An activist group is not likely to be successful unless a sufficient number of members are able to work together to plan, discuss problems, and make decisions about solutions. These activities are difficult and it’s easy to go wrong.

SNCC had a way of conducting meetings that they valued very highly, championed for the local activists, and guarded zealously against change. It came to be called participatory democracy, although they did not use the term themselves. Unfortunately, if you google on the term you’ll find a lot of material that’s probably not very useful.

A recommended book on the subject is Freedom is an Endless Meeting, by Francesca Polletta, a professor at the University of California, Irvine. The book is very academic and dense, so you might feel like you’re dragging yourself through it but there’s probably no better source.

Here are the main principles of participatory democracy, taken from Polletta’s book and from the writings and interviews of SNCC people:

• Anyone may talk and everyone should talk.
• A person may speak for as long as it takes to make the point.
• Listeners should strive to understand the speaker’s rationale.
• Listeners should find whatever is useful in what the speaker says, even if the rest is unhelpful.
• Discussion should continue until consensus is reached.
• Everyone is a leader but nobody is the leader.

Polletta identified three areas in which participatory democracy provides benefits: solidary, innovatory, and development.

Solidary Benefits

Participatory democracy builds solidarity. Due to the requirement for consensus, participants bought into the group’s decision. They “owned” it and no one felt left out. This band-of-brothers mentality is very important for an organization that challenges powerful interests.

If your group’s game plan calls for someone to make a speech at 2:00 on a college campus and sound equipment is needed, the sound equipment has to be there at 2:00. Not 2:15 or 3:00. And it has to work. If the sound people are not totally on board they might let things slide. With the requirement for consensus, no one wants to risk letting the group down because everyone has a stake in the success of the group.

Participatory democracy builds respect for others whose viewpoints might be different. Participants are responsible for bringing marginalized people, who might have a following among the rank-and-file, in from the periphery. In meetings, speakers try to make their case clearly while listeners try to understand it. This is important in a mass uprising because the people on the edge are more valuable participating in the struggle than alienated from it.

People whose ideas differ from the majority should not be too quickly dismissed as “idiots.”

Innovatory Benefits

Two heads are better than one. As in skunkworks and other forms of industrial innovation, great results come when participants provide a flood of ideas and everyone feels free to discuss them. The volume and diversity of the input reveals hidden hazards, suggests contingency plans, ties up loose ends, and reduces uncertainty. To some extent the process compensates for lack of expertise in the subject matter.

It’s not all flowing fantasy. Participatory democracy, as practiced by SNCC, leads to a style of discussion that is very rigorous and analytical, in which opinions and proposals are very carefully vetted. This too is an essential part of the innovation process.

Remember the famous photograph of the three activists sitting at a whites-only Woolworth lunch counter while bystanders poured sugar, ketchup, and other condiments on their heads? Before this event the activists met in the Masonic lodge to prepare. Someone mentioned that the police might be watching (and they were) with the idea of arresting the activists on their way to the lunch counter. The group decided to head in different directions after leaving the lodge and then converge on the lunch counter. Even a well-known tactic like the lunch counter sit-in may have to be considered in an innovating way.

Developmental Benefits

Participatory democracy teaches participants to articulate what they want and present a persuasive case for it by evaluating costs and benefits of their preferred choices. It also builds the skill of negotiating the agendas of others in order to help the group decide whether to accept one agenda over the others or innovatively combine the various agendas into a result acceptable to everyone.

We have been talking as though everyone who will be affected by a decision are present in the discussion. In fact, many of the people involved in the uprising will probably not attend leadership meetings in which problems are solved and decisions made. Many will simply want to be told what to do. The leaders who do attend would be responsible for conveying the main decisions to the rank-and-file, at least to those who ask about what was decided.

Si Kahn, author of Creative Community Organizing, described his work with SNCC in Forrest City, Arkansas in 1965. As he questioned SNCC people about the rationale behind the tactics he was asked to help with, it became apparent that the explanations given to him by the SNCC people were often complex and subtle, but persuasive. Nevertheless, the SNCC people were very clear and knew what they were talking about, probably a result of their actively participating in lengthy discussions when the tactical game plan was being developed. SNCC people were very easy to understand.

The same skills would be helpful when the leaders of the uprising sit down with legislators to explain the political agenda that they intend to get implemented.


In spite of these claimed benefits of Participatory democracy, your local activist organization might still feel that, because of the requirement for consensus, your discussion process is too cumbersome and slow, and not enough is being decided. You might begin to consider an alternative, perhaps a board of decision-making directors. Or, perhaps decisions could be made by the organization’s leader.

If you become seduced by these alternatives, be aware that there is a trap. As soon as you begin to inflict political pain on your adversaries, they will look for ways to take away your effectiveness. The fewer decision makers you have, the easier it is for someone to gain influence with them, and thus influence over your organization.

If your organization makes decisions by majority vote, each such vote will create losers. Those on the losing side might subsequently spend more time thinking about improving their political position rather than about solving more problems and making better decisions.

Critics of participatory democracy often complain that activist groups get bogged down because they are unable to find consensus. These are very fundamental questions: is it always bad for the group to get bogged down? Is it always necessary to make a decision in order to avoid gridlock? What are the reasons for the gridlock? Could the group retrench and rethink the issues to achieve a better result?

According to a well-known design principle, you can have a product with good quality, you can have it cheap, and you can have it fast. You can’t have it all and you must pick any two. If you’re trying to produce a mass uprising you probably need good quality. Since you have little money, it needs to be cheap. So according to the principle something has to give, and that something is time.

What is a good meeting like? You feel safe giving the group your ideas; the other people offer their ideas, which are creative and original. You know you’ll be taken seriously. You know that the group will rigorously vet the ideas that seem promising. If the group is able to reach consensus, you will be comfortable with it and you are sure the others will be comfortable with it. Martha Prescod Norman, a SNCC staff member quoted by Cheryl Lynn Greenberg in her book, A Circle of Trust, put it this way: “I've been to school a lot and I have never been in an environment that was as intellectually stimulating as SNCC. This fluidity and creativity along with the sense of trusting each other's judgment is exactly what made us strong as young people and able to do so many things.”