The First Meeting
Chuck Armsbury remembers a public meeting at which an oppressed woman, ready to battle for justice, rose to speak one evening.
"Excuse me," she said. "I've been coming to these meetings, and I have been listening, tried to talk to you all once or twice, too. But I'm going home now. You folks give me a call when you want to start doing something. I'm ready. Goodnight."
Don't worry; you do not want to lead and endure endless meetings that wear you out to plan, and end up boring all who attend.
Avoid the trap that many newly forming groups fall into: spending excess time and resources on the meetings alone, the group's unity dying slowly from intense, complicated planning and endless discussions while excluding talk of tactics to implement leading ideas. If this happens, your group won't grow, won't attract the right people, and will stagnate quickly.
You want to unite the group in order to work more effectively in your community. Don't rob people of valuable time to have a meeting with little purpose. These instructions will help you lead the first meeting and enable everyone involved to get the most out of it.
If your group is meeting to plan an event for the Journey for Justice, download your Checklist - you'll have an agenda for your meeting and tasks that each person can be involved with.
Expect to be the leader of your group and to do most of the work, even if by now you have collected scores of names and loose commitments from a dozen people. In time, the work will shift, priorities surface, and volunteers will help you expand and shape the group. Until responsibilities are shared, you can expect to do most of the work.
We hope to make that job easier for you.
Goals for your first meeting
Defining goals for your first meeting will help you set its agenda.
Leading the Meeting
Among other qualities, a leader must be observant, resilient and understanding.
You are the leader and should know a little more about holding a meeting. Meetings should not be strictly social affairs, and so it is your responsibility to keep your group "on task." If you schedule a dessert potluck, and plan informality into the meeting, you must let people know that by a certain time you will convene the business portion of the meeting.
Be friendly so people feel comfortable offering their feedback and ideas, but remember that you are not organizing a social club or tea party- you are activists dedicated to releasing the prisoners of the drug war! There is work to do and many struggles ahead.
Be on the lookout for potential leaders to share major responsibilities. The spirit and work of one or two determined people is what binds most small groups, with short-term volunteers helping only when they can, coming and going according to their own time constraints.
Volunteers will move out of your community, and some move on to other interests. As you begin, assume that some people will leave the group. Be grateful for every contribution no matter how small, and never publicly criticize or embarrass anyone. Again, don't make people feel guilty for not doing enough; motivating by guilt seldom encourages anyone to do more; it's more likely to dampen commitment altogether. People's activism, like other forms of practical education, thrives on encouragement and recognition more than steady criticism for falling short or failing.
Don't fight with the group; you need strength to fight the real enemy of ignorance. If correction is necessary, criticize the act rather than the individual, a necessary skill to develop and refine for anyone claiming to lead. Build and foster unity with confidence and allegiance to mutual respect within the group always. Feel free to share these sentiments at a first meeting.
Be open to new ideas and encourage people to express themselves. A first meeting may include time when you ask each person (perhaps not possible in a large group) to think of several ideas and write down each one. You might want to hang a big piece of butcher paper, give out markers and let people write down their basic ideas - all at once. Discuss the ideas only after you've finished listing them all.
One crucial job as leader is to discourage personal "put downs." It is your responsibility to foster mutual respect. You may be bringing together a diverse group. It's no cliché: Everyone is special in some way, and even outlandish suggestions may lead to creative planning. Ask questions and listen actively and carefully to those who have taken time to attend the meeting.
You know where and when your meeting will take place, and whom you are inviting to that first meeting. You have defined the goals of your meeting and have invited people at least three weeks in advance by phone, email or by regular mail. Perhaps you distributed flyers in your neighborhood with place, date, time, meeting purpose, and contact information. You made the flyer yourself or with assistance from Coalition staff.
Three weeks before the meeting, when you sent out your invitations, you also placed an order for basic meeting materials with our office staff. To prepare an adequate informational table, you have taken time to review the materials: Posters, current project samples and current issue of the Razor Wire, perhaps other published literature. Posters of drug war prisoners pinned or taped on walls around the room are a good reminder why your group has taken time out from busy lives to dedicate themselves to reforming drug laws.
You downloaded, printed, and made copies of our volunteer questionnaire, sign up sheets and other suggested materials.
Make a hand out that includes all your local, state and federal leaders with complete contact information. To find state and federal legislators online go to www.vote-smart.org. If you do not have Internet access, go to your nearest public library. A librarian can assist you. To find local city officials, write or call your City Hall or County Commissioners office and request that they send you a list of local officials and contact information.
You are ready for your meeting.
1. Introductions and first impressions are important
Designate some "greeters." If you are starting out alone, and lots of people start coming into the meeting room, ask individuals to help you who appear outgoing and who arrived early. Greeting is easy, and anyone can quickly follow along. From this you can also identify people with a good "pitch in" attitude.
Appreciate their attendance immediately. "Thank you for coming" and "It is good to meet you," are things you should say often and mean them. Exchange names immediately, and if expecting five or more people, nametags are a great idea. After exchanging introductions, people can be directed to nametags and information table and displays if you have one made. You don't have to have a display at first meetings; it's a good group project to discuss soon, however.
Welcome your guests' literature as well. Plan an extra table for this. This is gracious and thoughtful; so make it part of a "remember to do" list.
Begin the designated business meeting time by introducing yourself(s) to the group--who you are, why you are working on behalf of the prisoners of the war on drugs, and some personal background. This should take no longer than 3 to 5 minutes. Remember that you can speak informally if you have called an informal first meeting. You don't even have to stand up when talking.
If there is about a dozen people in your group, and you have at least two hours, you can go around the room for quick introductions. If you do that, you will have to set a firm time limit, and two minutes for a dozen people will eat up a half an hour, if everyone sticks to the limit. Chances are, most people will talk far longer.
Choosing this method of introductions will also require you to politely hurry at least a few to conclude. You may feel more comfortable letting people introduce themselves to each other later, but remember as the organizer, introductions are very important for each person to foster and develop a sense of inclusion in the group, a necessary condition for unity.
At the very least, go around the table or room and let each person say their name, affiliation if applicable, and in one sentence state why they came to the meeting. That is the safest way to conduct introductions. If your group is large, break into smaller groups for personal introductions sometime during your meeting.
Pass a sign-up sheet around the room and ask that everyone fill it out. Let them know that Volunteer Questionnaires are available and how eternally grateful you would be to anyone interested in volunteering and working with your group. Ask people to take some time to complete the form before they leave or return it by mail or bring it to the next meeting. Have plenty of Questionnaires and extra pens around. Provide blank sheets of paper for those who want to take notes but didn't bring writing materials.
2. Activate your group
The November Coalition offers ongoing projects and basic activities
for drug law reform activists. These projects and activities
fall into three general categories: public education, seasonal
or "reaction" events, and long-term campaigns.
One or more of the projects and activities we sponsor should be agreeable to the group. Our members and staff working together choose and develop our activities, and so the projects come from activists just like you. If the group has an idea worth implementing but not currently promoted by the November Coalition, by all means have your group give it some thought, but most importantly - decide on doing something the first time you meet. If it is a successful project you will want to share your ideas with other November leaders.
You may come to the meeting with some ideas of your own, but remember - the group is going to decide what they want to do. If it is a project that you are not comfortable leading, and more than one project or activity will be chosen, perhaps someone else will assume leadership. Share responsibilities early. Don't be afraid to let others be leaders, too.
If your group wants to do more than one project or activity, remember that as a small and/or new group you will have to prioritize your activities. Be realistic as you do this. First meetings will often surprise you. People have a lot of ideas.
You are likely to hear, "Let's publish a newsletter," but remember that newsletters, for example, should be a low priority. Your money and time may be more wisely spent on collecting educational materials, passing out flyers and campaigning in public, all of which you can accomplish by using our published literature and project ideas. A newsletter relates what a group has already done - they shouldn't be used as a replacement for action. Group reports, if you submit them, will be shared with all of our members through publication of the Razor Wire. All of your members should formalize their membership so they'll receive each issue.
Every group should prioritize public education work. This includes tabling (described separately here) leafleting, putting up posters, creating displays for public places, writing letters to the editor and joining the National Vigil Project. Seasonal or "reaction" events are another valuable activity. These include leafleting or demonstrating when new prisons are proposed or when a "drug war hawk" politician is visiting your area, or when a particular bill has been introduced or supported by one of your legislators.
Federal lawmakers have an office near or in your city or town; if they are promoting harsher penalties for drug law violations, meet to vigil at their local office. Responding publicly may get you publicity, and these one-time "reactionary" or short-term campaigns or events can be especially effective. Let your group know that the formation and development of the group will enable such responses.
An easy and uncomplicated way local groups can work on long-term campaigns is to join one that has been initiated by a national organization. You can bring important issues to your community and have the benefit of the national group's literature and resources. The November Coalition manages such campaigns; so be sure to have a list of current projects at your first meeting. A project can include literature, a petition, or other special element. Seeing is believing; you can order project samples to share with your group.
Above all, encourage your group to be visible. Get into the public eye often, and always try to get media coverage for your events. Have some of our T-shirts at the meeting, and other visible symbols of our discontent with the nation's drug laws. Let them pick them up, study them and talk about ways they want to be involved.
3. Plan for the future
By now your group knows you mean business. Now is a good time to discuss how the group will want to operate: how often you should meet, where and what your future focus and priorities will be. Enthusiasm may be high, and perhaps yours has risen to new heights.
After your initial meeting, you should always include time for a "work party" to prepare posters, write letters, or fill informational packets. This will ensure that people leave with a feeling that they have already accomplished a task. This might be possible with a first meeting, but may not be practical to tackle right off. That is why leaving with a task will be very important for your first meeting. Let people know that you will have a project to work on at the next meeting. By now, you should have a good idea what it will be.
You must make some choices about how you want to operate for at least a few months in advance. Should you meet once a month, or call meetings as you need them?
Decide where you want to meet, be it a library or a local school or church. Avoid meeting in people's homes -you're better off in neutral territory and hosting meetings is sometimes much too difficult for people. Understand the reluctance to do so; there may be liability risks that people assume when they have meetings in their homes. If you hold regular meetings, they should be scheduled for the same day and time each month so members will not forget what happens on that day.
It's not necessary now to talk about bulk mailing permits, bank accounts and large fundraising projects. That, too, can be a trap that may doom your group to mediocre results, even failure. Administrative details-- such as bookkeeping, maintaining product inventories, and planning large demonstrations or benefits --are seldom easy to organize, manage and improve. Tactfully remind people that formality will develop in time if, or as, needed. Skill develops best in stages of learning and re-learning.
Many groups operate more efficiently with less bureaucracy. The operation of the November Coalition's formal organization - by providing projects and helping to develop ideas and the means to implement them - serves and saves local groups from the grueling responsibilities of much administrative detail. Volunteers can then work free from burdens of paperwork--and unaffected by periodic pressures to raise large amounts of money--to do the relatively inexpensive, but crucial, job of educating people in their own communities.
4. Summarize the meeting
Quickly review the projects that your group has decided to pursue. Assign tasks to volunteers expressing interest in doing more. Give out the date, place and time of the next meeting, if you have made a decision to meet again. Concise, well planned meetings become a time for group invigoration and inspiration, and meeting regularly is the best way to ensure that you will meet defined objectives. Collect the Volunteer Questionnaires, the meeting sign up sheets, and then call everyone together for a historical photograph. You just held your first November Coalition meeting!
Remember, again, to thank everyone for coming.
5. After your meeting
You will want to copy the Questionnaires returned to you, plus the sign-up sheets, and mail a copy of each page to our office. If any people paid membership dues, you must forward that money with the new member's contact information to our office. They expect to be credited for having donated to a non-profit, registered, charitable, educational foundation, and to receive benefits due our members.
We don't and can't give membership benefits unless we receive their membership dues and contact information. Membership dues are the bricks in a foundation allowing us to publish the Razor Wire, maintain our website, and serve the needs of a growing membership and people such as you.
If you collect other money for local projects or activities, designate someone to be treasurer, and begin keeping track of expenses and income.
Some leaders will want to send a 'thank you' to those who attended the meeting. This can be done by mail and email. If your group is small, you may want to phone them.
Now it is time to begin working on the projects and activities agreed upon, and begin thinking about the agenda you want to set for the next meeting. Remember to ask yourself what should be accomplished at the next meeting. With some concrete goals listed, based on what transpired during your first meeting, the next agenda should be easy to make, and hopefully you have found new volunteers to help prepare for the second meeting.
From this point forward your group's collective experience should power and follow a momentum that you at this point define, shape and inspire. In time you may be the person who facilitates growth while others lead in different and multiple ways.
Meetings need not be formatted exactly the same each time. People thrive on variety and expectancy. We hope to encourage you right away to be a creative, dynamic leader. We just don't expect you to be all that you will be in the future or right away.