If you follow me on Twitter, you may have heard me gush about an interview on the podcast “It’s Been a Minute with Sam Sanders” with Sarah Schulman, a journalist and member of ACT UP, a movement that fought the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s. She has recently written a book about this movement, Let The Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993.
As an organizational psychology nerd, I was struck by how ACT UP managed to be incredibly diverse and effective because no one was “forced to agree with each other.” The bottom line was simply that anyone working with them needed to be doing: “direct action to end the AIDS crisis.” Individuals might argue about why a particular action should/should not happen, but they never stopped the other from doing it as long as it was “direct action to end the AIDS crisis.”
Her incredibly detailed recounting of the messy, diffuse and effective movement highlighted the need for what I’ve been preaching about for years. (Come to think about it, I was probably influenced by the news stories of this group’s actions since I was a child and teen at the time these actions were taking place.)
ACT UP did what I suggest to both new and mature organizations:
- Read your vision/mission/values at every meeting and gathering.
- Name and discuss, even argue about, the ways that you are living your purpose every day.
- Allow people to live into that vision and mission in the way that works for them.
The lesson that was highlighted for me by Sanders’ interview with Schulman is that very diverse movements and organizations can coalesce around a central purpose while allowing people to do the work in very different ways in different communities.
As I’ve witnessed starkly in my work with aging churches, organizations lose touch with their sense of purpose as they get older. What was remarkable when I questioned church members about their history was that they always had a vibrant purpose in their past: offering community support to migrant farmworkers, providing health care in communities that didn’t have it, starting schools for children and families, etc.
What organizations have to do is to keep that core purpose front and center and readily adapt to changing realities. If an organization was able to start a school or hospital in their community, they now have to find new and innovative ways to support education and health care in their area. Or they need to recognize that their purpose has been completed and close their doors.
I’m suggesting that you show your team a little love this month by connecting them to their core purpose and allowing them the space to live that purpose in their way. People will continue to be committed when things get tough if they are connected to and inspired by higher purpose.
Want to go deeper?