People, Power, Change – An Insightful Learning Session with Professor Marshall Ganz, Harvard Kennedy School

Understanding doesn’t precede action. It flows from action - Marshall Ganz, Harvard Kennedy School

Last week, I attended the Haiyya Community Organising Festival, a meet-up for social change leaders to share and learn about community organizing models.

 It was incredibly insightful to attend the public lecture by Prof. Marshall Ganz who prior to this talk I only knew in context of his title as a Senior Lecturer in Leadership, Organising, and Civil Society at the Harvard Kennedy School.

 It was remarkable to hear his story as a Harvard undergraduate in 1960’s who left without graduating to volunteer with the Mississippi Summer Project (voting rights for Afro-American voters), spent decades with the California farm and was instrumental in the grassroots organisation for the 2008 Obama for president campaign.

 As he delivered his lecture on ‘People, Power, and Change: Organising for Democratic Renewal’, it was evident that he has a unique perspective that draws its strength equally from his grassroots’ experiences and academic engagement.

 Here are some of his key ideas that I found most powerful –

 On Leadership – understanding self, understanding others and translating that understanding into action

 Prof Marshall spoke about how the word leadership has as many meanings as the number of people who use the word. He shared 3 key questions asked by 1st century Jerusalem scholar, Rabbi Hillel that offer an interesting framework on life purpose and leadership to him:

  1. If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
  2. If I am for myself alone, what am I?
  3. If not now, when?

 What I understood from 1. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” is the need for self-awareness, of being in touch with your authentic self, beyond conditioning and social expectations – what are the values that truly matter to you as a person. 2. If I am for myself alone, what am I? is recognizing the interrelation of the ‘I’ with the rest of the world, what makes us living beings and not objects is how we are inextricably linked with one another and how we contribute to this larger world outside and 3. If not now, when? is about inculcating an action orientation and not being struck by analysis paralysis. I loved how Prof Marshall framed it – “rarely can we begin to learn what we need to learn without action. Understanding doesn’t precede action, it flows from the action.”

On Leadership – Hands, Head and Heart

 Leadership isn’t a title, a position or a personality, it is practice. It is a way of doing things and engaging with others.

 It is about the creative and adaptive actions required when faced with challenges, dilemmas, contradictions and surprises.

 Prof. Marshall spoke about how challenging situations require leaders to apply the necessary skills (“a challenge to the hands”), to answer how do I turn my resources into capacity I need (“a strategic challenge to the head”) and finally how do I inspire the hope and courage in others to take risks to deal with the challenge (“a challenge to the heart”)

On Organising

 I loved what Prof Marshall said about organizing – it’s not about marketing products to customers or even about advocating for others. It is about “enabling others to advocate for themselves”.

 Often enough in focusing on the issue at hand, we miss focusing on people. Prof Marshall emphasized the centrality of people in organizing   - “as both resources and beneficiaries, as people with agency to make individual and collective choice, to shape their own destinies.” He shared how the word “constituency” comes from a Latin word that means “stand together” and therefore the key meaning of organizing lies in “bringing people together, to stand together, to learn together, to decide together, act together, and hopefully win together.”

Organizing, he emphasized, begins not by asking what is the issue but in understanding –

  • Who are the people?
  • What is the change they need – their experiences and pain points
  • How can I work with them to translate their resources into the power they need to achieve that change?

 Another important idea that he shared was to stop engaging with the community in terms of “deficit” and a mindset of how to “compensate” for what’s missing. I resonate with this idea of energising with the agency that the community holds together and in each of its constituents and focusing on supporting and enable their “richness”.

 On Power

 “If you need what I've got more than I need what you've got who's got the power?”

 Prof. Marshall spoke about how power is not an absolute thing that anybody has but “a relationship of interdependence”.

 His argument about power as something you engage with and create took me back to one of my most favourite essays in college days by French post-modernist Michel Foucault on “Truth and Power”. Foucault speaks about power not as coercive or restricted to a dominant group but in fact dispersed and pervasive; power is everywhere and is in constant mode of flux and negotiation.

On Outcomes

Prof Marshall highlighted that we often get so obsessed with campaigns that we often forget the real purpose of the campaign to create new power in places it hasn’t existed previously. So apart from looking at did we achieve our goal – e.g. get the legislation passed, we need to reflect on if there was an indent made on the power imbalance, “did we come out of this stronger than we went into it?” Success needs to be seen in terms of capacity building, in the depth and distribution of leadership that can sustain that movement. “It is not one star illuminating everyone, but rather it is many people with their own light illuminating each other.”

 On Leadership Framework for Organising

Prof Marshall shared an interesting framework to think about leadership in context of organizing:

 In a ‘disorganization’ there are certain behaviors that manifest in it’s functioning (or disfunctioning!) - there are divided factions (division), people don’t show up (apathy), there is little initiative (reactive), status quo prevails (inertia) and there is a lack of purpose (drift).

 On the other hand, in an ‘organisation’ – people find ways to accept disagreements constructively and work together (unity), are energized (motivation), are driven (initiative), there is momentum (change) and there is purpose.

Source: Professor Marshall Ganz at Haiyya Organising Festival

 What helps seed an ‘Organisation’? It is particular leadership practices that lead to a shift to a positive, productive and effective organisation which include:

  • Relation building (for unity)
  • Storytelling (for motivation)
  • Strategizing (for initiative)
  • Actioning (for change)
  • Structuring (for purpose)

 There were some interesting points that Prof Marshall shared to explain the workings behind each of these practices:

  1. Relationship building - think of relationships in terms of exchange of interests and resources. People in a relationship don’t have to be exactly like one other but they can complement one another in sharing or exchanging their interests and resources. It’s however not enough to have the exchange, what’s required is the commitment for it’s commitment that gives the relationship a future. Professor Marshall spoke about how the Internet is great as an exchange and hence easy to galvanise online communities but it’s much more challenging to create a real commitment. It is the shared values that give the energy to make the commitment
  2. Storytelling – translating those shared values into emotional capacity for courage and solidarity is the work done by storytelling. It is speaking the language of emotion and in Professor Marshall’s words, “speak this language in a way that encourages hope over fear, solidarity over isolation, and a sense of self -worth over self -doubt.” Narrative as he explained is telling a real story, a shared story and translating that into a moment of urgency and hope and outlining clearly the set of actions required to respond to the challenge
  3. Strategizing - according to Prof Marshall, strategy is often inflated and made to sound complicated to exercise control and at heart strategy is simply about “how to turn what you have into what you need to get what you want”. He shared a very interesting origin story for the words strategy and tactics, which come from the Greek, words Strategos (General) and Takitos (Rank Soldiers). Strategos would stand on a higher plane, overlooking the whole field and come up with the war plan while the rank soldiers stood in the valley executing those plans. Both are of value to know the truth – the big-picture and the ringside view and both can be rendered useless in the other’s absence

Source: Professor Marshall Ganz at Haiyya Organising Festival

  1. Actioning - Breaking inertia is about creating urgency and creating urgency is key to driving change through action (something that is deeply required in the current climate crisis). The other way inertia gets broken is through anger – when there is an expression of dissonance in the gap between the real world and our expectations based on shared values (example George Floyd in US or Nirbhaya case in India)
  2. Structuring – this is often seen with a negative connotation - as a constrain, as a restriction to autonomy but it represents an agreement on how the group with work together, make key decisions, achieve its said outcomes, be accountable. In it’s absence, things can quickly devolve into chaos.

Other key ideas

  • Investing in developing leaders is not a one-off activity but a continuous pursuit to be able to build collaborative and distributed leadership
  • Practice of sustained learning is crucial to stay in touch with the changing times and not become obsolete or continue to reinvent the past. Also failure is source of learning and fear of failure means risking not learning anything
  • Difference between fixed mindset (experiencing critical feedback as judging) vs. growth mindset (experiencing critical feedback as information)

It was extremely elevating to hear Professor Marshall whose perspective was so very rich in every dimension – academic, relational, experiential and I would say spiritual. His ideas are of great value to grassroot leaders seeking to build, strengthen and sustain social movements to drive on-ground impact.






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