Creating Institutions

Lydia Sargent


I was going to write an impersonal
account of institution-building vis-a-vis describing Z Media
Institute. That’s 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. I’m not Mother Teresa or that great humanitarian
Princess Diana, but I have done something.

It’s 1975 and
I’ve/you’ve 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 you’re 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 you’re 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 1960’s 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

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,
hadn’t we? Sure we knew almost nothing about publishing
books or building institutions but that didn’t mean we
couldn’t 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 well—an
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 didn’t have that much
longer to live—only 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
sea—tents, 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 we’ve 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,
you’ve got people who’ve coordinated 20 books and
have been through the business rotation 8 times and they have
the same vote and the same salary as someone who’s 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 didn’t. 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

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

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 shopping—most 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?