Green Peas With That, Turkey?
I once volunteered for a prominent environmental group, at their Atlanta headquarters. I figured I'd do some door-to-door fund raising with what time I had free, so I went down and signed up. It was simple enough.
I get there and I'm immediately treated as though I must be some sort of petty criminal, or someone with a substance abuse problem. That was the welcome. I tried to discern if maybe that's how I looked, or if there was something else operating there. Maybe I was imagining it. Who knows?
It's probably helpful to mention I couldn't look average if I were paid to. I'm six-foot five, but a slim 190 pounds with long straight hair reaching to my belt. (My day job was playing nights in blues bands; slide guitar, harmonica and vocals. My rock and roll days were long behind me.) I looked around at those being oriented with me, and they too were being treated similarly, however they seemed to not only expect this, they seemed eager to appear compliant. Maybe this is a good thing. For me, it was strange, as this wasn't the first such volunteer work I've done.
You see, back in 1970 I helped get elected the first black president of my (rather prominent) Alabama hometown's school board. The first campaign I'd worked for was a city council election involving a Democrat candidate. My door-to-door experience was an annual fund-raising event for the local Boy Scouts of America Council, if you don't count the fact I had a morning paper route since I was eleven.
Be all that as it may, out we went in the van to canvas a neighborhood to raise money for this environmental group. As I said it's a prominent group, and one I thought stood in good stead with the public because of its dedication and the serious actions in which it took part. I find Americans (then) may not have agreed with you, but they did respect the effort you put into things as long as they were morally upstanding and of course legal - which this was.
And, naturally, since I had way more experience than the rest of the folks I went out with that evening, I managed to come up with more pledges to donate than anyone else (and even garnered a record for one night, according to the guy supervising the thing.) There was a big "however" to all of this...however. In this rather prosperous (I wouldn't say affluent) neighborhood there were a lot of recreational vehicles; pick-ups with campers, camping trailers, heavy 4-wheel drive vehicles, and it seemed a lot of campers, hunters and fishermen and women lived there. This was encouraging because outdoors enthusiasts are keen on the idea of ecology, so I saw this as opening up donation possibilities.
Yet, when the folks came to the door and I said where I was from, rather than getting a knowing smile of recognition (which is what I expected) I instead received frowns. In fact, it was so prevalent I began to wonder. So, I first took a closer look. On these mentioned vehicles I noticed a place where a sticker once was, that had been scraped off. One or two would have been easy to overlook, but all of them? This made me decide to ask the next friendly person what exactly was going on here.
Well, as it turns out (this rather helpful lady told me) this organization I was representing had taken a political stance on an issue that was in these people's views rather strident, and a bit of an ultimatum which they would have to endorse if they left the stickers on. Furthermore, they were rather miffed at the organization which they had faithfully supported with donations for years (which included proudly displaying their sticker) putting them into what they saw as an untenable position.
If I mentioned the specific stand, I'd then reveal the name of this organization which I don't wish to do as they specifically aren't the issue. In terms of the ups, downs, pitfalls and successes of social movement, these particulars aren't as important as the underlying principles involved. As it went, I felt duty-bound having been on the street rubbing elbows with the citizenry as it were to report to the guy supervising the operation what I had discovered. This I did.
His response was rather patronizing. As if someone such as himself had to inform someone of my obvious age, with extensive experience in not only this sort of activity, but as a former non-commissioned officer in the military handling public affairs for a not very popular military at that time. He told me I was too low on the totem pole for anything I say to be told to any of the real important guys upstairs, and for me to just worry about getting the money. The big important guys will handle policy, and other matters which don't concern someone as small as me. I wish I was exagerrating. Needless to say, I didn't go back a second night. Instead, I went and stuffed envelopes for the Atlanta AIDS march which they hold every year.
However, I have to say the experience was quite instructive. There was a saying "too big to fail", which people involved in serious social change bristle upon hearing. There's also "too big for your own britches" which is a saying, too. I have to say I was accustomed to being treated enthusiastically, and cheerfully when engaged in burning shoe leather for a cause. Also, when it became my turn to supervise and organize volunteers for these sorts of excursions, it was clearly understood these people don't have to be here. They are helping us immensely with their time and effort. They interface with the public for us. They deserve to be treated well. If we add cheerfulness, that may help them get their minds off their sore feet, and onto what good they've done for a worthy cause today.
At this point I have to say I was truly surprised, though not shocked, that this particular organization was not geared that way. What was even more surprising was it was in Atlanta, a large city, and one with a history of being in front with social movement, not lagging behind. At the same time I was embarrrassed for them because they made themselves look so pointlessly contentious before a public that really wanted to help them, and seemed oblivious to this fact. That they had no ground up input to keep their thumbs on the pulse was just icing on the cake.
There are two thing you have working for, or against you as an organization, movement or cause. One is your image. How are you seen? The other is your credibility. Can you be trusted? Though they may seem one and the same, they are really two quite different things. However, both share a trait. They both can be controlled by the organization, movement or cause.
"Ain't it funny how we all seem to look the same?" The Dirty Jobs, Pete Townsend
During the early sixties we didn't all look the same. We came together from every walk of life. There were working-class people, and educators. There were technical professionals and administration people. There were students; many different sorts of clothes; many different sorts of hairdos, and, all these things were quite important at that time to show ones social status and income bracket. We had to give the volunteers the sense we were all working on the same things for the same reasons. We are all in this together. It doesn't matter where you come from, or who you are. It matters that you are here. In a sense, for a lot of people, it was a new start with a newly adopted social view.
People were vulnerable. They weren't sure they'd be accepted. They knew they'd meet resistance from people they knew for being associated with what we were doing. They were taking a risk being there. They were taking what would be their own free time and spending it on behalf of someone else, and of course there was no pay. It would be many hours of walking streets and knocking on doors. In some neighborhoods we were even taunted and shouted at. "Go home! We don't need you here!" So, it was important that everyone feel like at least the cause needed them, and truly believed they were giving us something very valuable, something beyond price, a part of themselves, for indeed they were.
You may find this hard to believe, but we vocally insisted our volunteers have clean hair, clean clothes and speak politely. There would be no use of swear words, or obscenities. If anyone was engaged by members of the public, they were not to verbally respond. Our image was clean and polite for we carried the truth, and the truth deserved good representation - the best we could muster. You not only represent yourself, you represent us. The reputation you make for yourself becomes our reputation, too. Make it a good one. That was the rule. There was no choice in this. For those who couldn't do this, we thanked them very much for their interest and sent them on their way.
"Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with important matters." Albert Einstein
If your credibility is shot you can forget about your cause. If you ruin the credibility of your cause, you drag more people into a mire with you than you could possibly count, and put off achieving the goals of your cause for a time you cannot measure. No one individual is worth that. One of the ways modern organizations deal with this is to have people (such as myself) handle it for them. Speak with one voice - the staff assigned to that job.
Over-stating the case, making accusations which cannot be corroborated, claiming a level of support that can't be verified, exaggerating successes; these are the most common ways people jeopardize their organization's credibility. In the heat of discussion, in the passion of the moment, it's easy to make a slip like this. However, in social movement the only public display you get is on the platform or floor when it's open. In many movements it's been the only chance to make the statement which cements the place of the cause in the social landscape. There are many instances in which failure in this arena caused a movement to cease. When it is at last your time to be heard, be ready to be heard. Don't be caught by surprise. This is exactly what a group agitates for - a chance to be heard. When that time comes, make it a good one.
Finally, I'd like to say (even to this huge ecological environmental giant the name of which I'm sure most of you have guessed by now; or should have) the people are why you are doing this. They aren't in your way. They are your way - even the ones who disagree with you. Listen to the ones who are burning the shoe leather. What they tell you they hear on the street may not be true, but they are hearing it. That bears attention. Listen to the ones disagreeing with you. Don't shut your ears because you think they've shut theirs. They may not be correct in what they say, but what they say will help you tune your message. It will give you a more precise target to aim for.
Haven't you heard? It's a battle of words, and most of them are said.