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Organizing Terminology: Self-Interest

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by Lynn Buske, JONAH Organizer

Many of our followers, no matter how long they’ve been part of JONAH, aren’t familiar with our organizing techniques and terminology. Maybe they haven’t taken our training, or perhaps we don’t explain them enough in our day-to-day work and communications. A new addition to our JONAH Journal will be short snippets to help you understand more about our organizing model.

All of JONAH’s work is done by highly dedicated volunteers (except by our staff – Lynn and Perla). Do you ever wonder how some of those volunteers who give so much for so long can keep it going? It is because they understand their own self-interest.

Our goal in organizing is not only to get people involved, but to get them involved in a way that is satisfying and energizing. We want people involved because they WANT TO BE, not because they feel they should be.

Volunteering can sometimes feel draining, but it can also fill one’s soul, satisfy one’s passions and sense of confidence, and spread joy to help others. As much as we want new people coming into the organization with fresh perspectives and new skills, we also want knowledgeable and reliable people who are going to stick around for a while. If you find that the volunteer work you’re doing isn’t giving you enough back, and you’re looking for something more to validate that work, chances are you just aren’t in the right place, and that’s ok! Once you’ve recognized that, we can help you find where it does work for you!

To get involved in a way that feeds you requires you to understand WHY you want to be involved and WHAT you get out of the work you’re doing. It is the deep driving force that is really important about why whatever you’re doing is of the utmost importance. Sometimes we know it deep down, but to SAY it gives us the fuel we need. This is what we refer to in organizing as “Self-interest”.  Self-interest is defined as “self among others.” Volunteering is about helping others, but as YOU are the one helping, it is also about you. Understanding self-interest is the only true way to work with someone else because it respects the two sides of the relationship. All organizing work is about relationships! It is, it really is!

Doing volunteer work just for others is not relational – that is selfless. When we do things completely selflessly, burnout and resentment typically occur. On the other hand, doing anything just for your own reward is selfish – then it’s all about you and not about them. In JONAH, we are working toward a mutually respectful approach to our relationships. In order to do this and get our work done, working with self-interest is crucial.

How does self-interest work? 

1.     Become clear about what motivates you – nurturing your relationship to yourself.

2.     Become clear about what motivates others (those you are working with, be it impacted people or other volunteers or city officials):

3.     Being in relationship with others enhances how one understands his/her place in the world. 

If you are always asking these questions: Am I clear about what I want for myself?  Do I let the people around me know what I want?  Do I know what other people want?  Do I let them know that?  Then you are getting clear about self-interest. 

Guess what? The easiest way to get clear on the above questions is by doing 1-on-1s! They help clarify our own thoughts and intentions, and help the other person clarify their thoughts and intentions.

David Liners, WISDOM Executive Director, shared with me, “One of the reasons we put such an emphasis on doing 1-on-1s is that we want our leaders to understand each other’s motivations, hopes and fears, what makes them angry and what gives them joy.  We don’t all have exactly the same “self-interest” but by sharing our own and hearing other people’s, we can become a community in which all of us can live out our self-interest. When we invite people to join our work, it is much better to be able to say “this is something I think you will like” rather than “this is something I want you to do.”  

As challenging as just identifying what motivates you and others can be, allowing yourself to drink in that reward can be the hardest part. It is a practice to pause after your work and acknowledge and accept the reward and let the joy it gives you be enough to keep you moving forward. This is especially important in our field of social justice as often it feels like we don’t make as big of an impact as we’d like.

It can take a long time to get good at these practices. It took me 3.5 years to really clarify my self-interest in JONAH. And that can change anytime! I initially got involved because I needed a job, wanted one with an organization that was led by their morals, and I wanted to bring my work and faith life together. Now I’ve learned my deeper self-interest that keeps me here: Helping others understand each other to validate where I have felt misunderstood; keeping JONAH strong so I keep a paycheck; build faith presence because my faith is important to me. When I first started, I had other barriers to welcoming the reward I got from JONAH and I had to work through those. I also had to learn more about myself and JONAH’s work until I could get really clear. I have to practice the pause to acknowledge and accept those rewards back to myself.

Now that I know my self-interest, I have to declare it so others can help keep me making choices on that path. And as an organizer, I listen for other’s self-interest so I can guide them to the right place in JONAH.

This is a very brief introduction to a difficult concept, but I feel it is an essential starting block to understanding what our organizing model is and why relationships are so central to it. We cannot improve our communities without these relationships and collaboration. Everyone has to benefit. Everyone has to do better. Everyone has to be respected. Including our volunteers! 

Thank YOU for volunteering for JONAH! Do you know the self-interest of someone you work with? Why are they in JONAH? What motivates them? Are you currently doing work (or not doing work) that is satisfying to you? Reach out to Lynn if you need help clarifying and getting into what satisfies you and helps others!

We all have a lot of choices about where to invest our time, our energy, and our money.  We hope people will invest in JONAH because they find it to be an effective way to live out their deepest values to become the kind of person they want to be.

Next JONAH Journal we will talk about Agitation – what it is and what it is not.