Group Centers: Recharging the Community through a Decentralized Power-Sharing Structure
Group Centers are the place where the collective energy between a group of neighbors begins.
GES Coalition employs a Group Center approach to community organizing. Group Center as a power-sharing model moves a group of neighbors toward collective action for social change. This allows the organizing work to be shaped through multiple, decentralized, goal-specific and definitively defined Group Centers, which function as a neighborhood-based organizing platform that are proposed, initiated and implemented by coalition members (neighbors), supported by GES Coalition resources and time of the organizing staff, and are driven by the energy of community members most impacted by these issues.
The organization of Group Centers are both autonomous and interconnected to each other, and the natural tension of this relationship can be used positively (cooperatively) to create an organizational dynamic, when organized in this collective spirit, supports the synthesis of multiple, non-competing groups working on (sometimes overlapping) collective research, action, and reflection, and is joined under the umbrella of the (name and action of the) collective structure (and vision) of the Coalition. GES Coalition members (neighbors) also utilizes collective structures that are organized through many adaptable types of neighbor-to-neighbor governance (and through a variety of collective decision-making tools adapted by Group Centers as needed). The Group Center model is always group-centered, organized and decided by those who show up, guided by the collective vision, and held to account by the agreement to uphold collective norms. This practice devoted to collective power and collective leadership has allowed GES Coalition’s power-sharing model between neighbors and organizing staff to build on community energy and develop collective governance (and decision-making) to advance collective goals, and win real material benefits for impacted community members.
The idea for Group Centers was first offered to GES Coalition organizing staff by Thoedoric Manley of the Hoop Institute during a six-month process evaluation in collaboration with organizing staff and Coalition members (neighbors) in 2017. Group Centers is based roughly on “Movement Centers”, defined as “a social organization within the community of a subordinate group, which mobilizes, organizes and coordinates collective action aimed at attaining the common ends of the subordinate group.” (Aldon D. Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movements). Adapted and formalized as “Group Centers” by Coalition members in 2017, the idea of this model is based on the place where the collective energy between a group of organizing neighbors begins. In a very localized context of the three neighborhoods, the Group Center model was first adapted as a way to build a “power-sharing” model between Coalition members and Coalition organizing staff that aligns under a shared vision for community determination. In addition, the definition of Group Centers mutates this definition of “Movement Centers” by reinterpreting the idea to the localized scale of neighborhood coalition building (forming an umbrella of Group Centers that are connected through the shared, collectively-written visions, norms and goals, and expressed as a collective commitment to these goals in name and action. In this re-adaptation, Group Centers are defined as
“a power sharing model that supports a gathering of organized neighbors within the collective vision of a cross-neighborhoods coalition, which convenes neighbors to mobilize, organize, and coordinate collective action aimed at meeting the shared goals organized under the collective vision of this larger group shared as the Coalition.”
Group Centers begin as a collective problem-solving process to address an issue-- a point of action to prevent or mitigate these historic and ongoing inequities (harms to health, economy, environment, collective self-determination). Utilized in this way, Group Centers are designed to allow a small group of neighbors to collectively change or improve a problem through the development of collective capacity building and strategic community action. These group-centered activities often include a wide variety of activities using a variety of tools and tactics that are a part of collective research/synthesize, power analysis and strategic planning, community governance and collective decision-making, fundraising and asset development (like the Community Land Trust model), and advocacy/organizing campaigns. Group Centers, as a power-sharing model, are organized under the decentralized structure of the Coalition, and are united around the collective vision and norms of the Coalition. They create the forum for members (neighbors) to imagine and research how to utilize community and Coalition assets (funds and time of organizing staff) to address community problems and organize around community needs.
History of the Group Center approach in GES
As a power-sharing model, Group Centers explicitly engage in a collective process for building neighborhood power to achieve specific, collectively-defined goals. In 2015, GES Coalition, made up of neighbors and neighborhood organizations, first proposed a proto-Group Centered model for a cross-neighborhood coalition uniting neighbors around a vision of anti-displacement (organizing, advocacy, education and programs) and community stewardship. The community organizing work against displacement became the GES Coalition, and the organizing for community stewardship, first proposed as a Group Center with GES Coalition, quickly became the GES Community Land Trust. Using this mode of Group Centers, we formed the collective commitment to decentralized power-sharing through this structure to build community power through strategic community action. The Group Centered model provides a platform for the GES Coalition to focus on regenerative solutions that address community-wide problems, with specific goals to connect health and housing, and align organizing efforts to collective solutions that address the historic and ongoing disruption to the community caused by the extractive model of development.
Starting a Community Land Trust as a Group Center
Started as GES Coalition's original “Groups Center” in 2015, The GES Community Land Trust grew out of GES Coalition’s community organization efforts (power sharing model for community stewardship starting with community capacity building around CLT’s). The original work of this CLT Group Center collective development of the vision, bylaws, and values that informed the community tripartite board and definitions of voting community membership, and included sending six neighbors to attend the 2016 Grounded Solutions National Conference. The Original CLT Group Center also included community advocacy, press releases, collective research with elected officials, funders and development partners, and strategized, trained, planned and started organizing campaigns around land acquisition, fundraising, subsidy, which began collective training around affordable housing rehab and development, the community development of the CLT ground lease, resale formula, contracts, operations and budget, and formed the incubation model for the GES community Land Trust, based on a recommendation for a “joint-operation entity” model, (Burlington Associates, GES CLT Feasibility Study, 2017). This Group Center of organized neighbors began collectively writing, negotiating and signing MOU’s with Colorado Community Land Trust and Brothers Redevelopment, Inc to form the “GES Affordable Housing Collaborative” in late 2017, allowing an extension of this power sharing model between community and their selection (and vetting) of strategic development and incubation partners.
GES Coalition organizing model in practice
Staff organizers offer an open invitation to members (neighbors) for collective training, which takes place through informal neighborhood research/action groups (short term, group-centered) and formal committees (Group Centers) of the Coalition. This collective process aims to move members' collective action toward a real change in material conditions experienced by community members most-harmed by the extractive model of development. When members see collective efforts being sustained, the collective work is renewed through building capacity for collective leadership, fundraising, or other ways to sustain the vision and organizing efforts. This collective organization can occur through a wide-range of Group Centers, including small group collective research meetings, large group collective action, community reporting, large-scale community meetings, and collective training. Staff organizers research and prepare for collective training sessions focused on collective work, meeting facilitation, public speaking and testimony, collective research, conflict transformation, and action skills that are organized around the practical experience of real-life advocacy and organizing efforts. Neighbors who are new to the process are likely to readily obtain these skills because The GES Coalition’s organizing model regularly rotates leadership roles and responsibilities among all neighbors interested in leadership training, and all GES Coalition members are invited to participate in collective leadership training. The organized collective works to cut issues, develop strategy, conduct research and develop advocacy campaigns.
Benefits and Learnings of Group Centers
Group Centers are not a place but a gathering of neighborhood leaders working together around a common issue, program or project (and aligned with the groups collective vision.) Group Centers offer a platform for people to come up with ideas together and to respond to, critique, to build upon existing ideas.
Group Centers offer multiple entry points for different neighbors with different types of skills and talents, and designed to support the creation of small group efforts. They are community-led, community-driven and community-owned-- if there is no energy from neighbors, there is no Group Center.
You don't need everyone. A small group of committed people is enough to get many things done.
Challenges of organized community groups
The community work is often co-opted and benefited from outsiders. We need models that build on community-determination and collective power.
Groups can unintentionally replicate dominant structures (sexism, racism, ableism, etc.) that result in becoming exclusive, harmful and hierarchical.
Favoritism. Neighbors often feel excluded by programs/committee structures or are made to feel unwelcome if they are not part of the “clique”.
Groups without functioning collective decision-making structures (governance), without a collective vision, and without conflict transformation and community accountability, will overall become less inclusive, less representative of the neighborhood, and less functional as a group.
If conflict is not addressed and accountability is not prioritized, unresolved harm can break meaningful relationships that will jeopardize the current and future activities of the group.
Group Center Design
Group Centers are specifically designed to be open and inclusive to all neighbors who align with the collective vision and norms of the Coalition, and all neighbor participants are invited to join as coalition members, though are not required to do so. Collective leadership training and roles are purposely distributed on a rotating basis and allow an inflow and outflow of neighbors based on their interest, energy, and availability. In this way, collective leadership that does not depend on any one member, but instead relies on collective strength distributed across many hands, is built on the collective model to decentralize into a flow of rotating leadership, as opposed to a fixed (centralized) leadership. Allowing a model that is based in the collective instead of fixed leadership allows the vision of the leadership to overcome the scenarios that may compromise or extinguish the energy of collective action (loss of neighborhood leaders via involuntary displacement, burnout/ fatigue of leaders, corruption/co-optation of leaders, loss of collective work/decision-making and loss of vision and norms between leaders). Instead, a collective, rotating model of neighborhood membership allows these weaknesses to become strengths by decentralizing the risks involved with this centralized and hierarchical, fixed model of leadership.
While Group Centers are initially meant to be supported by paid staff organizers of the Coalition, and Group Centers are initially supported by Coalition funding, not all Group Centers are meant to be permanent to the Coalition. Some Group Centers may have a strategic plan and scenario planning to become independent of the Coalition (like the Community Land Trust), and some Group Centers may choose to exit (become autonomous from the Coalition) on their own terms. The overarching purpose of Group Centers is to form around community energy, and in this sense, if participants cease to show up or collective energy loses momentum then the Group Center would cease to exist. At the community level, this organizing model builds a collective process to achieve specific, community-wide, material benefits and to open greater possibilities for the autonomy required for collective action, collective demonstration and collective determination. Our definition of an equitable process is one that not only involves collaboration, cooperative and democratic deliberation between organized youth and adult neighbors, but also uses power-sharing models between neighborhood advocates, partners and community stakeholders. This equitable process is integral to bringing about consensus among a large group of neighbors. This series of group centered activities has opened a pathway for neighbors organizing together to begin collective action.
Community Accountability-- Transform conflict, Redress harm
Our practice of the power analysis of community organizing is also turned inward to the power dynamics of member participants (neighbors) of Group Centers and Coalition activities, and allows members, leaders and staff organizers to analyze and transform interpersonal conflict. This is a strategy to redress harm that replicates the abuse of power that upholds sexism and racism (and other interpersonal harm and abuse, i.e. xenophobia, classism, ableism, ageism, fatphobia, queerphobic/trans-antagonistic attitudes/behaviors). We know that harmful attitudes, behaviors and action can occur between anyone at any time, and if left unchecked and without redress and restoration, can and will immediately jeopardize all related collective work. We also know that the powerful that oppose our vision will always take advantage of our fractures to sew further division, so we must be twice as committed to reimaging the imbalances of “power” and the potential for this to divide our collective, group-centered work. We must be prepared to take any violation of the norms among ourselves most seriously, and organize to hold offenders accountable through a restorative process that centers those harmed, and makes space for those that have done the harming, to be held accountable by the community, while simultaneously holding themselves to account.