Small Groups Can Change the World: An Interview with Marianne Manilov of The Engage Network

BlogHer Original Post

"It's not how many friends you have on Facebook, it's the depth of connection of our community ties that will keep us together and allow us to have political power together."

Last week, after the election, BlogHer co-founder Lisa Stone, asked What Will You Do To Change America? I wrote a few suggestions for how to figure out how you want to create change in my post, How Can You Make An Impact? including finding a small group of people to support you in your process.

The Engage Network is a nonprofit social venture that facilitates the power of small community groups to create social change. At the moment, The Engage Network includes three "sectors": What's Your Tree?, inspired by Julia Butterfly Hill's tree-sit, Off the Mat Into the World, founded by yoga teacher Seane Corn, and Green for All, founded by Van Jones.

On October 21, 2008, I interviewed Marianne Manilov, the National Team Leader at The Engage Network, about their work. Below is an edited transcript of an interview, which you can also listen to on the Big Vision Podcast.

For folks who don't know, what is The Engage Network?

The Engage Network is a new nonprofit/for-profit venture started two years ago. Its main purpose is to help people really get engaged on the ground in social change. We do that through a model of living room circles, circles in cafes, and circles in yoga studios It's a place for people to actually plug in and get trained to be leaders.

The Engage Network site features three sectors which are three very different programs. What's the connection between these programs, and how do they fit into The Engage Network?

Well, I think what you have to look at is, when people come to get involved in social change, how does that happen? You see somebody who inspires you. You see, perhaps, Julia Butterfly Hill, who sat in a tree, or you see Van Jones, who's the leader of Green For All, or maybe you see somebody else. You hear them speak, or you read their book, or you listen to your podcast, and then you generally write to that person, or you go up to them, rush them at the end of a speech and say, "I'm a student, I want to get involved."

What they're going to say to you is, "Join my email list." That email list is going to give you updates once a quarter. Maybe you're going to get involved in a day of action. Maybe you're going to give money. That's kind of the trajectory for how we get people involved.

The Engage Network was founded when Julia Butterfly Hill had a major motion picture coming out about her, and we saw what had happened with An Inconvenient Truth. Actually, it started a little bit before An Inconvenient Truth, but essentially, people got really excited by Al Gore's message, he's a social champion, somebody who inspires us, and then they really didn't have a lot of ways to plug in.

Of course, this incredible film was produced in a short amount of time, without a lot of budget to do outreach. I think they did a great job of trying to give people 10 actions, but a lot of it was "Change your light bulb," or "Buy a Prius." It really wasn't how most of us felt after seeing the film, which was, "I want to truly get involved." Most of that was picked up by Billy Parish and the people with Energy Action Coalition, and It's Getting Hot In Here.

So, we're looking at, how do we partner with people who inspire people? Right now we have three partnerships, one is with Julia Butterfly Hill, who sat in a tree for a long time; one is with Seane Corn, who is a nationally known yoga instructor, but she's also known for her work working with child prostitutes and young people with AIDS; and Van Jones.

We're looking at partnering with people who really inspire, and giving people a way to plug in on the ground after those people leave. So, if you see Van speak, our goal is to have a place that you can plug in, a local leader who says, "Come to my house."

The commonality between all the programs is that we will help you find what it is that calls you, your purpose in social change, and build you a community of friends who have a deep connection to you, so if you get sick, or you need something, they're going to be there for you, and then have you start taking action in the world. That's the trajectory that we're really looking at for Engage. We're looking at taking people beyond that, "I want to be on an email list," into action in their own communities. The difference is that we're partnering with different social champions.

On the site, you have different influences for this organization. A lot of them were books like, The Starfish and the Spider, The Purpose-Driven Church, and Blessed Unrest. Can you talk a little more about the kind of the organizing model that this is based on? You've touched on it a little bit, but maybe go into it a little bit deeper.

Again, just to tell you that story, what had happened was that Julia Butterfly Hill had this major motion picture coming out, and to give you a sense of what that meant, An Inconvenient Truth opened in about four theaters, and maybe expanded to 20 or 30. Julia's film will likely open in 1,500 theaters, on the low end. She really wanted a way to get people engaged that wasn't just, "Get on an email list".

Then her film was delayed. It's still delayed, actually, we're waiting for it to go into production. She said, "If you could do anything, what would you do?" A team of us said, "We would study what works in citizen engagement." So, we spent a year, and a significant amount of resources, close to half a million dollars. A team from Circle of Life, and myself, went around and started studying organizing models.

What are the things that I've seen that have worked? The first one for me, as somebody who's a progressive, was the Howard Dean community. They had an amazing network on the ground, volunteers. I tracked down some of the Howard Dean guys. I'm particularly influenced by a guy named Michael Silberman. He's with EchoDitto, now working with One Sky. I had to beg to drive him to the airport to even get any time with him, because he had no idea who I was. I'm an older organizer, he's the next generation.

For me, what was key about him is he was the person, when Howard Dean was building living room circles, that was building the leadership of each of the leaders who was running a living room circle. He was actually dealing with those leaders, helping them build skills, helping them be inspired, and he was their coordinator. I wanted to know what worked, what didn't work, and what did he learn. He was a very big influence.

We also looked to the business community. There was this book, The Starfish and the Spider, which studied things like Craigslist, which is a distributive model of people being able to post things online.

Strangely enough, I read that book about three times, was obsessed with it, and then realized the third time through that one of the authors had organized under me when he was in college, so I called him. He became an advisor, not just because of what was in the book, but everything he had been studying. He'd been going around the country looking at everything from disaster sites, to CEOs of corporations, and seeing how people were empowered from the ground up. Even though it was a business book, The Starfish and the Spider, it was really looking at, how do we distribute power in a network so people feel like they can take action? His name is Ori Brafman.

I met with people like Erin Potts, the founder of the Students for a Free Tibet concert series. She engages students at a concert level. What had she learned, what had she studied?

We started to see some common themes. Our biggest breakthrough, I think, in that year of study, came when we decided that if we're going to really understand organizing, we can't just study progressives. We have to study the right. We knew that the last election was given to Bush by the evangelical Christian movement, so we thought, we have to go in and study this.

Myself and Alissa Hauser, who was Julia Butterfly's Executive Director, and a Board member of Circle of Life, and Ina Pockrass, went to Rick Warren's church. Now we all know who Rick Warren is because he hosted a debate; at that time nobody did. He's the founder of this network called The Purpose-Driven Network based on the Purpose-Driven Life book series. He had a conference about how to build a purpose-driven church.

I remember being there at that conference, we registered as a church (in my personal life I am an assistant minister at a place here in Oakland), and I was expecting to be very uncomfortable there, but I was very comfortable in that community. I was surprised how welcoming they were to people of all different faiths.

It was a very interesting community. We were there for awhile studying, and I remember at one point thinking, "This is going to change my life." I called Van Jones on the phone, because we're good friends, I was crying, and I said to him,

"I have done 20 years of organizing one way, and I did it the wrong way. Now at least I have a beginning of what we need to do right. If they don't pay me for the rest of my life, this is what I'm going to dedicate my life to."

What moved me so much was that, in organizing, when I've worked on national campaigns, our job is always to go to leaders, whether that's a union leader, or an environmental organization, Sierra Club, whoever it is, on a piece of legislation and to say, "Excite your leaders. Go out, call them, get them engaged."

That is a model that I call "Core to Community." A core group of leaders who, in the organizing movement, happen to be predominantly white men (still) who are in positions of strong power, who are trying to excite a base of people for a period of time on a certain issue.

Small group to large group, issue-based, short-term. Not so great. There are base-building groups, we have ACORN, I'm not saying the movement doesn't have that, but their predominant methodology was, take people who have never been involved. In fact, Rick Warren, in starting his church, one of the first things he said was, "If you're involved in a church, I'm not interested in you." He's looking for unbelievers. The progressive movement never does that. We are completely looking for people who've already bought every single solitary thing, myself included.

He takes them through a process of building them up from Community to Core through building them up into small groups who take care of each other, and learn to change the world together, and he actually has a social justice framework.

Of course, as they're coming through that network from Community to Core, he also wants them to accept Christ into their life. So, he has a spiritual goal for them. Being a spiritually mature leader, in my worldview, is not a bad thing. The people I work with in organizing who are what I would consider spiritually mature leaders — it's a great thing.

He takes them through both that process of skills building, of how to run a group and build other leaders, and also a spiritual maturity process. In his church, he has over 3,000 small groups. Those groups are always happening, always taking care of someone. If someone goes to the hospital, who takes care of them? The small group. If somebody needs childcare, who takes care of them? Their small group.

If he wants to do a political campaign, he's going to say, "For the next 40 days, I want you to feed all of the homeless in Orange County." Well, when he announced that to his church, they did 40 days of community service, and 10,000 people signed up.

That's what it looks like to me to change the frame of a small group of people who activate a base for the short term, to a long term building of people through a process of leadership and taking care of each other so that we can build out a movement, and then lay campaigns on that. I feel like we've been doing the opposite, and people feel burned out and disconnected.

We talk about this vision of what it will be like when things have changed. I get a little sense of that from the Obama election, but it still doesn't mean that somebody has childcare who doesn't have it. Until I know in the movement that people who are with us are truly cared for, and truly coming from a place of being called into their greatness, and we have pathways to get them from A to B, it doesn't mean much. We keep talking about it, but I haven't seen much outside of people getting really burnt out, and having to leave to get the care they need.

That's changeable, and I don't think the right-wing churches have a handle on the whole thing, obviously, but they have a best practices network of small groups that I study, and I definitely think we have some of those in the progressive movement. Also, there's a whole church movement that is particularly strong in Africa that also has these kinds of things, and there's social capital that's been studied out of Harvard, how you build social capital. We've combined a lot of those things, and we've come up with a theory of change.

We are testing it on the ground with these social champions, and with curriculum, and with local leaders. It's like the iPhone, version one, lot of glitches. We're probably in version three now, but I don't want to release it publicly outside of our partners, or broadly to the movement, until we get a little bit further down into the versions.

We want to take it to scale and see what the problems are that we come up with at scale in these three programs: What's Your Tree?, Off the Mat, and Green For All. We're constantly failing and finding things that are wrong. That's part of our methodology. We are an organization that's an adaptive organization; we want to be adaptive and constantly changing, and we want the model to actually move and change and grow, but it has to get to a certain level of growth, just like a child does, before it has enough energy.

Van and I spent a lot of time this summer really talking about that, his feelings for Green For All, and my feelings for Engage, that we want to do things in a way that's very intentional, so that as we scale it up to a lot of people, it holds up. Not that it doesn't have some failure; I think failure is a sign of success.

You mentioned that you've been organizing for 20 years. Can you talk a little bit about the path that brought you to this work?

Well, I come from an organizing family, union organizing family. Some people's families are doctors or lawyers, mine's organizers. I was involved from a very young age in many different social change things. As a college student, I was part of the national student divestment movement. I went to the University of Iowa. We took over a building. We locked down.

I was trained by Mel King, a civil rights leader out of Boston, extensively, and I still really identify with a lot of his work. Then I went on to work for Amnesty and Greenpeace, and I've done an enormous amount of youth organizing. I founded a nonprofit with a couple of other women, Robin Templeton, Asha Bandele, and Veronica Sanchez called UNPLUG, and then did consulting, and wrote a book. I was never planning on founding another nonprofit, and definitely did not want to birth Engage. [laughs] But, it became very clear to me, there were many signs, that it was what I was supposed to be part of birthing, and the group that birthed Engage, it called all of us to stand up and do that.

And what is the long-term vision for Engage?

My long-term vision for Engage is, how I'll know it's a success, is when I look back on it (we all talk about being in rocking chairs now because I'm about to turn 43 next week) and when I'm sitting in a rocking chair next to Van, and other people, what I'm looking for is that there is a team of leaders who truly know how to both care for people, and change their world at the same time. That when you plug into the social change movement, what you're going to get first is a sense of community, and a sense of care, and a sense of somebody really looking at you and saying, "What is it you want to do? What is it that calls you to be more than you thought you could be?", and then a team of people that helps you get there.

I want to see that we're having a lot of community care, and we have political power because of that base. Make no doubt about it, the small circle network in the evangelical churches have elected presidents. I believe the small circles that came together around Obama will elect him, but the question is, what happens after a single campaign? Do we stay together and create this kind of community we always talk about, but I don't see in practice that often, except for maybe at a Bioneers conference, or something for a weekend?

That's not what it looks like. What it looks like is Van's wife being able to call me and say, "I need somebody to come get my son today, can you pick him up?" or me being able to say, "I have dental surgery, who's going to come and take care of me?" and knowing that people in the movement aren't going to say, "Oh, you know, I'm working 70 hours a week, I'd really love to be there, but I couldn't." That's not what it is. It's not how many friends you have on Facebook, it's the depth of connection of our community ties that will keep us together and allow us to have political power together.

I want to know people at a deep level. I don't want to know them in passing. I want to know less people, and I want to know them more. I keep looking when people are asking to Facebook me now, and Erin Potts said to me, "You know, I'm really looking at, would I spend a weekend with those people?" I want to know who it is that I'm in contact with because I can't take care of everyone, and I can't be involved in everything, so I want to choose really well.

Can you talk a little bit more about what the three programs that make up The Engage Network are about?

Right now we've partnered with three social champions. One is Julia Butterfly Hill, who had a two-year tree sit, and that program that surrounds her is called What's Your Tree? What's Your Tree? is a program for people who might see her movie, or for the first time are thinking about being involved in environmental or social change. It takes them through a process of finding their purpose, building a community team, and taking action.

Then we have Off the Mat, Into the World, which, as you might imagine, is a yoga program with Seane Corn, that takes yoga leaders, and people in yoga studios through that same process, but also has a very embodied sense of it; the yoga teachers take people through some work. Also, I think it's a little bit deeper work because you're doing work in your body.

Right now we're in the design phase with Green For All, and looking at launching a leadership training program in two to five cities in the spring, predominantly in communities of color, that will build small living room circles as well. With Green For All, there are students who are in green jobs programs, there are people at the city level, there are the student environmentalists, we have to look at all those places and serve many different communities. We'll be piloting in the spring, and then version two.

If people who are listening to, or reading this interview are getting excited about what you're saying, how can they get involved in The Engage Network?

Well, there are two ways to get involved. One is, you can go to the Engage website at www.engagenet.org. The way you enter is through the partner organizations, What's Your Tree?, Off the Mat, or Green For All. You can see if there is a local group in your area. At this point, there may not be, in which case, I would say, there isn't a way to locally get involved. You can sign up and say, "I want to start a small group," but we're not launching in that way.

What I would encourage people to do in the meantime is to not wait for Engage. Find a circle of five of your closest friends and start having a potluck once a week. Start bringing in readings, talk about your visions and your dreams, and what it is you want to do, and how you want to be there for each other. Make a commitment to meeting for six months, or a year. Your ability to build community among your friends who you want to do social change with, and to stay in that community changes the world.

We now know that groups of people who are strongly tied together, there are government studies, Harvard studies, that show us this, vote more often. They're less sick. They're less in poverty. Once that group of people has met for six months, and really spent some time internally getting to know each other, I mean, like, six months, a year, maybe think of one thing you want to take on together. Or, go around and each person gives a vision, and say, we're going to take on the vision of one person for a couple of months.

That's the process. We're doing it through curriculum, and looking at scale, but you don't need us to do that. As much as I love Facebook and MySpace, that isn't what is going to build us a movement, so be willing to be bold and take the next step into movement. We're not the only group that's doing small groups, the Howard Dean group went into Democracy for America. Look for groups that have that ability to train you as a leader on the ground, and really tie deeper into your current community.

Is there anything else that you didn't get to talk about, either about The Engage Network, or your partners, or the work that you've done that you want to share with folks?

I think it's an incredible time. When people are feeling this call to get plugged in, it is hard to take that first step. I say to people, the first step is a potluck. You've seen what people around the country making a few phone calls for Obama has done. We're going to elect a president. 3.2 million people giving money, 82 or 86 dollars.

See, that one step of community, it's a very valid step that, for whatever reason, the movement left behind. Realize that the Civil Rights movement, the women's movement, the anti-slavery movement, there isn't a movement that was successful without those kinds of small living room circles. Stand in that and know that once a month, or twice a month potlucks can change the world.

Photo: The Engage Network Founders: Marianne Manilov, Ina Pockrass and Alissa Hauser.BlogHer Contributing Editor, Britt Bravo, also blogs at Have Fun * Do Good and The Extraordinaries.

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