to get noticed. This usually means working with the media. Besides informing a larger public, the media can empower residents, nudge politicians, and add momentum to a grassroots initiative. According to experts in the art of organizing, "empowerment comes from simple media exposure". When we understand the media, we can also raise public issues that are being ignored, and reframe issues from our Libyan perspective. We also need to be careful, however, if we are not used to dealing with the media. Many journalists look for stories rooted in conflict, error, violence and injustice. This may impose a confrontational agenda that can actually make it more difficult for us to reach our targeted audience(s). Practical steps include:

Assemble a list of sympathetic journalists:
If we have an important news story, we may find no one is interested. One way around this is to cultivate a list of journalists who care about our goals and issues.

Find the media professionals relevant to our community:
Seek help from the people in our community who work for newspapers, radio and television stations. They can provide advice on what is newsworthy, how to get attention, and who to call. Some will not want to appear in the foreground, but in the background they will be invaluable.

Define our objective, then our messages:
We must not rush off to the media without a clear idea of what we want to accomplish. Use this to create a set of clear messages we wish to project. If we intend to air a problem, one of our messages should suggest a reasonable solution. We should balance our emphasis of what we are against with that we are for.

Make actions newsworthy:
To get media attention we need to tell a good story with a human focus that is happening now. The more creative, colorful, and even humorous, the better coverage will be. Getting noticed is largely a matter of dramatizing issues.

Link actions to other news events:
Our actions will stand a better chance of getting covered if they tie into other events in the news: government announcements, holidays, local conferences, world events, and hot issues. The media like a good feeding frenzy!

Issue news releases (not declarations!):
Create a news release if you have fresh information you wish to publicize. Next, create a strong newspaper style headline that will interest an editor who has to shuffle through hundreds of news releases every day. The first sentence of the copy should contain the most important fact in our story. The rest of the release should cover the essentials of who, what, where, when and why. Keep the whole thing short, one to two pages double spaced. For big events send out a news release seven days prior, then telephone a reminder one to two days before the event. Faxing a release without any personal contact is usually a waste of time.

Aim at TV:
Some of the most effective citizens groups get TV coverage by staging events that provide action and good pictures. Some groups also shoot their own broadcast quality video or create video news releases to help control what is broadcast. Choose spokespersons that come across well on TV. On television a great deal is communicated non-verbally through tone of voice, facial expression, and body gestures.

Practice your blurb:
For regular TV and radio news you will have 15-30 seconds to make a statement. Practice what you want to say before the event. Your statement or a minor variation can be used in response to any question asked. No one will know the difference.

Reframe stories on live media:
If we can get on live media such as radio or the web we can actually shape the news, because we won't be edited as we would on TV or in newspapers. Just make sure that we know what we want to say.

Write a Letter to the Editor:
Writing a letter to the editor of a newspaper is an easy way to get publicity. Small papers will publish any reasonable letter that does not require a lot of fact checking. Common Cause, the largest citizens group in the U.S., did a study, which showed that a letter to the editor was one of the most effective ways of influencing politicians.

Don't rely on the media to educate:
The mass media prefer to entertain. If you want to get out detailed information, you will probably have to do it yourself through newsletters, bulletins, or online presence.

Consider alternative media: (If resources are available)
Consider printed t-shirts, buttons, window signs, posters, bumper stickers, web sites, e-mail networks, and the newsletters of other groups...etc.

Try the direct approach:
Consider phoning or writing those who have the power to put things right. In short any one who could help our cause.

Getting More People Involved:
One of the main on-going activities of any organization is getting more people involved. This is not easy; most people don't like the idea of being "pulled into" doing political work in their spare time. The heavy emphasis on the individual by modern commercial culture has driven American participation rates below 5% for most community activities. If that sounds low, remember a few people committed to a single course of action can achieve amazing results. However, we need to know more about our targeted pool of volunteers.

Types of People:

From our experience we know that in any community some people stand out and speak out and some people stay seated and are mute. For example, Ralph Nader has provided a few rough categories -- we could all add many more-- which are useful to open this line of inquiry.

First, there are the people who would like to improve or contribute to their community but they don't know how to go about it, or they don't understand the procedures and their rights under the law, or they don't know how to communicate to the media.

Then there's a group of people who basically grow up without any civic sense whatsoever. They grow up thinking that they really don't matter, that nothing they do matters, and they silently turn inward on themselves, try to make money, raise their-family, enjoy their vacations and try to get through life in fairly good health.

Add to these, a category of people without even the sensitivity to feel that they don't count. They think freedom is defined as simply getting a good job and being able to pay one's bills-and that's plenty by their frame of reference. These people have no understanding of the liberties they can exercise against their adversaries and oppressors other than to avoid them, run away from them, or dodge them. The idea of contributing to an organized or community effort is considered as having a very low rate of return and as money sent down the drain.

Then there are people who are active, who have achieved some success and have developed a tradition of skill, but they burn out after the first few battles. They get tired, fatigued and weary of constantly having to exhort their neighbors and friends to join the effort. They burn out and sometimes never come back. They retreat into very private lives and live "non-civically" ever after.

Finally, there are a very few people who are constant thorns in the side of public apathy. In every gathering they jump up, challenging, and criticizing the authorities and the establishment, proposing new ways to solve problems, respect human rights, tax more fairly…etc These are the activists who usually form the core of many civic groups. These people should be our first target in our effort to create a respected collective Libyan voice.

Other ways to expand the circle:

Ask members to invite others:
In the U.S. eighty per cent of volunteers doing community work said they began because a friend, a family member, or a neighbor asked them.

Go to where people are:
Instead of trying to get people to come to you, try going to them. Go to the meetings of other groups, and to places and events where people gather. This is particularly important for involving other groups, youth, seniors, women and others who may not come to you.

Never miss a chance to collect names, addresses, phone numbers:
Have sign-in sheets at your meetings and events. At events organized by others, ask people to add their name, address, and phone number to petitions and requests-for-information. In return, hand out a sheet explaining the nature of your group.

Try to include those who are under-represented:
In some cases not participating is a matter of choice - most youth choose not to take part. In other cases, people get overlooked. This can happen to women, the disabled and the elderly or retired, even though they may prove invaluable as active citizens. Here are some ways to include the under-represented:

    · Go to people in the group you are trying to reach and ask how they would like to be approached.
    · Address their issues.
    · Think about whom you know who knows someone in the group you are trying to reach. Use your connections.
    · Identify a group as people you want to work with, not as a target group you want to convert to your side. Treat people as people first.
    · Organize projects that focus on kids. Parents of different backgrounds, and income levels will meet one another while accompanying their children.

Do surveys:
Surveys are a good way to stay in touch, increase participation, and bring in new members. They show your group is willing to respond to a broad base of others, not just those who tend to participate in community activities.

Create detailed membership lists:
Create membership lists with places for entering name, address, day and evening phone and fax numbers, priorities for local improvement, occupation, personal interests, special skills, times available, what the person would be willing to do, and what the person would not be willing to do. Consider using a computer to update lists and sort people by address, priority, and interests. With such a computer database you can easily bring together people who belong together. Membership lists can also form the basis of a telephone tree, a system for getting messages out to large numbers of people. For suggestions on setting up a telephone tree see "Information Sharing".

Generate newsletters and leaflets (Traditional or Digital):
Newsletters whether traditional or digital keep group members in touch.

Fundraising:
We will need money to organize large numbers of people, or launch a large action program. If we decide to fundraise, we must be careful. We can actually lose money, and divert time and resources away from our objectives. If we must raise money, here are some suggestions.

Individual contributions:
Asking for contributions from potential members and sympathizers turns fundraising into community building. People become more attached to groups, projects, and places they feel they own. Money can come from memberships, voluntary subscriptions to newsletters, collections at meetings, planned giving, memorial giving and direct mail. Lots of books cover these approaches. We must make donations tax deductible by registering as a non-profit or charity organization.

In-kind donations:
Seek in-kind or non-monetary contributions. This includes donations of printing, equipment, furniture, space, services, food, and time. Hopefully, Libyan local and international businesses will respond well to requests for in-kind donations. Some expert on volunteerism, dislikes the time and energy spent on grant writing and big fundraising events. Instead, they recommend time tithing as a way of producing a steady flow of cash. It is a system that relies on supporters contributing high quality services. A group might advertise such services as conducting a workshop, painting signs, or providing professional assistance. When a supporter performs a service, they do not keep the money they are paid; but have the amount, minus expenses, sent directly to their group.

Grants from governments and foundations:
With so many potential sources of assistance, half the battle is figuring out who supports what. After identifying a possibility, we need to find out about application procedures. Getting a grant usually requires writing up a good proposal. In the U.S. we must not ignore matching grants. In many cases some governments or foundations will contribute a dollar for every dollar raised by citizens.

Charging fees:
Consider the possibility of charging fees for services, or products (such as reports, papers, CD's…etc).


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