Bonnington Square – inspiring community empowerment & collective action

Bonnington Square – c’est si bon

Everyone in Rhizome who can – every six months or so – meets up to do all the things that are best done face-to-face. For a team that’s scattered across the UK, regular calls help us run the co-op, and working together whenever possible builds relationships and is great for sharing experience. However, nothing beats meeting up for such things as strategising, and the deeper levels of learning from each other and sharing good practice.

We held our recent meeting once again in the Bonnington Centre in London. It feels like an honour to go there and see what collective action and community empowerment can achieve. It’s also great to be able to both support a venue that’s right up our street, as it were, but also one that leaves you refreshed and inspired.

bike-box-lambeth-councilAs we approached Bonnington Square from the busy streets and tiring journeys that morning, we felt our troubles slip away, the greenery of years of guerilla tree-planting soothing our minds. We could not but help but be inspired by little things that caught our attention – bicycle racks and on‑street bike shelters, community gardens, a co-operatively run cafe, community centre and more. If you’re not near enough to go visit, you might feel the same after you watch these lovely slide‑shows.

The central square is an ex-bomb site that in the 70s had swings fitted by the local council. It was largely abandoned until 1994 when residents bought and transformed it into a community garden, as a homage to Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens (“a major feature of London for three centuries; a place of curiosity, promenade and play”). The community garden was:

“designed by committee… and must be one of the best adverts for design by committee that you will ever come across.”

“The intention was to create a gentle and beautiful slice of nature that could serve all sides of the community. A delightful play space for the kids and something of a sanctuary from the big city storm for the adults. It is one of the beating ‘hearts’ of our community and a place of pilgrimage for many more.”

madepossiblebysquatting

The 100 or so houses in the surrounding streets had been bought up by the long-mourned

GLC for the building of a school, and were all in a state of major disrepair, bricked and boarded up. Eventually all the dwellings were made habitable and were home to a diverse, international and bohemian bunch. Many of these squats over time became ‘short-life housing co-ops’ (still functioning 30 years later; here’s a timeline). Residents also created and ran two community gardens, a cafe, a wholefood shop, a nightclub, a newsletter and even a milk-bar.

However, in 2009, Lambeth council “the co-operative council’ made moves to evict the ex‑squatters.shameclose43k

“They’re destroying lives, destroying communities, destroying the things that used to make living in Lambeth so amazing,” she says. “The cooperative council has to understand that you can’t impose a cooperative structure on a group of people. It has to come from the people themselves and they have to be working towards a common goal. And that’s what we did. We took care of vulnerable people, we nurtured them.”

“Now we’re just on a spreadsheet as assets to be disposed of, to be ticked off. We’re not communities, we’re not people: we’re just in the way of them raising money.” (more here).

Financially blackmailed too, the response was for residents to set up a super co-op, Lambeth United. Read more about their innovative and sensible proposals that could benefit all, including the council. Protests have stopped some of the viewings by auctioneers, and there’s been resistance to some of the evictions.

WPLUHClogo2

Photo set

So much to think on, as we ate our lunches in the café, formerly squatted in the 80s and still run collectively.Bonnington-cafe

 

 

What can we learn from such things?

The power of effective organising, direct action and squatting; how inspiring it is to see what a difference people can make through big ventures and small actions; the variety of forms of action and social change needed to respond to changing situations; the power of vested interests and the forces that fuel gentrification and the social cleansing of much of London; and the strength of collective action and empowered communities to create the world we want to see. We hope in our little way to continue to support groups and individuals who also believe some of these things and are ‘fighting the good fight’ – we hope you’ll join with us…

Lovely 20 minute video about the squatted history of the square, with a walk-about the community gardens:

 

upcoming events: bottom-up political and community action and toppling tyranny

How To Do It – Creating Bottom up Political Participation

9-10th April 2016, London

From citizen engagement to radical collective action, the focus of the event is how ‘ordinary’ people can come together to collectively act upon and change their environment.

The challenge is to create determined and conscious collective action, which can be effective, shared and scaled up.

This event seeks to generate and share concrete knowledge of how bottom up radical political participation can succeed.

More info here

Community Action: Taking the Power Back

An open event for people active in their community; we will explore this by hearing from speakers, participating in workshops, networking and dialogue.

We aim to celebrate alternative models and visions of community action, without privileging any single approach.

Purpose:To explore how we can build stronger communities

Date: Friday 29 April 2016

Time: 10.30 am – 4.30 pm

Venue: The Great Hall, Holloway Campus, London Metropolitan University, 166-220 Holloway Road, London N7 8DP

Click here to book a place for the this event

Venue is fully accessible: if you have any specific dietary requirements or want to make further enquiries please email Matthew Scott.

You’re very welcome to offer your own workshops and open space discussions in the afternoon. Please contact us before the event if you’d like to offer a topic/input.

We are offering a limited number of travel bursaries for people travelling from outside of London – for further info email.

Learn how tyranny is toppled:

an afternoon with one of the world’s renowned nonviolent democracy campaigners.

25th April 2016, Manchester

Srdja Popovic led the Serbian nonviolent resistance group Otpor! which helped topple the dictator Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.

He will be speaking about people power and his inspirational life, which he has dedicated to nonviolent protest against oppression in many parts of the world.

More info

Skilling Up trainings April 2016

Training for change workshop

In April 2016, one of the world’s leading activist training groups, Training for Change, will be visiting London and offering a 10-day programme made of two powerful workshops for trainers and facilitators.

 About these trainings

The three-day ‘Training for Social Action Trainers’ is an intensive training designed for experienced facilitators wanting to revitalise their work; for new trainers wanting to inspire; for teachers, community leaders and activists – for anyone wanting to take their skills to a new level and learn how training can be used more effectively. As a participant, you will gain greater awareness about yourself and your strengths as a facilitator; get a chance to take risks, experiment and refine skills in a safe and supportive environment; learn new tools that are easily adapted, principles of workshop design, skills for working with diversity and a better understanding of how to use experiential education methods effectively.

 

The six-day ‘Advanced Training of Trainers’ involves tackling some of training’s biggest challenges – including doing cross-cultural work, handling conflict and strong emotions, and modifying workshop designs on the fly (which TfC calls ‘emergent design’). This training is only open to people who have already taken the Training for Social Action Trainers workshop, whether on 15-17 April or previously. As a participant, you will receive in-depth, personal coaching on your goals; prepare for cross-cultural work, including international training; use more practice time to experiment with new approaches in a supportive setting.

 

These are intensive learning environments, including morning, afternoon and a number of evening sessions. We ask that you attend all sessions, as each one builds on the ones before. There will be many breaks, and opportunities for self care.

Both workshops begin on the evening of the first day and sessions on all days will continue into the evening.

About Training for Change

For over 20 years, Training for Change has provided activist training for groups across the world who are standing up for social, economic, and environmental justice through strategic nonviolence. TfC has led hundreds of workshops and trained thousands of people – from striking steelworkers to interfaith coalitions for immigrant rights – in the skills they need to effectively create change.

 

TfC calls its approach ‘direct education’: ‘Direct action means actions that directly confront and challenge the current system of injustice; direct education means education that directly confronts and challenges the current system of injustice – which includes how people are taught.’ TfC believes in a group-centered approach, where trainers see themselves as empowering people to discover their own expertise and that of each other. Direct education includes: holding difference/diversity as a theme throughout training, not just as a content area; and inviting risk. You may not always be comfortable during the workshops, since we are learning new skills and approaches to vital issues, but we build up group support to take risks and to learn from them.

 

Details

Training for Social Action Trainers: 15-17 April.

Advanced Training of Trainers: 19-24 April 2016.

Venue: Central London

Fees for both workshops

Organisations: £2,000

Individuals and small groups: sliding scale between £250 – £750

 

If your income is   You pay
under £11,000  £250
£11,001–£15,500  £280
£15,501–£21,000  £330
£21,001–£28,000  £400
£28,001–£37,000  £490
£37,001–£49,000  £600
Over £49,000  £750

 

Fees for Training for Social Action Trainers only

Organisations: N/A

Individuals and small groups: £125 – £250

 

No refunds after 15 March. The fees cover the training and all meals during the training. The fees do not cover travel or accommodation. Both trainings will be held in central London.

How do I apply?

 

Organisations 

There are a limited number of places in these trainings for organisations. People who are employed by a trade union, a campaigning organisation or a public body must apply through their organisation and pay the organisational rate. If an organisation is going to pay for your place, please fill in this form and we will get back to you to discuss your application. Organisational applications are open now and will be done on a rolling basis.

 

Individuals and small groups

If you wish to apply as an individual or from a small group please fill in this form. The application deadline is 15 February and we will get back to everyone who applies this way after that date.

 

If you have any queries, please contact skillingup@peacenews.info

 

 

This training has been made possible by the co-operation of three British organisations:

Peace News

Turning the Tide

Campaign Bootcamp

Sustaining Resistance in the UK

resistanceisfertileSustaining our Activism: Building Resilient Communities

Workshops in the UK in 2016

 

To sustain our work for social change we need to feel empowered, nourished and creative. In these workshops we will explore tools and strategies for finding inspiration, hope, and ways forward through the ups and downs, to keep going for the long haul.

 

We are planning a series of workshops including:

  • An 8-day residential workshop, 26th March – 2rd April 2016 (details below)
  • 1 and 2 day open workshops around the UK (dates tbc)
  • We can run workshops with your group or organisation.

 

These workshops are for anyone working for social change – whether that means building community through arts or events, organising campaigns, resisting injustice, building alternatives or taking direct action.

 

The workshops provide an opportunity to get away from our busy lives and take stock, taking time to reflect and learn from our experiences, and build resilience. We will question the long term viability and sustainability of the ways that we work personally and in our groups, highlighting ways of working that if left un-noticed can produce conflict, physical and mental ill health, trauma and exhaustion. We will develop skills, practices and ideas to help us make changes in our day to day lives that will support our wellbeing and explore ways of working which keep ourselves, our groups, and our communities sustained and effective in the struggle for social, economic and ecological justice.

 

8 day residential workshop 26th March – 2rd April

(Arriving evening of 25th March, leaving morning of 3rd April)

This workshop will take place in a beautiful setting that will provide ideal conditions for reflection and renewal. We hope to bring together a diverse group of people, from across the UK and Europe, involved in a wide variety of issues and projects, who are keen to share their learning with their networks.

 

To make the workshop as accessible as we can, we are asking you to make a contribution towards the workshop costs based on a sliding scale of between £20 – £500 (this includes accommodation and all meals). In addition, we are looking for grant funding, but this is not yet secured. We will know early in the new year if we have enough funding to go ahead with the workshop. In the meanwhile, please send us an email if you are interested in participating. Places are limited.

 

This course will be facilitated by: Kathryn ( www.seedsforchange.org.uk), Claire

( www.ecodharma.com ), Jake ( www.london-roots.org.uk ) and Mara ( www.cre-act.net & www.klimakollektiv.org)

 

If you are interested in participating in any of these workshops, or you would like to discuss us running a workshop with your group or organisation, please email us so we can keep you updated:

SustainingActivismUK@riseup.net

next years’ Co-operative UK training programme

Rhizome is happy to be supporting the new Co-operatives UK programme, for which we will design & deliver training to existing and new co-ops across Britain.

Co-operatives UK and The Co-operative Bank have agreed a £1 million three-year partnership to support the development and growth of the UK’s dynamic co‑operative and social enterprise sector.

The new programme, set to launch in early 2016, aims to boost the ‘co‑operative economy’ which is already worth £37 billion to the British economy. Over the next three years, the £1 million programme, the first of its kind in the UK, will support the development of the existing 6,796 independent co‑operative businesses across the UK alongside helping new co‑operatives and community businesses starting up.

“”This programme is about empowering local people to create their own solutions, economically and culturally – giving power to the people.”

For the full story and to register an interest, go here.

Capitalism Is Just a Story – Rise Up and Create a New One

If you didn’t see this earlier in the year, fired up by the symbolism of Bonfire Night*, and you’re more than ready for the weekend after a long week, give this a watch:

How many of us have a sneaking suspicion that something pretty fundamental is going wrong in the world? We keep hearing about the potentially devastating consequences of climate change but we are pumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every single year. We are forced into economic crisis after economic crisis and the only people who aren’t brought to their knees are those that cause it. In fact, they often just get richer and more powerful while the rest of us work harder and harder for less reward. Politicians all say the same basic thing. No one, it seems, is offering anything that is really different. The whole operating system is somehow wrong, but also somehow inevitable. Nothing can really be changed because this is just how things are.

At least, that’s what we’re told, and how it can feel. But this way of living – our system of modern capitalism – is just a story.  And this story is not the only one there is.  It’s not inherent within us.  It was invented by human beings, and so human beings can change it.

But in order to get there, we first have to face up to some difficult truths.

Re-posted from therules.org

*Bonfire night pictures from Lewes, and London Million Mask protests.

turn the tide – get stuck in to (AKA co-ordinate) non-violent training & education

Turning the Tide workshopJust missed out on joining a small and mighty team of people passionate about using nonviolent power to turn the tide of injustice in society?

Then how about applying for a job co-ordinating Turning the Tide’s programme?  It’ll be based in London, and the deadline is 20th November – see here for more info.

Good luck to our TtT colleague and friend Denise on her journeys south.

Stealing the Future

StealingtheFuture_m_webUtopian and dystopian writings often have a great appeal to those of us who consider ourselves to be working towards a better world. If that chimes with you, then you might want to know about Stealing the Future, written by a good friend of Rhizome, Max Hertzberg. In Max’s own words:

There are quite a few novels describing utopian societies, particularly in the science fiction genre (Ursula K. Le Guin‘s The Dispossessed, Kim Stanley Robinson‘s Mars Trilogy), but it’s rare to come across a book that doesn’t just attempt to describe a utopia set up in a new environment (new planet, new continent, ‘uninhabited’ island etc) but actually attempts to chart the progress of a society like ours to one with more utopian properties. Stealing the Future is an attempt to close that gap – an attempt to describe that phase of hard work, hope and (seemingly?) insurmountable challenges. It’s a thought experiment: how could the East Germany of 1989 go from Communist dictatorship to something much more equitable, much fairer and more just than we even dare dream is possible?

The book’s supported and enhanced by a whole load of related articles on the website. It’ll be launched at the Anarchist Bookfair next month. Happy reading!

poster2015sm

resilience! Festival of Solidarity

This just in from our friends at the Edge Fund:

In November of 2014 members of Migrant Artists Mutual Aid, Lesbian Immigration Support Group and Action for Trans* Health met at Edge Fund’s Radical Sharing Forum and hatched a plan to make their groups more sustainable through a unique community fundraising event. They’ve worked really hard to create an amazing day. Please support them and help make it a huge success. Please buy a ticket (for you or someone else) and spread the word far and wide!

resilience! Festival of Solidarity, 25th July,

MERCi, Bridge 5 Mill, 22a Beswick Street, Manchester

Join us at resilience! Festival of Solidarity for a family-friendly day of culture, art and music.

We have created an intimate journey through the halls of Bridge 5 Mill, starting with a photo exhibition (there will also be an auction of the photos) interwoven with powerful short films, explosive live music and heart-moving spoken word from some of Manchester’s most talented Artivists.
Bridge 5 Mill will be shaken up by an eclectic mix of Artivists from all of the world. Some of the artists you can look forward to are: Emma Obita – an actress, filmmaker and ‘expressionist’ from Uganda by way of Botswana and Manchester. Elmi Ali is an accomplished writer, poet and revolutionary. The effervescent Marcela Herivia – of Chilean origin – is a British actor and director; Marcela will be reading her works on the day.

You will also be treated to a fantastic line-up of musical acts on the day. Felix Ngindu will be indulging us in the rhythmic sounds from the DR Congo – expect percussion, bongos, rhumba, and of course dancing! Claire Mooney is a singer/songwriter from Manchester. Well known for her presence on the North West LGBT scene, her music is both playful and political. Paper Wings are a 5 piece folk-punk street band from Liverpool, consisting of a Mandolin, Violin, Double Bass, Guitar, Cajon and vocals by everyone!

As if that wasn’t enough, there will be a film screening showcasing 12 films as part of the First Person project. The films are the creation of a collaboration between (Community Arts North West) CAN and Filmonik two brilliant arts orgainsations based in Manchester.

Bridge 5 Mill is Manchester’s first, (and only!) Centre for Sustainable Living. The Mill was refurbished with reclaimed and recycled materials, eco paints, no pvc, water saving and low energy fittings.

More info, and to book tickets

Hope to see you there!

Democracy starts the day after the election…..Days like today can seem

There’ll be a lot of people in the community activist groups, the campaigning organisations, and the co-operatives that we work with who will be feeling the anger, frustration, disbelief, despondency, resignation, powerlessness and more that an election result like the one we’ve just had here in the UK can bring about. So much time, energy, hope has gone into making change and we’re still left with a government who divide and rule, who pit us against each other – those in work against those on benefits, those from the UK against migrants and refugees, the non-disabled against the disabled and so on.

Here at Rhizome we believe in community and we believe in action. Neither of those things is election dependent. There’s been a lot of talk about promises, pledges and vows this election. Our promise, pledge and vow is to continue to work with you, to the best of our ability, to support you to make change, to build community, and to take action that delivers real democracy.

Support is out there if you want to work by more genuinely democratic processes like consensus decision-making, or to take action despite the political system through nonviolent direct action. Here’s a quick run down – whether it’s for formal advice or an informal chat, mentoring, training, facilitation of meetings, try:

  • Rhizome – that’s us. We can help you with your group and organisational processes to build a culture of cooperative democracy. We can also help you strategise and plan for action, as well as train you in the ethos of nonviolent direct action and its techniques. We have lots of free resources on this website

Then there are our sister organisations who can make a similar offer:

Days like today are hard. But this is where democracy really starts – when we decide to set aside mere formalities such as election results and engage in real democracy – in our workplaces, community groups, families, and neighbourhoods. Relearning and rekindling the values of community, of empowerment and of relentless nonviolent action. Get in touch.

Sustainable Activism Weekend Workshop

Where? Claverham, near Bristol
Cost? Sliding scale of £15 – £100
When? Fri 19 (pm) – Sunday 21 June 2015

Why?
When we think of mounting inequalities, eco-systemic collapse, runaway climate change, and the rise of the Right – the problems we face can seem insurmountable. No matter what we do, it never seems to be enough. Change seems to require such immense effort that no rest is permitted. The result is paradoxical: an activist culture of burn out, disillusionment and high drop out rates.

If this resonates with you, if you have felt or feel on the edge of burn-out and want to develop skills to avoid it, join us for a nourishing weekend of personal and collective reflection on effective activism and personal sustainability.

What?
This two-day residential training was borne out of ‘Sustaining Resistance: Empowering Renewal’ a 10 day residential training developed and delivered at Ecodharma in the Catalunyan Pyrenees.

The introductory training applies ecological/systems thinking and holistic-participatory learning to the practice of activism and the building of social movements. It offers both a space of reflection and practical methods for engaging in the inner work that underpins effective activism for social and ecological justice. Themes that will be explored include:

  • Building group dynamics that support sustainable activism
  • Avoiding disillusionment/staying inspired
  • What is ‘enough’ and how to manage it
  • Self care and how to integrate it into our daily lives

Facilitators?
Nate Eisenstadt and Claire Milne, both of whom are co-facilitators of Sustaining Resistance at Ecodharma

More info / apply?
Please email claire[at]ecodharma.com to request a (short) application form.

Sustaining Resistance, Empowering Renewal: Tools for Effective and Sustainable Activism

A 12 day residential workshop in rural Devon
11th – 22nd May 2015

This workshop offers personal and collective tools to help make our activism more effective. Theworkshop aims to help us stay inspired, nourished, empowered and creative. It offers space to reflect and analyse, helping us to stay involved for the long haul, create personal sustainability and bring continuity to our groups and movements. It aims to explore ways of working which keep our groups sustainable and effective in the struggle against social and economic injustice and ecological destruction.

The workshop provides an opportunity to get away from our busy lives and take stock, taking time to reflect on our activist experiences and history and to identify and draw upon sources of nourishment, inspiration, creativity and resilience, and develop skills that can help us make changes that will support personal sustainability and wellbeing. It also provides an opportunity to develop skills for organising and working in groups that will help avoid a burnout culture in our groups and networks. The workshop venue, on the edge of Dartmoor, provides ideal conditions for this reflection and renewal.

The course is offered by the ecodharma collective and Seeds for Change. Places are limited.

Application deadline 27th March 2015.

For more information and an application form please call 01865 403 134 or email kathryn@seedsforchange.org.uk

Call it democracy

Just been listening to this as I have on and off for the last 26 years, thought you might like to as well. Lyrics below as well as a few comments from The Cockburn Project website. Back in the day it was a song about “the third world”. Nowadays could apply much closer to home…

Padded with power here they come
International loan sharks backed by the guns
Of market hungry military profiteers
Whose word is a swamp and whose brow is smeared
With the blood of the poor

Who rob life of its quality
Who render rage a necessity
By turning countries into labour camps
Modern slavers in drag as champions of freedom

Sinister cynical instrument
Who makes the gun into a sacrament —
The only response to the deification
Of tyranny by so-called “developed” nations’
Idolatry of ideology

North South East West
Kill the best and buy the rest
It’s just spend a buck to make a buck
You don’t really give a flying fuck
About the people in misery

IMF dirty MF
Takes away everything it can get
Always making certain that there’s one thing left
Keep them on the hook with insupportable debt

See the paid-off local bottom feeders
Passing themselves off as leaders
Kiss the ladies shake hands with the fellows
Open for business like a cheap bordello

And they call it democracy
And they call it democracy
And they call it democracy
And they call it democracy

See the loaded eyes of the children too
Trying to make the best of it the way kids do
One day you’re going to rise from your habitual feast
To find yourself staring down the throat of the beast
They call the revolution

IMF dirty MF
Takes away everything it can get
Always making certain that there’s one thing left
Keep them on the hook with insupportable debt

And from Bruce Cockburn……

1990: “Through a growing familiarity with the Nicaraguan revolution, a recognition of North-South relations began to take shape. Nicaragua, the Philippines, Chile, virtually all of Latin America really, Indonesia, emerging African countries… Wherever you look you find the same financial interests at work. Working to get rich without controls, at the expense of the poor. When the poor complain, out come the troops, and then the arms companies get rich too.”

2000: “That song is fifteen years old and it shows. The words are outdated. Back in 1985, they needed the notion of ‘democracy’ to justify what they were doing. Now they don’t even use that as an excuse.”

Organise resistance not compliance. Build mutual support

https://i0.wp.com/www.lcap.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/pamphletcover.jpgOccasionally you come across an inspirational resource. Today tweeted the link to London Coalition Against Poverty’sBuilding mutual support and organising in our communities” pamphlet.

If you’ve ever struggled to organise in an effective and inclusive way, there’s something here for you.

Full of stories from independent community groups. Read it! Then share it with others. It’ll be going up on our Resources page.

Experienced unhealthy group dynamics in your group, organisation or community?

elephant-in-the-room

In Rhizome, we ourselves certainly have lots of experience of groups ‘going wrong’, whether through our personal, activist or professional lives.  Sometimes this is with groups, organisations and communities we do work for, and other times that we are part of ourselves (hard though it is to believe, I know!).   How’s about yourselves?

What does a group going pear-shaped look like?  To name just a few, it could be that it just gets stuck, isn’t able to fulfil its aims, or just not very dynamic.  It’s possible that there’s unspoken power or other issues, a lack of trust, that conflict or other tensions aren’t worked on.  Maybe difference and diversity aren’t dealt with very well, that communication is poor, that things just feel hard.

“We are more possible than they can powerfully imagine” (1990s road protest slogan, a re-take of 1968 original)

It doesn’t always feel like that though, does it!  If we believe in the power (or should I say possibility?) of collective action, that groups are more than the sum of their parts, that community empowerment is a key aim in what we do, sometimes it’s hard to deal with the reality when our hopes are dashed, our dreams unfulfilled.

So what is it that holds our groups back?  What would make working in them easier?  What puzzles might we need to solve?  What are the patterns, the seemingly unsolvable nuts you can’t crack? 

Please do share your experiences with us of what often happens in groups you’ve seen or been part of – either in the comments on this blog, or via the contact details at the bottom of the page.  Together with Seeds for Change and people from the (inter)national WorldWork community, we’re in the early stages of figuring out a possible project to address the needs you tell us about.

A qualm about consensus

How Mandorla Cohousing will look when it is built in 2016

How Mandorla Cohousing will look when it is built in 2016

In my last blog, I spelled out some of the plusses and minuses of consensus, as I see them. I ended by saying that none of the minuses that I have come across in my reading quite hit the mark, in relation to my experience with Mandorla Cohousing. In this blog, I’d like to explain the main difficulty that I have come across.

That difficulty has to do with the nature of consent. In a formal consensus procedure, as I understand it, the consent of everyone involved is sought, whether given actively, or by standing aside. Now, that seems to me unnecessary. I trust my fellow members. We give issues that matter space on the agenda of our monthly meetings for several meetings before trying to decide. We have opportunities to challenge and change decisions in subsequent meetings.

The result is that I would have been quite content had I not been present, whenever the cohousing group taken a decision. As it happens, I think I’ve been fine with pretty much every decision, but I would make the same point even if I had not.

Consent, I have concluded, is important, but it does not need to be given afresh for every decision. I gave my consent when I became a full member of the group, and my experience over the last three years has reinforced that feeling.

I’m not saying that my presence was useless. The food is always excellent, and I may have contributed to the discussion, or helped it along if I was the chair, and I did my job well. But I am saying that if we had not adopted a consensus model, we might have felt more able to delegate more tasks to small working groups, and then to trust them to decide and act.

I’ve been thinking a lot about decision-making recently. There are a couple of aspects that I think are vital: building common ground between people; and looking for creative solutions that give all parties as much as possible of what they want. I don’t think consensus procedures are explicit about how to do this. I’ll make some suggestions on how I go about both aspects next time.

The plusses and minuses of consensus

I belong to a cohousing group based in Herefordshire called Mandorla Cohousing. You can find out more about us at http://www.cohousing.org.uk/herefordshire-mandorla-cohousing. We try and take decisions by consensus, both formally and informally. My experience there has made me question the value of and need for consensus, especially in formal consensus procedures. This is the first of several blogs in which I’m going to try and clarify my thinking.

Let’s start with the plusses, which are many. They follow directly from the requirement that everybody consent to a decision. Consensus encourages a group to pay attention and talk to everyone. It encourages people to listen carefully both to the emotional tone and the intellectual content of what others say. It can change the feel of a meeting, to being in a joint search for agreement, rather than being opponents in a competitive struggle. It directs members’ attention to the common good, to the needs of the whole. It increases commitment, because everyone has agreed to everything. And, finally, where members rely on each other, consensus gives expression to an emotional need for unity.

Turning to the minuses, there are various common criticisms of consensus. It needs shared values. It can take a long time – “the democratic process breaks down after two hours [of a meeting]”, said a member of the Mifflin Street Community Co-op in Madison, Wisconsin, USA. For the sake of consensus, people may suppress their true views. (Someone involved in the women’s movement talked about “the bottled up egos lost in a mush of niceness”.) This self-censorship, in order to maintain group cohesion, has become known as groupthink. For the sake of consensus, also, disagreements may be blurred or masked, and decisions kept vague. It can give a lot of power to a ‘blocker’ (this is a term used in a formal consensus process). In practice, many organisations that espouse consensus will resort to some form of majority voting if blocks continue. In a situation of deadlock, the only alternative to this is social coercion or exclusion. Last, these difficulties can favour the status quo by making decisions difficult to take (whereas majority rule is neutral in relation to the status quo).

Strangely, though, none of these was my main concern. I’ll tell you what that was in the next blog.

Perry Walker

Co-op culture and conversation

I’m typing this during #coopshour (Wednesdays 2pm-3pm GMT on twitter). Kate at Co-operantics has just tweeted the link to an article on their website about building co-operative culture and not just structures.

And (shows how much attention I’ve been paying of late) I noticed a series of great co-op conversations they undertook for Co-operatives Fortnight. Go and read them. Here’s a taste of the linked article:

“many people’s lives and environments have shaped them in a way that has not prepared them for the co-op experience in the slightest. The idea of a co-op culture is the anti-thesis of how they are used to working. In fact, as much as they might need to learn about co-ops and co-op culture, there’s probably a hefty amount of unlearning that needs to be done as well.” Brian Van Slyke

 

Liberation facilitation

In the facilitator and trainers’ circles we inhabit here in the UK there’s an ongoing conversation on facilitating diversity in groups and movements and supporting those same groups and movements with training to help them deal with difference in all it’s forms. Fortunately it’s more than just a conversation – it’s a living experiment with some successes and some failures and some forums for sharing both.

Various training collectives are offering such training drawing on different sources of information and inspiration and using various names. Some refer to it as “anti-oppression” work, some as “power and privilege” training, others “diversity” training and so on. A lot of the learning seems to be coming from the States or from the States via Australia – organisations such as Training for Change and The Change Agency.

Twice in recent weeks I’ve heard it referred to as “liberation” work – first on the People & Planet website and then again whilst working with Liverpool Guild of Students. A student connection…. I’ve always liked the idea of liberation struggles – whether women’s lib, animal liberation or whatever. They go beyond the notion of mere ‘rights’ campaigns to something deeper, more inherent, profound and not dependent on the permission of other people/species. And in the thinking and feeling of  liberation is the notion of interdependence – that we’re all entwined in the same struggle and that none of us will be fully liberated until we’re all liberated.

For me this allows us to transcend the hierarchy of oppression that much of the power and privilege conversation seems to reinforce – everyone scrabbling to point up the pyramid and blame someone more oppressive than they are, without seeing how divisive and ultimately oppressive that is in itself. It’s more subtle, more connected, deeper, and ultimately more compassionate, co-operative and less violent.

I spoke with Gill for half an hour or so recently and recorded that call. We hope to have an audio file uploaded soon once we figure out whether we need to edit it down to a more manageable size or not. One of the questions she asked as we stopped recording was what happened to the training that was around in the UK 20-30 years ago which, from what I’ve heard and seen, was more in tune with liberation. Good question, and one we’ll explore on the blog in due course. As always we’d like to hear your experience, thoughts and feelings. You know where we are.

In the meantime, here’s to Liberation facilitation in all its forms.

Matthew

71% activist burnout rate!

71%.

Let’s say that again: 71% of activists surveyed by Plan To Thrive report having experienced or currently experiencing burnout.

Read the Burnout: Experiences & Advice post for both personal and organisational strategies to stay sustainable.

For grassroots activists, consider going to Sustaining Resistance which we help facilitate – next dates are in October in the Catalan Pyrenees, repeated in 2015 likely in the spring and autumn, and the early summer in the UK. 

And if we can help your community, whether an organisation, network or single group, change it’s culture of activism and implement those strategies, do please get in touch.