Hierarchy vs. Grassroots

There is an ongoing debate within continental and national Unitarian Universalism about the structure of our organizations as Hierarchy vs. Grassroots that I find troubling as it is tending to reinforce the power in the hands of the few and does not adequately describe the needs that we have as a faith community.  I experienced this in the UUIGNITE youth & young adult activist network, in DRUUMM and now in the UU White Anti-Racist Allies organization.

The notion that establishing formal roles for a national/continental organization is inherently hierarchiacal is false.  It is possible no doubt for a hierarchy to exist, and ultimately they do in all settings given the dynamics of power, privilege and oppression.  Rather than throw the baby out with the baby carriage, I believe it is more healthy and wise to understand the context in which we are developing an organizational structure and create expectations that honor a grassroots vision and accountability, but still maintain a viable organization that will successfully integrate new persons into the system.

Having "no leaders", undefined "rotating leaders", or just a plain rejection of anything that looks like an official, formal "committee" in my experience leads national and continental groups (some of this may translate to local, but I’m not talking about that at this point) to ultimately continue to be led by a small elite clique.  It works like this:

Without a formal structure, particularly for a new organization, it is those with the existing relationships, experience and vision that ultimately hold all the power.  When things are done informally, it is the friends of the elite clique that thrive, newcomers are lost without a formal person to guide them through the organization, and it is difficult to foster intentional leadership development as there are no formal positions to fill.  Thus, the elite small group ends up with the responsibility, burdened and burned out, and in my experience, the organization dies a slow but successful death.

A formal structure, with official roles, can ultimately be more grassroots than just throwing out our natural understanding of organizational systems and "starting from scratch".  There needs to be the following checks or considerations:

Terms and term limits
Constituency that elects leaders (ie, if it is all continental or national at-large, constituencies can be more easily marginalized than if you are intentional about having positions elected by youth, POC, geographically, etc)
Leadership development programs

When the formal structure, which I believe must be flexible and developed creatively based on the talents of the people, is mixed with the above ingredients, I’ve seen a healthy organization emerge.  But the informal structure, which often feels like nothingness, ends up placing the burden on a few people, expectations are unclear, and ultimately accountability is primarily to those in the elite leadership structure. 


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