Sarah Beth Miller, Unit Liaison
Thursday, Aug. 31, the energy emanating from the Jackson Place Cohousing dining room was palpable. 30+ LWVSKC Unit members, Board members and others were meeting in person for the first time since COVID. A dozen pizzas from Humble Pie on Rainier Ave South were ordered to treat the Retreat attendees for lunch. Brian Solazzi, the owner, personally delivered the order. As he dropped them off, he said, “It would be my honor to donate these pizzas to the League of Women Voters of Seattle-King County. I have benefitted from LWV pamphlets and voting information ever since the first time I voted.”
The meeting was facilitated by Linda Benson of the LWV of Clallam County, who guided the group to discuss, rethink and restructure their participation in the League. Pretty exciting stuff!
This Unit Leaders’ Retreat had a subtitle: “Growing Our League from the Inside Out.” The seed for the event was planted at a year-end meeting of the LWVSKC Unit Leaders in May of 2023.
At that May meeting, Unit Leaders voiced concern about the health of their Units, which have been shrinking in size for more than a decade. Three prominent Units have closed up shop in as many years. Unit members are aging, and there aren’t enough new members joining up to take their places. Since COVID, many Units have returned to in-person meetings; even so, Unit Leaders report that sometimes only a handful of members attend monthly meetings.
Still, the determination of the Leaders at that May meeting was strong. All agreed that their Units would continue the coming 2023-24 year. There was a clear consensus, however, that Units needed to “get creative” to keep current members interested and attract new ones.
During the summer, former Unit Liaison Roslyn Duffy reached out to the current UL with an offer. She thought that the Units could benefit from working with her colleague, Linda Benson, who is well known among WA Leagues for helping them “get in shape,” function more effectively and grow their membership. Linda’s expertise was in facilitating League & Unit members to make changes “from the inside out” through restructuring their organization to sharpen their focus, attract new members and further the League’s mission to empower voters and defend democracy.
With input by LWVSKC members Sarah Beth, Keela Williams and Paula Barnes, Linda posed some questions for the group assembled on Aug. 31. She had them break into small groups to consider: What is the reason for having Units? What should the relationship be between Units and the Board? How could Units be organized?
In response to the first question, participants accentuated the positive: The reason we have Units is that they are smaller groups that create social connections among people who live in close geographical proximity. There are advantages to learning about issues in a small group setting. In Units issues can be discussed in depth, sparking new ideas. Small groups foster relationships that make projects easier to take on. Units that meet in person can be critical for building cohesion, sharing ideas, setting focus and homing in on priorities.
Units have some level of self-determination. Members can decide for themselves how often they meet, set their own agendas and decide whether they are study-oriented or action-oriented. All in all, the reason for having Units is that they create community and support individuals to engage in action and create a sense of belonging to the League.
The one disadvantage for geographically-centered Units cited was that in meeting folks near to where we live, we may be sacrificing diversity.
What should the relationship be between Units and the Board?
In planning the Retreat, the team knew they needed to include Board members. Facilitator Linda Benson pointed out that the League was founded on the concept that the grassroots (Units) would inform the direction of local Leagues. The Board’s job is to then coordinate and support actions on behalf of its members.
At the Retreat, Unit members asked the Board to give them advance notice about topics and issues before the Board meetings. Then Units can participate in the discussion and bring their feedback back to the Board level.
Ideally, Board members would attend more Unit meetings to raise Unit awareness of Board-level issues and, in turn, hear about things that the Units are concerned about.
Units offered to help the Board members, too! They are hopeful that the new Board can manage its demanding workload, especially since so many critical Board positions have not been filled. It was suggested that Units could pitch in with some of the Board duties, such as helping with membership.
How could units be organized?
Units have traditionally been organized around neighborhoods, and this was natural when fewer women were working outside the home. But with so many women in the workforce and young children attending daycare, this model of Unit formation is no longer sustainable.
A major goal of the August Retreat was to promote different ways of organizing and structuring Units so they are more aligned with the lives and interests of their members. Some of the organizing structures proposed included:
- Organizing geographically around schools, possibly through PTAs or PTOs.
- New League members could be drawn from their connections with local schools or community colleges. Units could then engage in joint projects with the schools. An added benefit would be that civic education efforts promoted by the Youth Committee would have more volunteers and more reach in schools.
- Organizing around King County Council (or other) legislative districts.
- This structure would be geographic but have a wider reach into the community than neighborhoods. When Units have more members, the Unit can do more (hold forums, register voters, etc.).
- This structure aligns Units with local legislative issues. Units might build relationships with the King County Council, or with the political leadership in other types of legislative districts. This way of organizing would make it easier to hold topical and candidate forums. There would be even more diverse participation if a Zoom option was offered. Meetings could be held at public libraries and community colleges.
- A possible disadvantage: Some members are worried that we could become overly political and partisan.
- Organizing around Units embedded in workplaces
- This could include child care centers and Amazon or Microsoft campuses.
There was an outpouring of ideas about new ways to structure Units. But some participants pointed out that the structure of units isn’t as important as leadership at all levels of the League! More people need to step up and take part in the maintenance required for the League to function.
Another question was raised: How do we bring joy to leadership?
One way would be strengthening our relationships with one another throughout the League. Another way would be to attract new members to our organization.
How do we attract and keep new members?
How do we effectively engage people, especially new members? The LWVSKC needs to renew its commitment to orienting new members to the League. A curriculum was developed fairly recently; it needs to be updated and more of us need to get involved in delivering the orientation curriculum.
Orientation dates should be communicated through League newsletters and personal connections such as phone calls, emailing, etc.
Experienced members should commit to calling one or two new people to welcome them to the LWV, find out why they joined and what their interests are and connect them to others who share those interests. This is such an important step. Those of us making the calls also need to periodically follow up with new members to ask if they felt supported and engaged with the League.
In addition to individual conversations with new members, we also need to provide a mentoring program or a “buddy” program to support them on a continuous basis.
Holding regular “coffee (or beer) with the League” sessions at local gathering spots could also connect members with one another to exchange ideas and social connections.
We need to provide entry points for new members and members who are ready to reengage. One way to do this is to provide more tech support for message boards and the like. This will require more money in the budget for tech needs, training and support for members.
We need to provide entry points for new members and members who are ready to reengage. One way to do this is to provide more tech support for message boards and the like. This will require more money in the budget for tech needs, training and support for members. Hybrid meetings are essential going forward. This will enable many more people to attend LWVSKC gatherings and meetings. It was suggested that we hold a fundraiser to buy more OWLs for League groups to use (people like to donate for a specific cause).
Beyond the Aug. 31 Retreat
As can be seen from this report, the LWVSKC has no shortage of talented and committed members! The next step for our League is to incorporate the suggestions and thoughts generated into plans and processes that make the best use our invaluable members. Though there are limits on our resources and our members’ time, there is no doubt that all are aware that we are a vital organization doing essential work.
This Retreat was an important and affirming event, and we need to keep it going! We can do this by continuing to ask questions about how and why we work together, by changing old structures that no longer function and by being supportive and friendly to one another. This is how we do the work of democracy.
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