ROLES & HIERARCHY
How do you negotiate the explicit or embodied hierarchies that exist within groups?
There are different forms of explicit and embodied hierarchies that may emerge in groups. Explicit hierarchies are ones that we may acknowledge or agree to, such as allowing certain group members to take on certain tasks on behalf of the group, while embodied hierarchies, which sometimes overlap with the explicit hierarchies, can be understood as forms of entitlement that are either unconsciously or consciously internalized by group members. When explicit hierarchies are not acknowledged, we revert to the embodied hierarchies that exist in the group. These may be based on socioeconomic categories, such as class, race, gender, sexual orientation, and so on. 1 1 1
For a helpful framework for understanding how power may be negotiated, see “Finding the Spaces for Change: A Power Analysis” by John Gaventa. November 2006, IDS Bulletin Volume 37 Number 6, powercube.net/wp-content/uploads/2009/12/ finding_spaces_for_ change.pdf. It is crucial to build a culture of open and courageous communication between group members in order to be able to thoughtfully negotiate the tensions and anxieties that may arise around explicit and embodied hierarchies. If you regularly check in with group members and critically consider your role in the group, you may be able to preempt issues around social hierarchies that may arise. It’s also helpful to regularly reflect on your own role in the group: What roles do you find yourself in, intentionally and unintentionally? What conditions and identities allow you to take up space in the way that you do? What power do you hold? What kinds of situations and conversations make you feel comfort and discomfort?
Can hierarchies be useful? Can hierarchies be oppressive?
Hierarchies can be oppressive when they are unacknowledged and when people abuse their power, taking advantage of, manipulating, or neglecting their group members. Some hierarchies can be productive, if people who take on specific tasks on behalf of the group can be held accountable by their group members. For example, if one group member has been part of a specific community or project and is bringing other collaborators in from outside, it may be helpful to have the person who has been involved with the community prior to the collaborative process, to guide or lead the group. Hierarchy doesn’t mean one person has all the say; it can simply mean acknowledging and trusting the different sets of skills and expertise each collaborator brings to the table and trusting group members to fulfill their roles in the group.
How do you negotiate anxieties around role differentiation, authority, and followership?
It may be helpful to have clarity as a group around the distinctions between role differentiation, authority, and followership, especially as they relate to embodied or explicit hierarchies. As outlined in the definitions section, group members take on or are given different roles in the group which grant them authority over different tasks. Taking on different tasks on behalf of the group does not necessarily imply having authority over the group. Rather, it can be understood as the group trusting the individual to do certain types of work that align with the interests of the broader group. In this way, different group members may become leaders as well as followers in different capacities. At its core, followership is based on trust. This is another reason why putting effort into building a shared culture and open communication within the group is so important. Roles that involve accessing or distributing resources to group members can be framed as service roles and can be rotated among group members to avoid anxieties around evolving hierarchies. 2 2 2
These ideas take influence from the field of Group Relations. For more information, see “What is a Group Relations Conference? The Leicester Conference.” Tavistock Institute of Human Relations, 2016, tavinstitute.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/ about-Group-Relations1.pdf.
DISTRIBUTION OF LABOR
How can you distribute the workload through the lens of equity, considering how power and privilege play out in the working dynamics?
Equity means that different people have different needs and are able to contribute to collective work differently. In order to distribute workload through the lens of equity, it may be helpful to have a conversation around power, privilege, and capacity with group members. Although it may be challenging for group members to openly acknowledge their social positions, this will inform how and in what capacity they are able to contribute to the work. It will also help group members better understand where each person is coming from and build empathy. These types of conversations are important in order to push the work forward. It doesn’t serve the group to shy away.
How do you create a dynamic where individuals can work through multiple roles and/or choose the role they want to play?
Individuals working in various forms of collective work often fall into the same types of roles within the group according to their personalities, skill sets, and various socioeconomic factors. Sometimes, these are not the roles those individuals actually want to play within the work. Group members can check in often about individual responsibilities and shifting roles. It’s important to hold space for growth for one another. If someone wants to try a new role, support the learning process that comes along with that. It’s helpful when all group members can pick up a task and work on it. Every time you do a task, share the skills you learned from that process so that eventually everyone can do everything. This is also a way of working towards dismantling hierarchies around specific skills or expertise held by certain group members. Keep in mind that collaborations, collectives, cooperatives and the projects they pursue change. There is opportunity to step into leadership positions with different facets of the work.
How do you navigate uneven distribution of labor?
If one or a few group members are taking on the majority of the work, feelings of resentment and burnout may arise. In these cases, clear communication is key. Others in the group may be unaware of this dynamic until someone points it out. Often, there is way more work to be done than folks are realistically able to do. If the group cannot shift the workload more equitably, consider ways of focusing the operations to accommodate capacity. Ultimately, the wellness of the collective rests on the wellness of each individual involved. Keep this in mind as you make decisions about overall scale, focus, and workload.
Additionally, when someone else does much more of the labor, it may bring up feelings of inferiority or inadequacy by some group members who have less capacity to be involved. It can also be difficult to know how much to contribute and in what way. In these situations, if you start to feel anxious about your level of contribution, take it upon yourself to contribute. Don’t wait for someone to ask you to do something. If others around you want to be accountable to the work, they will pick up the slack as much as they can. If you can’t contribute on the level that you want to, be direct with your collaborators about what your capacity is. Let them know when they can and can’t depend on you so that negative feelings don’t arise. People don’t know how you feel until you communicate with them.
How do you keep up with the administrative aspects of the work?
Administrative work may be daunting and boring at times, but is essential for keeping your project moving smoothly. Try finding ways of building joy and structure into administrative work. For example, you could set aside 30 minutes a day to do small tasks and reward yourself after completion, meet a friend to do administrative work together, stagger less interesting tasks with more interesting tasks, and remind yourself consistently of why you are engaged in this work.
MONEY, TIME & ENERGY
What if there are financial barriers to having the time or capacity to be involved?
Financial barriers often get in the way of people contributing to unpaid collective projects. If you are someone who has the financial stability to dedicate extensive amounts of time to the collective project, consider dedicating some of your time to finding ways of eliminating those financial barriers for others by, for example, finding grants or developing ways to turn a profit from aspects of the work. Before pursuing the task of bringing resources in, it is important to have an open conversation about how this may change, complicate, or heighten existing tensions or problematic dynamics within the group. There are a few potential situations to keep in mind:
Consider a group where there is already an inequitable distribution of labor, where certain members do not contribute to the “boring,” or less exciting, administrative, or behind-the-scenes work, and certain other members do most or all of those aspects of the work. When an opportunity that is perceived to be more “fun,” such as an exhibition invitation or a grant to do a project, presents itself, which members of the group enjoy those opportunities? This situation can become especially tense if the resources that make those “fun” opportunities possible are obtained by group members who are unhappily occupied with the more “boring” work and are not able to participate in the opportunities themselves. When money is involved, it becomes even more important to have clarity on different group members’ needs, expectations, and goals around the work and the roles that they wish to play.
It’s important to recognize that some people genuinely enjoy and find meaning in administrative work, such as communications, grant writing, or accounting. However, some people take those tasks on because they recognize their necessity in sustaining the broader collective work, but still find more meaning and joy in other aspects of the work. In order to learn to recognize these distinctions, group members can ask themselves and have a conversation around a few simple questions: Where is there opportunity for joy and growth in the different aspects of the work for group members? Why do certain group members fill certain roles and are those the roles they want to be playing? What strategies can the group use to accommodate the diverse needs, expectations, and goals of different group members?
Another conflict that may emerge when access to resources or money becomes available is around hierarchy within the group. Sometimes, the person or people who act as the direct vehicle to the new resources for the group may be seen as more powerful by other group members. Anxieties around the formation of a new hierarchy in the group may arise. In this situation, it is important to recognize the distinction between authority and power. This distinction implies that even if one person works on behalf of the group to take on the task of obtaining new resources, it does not mean that person necessarily has full control over how those resources are allocated within the group. The group can choose to make decisions around resource distribution collectively, or intentionally allocate that task to one or a few members to work on.
On the contrary, sometimes getting paid for doing administrative work can actually help group members who are more occupied with those tasks not feel a sense of resentment toward other group members. There are some collectives that set up paid administrative roles that are perceived through the lens of service rather than through the lens of power.
How do you ensure the collective holds accessibility as a value and a practice, both when considering current members, potential members, and external community members?
Recognizing care as a collective responsibility, 3 3 3
Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah Lakshmi. Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice. Arsenal Pulp Press, 2018. collectives working through issues around access and disability justice can look to the knowledge and expertise of disabled collective and community members. Mia Mingus, a community organizer for Disability Justice and Transformative Justice, advocates for more than access, for moving toward what a just world and liberation would look like for everyone. 4 4 4
Mingus, Mia. “Mia Mingus on Disability Justice (Interview).” Equitable Education, 2013, equitableeducation.ca /2013/mia-mingus-disability-justice. She writes about the notion of access intimacy, “Access intimacy is that elusive, hard to describe feeling when someone else ‘gets’ your access needs. The kind of eerie comfort that your disabled self feels with someone on a purely access level. Sometimes it can happen with complete strangers, disabled or not, or sometimes it can be built over years. It could also be the way your body relaxes and opens up with someone when all your access needs are being met.” 5 5 5
Mingus, Mia. “Access Intimacy, Interdependence and Disability Justice.” Leaving Evidence, 27 Apr. 2018, Understanding access and care as tenants of the work is crucial to actually practicing it.
Accessibility in the Arts: A Promise and a Practice 6 6 6
Lazard, Carolyn. “Accessibility in the Arts: A Promise and a Practice.” Accessibility in the Arts: A Promise and a Practice, 2019, promiseandpractice.art. by Carolyn Lazard offers a helpful guide to how small arts organizations can meet the needs of disabled communities, even if they struggle with limited or no budgets. As explained in the guide, small-scale arts organizations—which can include collectives—are uniquely capable of meeting their audience’s needs because of their often nimble, flexible, and personal structures. Throughout the guide, which is freely accessible online, Lazard shares pragmatic actions collectives and organizations can take to support their capacity in meeting the needs of disabled communities, while stating that real change happens when disabled art workers are in positions of leadership. In the introduction, Lazard states, “There is often a striking discord between an institution’s desire to represent marginalized communities and a total disinvestment from the actual survival of those communities. The ideal arts space is simple: it’s one in which art and culture are not sequestered from the lived experience of artists and their communities. The creation of accessible spaces cannot be done without dismantling the pernicious liberalism that pervades our lives and our relationships with each other, not just as artists and art workers, but as subjects of the state. To commit to disability justice is to redefine the terms of subjecthood. It’s to undo the rampant individualism that is a fiction for both disabled and nondisabled people: everyone has needs.”
How do you hold open the potential for change and fluidity within the working structure and dynamic?
Collectives, unlike large and formalized institutions, are well suited for change and fluidity because their operations are often less standardized and bureaucratic and their collective members are often more rooted within the communities they represent. While change may be frightening for certain group members, it is often an inevitable part of long-term projects and partnerships. Sometimes the group needs to change how it works in order to pursue the same ongoing goals of their work. In other situations, the group may realize it has actually met its goals, or its goals are no longer relevant. In that instance, it's helpful to keep in mind that the organization may want to thoughtfully shut down its operations. In a conversation between Cameron Shaw, founder of Pelican Bomb in New Orleans, and Deana Haggag, the former Executive Director of The Contemporary in Baltimore, the two speak about the significance of sunsetting organizations and share some helpful advice for going through that process. 7 7 7
Shaw, Cameron. “Watching the Sunset: An Interview with Deana Haggag.” Pelican Bomb, 27 Nov. 2018, pelicanbomb.com/art-review/2018/watching-the-sunset-an-interview-with-deana-haggag
What if you realize the collective is more about shared circumstances rather than a shared vision? What if you can’t just leave?
Sometimes circumstance and vision may go together. If group members share a certain circumstance, but have wildly different perspectives, try to find ways where each perspective can be embraced or coexist in the same group. Diverse perspectives can strengthen the group if group members allow them to. Try to find ways the group can engage in a multiplicity of projects, ideas, and initiatives, where different group members can take leadership roles in guiding their different visions of the work. Respect and learn from the differences in the group.
AUTHORSHIP, CREDIT & VISIBILITY
How do you negotiate how credit, recognition, and visibility are distributed internally and externally?
Credit and recognition for the work can be pre-negotiated in a contract before entering the project or work relationship. For some, this can be as serious as getting paid. When some members of the group are brought to the forefront and others to the back, make sure to examine closely what the causes of those relations are and address them with your group members if needed. Apply your understanding of structures and systems of oppression to the hierarchies of credit, recognition, and visibility that emerge in the group, both internally and externally. Closely consider the politics at play. If you see a discrepancy, call it out and actively work to address it by centering group members who may feel left out, creating new leadership and support roles, and continuously opening the door to communication and change.
Who owns a collective project? When is it okay for members of the group to use collective work to further personal career goals through applications, public interviews, social capital, or other means?
Ownership, authorship, and boundaries around the usage of the work towards personal career ends should be pre-negotiated before entering the project, cooperative, or working relationship. Make sure to address this at the beginning and throughout the project’s duration. It’s always helpful to ask your collaborators before using the material for personal career goals through various means and credit your collaborators in every use of the materials. Tensions often arise for group members who represent the broader group in settings outside of the group work itself. This is because those group members may be embodying the symbolic capital of the group itself. In order to navigate this tension, those group members can mention and center the contributions of their collaborators, share their direct contacts, and share any resources that emerge from the outside interactions with their group members who were not there. It’s important to give space for each group member to represent their broader group in some outside setting that makes sense for that person.
What do you do if you lose yourself or your identity in the collective work or collective identity?
It’s important to invest in your personal growth and identity. If you feel you’ve lost yourself in the collective, take some time to invest in yourself in other ways. Collectivity can be everything, but when it doesn’t feed you in the ways that you need, it’s okay to take some time away. Your stepping back may allow for others to take on more central roles, for the collective to change and reinvigorate you in new ways when you return.