Inclusive organising

Inclusive organisations are not only more diverse but also stronger in terms of membership and legitimacy. This blog post, aimed at an international audience, introduces the norm-critical approach as a powerful tool for building inclusive and vital organisations.

There are many good reasons to work towards more inclusive civil society organisations. To begin with, it is obvious that an organisation that doesn’t discriminate against minorities or certain genders can attract many more members. Nobody wants to get involved in an organisation were they don’t feel welcome. Many organisations even build up structures that make it more or less impossible for certain people to participate.

For organisations with a closed recruitment base, for instance trade unions, student unions or patients organisations, having a diverse membership is vital. Within the framework of representative democracy, these organisations are claiming to represent not only their members but the entire recruitment base. So if the organisation is less diverse then the group it claims to represent, this is a serious harm to its legitimacy.

The issue might appear to be less urgent for organisations with an open recruitment base like sports or hobby organisations. On the other hand, these organisations have the potential to be a meeting place for people from different backgrounds, thus contributing to a vivid democracy regardless of their formal objectives. In that sense, diverse associations can make an impact far beyond the organisation itself.

The first step towards a more inclusive civil society organisation is to see membership and commitment as strategic issues that will have to inform all operations of the organisation. Without a well-reasoned strategy, the members will most likely recruit new members that are similar to themselves. In the long run, this will lead to a homogeneous organisation and the more homogeneous the organisation is, the more difficult it will be to reach out to other groups. A viscous circle. One powerful tool that will help you break this pattern and to create a strategy is The Membership Model.

For the next step, let me introduce what has become known as a norm-critical (not to be confused with non-critical!) approach in Sweden. That means to challenge what is regarded as “normal” in society. Societal norms are indivisible until someone breaks them. Then the blame is often put on the person breaking the norm, rather than challenging the norm itself.

At this point, one might argue that many norms are vital for society to work, like for instance not to kill, not to steal or even unwritten rules about how to behave on public transport. And sure, societal norms not are not negative per se. But again, just to make these norms visible is beneficial as it helps people to navigate them. That is certainly the case for an organisation’s internal set of norms which can be rather different for new members to grasp.

Let’s take a closer look on two norms and how they can affect your organisation. There are many more, but those two might serve as examples here. One example of a negative norm norm is the hetero norm: people are assumed to be straight unless they say otherwise. Another one is the functionality norm, assuming that people generally don’t have any disabilities. These norms can cause organisations to exclude unconsciously. The hetero norm might cause an organisation to only displays pictures of straight couples and nuclear families on leaflets, the web page etc. Being unaware of the functionality norm might lead to meetings being hold in inaccessable locations or that all available food is uneatable for people with allergies.

There are many more norms, based on for instance ethnicity, gender, age or class. Organisations and movements can even have their own internal sets of norms that can vary widely from the surrounding society. These internal norms can be as excluding as the general societal norms.

Having a hetero-normative mindset is not identical to being a homophobe. The functionality norm is not identical to ableism. Yet, the results are pretty much the same. Unintended discrimination is still discrimination. Norms build exclusive structures. Being regarded as “normal” is a privilege on the expense of those who are not conforming to the norm. Being regarded as a norm-breaker/abnormal is closely connected to be subjected to othering, a form of marginalisation.

A traditional approach to deal with discrimination is the concept of tolerance – to tolerate people who can’t conform to a norm. However, tolerance is highly problematic as it only addresses those who benefit from the norm system and appeals to them not to discriminate, based on kindness. Tolerance does not question the unjust power structures who label certain people as normal and others as abnormal. To meet people who are regarded as abnormal with tolerance is to exercise power as this tolerance could be withdrawn at any point.

Furthermore, campaigns aiming to increase tolerance are to their nature only targeting those who are privileged enough to be regarded as normal. So they are actually reinforcing the notion that only “normal” people have agency.

The norm-critical approach is all about raising awareness, making norms visible and questioning those norms who subject people to othering and limit the development of their personality. As these norms are deeply rooted, there is no quick fix. However, there are plenty of methods help you get started!

So what are you waiting for?

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Niklas Hill

Niklas Hill är doktorand i pedagogik med fokus på lärande i ideella organisationer. Han är även grundare till bokförlaget Trinambai. Niklas har startat Förening för alla med målet att inspirera fler till ett engagemang i civilsamhället.

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