How Small Groups Can Power Big Change

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YES! Magazine

How Small Groups Can Power Big Change

As a general rule, as communities grow, they lose social cohesion. There is a tricky tension between growing a group and a maintaining sense of personal belonging for members.

Like other voluntary associations, social movements struggle with this. But we can learn important lessons from the places that have figured it out—even from unlikely places like Saddleback “megachurch” in Orange County, CA.

Over 20,000 people attend Sunday worship at Saddleback, and yet members experience a strong, deep sense of belonging. That’s because Pastor Rick Warren has created “a church out of a network of lots of little church cells—exclusive, tightly knit groups of six or seven who meet in one another’s homes during the week to worship and pray.”

In other words, the secret is small groups.

Progressive social movements don’t often take inspiration from conservative megachurches. But the lessons about organizational structure may be worth a second look. (Hat tip to Dave Pollard for pointing this out.)

Say a new activist works up the courage to attend a forum or rally. She may find herself part of a large, anonymous crowd. Of course, it is essential to provide such open spaces for people to join the movement, and it’s essential that we make them welcoming and inviting (like a Sunday worship service). But people don’t stay deeply involved with a movement for long if they don’t make connections with others.

People don’t stay deeply involved with a movement for long if they don’t make connections with others.

So we should ask: within our movements, are there opportunities to join a small, closely knit group? The group that will become your glue to the overall movement? That is structured not just for work, but for support and community?

Historically, this small group has been called the “affinity group.” The term can be traced back to the Spanish Revolution of the 19th century. In congregations, it’s called “small group ministry.” In the women’s movement in the 70s, small groups were called “consciousness raising groups.” Call it what you want, but the basic concept is the same: you’re human, so you need support and connection. You won’t really stick with a church or a movement that fails to provide these things.

Affinity Groups in Social Movements

Not all affinity groups are meant to last for the long haul. Some form to prepare for a single direct action and disband afterwards. But this structure is worth noting too: how much easier would it be for new activists to take part in direct action if they were supported by 5 or 10 others who were looking out for them?

Certain direct actions have required participants to be part of an affinity group. “To sign the ‘Pledge of Resistance’ against US invasion of Nicaragua in 1983, you had to join an affinity group,” recalls organizer Dakota Butterfield. “Signing the Pledge meant either risking arrest or supporting those who were risking it. That’s not something that should be undertaken as an isolated person.”

Some of the affinity groups whose members signed the Pledge of Resistance had formed in other movements: feminist, LGBT, religious, or anti-war. Some were from the anti-nuclear Clamshell Alliance, another movement that very successfully leveraged the involvement of affinity groups. This points to an important historical difference between now and the early 80s, when affinity groups were part of many movements. These groups could easily shift to new issues as the times changed.

"... a spokescouncil structure based on small groups embodies the participatory kind of society we’re fighting for in the first place."

Affinity groups do continue to meet today. Morrigan Phillips is part of one in Boston that is focused on preventing cuts to public transportation. “We’re a little group of seven people who can respond to calls for action,” she says. “When there’s a rally or protest, we get together to make signs. We go to the rally together. It’s way more fun than going alone.”

Morrigan was also part of affinity groups during the big anti-globalization actions of the 2000s in Washington, DC. “I was part of one that met for years,” she says. “The anti-World Bank actions were deliberately based on the idea that activists should be in affinity groups. There was a structure of coordinated groups, rather than individuals.”

Creating a Participatory Structure

In some cases, affinity groups are the basis of the decision-making structure for a campaign or movement as a whole. For example, during the Pledge of Resistance, each group sent a “spokes” (spokesperson) to council meetings. These meetings used consensus to make decisions for the whole.

"Part of our work was educating people on the consensus process,” explains Dakota. “Consensus doesn’t mean unanimity. People had to understand that to ‘block’ something, you must be truly unable to let the group adopt the decision because of a deep, principled objection.”

"If we somehow won all of our political goals, but still couldn’t figure out how to live in community, what have we really accomplished?"

Affinity groups themselves often operate using consensus. “That’s where the learning really happens,” says Dakota. “The close relationships in the small group encourage personal reflection. You have to really wonder, ‘Why am I blocking this?’ And you discover motivations and concerns you may not have known you had.”

Importantly, a spokescouncil structure based on small groups embodies the participatory kind of society we’re fighting for in the first place. As War Resisters’ International puts it, “affinity groups and spokescouncils challenge top-down, power-over decision-making and organising and empower those involved to take direct action.”

The Organizing Challenge

As a nation, we seem to be constantly better at keeping each other at a distance. That means we aren’t so good at the skills required to live in community and use consensus: real listening, compromise, self-awareness, personal reflection. “We don’t have a cultural norm of spending the time with each other,” says Dakota. “We participate in things, even in social movements, as individuals rather than in connection with others."

In this context, it’s radical simply to try and make connections with each other—to get closer rather than farther apart. Because moving in this direction is radical, it can be hard.

But we ignore the small group dimension of organizing at great peril. If we somehow won all of our political goals, but still couldn’t figure out how to live in community, what have we really accomplished?

Our communities will continue to be challenged by the unfolding times; by the housing crisis, cuts to services like public transportation, job market instability. As we rebuild our community and consensus-making muscles, we’re better equipped to deal with all of this as it hits our own backyards. For all these reasons and more, it’s time to form an affinity group.

For information about forming affinity groups download these free PDF resources: What is an Affinity Group?, 5 Tips for Forming an Affinity Group, A Guide to your Affinity Group’s First Meeting

Sarah Byrnes

Sarah Byrnes is Economic Justice Organizer at the Institute for Policy Studies and leads their Common Security Clubs initiative. She has worked with Americans for Fairness in Lending, Americans for Financial Reform, and the Thomas Merton Center.

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