Questions to and Answers from Harriet

Jill Sussman asks: At times RPS success seems to owe more to momentum than merit. You describe joining without much examination, based on others having joined. Was that common?

I would guess it was. And I think it makes sense, sometimes, because momentum often indicates merit, particularly ability to grow which is arguably the most difficult merit to develop. It is relatively easy to eloquently describe good program, aims, practices, etc. I knew RPS had all that. The hard part is growing powerful, which is what momentum signified.

Before experiencing a chapter, campaigns, etc., one only knows about a movement or organization second hand, from media, its own self description, the testimony of others, and the like. Of all the possible factors producing new memberships, I would think perception of who has already joined and stayed would rank high, assuming those other indicators are positive. If people with aims like mine who I want to relate to have joined and speak positively of a movement or organization, and especially if they are staying with it, it is only sensible that that will weigh on my joining as well.

This reveals, as well, why start-up is so difficult. When first beginning this key means of attracting new members, evidence of potential, barely exists. Later, it becomes more evident and outreach for new members becomes much simpler. For that matter, the same holds for cultural works, and also for books like RPS/2044. The beginning is very hard because getting involvement requires having had lots of people involved…so, at the outset, things are tough.


Henrik Hansen: Harriet, in your interview you say that: “I wasn’t the kind of person who goes into a room and immediately relates to people. I didn’t quickly create bonds. I was more like most people. Shy, quiet, not well suited to talking with folks I didn’t know.” How did that change? How did you get beyond the idea that neighbours shouldn’t talk? How did the first neighbours react to activists trying to organize? Because people are both quiet and shy, how did you manage to engage them in the beginning? Finally, what is your suggestion for any radical who wants to organize his apartment complex, but is too shy/afraid to actually start?

Hi, Henrik. I can only speak from my experience and though don’t think mine was unusual, I am sure it wasn’t the only way things went.

My own path was that when I was faced with the need to knock on doors and talk with folks I didn’t know about their lives in our apartment house, or other issues, for that matter, I at first saw only two things I could do to make it more manageable. And after a few tries, I thought of a third.

The first was that I could try to prepare myself to be ready for likely questions and concerns. The second was, well, I could just buck up and do it, and learn each time. The point was that I had to get it into my head that not doing it well – which I was sure, accurately, would the case for me at the outset – didn’t mean I shouldn’t do it. My doing it was better than not, even if I wasn’t doing it really well. And in any event, doing it was the only path to get better at it. I know that realizing that doesn’t calm nerves or bury fear. It didn’t for me, either. But it did give me the will to do it despite the sweat I was swimming in.

The thing I realized I could also do, though I didn’t think of it right off, was to mostly listen, not talk. At first, I had a message and I churned right into it, talking away, often way too fast in words way too obscure. But before long, I think my third try, I realized it was far better to query and listen, and only then to offer possibilities as the conversation permitted and needed.

The first neighbors I talked with? Some said nothing and just slammed the door. Some were immediately very welcoming – not least, I think, because folks really were lonely and a person taking sincere interest was not only novel, but welcome. But mostly, there was a strong aloofness, defensiveness, and even hostility – not surprisingly – since door knockers weren’t typically sources of cheer and gain.

I think being too shy or afraid to start is probably more the norm than the exception. Ultimately, I am sorry if it sounds trite, but you just have to do it. I don’t know how else to answer. Except, one thing is to do it with a partner for a time, if you can, and preferably with one who has experience with it. I was alone at the outset, but later I did help other folks get going by accompanying them when they were starting. That made the whole thing vastly easier for them, than it had been for me – though sometimes it can be even more off-putting for a tenant to see two folks at their door, not just one.