Co-operatives skills training: meetings, management, conflict and change

Over the last year or so Rhizome’s been working with Co-operatives UK to assess the training needs of co-ops, bring on board other training co-ops, and agree and design a package of 5 seminars all around co-operation.

For too long co-op training has focused on business start-up, legal structures, financial management. All necessary stuff, but none of it supports us to learn to co-operate better. So that’s where these courses come in. They aim to support co-ops with the skills and attitudes needed to co-operate through conflict, change, meetings, in management, and in developing that deeper sense of what it means to co-operate.

The first courses run soon in Birmingham, Bristol and Manchester and can be booked through the Co-operatives UK website.

The process of co-operating on the course aims and content has raised some interesting questions on what we believe we can achieve through training – developing co-operative skills? Developing co-operative skills and attitudes? Sadly the pressure to get the courses up and running hasn’t allowed us the luxury of exploring these questions fully. But as we run the courses and learn from each other, the answers will become clearer – we’ll cross-fertilise between co-ops and co-develop our own co-operative skills (and maybe attitudes!).

Rhizome trainers will be at work on the Communication and working with conflict and Being a good co-op member courses to start with. See you there.

Our Tottenham – community democracy at work

“Since about 2009 my activism has focused on trying to build towards a better way of running society from the bottom up with full participation and real direct democracy and on a human scale. The first step seemed to be to get everyone who was active in a variety of ways in a local community all working together to resist bad stuff and do good things and to start to make their own power; and then to get the previously inactive people involved and gradually build a new type of democracy – simple !”


So opens a post on the Community Democracy blog where James Holland gives examples of genuine people-powered democracy at work in an age of austerity. He’s involved in Our Tottenham and sees the Our XX model as one that can and is spreading. Keep an eye on it.



An interesting take on the word, from the erudite Cunning Hired Knaves.


As a collective of people with a plethora of principles guiding us, we embrace the edges, the radical and the thought provoking. We are not in a dogmatic ditch.

British Knave of the Week – George ‘Give the peoples’ wealth to the Rich’ Osbourne



No Right Turn – resources to resist the far right


Our community development friends Sostenga have created some free session plans and resources to support community development responses to far right groups mobilising in our communities. They’re asking folk to share and contribute.

Here’s what they say:

“The emergence of the EDL (English Defence League) and various splinter groups in the last few years, and their antagonising marches in communities they perceive as un-British adds new importance to us tackling the far right and their politics of hate. While none of the national voluntary sector organisations seem willing to take on this work we think it is important to share tools and resources that can help community development workers and activists do something proactive. These resources are quite basic, and we see them as a starting point. Building on work started in Yorkshire & Humberside in 2010, they are currently being developed in Brighton as a response to the now annual March for England that will be descending once again on April 27th. The aim is to create talking points and engage people around these issues. We would love to hear about and share through the No Right Turn website other similar projects.”


Let us (and them!) know how you use the resources, how effective they are, and what innovations you make.

How to – get on a training about working with conflict


We’re offering, with Co-ops UK, a course called Communication and working with conflict. A bit of a gob full, but nonetheless it’s been tested and evaluated by worker co-ops in the last year or so; and elements of the programme have been used with community and campaign groups for the last 15 years.

We will work with you to (re)discover your own skills at working with contention, differences and arguments in a way which’ll help to solve them, not grow them. It doesn’t always work in solving matters, but everyone gets a lot clearer about what’s going on.

Unlike other programmes in this area we do not follow a dogmatic or branded approach. Our years of talking to and with people, has been stuffed into some easy to use and learn approaches to working with both what’s going on in your head when dealing with conflicts, and some steps to working with other people in conflict.

We like training it, we think you’ll like working with us. Sign up here.

Carl and others

Consensus case study: Helpline

Matthew and I prepared a case study of Helpline for a workshop. We never got to use it, so we thought we’d describe it in case anyone else would like to have a go.

‘Helpline’ was the pseudonym given to a project in Boston, USA, called Project Place when it was studied in the 1970s by an American academic called Jane Mansbridge. She described it in her wonderful book, “Beyond Adversary Democracy”. Helpline at that stage described itself as:

“this city’s 24-hour crisis intervention center, providing counselling and referral information for people with emotional, legal, medical, drug, or life-support problems, plus access to ambulance services, emergency shelters, short and long-term counselling, special programs for teenagers.”

Helpline had a strong belief in equality. Everyone was paid the same and decisions were made by consensus.

Mansbridge described Helpline in great detail. We drew from her description two documents, which together make up the case study. First, we prepared nine character cards. Some drew very directly from Mansbridge’s interviews with Helpline staff. We adapted others a little more freely.  Our aim was that participants using the case study could explore consensus from the perspective of a character who was unlike them.

For instance, there was Deborah, who says about herself,

“I’m the newest member here. I’m more hesitant to say something, or to try to control a business meeting, or try to lead the way in making decisions. I rely on people who have been here longer. I feel sometimes like I should be taking on more responsibility, but I’ve never been someone who speaks out actively in groups. I disagree if I have to, but I don’t like to. I felt quite intimidated for a while….”

Second, we described a decision Helpline had to take. Some members of Helpline wanted to take a $15,000 contract to work with some young Air Force recruits who had asked for help improving the hotline and drug counselling service they had set up at their base. They thought it straightforward: the hotline already existed, it was needed, the volunteers who staffed it were untrained, the work would not be any sort of prop to the military, and the money was much-needed. So they were surprised and offended when others objected, and insisted that the issue be taken to Helpline’s regular open meeting.

We planned to invite everyone to consider Helpline’s consensus process from the perspective of their character. What are their wants and needs? What behaviours are they likely to adopt or support? We then were going to ask them to pair off with someone who is in a different position from them, and discuss how their behaviour and their interaction will that affect the collective ability to do consensus .

Rather good, we thought. Anyone want to have a go? Let us know how it works, and any adaptations and improvements you make


Skills building with the London Cycling Campaign

A few weeks ago Matthew and I facilitated a one day workshop for the London Cycling Campaign. It was for their newly recruited group of volunteer Campaign Organisers and local group members who will be working hard on the Space4Cycling campaign in the run up to the local elections in May. This aims to get local candidates across every borough committing to specific demands to make cycling safer in their neighbourhoods.

The brief was to design and facilitate a day that built their confidence and skills in lobbying local candidates, communicating campaign asks to their local community and getting into local and social media. Some participants had been involved with LCC for a while, some were new to the organisation and the campaign. Most participants hadn’t met each other, so time getting to grips with the campaign and getting to know each other also had to be factored in.

LCC posted a good summary of what we did and their thoughts on how it went on their blog, written up straight after the event, in a much timelier manner! I thought we’d add a few more reflections from our perspective and a selection of comments from participants.

We designed the day to be very interactive and participant led – lots of discussion and activities in workshops and smaller groups, plus a big chunk of open space. Many participants said this was the best thing about the day – it enabled them to meet other and share experience and expertise. Comments included “my head is buzzing”, “it was intense and I am tired” and “the best thing was ‘doing it’”.

However on reflection we might have leaned too far towards active participation and we didn’t include a presentation about the campaign and their role in it. Although they had all had a written briefing in advance a number of participants felt that a quick update on the campaign at the start of the day would have been helpful and a couple of people still felt confused about what they were there for by the end of the day. This made us ponder that perhaps we can be so determined to do things differently and make things participative that we forget that sometimes a plenary presentation is exactly what’s needed to set the scene.

Plus, while lots of people really valued the open space session and felt they had necessary conversations relevant to their groups, others were less sure. A couple of participants felt that it was a bit “too open”, not structured enough, and that conversations veered off into irrelevant tangents. We’ve been facilitating a few open space sessions recently and having a few discussions about them. Pondering a blog post soon on the joys and challenges of facilitating open space, so watch this space! As always, we’re keen to hear your views.


the challenge of democratic co-operative governance

The words ‘co-operative’ and ‘governance’ have rarely been written together in the same sentence, let alone in a headline. But now our democratic organisations are facing scrutiny. Rhizome’s even been asked to help facilitate an open space about it in London on February 8th 2014.

So what makes co-operative governance different? Of course there are the seven principles underpinning all co-operatives, of which democracy is principle 6, but from our perspective in working with co-ops, collectives and social change organisations it also means that:

  • we don’t work for other people who simply profit from our success
  • we don’t give work to people because they are our mates, members of our lodge, or attend our church/ synagogue/ mosque; we trade fairly, only prioritising other co-operatives because we know they also trade fairly
  • we don’t go on strike, we communicate, we work together, we resolve
  • we don’t have a figurehead who is forced to take responsibility for everything, we share the responsibility – and we share the risks
  • we don’t steal from ourselves – what would be the point?
  • we don’t bolt on an ethical policy, we start with one and develop it further; based on respect, we cherish diversity as it brings us strength, we cherish our communities as we live and work in them; we cherish our world – why doesn’t everyone?
  • we don’t declare other interests as an afterthought – they are integral, we have so many; building a movement of radical change means working across borders, making alliances, having interests all over the place
  • we don’t all look alike/ talk alike/ dress alike – we are individual, unique. And though we may make mistakes, we may buckle under pressure, we know that we always have others around that we can trust to support us.

So what might be some of the issues for democratic co-operative governance these days? Here’s a selection of some of the issues that Rhizome get asked to help with as facilitators/ mediators/ trainers:

How do we make time to get the processes right when we have to focus so hard on the business/ campaign/ change we are trying to achieve?

Do our high standards make it hard for everyone to keep on meeting them all of the time?

Does having excellent accountability and transparency mean we are vulnerable, we can’t cover up our mistakes?

If having power corrupts, how can we always acknowledge and manage each other’s power?

Does size really matter?

facing the facts

Rhizome’s on facebook! We’ve engaged with facebook with a speed that makes some glaciers look positively nippy. Odd given that we decided when we started that social media would be our main voice (and ears). We started this blog right at the beginning and finally got around to tweeting a while back.

Speaking for myself it’s a balancing act – we’re determined to meet people where they’re at, where they’re organising. Not easy if you take the moral high ground – observing facebook from a distance through rarified, and somewhat smug, air.

Having said that facebook has been criticised for all manner of issues to do with privacy, hate speech, addiction and more. Hence this post – which will automatically be posted to our new facebook page.

Your thoughts are welcome. See you here. See you on facebook. See you in person.


Zombie, dinosaurs and crocodiles

It’s that time of year when everyone seems to review the past year and plan for the next one. Seems an appropriate time for me to blow the dust off a draft post I started near the beginning of 2013 but never quite completed. Why appropriate? Because it’s about looking back and looking forward.

Zombies, dinosaurs and crocodiles? No, not some dynamic new icebreaker game, but a summary of an ongoing conversation Rhizome folk started in 2013. We’re always talking about the role of Rhizome in the wider world and we often find ourselves critical of the social action movement, including, sometimes, those who support it with training and facilitation (and yes, we do include ourselves in that category).

photo: Bob Jagendorf

photo: Bob Jagendorf

It all started with a comparison of the social action movement with a zombie. (Un)dead on its feet but staggering on regardless, moribund. That’s not to say there’s no change or innovation, but it’s often within the same tired paradigm. A bit harsh? Maybe, but there’s a good deal of merit in the argument that it’s a movement that needs to revitalise or become irrelevant

And talking of things no longer alive, as part of the same

Barry Kid Photography

Barry Kid Photography

conversation we paused to ask ourselves whether Rhizome was in fact a collective of dinosaurs. Just a bunch of out of date fossils with a nostalgic view of how change should be made (cue: “in my day we didn’t have t’internet. Our office were in a paper bag in a septic tank and had to weave our own campaign banners out of cold gravel…and we considered ourselves well resourced”…. “Office? You had an office?….”).

After all we talk a language of community building and collective action but not in a ‘Big Society’ way. Our ideas of community might seem a bit pre-Thatcher.We promote face-to-face interaction, and we do so by delivering most of our work face-to-face – no  e-learning, no youtube channel. If it wasn’t for this blog, who knows where we’d be? We put most of our effort into supporting group-work, not building the capacity of individual key mobilisers, or whatever the jargon is at the moment. We champion participatory collective action which seems to fly in the face of ever-increasing individualism. And individualism isn’t something that just happens when we’re acting alone. So many of our group meetings are full of individuals working towards their individual agendas. It’s one big reason why we’re not more effective and one of the reasons we ask groups to take the time to work on their internal processes despite the seeming urgency of the issues they’re working on. We continue to promote consensus decision-making despite the (often valid) critiques of how it has been used by Climate camp or Occupy.

For goodness sake we’ve recently written a document citing the nonconformist movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Isn’t it time we stopped harking on about the past as if it were some kind of utopia and get on with building the future utopia? Do we just need to get with the times or put ourselves out to grass?

Norbert Nagel / Wikimedia Commons

Norbert Nagel / Wikimedia Commons

As it happens, we settled on an image of ourselves as crocodiles – more or less prehistoric but surviving and thriving to this day where many younger species have failed.

We look at the social action movement and see quite a few babies being hurled out with the bath water as change after change is made in everything but mindset. We see NGOs struggling to find a model that delivers the maximum change – networks of groups, well-resourced individuals, mobilising masses of supporters in 5 minute armchair actions

When I look back on the work Rhizome has done over the past few years, I believe we have a lot to offer present and future change-makers. We focus on changing mindsets, values, and attitudes over giving people skills and tools. Tools without appropriate understanding are next to useless. The inspiration we draw from participatory movements of the past is all about building a new culture of democracy, helping individuals to genuinely co-operate and work collectively for their utopia, whatever that might be. We want to build diverse communities not movement of individuals. You might find that if we build those communities, we’re living utopia long before we’ve “won” all our campaigns. See you in 2014.


HOWTO – enhance your organisation


We think most organisations can be better at what and how they do things. We specialist in decision making by consensus, conflict resolution, facilitation and participative ways of working, co-op development and a host of other relational skills.

We recognise that most of our potential collaborators are skint or exist on shoestring budgets. As we do. So here’s the idea – you and we bid for funding together. Here’s where we know we can work well with you -

1. Research and advocacy

We think the nature of activism is constantly evolving, for example moves to on-line working; and ‘constructive activism’ (ie We’re not just against this, we’re for THAT; or the ‘Another world is possible’ approach). As researchers we would work with you to map how these shifts could affect or benefit you, and what helps or hinders any progress. This could be a working-inside-the-group approach or a more detached researcher role (ie observation and semi-structured interviewing). As ideas emerge and prove to be useful, we’d share this with the wider network and publish stuff (web or physical).

We can also work on issues of ‘leadership‘ in consensus based campaigns – why do campaigns generally fail to replicate the early energy, and manage to bring new perspectives and people into leadership? Is it to do with a limited set of people with the energy/wit and drive? Or is it more about unconsciously and unintentionally falling into command/control modes? Or something else? How is all this impacted by wider social discourses (ie the political context, actions of the state, recessionary pressures, trying to operate alternatively in the midst of mainstream, etc)? Again we can work with you to discern these patterns and work on ways through.

Comparing and contrasting modes of operation. This idea overlaps with the previous two, but the focus is on how different modes of operation (eg consensus, consultative, top down etc) impact on wider public and political consciousnesses. For example, how Greenpeace (core and supporters), Amnesty (big hierarchical orgn with supporters), direct action by consensus grass roots (UK Uncut, Occupy, Climate Camp) differ in impact as a result of mode of operation. This would connect to concepts of medium and long term sustainability of organisations. Is there an ideal form and way of working that maintains impetus? This would factor in funding, personality, situation in wider social context, timescale of project, impact desired etc.

2. Infrastructure

Range of workshops, resources and hands-on support to a range of organisations. Idea that this support is stratified – eg 1. nursery or start up, 2. needs additional practical support, 3. operating well or artist who needs action learning, deeper reflection (eg hubs, Communities of Practice, networks etc).

This to be offered at set points throughout the year and bespoke for one to one support. But will include applying products of learning from research, basic infrastructure support (ie governance, ways of working, people co-operation, marketing, ‘leadership’ etc). Note – precise nature of this support to be developed with orgns who support this bid.

Getting the funding

Once some of you say, “yes”, we will work on bids with you. So let’s be having you.

Truth and reconciliation in consensus

Nelson Mandela has been laid to rest. Countless words have been written about his life and his legacy, and with good cause. I’m not going to try to add too many more to that count. What’s clear is that he (and those around him) inspired a nation to act against expectations, against self-interest, for a higher ‘good’ – a unified, multiracial South Africa.

Inspiration, acting against self-interest and for a higher purpose are all necessary, central values in any consensus decision-making group. How many groups that use consensus actually, consciously, live and work to those values is another matter.

What most consensus groups need are more Mandela moments. They need to find inspiring, collaborative ways out of seemingly impossible, sometimes ideological, struggles. Positions are taken and fiercely held too. They are reinforced and dug in with the language of values and idealism. The stage is set for yet another conflict in which there are ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. The real loser is our ability to collaborate, our belief in co-operation, our sense of community.

Where’s the truth and reconciliation in all this? We invent truths, fly our standards from them, gather our forces around them, forgetting that they are just one possible view of the truth. And reconciliation, real reconciliation is rare. Feelings are usually strained but never fully repaired. Our groups are weakened, and with that our ability to function as cohesive forces for social change.

It’s tough, but we need more people, more groups, to step up and inspire those Mandela moments – to show the way to processes of truth and reconciliation. And we need more people and more groups to do the work to turn inspiration into consensus.

Of course if we deify Mandela we’ll never achieve that. What we need to remember is that inspiration needs to be channeled and turned into action and behaviour, to be enshrined in cultures, for it to make change. And that’s something that took many, many ‘ordinary’ people to achieve. Mandela provided the inspiration and the example, but tens of thousands of ordinary South Africans took that inspiration and did the work that made change possible.


Solidarity Activism Workshop

Solidarity Activism Workshop, Sunday 1st December 2013, 12-6, Leeds University Union

TidalA space for reflection on our experiences of solidarity activism and working mindfully with communities facing oppression/opposing environmental destruction.

This workshop is not a training. It will not tell you ‘how to do solidarity activism in ten easy steps’ but it will allow experienced and inexperienced people to raise and reflect on some issues around how ‘we’ act in solidarity with communities that may be very different from us culturally and politically, who may have very different ideas about tactics and decision-making. Solidarity activism requires us to reflect on our own attitudes and privilege. And to be mindful that while we can ‘parachute in’ and then return to our lives, others live with any impacts that our actions have. But bearing all of these issues we still must to act – because acting in solidarity is fundamental to our sense of justice and our fight for a better world.

We hope to be able to arrange accommodation for people coming from outside Leeds and there will be a travel pool to help with travel costs. The venue is fully wheelchair accessible. We hope to be able to arrange a crèche if there are parents who need to bring their children. There will be vegan food available for donations. Please let us know if you need accommodation, childcare, or have other dietary requirements by leaving a comment on our facebook event or emailing

More info and some suggested reading on facebook

Tidal is a global justice campaign group based in Leeds.

Of the people, by the people, for the people?

Democracy’s a word that can divide almost any group of people. What does it mean? Is what we do now real democracy? Is there one right way?

Here’s a nice video (4 mins) about one town’s experiment with participatory democracy. What do you reckon?

hat tip to NatCAN

A lurch to the dwight

Our journey through the community that is the Rhizome blog wouldn’t be complete without talking to the blogger Dwight Towers. We’ve interacted with his blog, and he with ours for almost as long as we’ve been around. Here’s a brief interview:

It’s obvious from your blog that you’re an avid reader. So…

your favourite dystopian read and why?
So many!!  Brave New World was extremely challenging. Whose side are you on? Mond’s or the “Savage”.  That said, I’ve not read BNW for 20 years…
favourite utopian read and why?
Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed – showed me how and why no utopia is without the egos and status games, no matter how ‘egalitarian’ it is.
single most life-changing read?
Gah!!  Probably World Orders, Old and New by Noam Chomsky.  The pieces of
the puzzle started to be re-arranged into a logical pattern…

Your blog’s full of neologisms. What’s your all time favourite?
Smugosphere!!  Because it is so easily understood, and enrages people who
police the borders of the smugosphere.

It’s also obvious that you attend a lot of meetings, events, workshops etc, and equally obvious you find many of them painful and enraging. What’s the worst of a very bad lot and why?
I’d say the October 2006 Climate Camp meeting that was facipulated to get ‘consensus’ on having another camp in 2007, without any discussion of the dangers in going down that path.  That said, I should be grateful, because it helped me start the necessary process of disengagement and disentanglement, so I ended up being a lot less cooked by the climate camp bonfire than other people

It can’t all be bad (can it?). What’s your most uplifting meeting moment (walking out the door doesn’t count)?
When people decide that it matters to talk to strangers, and they start finding common ground

Here’s one I like to call “Desert island dicks”. Who are the people – real or archetypes – we should strand on a desert island and not save from the waves?
The pseudo-anarchists who proclaim themselves as great critics of power (state and corporate) but fawn over charlatans who know how to stroke their egos, and then start a lynch-mob against anyone who demurs to adore the charlatan. They can FUCK. RIGHT. OFF.

One blog, other than your own and our own, that Rhizome readers should visit?

  • Dave Pollard’s How to Save the World. I don’t always agree of course, but he’s asking a lot of the right questions, and coming up with some damn good answers.
  • Glasgow Sex Worker (now defunct?), on feminism, patriarchy, puritans etc.

The motto you live you life by in 140 characters….
Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke.  It’s later than you think, and remember that the last laugh is on you…

Participation, prison and parlour games – an interview with Adrian Ashton

We recently asked readers of the blog to become contributors. Not only are we fascinated to find out who you all are, what you do with your time, and why, but we thought you’d enjoy sharing the discovery.

It’s always a risk asking for participation – even from a community who in one way or another practice, research and innovate on participation. What if no-one engages with us?

Trainer, business adviser, associate Co-operative College tutor, and fellow blogger Adrian Ashton has answered the call. I spoke to Adrian a few days ago. Stupidly I tried to fit the call in before I dashed off for a train. Very, very quickly it became obvious that we were just going to skim the surface of what we could have talked about.

I think my first hint of that came when Adrian started talking about a piece of work he was embarking on to embed co-operative values. So much of our time at Rhizome goes into trying to work with groups on the level of shared values rather than simply tools and techniques. So I grabbed that thread and pulled to unravel what Adrian meant. How do you embed cooperative values?

“not by relying on rules and structures. It’s a two-handed thing. On paper everyone goes ‘yes, absolutely’. In practice it gets a bit messy.”

An example?

“Coops and trade unions – two large movements united and divided by a set of common values. They have different cultural attitudes”

Adrian advises us to ask:

“How do we want to manifest those values? Now we need a framework. What are the ways we play the values out in practice – appropriate culture and accepted norms of behaviour… to enable people to feel confident in sticking to their agreements”

He works in a variety of social sector organisations. Sometimes he’ll be working with a small worker coop, sometimes with a large social enterprise. I asked him about the challenges of embedding values in each.

“With worker coop they’re usually much smaller and meet in pubs and backrooms. You’re building relationships and then building a structure around that… with boards the structure’s already there and you have to make relationships work within it”

Do both approaches achieve the same results?

“For larger organisations… structure is vital if you’re going to manage relationships. The question is ‘how are those structures working at the moment?’. If there are points where they’re rubbing, are there relatively simple things we can do in terms of our behaviour?… You have to follow the structure but you can do stuff alongside it.

In a smaller coop structure is a useful touch-point to protect relationships. It can depersonalise disputes and protect the entity of the coop.”

I was curious about fractured relationships within coops and social enterprises and asked how much time he spent advising coops and social enterprises to wind down:

“Not that much interestingly and usually not because of the relationships”

He gave examples of coops where “no-one had thought about future proofing or succession” and as original members left new workers saw no need to join the coop. Other examples were coops that had tried to replicate models of working from the USA without understanding the need for members to “co-shape” the project and the need to attract people who had the aptitude for co-operation.

So how does one get the aptitude for co-operation? I know that Rhizome folk have plenty of experience of people, in coops and out, launching collaborative projects but playing out the values of competition (and then wondering why it’s all so difficult). Adrian replied in terms of education:

“cooperative learning is there at primary level – we work in teams together, learn together, support each others learning – brilliant! But at secondary level we’re into the land of GCSEs and all of a sudden it’s every student for themselves – youve got to get good grades. There’s a schism in the mindset. 10-12 year olds are being taught to cooperate and then told it’s every person for themselves in the exam room”

And the media don’t help as they celebrate the model of the “heroic individual entrepreneur” the “one against the many”. Projects like Make your mark for a tenner don’t include recognition of working together – it’s all individualistic.

“We need to ask ‘what’s the purpose of our role in society as citizens?’. We’re caught up in this huge self-feeding spiral of “economic growth is good”. What’s the reward? It’s not just fiscal!… The rise of the individual is an easy sell, but now social entrepreneurs are struggling and need to be part of the wider ecosystem. There’s a first flush of excitement and media interest and attention and then they’re just dropped. How do we sustain our interest and enthusiasm? Work together in collaborative entrepreneurship.”

Time was ticking on, so I asked Adrian about his most exciting work. “Prisoners” was the one-word answer. I nudged him to elaborate and he told me about various strands of work he was involved in with prisoners and ex-offenders. He cited research that demonstrated that co-operatives were the most “empowering and emboldening method to empower people to bring about change in their lives”.

One example Adrian mentioned is Ex-Cell Solutions in Manchester. According to their website:

‘Cooperating out of Crime’ is central to Ex-Cell’s work – applying the values and principles of the Cooperative Movement to the rehabilitation of offenders. Ex-Cell is a Cooperative Development Body registered with Cooperatives UK and the only CDB in the country working exclusively with offenders and ex-offenders

“The Cooperative Movement historically has had a central interest in eradicating crime and its causes. Robert Owen’s New Lanark experiment was explicitly designed to promote an alternative to the conventional system of law and punishment and to eradicate the causes of crime by promoting cooperation and education. In the same way, William King, from whom the Rochdale Pioneers learnt much, explained in the first edition of his periodical ‘The Co-operator’ (May 1st 1828) that: The evils which co-operation is intended to combat, are some of the greatest to which men are liable, viz, the great and increasing difficultiesof providing for our families, and the proportionate danger of our falling into pauperism and crime.” Dave Nicholson Ex-Cell Director

Many prisoners are already entrepreneurs and it’s these very businesses, because of their illegality, that has led them into prison. Some of Adrian’s work has been to support the move from prison to legal self-employment by way of supporting the formation of coops on the outside. He modestly describes it as a “participatory learning process, peer led with a bit of facilitation and the odd bit of expert guidance”

His advice to existing and potential co-operators?

“Work out what’s important to you in the sense of what you are adamant about and flexible about. Once you’ve worked those things out it’s much easier to engage with others”

We’ve already gleaned that he likes people to tell stories. He’s also a fan of parlour games as tools to initiate exploration and conversation. Sometimes he used personality profiling, though Belbin team roles is the most detailed” he uses. He also uses the Ulla zang pictures, not because he sees the personality profiling as highly accurate, but because they “start the conversation where people can talk about themselves away from the {everyday} task”. He laments that most enterprise models are “all about delivering the task not about how we work together on doing the task”. Successful collaboration requires people to “understand each others factory default settings so they can enjoy working together better”

Finally I asked Adrian to suggest something he read, listened to or watched that others in the Rhizome community might find useful and interesting.

“The RSA podcast series….I don’t necessarily agree with all of them but they’re a very useful way of starting to engage and explore different ideas and perspectives. They’re big concepts distilled into commute-sized chunks.”

Secondly he suggests the VSSN(Voluntary Sector Studies Network) quarterly journal which he describes a s a “mix of pure data and good quantitative stuff, comment pieces and reflective pieces.”

As an afterthough Adrian emailed another item for the reading list saying “it’s not so much an ongoing journal or recent publication, but rather a ‘core text’ that I regularly revisit and is perhaps the most useful book any entrepreneur (social , private or co-operative) might read – Dr Seuss’ ‘Oh the places you’ll go’

Thanks to Adrian for getting the ball rolling. We didn’t have time to talk about either sex coops or tobacco coops, so we’ll pick up the conversation another time.


  • Adrian’s website
  • Follow Adrian on Twitter @AdrianAshton2
  • Adrian’s blog

Kind words from Labour Behind the Label…

Ilana, from Labour Behind the Label, kindly sent us a blog post with their perspective of the session we facilitated for them a few weeks ago (which we wrote briefly about a few posts ago). Always great to hear directly from the people we work with on our blog – positive and not so positive feedback is valuable and welcomed!

At Labour Behind the Label, a workers cooperative campaigning for garment workers rights worldwide, we were thinking of ways to encourage grassroots campaigning on garment workers rights to help raise public awareness and strengthen our campaigns, which led to us recruiting and training dedicated volunteer Regional Coordinators across the UK. Our Regional Coordinators came from a variety of backgrounds and with a range of prior knowledge on garment workers rights, and so it was important that the two-day training we offered them both gave them a strong base of knowledge necessary to become a Labour Behind the Label Regional Coordinator and from which to build on throughout the coming months, as well as the confidence and ability to engage the public in the issues and represent Labour Behind the Label.

We worked with Rhizome to plan and run the two-day event with a specific focus on passing on knowledge and building skills and confidence. Hannah was wonderful to work with throughout the process. We worked closely together to plan a suitable 2 day training programme, which incorporated our needs as Labour Behind the Label and Hannah’s facilitation skills and experience as a trainer. Throughout the process she was approachable, friendly, warm and hugely knowledgeable. I felt confident that the training would run smoothly and the participants would come away feeling inspired and eager to get started.

Hannah facilitated a range of activities across the two-days which were engaging, thought-provoking and confidence-boosting. They encouraged the participants to think about their audiences and how to approach them when running a workshop or event, to think of creative ways to plan a public action or fundraising event, and to feel confident in their new roles as Regional Coordinators for Labour Behind the Label. The activities also covered public speaking and encouraged participants through running practice workshop sessions in a safe environment, as well as facilitating group discussions. Hannah is a wonderful facilitator and trainer, and with her help we were able to cover a huge amount in the 2 days training. It was a real pleasure working with Rhizome and we would happily do it again.

Just what do you want?

The Rhizome blog’s been kind of quiet of late. One thing that might change that is you. We asked ourselves what was stopping us posting, and for some of us it’s astumbleweed simple as not knowing enough about who you are and what you want. So why not tell us? In fact, why not use this space to tell us.

You are hereby invited to guest post on the Rhizome blog – tell us about you, or your work, or your worldview. It’s a blatant opportunity to self-publicise, promote your work or cause, tell us your favourite joke and simultaneously help us to understand what makes you tick at the same time.

We always intended this to be a community space and you are that community.

If you need a little prompting, then get in touch and we can chat to you by the communication medium of your choice and your guest post can be an interview instead.

It’s that or the tumbleweed continues…

Workshop: Diversity & Oppression in Grassroots Organising: 15-17 November

Diversity & Oppression in Grassroots Organising.
Seeds for Change workshop

15th – 17th November (Buckinghamshire, 25mins from London)
28th Feb – 2nd March (Leeds)

“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time; but if you are here because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Lila Watson

Social movements in Britain have long talked about being inclusive, anti-oppressive, diverse and non-hierarchical. However, many people who would be part of a strong and diverse movement are currently marginalised, while others aren’t yet aware of how their behaviour can exclude others.

Seeds for Change is running two residential, weekend workshops in beautiful locations to explore power with grassroots organisers in the UK. Throughout the weekend, participants will explore questions regarding their own use of power: How we might exclude others or be excluded, and how we can use our power to strengthen the social movements we are part of. It is for people involved in groups working for social change: it is both for those who don’t feel totally welcome in the groups they are part of, as well as those who do.

There are limited spaces on the workshop, and we expect it to fill up fast, so please email us asking for an application form asap. The weekend costs £50, which covers food and accommodation. We have some full bursaries and some part bursaries, so please don’t let cost put you off – email us and we’ll do what we can to make it possible for you to come.

There are two workshop dates, one in the North, one in the South.

In the South…
6pm Friday 15th – 3pm Sunday 17th November 2013, Buckinghamshire. 25 minutes on the train from London

In the North…
6pm Friday 28th February – 4pm Sunday 2nd March 2014, Leeds

Training activists with Labour Behind the Label

A few weeks ago I spent a weekend with Labour Behind the Label a Bristol based co-operative who campaign to support garment workers. They focus on efforts worldwide to improve working conditions and campaign on a range of issues, from getting compensation for the survivors of the Rana Plaza disaster to fighting for a living wage.

They have recently recruited a group of Regional Co-ordinators across England to raise awareness in their local communities of the issues garment workers face and to encourage people to take action. They invited Rhizome to help facilitate a two day training workshop for the volunteers to develop their confidence and skills in speaking to people, running awareness raising workshops for local groups and putting on public actions to generate interest.

The workshop was a mix of information giving about garment worker’s rights and the changes Labour Behind the Label are campaigning for and skills building and practice activities. We practiced giving out leaflets to members of the public, adapting information for different audiences, and designing and delivering a mini-workshop. By the end of the weekend the group has also generated a number of ideas for public actions and shared experience of putting on successful fundraising events. The group took well to this “learning by doing” approach and feedback was generally pretty positive, though the task of delivering a workshop was quite challenging for some. One piece of feedback was that more modelling or examples of good practice would have been helpful, which did make me reflect on how I set up the task and think about how I could incorporate this next time I run a similar activity.