An Organizing Basic: Keep Self-Interest in Mind
One of the important shifts I made as an organizer was the day I stopped asking people “Why are you doing these things that are bad for you?” and learned to ask “Where do you want to go, and how is what you are doing now going to get you there?” This simple change in how I related to my leaders opened up a world of conversation around the tension between what they said was in their self-interest and how their actions may reflect a different notion of self-interest. These conversations gave me a place to begin challenging them, based on what they wanted for themselves.
Everyone operates out of self-interest. Everyone asks the question “How will this (action, choice, event) impact me, my family, my people,” a hundred times a day, often subconsciously. This is a basic survival mechanism. In fact, not to think this way would be a breach of responsibility to yourself, your family or your community.
For an organizer, understanding a person’s self-interest – as they themselves see it – helps us engage and involve leaders. It provides us the information to challenge and agitate someone based on what they want for themselves. The conversations we have with leaders, thinking through how they see their own self-interest, can also move someone from a narrow definition of self-interest (what matters to me) to a broader, more communal definition (what matters to us, on our block, in our church and in this city).
Understating the self-interest of an institution helps us move through that institution with respect and organize in a way that builds the institution, creating more energy and resources for them to draw on instead of being just another drain or distraction for an already overworked leadership. It allows us to help an organization reach its goals and become the organization that the leaders want it to be. If we don’t understand what that institution aspires to be, we risk acting as though the institution is simply a resource to help our own organization win on issues of importance to us, like immigration or predatory lending.
Understanding the self-interest of our targets (people in power who we want to influence) gives us important information on how to move them in our direction. If we understand the self-interest of a powerful target, we are in a position to negotiate with them instead of simply asking for their help. It also tells us what matters to them and who they listen to, so that we can figure out how to put pressure on them to respond to our community’s needs.
Self-interest versus exploitation
Dr. Jose Carrasco, who was a senior organizer with the PICO National Network at the time, once told me that if I don’t know what my leaders’ self-interests are, then I am exploiting them, because I am not intentionally helping them meet their own self-interest, but rather am using them to meet mine. And since most of our leaders are being exploited by others in so many different ways, we have an almost sacred obligation to not exploit them in the slightest, even in the name of good. Organizers challenge or agitate leaders around the differences in the world as it is versus the world as it should be, as the leaders see it.
- Agitation is about the difference between where people are now and where THEY want to be. (Organizing around their self-interest)
- Exploitation is about the difference between where people are now and where I want them to be. (Organizing around my self-interest)
Any organizing that does not meet the self-interest (or needs) of those being organized, as they see it, is not just unethical, it is doomed to fail.
From narrow to broad
A central question for an organizer working to build a community is “Do the leaders see their self-interest narrowly or do they see their self-interest broadly?” An example I can give is:
Frank lives on a block with his many neighbors. One day the house across the street is burglarized. If Frank’s response is only, “I don’t want what happened to that guy to happen to us. I’m getting a burglar alarm and I’m putting bars on my windows,” he is operating out of a narrow self-interest. It’s hard to criticize those actions because he is not acting selfishly but rather acting to protect his family. But he only sees actions that impact directly on his family. The chance that the alarm and window bars will make his block and ultimately his family safer is extremely low.
On the other hand, imagine Frank’s response as, “Juan, whose family lives across the street, had his house burglarized yesterday. He is a good neighbor and I like having him on my block. He looks out for my property when I am away and my kids play with his. I don’t want him, or my other neighbors, to move away because if they leave then this block will be worse for my family. I need to help keep this from happening to others on this block.” Frank is still operating out of his own self-interest, but he’s seeing it more broadly. He sees how actions affecting other people have a direct impact on what he holds dear. It is in his self-interest to keep Juan as a neighbor and he wants to respond in a way that protects his neighbors so they remain on the block, because having them there protects his family as well.
Another way to look at it is:
- If you are not in relationship with others, you define self-interest very narrowly: me, mine, etc. (Isolation-separateness).
- If you are in relationship with others, you are much more likely to define self-interest broadly: we, ours etc. (Community)
The self-interest of an institution
Just as we must understand our leader’s self-interest and needs, we must meet the needs of the institution as the members see it, not as we see it.
The self-interest of an institution is more difficult to define because it is multi-layered and collective. For instance, in a church there is the corporate self-interest (dogma, ritual, and official church philosophy and/or an official purpose or mission), the pastor’s vision for the institution and for his own legacy and career, and the collective self-interest of the members (the reasons why they joined the church). Our work needs to be attentive to all these interests. At times the layers of self-interest may be in tension. A parishioner may have a different self-interest than the pastor. A skilled organizer can use those tensions to build conversations within the institution that create and grow relationships.
An organizer’s own self-interest
Organizers must have a clear sense of their own self-interest, too. Leaders instinctively understand the notion of self-interest, often asking “What’s in it for me?” or the more suspicious “Why are you here? What’s in it for you and what is it going to cost me?!” If you are unclear why you personally are doing this work, you are more likely to appear to leaders as a patronizing do-gooder (I just want to help people like you), or self-serving (I am doing this because I feel guilty about how badly poor people like you are treated).
If the leaders you are working with don’t understand why you have chosen to organize, or doubt the sincerity of your reasons, they will look for other reasons for you being here and assume that there are hidden motivations that will come with hidden costs for them. They’ll ask the question, “Why should I risk a relationship with you if this is just a job for you?” or worse, “Who the hell do you think you are, coming here with your guilt trip, and using us to make yourself feel better?”
Organizers have to recognize that we can be seen as an insult to the community that is being organized. An organizer is needed only in communities that have difficulty organizing themselves. An organizer who is in this work as a calling or vocation because it meets a deep and real need based out of the organizer’s own personal experiences is more likely to be accepted, because the “What’s in it for you?” will be easier to understand, appear less patronizing and not necessarily focused on the people being organized.
The self-interest of a target
When leaders are first learning about the notion of self-interest around a target, it can seem soft and touchy-feely. One of the places that this comes out is in Research Actions. In an initial Research Action with a person of power, we want to spend a significant part of the meeting getting to know the target and understand his or her self-interests. But sometimes new leaders react with confusion about why we waste so much time asking the target about himself (or herself), when we could either be telling the target what we want or explaining our problems to him or her.
People have the tendency to go into a meeting with a person of power to ask for help. If they anticipate resistance or confrontation, they often go in expecting to win with just a spiritual or moral mandate (We expect the target to do what we want because it is the right thing to do or because it’s what our faith tells us to do).
But that approach almost always fails. Remember the organizing principle – power respects power – and its corollary – power disrespects weakness. The world is a quid-pro-quo place (if I do this for you, what will you do for me?). Quid-pro-quo is the basis for every negotiation. Powerful people negotiate, while powerless people plead and accept. Knowing what matters to your target allows you to find the leverage to negotiate. If you actually win something simply because you asked for it, chances are you have somehow stumbled unintentionally on something that happens to be in the self-interest of the target anyway. You will be much stronger to have done that intentionally and additionally, it opens up the possibility of planning to gain something more in the future.
Expecting to win with just a spiritual or a moral mandate comes with other obstacles. If you walk into a meeting with a person of power and expect that target to share your spiritual or moral beliefs, you have failed to understand that the target may not feel God calling him or her to action in the same way we do. He may not see right and wrong in the same way you do. If he says no, your only recourse is to shame him publicly as someone who won’t do the right thing. But if he doesn’t see it in his self-interest to listen to us, he probably won’t see it as important to listen to the people we talk to when we try to shame him publicly. In that case, our actions and beliefs won’t change anything, no matter how important they are to us. The target will not see it in his self-interest to respond to us.
Everyone moves out of self-interest. One of the points to challenge people on is, “In whose self-interest are you operating out of, yours or someone else’s?”
A broad-based constituency, whether for a politician or a specific commercial brand or even an organization, can be formed by working with the constituency’s self-interest or by manipulating the constituency’s self-interest. One is ethical and the other is not.
- Oil companies don’t have huge economic power because they produce oil –
They have power because it is in my self-interest to buy oil. And honestly, I act like it is more in my self-interest to burn oil than have a clean environment, creating a real tension between things I hold important (my job, time and convenience vs. a future with a clean environment and diversification of species). This tension makes me really vulnerable to challenge or agitation about my choices.
- Nike doesn’t have huge economic power because it makes sneakers –
It has power because people feel it is in their self-interest to own those specific overpriced sneakers (manipulated through advertising and celebrity endorsements).
We need to work with our constituency’s self-interest rather that trying to get them to buy into ours. And as organizers we need to look to challenge them where we see inconsistencies between what they say is important and what their actions tell us really matters to them.
David McDowell is the Senior Organizer for the Southwest Organizing Project in Chicago. This paper is a personal reflection on self-interest authored by McDowell for the use of SWOP staff and other organizers, leaders and allies. It is a synthesis of concepts and ideas developed by many organizers over time. We absolutely encourage the free flow of ideas to advance the art of organizing, so feel free to reproduce this reflection for your own use. If you have a chance, please contact the author at the Southwest Organizing Project and let him know how you are using it.
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