Herding Cats 5: When In Doubt: Organize!
Yet, as I write today, nearly eight years after Measure 58’s victory, the movement has stalled. Many of the activists prominent in the adoption records reform movement in those heady days have burnt out and left. Those that remain no longer project the optimism prevalent during and after Measure 58, when we talked of reaching a “tipping point” when state after state would repeal their sealed records laws. Today activists spend most of their energies working to defeat bad new bills, such as the panoply of horrors in Maine, Massachusetts and Connecticut in the last legislative season. There is no new cadre of activist-leaders in either the AAC or BN infusing these organizations with new ideas and vigor. If anything, the tipping point on which we are now poised is one that may lean toward more reprehensible obstacles to adoptee access to their birth records, with more draconian and intrusive violations of adoptee rights. Why did this happen and what must be done to arrest this regressive slide? Part of the answer (for the question is more complicated than can be answered in one essay by one observer) is contained by the problematic of activism itself, and this is what I will write about in this section.
Activism is by definition a self-directed vocation. People become activists because they see a problem and want to take action to solve it. They, and then their cause, become identified with the actions they choose to initiate. The original founders of Bastard Nation were quintessential activists; they perceived that the strategies of the AAC and other adoption reform groups were either unsuccessful or seriously flawed when they did achieve some success and began a series of actions to change the conditions of adoption politics in the US. These actions were not new; confrontation, demonstrations, subversive humor, letter writing campaigns, exploiting opportunities such as the positive picketing of the film “Secrets and Lies”, these were all tried-and-true activists tactics. The philosophy at the time was similar to the catch-phrase from “Field of Dreams” – “If you build it they will come…”, in other words, if we demonstrated our ability as activists to disrupt, change and eventually, in Oregon, to prevail, then the mass of adoptees would either join us or ally themselves with our actions. This never happened. BN membership stayed relatively small, and new leaders developed slowly and not in numbers large enough to take over from the activists who opted to retire from the field. Actions such as Adoptee Rights Day never resonated with the mass of adoptees, and as a result, were unsuccessful. Ironically BN became a hostage to its success, by manipulating the discourse of adoption politics and thus achieving a “seat at the table”, respectability of a sort, BN ceded it’s oppositional posture and it’s power to disrupt. It suffered many of the drawbacks without being able to enjoy the fruits of its maturity.
I’ve written that BN was originally modeled, consciously or not, as a revolutionary vanguard cadre. A small group of leaders, including but not limited to the BN ExecCom, made all strategic and tactical decisions and handed them down to members and supporters. There was never any illusion that BN was a democracy, and it’s ability to move quickly and decisively in different parts of the country was predicated on the leadership’s ability to initiate actions with few restraints. Commitment to the BN Mission, energy, audacity and confrontation were rewarded, if you possessed these you could become a BN leader in short order. This could serve as a picture perfect illustration of activism, and the organizational decline of BN over the last few years could also serve as a cautionary illustration in the drawbacks of activism cut off from an equally important grassroots tool, community organizing.
Activism, in its pure form, is based on actions; community organizing is founded on creating a base of support that can be mobilized. Both are action-centered, but activism proceeds from the philosophy that action creates the leaders while community organizing is predicated on democratic principles first and foremost, and posits that actions and leaders must come from and be supported by an organized mass from the community effected by the actions. The difference between an “activist” and an “organizer” can be explained by example; an activist initiates, takes credit for, and ultimately profits (if only by reputation) from an action while a community organizer facilitates, positions community members to take credit for, and ultimately remains invisible in an action. Activists are only interested in a base of support when it supports actions they’ve decided are legitimate, organizers are only interested in actions that have been legitimized by their base of support. Perhaps the most significant difference in terms of the discussion on adoption rights politics is that activists are accountable only to themselves while organizers are ultimately responsible to the community they are organizing. Activists are legitimized by action, organizers are legitimized by their base.
Of course, purity is in reality rare, and in fact undesirable. Successful community organizers utilize a hybridized activist/organizer model, by turn provoking and differing to their base in the community. Indeed, BN’s evolution from pure activism to its present state was triggered by a realization that pure activism was unsustainable (there may be some argument about this, but for the sake of this discussion I’ll stand by this assessment). BN has democractized its structure, creating elections for ExecCom positions. But BN has never embraced or sought to learn the disciplines of community organizing, and resists overtures to do so. As far as I know the AAC has the same basic dynamic in play, I see no attempts by the AAC to organize a substantial base in the adoption community, and their legislative strategy seems based on the self-selected activism of individuals in various states to initiate state legislative campaigns.
The problem with this model has been demonstrated for decades in these state legislative campaigns. A small group of dedicated legislative activists manage to gain the ear of a sympathetic legislator. A bill is created and referred to committee where it languishes, or worse, is encumbered by disagreeable language and mutates in to something no longer supportable. Compromises are prepared and offered, but the bills slip further and further from the goal of unrestricted adoptee access. What has happened in statehouse after statehouse is a demonstration of the limited power of activism to achieve legislative success. Activism divorced from organizing may possess enough power to engage a legislator and produce a bill, but once the process of negotiation (for legislation is a negotiation) begins, activism alone doesn’t possess the power to enforce its will on recalcitrant legislators. It’s a truism that you can’t win in negotiation what you can’t win on the battlefield (I just read that in Balzac, and he attributes it to Napoleon) and this truism is borne out in statehouses from Maine to California. The question becomes why even bother to present bills in states like New Jersey, where activists have toiled for twenty-plus years, and have never come close to getting a bill through committee, and where a floor vote would provide an embarrassing defeat anyway.
I believe Helen Hill intuitively grasped this fundamental problematic during the Measure 58 campaign, and attempted to inject her campaign with elements of community organizing. Unfortunately, leading a statewide election campaign is the wrong place to learn the organizing skills in any but the most expedient manner. Even so, Measure 58 represents adoption reform’s sole community organizing victory at the same time that it stands as a symbol of adoptee activism. 600,000 Oregonians were mobilized to vote for adoptee rights and subsequent attempts by the Oregon legislature to tamper with Measure 58 were tempered by the fact that adoptee rights had a demonstrable mass base of support. None of the state legislators had a support base of voters even a tenth the size of Measure 58. Few in the state executive branch could boast they had won 56% of the electoral vote. Compared with this base, widespread and consistent regardless of demographics, legislators in California to Maine have nothing to fear or contemplate in regarding adoptee rights beyond their prejudices and personal opinions. The states that have seen successful legislative campaigns, Alabama and New Hampshire (and I would argue Tennessee belongs in this category as well), were the result of the engaged personal efforts by legislative leaders who personally shepherded bills to enactment, in other words, they were the product of the inside game.
We don’t have enough insiders in enough states for the successes of Alabama, Tennessee and New Hampshire to be our primary strategic models. And even these successes are vulnerable, there is little to impede a reactionary movement to retrench open records laws in these states at some not too distant time. Without a demonstrable base of support the open records laws in Alabama and New Hampshire could be repealed or altered significantly by legislative leaders equally as motivated as our supporters but instead guided and supported by the NCFA. Whatever state groups organized to support the original campaigns for the open records laws have subsequently evaporated, and in main have not maintained relationships in their statehouses (again I must applaud Janet Allen in New Hampshire, who remains a state legislator in New Hampshire).
So, what’s the key to building and maintaining a base of support for adoptee rights? I believe that we must create a new national organization based on the model of community organizing described by Saul Alinsky. This organization must be dedicated to building a democratically determined leadership and a democratically supported Mission and strategy. Here is what I propose. Initially we must put together a small team that will hammer out a three-year strategic plan including a vigorous fundraising and membership component. This team will act as an executive branch and organizational board until a national meeting during the second year will elect a board of directors, after which the executives shall serve at the pleasure of the Board and the Board will take over the tasks of determining broad strategic goals and preserving and protecting the Mission. The three-year plan needs to allow for paid positions with a priority given to full-time paid organizers. Without the resources to devote full time to organizing, there will be no significant base created to support adoptee rights. I believe that there is a potential base of financial support for this effort, it may take fund-raising contractors to fully realize this goal. I think it’s reasonable to expect that the position of Executive Director for this new organization should be compensated, but that should be secondary to supporting the organizing team.
One of the basic tenets of community organizing is that change is incremental. This has been anathema to activists in Bastard Nation, because incremental open records legislation has often been horribly compromised. But the strategy of a one-pointed focus on enacting access-for-all adoptee rights bills has been like attempting to hit a home run every time one gets a turn at the plate. Classic organizing starts with small achievable campaigns, such as getting a stop sign placed at a dangerous intersection, and then moves on to bigger issues. I feel the same strategy could be utilized in adoption reform, where relationships developed in campaigns to, say, increase the information released in non-identifying information requests could build to full open records legislation without compromising adoptee rights. This could also mean allying with international or Native American adoptee groups in their efforts to reform the laws governing their lives. Strategies should be fluid and based on relationship building rather than strictly ideological, while maintaining principled adherence to adoptee rights.
At the end of three years the organization should either be able to demonstrate that it has achieved its objectives and goals or it should fold its tent. Simply perpetuating itself should not be an option. The benefit of hiring organizers rather than depending on volunteers is that accountability can be enforced, if reasonable goals aren’t met, then staff can be terminated. It’s much more difficult to get rid of eager inefficient volunteers, not to mention neurotically destructive or the plainly mentally unbalanced folks who have a good personal reason for having inordinate amounts of time to devote to a cause.
A third national organization in the field of adoption political reform will probably be greeted with a mix of support and suspicion (if not hostility) from BN and the AAC. As much as we like to give lip service to the laudable benefits of competition, nobody welcomes it. But I think that the organization I have envisioned will actually supplement rather than compete with BN and the AAC. BN can still train and field adoptee rights activists, that’s what it does best. The AAC can still provide education and support of openness in adoption, or whatever its Mission describes as its function, free of the unsupportable weight of legislative activism. I can foresee a shared membership among the three groups. But the bottom line is this, the two existing national adoption reform groups are foundering, and a new way must emerge. Let’s get going…