But we don't have leaders

IssueMay 2007
Feature by Chris Crass

It was in the winter of '94 and I had just moved to San Francisco and wanted to get involved in Food Not Bombs locally.

Local activist Keith McHenry came over and talked to me at an event, and immediately started introducing me to other FNBers and invited me back to his house for dinner. He asked me question after question about how I got involved and what we did in Whittier. He gave me literature, told me about the meetings, and asked me what I was interested in doing. Over the next year he would call me and ask if I could help him with all kinds of projects.

McHenry did an excellent job of bringing me in, but there were also dynamics around privilege in effect. Keith is a white man from a middle class background who connected with a younger white man from a middle class background. This is more then demographics; it's about the way we were both socialised to behave and interact.

The problem was the ways that white men of class privilege dominated the leadership positions in Food Not Bombs and how our ostensible rejection of even having leaders prevented meaningful discussion about sharing power, challenging privilege and supporting leadership development of a broader base of people.

There are no leaders

In FNB, the concept of leadership was fiercely debated. For years, many of us said, “There are no leaders.” Often times people like myself who were playing obvious leadership roles were the ones most vehement about the group “not having leaders”.

When we talked about why the same people did all the work there was rarely concrete steps put forward about how to change the situation. But there was often anger from all sides about the situation. Those doing lots of the work would say they needed help and asked why people weren't participating. Those making lots of decisions would often say they wanted more people to be involved, that they didn 't want to have all this power. They often felt guilty and defensive about the situation.

Those who were marginalised in the group talked about how others were monopolising power and that things needed to change. Inequalities and their negative consequences continued to hurt individuals and undermine the group's efforts.


I volunteered to do so many things in FNB meetings, wishing other people would, resent-ing other people, and knowing people resented me for the position I was in. Anti-authoritarian leadership development is about looking at our organisations, looking at how power operates and taking small but concrete steps to share power.

I've been in countless FNB meetings where men, mostly white, would come for the first time and talk like they knew it all and volunteer for high levels of responsibility that many other people who had been in the group for years had never taken on. I've also talked with dozens of people who were in groups for long periods of time and said they didn't take on responsibility because 2other people would be able to do a better job” or “I didn't think other people would think I was capable enough.”

Leadership development

Making leadership development a more formal and intentional process, for me, has been about taking responsibility for my actions and trying to be accountable to the people I work with.
In rejecting leadership, I was in many ways rejecting responsibility and accountability to others and continuing the tradition of capitalist individualism. My training as a white, middle class, mostly heterosexual male was to only see people who looked like me as leaders.

People began to identify responsibilities in the group: writing up literature, developing and sending press releases, representing the group in coalitions, and so on. But the same people generally stayed doing the work. We had begun to identify leadership, but we didn't have a leadership development process.

An important piece of leadership development is recognising the skills and analysis people already have and providing each other encouragement and opportunities to develop further. In my experience, directly asking someone if they would do something is far more effective than asking in a meeting -- effective not only in getting more people doing more work to build the collective power of the organisation to fight for justice, but also in terms of promoting the leadership of a broader base of people.