oh, you mean organizing skills!: activism as management metaphor

Long before I ever imagined becoming a librarian, I was an activist, and being an activist, as it turns out, has taught me how to be a librarian — or more precisely, perhaps, how to be a manager librarian.

Like many people, I had to take a required management class in library school. I loathed this class. I loathed it from day one, when the adjunct professor started talking about Dilbert and reading Peter Drucker to us. I did not go into librarianship in order to make a profit. I did not go into librarianship in order to talk about Who Moved My Cheese?. I did not go into librarianship in order to bandy about terms like “human resources.” (I quote the great Utah Phillips: “You’re about to be told one more time that you are America’s most valuable natural resource. Don’t ever let anyone call you a valuable natural resource? Have you seen what they do to valuable natural resources in this country? Have you seen a strip mine? Have you seen a clearcut in the forest? Have you seen a polluted river?”)

They stuff they teach in management courses doesn’t resonate with me. It makes me ill. And I’m guessing I’m not alone. I think a lot of us went into librarianship because we didn’t want to participate in the market economy (and then, of course, we discovered database licensing and realized we were screwed on that point, but that’s another matter for another time). We may have made our peace with the fact that we do have to buy and process things in order to share them with our communities, but damned if we’re going to start saying utilize for use or making everyone read Good to Great or idolizing the Starbucks corporate model.

I talk about the reader’s advisory approach to life a lot (to the point that I was sure I’d written a blog post about it, but apparently I haven’t). If you do any reader’s advisory, you know that the first premise is that “x is a great book!” is a very unhelpful way to help people figure out what to read next. You have to figure out what they’re looking for in a book, what appeals to them, and try to find things that line up with that. It’s a refreshing approach to literature if you’re coming out of academia (and particularly out of a writing program). I try, then, to extend that idea as much as possible to the rest of life. If one set of metaphors doesn’t work for me, or one activity, can I find something that will?

And that’s when I hit on it: every skill I needed as a library manager was something that I’d actually learned as an activist and organizer.

I attended my first political meeting at age fourteen, in August of 1990. Saddam Hussein had invaded a country called Kuwait, which I’d known until then only as one of those tiny places in the Middle East — a place the New York Times described as “a family-owned oil company with a flag.” The United States was pondering intervention, and I was opposed to the idea, so when my friend called and said there was a meeting about it at the university that night, and did I want to go, I said sure.

In high school I protested a war, I helped defend an abortion clinic, I marched against the Ku Klux Klan. I wrote letters to editors and Congressmen. I sat at tables and sold buttons, and I stood on street corners and handed out leaflets. I worked as a marshal at marches, wearing a white armband and walking along the edge of the crowd to help keep things moving and to help prevent fights with hecklers. I went to lectures and read newspaper articles. I watched the vote to authorize the use of force in the Gulf on my friend’s television on January 15, 1991, and I listened to Neal Conan reporting about the start of the ground war on my Walkman while at a meeting at Schaeffer Hall a month later. And I went to a lot of meetings.

I went to tiny meetings like that first one, eight or so people in a room trying to take an amorphous idea, a feeling, and turn it into a movement with a name and a purpose. I went to bigger meetings where we argued about points of unity. I went to meetings where we made signs (the cement floor of North Hall, the sound of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and  the scent of permanent markers will be forever wedded in my memory). I went to meetings where we planned teach-ins and meetings where we planned actions.

I’m 35 years old now, and off and on for twenty years I’ve been spending part of my time this way — as an antiwar activist and later as an anti-sweatshop and labor rights activist. That activism has taught me skills — how to plan an event, how to write a press release, how to engage people, how to speak in public, how to listen to people and how to talk to them — and it’s given me lifelong friends, and it has, perhaps more than anything I’ve ever done, made me who I am.

There are, I suppose, other ways to learn to deal with disappointment and rejection and failure. There are other ways to learn to find your voice, other ways to learn to wade through bureaucracy (getting money into and out of the UI Students Against Sweatshops student business office account at the University makes any budget cycle irregularity I have dealt with since seem simple), other ways to figure out how to inspire people to join a cause or to work together. But I learned all these things — all of which are crucial to my day-to-day work — not from any management guru, but from my comrades.

When I hear people talking about leadership and project management and teamwork, I often think I have no clue what they mean, and that these are skills I totally lack. Then I start to think about it, and I realize oh no, I do know. They mean organizing. And that? That I do know how to do.

So when people ask for my favorite management book, I say Rules for Radicals. When they want to know where I look for examples and inspiration, I say the Civil Rights Movement (and I mean the real stories, not just the Rosa Parks sat on a bus and Martin Luther King had a dream and now everything’s hunky-dory version — read the accounts of organizing the Montgomery bus boycott, and you’ll learn a lot about working with other people).

7 comments

  1. your mom

    so of course I clicked on the book link. And of course from Worldcat library holdings to “buy it”. Amazon will sell someone (not me) a new hardcover copy for $363. I may have to go to a library.

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  3. Jenny Reiswig

    I just ran across this post today and wow, yes! I think one of the most striking things about managing activist style is you have to really believe that the other people there are on the same team as you and basically want the same things you do for the organization. Kind of the opposite of the corporate model where you have to try to convince lazy people to do what you want by dangling carrots. Or cheese. It’s radical trust. And I think librarianship is a GREAT place for that model because you’re exactly right. Most people don’t go into librarianship for the profit. They go for the values and stay for the community. Excellent post.

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  • 13 July 2011 at 5:20 pm laura x
    A post I've been planning for a long, long time.
  • 13 July 2011 at 5:45 pm Catherine Pellegrino
    Co-worker at MFPOW's library development office: "hey, you're really starting to talk like a development person!" Me: "No, actually, I'm talking like a labor organizer."
  • 13 July 2011 at 8:14 pm Melissa M
    Yes! Great post. I've never read "Rules for Radicals," but I recently read "Freedom Summer" by Bruce Watson, and there's lots in there for the combination manager/organizer.