Marianne Manilov: Grassroots Organising and Looking After Yourself
This week in our Inspiring Disruptors interview series, Alanna talks to Marianne Manilov – a grassroots organizer, media strategist and writer and cofounder of The Engage Network. Manilov’s 20-plus year career included running campaigns and programs for groups such as Amnesty International, Greenpeace International and recently helping to organise Wal-Mart workers to stand up for better rights. She is also the co-founder and former Executive Director of The Center for Commercial-Free Public Education.
In what way did Occupy change organising for you?
There were big differences for me between studying distributed circles of people organising from afar, and then actually experiencing it firsthand in New York. It was enormous to watch it live, and the learnings I took from that will influence my organising for the rest of my life – especially the parts that didn’t work. There was sometimes a tension between the parts that did and didn’t work, and occasional violent events in the park, yet still hundreds got fed every day. Just like real life.
I learned a lot about about community of care – Occupy fed people and had libraries and medics. Occupy showed that you can do some things coming from care. There is a lot of fear about care at scale – we’ve seen this in the Wal-Mart work. We used the model of holding small circles and distributed organising in working with Wal-Mart employees, which helped develop the structures that allowed co-creativity. Quite Occupy-esque.
What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of Occupy?
There is strength in co-creativity and the fact that anyone can start a small circle. So small and local can build up to really big, huge impact results.
A weakness was that everywhere the Occupy movements were following one model. There was some reflecting of corporate culture and structures, and mirroring it rather than differentiating. For example, everyone set up in parks, with a kitchen. Maybe that wasn’t necessarily the best thing for everyone to do. Because there is no longer a big glaringly obvious presence in the park, there is a misconception that Occupy has died. As the movement grows, General Assemblies may not be for everyone. We’re seeing diversification of Occupy in OccupyOurHomes and OccupyStudentDebt. There is strength in the diversity and the ability to respond to local needs, and come up with unique solutions that are best for each situation, while at the same time sharing a common identity.
Occupy hasn’t died down. It has diversified. It’s going through its natural life cycle. I’m more interested in the permaculture practice of Occupy.
What is the role of media and technology? And the interplay between the online and the offiline?
Throughout these change movements, we’re seeing a move from broadcast media to people media.
People on the ground respond faster and with more flexibility. We’re in a time of co-creation. People-led movements are what’s coming – flat organising, small circles. At Occupy, people on the ground were really important, people who were just learning about media.
Technology is great for reflecting and helping people to organise. It has increased the ability of people to find common interests. But there is always a need for a field team on the ground taking live action. Without something on the ground, it’s a different approach – you need an interplay between both.
What I like that about Loomio is that it feels like a meeting. Anyone has the ability to put out a question, and it’s also like a note-taker at the same time. At General Assembly, inherently there is a bias towards people who talk more, speak English, who are male, who are like myself from New York who are able to interrupt and are more aggressive verbally – whereas with Loomio it’s a little bit different and levels the playing field.
What is needed to collectively practice the skill of everyday democracy?
On one level, the ability to participate in democracy is linked to needs. Sometimes the movement is too positioned towards direct action – in that way it’s not accessible to people in poverty. With the Wal-Mart groups, we have done a lot of appreciation and positive feedback as a community – for some people, it was the first time someone had ever considered them a leader.
I think that some people feel like they don’t have a voice. The first practice of democracy is the encouragement in a circle, a network, a community that everyone has a voice, and making sure that people are told that they are valuable over and over again until they can see that for themselves.
You’ve talked about the very human importance of love in your work. How do you bring love into organizing and movement building?
Within any social movement, there will be the people who post on Facebook, the people who cook for everyone, the people who do daycare – it’s about naming the differences and valuing everyone at an equal level.
Within organisations, people reaching out over blocks brings people closer together. In real movements, work life and family life become one. But people get afraid that if they bring their whole selves, it will get in the way of getting ‘the goal’ or the ‘real work’ done. We need a balance between community and goals.
Too much community without goals is what you had sometimes at Occupy. Too much focus on goals and leadership without community characterizes the non-profit industrial complex, which really doesn’t get much done. The right balance is defined differently by every village, and every movement.
Can you speak to the connection between internal self-care or looking after yourself and external work looking after others?
Organising is relationship-building, and relationship-building is based in our ability to put aside our fear and love more deeply. And that’s not easy.
There will always be relationship breakdowns, so it’s a good skill to have to be the bridge rather than part of the breakdown. Working on yourself will make you a better relationship builder.
We’re on cusp of big world change, which I am feeling physically. I’ve been deepening my practice, doing more yoga and meditation.
People in the meditation and yoga fields who are afraid to take action, they need to break through and get over that. And for people who are live in action, saying they don’t have time to do deep work, they need to get over that too.
For me personally, learning to look after myself was a means of protection while growing up in challenging situations. You learn not to be afraid to sit with people who are in pain, to just be with them. I try to see the best in people, and be the voice who sees love, both intra- and inter-organisationally.
A question to ask yourself is: “Are we bonding over everything that’s broken and everyone who is messed up, or are we trying to move forward in broken systems?”
What is your advice for people who want to help make positive change but don’t know where to start?
Don’t think that a small team of people can’t do anything. Take one thing, figure out what is really your calling, and do that thing well in a sustained manner. There is going to be a moment in the global movement – be enough in touch with your inner voice to recognize that moment and stand up. I think everyone is called differently on that.
The most important thing is to just begin something. There is greatness in beginning a practice, and seeing where that leads. Be ready to act. The wave is here. If people move with it, it is rising and it will break. Some people are like, “Oh I don’t know, I don’t have time….” A group of seven mums with three hours a week can do something!
How do you deal with uncertainty or doubt when you’re getting tired out, and feel like it’s all too massive?
Take a break. After 27 years, I believe in my body. I want to know where something lands in my body. There’s this idea that we have to sacrifice everything for every moment, and I think you have to be really careful and listen to your body on that.
I know now where my boundary is on financial stability. If I can’t believe in sustainability for myself, what about others who are under even more financial strain? Who am I locking out because it’s not sustainable?
You definitely don’t want to be in that position where everyone’s exhausted. You should be looking at how you rest more and how are you going to take care of yourselves. When it comes down to it, try not to be too attached to the outcome. Don’t set yourself up to think that you’ve failed if you don’t get the outcome you are after.
Sometimes there are iterations. Was Occupy a success? It was an iteration of something that’s going to be enormously successful.
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