Sunday, February 13, 2005

A Taxonomy of Activists

In my experience there are three basic kinds of people who are activists. The type A activist is very focused on getting organized and getting the work done. These are the self-motivated, self-starters who make the world go around. With them involved, meetings will be efficient, lists will be drawn up, sessions will get planned, and things will get done. This person is very work-centered.

The type B activist is primarily interested in things as a social event. This is the person who wants to socialize, talk, and enjoy the meeting. They'll be concerned with introductions, getting-to-know you activities, and allowing everyone to speak. This person is very people-centered.

It's also important to distinguish between planning the work and doing the work. Both A and B activists can be found on organizational committees, leadership boards, etc. The type C activist is more of a role. This is a person who is willing to do the work, but is not willing to plan the work. This person might have either a type A or type B personality type, as far as being more social or being more work-oriented, but is not involved with the running of an effort.

In other words, the type C person is willing to show up to do something, but this person needs to be told where, when, and what they'll be doing. These are your volunteers, and they are extremely valuable, but you shouldn't expect them to morph into leader-types. (More on this in a future entry.)

Now, interestingly enough, activist work itself also falls into A and B categories. An A category is simple— we need to knock on 800 doors before 5 p.m., stuff 1000 envelopes, plan this training session, organize this particular campaign. The B stuff happens around and during the A stuff—get to know each other, build a team, complain about the government, get off topic, meander on about your pet causes, etcetera.

The real trick is, what's the proportion of A work to B work that will keep everyone in the room happy? Obviously the answer is different for every person and every organization, and I'm not going to be able to answer it here. I simply want to make this observation, because knowing who you are as an activist and being able to recognize where your group is on the A to B scale will help you personally to avoid frustration.

I, for example, am incredibly task-oriented. I'm an A squared; I like results, I like lists, I like ticking off accomplishments. So, for example, if you're a candidate running for office and you want to walk a neighborhood in an afternoon, I'm your girl. In that kind of situation, the "heigh-ho, let's go!" way to do things is appropriate. You've got a time limit and you've got a task.

But let's say the goal is not time-limited: you want to build a local Democratic club, or you want to collect signatures for a conservation district in your neighborhood. Sometimes the activity is a means to an end, where the "end" *really* is something like, "Getting involved in the community and getting to know your neighbors." In that case, it's time for us A's to gear down, take a chill pill, and to recognize that we're doing work of an essentially different character. It's time to take it slow and easy and see what grows in the spaces in between doing the work.

Now, if you're a B, the greatest thing you can do is recognize when those cranky A's are driving something that's urgent or time-limited ... and realize that now is not the time to talk about a completely different topic, or take a side-bar with some of the other B's in the room. Gosh, that sounds cranky, doesn't it? I don't mean it to be. The world, and whatever work you're doing, takes all of us to do it, in all of our different ways. It's just my experience that it's easier on you (and more effective) when you first ground yourself in who you are and then recognize how that affects what you're doing. Are you an A, a B, or a C?



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