I was in San Antonio the week the Spurs won the 2014 NBA championship. The fans’ rallying cry, “Built Not Bought,” was a comment on their competitors, the Miami Heat, which had famously acquired some of the NBA’s best players with the goal of winning multiple championships.
Yet, despite what some saw as a talent discrepancy between the two teams, the Spurs won. Convincingly. The lesson: A set of seemingly disparate players committed to a shared philosophy can achieve greatness.
As the coordinator of Silicon Valley De-Bug, a community-based organization in Northern California that works with young adults and families, I often poke my head up to look at other fields – in this case, sports, but I also look at the business, faith, politics and pop culture sectors – to see what I can draw from them.
Why do I look around?
Because in the field of movement making, personal transformation and community building, we are developing the language of our work as we go. The search for naming, or understanding, the science of today’s community organization is an open-ended one.
Once the offspring of political ideologies, community organizing no longer follows a party line and there is no rule book to reference – which is what makes organizing in today’s America exciting.
Interestingly, metaphors are often the only expressions we have to describe the mechanics of our community work, which is instinctual, exploratory and sometimes, uncomfortably vague.
So, yes, I like the Spurs’ “built not bought” metaphor and believe it is applicable to decision making in today’s community organizations.
At De-Bug, we strive for the same ethic and believe our collective can achieve tremendous feats through the deliberate “slow-building” of the organization.
For example, though our organization has existed for more than a decade, the staff did not come about as the result of job postings, applications and an interview process. Instead, our staff is made up of those who walked through our doors and committed to us, as we committed to them.
Our lack of a traditional hiring process is also to prove a point – that greatness can be found in anyone if the organization is willing to see it.
Our art director came to us as an undocumented teen graffiti writer; our lead organizer, as a mother whose son was facing a prison sentence; and our youth director as a condition of probation.
We are not weaker for being inclusive; in fact, everything good our organization has done has come out of a spirit of inclusion.
We, too, were built rather than bought, and though we don’t have an NBA championship, we have witnessed how the building-on-trust approach can transform lives, hold powerful institutions accountable and change the trajectory of an entire community.
At De-Bug, we have seen dreams literally come true – people becoming professionals in occupations they once felt were out of their reach, loved ones coming home from wrongful convictions, institutions improbably bending to demands of justice by marginalized communities – and more.
In a conventional organization, the individual often yields to the will, history and direction of the group. In a business, team or nonprofit organization, the entering individual also often gives up his or her personal agenda for the good of the group.
That approach, presumably, allows for more coherence and harmony for the organization. At De-Bug, we have done the opposite.
We say to the person entering our space – bring all of your audacious dreams as well as all of your personal baggage, and you lead us. We will follow and support your direction, and you will expand us in the process.
In this way, everyone is an architect of our institution, rather then merely a caretaker of something others have constructed. This allows for a stronger sense of ownership.
That is why De-Bug makes much more sense from the inside looking out than it does looking in from the outside.
The poster on our window lists all the things we currently are: media hub, criminal justice court organizing model, silk-screening shop, meditation circle and photography darkroom. And that’s just what made it onto the poster.
We started by publishing a magazine featuring the unheard voices of Silicon Valley manufacturing workers. But people are complex and multidimensional. We found we couldn’t ask people to write only about their work.
They had fuller lives they wanted to discuss, including their families, their streets, their cultures, interests and larger beliefs. So, our magazine expanded, because in order to respect people’s total personhood, we had to honor all aspects of who they were and couldn’t place people in “issue” boxes.
An assembly worker may also be a meditation expert, a formerly incarcerated person may also be an artist, a recent immigrant may be an emcee.
Eventually, as we became more intimate as an organization, the question evolved from “What do you want to write about?” to “What do you want to do?”
Every one of our enterprises, whether a political campaign or an entrepreneurial endeavor, came from an individual who came to us with a hope, dream, idea.
The De-Bug community followed that individual’s lead.
What’s Important? The Process Trumps the Product
The common theme of all our activities is the process, not the product. Indeed, what has sustained our work has been focusing on the integrity and relationships of the group rather than on the projects.
Before we had an office, a budget or a tax ID code, we had each other. We met and talked at a Vietnamese café once a week. We often say that if all the elements that dress us up as an organization were stripped from us, we would simply return to sit-downs at the café.
Relationships are still our most important focus.
Our approach allows for new creations based on the synergy of the different projects. For example, on weekends, we had families coming to De-Bug to strategize on how to advocate for loved ones facing the criminal court system. What they wanted above all was for the judges deciding the fate of their family members to know them beyond the police report.
During the week, youth videographers were honing their storytelling skills. We introduced the two groups. The result was something we call “social biography videos” – short videos that illuminate the lives of those facing prison, deportation or even execution in ways court documents cannot.
Those videos, which show how potential incarceration or deportation would affect the lives of families and the community, have prevented prison sentences and immigrant detentions and even overturned life sentences.
One of the frameworks we work within at De-Bug is a belief from Buddha. He said to achieve liberation, one needs the eyes to see the path, the legs to walk it, and a “sangha” – that is, a community of practitioners.
As community builders, we interpret “having eyes to see the path” as having an organizational theory, and interpret “legs to walk it” as employing the theory through practice. But what is particularly powerful and unique is the sangha.
The word “sangha” comes from Pali, a long-extinct language from the time of Buddha in India. Though the De-Bug community came about a couple thousand years after the origin of the word, we see De-Bug as a modern-day sangha – a community of practitioners who are all seeking their own liberation.
That does not mean that every person at De-Bug is aiming for the same end – liberation can mean different things to different people.
Some are trying to free their loved ones from incarceration, some are trying to start a business, some are trying to challenge economic inequality in Silicon Valley, some are trying to get over an addiction.
The point is that the journey to liberation need not be a solitary one and, in fact, liberation may become more possible when couched in the support of a community.
Democracy After the Romance
I am not saying that our approach does not have its drawbacks, losses and failures. The hardest part of trying to create the “world you wish to live in” is that it has to interface with the actual world.
For example, an inclusive and non-hierarchical decision-making process is not only difficult to put into operation but also likely to collapse because of the power dynamics we have all been taught since childhood.
We were taught to look up to authority not across our own horizon. Students are trained to look to teachers, employees to employers and so on. Add the lenses of race, class and gender, and one can see implicit hierarchies being built, even in spaces like community organizations.
To combat those implicit hierarchies, De-Bug rotates facilitators in its meetings so that people get used to seeing each other at the front of the table. It’s why we are mindful of who is being heard in discussions and who is not and why.
The process may be longer, but efficiency is not the goal of democracy.
The value of that hyper-vigilance is that people may carry the values and decision-making culture at De-Bug into aspects of their lives beyond the organization, whether that’s their school, their workplace or their neighborhood.
That is, in many ways, the opportunity of larger impact – for the organization’s values to be so embedded that it advances in aspects of people’s lives beyond the office parameters.
But to move in the world in this way – to make decisions collectively, to challenge what is unfair or unjust, to strive toward what others have said is unreachable – is a risk in the real world.
As such, the organization can provide something invaluable, well beyond a campaign victory or a career opportunity – a point of reference in a lived experience of when collective action allowed for something that otherwise would not have been achieved.
It is why we have also drawn upon a lesson from another philosopher, Krishnamutri, who once said, “You can’t get wet talking about water.”
We take this to mean that some things need to be experienced in order to be truly understood. Democratic decision making, inclusive community building – these need to be practiced, rather then taught, to be real and sustaining.
When our decision-making process matters most is when the group must make a key fork-in-the-road decision or an urgent one.
For example, this could mean making the decision as to which court cases we will take and which we will not, or whether we will publicly criticize an elected official with whom we disagree or hold a private meeting with that official to find areas on which we can agree.
In those moments, organizational decision-making is like a martial art. You practice the motions over and over each day so that when you are suddenly in a position in which you need to act, non-hierarchical decision-making comes quickly and naturally.
Your values become your practice, and your practice becomes your instincts, and hopefully, when it matters the most, your instincts become your actions.
About the writer: Raj Jayadev is executive director of Silicon Valley De-Bug, a community organizing, advocacy and media organization in San Jose, Calif. This essay has been updated since it was first posted.
About the top photograph: Jean Melesaine of Silicon Valley De-Bug made this image of Daniel Zapien. He arrived at De-Bug as a requirement of court-ordered community service. He is now De-Bug’s youth organizer and a videographer for the group.
2014 © Equal Voice for America’s Families Newspaper