Let’s Ask TV About Our Organizing Problems

What does Harold Washington’s Rainbow Coalition, SNL, and the family on Succession have in common? They’re part of a new series in Feednet, where we use fiction to solve our Organizing problems.

( taking a brief intermission from “the fuck does this make money “to try one other thing, see if it sticks. Let me know if it lands with you. The fact is this make money, the last edition of my own travails, will be the first week of January. Stay safe in these holidays.)


I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways stories reflect possible futures*.

Kim Stanley Robinson talks about stories as mental models, especially science fiction ones. A way to map an infinite spread of futures to try to find hopeful futures. He’s usually talking about macro issues, like climate change and tax codes, when he says this. 

Almost all of my problems tend to come down to feelings and other people: my feelings, the feelings of others, how I feel about others, and so on. 

And since I think about work all the time whether I want to or not, I also think about fiction as a Mental Model for the problems that come up at work, particularly around group dynamics. 

A lot of work interpersonal dynamics are often about our inability to deal with our feelings in a group, especially when we want our feelings about that group to be different. 

So my question is - esp for people at work, burnt out people, people struggling to change the future every day — what can we learn about what to do with our feelings  in a group from the stories we use to escape?

I asked a number of people on Twitter, mostly organizers, about their work problems, people problems, they face, and their favorite fiction, to help figure this question out. 

This is an experiment in line with that question: an advice column for organizers, answering our questions about people and work by looking at how these dynamics play out in fiction. 

The Question:

I am relatively new to working on politics, and involved with a campaign for a local ballot initiative. We are part of a larger coalition, but a short staffed one — half the organizations are volunteer run. I have been to a couple of meetings, but it’s clear that the coalition is super scattered. 

This is normal, I guess, but the reason I’m asking is because one part of that dynamic seems a little less than normal: Everyone seems to hate each other?

The first meeting I went to had so much awkward tension, with everyone on their phones, ignoring whoever was talking. Two people spent at least five minutes saying increasingly nastier things to each other in a sarcastic way. I don’t wanna make a big deal out of nothing, but it feels like people… hating each other‘s guts... is getting in the way of our ability to get things done? Am I being oversensitive? Is it worth saying something? And if it is… What would I even say?

— A New Guy In No Exit

YIKES. What a group dynamic to begin with.

The  “Does everyone here hate each other? Is that… Bad?” Group.

A Caveat

It’s worth sharing here that I sent this question to a couple of friends who are not organizers. They both said point blank: that is not a normal or useful dynamic.

They both have meaningful lives with purpose and as good a balance between work and life as anyone does these days. 

So take everything I am about to say with a grain of salt.

The Trope at Play

I used to work with someone that would say “conflict is a gift“.

When it comes to meeting and engaging with someone who has a different perspective than you, who has different priorities and values, it is sometimes true. 

Conflict can be a gift: an opportunity to build with people who are different from you.

Even when if you don’t find common ground, or accomplish anything except realizing that you really hate people who think like that, you can learn something about yourself and the world you didn’t know before. 

There can be incredible growth from conflict.

But something that has taken me a number of years to learn is that not ALL conflict is a gift

Not all conflict leads to growth, and often, because we are all flawed imperfect people, conflict can get us further stuck in old patterns rather than creating an opportunity to grow. 

So I think the question you’re asking is best answered by determining if the conflict in this coalition is related to growth or not.

To figure this out I turned to TV Tropes, a website with infinite narrative examples of archetypes, plot designs, and genre tools — not to mention every goofy science-fiction story ever written compiled— in one place. 

I pulled a couple of examples from the “Work Tropes” page for our mental models— one from real life, one Chicago specific (not the same as real life), and one fiction. 

Here are three possible mental models (stories) you can use to decide what kind of conflict is happening in your coalition.

Mental Model #1: Harold Washington 

Kenzo Shibata tweets about Harold Washington‘s mayoral election campaign coalition as a landmark force, unstoppable in part because of exactly the dynamic you’re describing, TNGINE.

(I know there are books about this, but I haven’t read them. I have only read Kenzo‘s tweets). 

 This coalition was primarily historic because it was a multiethnic coalition, a “rainbow coalition“ of Black and Latinx, white Working class, and other movement blocs. It was also a necessary coalition, primarily because the white power structure in the city ran intense and racist fear mongering ads against Washington (the republican candidate, admittedly a non-starter in Chicago, ran on the slogan “before its too late.”) 

But it was also historic because of a far more mundane reason. A very Chicago reason.

Everyone hated each other’s guts.

Each person brought to the table slights, feuds, grudges, vendettas that often no one at the table was even alive for the beginning of (I thought this might be a little bit too high drama, even for Chicago. But I looked it up and of course: 

But that hatred was a testament to how strong the coalition itself was: everyone had to be in the same room with people they didn’t like, because they had the same goal.

In this situation, pointing out when vitriol was getting in the way of the coalition goals wasn’t just a good idea, it was mandatory. 

Because the whole point of the room was to build power with people who you didn’t like, Washington stressed that every minute spent fighting or not achieving the desired outcome was a minute wasted. A minute wasted in the presence of people you can’t stand. 

Since it sounds like you are new to this room, the next meeting might not be the day that you demand everyone acknowledge the vitriol. But it might be worth mentioning when you explicitly notice that the goal is being impeded because of the shit people are saying to each other. 

Mental Model #2: SNL 

We don’t only have conflict with our enemies. People who have worked together for years often grow moreintolerant of each other’s perspectives, more enraged by each other’s patterns of behavior, not less. But this doesn’t have to be a bad thing either.

In one of the many business emotional intelligence books I’ve read for no discernible reason, an example everyone cites (Second only to the story of the story of Frozen)  is Lorne Michaels’ cultivation of SNL’s writing team. 

Michaels, the inspiration for Alec Baldwin’s character Jack Donagy in 30 Rock, was almost “performatively fastidious” about making sure everyone felt heard by him. 

But Michaels didn’t care at all if everyone in the writers room felt heard by each other

In the 70s, Michaels was described as at “almost art of war levels” in manufacturing conflict between writers that would lead to better sketches and higher stakes.  

The emotional intelligence business books are apathetic about his manipulation, because there were two things Michaels was firm about in writer meetings, beyond his planting of drama:

Everyone in the room had to speak the same amount and have respect for others in the room. 

This metal model is probably the most concrete way to evaluate what’s going on 

in the coalition. 

Take a second to notice who is speaking the most and how even that distribution is. If the vitriol is still high, but you’re noticing progress, and people are split evenly in their speaking, this might be the right mental model. 

If it is, and you’re invested in sticking around, then go partially, Lorne Michaels, without the Machiavelli scheming. Take some time outside of the meeting to make sure everyone feels heard.

Mental Model #3: Succession

Sometimes there is no secret love behind the hate. Sometimes the people in a room are too distracted by their own long-standing grievances, either with the people there with them or from much older ones, to do anything but fight, jab, and conspire against the others in the room.

In Succession, the best prestige HBO series about riche powerful white people since every other HBO prestige series about rich powerful white people, there is a great deal of conflict.

 None of it is a gift.

The characters on that show certainly have power, but the power is being used to destroy everyone else in the room, rather than towards a common goal. No one feels hurt by anyone, and there certainly is no respect, or an even distribution of which character is speaking the most (Logan doesn’t talk that much, but everyone knows his words are the only ones that matter.)

The characters are all consumed with their own personal insecurities, anxieties, and attachment issues, which makes for incredible binge watching, but terrible comrades. 

I doubt you are in the exact situation of Succession (Tom, is that you?). 

You’d have to be in pretty dire straits to write to a substack writer and disguise your media company as an organizing group in order to get advice.

But unfortunately, sometimes the best causes still have people not dealing with their shit, or, for whatever reason, activate each other in fundamentally toxic ways. It happens to people who are working really hard, people who believe deeply in what they’re doing, and people who are “good organizers“, whatever that means. 

But no matter who is in the room, if the dynamic is like succession’s, there is very little you can say to change the vibe. 

Your best option is to remove yourself, and find somewhere where your energy is going to be channeled more productively.

Choosing the Right Mental Model

3 different stories, each with a different answer to your question.

Addressing and evaluating what could be happening in that meeting room could take you a really long time, TNGINE. 

Is it the reluctant but strategic enemies, the honest but brutal writer’s room, or… the regular kind of people who hate each other, the kind you don’t want to be around? 

Determining if this is the gift kind of conflict or not comes down to what makes you feel like you’re doing something worthwhile - not just for the coalition, but for yourself. 

If you feel like the vibe is More Michaels or Washington than Succession, then stick around.  Especially if you’re learning, and you respect the people in the room. 

But after a few more meetings, if you feel like you leave every meeting like you went toe to toe with the worst members of the barely fictionalized Hearst family, then regardless of the cause — it might not be the coalition for you.

And ultimately, the only thing that matters here, at least when it comes to understanding your desired level of involvement, no matter if the conflict is a gift, a curse, or something completely different, is what works for you.

Thanks for writing and good luck,

H

Do you have an organizing or interpersonal question that you need help with? 

Are you desperate enough to turn to fiction to solve it? 

Message me on Twitter, write a comment on this post, or email me, at kappklot@Gmail.com

I took some time away from my work in order to reconnect with what I’m doing and why. I was burnt out and getting some space to reflect has helped me a lot.  That said, it feels like the world has moved faster than I have, and as a struggle to move forward, reconnect with the organizing groups a used to work with, the issues and passion about come, I feel a little overwhelmed, like I’m not sure where to start. (Years of salt and rice or Mars trilogy)

I have a really good idea for my local DSA Chapter, but I can’t get them to take it seriously. Every time I meet with people they tell me that I should come to a meeting, but then when I show up at the meeting to bring that idea up, everybody up ignores it, and me. I’ve ask other people in the group about this, but they just keep telling me to canvas. What gives?

After a lot of burn out, I started trying to dip my toe back into organizing work. I’m trying to take it slow, I feel like I’ve learned a lot of tools to help me set better expectations and boundaries, something I’ve struggled with before. Here’s the thing: I it’s moved to the city, a fairly insular one on the West Coast, and every time I go anywhere, I feel like people aren’t taking what I say seriously. I understand that this is because I know, and this wouldn’t be a problem on its own, I have an organizer for five years and had to start over every time I moved to a different city. Here’s what worries me: whenever I am at a meeting, I find myself… For lack of a better phrase… Freaking out. I will be doing something normal like taking meeting notes, or I’ll ask somebody to facilitate, and suddenly, I find that I am yelling, attacking the other people in the room, getting really agitated, and I leave the meeting embarrassed and angry each time. What gives? What’s going on with me?

Lately, every morning when I wake up I feel like… I just don’t want to wake up. I’ve been working at my job, which is really stressful but the work is important to me, for seven years. I am not actively considering hurting myself, and I am working with a mental health counselor, but having this feeling is stressing me out.

Look. I hate my coworker. I really hate her. I know all the tools and tricks I could use to ground, to not take what she says so personally, to get work done even though I don’t like her, to try to see things from her perspective. But I hate her, I really do. We have to work together often and every time I end up pissed off. Sometimes for the entirety of the project we’re working on together. How can I get it together? Meditation doesn’t work.

My boss keeps texting me at night Urgent issues. I’ve talk to her about this, and asked her to stop, but still somehow, at least once a week, she tells me about something urgent it’s happening and asked if I can take a look at it. Inevitably it is something that takes at least an hour for me to complete, and it messes with the rest of my night. How can I tell her to stop without jeopardizing my role urgent issues. I’ve talk to her about this, and asked her to stop, but still somehow, at least once a week, she tells me about something urgent that’s happening and asks if I can take a look at it. Inevitably it is something that takes at least an hour for me to complete, and it messes with the rest of my night. I’ve told her that I try to unplug it at night and she’s been totally understanding, but it keeps happening, sometimes with the caveat, just this once.. How can I tell her to stop without jeopardizing my role?

I am a person in politics who recently won a local political office, which is really exciting! I’m really proud of the people I did this with, and I feel really lucky that I get to do it. My struggle right now is with scale. Overnight I went from having basically no one outside of my district ever contact me about anything beyond potholes, to reporters and Media outlets calling me constantly. I know that this is a short period of time, and I wanna make the most of my window, but I’m really overwhelmed and I don’t know how to evaluate who and why I should be talking to different people. The other day I had 45 zoom interviews scheduled right on top of each other. How do I get through this without losing it, in a way that is most strategic for the work I care so much about?

I am involved with a local campaign on maternity leave. I am dedicated, hard-working, and passionate: I feel lucky to have found this work and working with the union has given me a sense of purpose I didn’t have before. 

I work with people who are isolated and often dealing with a lot of pain. Sometimes when people I have known for a while are really struggling, they will tell me about their suicidal or homicidal fantasies. I am not a social worker, I have no clinical training, I am not even paid, I’m just some guy, and I care about the people who tell me this thanks. I don’t want to caustically go back to the building plans, but I also don’t really know how to help in that moment. What should I do?

my coworkers white guilt is costing us power LOL

I wasn’t sure if I should sentence because I’m not a

*This is not an original thought I had, but something I ripped off whole cloth from Rabbi Menahem Cohen who is interviewed in the first episode of working 2050 blew my mind like 10 times in our conversation.

** if you do want to read a book about Harold Washington‘s Coalition, and you want to read the same book I’m about to read, check out: Harold Washington and the Neighborhoods: Progressive City Government in Chicago, 1983-1987.

What does Harold Washington’s Rainbow Coalition, SNL, and the family on Succession have in common? 

They’re part of a new series in Feednet, where we use fiction + other types of mental models to solve our organizing problems.