Suggestions From the Peer Support World

Jim Driscoll | ZNet

We have hit an organizational dead end in the progressive social change movement, just when we are also facing terminal threats to our species. Noam Chomsky (2019) has named the two most immediate threats: (a) the ongoing climate catastrophe and (b) the worst ever threat of nuclear war.  At least a dozen species threats loom just behind these two (Pamlin and Armstrong, 2015.) Like many of you, I have spent the last 40 years doing full-time social change, including both to deal with climate change  and to prevent nuclear war.. What is different about my story is that it was combat in Vietnam that led me to quit college teaching and become a full-time activist—and that dealing with the aftereffects of combat led me to spend these same forty years in two innovative peer-support (PS) communities: Co-counseling and Anonymous recovery. While both these communities have been the subject of intensive and justifiable criticism, they also both follow uncommon, positive organizational practices.  Those practices suggest a way out of the organizational dead end in time to avoid annihilation.

Young people of color have named this organizational dead end as the “NGO-industrial complex” (“NGOIC”) (Incite! Women of Color Against Violence, 2017.) Following the model of corporations under capitalism, NGOICs employ highly-paid, professional staff on a permanent, career basis, using funds raised from rich people and their foundations and organize their work in a hierarchy, typically headed by an “Executive Director” (or sometimes, fashionably, two “Co-Directors.) Inevitably, the interests and values of funders push NGOs to make conservative choices in policies and tactics. Indeed, by law in the USA, the organizational form most frequently followed to give the rich the benefits of tax-deductibility, the 501 (c) (3), is prohibited from engaging in elections, grassroots lobbying beyond a small amount (5% of the first $100,000 in income), much less civil disobedience. Setting aside the threat of funding cutoffs, people who aspire and train for such NGOIC careers also support conservative policy and strategic choices for personal reasons. Their family and colleagues in the media, government, religion and other sectors recommend and reward such conservative choices. Prophetically, the German sociologist Robert Michels identified almost precisely the same NGOIC over a hundred years ago in his critique of the then powerful socialist parties in Europe (Michels, 1962.) More recently, Harvard professor Theda Skocpol blamed it for the failure of our massive environmental organizations  to tackle the climate crisis in 2009. We have known about this organizational dead end for over a century and yet we still turn into it, again and again.

Indeed, the “progressive” NGOIC in the US collectively spends at least a hundred billion dollars each year in this organizational dead end and employs several hundred thousand highly-educated, dedicated, energetic workers. Yet all these crises continue to worsen.  

The intentional peer support (PS) communities suggest a better direction. Following it, the Anonymous world has engaged millions of members in dozens of organizations and provides the dominant mode of recovery from most addictions. Co-counseling has 100,000 members including many activists worldwide with several offshoots. This better direction supports the approach of most non-violent, direct-action campaigns (Cornell, 2011) and the suggestions of Albert and Hahnel (1999) in “participatory economics.” (1)

Here is a small-scale example from my own experience of how it might look to build and run a social change movement on a less careerist, hierarchical and more horizontal, peer-support basis.  In 2005, twenty-five young U.S. veterans, just back from the horrors of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, spent a weekend in a residential, peer-support workshop, cried in each other’s arms, and figured out how to create a movement to help each other heal and change the world that caused their pain (MacEachron and Gustavsen, 2012.) After the first evening and the next day exchanging peer support, they spent the second evening in egalitarian problem solving and planning action.  First, they brainstormed the major problems confronting their generation of veterans. Then, they broke up in self-generated groups to share information, on an egalitarian footing, on how to deal with those issues: PTSD, the GI Bill, the VA, the war itself. Finally, later in the evening and the next morning, those groups reconvened and followed a horizontal process to turn their ideas into action. During that weekend, in addition to their personal healing, they helped launch organizations to help lead their generation, at least two of which are still functioning almost two decades later. Using the horizontal tools of co-counseling, we ran 85 of these residential, weekend workshops from 2005-11 for 1,500 returning US veterans. We helped reshape how the VA treats PTSD (what these younger veterans call “the moral injury of war”) and how young veterans organize politically. While weekend workshops are not an organization, these peer-support workshops based on the tools of co-counseling demonstrate how people can organize more effectively on a horizontal basis.  

Here are some of the important organizing practices these two PS communities have converged upon and which may be worth considering.

EMAILS WON’T DO IT. Both these communities ask participants to spend a lot of time in their quest to change human behavior, 1-3 hours a day of specific activities. How could changing anything as fundamental and all-encompassing as our social system require less effort? Our workplaces, careers, family structure, education, you name it, most realistic observers agree, everything must change. By contrast, most “social change” NGOs rely primarily on click-activism, a flurry of emails to their members asking for money or signatures on a petition, or at most attending a local meeting once a month.
STOP HOLDING OUR FIRING SQUADS IN A CIRCLE. This witticism nails our tendency on the left (in fairness, in all human activity) to act out our individual bad habits on each other—put downs, oppressive remarks and actions, suspicions, gossip, cliques. Often I think we on the left are also reacting to our ineffectiveness (or hopelessness) about changing the larger social system. By contrast, the Anonymous world works systematically on personal bad habits as an alternative to imposing them on our fellow/sister activists. Co-counseling insists its members tackle all the oppressions handed down by our society: racism, sexism, classism, etc. Again, to change any one of these habits in either community usually takes hours each week in reading, reflecting, and sharing. However, the results are worth it in both communities. For example, in both, their regular activities include long, productive meetings, intentionally positive, usually free of put downs. They hold far fewer firing-squads.
THERE IS NO SHORTCUT FOR INTIMACY. The two PS communities take one-on-one, relational organizing to a deeper level (cf. Gans, 2009.) The Anonymous world rests on at least one intense mentoring relationship between “sponsor” and “sponsee” or more peer-oriented “accountability buddies.” These one-on-one relationships often involve deep emotional sharing, vulnerability and advice-giving. Likewise, co-counseling is based on such sharing. Importantly, most personal interactions in both PS communities rely on timed, uninterrupted listening turns and encourage the expression of deep feelings. By comparison, the NGOIC typically prescribes one meeting each month for any organization’s members/supporters in any geographical area. Only a small fraction of members even attend these meetings which are typically dominated by a few leaders and include little emotional content. Such interactions do not provide adequate social support for our stressful social change work. They have not attracted and retained the millions of new members and allies we need.
GROUP HUGS.  Rarely does the NGOIC ask an activist to join a permanent small group to get emotional support, share information and act together (Engler and Engler, 2016). By comparison, the other team—take, for example, almost any right-wing, evangelical mega-church—relies heavily on a network of small, ongoing groups (Worthnow, 1994.) So do both PS communities. Co-counseling has further refined the use of groups. When focused on social support, the co-counseling groups rely on timed turns. When the group meets to share information on a topic, participants do not use timers and instead follow simple rules: “No one speaks twice before everyone speaks once.” “No one speaks four times until everyone has spoken twice.” When groups meet to take action, they take timed turns answering four questions: First, “what have you done recently on this topic?” Second, “what else should we know on this topic?” Third, “what are you going to do?” Finally, “what might get in your way of doing what you just said you would do?” Like those evangelical churches, these two PS communities emphasize small groups. In addition, they vary the design of group meetings depending on their purpose.
HOW DO GROUPS RELATE? In the NGOIC model, local groups of activists don’t relate much to each other at all.  Communication flows hierarchically, not horizontally between local groups. Paid staff run national programs. Activists in local groups or chapters largely choose among suggestions or directives from the national organization. By contrast, the Anonymous model connects groups through “Intergroups,” analogous to the “Spokes council ” in the direct-action model used for civil disobedience actions. Each ongoing, small, Anonymous “Meeting” selects a temporary “direct” representative to attend monthly Intergroup meetings to make decisions affecting all the groups. The Meeting’s representatives do not make personal decisions in the Intergroup, they represent their Meeting’s thinking. If a new topic comes up, they return to their group to get guidance. Intergroup decisions are made by consensus with a majority vote used as a backup.
HORIZONTAL ORGANIZATIONS—Contrary to the NGOIC hierarchical, individualistic corporate model, the basic research in organizational psychology supports a horizontal, group-centered approach (Driscoll, 1980.) It suggests that leaders rotate; staff perform tasks balanced to be equally appealing; groups decide  by consensus. The Anonymous community adds:  pay staff (“special workers”) to support but not lead (e.g. accounting, newsletters, emails); only volunteers lead; spokes councils connect the groups.
What else is needed?

Horizontal organizations may reduce the conservative pull of the NGOIC. However, my experience with these two PS communities suggests the need for further protection. The traditional Anonymous organizations have refused to modify their policies and literature to accommodate the increasing numbers of us who identify as atheists and agnostics. The official Anonymous literature and informal culture both emphasize and enforce belief in an interventionary, personalistic force: god or a “Higher Power” (always capitalized and usually masculinized). To deal with this challenge, we secular folks have built our own informal sub-communities, such as (which I helped found), within and alongside the formal organizations. It includes members of the formal organization and others who choose not to join. By contrast, the formal  co-counseling structure stifled attempts to correct a pattern of serious misconduct by its founder and long-time leader. In addition, both these PS communities started and have stayed overwhelmingly white and middle-class with all the racism and classism that implies. Thus, a horizontal structure is not a panacea for solving all the problems posed by the NGOIC.

A vision

Founded, as we say, by a “group of drunks” in 1934 (actually by drunks who had been recruited by the same Christian sect), the Anonymous communities have now diversified and helped millions around the world deal with a range of problems many of us previously found life- threatening. All over the world people gather every day, in person and increasingly online, in scheduled groups to support each other. Often taking timed, uninterrupted turns, they share deep feelings. They exchange information and advice. And they do it in a near-perfectly horizontal organization: completely self-supporting financially (a foundation cannot give them more than $10,000), no paid leaders; rotating leadership; consensus decision making; and governed through a set of nested spokes councils.

It can be done.



Albert, Michael and Robin Hahnel. Looking Forward: Participatory Economics for the Twenty First Century. Cambridge: South End. 1991.

Chomsky, Noam. Internationalism or Extinction (Universalizing Resistance.)

Oxfordshire, U.K.: Routledge, 2019.

Cornell, Andrew. Oppose and Propose: Lessons from Movement for a New Society. Oakland: AK, 2011.

Driscoll, James W. “Myths About People At Work: A Critique of Human Management Resources, Working Paper 1153-80.” Cambridge, MA: MIT Sloan School of Management, 1980.

Engler, Mark and Engler, Paul. This is an Uprising: How Non-Violent Resistance is Shaping the Twenty-First Century. New York: Nation Books, 2016.

Gans, Marshall. “Telling your public story: self, us, now.” Harvard University, Kennedy School, 2009.

Incite! Women of Color Against Violence. The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex. Durham, NC: Duke University, 2017.

Michels, Robert. Political Parties: A Sociological Study of the Oligarchical Tendencies of Modern Democracy. NY: Free Press, 1962

Pamlin, Dennis & Armstrong, Stuart. “12 Risks that threaten human civilization: The case for a new risk category.” Global Challenges Foundation. 2015.

Skocpol, Theda. Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life. Norman: University of Oklahoma, 2003.

Worthnow, Robert. Sharing the Journey: Support Groups and America’s Quest for Community. New York: Free Press, 1994.

Footnote 1: This article focuses on the organizational practices of these peer support communities. The core activity is personal growth. Anonymous organizations emphasize a rigorous process of self-examination and personal improvement (“the steps.”) and Co-counseling focuses on personal growth through processing feelings intensely.  I’ve found both personally helpful. 

Author Bio:
A combat veteran of the US war on Vietnam, Jim Driscoll quit teaching at MIT in 1982 to work full-time in the movement for peace and justice. Raised in West Lynn, a progressive, Irish-Catholic, working-class community, he used his Ivy-League degrees to raise $30 million over the years for progressive and radical organizations which he co-founded and helped lead. Among them, the Nuclear Weapons Freeze was the largest which helped pause the Cold War. The American Peace Test helped 13,000 get arrested in Nevada in a successful effort to finally stop US nuclear testing. Arizonians for Clean Elections won full public funding for all state elections there, helping lead that national movement. Most recently, Extinction Rebellion shut down the white, northwest quadrant of DC twice over climate change. Simultaneously, for thirty years he was a low-level leader in two large, but confidential peer-support communities. His writing connects what he has learned from both the worlds of activism and peer support. He is married with two children, eight grandchildren. Over his lifetime, he chose to follow family around the country and now lives in North Bethesda, MD, USA, outside DC, where he helped launch a local Green New Deal.