Building a better future from the inside out: CJTO’s restructuring process
By CJTO members Anna, Dani, Julia, and Brook
HISTORY AND HARMS
Climate Justice Toronto’s (CJTO’s) roots can be traced back to February 2019, at the “Powershift: Young and Rising” gathering in Ottawa. A few members from Toronto started a group for organizing, and eventually founded Climate Justice Toronto in April, with the main organizing members forming an informal “Core”. Later in the spring, CJTO began electoral organizing with the Our Time campaign (centered around electing Climate Champions for the 2019 Federal election). As the organization expanded into various working groups or “pods”, regional hubs, and in membership, Core continued to add new members based on involvement and personal relationships.
In December 2019, members raised a number of concerns about Core. As the main decision making body for the rest of the organization, Core tended to centralize power, and this centralization brought with it an unsustainably and inaccessibly fast pace of work, anti-Blackness from members not being adequately addressed, and struggles with accountability. These issues led to longer Core meetings where conflict arose, a poor allocation of resources, which in turn led to burnout from Core members. These issues that originated in the earliest days of the organization’s existence that had been consistently acknowledged but never fully addressed are indicative of a challenge that many leftist organizations find ourselves repeatedly and frustratingly coming up against: the learned instinct to internally replicate structures and behaviours which fundamentally support the processes of capitalism, colonialism, and white supremacy that we claim to be attempting to dismantle.
This sort of systemic conditioning has risen to the surface several times in the two years since CJTO was founded, and in this particular case, the instinct to be constantly acting “with urgency” (i.e. at the burnout limits of members’ capacity) was driven primarily by two factors: firstly, CJTO’s organizational culture was shaped by the fact that it had always existed in relation to one massive mobilization campaign after the other (first the September Climate Strike, immediately followed by the 2019 federal electoral campaign, and finally the ongoing Wet’suwet’en crisis) and had therefore never known any other mode of work than a constant state of clamorous demand.
Secondly, decision-making power had been centralized to the point of being bottlenecked into a handful of individuals, which worked to encourage this frantic pace in a cyclical way; not only were new members who joined CJTO informally directed to look to these individuals as leaders, and therefore examples of how one was expected to work within the organization, but they had also somewhat formally established a practice to only “invite” new members into “Core” who demonstrated a similar level of “committed” activity. In turn, as CJTO grew its membership, the pressure to maintain the organization’s activities at high capacity only served to reinforce this centralization, making it seemingly more and more difficult to distribute decision-making power without entirely ceasing operations. In fact, the forced cessation of most of our activities was, ultimately, what it took to actually begin to meaningfully acknowledge and dismantle these harmful structures, despite repeated attempts by CJTO members to call out the racism and ableism inherent in these elements of the organization’s operations.
In order to be able to work towards a world that was in alignment with our political principles, we felt that our organizational structure had to reflect the sort of political organization that we would want to see enacted in the world. This led to a series of strategy sessions that began the restructuring process. In March 2020, Core formed the Structure Committee to draft the initial structure proposal and one month later, shared this draft and solicited feedback.
Throughout the summer of 2020, the Structure Committee gathered feedback on the proposal from membership; also during this time Core was dissolved. In the fall, feedback from members was organized into categories for discussion by the Structure Committee. The Structure Committee met weekly to discuss solutions to all the concerns raised in the feedback process, and implemented changes by the end of the year, which were presented back to membership for ratification in early 2021.
Our new structure consists of four decentralized “Branches”. The Branches include “Campaigns and Mass Mobilization”, “Public Education and Storytelling”, “Community Care, Mutual Aid and Access”, and “Systems and Admin”. Each branch has a unique function in our organization and provides structure to our operations, while being rooted in our overarching political principles.
As autonomous entities, the Branches are meant to decentralize power in CJTO. Branches are free to choose how they operate, including their own meeting schedule, decision making process, regular operations, and overall structure. Each Branch has a number of “pods” or working groups that operate under them. All pods are also autonomous and work within the parameters of their respective Branch.
CJTO-wide decisions and report backs from each Branch are presented at a monthly Steering Committee, where each Branch is allocated a minimum of 2 and maximum of 4 Branch reps to represent its interests. All CJTO members are welcome to attend Steering Committee meetings and participate in discussions, but it is only Branch reps who are able to vote on behalf of their Branches.
For certain key decisions made at Steering Committee, quorum must be met. Quorum has two conditions: that every branch is represented by a minimum of two and maximum of four Branch reps; and that there is a minimum number of total reps present, which is: 50% + 1 (i.e. 9 total reps for quorum). A Steering Committee can still be held if there is no quorum (e.g. for report backs), but no decisions can be made without meeting quorum.
Decisions at Steering Committee (SC) are made using a numbered consensus model. In this model:
1 = Full support; 2 = Support with reservations; 3 = Abstain; and 4 = Block.
The consensus process involves the following steps:
- A proposal is brought forward to the SC meeting (this proposal will have already been provided to the Branches ahead of time, so that the Branches and their Reps can discuss their stances on it prior to the SC meeting).
- Branch Reps, caucuses, and any other CJTO members present at the SC discuss the merits and concerns of the proposal.
- After conversation has been exhausted, the original proposal OR the newly amended proposal is brought forward to a vote.
- All present Branch/caucus/regional hub Reps vote using the numbered consensus scale as outlined above.
- If ⅔ of the votes are 1 or 2, the proposal passes.
- If over ⅓ of the votes are 2 or 3, the proposal does not pass, and we return to step 1.
- If there are any number of 4’s, the proposal does not pass, and we return to step 1.
- Proposal passes.
SPECIAL CASE: for decisions involving a proposal to veto an action that may directly violate CJTO’s principles, a consensus-minus-one model would be used. In this case, 4’s from the Rep/entity in question cannot block the proposal.
See this instagram post for an infographic on this decision making model!
Orientations and Trainings
Orientations and Trainings are the proposed touchpoints for new members, replacing general meetings as the first point of entry to CJTO. These touchpoints ensure all members are aligned with our principles and have the skills to organize on their own in our decentralized Branches.
Annual General Meetings (AGMs)
At Annual General Meetings (AGMs) all CJTO members — not solely the Branch reps — have voting power. During an AGM, a super majority of ¾ of voters will be required for decisions to pass, as opposed to the consensus model used at SC.
A first draft of the above structure was developed in early 2020 by a small committee of CJTO members. A workshop was planned for April with the intention of approving this structure proposal. This first draft was presented as a proposal to Core two weeks before the workshop, and to general membership one week before the workshop for members to review. The workshop consisted of a majority of Core members and a few general members. During the workshop, it was clear that how the proposal was presented lacked transparency and was inaccessible, as members did not have adequate time to review the structure proposal, and the document itself was dense and included jargon. As a result of these concerns, the proposal was blocked during the voting process and did not pass.
Over the course of the few months after the new structure was originally presented, several CJTO members consistently advocated that any new structure we adopted could only possibly be as democratic as the process we took to implement it. In other words, the amount of thoughtfulness and care that we took to lay down each brick would end up being reflected in the quality of the house we were building together, and unless we worked to make the restructuring process itself as accessible and transparent as possible, the new structure would likely reflect all of the same problems we were trying to solve.
That summer was challenging; in many ways, it felt like there was quite a lot at stake, not least the relationships that we had built with each other, which were already strained by social distancing. Conversations were sometimes heated, and during this period several members stepped back from CJTO altogether, sharing ways in which they had been harmed over the course of the past several months.
The restructuring process continued into the fall, but was operating very differently than it had been. The Structure Committee designed a slow and deliberate feedback solicitation and implementation process which, over the course of six more months, solicited feedback from our members as democratically and accessibly as possible, through townhalls, small workshops, one-on-one meetings, and online feedback forms. The Structure Committee took every single piece of feedback that was received and implemented it into the structure proposal, then engaged in a second round of feedback solicitation, this time also meeting with trusted local organizers outside of CJTO for their perspectives as well.
We were, for the first time, engaging in this work slowly and intentionally, making every effort that we could think of to meaningfully connect with all of our members and incorporate their thoughts and perspectives, and what happened when we started moving slower? CJTO did not crumble. Our work did not suffer.
Quite on the contrary; the intentional nature of this new process produced a structure proposal that was far better than the one originally proposed. The more democratic nature of the restructuring process produced a structure that was itself more democratic – who could possibly have predicted that? Ah yes, all of those individuals who had consistently laboured to advocate for these changes within CJTO could, and did, predict that.
Just over one year after our first Structure workshop we hosted our inaugural Annual General Meeting (AGM) on May 3, 2021 with the main goal of reviewing and passing our amended structure. The AGM happened over zoom, and included guest speakers Paul Taylor (anti-poverty activist, Executive Director of FoodShare Toronto, and federal NDP candidate for Parkdale-High Park), Michelle Woodhouse (Program Manager of Freshwater Protections and the Great Lakes at Environmental Defence and CJTO member), and Pam Frache (labour, student, and social movement organizer, and Ontario Coordinator at Justice for Workers: Decent Work for All – previously Fight for $15 and Fairness). We presented our revised and accessible Structure proposal at the AGM and put the proposal to a vote. Spoiler alert: it passed unanimously!
To ensure a successful implementation of the new Structure, and a stronger organization, we allocated representatives as Branch transition reps to put together a Branch mandate with their Branch members, organize any logistical transition materials, and host a first Branch meeting before our first Steering Committee meeting. We also started a Principles Committee, to solidify our political principles that have been in draft; a Conflict Resolution Committee to build out a process to CJTO members to hold ourselves accountable and safe; and a Strategy Committee to design the strategy process for CJTO. All of these committees have now been implemented and are starting this work, which will be presented at a future Steering Committee or Annual General Meeting.
WHAT WE LEARNED
The systems we’re living and organizing in–and trying to resist–impose constant pressure to produce quantifiable results. In forcing us to confront the fact that CJTO has been far from immune to this deeply-internalized drive, the structure process demonstrated that if we want an anti-capitalist political structure, the work itself needs to be infused with anti-capitalism at its core; it isn’t enough to have the “right” principles if we aren’t adhering to them in the process of doing the work. This means that, as an organization, we need to take the full time necessary to do in-depth structural work: we need a structure that reflects the kind of world we want to see, and the only way to build and maintain that structure is to be open to continually being challenged–sometimes through conflict–and to create a space where those challenges can be worked through.
Tied up with this pressure to be constantly productive is a pressure towards toxic positivity–to be good friends with everyone you organize with, and therefore to “get along” and avoid conflict. This was probably always going to be especially true for a group consisting entirely of young organizers who gained a large platform relatively quickly: many of us have tended to quickly attach our organizing work to our identity and sense of self, so that when our ideas are challenged, it feels like a challenge to how “good” we are as people, as well as a threat to the friendships we’ve built doing the work.
But the relationships we build in organizing aren’t going to be the same as all of our friendships–we can, and often have to, be comrades with people we aren’t friends with and may not even like. And when we’re building these relationships with the specific intention of working together to strategize and fight for the world we need, conflict is not only inevitable, but generative. It shows up when we reach the most critical questions, questions we need to work through if we’re going to do anything more than continually gather a bunch of friends with similar politics.
More broadly, this process taught us that CJTO is ultimately not a specific group of people. The group of people most involved with the structure process changed drastically over the months, with some stepping back and others who entered partway through and made essential contributions. The fact that, early on, we kept clear, accessible records and worked to make the process transparent to the organization as whole, however, meant that the structure process continued despite this turnover. Assuming we do this kind of groundwork, the movement we’re building has its own irresistible spirit that can survive when any one person needs to step back and rest.