Get Beyond Your Friends

George Lakey Feb 5, 2013

The mistake people in all sorts of situations make is to invite only their friends to a party, and then expect the group to grow far beyond that number automatically. It probably won’t. And nowhere is this more true than in an action group engaged in resistance work.

I’ve known predominately black groups, for instance, that had an interracial mission and became frustrated because they couldn’t attract significant white or Latino or Asian membership. I’ve known campaign-oriented anarchist groups that wanted to grow a movement including people of other politics and simply couldn’t draw them in, even though the issue was vital to the neighborhood or city. I’ve gotten stuck that way, too, and my best experiences of growth happened when I started out by negotiating with people outside my crowd, even while also inviting a few friends for skills or support.

Campus radicals are notorious for creating tight-knit groups of the like-minded, then wondering why other students who actually agree on the issue of the moment don’t want to join them. A developmental psychologist might point to how much insecurity young adults feel when trying out a new identity, and that they need their in-group to feel secure. Even if that’s the case, some campus activists want to play a bigger game — one that brings about bigger results, like divestment from fossil-fuel companies or from companies that profit from the occupation of Palestine.

Trading political correctness for diversity

Decades of shoddy anti-oppression work has instilled among many conscientious people a fear-of-doing-wrong that blocks them from the practice of diversity. Otherwise self-confident people can choke when it comes to hanging out in a relaxed way from people different from themselves. The result: fear of leaving their comfort zone and an inability to grow their groups.

Take the issue of motivation. The wrong assumption here is that the group will be stronger and more united if everyone has the same motivation — for example, to “smash the state.” We know from the history of the left that hundreds if not thousands of groups have split even though they have a high degree of ideological unity. The glue that holds groups together through hard times is not homogeneity; it’s diversity, just as ecologists tell us that diverse forests are more resilient than those with only one kind of tree.

Some activists are primarily moved by anger. The great community organizer Saul Alinsky looked for that in potential allies. Gandhi acknowledged and valued his own anger; some of his inner work seemed to channel his anger into more powerful organizing against the British Empire. Be sure to recruit some angry activists into your group, and check to see if they have any awareness of the upside and the downside of anger.

But often anger can become a substitute for thinking long and hard about strategy — about how to make the change. It’s as if people are content with expressing anger at ever-higher decibels, or asserting community with ever more equality, or just getting to feel superior to people who aren’t trying to save the world. Whether the real political structure will be affected by their group’s actions can seem almost beside the point.

Be sure to recruit at least some people who want to achieve the goal before you above all else. These pragmatists believe in figuring things out, setting realistic immediate and intermediate objectives, and changing a tactic if it’s not working.

A few weeks ago someone tried to recruit me into the movement against the prison-industrial complex. I was interested at first; members of my family have spent significant time in prison. For a decade I traveled for hours regularly to visit a son-in-law who had spent most of his life behind bars. So I’m angry, and I’m also a huggy-wuggy guy who builds community. A few weeks ago, however, I channeled the pragmatic motivation when approached by this recruiting acquaintance, and asked the strategy question. He didn’t have an answer.

Maybe the group you’ve started doesn’t have a strategy yet. The lack is not a reason to give up recruiting pragmatists, though, because maybe they would join in order to work with you on strategy. What you need is confidence that your group is willing to pay some attention to the strategizing it will take to achieve its goal.

Identifying pragmatic folks isn’t always easy because many of us move in a climate where the normal discourse is complaining: about Obama, drones, other activist groups, Fox News, whatever. Some pragmatists will hide by joining the prevailing conversation, even though they may feel weird because they know that complaining is usually an expression of powerlessness. Find out if in their lives they are complainers or mostly act with a sense of personal power.

Social circles: the blessing and the curse

Let me throw a bit of light on that “prevailing conversation” phenomenon.

We can look at a city or town or college or rural area and see the usual set of identities at play: race, class, gender, age, sexual orientation, educational attainment, roots, religion. Strong social movements, however, usually grow among and around these, rallying not just the obvious groupings but also less obvious ones, too: the social circles.

Imagine that a campus group starts up to focus on a prominent issue that most students care about — say, projected tuition increases. The group grows for a while, then stops growing. When flyering, group members see other students hurry by even though, in any poll, those running off to the gym or library would report that they care deeply about how they (or their little sister or brother) will access higher education. What’s going on?

One-on-one recruiting for the campus group probably stopped at the border of its social circle.

The students inside the circle have already been approached; those who want to join have done so, and very few from outside the circle venture in.

A campus (or city or village) is composed of social circles — sets of people with various kinds of identities but who relate to each other more than they relate to others. Think of a high school with “the jocks,” “the theater crowd,” “the nerds” and so on. It’s not only an activity or hobby that defines a social circle, it can be “those who read The New Yorker” or “those who support National Public Radio” or “those who follow the latest rock bands.”

What happened to the prototypical campus group I described is that the initiators reached out to those in their social circle, recruited those who were available, and then stopped recruiting in a one-on-one way, concluding that their group now consists of all the students who care deeply about this issue.

Not so. It only means that the initiators reached the boundary of their social circle.

The most dramatic example of this phenomenon that I can remember happened during the U.S. movement against the war in Vietnam. To their credit, college students were among the initiators of a mass movement. They recruited from their campuses to the boundaries of their social circles and, sometimes, to adjoining social circles. Although on most campuses the anti-war activists were a minority of the student body, when added up the students comprised an impressive movement.

Some students knew, though, that to force the U.S. Empire to give up the war in Vietnam (and Laos and Cambodia) required a more massive movement. But they often didn’t know where to recruit.

In fact, the demographic in the United States with the highest percentage opposed to the war was adults who had not finished high school! This completely contradicted the classist assumption of the students that awareness of the wrongness of war (or anything else) is a function of educational attainment. The reality was that college-educated people (not to mention those with advanced degrees) were far more likely to support the war than those who had high school degrees or less. Seeing through the bad policies of the 1 percent is not something highly schooled people are generally good at.

At the time, I heard any number of college-educated activists bemoan “the lack of working class interest” in the anti-war movement. They were not only acknowledging how bounded they were by their class bubble, but were also unaware that there was a lively fight within the labor movement to assert an anti-war position.

We don’t have to make that mistake now, for instance, with the climate movement trying to confront the catastrophes around us that are impacting people of all stripes. But first we have to recognize the circles that circumscribe our organizing, their limits and how to reach beyond them.

This article was originally published on

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