[Written for Bi Community News, April 1996]
Imagine this. You've had a brilliant idea for some kind of a resource for people. You're inspired by the joy of creation. You get on the phone / design and distribute your new poster / book a room for your new group / whatever. You put hours into what you've invented... and you don't begrudge a minute of it (or a penny of the money you spend). You're happy to spend your time that way, because it's so satisfying to see your vision made manifest, and you know you're doing something good.
Other people begin to get involved. But their vision doesn't quite match yours. "No, I think we should do it this way" / "But I can't endorse what you've said there..." / "I don't like the way you're representing us"...
Often there's enough of a consensus that the thing can continue - sometimes by turning into something different from the original idea. Other times, the project becomes a battle ground.
On top of that, you may be getting a lot of criticism from outside - from people who aren't putting in any time or money or resources, but just want to have their say about how it ought to be. "I don't think you ought to blah, blah, blah"
Then you have a question. How do you maximise the effectiveness of all concerned, so that useful contributions are not lost, and people don't waste their energies struggling for control or defending themselves?
There is no one answer, but I think it's a very interesting question, with some relevance to the more activist parts of the bi community.
I think one crucial axis of the question is whether the initiative (whatever it is) is claiming to represent the community. That does require a willingness to take on board other people's opinions.
In some ways similar to that is a situation where one person or one group is dealing with something unique in the community - such as the Pride Trust with Pride.
Some of the people with the most energy, though, haven't set out to represent anyone, and haven't laid any claim to unique resources. They've set out to fulfil on their own vision of what's good, and they're not necessarily interested in "designing by committee", or being accountable to anyone else. Their idea will either work and be applauded, or not. And meanwhile they're not stopping anyone else from doing something else.
When people set out to fulfil on their own vision, and then it gets corrupted by other people's demands, they're quite likely just to go and play somewhere else, where it's more fun. Then the community loses their contribution - which not everyone would have liked, but for some people would have been perfect.
When everyone must be pleased, inspiration tends to go out the window.
Even in places where there is an element of accountability (such as when someone does something on behalf of a group), I don't think it's necessarily productive to criticise or alter what people have done.
Outside input can be very useful to think around a problem or to put in something the person hadn't thought of. (Of course even then you may have to phrase your contribution tactfully... but that's another story.)
That's distinct from a disagreement based on a clash of visions, where the person has actively chosen the way it is. I think there are very few people who volunteer for anything without some kind of a stake in how they'd like to see it develop.
My experience is that the more satisfied someone is by the result, the more likely they are to continue putting in energy to the project. You may have to ask yourself "Okay, this isn't the way I would have done it, but would I rather have done it myself? Would I rather it hadn't happened at all? Or would I rather just empower this person to get on with it?"
Clearly with some projects (such as BASH or Bi Community News) the intention is to represent the community. And then it's appropriate to call people to account if it doesn't look like that's what's happening.
However, when the visible community is so small, there's a tendency for people to see every initiative as designed for the whole community. That's asking a lot. I mean, no-one expects "Cosmopolitan", or the Women's Institute, or "The O Zone", to cater for the whole of mainstream culture. Competition and diversity are expected.
Similarly, because we're relatively under-represented in the rest of the world, any one representation of the community is scrutinised with an almost paranoid eye for what it says about us all and what people outside are going to make of it. If bisexuality were in the papers every day, d'you think any of us would care what Charlotte Raven said *?
Another common theme in an apparently small community is this idea called "splitting people's energies", which characterises every new initiative as damaging. The assumption is of scarcity.
In my experience, scarcity is built into people's ways of thinking, whether or not it's true in a given situation.
It must sometimes be true that a new project attracts people away from an old one, but I also think that that idea is used to stifle many potential wonderful initiatives. It effectively implies that the first thing to set up in any given area ought to continue alone until it collapses.
In terms of communities, what that idea also misses is that the currently existing group / leaflet / phone line / whatever-it-is-that's-about-to-get-some-competition may actually not be what everyone wants. There may be lots of people not catered for by it, but you may not even know that those people exist until they see something they want, that's worth them popping out of the woodwork for.
Maybe that project that appears as your rival is actually your ally - strengthening the community and speaking to people you never knew existed. Maybe some of those people will later come your way...
In other words, as the diversity increases, the community itself expands. So you're actually not competing for a static amount of people & resources.
One conclusion I draw from all this is that it's a good idea for anyone setting up a project to think about exactly what they're setting out to do, for whom, and accountable to whom.
If the true answer is "I'm doing this for people like me, and if someone else wants something else they can do it themselves", that gives a relationship to criticism very different from the answer "This is a resource for the whole community". And there's a whole spectrum of answers in between those two.
(BiCon's an interesting case. People seem to relate to it as a resource for the community - but in practice it seems bound to depend a lot on the vision of whoever's organising it. In other words, people seem to be taking for granted that the organisers' vision will always represent the community.*)
My second theme is for the people thinking "If I was running that, I'd do it differently".
Before you start angling for control, consider: Maybe what exists already is doing just fine on its own terms - and if you don't like it, that's a sign that your vision is of something entirely different.
Maybe instead of one project riven by dissent there could be two, three or four that are flourishing.
Copyright © Jennifer Moore 1996.