Are You Hindering Your Organization’s Potential?

Posted by Jessica Wernli on August 3, 2015

Last month I had the pleasure of hearing activist, teacher, and author Angela Davis as she addressed an audience of community organizers and activists in St. Louis. Much of what she said challenged my thinking, but something that stuck with me was one of her final statements, “We must learn to ask for what we want, not what we think will be given to us.

The challenge in her words was about how much or how little we ask and how big or small we dream.

In negotiating, most of us understand that you ask for more than what you think the other entity will give you, they then low-ball you, and you (hopefully) end up somewhere in the middle.

But what happens when you start with asking for what you think is “reasonable?"

You get less.

After a pattern of making reasonable asks and getting less, we begin to place limits on our imagination and undermine our own potential. For too long, we've been meeting people halfway and making reasonable asks. Now is the time to make the demands we’ve been too afraid to ask.

As a community organizer with United Congregations of Metro-East, a Gamaliel affiliate in Illinois, I know all about making demands, otherwise known as “asks.” Organizers understand very well the Frederick Douglass quote, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

In East St. Louis, where I organize, we have begun to internalize the challenge of not limiting ourselves in our demands. For years, millions of dollars were poured into and around our community through major construction projects that brought well-paying jobs and limitless opportunities, but somehow, East St. Louis residents were always overlooked. Local leaders had to fight just to get an off-ramp into the city from a passing highway. Not anymore. With the development of a High Speed Rail project underway, East St. Louis citizens are not limiting their expectations.

We have declared that we want a station built in East St. Louis along the rail route, with community oversight of the project to establish local control. We know that the development of a station would be a turning point for the city. Its construction and management would employ our workforce, and access to the station would mean access to colleges and other resources throughout the state of Illinois.

Pushing ourselves to think big has transformed the way we organize. We have been fighting against discrimination within the construction trades for years. Earlier this year, we decided to take our fight to the national level and chartered a bus to Washington DC so that our local workers and small business contractors could tell their stories to representatives of the US Department of Labor and Department of Transportation, and demand action.

We’ve learned that the question shouldn’t be, "What's the typical ask?", or even, "What's possible?" It should be, "What do we want?" or "What is right?" If we skip these questions, we will never get what we really want and need, or anything close to it.

What if enslaved African Americans just wanted to be free? While even that seemed unimaginable to most prior to emancipation, what if folks had stopped there? What about being self-employed, or owning a home, or having a black president?

I challenge myself with Ms. Davis’ words as I direct my work, talk with decision makers, draft my professional goals, and even as I pray.

In your work, as yourself what are you settling for. Are you placing boundaries on your organization's asks because of what you believe is realistic? Try thinking about what it is you really want, and need. And then ask for it.

(Photo: Leaders of UCM speaking with East St. Louis Mayor Alvin Parks about a high-speed rail station for the city. Credit, Erica M. Brooks)

About the author more »

Jessica Wernli is executive director of United Congregations of Metro-East in East St. Louis. Find her on Twitter at @RealWomenLead.

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