By Nina Berman on March 19th, 2021
Recommended Reading: Tyranny of Structurelessness
At Fractured Atlas, we think a lot about the structures that govern our interactions with one another; the structures that determine who gets decision-making power in a group, and who is accountable to whom.
We think about how office hierarchies, nonprofit boards, reporting requirements for grantees, and other structures are fundamentally oppressive or rooted in oppression. In particular, we see how many of these structures are built on anti-Black racism, violence, and exploitation.
We think about how we can change structures and about building new structures to serve our purposes and to support ourselves and our communities.
Our thinking doesn’t happen in isolation. It happens in conversations with one another and with our colleagues in our professional fields. It grows out of writers, organizers, and theorists who have paved the way before us. If we’re serious about building ways of working together that align with the change we want to see without burning people out along the way, it’s crucial to do our homework. We need to be constantly learning about other attempts to create anti-oppressive and effective ways of gathering.
As we continue to think critically about which structures we want to be building and which we want to be divesting from, we look to radical social movements for inspiration. We want to know how other people who have come before us have thought about creating change, starting with the structures of how we relate to one another.
Right now, what’s on my mind is the relationship between structure and structurelessness as articulated by feminist activist and writer Jo Freeman. In her 1970 article “Tyranny of Structurelessness,” Freeman argues that there is no such thing as a structureless group and that in efforts to undo the problems with traditional, rigid group structures we have replaced them with something possibly more insidious.
We hope that by exploring her argument, we can encourage one another to continue to think deeply about how we gather with one another and how we can continue to do so in a way that is both aligned with our politics and effective in helping us get closer to our goals.
The Problem With Structured Groups
There’s often a disconnect in groups that are dedicated to social change when they are run with very rigid internal structure and decision-making mechanisms.
Often, they end up replicating top-down hierarchies that are bound up in racism, classism, patriarchy, and other forms of oppression. When there is rigid, authoritarian leadership at the top of a group looking to create progressive or radical change, decisions tend to be made unilaterally. That decision-making style is fundamentally anti-democratic and anti-egalitarian. It tends to crowd out voices of people who don’t have power within that structure and privilege people whose voices are most valued in dominant society (white, male, cis, hetero, able-bodied, wealthy). It encourages people at the top of the heap to amass power and influence without any accountability to the other members in the group.
It’s hard to fight against systemic oppression if the way that you gather together, the way that you make decisions, and the way that you work together is invested in these same oppressive systems.
As Audre Lorde famously put it, “The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”
Because of the ways that heavily-structured groups can explicitly replicate power dynamics rooted in oppression and violence, many groups attempt to avoid structure entirely.
These structureless groups can theoretically do away with the problems and hierarchies of structured groups. The thinking goes that if nobody has formal power, then everyone has an equal say in decision-making.
Structureless groups will resist assigning anyone official capacities or roles like note-taker, treasurer, media outreach point person, archivist, president, or vice president in hopes of avoiding the oppressive aspects of structure, hierarchy, and power.
Structurelessness Doesn’t Really Exist
But, as Jo Freeman argues, structurelessness is a myth. You can take away formal structures, but you can never do away with structure completely. It’s wishful thinking to believe that we can come into an organizing space, an art collective, a workplace, or anywhere else and completely unlearn all of the social norms about being in a community or group, even if and when we recognize that they are harmful or we don’t want them.
“To strive for a ‘structureless’ group is as useful and deceptive as to aim at an ‘objective’ news story, ‘value-free social science’ or a ‘free economy….” the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others...the idea of ‘structurelessness does not prevent the formation of informal structures, but only formal ones.”
As she frames it, without any formal structures, informal structures will pop up. It’s not a bad thing or a good thing, it just happens to be inevitable. Some people will be more comfortable speaking up in meetings, taking meetings with the press, making decisions, and working with one another. It’s no surprise that the voices who tend to dominate in these “structureless” groups are the ones who have been conditioned to believe that their voices, expertise, and opinion matter the most (white, cis, male, “formally” educated, wealthy, etc.).
Without any formal leadership, Freeman observes that leadership will still emerge from subgroups within a larger group. These subgroups tend to be in-crowds of friends who are already comfortable with one another, who might have a history of working together and who might talk shop with one another when they meet up socially outside of the group.So, by trying to do away with the structure that is rooted in oppressive systems, structureless groups sometimes end up replicating those systems by not replacing them with anything new.
But there are other problems with structurelessness beyond just its impossibility.
Structurelessness Makes It Hard To Act
Without a formal structure, it’s hard to get things done.
Jo Freeman wrote about structure and structurelessness in the women’s liberation movement in the 1960’s. Structureless groups were powerful containers for consciousness-raising meetings where women realized that they were not alone in their experiences of sexism and in their desire for something different. But then once they got to the point where members wanted to do something outside of the group, groups that didn’t have a structure of any kind often found it hard to decide what to do and then do it.
As Freeman put it, “Unstructured groups may be very effective in getting women to talk about their lives; they aren’t very good for getting things done. Unless their mode of operation changes, groups flounder at the point where people tire of ‘just talking’ and want to do something more.”
In groups without a formal structure, it can be challenging to know what the bigger goal is going to be, what the steps to get there are, who is responsible for which parts, who is empowered to make which decision, and how everyone should be communicating with one another.
Without knowing who is responsible for what, sometimes nothing gets done. Other times, individuals take on too much work themselves, simultaneously burning out and grabbing power without necessarily intending to.
Members of a structureless group can get so frustrated at inaction that they form a small faction and organize with themselves either within the group or after leaving the group together. Or they might leave and join a wholly different, larger organization with formal structures out of the belief that that structure will help get things done.
We Need Better Structures
The dichotomy between harmful, oppressive structures that tie us more closely to systems of oppression versus the fantasy of complete structurelessness is a false one. We don’t have to choose between bad structure and no structure. We can envision new structures that support us as individuals and as groups, that help us get to where we want to be going.
“We will have to experiment with different kinds of structuring and develop a variety of techniques to use for different situations... Other ideas for structuring are needed.”
Freeman suggests several few first steps towards building better structures for group work and group organizing:
- Distributing power among a group of people can prevent power accumulating in individuals, whether by intention or not.
- Delegating tasks can give people a clear set of expectations, boundaries, and next steps and help them feel empowered by the group to make decisions regarding what they have been delegated to work on.
- Rotating tasks can ensure that the whole group shares skills and knowledge and that certain aspects of work don’t become one person’s “property” or domain.
- Allocating tasks according to interests, skills, and abilities helps groups use people’s talents to their fullest potential. But within an allocation model, people should be given the chance to learn new things through an apprenticeship model.
- New structures should encourage the diffusion of information so that knowledge doesn’t become a secret vector of power.
- There should be equal access to resources including practical resources like a computer or a printer or skills like grant-writing and conducting interviews.
Her vision for positive, healthy group structures is that the groups of people in positions of authority will be “diffuse, flexible, open, and temporary.”
It’s challenging because we don’t know what will work and what won’t. Nevertheless, we need to be able to compassionately experiment with different ways of working together. There won’t be just one good way of structuring a group or an organization. There needs to be many flexible ways of working together, and shared resources from different orgs and groups detailing how they work so that we can share our strategies with one another.
In the same way that we explored Jo Freeman’s argument about structure and structurelessness, we believe that it’s crucial to learn from people fighting for anti-oppressive worlds where we can thrive.
At Fractured Atlas, we’ve got our eyes on organizations and groups like Prime Produce, the NYC Real Estate Investment Cooperative, New Economy Coalition, Recess, and Allied Media Projects, to name a few.
New Structures in the Arts
The art world is governed by plenty of structures that are rooted in oppression and exploitation. What could it look like if we focused on building new structures to help us produce, share, and archive creative work and develop an arts economy that serves us all? Here are a few places we could start:
Many museums, especially the bigger ones, have collections that are built on stolen artifacts and art from colonized people. Wealthy donors and board members make decisions about the museum while people who work in the museums are paid poorly and treated as though they are expendable.
What would it look like to have museums that were accountable to the artists whose work they collected and to their own legacies of violence and oppression? How can we display and share art in ways that benefit the artists and the communities that they are part of?
Boards, like the ones that govern museums, nonprofits, and other creative containers, often reaffirm the power that wealthy people have when determining the fates of large cultural institutions. The loudest voices in boards tend to overshadow other voices on the board, as well as voices of workers in those institutions. And sometimes they even serve to distract from the violence that produced enough wealth to sit on a board in the first place.
How could boards be transformed so that they can still provide resources, leadership, and expertise without replicating paternalism, white saviorism, and class elitism?
Internships are common ways for people to get a foot in the door in the art world, but they, too, depend on structures of oppression. They are frequently either unpaid or very low-paid, meaning that the opportunities are truly only available to people with outside means.
What could it look like if we created an arts job market that was based in respect for workers that gave newcomers to the industry real skills and opportunities? How could people use principles of apprenticeship rather than exploitation to help newcomers in the art world?
In the world of grants, artists and arts organizations are often competing with one another for too few funding opportunities and grantors often engage in white fragility and white supremacy in the granting and grant reporting process.
In what way might we transform grantmaking to create stronger partnerships between artists and institutions and support a wider group of artists across the creative ecosystem? How can we create support so that artists don’t have to fight against one another for scraps doled out by the idle rich? How can we shift ourselves from a scarcity mindset to one of abundance?
To take this work seriously, we need to look at previous iterations of these struggles and these conversations, as we’ve done by exploring Jo Freeman’s work. It also means keeping our eyes open to today’s radical community organizers and changemakers.
One institution that we’re looking to right now to show us new ways of creating structures and ways of being with each other is arts nonprofit, Recess. Among other ambitious projects, they are creating new models for nonprofit boards that are rooted in compassion and shared humanity.
About Nina Berman
Nina Berman is an arts industry worker and ceramicist based in New York City, currently working as Associate Director, Communications and Content at Fractured Atlas. She holds an MA in English from Loyola University Chicago. At Fractured Atlas, she shares tips and strategies for navigating the art world, interviews artists, and writes about creating a more equitable arts ecosystem. Before joining Fractured Atlas, she covered the book publishing industry for an audience of publishers at NetGalley. When she's not writing, she's making ceramics at Centerpoint Ceramics in Brooklyn.