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Chinatown Working Group Looks at Restructuring

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Last month's Chinatown Working Group meeting. During the summer, it looked like the Chinatown Working Group (CWG) was on the verge of finalizing a comprehensive neighborhood development proposal for submission to the city.  That was before a blow-up over the hiring of a planning consultant to help refine a 197A Plan and a more recent campaign by some participants to restructure the 51-member organization in the name of greater democracy. Now it appears likely the CWG will spend the remainder of this year regrouping and will not be ready to forward their proposal to the Department of City Planning until sometime in 2011.

Yesterday afternoon, the organization’s steering committee met to figure out how to proceed both in the short-term and down the road.  The panel decided the full group would be asked, at this coming Monday’s monthly meeting, to nominate and elect new interim co-chairs. The terms of the current co-chairs, Thomas Yu and Jim Solomon, expire next week.

Also at Monday’s meeting, they agreed, the CWG will vote whether to form a sub-committee charged with revamping the way the organization is governed.   Some  have been critical of the two co-chair model, which has been in place since the CWG was formed two years ago. They argue it has stifled participation from many of the diverse organizations with seats at the table and placed an unfair burden on the group’s  leadership, who like all members of the CWG, are volunteers.

Several members, including Chatham Green resident Danny Chen, are proposing an alternative. Calling for decentralization, they want the CWG to be run by a committee, made up of around ten people who would share leadership responsibilities. They would take turns moderating meetings. In a memo distributed yesterday, Chen explained:

Rather than a model where there is someone who ‘watches over’ a task, we can have a model where the task makes itself visible to everyone. Since this is a community effort consisting of volunteers, as long as the entire CWG knows the status of all the outstanding tasks, people can decide whether to step up or sit back and allow a particular piece to languish… This is largely the model of open source software development…

At last month’s full board meeting, many participants spoke in favor of greater involvement from more CWG members.  Others were worried the organization would flounder without one or two designated leaders, arguing that “decision-making by committee” seldom works.   K. Webster said “rotating leadership doesn’t necessarily lead to democracy.”  She also warned that the biggest danger in prolonging the deliberations is “that people will lose interest.”

Chen has repeatedly said his proposal is not a “referendum” on Solomon and Yu. Many members praised them for holding the CWG together and overseeing the development of detailed action plans covering zoning, transportation, education, economic development, preservation and other issues.  But others have not been so diplomatic, accusing the chairs of dismissing their concerns on a wide range of topics.

This point of view has been advanced by members of the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side. Having sat out the first year of discussions, they only joined the Chinatown Working Group earlier this year.  Since that time, they have advocated for a massive expansion of the 197A Plan’s boundaries, arguing that Chinatown and parts of the LES excluded from rezoning in 2008 are both in need of protection from gentrification.  But members of the coalition became frustrated several weeks ago, complaining that CWG leaders were not taking their ideas seriously.  They see the restructuring proposal as an anecdote to the perceived failings of the organization.

Members of the coalition and other CWG participants advocating a new governing model intend to refine their ideas before next Monday’s meeting.  Meanwhile, it remains to be seen who (if anyone) will agree to serve as interim co-chairs. In the past, CWG members have not exactly jumped at the chance to serve in leadership positions.

CWG member Rob Hollander said yesterday all participants should understand how much is stake. “It’s a critical moment for the Chinatown Working Group,” he said. “The question must be asked, ‘Are we going to stay together?”

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  1. A correction. I did not suggest that it would be “wrong-headed” to change the governing structure. I said the members had the right to vote on whether they want to change the governing structure (since there is an active, voted upon governing structure in place). As an organization that strives to be open and democratic we need to ask members openly to weigh in on that point first. We had a small group of members who felt the need and voiced a desire for a new structure, which is every member’s right (and duty if you think something isn’t working well). But the members have never been asked if they even wanted a new governing structure. It has been difficult and unproductive (in my opinion) to discuss unclear proposals and discontents without that agreement and a time limit and vote. Now I assume the membership will be asked (and probably will agree) to form a committee to make proposals for any restructuring. The idea of an open committee to develop plan(s) seemed agreeable to most if not all. That way, the work of the group can continue with interim or elected co-chairs following the only agreed upon structure that we do have.

    My point was about community members (not organizations, whose ongoing duty it is to give/get information to/from their communities). We can’t keep asking already overwhelmed parents and others to weigh in on the guiding principles that they have already weighed in on (or ignored as is their right). After two Town Halls, almost monthly open meetings for over two years of all the working teams, our own members unflagging efforts to get the word out (we hope!) and many many emails we may still get more input, but we can’t keep hoping someone else is going to provide the resources to gather that information. (Though if we do, will be able to add anything we missed or got wrong for some time to come.)

    I suspect the group will need to find a new way to distribute the workload since it won’t have Thomas or Jim (or Elisa Espiritu) who have done that administrative work.

    I would hope that the issue of restructuring isn’t a referendum on the work of Jim and Thomas since, in reality, this group wouldn’t be here but for their steady competent leadership and great integrity.

  2. Thanks for the clarification and amplification of your point of view. I revised the comments attributed to you based on a review of my notes from the September full board meeting. My notes indicate you expressed reservations about “rotating leadership” and expressed concern that “people would lose interest” if the CWG doesn’t move forwrd relatively soon. You’re absolutely right – it is not accurate to say you voiced opposition to changing the governing structure. One other note: I’m not sure the members advocating a move away from the co-chair model would characterize their alternative as “rotating leadership.” I assume they’ll provide clarification on Monday.

  3. Thanks Ed. The term “rotating chairs” was used to describe part of the alternate proposal at some point. Some have moved away from the idea, some not (from what I heard at the meeting). And yes, all will become clear when the proposal(s) are made!
    And yes, you are accurate re: my comments re: the efficacy of rotating leadership. And yes, people have told me they don’t come anymore because “all we do is talk and don’t vote on the issues we were made to believe we would vote on.”
    Not sure I entirely agree with that – there are things you have to work out and it’s slow, but I think we are losing some organizations to the lack of a clear time frame on those discussions.

  4. The three most successful grass-roots organizations I’ve worked with didn’t rotate ‘chairs’ — they had no chair at all. They designated spokespersons, and they designated coordinators of other specific tasks, but the facilitator of each meeting was always decided on by the members at each meeting.

    Moreover, the meeting facilitator was chosen from members who weren’t vocal, so the facilitator did not dominate the discussion –the discussion belonged entirely to the members’ voices. The facilitator kept order so that the members could speak without interruption, kept time constraints, and that’s all the facilitator did. The agenda was also chosen at the meeting by the members.

    The largest of those three organizations (over 100 active voting members) had no committees either: everyone decided everything together. As a result, everyone had full knowledge, and participation was maximal. It was a long process — no doubt too long for CWG — but it was democratic in a way that mere voting in partial ignorance isn’t.

    The most successful of those three orgs eventually disintegrated because, even though there was no chair, one person did volunteer too many tasks. Members lost touch with crucial information, and they felt their organization was no longer in their own hands. The group had failed to structure it to avoid that kind of appropriation of functions.

    That’s the danger of a chair: the chair becomes a repository of information and holds connections to the members and to the outside agencies and authorities. The members depend on the chair and lose control of full information and of their own process. Essential to democracy is not voting, but knowledge and active participation.

    Of course, it’s easiest and fastest for an organization to leave it up to a dedicated, brilliant, knowledgeable chair and let the membership meet occasionally to review actions. But without the full information that participation brings, community self-determination is not possible. It gives the impression of community legitimacy, but actually the broad community is not participating integrally.

    The Chinatown Working Group has great potential as a community organization. If it can continue to keep together the disparate elements that are present, adding more local voices — particularly Chinatown tenants and labor, the most numerous and yet most vulnerable element — and if the diverse camps solicit each other in their interests and talk to each other, the Chinatown Working Group will be a powerful voice of the Chinatown community, a community that has been historically neglected by city administration.

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