How can community leadership spark social change? In a conversation with CPL, Professor Marshall Ganz, director of the Practicing Democracy Project, offers insight into a grassroots campaign to reduce child marriage in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley. The campaign was organized by Ahel, a community organizing nonprofit in Jordan led by Nisreen Haj Amad, a colleague, collaborator, and former student of Professor Ganz.

Learn more about the "Let Me Keep My Childhood" campaign.

Q: Since 2019, the “Let Me Keep My Childhood” campaign has stopped or postponed over 100 child marriages. Over 2000 local families have signed a pledge not to marry their children under the age of 18. What made this project so successful?

This campaign was something that could only succeed from inside the community. It couldn’t have been done by an international NGO or similar organization trying to impose it from the outside. This community in Lebanon- in particular, Syrian refugees- my god, you talk about disempowered. For Ahel to find people within that community who could step up and begin to work together, that's huge. It becomes not about saving poor people who need your help. It's about engaging with people who want to change things and who also welcome support. That notion has been foundational to the work we’ve done in that part of the world.

Q: One phrase I recall from the case study was that the “Let Me Keep My Childhood” campaign was built on a combination of support and agency. How does this reflect your pedagogical principles for community organizing?

At the Practicing Democracy Project, our leadership definition is accepting responsibility for enabling others to achieve shared purpose under conditions of uncertainty. It’s not “leader as diva”; it’s not “leader as big boss.” It's enabling collective effort for collective success.
There are five basic practices involved, all rooted in human competencies: building relationships, storytelling, strategizing, structuring and actions. It’s about starting with people rather than starting with some theory into which you try to fit people.

Q: You often speak about the snowflake structure, an organizing principle that was used in the “Let Me Keep My Childhood” campaign. What makes the snowflake structure an effective tool for mobilizing grassroots involvement?

I developed the snowflake structure with Ruth Wageman. She was a colleague of Richard Hackman, who taught here for many years. We were doing a project with the Sierra Club on why some local chapters succeeded while others failed. Our approach was to conduct a series of workshops with Sierra Club executive committees and work on reconstructing their teams.

Later, when I worked with the Obama campaign, we took what we had learned from the Sierra Club and used it to remodel the campaign’s volunteer structure. Typically, volunteers in most election campaigns operate with one leader, a precinct captain. But that approach was ultimately dysfunctional. When a single-leader structure fails, the reaction is often to eliminate structure completely. If that happens, you get chaos. Instead, we introduced real leadership teams to the Obama campaign: interdependent units of five to seven volunteers committed to a shared purpose, clear self-governance rules, and clear roles. 

The next step was scale. We realized that each person on a leadership team could build their own team. This strategy became a way to cascade leadership, and that's how people started calling it the snowflake structure. Leadership teams are more resilient. There's more accountability. It's more motivational. When you intentionally create a structure rooted in sustained learning, questioning, and development, then you really have something.

Q: It seems like Ahel did an excellent job of communicating and executing these principles of organizing with the local leaders they recruited. Tell me about your relationship with Ahel and the Leading Change Network.

Nisreen Haj Ahmad, who co-founded Ahel in 2011, was an MC/MPA student at HKS in 2007-2008. She is Palestinian and grew up in Jordan. Before coming to Harvard, she had worked in the negotiation support unit for the PLO. While at Harvard, Nisreen also co-chaired the Israel-Palestine Negotiations Network, which Roger Fisher organized at Harvard Law School. Unfortunately, the network eventually fell apart due to lack of progress with the Israel-Palestine negotiations. Despite the disillusionment, Nisreen really connected with community organizing and public narrative work. That’s when we began working together.

The Leading Change Network, led by Mais Irqsusi, was formed by many of us who share our approach as a community of practice and pedagogy. LCN and PDP collaborated to host an online pedagogical conference a few months ago. At the conference, we brought together all the innovations happening at organizations within the network, within this broader framework of guiding principles. Ahel gave one of the presentations. About 50 to 60 people joined the conference, representing organizations all around the world. That’s the point of the network; it creates a venue for learning from others’ experiences.

Q: How will you continue this work through the Practicing Democracy Project at the Center for Public Leadership?

The first element of the Practicing Democracy Project is leadership development. In the courses I teach, we're looking for leaders and developing their skills in an intentional capacity. Then we follow up beyond the class: we develop coaches, teaching fellows, and trainers. We support the development of organizers who go beyond Harvard into the world. The global character of Harvard Kennedy School is so enriching.

The second element is what we call praxis development: creating methodologies for teaching about community organizing and for putting it into practice. To teach this effectively, you don't give a lecture about relationships and then show diagrams. Instead, you create a context in which people form relationships and tell their stories. We also work with theory and connecting formal research to the work we do on the ground. The challenge is making complexity accessible.

The third element is capacity building. I spent time at Stanford last spring; we're starting an organizing program there. The intent is to build external capacity for spreading these frameworks and principles. Through training sessions, we work with people within an organization or a community who then become their own source of development and learning.

So, the PDP is built on those three pillars: leadership development, praxis development, and capacity building. It’s grounded in the practice of democracy. It's about enabling people to come together and then supporting them in defining their purpose and developing the power to act on it.

Interview by Isabel Feinstein