For the past few months I’ve been co-editing a column for a new DC paper,  The Washington Spark.  I work with my friend  Sky Blue (the name his parents actually gave him!) on a column called “Beyond the Box”, which focuses on radical and alternative lifestyle possibilities.  So far, we’ve covered the Farm commune, car co-ops, Network for New Culture, Burning Man, and support work for Katrina victims being done by folks from the Rainbow Gathering.

Sky recently wrote a message to the editors’ email list, about the struggles of working on a cooperative project like the Spark.  It’s an independent, volunteer-based paper, and each month we struggle with everyone getting things in on time and following the requests of the managers for word count, photos, and other details.  I thought Sky’s email was an insightful reflection on what it takes to work cooperatively, and I thought you all might enjoy it, too.

The challenges we face with the Spark I think are highlighted by the fact that news media is typically run in a highly hierarchical manner and working cooperatively is pretty far removed from what most people are used to.

The way the Spark is structured and being runs puts a huge amount of responsibility and grants a huge amount of autonomy to the people working on the project, in particular the column editors.  This is of course a double-edged sword.  In my experience many if not most people perform better under deadlines and supervision.  Left to our own devices we tend to put things off till the last minute.  I tend to think of this as largely due to social conditioning.  Being told what to do and when to do it by is what we’re used to.  We tend to need something motivating us.  Making personal choices and commitments and sticking to them, especially when there are no consequences like being fired, getting a poor grade, being evicted because you didn’t pay the rent, having your boy/girlfriend angry at you, is not something we’re particularly practiced at.

The Spark presents us with a great challenge.  Given that the work is volunteer we all must be starting from a place of idealistic belief, passion, or some other perspective or attitude that motivated us to even volunteer in the first place.  But looked at in certain ways the project is non-essential, neither to our lives nor the lives of others.  This can be argued philosophically but it is true from the perspective of our practical and visceral experience.  The only bad thing that’s going to happen if I don’t get my column in on time is that the issue might be late and some people might be inconvenienced.  This is not much skin off my nose. But in that perspective is the death of cooperative group endeavors and activist endeavors that have a more creative and less tangible
impact on the world.

If we fail to have a strong sense of empathy and compassion for the people whom we are inconveniencing by not following through on what we said we would do we are missing a key aspect of the motivation that will make success possible.  Again, lack of follow-through has little in the way of adverse effect on our personal lives. We need to take on a sense of ownership, collective ownership.  If we don’t see our role, however small it may be, as being crucial to the success of the project then the people who care more about the project and are more committed to it will end up picking up whatever pieces gets dropped.  This is a great recipe for burn-out, martyrdom, and resentment.

In terms of the creative and less tangible aspect of the Spark, I would say that there are easily measurable results produced by the paper.  38 pages, 30,000 copies, and over 500 distribution points on a monthly basis is no small accomplishment.  But what impact does that actually have?  We have various anecdotal experiences of people saying great things, and the recurrence of advertisers is a good indication as is the rate at which the paper is picked up from the distribution points.  But that’s still not much.  What I think is really required here to give us the motivation to be solid on producing issues is a sense of long-term vision and a leap of faith.  The vision has to do with the transforming or replacing of the mainstream institutions providing various services with those based on a vision of a sustainable, peaceful, and socially and economically just human society.  Providing viable alternatives to all mainstream institutions, media being a key example, is crucial to true revolution.  The leap of faith has to do with the fact that we can’t really say whether what we’re doing is really helping to change the world for the better, we just have to follow our hearts and trust ourselves that we’re doing the best that we know how at this point and that we’ll continue to learn and change and do even better.  This is the long-haul not the quick fix version of revolution.

What a lot of this boils down to as well are issues of ethics and integrity, primarily in the realm of doing what we said we would do.  If we aren’t prepared to do what we said we would do we need to not make those promises.  So while the agreement of what we’re saying we’re going to do is made with others, in the context of a cooperative group endeavor, the commitment to follow-through must based within ourselves.  We must make it matter to ourselves because no one else is going to make us do it.  And this is what we want isn’t it?  We want to be living in a cooperative, non-heirarchical society right? This is an opportunity to make that happen.

– Sky Blue, Nov 2005