Cherán, an inspiring example of direct action, community democracy and autonomy


In 2011, Cherán a town of nearly 20,000 people in Michoacán, Mexico, locals threw out not just the loggers that had been threatening their forests, but the politicians and police too. After years of corruption and violence, they said loudly ‘Enough is Enough’, following it through with effective action. What can we learn from their example?



the-cheran-indigenous-communitys-remarkable-road-to-self-rule-in-mexicoThe women met in secret to make their plans. They were sickened by the killings, rape and kidnaps that had become routine and angered by the masked men who roamed their town demanding extortion payments from small businesses. And for more than three years they had watched, indignant, as lorry after lorry trundled past their homes piled high with freshly cut logs devastating 70% of the surrounding oak forests.

“Their cars and lorries would drive down all the main roads of the community. They would mock us as they passed and not just that, they would go into stores and ransack them and then leave. Nobody could say anything. Women, men, all of us, we felt powerless to yell or stop them. Our situation was critical, it was desperate, but nothing tangible could be done because we couldn’t agree, each of us belonged to a different political party.” (from this UN report)

By 2011, the loggers were getting close to one of Cherán’s water springs. A group of women took it upon them selves to act, and went into the forest to try and reason with the armed men. They were verbally abused and chased away at gunpoint. So their plan evolved. Now they knew it was too dangerous to confront the loggers in the forest at the spring, they determined to stop the lorries in town where they would have the support of their neighbours.

Early on Friday 15 April 2011, Cherán’s levantamiento, or uprising, began. On the road coming down from the forest outside Margarita’s home, the women blockaded the loggers’ pick-ups and took some of them hostage. The loggers tried to run the women over and fired at people. As the church bells of El Calvario rang out and fireworks exploded in the dawn sky alerting the community to danger, the people of Cherán came running to help.

“When we set out it was dawn and still dark, around 6:30 in the morning. The church bells were ringing calling people to mass […] I never really thought this would go far […] We were just five women from here, from this neighbourhood, a bunch of older women, there were no men, maybe a few men but mostly women […] We chased after the cars throwing stones” (from this documentary)

FILM-TORONTO/They set the lorries on fire once they had pulled the loggers out, and began detaining the loggers themselves (later to be handed over to federal police). It was tense – hotheads had to be persuaded by the women not to string up the hostages from an ancient tree outside the church.

It was at this point that the community recognised the complicity of the local police when it was police officers who guided organised crime thugs to the place where the loggers were being held, in an attempt to violently release them.

If the Purépechans thought this was the end of the matter, they were mistaken. On April 27, 2011, in what was undoubtedly an act of revenge, illegal loggers shot and killed two Cherán residents who were patrolling the town’s perimeter.

watch-pointThe community erected over 200 fogatas or bonfire barricades throughout town in order to prevent violence against community members. Within days the community decided that it no longer trusted any politicians from any political party or any of the local and state police, and the community evicted the town’s mayor, and the corrupt police force simply exiled themselves in fear from the community, warranting no need to run them out of town. Armed townspeople — from middle-age men to teenage girls — guard the barricades blocking all entrances into town. Their weapons are AR15 assault rifles, seized from the police when they expelled them. The local government office had its gates pushed down using a requisitioned timber lorry. More than ten burnt-out lorries were towed and placed along the main streets as a reminder of the cause and to warn illegal loggers and members of organised crime groups. No one was allowed to leave or enter Cherán without identifying themselves at the main barricade.

Townspeople began to organise for self-determination and self-defence and chose to return to their traditional Purépecha forms of self-governance.

Governance and decision-making

“We are part of the earth, the fight is for life. Men and women of our community, and the groups who offer us support, give us another page in the story of our community’s fight. We confirm our fight in defence of Mother Nature and life; to take oath as the second council is to confirm our task of recovering our world view that comes as an answer to the problems of our nation and the whole world.” – Pedro Chávez, new elder to council in 2015, reading the group’s declaration.

cheran-kidsIn Cherán today, there are no political campaigns, no ballots, no political parties, and no elections. They were inspired to push for autonomy by the example of the Zapatistas.

A general council of community elders was elected and commissions were formed in order to carry out the community’s logistical, social, economic, and political needs. Community members simply say that they referred to their indigenous Purépecha history and elders, in order to return to the way the community was organised before political parties, police, and organised crime existed.

The K’eris Council of 12 elders took the place of the mayor. Its members are chosen by their neighbours in a revolving manner. Council members know that what power they have is theirs only for a short period, and that their appointment can be revoked at any time.

“Everyone in the community participates instead of just having a few people making all the calls. From the campfire and street corners, entire families contribute their feelings on how things should be done. Those ideas reach the communal assemblies where general agreements are made. Each commission makes decisions to see what will be done in their own areas, but the overall general decisions are made in the communal assemblies. The communal assembly is the highest authority.” – Juan Jose Estrada Serafin, newspaper correspondent

“The election process involves everyone meeting in the square and standing behind their selected representative,” says a photographer. “It is extremely transparent. It is not without its flaws and potential for corruption, but compared to the typical election campaigns, it is a lot more honest.”

In November 2011 in a court appeal, Cherán acquired a degree of autonomy from the Mexican government; the town still receives federal and state money, and its people must pay taxes, but they are allowed to govern themselves under a legal framework called ‘uses and customs’ that has been granted to some indigenous communities. Cherán is the first community to be granted this right.

cheran-no-political-parties-bannerIn 2014 a group petitioned the town authorities to restore political parties, to be able to take part in national elections. After discussions around bonfires and throughout the four communities, the people decided to maintain their autonomous political status, in keeping with their history and traditions.

Autonomy and self-reliance

Cherán dispenses its own justice for minor offences. Many of those are alcohol-related; personal use of locally-grown weed but not outside dealers. Penalties include fines and community work – such as litter-picking. Serious law-breaking is referred to the attorney general. Since they took over, there have been no murders, kidnaps or disappearances, which for this area of Mexico is remarkable. There are checkpoints at all the entrances to town, checking for weapons, drugs and asking people their business if they’re not local. Originally the people who maintained the checkpoints and barricades were a mix of people, including many women and whole families; the volunteer community guard now has become armed and mostly male.

cheran_paraderehearsalHistorically, Cherán had traditionally been ‘policed’ or defended by members from the community. In a voluntary rotation members from each of the four barrios or neighbourhoods would patrol the community for self-defence in what is known as the ‘community ronda.’ After the uprising the general council made a call out for volunteers to participate in the community ronda, or community guard. Community members maintain that police are imposed by the government, but the ronda is a traditional way in which community members protect themselves and their community. Today the ronda is separated into two parts. The ronda comunitaria which is responsible for patrolling and protecting the community from within its borders and the guardabosques or forest defenders, which patrol the outskirts of town and deep into the forests in order to protect community members living in those more rural areas and in order to protect the forest itself.

cheran_guardiabosquehorseLand in Cherán is mostly held in common – families manage it but they don’t own it. With the criminals gone, rules are strictly enforced – anyone who wants to fell a tree must secure permission from the authorities. Some 3,500 hectares have so far been re-planted in the five years since the uprising, with 1.5 million pine saplings grown every year in greenhouses they’ve set up for that purpose. This is one example too where employment has been created, lessening migration to the cities.tree-nursery-cheran

The town is about to use the crater of a dormant volcano as the largest rainwater collection system in Latin America, channeled to a purification plant. Cherán’s autonomy is also expressed and strengthened through its use of alternative media



Other communities have defended their forest against loggers; the difference in Cherán was that organised crime was involved. The criminal gangs were clearing land to sell wood and then have locals grow marijuana for them or set up drug laboratories.

When the residents of Cherán asked their municipal, state and federal authorities for help, they did nothing.

The first community members who began to defend their forest were simply and quickly assassinated. From 2008-2011 the situation only became worse. Criminals charged protection to run even a small business in the community of Cherán.

“They tell us we won’t last long, that they’re going to take our lands and that they’re even going to take our cattle, that they know us, that they have us on a list, that they’re going to bag us, that they’ll never find our bodies,” says the leader of the volunteer police. He’s one of the many rural inhabitants evicted from the forest and from his small farm plot. His 12 hectares (about 30 acres) were left in areas controlled by the timber cutters. He’s been prohibited from going in there.

Cherán is surrounded by communities where this has already taken place. Huitzaco, for example, is a town inhabited by dozens of ‘owners’ of working mines who are poor because they are simply fronts for the real owners. In San Juan Nuevo Parangaricutiro, the businesses there are being harassed into paying for ‘protection.’ The avocado growers in Uruapan, producers of the world famous ‘green gold’, transferred their orchards to armed men who force them into partnerships and make them sell their crops to certain packing plants.

The timber cutters of the town of Tanaco pay for lorries loaded with illegal lumber. The forests of El Cerecito are used to camouflage drug laboratories. In Paracho it is said they even control the water.

This is the face of the Mexican “ecomafia.” [It is] the diversification of the businesses of cartels such as Los Zetas, Los Caballeros Templarios and La Familia Michoacana who take over territories and their natural resources.

“Here, the climate, which is cold, is not good for growing avocados; that’s not what they want the land for. But our lands are good for growing beautiful marijuana plants, like there are in nearby communities, or to install drug laboratories in remote areas like those found in El Cerecito. Sand and gravel quarries are tempting. Our forests will produce lumber for them. What they want is more money. They even wanted to charge the community for the water we were drawing from the deep well,” explains a woman communal member, who asks that her name not be used.

The present and the future

In late July 2012, an army base was set up near Cherán after two residents were killed when they ventured into the forests. It’s not plain-sailing, and there have been assassinations and disappearances from outside the town.

barricades-cheranSome in Cherán say that they have begun to feel captive and desperate, confined to their town but still dependent on the forests, from which they take wood and wild mushrooms, a community staple. The forests also represents something more intangible but no less important to them — a source of wisdom and an integral part of the Cheránean identity.

Cherán is not the first community in Mexico to return to their traditional means of community self‑defence, nor is it the first place in the state of Michoacan, nor in the indigenous Purepecha region. Other communities have engaged in similar practices of self governance and self-defence, and little by little more and more communities are seeing traditional self governance and self-defence as a viable alternative to corrupt politics and submission to organised crime.

FILM-TORONTO/Recently council members from Nurio, Michoacan, a larger community and long time practitioner of self-governance and self-defence, suggested that the entire Purepecha region should begin to organise a regional ronda that could potentially coordinate self-defence patrols on a regional level for the indigenous Purepecha people living throughout the state of Michoacan.

“They thought they could bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.” -Mexican Proverb

“Brothers and sisters, we have a great task at hand, to start to raise consciousness about what it really means to be a comunero or community member. Comunero is a very deep word. It is not a slogan or tag. It is a way of life and a cell to build a new society, a new humanity. This is how I see it, a grand responsibility. The result of consciousness raising is realising that we are universal beings and part of the universe, we are not owners of the universe, this according to the indigenous philosophy of our wise ancestors. We are not owners of the land. We are part of the land.” – Jose Merced, Cherán shaman and storyteller

“Now this is the work that we all have to do, all of the communities, not just the community of Cherán, all the communities of the world, to reverse the logic of neoliberalism, which makes us believe that processing raw materials is the only way to fulfil the necessities of our people, of our communities and ourselves as individuals.” – David Romero, Cherán lawyer

Cherán does not believe that anybody will ever be able to bring them justice for their dead, disappeared, and displaced as a result of the conflict, nor do they expect anyone in power to understand the justice they seek for the forest. Today Cherán knows that justice is something that they will have to take care of obtaining on their own from now on. When it comes to safety, the world is able to see what it looks like for a community to take responsibility for its own safety through traditional indigenous forms of self-governance and self-defence.
Edited together from various accounts including:

Borderland Beat, the NY Times, and El Enemigo Comun.

BBC radio programme

Documentaries: in Spanish, and two others with English subtitles here and here.

More photos.


Dynamic Facilitation and Wisdom Councils

dynamic_facilitation_figure_1In my last couple of blogs, I’ve talked about Convergent Facilitation and how it panned out in Minnesota. In this one, I’m going to talk about an approach I’ve never met in person, called Dynamic Facilitation, devised by an American called Jim Rough. I missed my chance when Andrea Gewessler of Change That Matters brought Jim over to the UK a few years ago. I’d love to hear if anyone out there has tried, or even experienced, this method.

I’ll start with a description of Dynamic Facilitation, from a website called Wise Democracy. It “is a way of facilitating people to address and solve difficult issues, even those that seem impossible to solve. The DF’er [Dynamic Facilitator] helps people address issues they really care about and then helps them to be creative in addressing them. Rather than asking participants to be rational, hold back their emotions, stay on the agenda, abide by guidelines, or follow a step-by-step process, the DF’er encourages people to say what they think. At the same time he or she keeps everyone safe from judgment by reflecting what they are saying and holding a space where all comments fit together. Four basic charts are used: Solutions, Concerns, Data, and Problem-statements. These charts help the DF’er to frame the conversation as a creative quest to solve an issue that people care about. This context allows people to appreciate what they and others are saying.
Using the charts the DF’er establishes a “zone of thinking and talking” that is ‘choice-creating’, where shifts and breakthroughs are normal and where unanimous conclusions emerge. The process relies more on the skills and consciousness of the DF’er than on participant self-management. In this way, ordinary, untrained people can speak their minds and hearts yet shifts and breakthroughs build exceptional group conclusions.”

wcprocessThe Wisdom Council is an application of Dynamic Facilitation. Twelve to fifteen randomly selected persons from a community, town, region or other entity, work intensely together for one to two days. Usually, the issue is one they choose: it is not prescribed beforehand. At the end of a Wisdom Council the group produces a statement which is then presented to the community, perhaps using a World Café format.

Wisdom Councils have been taken up most in Vorarlberg, the westernmost state of Austria. An evaluation that I found covered five such councils over a six month period in 2010/2011. I understand that their use has now been embedded in the constitution of Vorarlberg, but I have no details.

My impression of Dynamic Facilitation and Wisdom Councils is this. I can imagine that the safe space created by the facilitator does encourage great creativity. It is notable that Jim Rough argues that, “Dynamic Facilitation orients people towards creating not deciding.” The flipside of that is the great demand made upon the facilitator. So it would not be easy for this approach to be spread wide.

I haven’t found a comprehensive case study of Dynamic facilitation, so I’ll end with this short but appealing vignette. With one group, Jim Rough offered to run a 30 minute session on any contentious issue that the group cared to choose. They chose abortion. First, the usual pro-life and pro-choice positions were asserted. Then there was silence, broken by someone asking, “How frequent are abortions anyway?” The group started to wonder if abortions could be eliminated. At the end of the half hour, they had all agreed on a question: “How can we achieve a society where all children are conceived and born into families that want and love them?”

Working Together: group exercise to bring out discussions around dynamics

DSCF4302.JPGA few months ago I dusted off an old group dynamics exercise that I’d almost forgotten about – the Tinkertoy game. I first came across it in the hallowed pages of the (now out of print) Resource Manual for a Living Revolution. Somewhere in the intervening 20 years it had slipped off my radar. I’m very happy it’s now firmly back on the radar again.

Not even knowing what Tinkertoys were, I immediately translated it into Lego (other plastic block-based construction toys are available).

The game works on lots of levels and is perfect to help groups and facilitators diagnose some of the core issues in a group. It focuses on roles, communication, and the tension between getting the job done and how it gets done….

I used it again the other week, and here’s how….

  • Make yourself a Lego model. The more complex you make it the longer the challenge will take. I kept mine relatively simple.
  • Give every small group (not teams – any  competition should be of their making, not yours) all the blocks they need to build the model, plus a few more for good measure.
  • Place the model where it can’t easily be seen by the group – inside a small cardboard box, or behind a screen, for example. Create an intermediary station (table and chairs?) between the groups and the model.
  • Introduce the roles and the rules of the game…. each group needs to build an exact replica of a small Lego model in the time given. However the people building the replica, the builders, aren’t ever going to see the original model themselves. They’ll be relying on the lookers to be the eyes of the group. But the lookers can’t communicate directly with the builders. They will meet with the messengers at the intermediary station, share their knowledge and impressions of the model, and the messengers will then talk to the builders. The lookers can come no closer than the intermediary station. These conversations can be just that – back and forth, structured or unstructured as people prefer. Then there’s the answerers. Answerers can go anywhere and interact with anyone, but on strict terms. They can only respond to direct questions, and then only with 2 possible responses “yes that’s right” and “no that’s not right”.
  • The minimum size for the group is therefore 4, but you can have multiple builders and can throw in an observer or two to help with debriefing later.
  • Give the group some time to meet and plan – I gave them 10 minutes.
  • Then get them building. I gave them just 20 minutes on this most recent occasion.
  • After 20 minutes I invited the groups to take another 10 minutes to meet. They were barred from talking about the model itself, but encouraged to talk about anything else that would help them improve the way they worked together.
  • I gave them 10 more minutes to finish the job, which both groups did, having used their 10 minute interval well.
  • Then debrief according to the issues that arose or the purpose of the training.

Try it sometime…..


Have you reached a decision on which you all agree? – consensus and jury service

wordcloud (1)I’ve recently finished my second stint doing jury service. Jurors are cautioned not to talk about their experience of their time as jurors but trials are held in public so I am allowed to talk about information that’s in the public domain.

12_angry_men_lone_holdout.pngMy first time as a juror was around 35 years ago in the same court as now. Back then I had been involved in feminism for a few years. In discussions with friends, in women’s groups and at conferences I’d heard a number of accounts of childhood sex abuse from women of all ages and backgrounds. Almost all of them were living with not having been believed (if they’d ever had the confidence to tell anyone). It was the 1980s and it’s now common knowledge that this was widespread from the many recent celebrity sex abuse trials. At the time, I hadn’t realised my knowledge then was so unusual. I’d also had a friend who suspected she falsely remembered an occasion of familial sex abuse. She was struggling with the effects of this and we spent many hours talking about how to establish confidence in her memory.

AirFrance-managersdeshirtedAt that time I’d been involved in co-ops and collectives for around 5 years. Then, too, there was little information or training to be had about how to manage collective and collaborative decision-making. Co-ops and other non-hierarchical groups tended, in my experience, to try their best to make consensus decisions, but they just had to make up how as they went along. To say it could be stormy would be an understatement.

A Jury deliberation room in a USA Courthouse

But even with this knowledge and experience, I was unprepared for being in a jury tasked with coming to a unanimous decision on a case of alleged child sex abuse by the girl’s father. We were, in the end, instructed to return a majority verdict and I’ve had many regrets since. I’ve occasionally looked back at that jury experience and wondered if I could have done anything differently. So when I got this second call to do jury service I had very mixed feelings. Would it be as difficult as last time? How hard was it going to be to make consensus decisions? Was I more confident in my abilities to handle conflict?

In the years since I’ve been a witness in a successful prosecution at the same court, so the court itself and its processes were not a surprise. I’ve also had wide and varied work and life experiences including being a management trainer, learning a basic understanding of body language through NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming), and I’ve met a huge variety of different people. And for the past 5 years I’ve worked in Rhizome and been privileged to learn and develop a better understanding of conflict and consensus decision-making. I’ve helped facilitate some complex consensus decisions with Matthew and Adam, I’ve co-produced a webinar on consensus decision-making with Perry and I’ve trained co-op members on making consensus and strategic decisions with Maria and Kat. I’ve also worked with Carl training co-operators on working with conflict and facilitated conflict resolution in a number of co-ops, as well as been involved in conflict resolution within our own co-op. But I know I am still learning and, whilst I may know more than some, I don’t think of myself as an expert.

There’s plenty of guidance on the law given to a jury. But there’s still scant guidance to jurors on the process of how to make decisions on which everyone agrees. There’s no indication on the difference between blocking or standing aside from a decision, no guidance on consenting to a decision as opposed to agreeing to it, nothing on how people may voice concerns or how to manage people’s different understandings of what’s been said and done. And there’s no guidance on managing conflict.

JuryUnsurprisingly (you may think), on the one case that I was involved in this time that went through to the end of the trial, I ended up as the jury foreperson. I’m really pleased to say that there was little conflict and we agreed unanimous decisions. But is justice really best served without there being any guidance to juries on the options for managing conflict and making unanimous, consensus decisions?

Trump trumps, and what’s this got to do with me?

trump-simpsonsSo what can we make of the US election results, and what’s that got to do with us over here?

Is it a last hurrah of a beleaguered set of people feeling left behind in a changing world?  Is it simply another demonstration of the dangers of populist leaders stirring up the depths of racism, xenophobia and nationalism?

Well it may be too early to be sure of the mix that carried Trump (and the leaders of the Leave campaign in the UK) to power on a wave of dangerous rhetoric, and though we may not be certain enough to make sense of it all, we can start to think on possible responses to the world in which we live. That said, I remember and know from the Brexit vote that it’s not always so easy to move on to take action when you’re grieving or scared, when you can see the swirling forces of amongst other things, the enduring power of white supremacy and misogyny, the challenge to the neo-liberal economic dominant paradigm and the historical echoes of stirring up the pot such as also happened in the former Yugoslav countries or pre-Nazi Germany.

stormy-sky-seaBut rather than waiting on the Austrian elections, the Italian constitutional referendum, and later next year the French and German elections, to see if this global phenomenon continues, alongside the dark clouds and death in Syria, Iraq and other parts of the world that get even less attention, what can we as progressives do, what can we reflect on and plan for in our organisations, co-ops, communities and campaign groups?

  • Imagine and share the worlds we want.
  • Reflect on our shared and different values together with others.
  • Value difference and diversity.
  • Challenge the wrongs around us and further afield.
  • Build resilience.
  • Work constructively and creatively with conflict.
  • Strive for a better world for all.

Of course, there’s sure to be many more and different key issues for you and your group or organisation (that same diversity of views and positions goes for Rhizome too!).  Your strategy may already take the wider context into account, or may need reviewing. Rhizome will be coming together for a couple of days next month and for sure will discuss strategy and responses.  If you fancy it, like we try to, do share your journeys either direct or in the comments here on this blog.  Certainly, if you need help working on these challenges or others, do get in touch with us.

In solidarity, Rhizome Co-op

A new approach to deciding difficult issues: Convergent Facilitation

CF-logoLast month, I went to the idyllic Abbey, in Sutton Courtenay in Oxfordshire, to attend a training on Convergent Facilitation, led by the woman who devised this method, Miki Kashtan. Her background is in Non-Violent Communication (NVC), and many of the forty-plus people there also had an NVC background. They came from at least a dozen countries, including Japan, Nigeria and Brazil. Two-thirds were women.

I decided to go because the invitation included a terrific case study from Minnesota. I’ll describe what happened there in my next blog.

The method has three phases. I’ll illustrate each one from the example that we used for practice. This was about an activist network in the USA that had members on the East and West coasts. We had to decide where its next annual conference would be held.

Phase I: gathering people’s needs, principles and considerations

PIN-mediationThis is by far the hardest bit. It involves identifying what Miki calls the ‘Non-controversial essence’. It is a bit like the PIN diagram in mediation. People usually start with their positions (P), where there is often no overlap between people, but in a good dialogue will find their way deeper into their interests (I) and their needs (N), where there is increasing overlap, because we all have much the same needs. But it is not altogether like the PIN diagram. That is because if you go too deep, you will probably get to a need or value that is so universal that it is not useful in coming to a decision.

Here’s an example that came out on the day:

  • “Mum should go into a care home” is controversial
  • “Mum should be loved” is non-controversial but not useful in deciding what to do
  • “She should be treated with dignity” or “Any solution should be within the capacity of those who care for Mum” are both non-controversial and useful. Miki pointed out that what that capacity might be could well be controversial, but not the statement itself.

And here’s an example from the activists network case. Someone said that they thought the conference should be on the West Coast because it was their turn and that was fair. Miki said that in her experience it was almost impossible for ‘fair’ to be non-controversial. So various participants made suggestions to the person who made the remark, in order to try and elicit the ‘Non-controversial essence’:

  • “Is it about balance…?”. No, said the person, that wasn’t the essence of it.
  • “Is it about ease of travel?” No, that wasn’t it either.
  • “Is it about rotating the location to maximise attendance?” “Yes!” – though Miki said that “rotating…” should be omitted as that’s the ‘how’

So we added ‘maximising attendance’ to our list of considerations. We ended up with ten, which also included:

  • Make it possible for people with limited financial resources to come
  • Distribute power between the two coasts



Phase 2: Developing proposals

We divided into small groups to do this. What we did was conventional, so I’ll say no more about it.



Phase 3: Reaching a decision

We were short of time, so Miki used a speeded-up approach, which worked like this:

  • She asked how many proposals there were – the answer was (I think) 7
  • She asked in how many cases were the group confident that all the criteria had been met – 5
  • She asked on a scale of 1 – 10, how confident were groups about that – two proposals had the highest score of 8

Miki asked someone to summarise each of these two proposals for where the conference should be, and then asked how many people had ‘medium to high’ concerns about each one. Here’s what happened (I’ve condensed the summaries to a single line):

  1. Half-way between East and West, with a strong on-line element – 14 people had concerns
  2. On the West coast, but using the experience of those on the East – 6

We concentrated on the second proposal, as the number of people with concerns was much fewer. We started with concerns that were troubling people, then moved on to concerns about things that were missing.

One troubling concern was that it appeared that speakers were not being paid. This dissolved when it was explained that that sessions whose leaders were not paid would be additional to the speaker sessions, and would involve a simple Q and A. Another concern about something missing was also cleared up by further explanation. What was missing, someone said, was a bursary fund for those from the East without much money. The proponents of the proposal said that the crowdfunding included in their proposal would cover this.

After dealing with the bursary point, there were no further concerns. Miki announced that the decision had been made. Because of a misunderstanding, there was half an hour for this final session, instead of the anticipated hour and a half. We made the decision in exactly half an hour!

From Burnout to Balance: Creating Cultures of Care

fireWhere?  Forest of Dean (just north of Bristol)

When?  6pm 28th October – 4pm 30th October 2016


SLIDING SCALE £25 – £150

When we think of our escalating refugee/hospitality crisis, mounting inequalities, eco-systemic collapse and runaway climate change – the challenges we face can seem insurmountable. No matter what we do, it never seems to be enough. Transition, it seems, requires such immense and relentless effort that the self-care necessary to sustain oneself long-term can feel like an unaffordable or self-indulgent luxury.

If this resonates with you, if you have felt or feel on the edge of burnout and want to develop insights and skills to avoid it, join us for a nourishing weekend reflecting on and exploring effective and regenerative activism and personal sustainability through the co-creation of cultures of collective- and self-care.

This introductory residential training draws on ecological/systems thinking, embodied holistic-participatory learning, nature connection, Process Work and the Work that Reconnects to explore the causes of, and tools for addressing and avoiding burnout and disillusionment within Transition and other movements for social/ecological justice and renewal. The workshop offers a space of reflection and rest as well as practical methods for engaging in the inner and interpersonal ‘work’ that underpins effective activism and social change. Content includes:

– Practices of of collective- and self-care

– Changing behavioural patterns that cause burnout

– Building group dynamics that support sustainable activism

– Avoiding disillusionment/staying inspired

– What is ‘enough’?

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.

Claire Milne and Peter Cow will co-facilitate this weekend workshop. Both Claire and Peter been working within the social and ecological justice and renewal movement for almost two decades. Amber Rose, an experienced and innovative yoga teacher will offer restorative body work.

CLAIRE is currently Inner Transition Coordinator for Transition Network’s international movement of autonomous groups with a passion for exploring issues around power and group dynamics. Claire recently spent a few years working and living at Ecodharma, a land-based education centre and community in the Catalunyan Pyrenees, delivering trainings to support activists around burnout and collaborative groups. Prior to all this Claire was very active in various local food activities across Bristol, including coordinating the No Tesco in Stokes Croft campaign and worked as a Campaigner in London for NGOs including Global Justice Now!

PETER is a social permaculture trainer, eco-community founder and 8 Shields geek, who has been involved in the road protest movement, and other campaigns in the 90s and 00s. “I am an experienced Permaculture trainer and facilitator, leading People Permaculture courses, Permaculture Design Courses and nature connection events around Europe and beyond. I am a founding member of the Thriving Ways social permaculture teaching and coaching collective.
I co-founded a permaculture eco-community in 2000 where I lived for 7 years in deep collaboration with the land and community of people, exploring and learning many ways to live with a positive impact on place and people.”

AMBER has been a dedicated Yoga practitioner since 2006 and has shared the practice through teaching since 2009. Initially attracted to the aliveness, the strength and the ease that Yoga created in her body, it is Yoga’s wider teachings that continues to ground her commitment to the practice. It is the framework she uses to engage in the ever evolving balance of living well with ourselves and with others.

Amber’s offerings are inspired by but not restricted a traditional Yoga practice. She has a light-hearted and inclusive approach, actively encouraging a space where each body can find its own ease, rhythm, truth. Amber has taught with Refugee Women of Bristol, in old people’s homes, with children, teenagers, families and she hopes…you!

Sliding scale from £25 – £150 including food and accommodation.

We do not want money to prevent anyone from attending so please give what you can afford. We have set the lowest donation at £25 because we feel this is an amount everyone, even those working almost exclusively for free, is able to generate between now and the course. We hope and trust that participants will contribute generously to enable this workshop to be financially viable and so that we are able to continue to make this important work available for the growing number of activists in need of it.

Please email to request a (short) application form.

If you would like to explore us offering a workshop near you please email

Difference and disagreement

Craig Freshley’s Good Group Tips pop into my inbox regularly and have done for several years. I have to admit I don’t always read every one. Some I skim, some I bin. A few even get the attention they deserve, like the most recent one on “Different views”. It’s well worth the few minutes it’ll take to read and digest it.

“Rather than spend energy arguing which view is correct, assume that all views are correct. Use all available perspectives to better understand what you are looking at.” Craig Freshley

Helpfully the tips, this one included,  are available as pdfs so there’s no excuse for not handing them out at that next meeting.


The EU referendum – surprise, surprise

boxing-brexit_1In Rhizome’s occasional series sharing thoughts and perspectives following the EU Referendum, polarisation is a key issue that we need to learn from and deal with now, both in the wider Brexit world and in our social change groups.  What are your thoughts?

Perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised at the desperate polarisation that occurred in the EU referendum – it happens quite frequently in referendums. The EU referendum was bad enough, but the outcome can be more serious still. In the words of Sarajevo newspaper, Oslobodjenje, “all the wars in the former Yugoslavia started with a referendum”.

Here are a couple of examples. Note in particular the reference to ‘blind emotion’ leading to a rejection of the status quo in the second one.

polarisationA Canadian academic called Simone Chambers studied the run-up to the referendum on whether Quebec should become independent of Canada in 1995. She summarised what happened: “All in all, the referendum debate had an effect opposite to what deliberation is supposed to have: it moved participants further apart, heightened distrust, exacerbated misunderstandings and left Canadians in a worse place than when they started.”

In 1978, voters in California supported Proposition 13, which was a citizen initiative which reduced property taxes. Voters did this “in a surge of recklessness, a period of nearly blind emotion, surrounding the passage of Proposition 13, when anger at the government seemed to dominate the public’s thinking. The usual explanation for the voters’ choices still held sway, but this added hostility proved a potent weapon for the tax revolt. At this point, the tide of anti-government emotion eroded stable attitudes about what government should do. The public’s desire for maintaining the status quo of services plummeted, their perceptions of government inefficiency rose considerably, and their anger focused on the ‘bureaucrats.”

The Brexit referendum seems to have followed the same patterns as many other referendums. Does that help us in working out what should happen next, both on the issue and on its repercussions? And on what we might do next time (if there is a next time)?

Previous blog posts: The EU referendum: “I’m right and you’re an idiot”, Helping you make up your mind for the EU referendum

The Diamond of Participation is forever OR Get your diamonds into shape


I think the diagram above, of the Diamond of Participation, is by far the most helpful diagram for anyone interested in running better meetings that come to better decisions. I’m very grateful to the “Facilitators Guide to Participatory Decision-making” i for providing it. I’m writing this blog both to explain it and also to take issue with a couple of the bits of it.

The diamond represents a good decision-making process. You start with a clear question on the left hand side. You open up the issue. Roughly half way through, you start to narrow it down, until you make your decision at the extreme right.

My first demur is with the ‘groan zone’. In my own experience, I have hardly, if ever, found this part of a meeting to be painful. A good process for this part of a meeting is usually a lot of fun. It needs to review the ideas generated in the divergent zone and collect them into a series of options and then draw out a solution based on some or all of them. So perhaps I’d change ‘groan zone’ to ‘collection section’.

Secondly, I’m not keen on the ‘Business as Usual’ part of the diagram. Since the horizontal dimension is time, it looks as if this only takes about ten minutes. In my experience, meetings that go wrong take at least as much time as meetings that go right, and often longer. There are two ways in which they can go wrong, shown in the two diagrams below. In the first case, the meeting is never opened up, perhaps because the chair has kept too tight a grip. It’s likely to be pretty boring, since all that is happening is the rehashing of the status quo. The second case is the opposite. There is only opening up, only divergence, and no closing down. There will either be no decision, or it will be arbitrary. In both cases, any decision that is made is unlikely to reflect the values, interests, knowledge and ideas of the participants.


This blog post is based on a guide to decision-making that Perry is writing, to be published by Rhizome later in the year. Email if you would like to be told when it comes out.

i Sam Kaner et al, Facilitators Guide to Participatory Decision-making, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, USA, 2007, page 20

How to use conversation kits to get across info about complex topics

Democs-HEethicsIn a blog on June 6th, I described the Wee Play conversation kit that I helped develop and use for the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. In this blog, I’m going to explore how the Democs conversation kits, of which Wee Play was one example, get across information about complex topics.

Each kit supports a small groups of 4-8 people to have a discussion over 1 ½ to 2 hours. One person acts as the dealer. They introduce a question that playing Democs is intended to answer, and then introduce three sets of cards.

How the cards work

First, a pack of ‘story cards’ is dealt out, one per person. Their purpose is to tell stories of how individuals are affected by the issue. With something like nanotechnology, it is important to show it can or will affect our everyday lives if people are to be able to get stuck into the topic. They are usually written as dilemmas, to encourage people to think about them. The group as a whole chooses one card that will best help them discuss the question.

Example of a nanotechnology story card


I’m a GP. A patient came to me with a persistent cough. I asked him for a blood sample to do a genetic test to find which antibiotic best matches his genetic profile. “Nanotechnology!” I explained, “With this lab-on-a-chip machine, we can now read all your genes in a minute.” The print-out told me which drug to prescribe. However, his genetic profile also showed a high risk of developing an incurable liver disorder. This man only came about his cough. Do I tell him? Does he want to know?

The personal stories in the cards often trigger personal stories from participants. Here is part of a report from the facilitator of an event HIV/AIDS held at a homeless shelter in Vienna. Participants consisted of homeless people and shelter staff members. The facilitator said:

The story cards were probably the most important. These people related to them very directly – not in a hypothetical sense, but by what they had experienced themselves. For example, a man had contracted Hepatitis C from sharing a needle with an infected person, fearing also for HIV transmission. A woman sleeps with her HIV+ partner unprotected “because she loves him and he does not like condoms”, knowingly risking transmission. Another man talked about this one-night stand with a woman who his friends later said was positive – and how he feared until he had the results of the test. And many more… They were extremely open in how they talked about their sexuality, alcohol and drug abuse and how this affects them in their choices.

Next, 40 or so ‘information cards’ are dealt out. Each player, individually, chooses the two cards which will best help them discuss the question. There are two go rounds in which the players take turns to read out a card and to explain why they chose it. This usually gets a little discussion going. Everyone contributes from the cards in their hand: everyone gets to ask basic questions without looking stupid.

Example of a nanotechnology information card

A2 What happens at the nano scale? 1

Nanoparticles have different properties to the bulk material. As particles become smaller their surface area becomes relatively greater. That is why icing sugar dissolves more quickly in water than granulated sugar.

[I liked it] “when we had the cards and we had to choose which was most important which made me feel like I could contribute…”

“The format of sorting through the cards, had a sort of awkwardness at first, passing [them] around to make sure everyone seen everything, but that soon ended as you began to pick things out that felt important to you and actually talk to the group about it.” – Male,33, museum exhibits director, UK

This is then repeated with the pack of ‘issue cards’. Whereas the information cards are factual, usually about the current situation, these expose players to a range of attitudes, opinions and ideas for changing the situation.

Example of a climate change issue card

B8 Jeremy Clarkson (UK TV presenter of motoring programmes)

“What’s wrong with global warming? We might lose Holland but there are other places to go on holiday.”

This phase, which takes 30 – 40 minutes, gives a group a shared stock of information. The second phase, which takes about the same time, is to make sense of that information.

using-democsThe effect of the cards

The statements below come from students in a school who were discussing MMR vaccination. MMR stands for Measles, Mumps and Rubella, and at the time a doctor called Andrew Wakefield had attracted a lot of attention with a claim that a triple vaccine that covered all three could cause autism. His paper in The Lancet was later declared to be fraudulent and he has been banned from practising as a doctor in the UK.
By half way through the discussion it was noticeable that the students appeared to be engaging with each other in a more focused way than hitherto, building on each other’s statements as they discussed an information card about parental choice:

— NHS has most of the information so they should be the ones who decide about vaccination

— No, they should give the information to us (said strongly)

— Yeah they haven’t told us

— If they tell us we can use it, making our own choices

At the end of the Democs game, students were asked if there were things that they found surprising, or things they learned in this activity. There responses offer further indications of the understandings that they had gained through taking part.

— I was surprised that doctors got paid more if they did single jabs

— I found the card that showed the increasing autism since 1997 surprising

— If you get MMR vaccine, get it after 15 months since before that we don’t know about autism.

Returning to adults, a striking illustration of how a single fact can change someone’s mind comes from Rachel Collinson, who took part in a focus group convened by the Science Museum in London to gather evidence on how effective Democs was. She said:

Before I started to play Democs all I knew about stem cell research was gleaned from snippets of news reports and pro-life propaganda. I was sure that I didn’t like the idea very much. However, playing Democs with people of varying viewpoints was a great eye-opener. It prevented our discussion from descending into histrionics. All parts of the debate became very clear and understandable, and I learnt things that I didn’t know before, which was a very pleasant surprise for me. My stand on the issue (and I am well known for taking stands on issues) clearly moved from where it was at the start of the game, to something quite different. Even now, four years later, I can still remember the exact argument that changed my mind. I came to the debate with a belief that the foetuses involved were generated just for research, and I didn’t like that. During Democs, I learned that in the UK most research is done on aborted foetuses. I felt that as they already existed, it was best to make use of them.”

In conclusion, a participant called Robert Whittle summarised the potential benefits of using the cards. I can’t claim that every event works as well as one that he describes, but when they do they are a joy to watch:

I was fascinated at how quickly (notably in the Facts and the Issue Card sections) all members of the group opened up and became confident at using new terminology and paraphrasing ideas and in making connections between issues – thus demonstrating their rapidly growing understanding or confidence or both. That does seem to be an astoundingly rapid progress using the game.”

Want to know more?

Democs background and download conversation kits on many different issues including GM Food, climate change & Community Empowerment

Human Enhancement Democs kit

More resources & inspiring stories with kits developed as part of PlayDecide

Book your place on a co-op skills training course, delivered by experts

hive-co-op-skillsThe Hive runs a series of one-day co-op skills training sessions, delivered by experts, available to existing co-operatives looking to strengthen in key areas.

Many of these training sessions were co-designed and run by Rhizome in previous years.  Still to come this year, we are delivering the ‘Communication and Working with Conflict’ workshop in London in October.

Find out more and book your place at

The EU referendum: “I’m right and you’re an idiot”

EU-inoutMy title is taken from the title of a recent book by a Canadian author called James Hoggan. It sums up neatly what the attitude seemed to be of many people involved in the EU referendum debate, whether that debate was face to face or on social media. By accident, I and my colleagues in Talk Shop found an antidote. This is the story of that accident.

In the run-up to the EU referendum, we organised ten events around the country, attracting a couple of hundred people in all. We began in Hackney, ended up in Huntingdon, and our journey also took us to Halifax and to Hereford.

EURef-eventOur original intent was to assist people who were undecided. In fact, based on the three events for which we have figures, only 9% of the people who came were undecided at the start. We certainly helped them, because only 1% were undecided at the end. But they were a small part of our audience.

We wanted roughly equal numbers to argue for each side, but had no idea if the ‘decideds’ who turned up would split equally between Leave and Remain. (The actual split was about 30:70.) We therefore introduced some role play: taking the side you didn’t believe in and arguing the case. This turned out to be what people valued most. It came up consistently in our evaluation , from the first event in Hackney…

“I found it helpful to have to put the other point of view, because it made me realise that I do have some things in common with people I disagree with.”
“Having to rehearse and be devil’s advocate – this is helpful when campaigning on the issues”

….although the point was most vividly made verbally by a participant in Liverpool called John (who, as it happened, was wearing a T shirt with a hammer and sickle on it):

“Arguing the case for leaving helped me realise that people who take that view, especially because of immigration, may have thought it through, rather than simply absorbing messages from the media.”

EURef-event-feetfirstBy accident, as I said, we created a format that did what no other referendum event I attended or read about did. It helped people do what the C18 German philosopher, Immanuel Kant ,said was the essence of reasoning publicly: to “think from the standpoint of everyone else.”

Open Space: the Technology, approach, free resources and critiques


Here at Rhizome towers, we have facilitated many Open Space events and sessions over the years.

Through our desire to share our experiences, and support healthy organisations and rewarding events, we developed a series of useful Open Space resources free for you to download and use.  Here are some reflections, questions and hints too…



Sometimes we’ve followed the Open Space Technology methods to a T, and other times we’ve taken a more informal approach, using the methods without calling it as such a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” – or the Delia Smith method Some years ago I went on a week-long Open Space training in Germany run by some of the pioneers, where we did Open Space on Open Space, so I am in theory a highly trained accredited OST facilitator (& of grammatically-correct capitalisation!), but more of that (the OST training!) later…

smell-rosesI remember in the first decades of my grassroots (ecological) campaigning many times we used what I later learnt were Open Space techniques, without using the terminology or the strict rules – if they were given a name, they were often called a bazaar or market. It was a useful approach in an arena characterised by voluntary effort and association, and with many organising and cultural influences including anarchism. I remain extremely grateful to the movements that came before and the active individuals who shared their learning from the women’s rights movement, anti-racist and justice campaigns, the peace and anti-nuclear movements, animal rights and liberation, Movement for a New Society and many others. Hopefully in Rhizome’s work with you you can get a flavour of the cross-pollination that we’ve learnt from over the years, and that we endeavour to encourage ourselves. 

LCC-open-space1The times we’ve blogged about our experiences in using Open Space, adapting and borrowing parts of it, include the NGO Capacity Building Forum’s Supporting Local Group Networks and their event Re-energising and Re-motivating Activists, the World Car Free Network’s Towards Car Free Cities, an advanced decision‑making training Consensus: In at the Deep End, a Transition Network gathering to support initiatives in creating good group process, LCC-open-space2Space for Cycling hosted by the London Cycling Campaign, an UnConference on co-op democracy facilitating for Principle Six and Co-operatives London, and the Rebellious Media ConferenceHopefully you can pick up from these posts that Open Space can work well for an event and the participants, and not so well, or not for everyone. As a facilitator, you try your best to pick the right time for the right tool for the right people.


Sometimes when we’ve used Open Space it has been an on the hoof response to the tension between those who’s needs are better met through small group discussions, and those who see the needs of the group being better met through plenary sessions. It’s an interesting tension to work with, and sometimes as facilitators we can get caught in the cross-fire. When facilitators are clumsy, we can end up putting ourselves in the line of fire, but it can just happen that we end up representing a role for the group, and potentially helping play it out ‘on their behalf’. There’s interesting theories and approaches on this, such as Bion’s Pairing Theory and Process Work (AKA World Work, Deep Democracy)…future blog posts to be written, if there’s interest from you, dear readers.

Packages and support

P+P_Open_Space_report_smallRhizome gets asked to design whole packages of support to organisations and networks, and we’re proud of the work we’ve created and the positive impacts it can have – we’ll be blogging next about one such piece of work for Co-operatives UK. Focussing back on the topic of this post, we’ve included Open Space as part of a bigger package, for example in our work with the Fairtrade Foundation. It does not start with the event but with planning and asking what the client wants and who are the key stake holders. Like other work mentioned above, Open Space can be useful when building a strong grassroots foundation for a group, maximising participation and a sense of ownership over discussions and skill-sharing.

It’s exciting too when we get to support others to facilitate Open Space sessions, including through mentoring and training, such as for 6 Billion Ways, the Camp for Climate Action, and sharing our learning and experiences directly with NGOs including Friends of the Earth, WDM (now Global Justice Now), and the Jubilee Debt Campaign, Open Space training sessions e.g.for the Environmental Training Network, and an event package for People & Planet.

Pitfalls and fissures

Some of the issues with Open Space were highlighted in our work with People & Planet – the dangers of domination and lack of participation in small groups, how to work with the British mainstream politeness in not getting up and leaving discussions that aren’t working for us, balancing control and the heart and soul staff may have poured into developing strategic goals within NGOs with members – especially ones that talk of being member-led. Without small group facilitators, or with one individual given the role of kick-starting the discussion, taking notes and facilitating (as I was taught in my long OST training), discussions can veer ‘too far’ off topic. It’s possible that as facilitators of the overall process too, we can be too focussed on doing things differently and wanting participative processes to see that what is needed instead or as well is something different. Another potential pitfall is that it relies on the energy of the participants and how much they care about the topic; as awareness and use of Open Space has spread, it has been used as another way of running meetings by the statutory sector (e.g. councils, hospitals), without always checking that it’s appropriate and that there’s enough energy from the people present. Some of the issues we’ve highlighted so far are how the method is facilitated, but others may also be problems in the very design of OST.

Which brings me on to where I started, with the week-long Open Space training, which turned out to be in the formal strict OST method, from a German approach. As a result, there were issues around the facilitation – it took us a while to figure out through a process of deduction, that we would not get any questions answered by the facilitators if we asked them in the main room or the corridors, but instead had to wait for the times when a famous and experienced OSTer was in the library. And we had some fundamental questions that felt pretty important to us in the application of Open Space Technology – about safety, confidence and assertiveness, and about how to work with the direct experiences of discrimination and oppression in society that people bring with them (and get reproduced in situ). Some of these questions came largely with the British contingent and our culture(s), of creating safer spaces for learning and transformation that at the time were so key (and continue to be today). Some of that grassroots ‘activist’ culture has since started to shift, with the Process Work and Training for Change emphasis on how can marginalised people step in to their own power (in a way that’s not managed by those with the power, and as a strategy for maintaining control).

So what answers did we get in the library? So here is what he said…

OS is not about group building and doesn’t change hierarchy or power. It assumes people are empowered. It is not necessarily participatory or democratic, it is just open space for self-organisation. OS is not a process for those things to happen, but they may happen anyway.

Another of the questions we brought with us was about how to have less control as a facilitator; what we saw instead was an obscuring of the power of the facilitator behind the rules and structure of OST that could not and should not be challenged. When someone suggested a brief exercise to share information on our confidence level in the OST space so far, the facilitator blocked it as not appropriate for the ‘Evening News’ section of the day, and when other people said they would find it useful too, the facilitator closed the session and stormed out. I later found why he may have responded like this – on page 119 of the Open Space book, this is the prescribed response for a facilitator when “mad egoists” try to hijack the process!

butterfly_bee_smallNow the thing is, I like OS (and I liked our facilitators) – it seems a shame that a good set of ideas should be distracted from by being presented in anything other than an open way. Maybe if we as OS facilitators consider if being ‘invisible’ can accidentally turn us into shadowy figures, somewhat inaccessible to the group, with an unclear agenda, then we can make a real effort to interact and share information on an equal footing with our participants – with no secret rules they have to figure out! Participants that challenge or bend the plan are not automatically a threat who must be obstructed until they submit meekly – they are engaging with the process! And OS is strong enough to handle this!

However, that doesn’t mean the pendulum should swing the other way towards individualism. It was our Southern European comrades on this training in ex-East Germany, near Berlin, that helped us look through that prism – that OST is based on a US model of individualist democracy and freedom that doesn’t take into account privilege and rank, and expects that everyone can step up straight away and present a topic winningly to a large group of people.

I can see clearly now the rain is gone…

Through the experiences of the training I went to, and through the times all of us ‘Rhizomistas’ have used Open Space, when I could see its limitations, I could also much more clearly see its uses.


I’ll end with a few more hints (in addtion to our downloadable Open Space resources) and some questions:

  • Talking with, not to: Ten tips for talking with your grassroots
  • Team Syntegrity, a method that designs in cross-fertilisation (p.50 of Participation Works!; Open Space is p.32 along with many other techniques)
  • Does some explanation of the reasons behind why we set up OS like this contribute or weaken how well it works?
  • How to deal with anxiety of the group ‘not knowing’ and ‘pragmatist learners’?
  • What are the issues around control and facilitation? How & when do we let go of control of the process – why are we controlling & does it help?
  • Is Open Space about bringing real life into the room? If so, therefore there will always be power issues – what is our role as facilitator here?

Calling anyone with facilitation, working with conflict or Community Development skills

3020000335_14c6d287b5_z-300x224Though we know nothing about this initiative beyond their blog post, we’re re-posting this because in these post-Brexit times – now more than ever we need to get together and think about what we can do to work with and across communities, and to struggle against the rise in racist attacks and the possible slide to even darker places. 

Dear friends and colleagues

I’m writing to you as someone in our network who we think might have facilitation, community development, conflict resolution or digital engagement skills that could be relevant to the situation the country finds itself in post-referendum.

Are you interested in coming to a gathering of like-minded people to explore the best way to deploy our particular tools and skills in the aftermath of the referendum?

If you are then we’re collecting a bit of information in this form to help us to plan it effectively. We need to get an idea of numbers quickly so please could you complete the form by end of day Thursday 7th July.

If you think that someone else in your network with relevant skills and experience might be interested, please do forward this email. However, we’re keen to keep it focused so please don’t do a mass mailing unless to a particular community of practitioners with relevant skills. 

It is really important to note that everyone at Involve holds their own opinions about what they would like to see happen next. However, this proposed gathering is not intended as a planning meeting to explore how to get the ‘right answer’. 

If you’re interested in strategising for a particular side, or hoping to meet likeminded campaigners to develop a plan of action, this is not the gathering for you. Let us know if this is what you are looking for and we will do our best to point you towards groups we know and respect.

From Involve’s perspective it is important to be up front about this, because the framing of the debate running up to the vote, and even more starkly afterwards, has been divisive. It has been framed around only our membership of the EU. This is only one aspect of the underlying issues. As a result, it has left the country with no clear idea of which direction to take as we renegotiate our relationship with the rest of Europe and the world. I’ve expanded these thoughts a little in this blog post.

I hope I am not presumptuous in saying that I think that one of our collective core activities sees us reframing issues, providing tools and facilitators who can help people find a different route into – and potentially out of – challenging and divisive debates. But right now it is hard (for me at least) to see how to make purchase within the debate in a way that can help to reframe it at any sense of scale that makes sense.

This email aims to find out if there is sufficient interest within our networks to come together to explore how we might work more effectively to help make the debate more productive and less incendiary. 

So, if you’re still interested in attending a day long workshop focused around ways we might work collectively together on the challenges thrown up by the referendum can you let us know by completing this form?

Please complete the form by Thursday 7th July. This is to give us an indication of numbers and allow us to book venue etc. We will give priority to people who complete the form before the deadline, but will try to accommodate late responders too.

Specifically, we have two purposes for the workshop:

  • To explore the different ways that we might work together to make the post-referendum debate more productive; and
  • To provide a space for people with facilitation and engagement skills* to learn more about each other and spark productive partnerships.

*hopefully from both sides of the debate.

We are not aiming for consensus, or a grand idea to come out of this (though both might). Instead our more modest aim is to surface energy and ideas that different groups of us might gravitate around. Given this, our aim is to set the day up as an open space, though we reserve the right to change our minds once we know who wants to join us and what they want to get out of it.

We’re aiming to hold it outside London because the focus of power in the south East seems to us to be part of the problem and it’s one way of doing a small something to counter this. However, we will reconsider this if you (collectively) tell us strongly otherwise. We’d like to know what dates are best for you and what you’d like to get out of such a meeting. Though we make no promises to meet any, or even some of your needs.

We’re a small charity with very limited reserves (aren’t we all), so we are also interested in any resources – financial or otherwise – that you might be able to bring, but this is not a precondition to attending. However, we won’t be able to provide any financial assistance and will will ask you to bring your own lunch, though we will provide tea and coffee.

Once we’ve had a bit more time, we’ll probably set-up an online space for people to start discussing different ideas before we meet. You are also very welcome to write a post for our blog – or cross-post from somewhere else – if you want to get a little extra reach.

Any suggestions welcome and we’ll try to respond as quickly as we can. However, we are also keeping the show on the road and continuing to deliver our existing projects, so all this is currently happening in the spaces between our other work. 

We really hope you think this is a good idea and are keen to join us, but totally understand that you will have your own ideas and work to deliver.

Best, Simon, Involve

Reposted from here

Co-operation in the UK: from start to finish, developing a support package for Co-ops UK

coops-uk-logoWe are excited when we get asked to design whole programmes of support to organisations and networks. It’s possible in a one-off workshop to spark and see transformational change, given the right conditions, and we aim for ‘catalytic interventions’. A whole package of support gives us and our client the time and relationship to develop greater understanding, mutual learning, and exactly the right mix of agile responsive support that hits the spot. This is one example we’ve been working on since 2012, with Co-operatives UK.


Amazing things sometimes grow from seeds sprouting in different places, from rhizomes bursting up through the soil into the air to grow and blossom. So it has been with the Co-operatives UK training programme that we’ve been heavily involved with – from conception, through analysing learning needs and co-creating programme design, to delivery.



The United Nations International Year of Co-operatives was celebrated in the UK with an inspiring global festival of events and exhibitions, Co-operatives United in autumn 2012 in Manchester. We’d already started talking to Co-ops UK about the possibilities of running ‘soft skills’ trainings to complement the primarily governance and financial management support and training that was on offer in the British co‑operative movement at the time. So this was the perfect opportunity for us to have face-to-face conversations with co-ops about their training needs, and to survey co-ops’ training needs through questionnaires. This complemented an online survey we co-designed with Co-ops UK and enabled us to do a broad learning needs analysis. At Co-operatives United, we also go to have fun offering ‘games for activists and non-activists‘ workshops!

From the learning needs analysis, Co-ops UK were able to give the green light and could select the training topics that would be designed specially for workers’ co-ops, in the first instance. We also came up with a plan to co-deliver the programme with other training co-ops, and Co-ops UK made contact with some to bring them in to the process, in late 2013.

In the meantime, in summer 2013, Rhizome co-facilitated a two day workshop on facilitation for Co-operatives UK staff, which was a real pleasure from start to finish. It’s amazing to get two whole days with any group to properly delve into facilitation – issues, formal and informal skills, challenges, planning meetings, and a good helping of practice. And from the surveys filled out in advance, through to their levels of participation during the workshop, the staff through themselves into it and thus got lots out of it. As a trainer, it’s always rewarding to see participants learning journeys, the moments of realisation and change.

co-op-handsThe design stage of the process and of the different workshops with other co-ops and Co-ops UK was dead interesting, and many thanks for this chance to Co-operantics, Dynamix and Lancaster Seeds for Change. We learnt from each others’ different approaches to training, with each co-op taking a lead on the design of a different workshop, inviting comments from the other trainers. At Rhizome, rather than making the most obvious choice to lead on ‘Effective Meetings and Decision‑making’, we decided to focus on the ‘Communication and Working with Conflict’ module, and took up the gauntlet for the introductory ‘Being a Good Co-op Member’ training session. Making a round-five were ‘Strategic Planning and Managing Change’ and ‘Accountability and Delegation without a Boss’.

Rhizome_iconOne advantage Rhizome has is that we are a sizeable group of trainers and facilitators coming from diverse experiences and backgrounds. As with much of our work, we put the extra time into discussing as a group and commenting on the session plans for this co-operative training programme, so that what is developed is the fruit of our learning from each other, and deliver the most benefit for the end participants. With the way the design process for this overall training programme was conceived, we were also able to share our ideas and experiences with the other trainers taking a lead on different training sessions.

In 2014 we were all busy delivering the workshops we’d designed, in Birmingham, Bristol, Glasgow, London and Manchester, evaluating and reviewing our session plans in time for the 2015 programme. Through all of these it was a treat to meet people from many different kinds of co-ops, each with their own areas of expertise and their own organisational cultures, and to get to know what needs and challenges co-operative businesses on the ground are facing. In 2016 the training programme has become part of a bigger package of support on offer to co-ops, The Hive, and we continue to play a part in making this a success. the-hive-800


Right now, alongside our other constant work with diverse co-operatives, delivering various workshops and facilitating communication, development and change, we are excited to be facilitating Co-operatives Congress 2016. By the time you read this, we’ll have met some more of the interesting and inspiring co-operatives out there doing great work throughout the four nations, and have facilitated the sharing of ideas and solutions that will enable the co-operative movement to continue to go from strength to strength.

helping you make up your mind for the EU referendum

wee-playRhizome co-op members are involved in a range of activities alongside what we might see as core Rhizome work.  This post describes one such initiative and how games can be useful to create both a participative process and a safer space in an often polarised debate.  This is particularly timely in light of the upcoming EU Referendum – with a useful link at the end of the article.


Wee Play was a card game created by Perry, working with an organization called ‘So Say Scotland’, for the Scottish Referendum in 2014. The aim was to create a safe space for Yes, No and Don’t Know to come together, think and talk about the referendum. This was needed because a lot of the discussion around the referendum was  confrontational and biased for both sides.

How the kit worked

To run Wee Play, all that was needed was a pack of cards, four or more folk and a table to gather round. It usually took about 90 mins but could be played in 45. The pack is divided into three suits on the independence subject: pro, con and information cards. Each player chose two cards from each pack. This created their information base.

The final round was all about making meaning. Players spotted the connections between the cards on the table and clustered them together. This activity often created a juicy discussion.

How the kit was created

In 2013, I worked up a very rough kit and printed out on my home printer. We tried it in Scotland a couple of times, first with a few people at the University of Edinburgh and then with 23 people at the Just Festival, which is part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

In 2014, we revised the cards to produce a long list of 67 pro-independence and 69 pro-UK cards. These were scored by six people and the scores used to reduce the cards by a bit over half. We had couple of trials in March, and then in April a ‘Play and Proof session’ at a café in Glasgow. We then made final revisions in the light of which cards were chosen most often and feedback from participants. I summarised this feedback as “people want big picture stuff. They don’t want the nitty gritty.”

The first batch of 150 kits were printed and delivered in June. Since the referendum was in late September, this was very, very tight.

How the kit creates a safe space

I’ll pick out three features. First, Wee Play is designed to look and feel like a game, albeit one with no winner. That gives a sense of familiarity.

The second feature was the use of cards. A player can select and read out a card that says X without saying whether they agree with X. This is linked to the third feature, which is that the process gives the participants a series of shared tasks. This helps them to feel that they are collaborating rather than competing.

We learned a lot as we went along. For example, a huge lesson from trying out the first draft of the instructions was that having people talk about the topics in the first stage (when people are choosing cards to create their information base) meant that they got into a fixed position. Leaving the discussion till the end allowed players to see all the points first and respond with fresh insights.

Sometimes, the process needed adapting for particular groups to make sure that they felt safe. This is what Cara Spence said about the LGBT Youth game:

“To ensure there’s a balanced debate much of the game is focused around ‘reading aloud’. This can be really daunting for young people. A solution might be to ask if another young person or the dealer reads out their cards. This seemed to work well and other young people were supportive.”

Some of the comments from participants suggested both that we had succeeded in creating such a space for them, and that they were able to make use of it:

“They said it made for a much better dialogue than the usual self congratulatory talk, got them thinking, defining and even disagreeing which is a good thing” – feedback from Sparkle Horse, Partick game.

“Brilliant game thoroughly enjoyed. I’ve learning difficulties and this has done me a lot of good” – participant Café 13 Glasgow.

“I became aware of a number of softer issues like identity, cooperation etc. that I hadn’t really thought about” – player at ‘Play and Proof’ session.

Our challenges

There were some challenges we didn’t manage to meet in the few short months that we had to produce the kit and get it used. About 30% of Scottish population, were undecided at the time and it was difficult to tap into this group. Even where we could, bringing together groups where there was a mix of yes, no and undecided playing together was also difficult.

After the referendum there was a lot of talk about the older generation being the most nervous. They like to gather and like to sit, so it would have been great to reach them – but we didn’t manage to work out how.

Do you want to have a go?

The Wee Play kit is no longer available, but a kit on the EU referendum is available. Email perry AT

For anyone still thinking about how to cast their vote in the upcoming referendum, see the questions tool at  Do pass the link on to anyone you know who is undecided. Tweet  #openupEU


Taking risks for personal transformation: Education and Participation with Training for Change

screen-shot-2014-09-04-at-9-31-00-pmA few weeks ago I was lucky enough to spend the best part of ten days holed up in a room at Friends House in London with 20 other grassroots trainers and facilitators. For once, we were participants on a training course – not the ones running it!

inspirational-quotes-8-638If the trainer-cum-participant role sounds like a relative walk in the park, let me remind you of Rhizome’s modus operandi: as facilitators committed to meaningful social change through empowerment and participation, we view participants not as empty vessels engaging obediently with course content as a means of soaking up knowledge offered by a trainer. Rather, we recognise that every group of participants already possesses, between them, the knowledge needed to advance their learning on any given topic. With this in mind, we seek to welcome every part of every participant and support each person in the training room to bring their unique skills, experiences and aptitudes to the room.

This participatory approach to adult learning is not new and Rhizome is amongst a growing number of training organisations using it to advance the learning of those we work with. Many of those organisations (Campaign Bootcamp, the New Economy Organisers Network, Seeds for Change, Tripod and Turning the Tide) were with me on the 10 day training – all of us recognising that no matter how experienced we are, there is always room for furthering our learning, benefits to engaging as participants and value to be found in networking with others on a similar path.

The training in question was run by renowned US-based training organisation Training for Change (TfC), and the two-part course comprised a Training for Social Action Trainers (TSAT) followed by an Advanced TSAT. TfC uses the phrase “Direct Education” to describe the participatory approach I outlined above and it is essentially a way of drawing learning directly from the participants themselves. Over the course of several years of training trainers and social change agents, TfC has identified some core frameworks, theories and tools which support facilitators to use the “Direct Education” model. It was these frameworks, theories and tools that I, and my fellow participants, spent 10 days getting to grips with.

As you’ve probably guessed by now, the fact that we were on a training course to learn more about Direct Education, for which we were using the Direct Education model, made the whole thing very ‘meta’: a Direct Education training course on Direct Education! And whilst the self-referential way of engaging was somewhat tiring, it was also, as one would hope, extremely revelatory. Over the course of ten days, we got to experience engaging tools and activities (most of which I’d encountered before, but some of which added to my repertoire), we used reflection and generalisation to explore approaches and we applied our learning by trying things out for ourselves. This explicit use of the experiential cycle – Experience, Reflect, Generalise, Apply (See David Kolb’s Experiential Learning Model) – was both central to the way we learnt and a key framework for us supporting others’ learning.

shutterstock_125282522We were challenged throughout by constant engagement with the group dynamics in the room, working directly on race and gender and exploring other ways in which structural oppression plays out in groups. We practiced what TfC calls ’emergent design’ (basically how to change your plans ‘on the hoof’ in response to what is happening in the training room) and elicitive questioning – an essential tool in the facilitator toolbox. Whilst the TfC trainers had outlined their stated goals at the start of the workshops, the focus of what we learned was most definitely directed by the group. Particularly in the Advanced TSAT, back-to-back practice facilitation by groups of two co-facilitating participants ensured that it was always the participants who were ‘reading the group’, diagnosing its needs and designing and delivering the sessions according to what they deduced was needed to move things forward.rope

Of course that’s not to say that the Training for Change facilitators didn’t have a key role to play. Far from it. The skilful facilitation of our trainers Erica and Nico represented both inspirational modelling and an essential part of the thoughtful holding of space and building of trust required for such deep transformational work. The degree to which they were able to ‘build the container’ of group trust in the room was evident from the risks we as participants were willing to take to further our learning.


I think I can say with some certainty that every one of us made ourselves vulnerable and open to the extraordinarily personal challenges we were invited to encounter. And I think it’s also true to say that we each came away feeling empowered, energised and more confident trainers and facilitators as a result. I know I certainly did.


Rhizome’s sixth birthday – walking, not running

6th-birthdayEntering into our sixth year of existence, Rhizome wishes all our readers a happy year of learning and action. You may like us be on a journey, destination unknown, clutching your ‘values compass’ firmly in hand – we’ve blogged previously to share our attempts at an evolutionary process. On the other hand, you may be an organisation or group with a clear strategic masterplan with clear measurable outcomes. Either way, we welcome you as readers to interact with us, and are proud to have worked with a diversity of organisational cultures and models.

So what will you see from us this year?

Well, we’ll be blogging more regularly not only about exciting events and training, but also to share our inspiration and learning, and to demonstrate how facilitation, training and supporting groups and communities to grow in resilience and be better able to organise collectively, dynamically, innovatively, and effectively will lead towards a just and sustainable world. Plus show that we can write short and long sentences in the same paragraph. Stop press. You heard it here.

Watch out for our special 6th birthday tweets, and later in the year our website revamp, including new resources for your delight. We’ll also be show-casing some of the in-depth work we’ve been up to over the last couple of years.

Two notable and pretty comprehensive packages have been:

  • working with staff and local groups at 38 Degrees to birth healthy local groups, to offer opportunities to reflect on how they work, and to improve facilitation and group-work skills;
  • working with Co-operatives UK and other training co-ops to develop and run a suite of training for workers’ co-ops exploring communication and conflict, and decision-making, amongst others.

We’ve also been catching public transport throughout the UK to facilitate, work with conflict and train a wide range of groups, organisations and communities – from various kinds of co-ops, campaigners, NGOs, and grassroots groups, to Student Unions and schools innovating with consensus, and top international lawyers evaluating strategies and working together.

Take a look through our website, and do get in touch if there’s any support we can provide for you or exciting collaborations that we could make happen. We’re in this for the long-haul too, and would love to join you on your journeys, walking not running.

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.”


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.


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: