You Gotta Represent Dispersing Authority to Dispersed Members

By John McCrory

When we pause to consider what purpose Planners Network can usefully serve in the coming years, I think we must begin by recognizing the limits of a national organization such as ours. We must understand what PN can and cannot do. Planners Network is a national, even international, association of volunteer members. Monetary and material contributions from members manage to fund a newsletter, web site, listserv, and one part-time staffperson. PN has no paid full-time staff or officers. If the membership were to grow, say, to around 4,000, it might permit PN to employ two full-time staff people, but most of their time would be occupied by the administrative work required to sustain this growth. Without a major patron, the structural situation of PN is unlikely to change in any fundamental way.

In this issue and throughout PN’s history, members have shown no shortage of ideas about what PN should do. But, recognizing our limits, what is a network of volunteer members capable of doing effectively?

The obvious answers are in our present and recent past. The annual conferences and the newsletter have proven vital forums for sharing information and ideas. Our web site and listserv are valuable complements to these activities, even if we haven’t utilized their maximum potential. Despite PN’s relatively small size, our efforts to articulate our unique visions and goals outshine similar efforts by much larger organizations (like the American Planning Association) that lack any strong vision.

As for what PN can’t do, we must recognize PN cannot organize. With no full-time staff, PN lacks the ability to consistently support organizing. I find it doubtful we could mount a vigorous letter-writing campaign or petition drive. It would also be difficult to coordinate the writing of reports, position papers, or op-ed pieces, much less to collect the writing PNers are already doing with the purpose of amplifying our message to a larger audience.

Such efforts in the past have been only sporadic and occurred when one or several members stepped up to the plate. Ultimately, however, major initiatives like these prove beyond our ability to sustain; their is only so much volunteers can do. I am certain many PNers have had to decide between contributing time to volunteer efforts with PN or working on more immediate local issues. Nevertheless, the work our members do in their local communities is perhaps the more powerful, but quieter, contribution PN has made. I believe this work is the key to PN’s future.

If PN is to prosper and grow as an organization, it is essential that the structure of our organization match our vision. We seek to promote the equitable distribution of resources, power, and opportunity. As Dick Platkin implies elsewhere in this issue, doing so requires diffusing and de-concentrating authority and control. PN must do the same. We must empower our members with the authority to actively serve as representatives of PN in their local communities. In fact, this authority is there for the taking; it only needs to be encouraged. When we work on specific issues facing our communities as local citizens or as representatives of a local organization, when appropriate, we can perform this work under the PN banner as well. Each of us is a potential messenger, able to articulate the shared values and commitment PN stands for. My first step is that I am stating my affiliation with Planners Network when I publish articles and attend public meetings.

By becoming more vigorous representatives of PN, we can also connect to the other members in our area so that more local chapters emerge and existing local chapters are re-energized. On the local level, PNers can organize. To support members’ authority, PN needs to continue to strengthen its publications, online and in-print. This can only happen if we alter our conception of what membership means. We must see that the authority conferred by membership also gives each of us the responsibility of reporting back to other members about the work we do in our local communities. As Chester Hartman and subsequent newsletter editors have continually appealed, more members need to be “member-contributors,” not just “member-readers.”

PNers around the world are fighting the good fight on the broadest range of issues imaginable. Among PNers there is surely a great diversity of opinions and perspectives concerning the best strategies for achieving fundamental change. Yet I suspect we all share the same touchstone in our vision of a fairer, more equitable world. This is no small thing. It sets us against the accumulating and concentrating purpose of pure capitalism, yet it also connects us to the dream most people share.

If individual members assume authority for representing PN in the work they do locally, and if they share the news of this work with other members by contributing to the newsletter, web site and listserv, our organization can overcome the obstacles inherent in being a widely dispersed network of volunteer members. It will also make it possible for PN to effectively pursue the strategies suggested by the other contributors to this issue. We must change our conceptions of the structure of authority in our organization and the meaning of membership. When our ideas and visions interact with a broader audience of planners, activists, and citizens, they will be enriched with nuance and texture that can only make them more relevant, and more powerful. 

John McCrory is a student at Pratt Institute’s Graduate Center for Planning and the Environment. In addition to handling the production of the Planners Network newsletter, he maintains a web site, Pause, that features articles on planning, politics, policy, and poetry. Surf to:

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