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Actually Doing It Of South End, Z, and ZMI
I was going to write an impersonal account of institution-building vis-a-vis describing Z Media Institute. Thats why all the ZMI photos in this article. But my original plan seemed: (a) impossible in the space allotted here; (b) dull; (c) not for me, my skills lie elsewhere; and (d) to take time away from office cleaning in these post-feminist times. But then I thought, this is the 1990s. At least one article in this magazine should be about me. Im not Mother Teresa or that great humanitarian Princess Diana, but I have done something.
Its 1975 and Ive/youve spent years fighting the U.S. government to get them to stop a war, and I/you have no intention of participating in "the system" that waged that war, what do you do? Well, if youre me, you do what any 1960s/1970s white middle class activist does. You head to grad school, in my case to get certified to teach sports ("phys ed" to you, "human movement" in the 1960s-inspired college curriculum). The last thing youre thinking of is creating a media institution, in this case, book publishing. So, when the idea of publishing books that would reflect the politics, analysis, and critique of 1960s new left first came up, I thought it was (a) impossible; (b) dull (i.e., not wild in the streets); (c) not for me, my skills lay elsewhere; (d) going to be sexist, and I would end up cleaning the office and doing the typing, feminist consciousness not withstanding.
When I saw the initial budget for this book publishing project that called for raising, over the next three years, at least $150,000; when I saw that we were talking about a business that would eventually generate over $1 million in income, I said this is not going to get off the ground. Also being political is not about this stuff. On the other hand, we had stopped a war by raising the social costs, hadnt we? Sure we knew almost nothing about publishing books or building institutions but that didnt mean we couldnt start a political book publishing company.
So reluctantly, in 1976, I joined with seven others in regular planning sessions for what became South End Press. I was willing to do this because I was assured that it would be: (a) possible; (b) exciting (there would be no recreating the hierarchies, competition for profit, and all the other grossities we had been criticizing for years); (c) something I could do very wellan ex-activist, future actor/gym teacher was just what they needed; and it would be (d) unbelievably non sexist.
During the next year, we hammered out a mission statement and a structure and process for a model democratic workplace; we raised the money to buy a five-story building in the South End of Boston; we moved into that building; we purchased equipment, met with other progressive publishers to learn what to do; read up on the publishing industry, particularly distribution; located a printer and a warehouse; taught ourselves to typeset and layout books; and incorporated as "The Institute for Social and Cultural Change, d/b/a South End Press," a non-profit, tax exempt institution. Since none of us were that exited about being book publishers, we also planned to expand and do things we did like, i.e., a journal, a news magazine, a cultural magazine, a school, a cultural tour, a radio show, a speakers bureau, and more.
By the fall of 1997, six of us were in a building in the South End of Boston, with procedures in place for a working and living collective. The press would pay our room and board, but no salaries, so everyone had to make a little money some other way. We announced ourselves to the progressive world of activists, academics, and writers by producing and mailing a brochure describing our politics, structure and process, editorial policy, and our promotion and distribution plans. We divided the work into two categories: editorial/book production and business. Everyone would be responsible for deciding on and "coordinating" books from the time they came in through the publishing and promotion of them. We had policies for our editorial process, our production and design process, and promotion and distribution.
We divided the business area into: finances and fundraising; fulfillment (warehousing, distribution, customer service); promotion (catalogues, ads); production (scheduling). These business jobs were rotated on a yearly basis (with variations). Some other jobs, like phone answering, chairing meetings, mail dole, and cleaning, were rotated on a monthly or weekly basis.
Our first book came out in January 1978. Six to ten books came out every year after that. We almost went bankrupt in 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984. 1985, etc. Between 1977 and 1986, all but two of the founding staff moved on to other pursuits. During that time, I helped (this is about me, after all) produce over 150 books and countless catalogues, flyers, ads, and newsletters. I attended book fairs in Chicago, Atlanta, London, Frankfurt, and Managua. I went on publishing visits to Poland and Cuba. I took two sales trips a year to bookstores in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington. I also edited a collection of essays, wrote and or directed three plays a year, helped raise three children, etc.
In 1987, the idea of starting a magazine was raised. I said publishing a 112-page magazine is: (a) impossible; (b) not as dull as publishing books but still lots of office work, data entry, etc.; (c) not where my skills lie; and (d) going to be sexist. But, hey, we had stopped a war. We had published books. So what if we knew nothing about magazine publishing. We started all over again. I learned desktop publishing, learned about magazines, set up an office, and published a magazine. We covered, in articles and cartoons, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Iran Contra, the Gulf War, the "defeat of the Sandinistas," the "failure of communism and the triumph of capitalism," NAFTA, GATT, and Clinton, among other things. We almost went bankrupt in 1988, 89, 90, 91, 92, 93, and so on and so forth.
In 1994, I was appearing in a feminist show that I wrote (in case you forgot, this is still about me) and one of the cast members told me that her father was in the audience that particular night. After the show, I looked around for someone in their 70s, with no luck. She then introduced me to her father. He was younger than I was. Shortly after that, I decided it was time to teach others how to do what we had done (since I didnt have that much longer to liveonly 25 productive years or so), i.e., create alternative institutions with radical politics and democratic work structures.
When I raised the idea of a school at our yearly South End/Z retreat (yes, I actually did this), the initial response, naturally, was that it would be: (a) impossible; (b) not quite as dull as office work, but still lots of mailing and phone calling; (c) not where our skills were; and (d) bound to be sexist. So, naturally, in 1994, we started <W0>Z<D> Media Institute, a nine day school in June designed to teach people how to create lasting institutions with radical politics, structure, and process (and no money). Sixty or so students came from all over the country, 15 or so faculty came to teach politics, media and organizing skills, and computers in classrooms by the seatents, living rooms, a community hall, and other places rented in Woods Hole. While they are here, students simulate what it would be like to start South End Press or Z<D> by creating their own hypothetical media projects. Also, I forgot to mention: we almost went bankrupt in 1994, 1995, 1996, and, definitely, in 1997.
Looking back, I wonder how we made it. There were so many tense interpersonal moments, to the point where doors were kicked in, furniture was thrown, friendships of all kinds were begun and ended. Striving for equality (and democracy) with a staff made up of six white middle class people with advanced degrees, many of whom really want to be doing something else (like making the revolution instantly), has its problems.
Striving for equality in a society where all weve learned is hierarchy and competition is harder than anyone imagined. But I think there were several key reasons for our "success." Teaching how we did it has given me some insights into this.
First, all these institutions started with a clear mission statement. We knew what our purpose and principles were and why. It was on paper for future collective members to see, it was on the copyright page or the back page of the books we published. No matter what the finances were, no matter what the internal problems were, our goal was to publish political books (then a magazine). Because of this, we had very few tensions and fallings out over the book publishing decisions. These decisions were informed by what would be a contribution to analyzing U.S. institutions, to the left broadly defined, and to radical social change. There were some discussions of whether we were primarily a forum for ideas and critique, or whether we were primarily pushing a new new left politics.
Second, we were united in our intention not to recreate the hierarchies and oppressions of capitalist workplaces. In fact, it was the experiment in workplace democracy that was the radical, exciting part of what often seemed like years of rather apolitical office work.
It was no easy task to implement our principles of (1) Availability of all information relevant to decisions for all workers; (2) No hiring and firing other than by agreement of the whole project; (3) Sharing of fundraising skills, so no member has sole to the progressive funding community; (4) Democratic decision making, one person one vote with attention to a strong minority; (5) Salary equalization; (6) Equality of work assignments. After all, youve got people whove coordinated 20 books and have been through the business rotation 8 times and they have the same vote and the same salary as someone whos half you age and has been there for one minute.
Third, we "followed the money." We had heard that groups often let the financial side slide. We didnt. That is, we knew ahead of time when we were going to run out of money. Notice that we almost went bankrupt every year for the last 20 years, but never actually did.
Fourth, we were committed to our principles but flexible. For example, in the beginning everyone had to be part of every decision ever made, including what cleaner to use in the bathrooms and the font size of each book. Later, we delegated decision making and autonomy within work areas, mostly by instituting a yearly policy making retreat. Each summer, beginning in 1978, the press shut down for a week and the staff headed for the country (usually Cape Cod). The retreat agenda usually included a day to discuss the state of the world and the state of the press; a day to discuss publishing priorities for the coming year; two days to discuss internal process and structure; a day to discuss changes in policy and priorities for promotion, fundraising, etc.; a day to do a budget; and hopefully a day left over to hang out, swim, etc. This yearly planning and prioritizing meant that individuals and departments made their own decisions, and only came to the whole collective if they wanted to propose a change in policy.
Fifth, our democratic voting structure worked. We never tried for consensus or to get everyone to agree on everything. In fact, we wanted to know where the disagreements were. We wanted people in the minority on a decision to have to argue for their views, and in numerous occasions this kept us from making snap decisions, and the minority won the revote. We also used straw votes, a lot. The only decision that had to be unanimous was the decision to hire and fire. We figured that if even one person was against a proposed new collective member, the results would be disastrous.
Sixth, we had fun. We did not see suffering as an organizing tool or personal goal. Sure, we worked hard but we always tried to keep it interesting. Collective members stayed active in various political groups, or wrote, or went to school part time, or spun off new projects. We were able to hate capitalism, patriarchy, racism, environmental degradation, homophobia, and still enjoy sports, TV, movies, radio, music, food, mystery novels, and shoppingmost of which were classist, racist, sexist, homophobic, toxic, and mind-numbing. We were able to appreciate our structure, but to satirize it as well.
Seventh, we kept on creating new institutions and projects. Just the other day, while I was cleaning the office, feminism not withstanding, and the idea of starting a Z radio production company that would produce shows for the Internet and for radio came up. My first reaction was that it was: (a) impossible; (b) dull; (c) not where my skills lay; (d) going to be sexist.
In other words, when do we start?