Democratic decision-making in coalitions

Coalitions, Regroupements, and Tables de Concertation

Coalitions, regroupements, concertation tables and networks are structures in the community sector that link different community organizations together and allow them to work on the same issues or with the same communities. They are very present in Quebec’s very structured and institutionalized community sector (See In the Know Annex p.24 and the Autre Montréal Chart), and are one of the ways for communities and movements to organize themselves, often considered as a strategy for advocacy purposes. Over the years, we’ve heard concerns from groups who are involved in, or consider being involved in coalitions, as well as obstacles to such participation. COCo’s Movement Building Lab is looking at opening a conversation about democratic decision-making in coalitions this year to start addressing one of these obstacles.

Who is Participating in Coalitions in Quebec 

Through the In the Know research project (2009-2012), COCo investigated the participation of English-speaking and ethno-cultural organizations in networks, with coalitions defined as a form of network. Most groups surveyed participated in at least one (75.2%) if not more (55.5%) networks (p.29). English-speaking groups found their participation in networks to be mostly useful (p.31). There seems however to be little participation of these groups in networks involved at the decision-making or policy-influencing levels (p.35), which is the level where we see a lot of coalitions forming. Obstacles to participation in networks can be difficulties in communication, cultural differences, language differences, tokenism, limited possibilities of interaction, time commitments required, or lack of acceptance from the larger group (p.31-32).

To follow-up on this research, it was decided COCo would continue to encourage “groups we work with to become or stay involved in appropriate networks , regroupements, tables and coalitions in the Francophone community sector .” (p.38)

Read the In The Know full report by clicking here.

Why is Decision-making in coalitions so important?

Decision-making is one of the key components of social movements and community organizing, including coalitions. Decisions need to be taken, and the way these decisions are made, and who gets to make them, can have a profound impact on the movement’s success, from disrupting the functioning of the organization to empowering its participants sufficiently to achieve its social purpose. Joining a coalition usually comes with the strategic expectation that the group’s voice will have more of an impact with the coalition than separately, and thus that the group will be considered in collective decisions. The approach to democratic decision-making within a coalition can thus be related both to the movement’s success, and to the willingness of members to actively participate in the coalition.

Though this may be true for all participants of a coalition, and not just for anglophone or ethno-cultural groups, a group that already feels marginalized may have an added interest in ensuring that it’s voice is heard and that power imbalances are addressed within the coalition. This may warrant thinking about an Anti-Oppression approach in thinking about creating inclusive spaces for democratic decision-making for coalitions.

Join us for “Just Talking”

There are many potential obstacles to participation and democratic decision-making in coalitions. Coalitions can have membership coming from established community groups, engaged citizens or unincorporated groups, with varying different levels of time, budget, advocacy networks, organizational capacity, and previous analysis of issues connected to the coalition’s work. What steps are being taken to address these potential power imbalances? Groups can invest themselves in coalitions with different expected outcomes, and it can be difficult to work together when pulling in different directions. Is there some clear basis of unity, such as an established purpose or goal, that can be referred to to coordinate action and focus efforts?

Democracy may seem like a transparent value, but can we actually have various understandings of its implications. Members may all value democratic decision-making, but are we looking at majority-based or consensus-based models? And what type of consensus are we looking for? Must we remove contentious items from proposals until we achieve the lowest common denominator we can all agree on? Such solutions may sometimes lack ambition and impact. Must we craft all propositions and actions together, which can be long and labour-intensive, or is there sufficient trust for delegation, nomination, representation, etc? What happens when there’s tension, disagreement, internal opposition, dissent and dissidence within the coalition around a specific issue? We’d like robust processes and trust to be able to go through such phases without jeopardizing the coalition at every turn, but it’s not always obvious to pull off. Are we also recognizing the occasional need for decisions to be made in a timely manner? These are just some issues worth discussing and thinking about.

COCo’s Movement Building Lab is joining forces with multi-sector, multi-actor groups to discuss these issues, as there are several questions around democratic decision-making that can arise in the particular contexts of their community organizing. If you are a person involved in such a coalition, please join us for a first conversation around these issues on May 13th, from 6:00-9:00 PM, in the COCo offices, some food available. Write to info@coco-net.org to confirm your interest.

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