Expert and expertise

I’m wary of the role of expert. It has connotations of power over a group. And let’s be honest there’s a part of my ego that would love to fill the role of expert for the affirmation it might bring. Expertise I’m more comfortable with – it’s just a statement of competence.

The feedback from a recent nonviolent direct action workshop at Warwick University (not part of the formal academic curriculum, I hasten to add) was almost entirely positive. But it did raise the issue of expert and expertise for me. Not for the first time a student group wanted more information on my activist background than I feel comfortable giving them. Not because I’m worried about implicating myself in acts of dodgy direct action, but because it puts the spotlight on me whereas I want it to be on them (and I don’t trust myself not to enjoy the lime light just a little too much).

But am I being too dogmatic about this? Moi? Surely not. The role of facilitator is to make things easier for the group, and if a little personal background would make the session easier, then it’s a good idea. And as for the ego stuff? Time to get over myself, perhaps?

The session posed a second, equally common challenge – how to support groups through the realisation that taking effective nonviolent direct action may not be compatible with staying entirely within both the letter and the spirit of the law. Some would argue that the whole point is to stretch, if not break the law – that it’s a fundamentally disobedient discipline. There’s no judgement meant on the Weapons Out of Warwick students. There’s a natural and understandable desire to want to avoid any more trouble than is absolutely necessary. It’s probably the line between nonviolent action and nonviolent direct action. All I can hope is that I left them knowing that it’s possible to take nonviolent direct action, fall foul of the system, and live to tell the tale. The students have taken their planned action. I hope to check in with them soon and hear first hand how it went.


“What the hell do we do next?”

If you’re part of a group or organisation Rhizome works with, the chances are that you identify yourself as part of the Green Movement in its broadest form. If you’re a trainer or facilitator who read this blog, the chances are that you do a lot, if not all, of their work for that same movement. You may well feel that  with it from within – you are of the movement and for the movement. So how do you feel about Paul Kingsnorth’s thoughts:

“The green movement, which seemed to be carrying all before it in the early 1990s, has plunged into a full-on midlife crisis. Unable to significantly change either the system or the behavior of the public, assailed by a rising movement of “skeptics” and by public boredom with being hectored about carbon and consumption, colonized by a new breed of corporate spivs for whom “sustainability” is just another opportunity for selling things, the greens are seeing a nasty realization dawn: despite all their work, their passion, their commitment and the fact that most of what they have been saying has been broadly right—they are losing. There is no likelihood of the world going their way. In most green circles now, sooner or later, the conversation comes round to the same question: what the hell do we do next?” [my emphasis]

Is it a question you recognise? It’s taken from a longer article in Orion Magazine which I was directed to by Dave Pollard’s recent Links post. If Kingsnorth is even half right (and I reckon he is) it’s an enormous question that spawns others.

What are we at Rhizome doing, for example, to facilitate the movement answering the question? … What should we be doing? … Are we wasting our time working with and for the Green Movement?

Kingsnorth poses 5 possible answers to his question:

One: Withdrawing…take part in a very ancient practical and spiritual tradition: withdrawing from the fray. Withdraw not with cynicism, but with a questing mind. Withdraw so that you can allow yourself to sit back quietly and feel, intuit, work out what is right for you and what nature might need from you. Withdraw because refusing to help the machine advance—refusing to tighten the ratchet further—is a deeply moral position. Withdraw because action is not always more effective than inaction. Withdraw to examine your worldview: the cosmology, the paradigm, the assumptions, the direction of travel. All real change starts with withdrawal.


Two: Preserving nonhuman life…The human empire is the greatest threat to what remains of life on earth, and you are part of it. What can you do—really do, at a practical level—about this? Maybe you can buy up some land and rewild it; maybe you can let your garden run free; maybe you can work for a conservation group or set one up yourself; maybe you can put your body in the way of a bulldozer; maybe you can use your skills to prevent the destruction of yet another wild place. How can you create or protect a space for nonhuman nature to breathe easier; how can you give something that isn’t us a chance to survive our appetites?


Three: Getting your hands dirty. Root yourself in something: some practical work, some place, some way of doing. Pick up your scythe or your equivalent and get out there and do physical work in clean air surrounded by things you cannot control. Get away from your laptop and throw away your smartphone, if you have one. Ground yourself in things and places, learn or practice human-scale convivial skills. Only by doing that, rather than just talking about it, do you learn what is real and what’s not, and what makes sense and what is so much hot air.


Four: Insisting that nature has a value beyond utility. And telling everyone. Remember that you are one life-form among many and understand that everything has intrinsic value. If you want to call this “ecocentrism” or “deep ecology,” do it. If you want to call it something else, do that. If you want to look to tribal societies for your inspiration, do it. If that seems too gooey, just look up into the sky. Sit on the grass, touch a tree trunk, walk into the hills, dig in the garden, look at what you find in the soil, marvel at what the hell this thing called life could possibly be…


Five: Building refuges. The coming decades are likely to challenge much of what we think we know about what progress is, and about who we are in relation to the rest of nature. Advanced technologies will challenge our sense of what it means to be human at the same time as the tide of extinction rolls on…In this context, ask yourself: what power do you have to preserve what is of value—creatures, skills, things, places? …Can you think, or act, like the librarian of a monastery through the Dark Ages, guarding the old books as empires rise and fall outside?

If any of that rings true with you, and with us here at Rhizome, it begs the question of where we put our energy, skills and resources.

On one level, the level of how we work I could argue that Rhizome’s already, instinctively, in tune with Kingsnorth’s 5 answers. I see in myself and some of the conversations I have with my Rhizome colleagues our own take on these impulses.

We ‘withdraw’ into our internal relationships, using the work we’re asked to do as an opportunity, a tool even, to build our relationships, to challenge, to grow, to contemplate and reflect.

We also insist that relationships, that the nature of groups and organisations, have a value beyond serving a group’s structure or process. In working that way we make Rhizome and the groups with whom we work (or should that be ‘relate’) more able to be refuges.

And largely we do this by inviting folks to join us in getting our hands dirty. No hi-tech training tools or techniques – just people experiencing together, doing together and reflecting and learning together from that doing. Increasingly I find myself designing work that emphasises getting hands dirty at the earliest possible opportunity and for the longest possible time.

What of preserving nonhuman life? I don’t want to stretch the analogy to breaking point, but there’s an element of truth in saying that if we can help each other to relate more openly, more honestly and across our diversity we stand more chance as individuals, as groups and as a society and a species, of opening up to the needs of an even more diverse group – the ecosystems, the nonhuman life, all around us. Every group or organisation is a kind of ecosystem – a tangled and interdependent web of relationship, power, and dynamics.

But how we work is just one level and there are the where and with whom questions to be answered or at least to be continually asked. Rhizome folk meet next week. Our discussion are always lively, interested and interesting. When presented with questions like this one how could they be otherwise?

The practice of nonviolent direct action

Saturday’s ‘peaceful resistance’ session for the Combe Haven Defenders went pretty well. We got very practical very early on in the day. Nothing new there, at least not in a nonviolent direct action workshop. But we started with the stuff that’s often seen as more “advanced” – locking on. That’s bike locks, handcuffs and all that other stuff that’s designed to prolong an action by making it harder to remove the activists. The group had a lot of enthusiasm for these practical sessions. There’s nothing like having a road driven through a beautiful stretch of countryside on your doorstep to confirm the necessity of these tactics. And besides it’s fun (at least in practice sessions!)

Contrary to some media reports these folk were far from the predictable young / student protesters. The age range was good – from teenagers to pensioners with everything in between. Indeed the older women there were the ones who had already notched up arrests and court appearances for action to stop the tree-felling that prepares the way for the road.

I’m sure there was a lot of useful learning about personal perspectives on nonviolence and direct action, about specific action techniques, about confrontation, about the law. But the real strength of this kind of workshop is that it builds community. It’s hard to spend several hours with others practicing linking arms, linking legs, locking yourselves together by the neck, without some group-building happening whether you like it or not. In many respects the workshop was a 6 hour long team-building exercise, which should stand the campaign in good stead. And this was reinforced by a the desire for a closing conversation, at the group’s request, about how the group could stay in touch and mobilise for action together.

Obviously, from a facilitation perspective, there was plenty of room for improvement. There always is. It turned out to be quite a large group, so the biggest improvement might have been to have a co-facilitator, especially for the hands-on sessions, of which the day was mostly comprised. I have a tendency to want to micromanage lock-on practices because I like to ensure safety and support messages are hammered home. This kind of action can easily lead to injury. After all that’s the premiss of the tactic – you can’t move us without hurting us. With two groups practicing with different equipment simultaneously that was harder. But maybe no bad thing? Maybe finding out for yourself in a relatively safe space is good enough, if not better. The evaluations bear out both perspectives. There was a comment about wanting more direction in some of the practice sessions, against an overall back drop of appreciation for the chance to get physical and learn by doing.


Defenders, destruction and deja vu

Spoof Bayeux Tapestry graphic showing George Osborne on a digger

The Combe Haven Defenders are making news in their resistance to the new Bexhill to Hastings link road. I’m getting a strong sense of deja vu. It’s all a bit 1990s – people being evicted from trees, tunnels being built. It’s even being called the Second Battle of Hastings echoing the Third Battle of Newbury as that anti-bypass campaign was often referred to. And this is just the start of a new road-building extravaganza if the UK government gets its way.

Back in the 90s the monumental and majestic struggle against the Newbury Bypass led to the phrase “noisy defeats and quiet victories”. Whilst the Bypass was built the wider roads programme was dropped. Or shelved as we now know.

These protests are vital. At the risk of sounding too detached, they’re crucibles in the heat of which the movement develops, learns and moves forward. Old tactics will be resurrected, but they’ll also inevitably be improvised upon. Innovative variations or new tactics will emerge. Lessons will be learnt about how we work together; about avoiding, surviving and succumbing to burnout; about how the law is being applied in 2013. Absolute beginners will, within a few weeks and months, become some of our most experienced direct activists. It’s a boot camp for the activist community. If only it were a simulation. Sadly another swathe of the beautiful English countryside is at stake, not to mention the impact on climate change that the increase in traffic the new road generates (if it’s built) will have.panoramic view of Combe Haven

Much of my day today is going into planning and preparing a 1 day session for the Defenders on “peaceful resistance”. I’ll be down there on Saturday. In many ways the session needs to be a crucible in its own right – a space in which participants can meld their experience, forge connection, hone and sharpen their inspiration, skills and resolve. No pressure there then. Of course it’s not all about preparing for the “front line” – it’s also about finding a role that works for each and every participant. And the joy of this kind of campaign is that those support roles are so very valuable.

I’ll let you know how it goes.You can follow the campaign through the Defenders blog. Or of course you can call in sick and join them…


A Eulogy for #Occupy

Just read Quinn Norton’s A Eulogy for #Occupy at, via the boingboing blog (hat tip to Marc).

It’s a powerful litany of brutality and hope (theirs and ours). It doesn’t shy away from holding up the mirror to how our dynamics mirror those of the 1%. Is that an inevitability?

Maybe folk from the UK (and elsewhere) would argue that the ‘Eulogy’ reflects US society and US Occupy. Maybe. Maybe not. All thoughts welcome.

Anyway, don’t spend more time reading this, because there’s nothing I’m going to say that Quinn  won’t say better.


games for activists and non-activists

Inspired in large part by Augusto Boal’s Games for Actors and Non-Actors and Improv practice, we proposed a games workshop to Co-operatives UK for their Big Fun Pod at last week’s International Co-op Conference. Rather than writing a reflective piece, I’m just going to describe what we did and provide some pointers for readers who want to explore the field of games. If you want to use these, think about how you might debrief the exercises. For example, “What did you observe about your desire to lead/to follow/to withdraw etc?”.

Intro – Wander around the space and say hello to everyone, without touching them. Continue wandering, but this time say hello non-verbally. Continue wandering, but this time shake hands with someone. Before you let go of their hand, you have to have held someone else’s before you release your first hand.

Control and co-operation – wander around the room and follow the instructions of the games ‘leader’. Instructions start with ‘stop’, ‘go’, ‘forwards’,’backwards’,’up’, ‘down’. Let this play out for a while, then pause and say that now everyone is to do the opposite of the command. Continue for a while and then shift the energy by saying some new commands – shapes, letters and numbers. People get into the shapes, letters and numbers.

Co-existence – in pairs, one A and one B. A starts by putting their hand about a foot in front of B’s face. B follows the (gentle) movements of A.

Swap over. Then say – “Now you have to mirror each other, there is no leader and there is no follower.” Then pairs join together and mirror each other.

Group work – put enough pieces of paper on the floor so that everyone can just stand on it. Stand on one yourself and say, “The rules of this game are that you must be in touch with the paper, but not the floor”. Everyone gets up and stands on the paper. Then take half of the paper away and repeat the exercise. Gradually diminish the paper. If the groups talks about the problem and searches for solutions which observe the rule, they’ll solve the problem.

If they don’t, there will be some mayhem.

Circle time – in a circle play Bippety Bippety Bop. One person in the middle. They point to someone and either say, “bop” or “bippety, bippety bop”. If they say “bop” the person pointed at has to stay silent; if they say “bop”, they’re in the middle. If the person in the middle points at someone and says, “bippety, bippety bop”, the the person pointed at has to say “bop” before they have finished saying,”bippety, bippety bop”.

You can add other games into it. For example, we added ‘James Brown’. If you say ‘James Brown’ to someone, then before you count to ten, they have to wiggle and sing, “I feel good”, whilst the person to their left and right does a small dance. Any player who does the wrong action or fails to do the action by the time you’ve counted to ten, is then in the middle.

Remaining in a circle, on person stands in the middle. The rest all agree a sound and keep vocalising it. The person in the middle moves around and within the circle. As they get nearer to someone the sound increases; and decreases as they move away from someone. Someone else moves to the middle when a different sound evolves. (Note – this means you have to tell the circle to evolve the sound).

Then change the circle rules to be about movements and evolve them.

Attraction/distraction – Get everyone wandering around the room. Say that this time they’re like magnets. As they get within a foot of someone they are magnetically repelled. Let it play out, then swap to – once they get within a foot of someone they are attracted and stuck to them. See what happens. Then get people wandering again and ask them to be equidistant, see what happens and how long it takes for the group to settle. Then say, “Choose two people with your eyes, without letting them know. One is A and one is B. Now get as close to A and as far away from B as possible. You have ten seconds.” It’s fun.

Other games – we played some variations of these too, but you can find more in –

Games for Actors and Non-Actors by Augusto Boal

Improv by Keith Johnstone

And on the Organizing for Power website

And a host of other resources accessible via goggling.

Aspects of autism and neurodiversity

Regular readers of this blog may remember a couple of posts we wrote on autism and social change. Here’s a chance to find out more:

Aspects of autism and neurodiversity: a brief introduction for social change groups

Saturday 22nd September
7.30pm – 8.30pm
Old Music Hall
106-108 Cowley Road

Do you want your group to welcome diversity? Do you want to work together harmoniously?

Neurodiversity impacts on the way people see the world and interact. Understanding neurodiversity and autism can improve the way you understand and work with others in your social change groups and how you facilitate workshops and meetings.

The workshop will be facilitated by Caroline Hearst who was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum in her fifties.

The event is being hosted by Seeds for Change. Please let us know if you plan to attend this workshop as Caroline would like to know numbers. Either email richardATseedsforchangeDOTorgDOTuk or call us on 01865 403134. If no-one answers please leave a message.

Class, conflict and confusion

George Lakey’s writing about class over at the Waging Nonviolence blog. 3 recent posts have touched on different aspects of class. In Do we mean what politicians mean by ‘class’? he helpfully gives his interpretation of the different classes and the qualities of each, as well as offering some conclusions on the relevance of class (mis)understanding for activists:

After looking closely at family backgrounds we can see that some activist conflicts are not so much about ideology as about class-based assumptions. In the midst of a campaign, a class conflict can result in losing the support of the class that loses, with no one in the organization realizing what’s really happening — and the whole organization losing. The stakes are high.

In Middle class confusion about class war, Lakey critiques recent writing by Bill McKibben on campaigning against fossil fuels through the class-lens. Here’s what he says about a common middle class assumption:

The middle class is socialized to remain confused about power. That’s how middle-class people can create narratives that ignore class struggle and assign the primary responsibility to — in the case of energy policy — consumers. The amount of privilege and the appearance of power given to middle class individuals make them especially prone to versions of “blame the victims.”

And finally in Opening ourselves to the realities of class he recounts a positive tale of  an alliance across class and draws lessons for today’s individual activists and movements:

Movements will grow stronger if we understand each other better across class lines, but class is often made a matter of statistics instead of lived experience…

..Our chance to defeat the 1 percent depends on our willingness to give up demanding that others become like us, and instead learn to walk in their shoes. That’s true when it comes to race and gender, and other differences including class.

I’m not advocating a dismissal of action in favor of obsessing about political correctness. A living revolution focuses not on rigid rules but on opening ourselves to others’ realities, and being grateful when they are willing to express them. We can open in the course of an action campaign, as MNS did in its blockade. We can open in the safety of a workshop. It means going outside our comfort zones, in workshops as well as campaigns.

The result is expansion, of ourselves and of our movements.

One of the other strengths of this latter post is the collection of statements that Lakey’s gathered and edited together to help shed light on the values and thought-processes of people from differing classes. Here’s a snippet of these 3 voices:

You may encounter my fear, so please insist that we can make contact. Underneath, I’m a decent and ordinary human being…

…please remember that underneath my facade of correctness lies a living, breathing passionate person who would love to show it…

…If we’re not speaking up it’s not because we don’t have something valuable to say. To work successfully with us, listen.

Grassroots Campaigning Skills for Activists Conference

Unlock Democracy and the Electoral Reform Society are hosting a Democracy Grassroots Conference for activists from all over the UK to share their ideas, thoughts and skills on effective local campaigning.

Grassroots Campaigning Skills for Activists
Saturday 20th October 2012 – 10.30am  to 5pm
Birmingham Voluntary Service Council (BVSC) Building -138 Digbeth, Birmingham

They are planning a series of workshops, speakers and discussion sessions and want your input – what topics would you like to discuss at the conference and who do you want to hear speak? Find out more and contribute here.


From novice to ninja

I’m doing a little bit of helping out with a project to support people through their journey to being better informed and more skilled activists. The project goes by the name of A.S.K for the World| Activist Skills and Knowledge.

The premise is simple enough. Help people to asess their own knowledge and abilities on a scale of ‘novice’ to ‘practitioner’ to ‘expert’ to ‘ninja’, then provide them with the resources to learn, develop and progress up the levels. The clever bit (and the tricky bit) is that whilst resources means all the usual web links, books, videos etc, it also, and crucially, includes a community of people who can mentor and coach each other.

Novice on climate science? Well, eventually you’ll be able to connect with practitioners, experts and hopefully ninja climate science folk who can do their stuff and give you the support you need. Peer-to-peer development. Got to be worth a shot.

The project’s at an early stage – a bit rough and ready and lots more work to do. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts,


How to Kill the Internet

This from the newsletter of our friends at

“Around the world, there is a magic formula for passing laws to severely limit internet freedom: claim that you must block and monitor traffic in order to prevent child pornography.

If you are like me, your impulse is to stop reading right now. There is nothing that I would like to avoid more than a discussion of child pornography. This unease, of course, is why evoking the specter of child pornography is so effective when attempting to pass controversial legislation. As a new parent to a young hatchling, my first impulse is to support any measure that might prevent even one child from being abused.

However, once you scratch the surface of these attempts to regulate communication in the name of saving children, it’s clear that these laws ignore children entirely and work to catch-all of society up in a giant web of surveillance and control.

The copyright lobby in Scandinavian countries was the first to figure out the magic formula. Johan Schlüter, head of the Danish Anti-Piracy Group, complained that “politicians don’t understand that file sharing is bad.” The solution, he said, was to focus on child pornography, “because that’s something the politicians understand, and something they want to filter off the Internet… Once we get them to filter child pornography, we can get them to extend the block to file sharing” [1]. This strategy was wildly successful, and has led to a series of laws in Scandinavian countries that allow the government to force ISPs to block certain sites, most of which are sites accused of file sharing. The same story has been repeated in Australia, the UK, South Korea, and others.

More recently, law enforcement agencies around the world are using this magical formula. Police find it hard to convince people in a democracy to submit to totalitarian levels of continuous surveillance — unless they drape these extensive powers in the cloak of child protection (anti-terrorism used to work, but is less effective these days).

In the US, the same lawmakers who introduced the infamous SOPA bill have another gem: “Protecting Children from Internet Pornographers Act.” This bill requires ISP’s to retain the internet addresses and billing records of their customers for over a year. Rather than limiting police access to cases involving suspected abuse of children, customer information would be made available to government agencies for any suspected crime [2].

In the UK, the current government is pushing a bill called the “Communications Data Bill”, commonly referred to as the “Snoopers’ Charter”. This bill would automate the process of allowing police easy access to all the “meta-data” of all online communication (with whom, when, and how long) and require this data be captured and stored by communication providers for over a year. The Home Secretary could order a provider to give the government unrestricted access to datamine all the data that is retained [3].

The audacity of the Snoopers’ Charter is impressive and if it sounds too far-fetched to be real, the defense of this bill is equally surreal. In response to criticism, the current Home Secretary, Theresa May, penned a dismissive editorial where she wrote that “conspiracy theorists will come up with ridiculous claims about how these measures infringe freedom.” She warns that “paedophiles are avoiding capture because the police cannot get access to all the data they need”, and that “without changing the law the only freedom we would protect is that of criminals, terrorists and paedophiles”, [4].

In Canada, a similar bill is being advanced by the ruling Conservatives called the “Protecting Children From Internet Predators Act.” If passed, it would grant the Canadian police an automated backdoor into ISP’s to monitor the historical and real-time digital communications of any Canadian–all without a warrant [5]. The only mention of predators or children is in the title, which used to be called the “Lawful Access Act” [6]. The new name appears to be nothing more than a “rhetorical ploy of appealing to the sake of children to garner support”, as the opposition Green Party has suggested [7].

In all these cases, lawmakers are attempting to use “child pornography” as a Trojan horse to enact sweeping new surveillance powers once thought unimaginable in a free society. None of these proposed bills do anything to increase funding for investigation or prosecution of child abuse. Even worse, these measures create the illusion of action while ignoring the evidence-based public health approaches that have been shown to be effective at reducing child abuse [8 & 9]. In place of actually protecting children, we get a greatly expanded police state.

Unless encryption is completely outlawed, expanded surveillance powers will do little to catch child pornographers. Sadly, pedophiles are among the few people who practice good communication security. These proposed bills will catch the general population in a giant dragnet of surveillance but will let the child abusers slip through.

Social movements rely on more than the ability to speak, they also require the ability to whisper. Around the world, there has been an all out assault on the right to whisper in the form of attempts to “civilize” the internet. Now we see this assault wrapping itself in the banner of child protection. It is a cynical approach that should be called out for what it is: a distraction from real measures that can help children, and a threat to the possibility of dissent.”

You might like to read riseup’s primer on internet security

Direct action – on a positive note….

I saw a tweet from Holly at Plan To Win (@HollyPTW) about taking nonviolent direct action (NVDA) for something positive. Is the implication that our actions are usually negative ( “No!”… ” Down with….!” … “Stop….!”). Plenty of folk would say so. It may not be exactly what Holly was pondering, but it made me think of one of the classic NVDA arguments, and an important one.

The argument often runs that NVDA is all about stopping bad stuff happening. That makes it an essentially negative force (however necessary). I think it’s an argument we need to challenge because it leads to a number of problems that weaken us as a movement.

Disconnection – if we get into a mindset of NVDA as only about stopping stuff, of it as a negative, we risk losing our connection with the aspects of our psyche that help keep us balanced, sane and happy – the positive forces in our lives – the natural world, the sun on our faces, friends, family. And that way burnout lies

Burnout – if we internalise the argument that NVDA is negative it becomes hard to maintain our activism. In short it contributes to burnout. Even the most ‘hardcore’ of us requires some positivity, something life-affirming in our lives. Running round trying to ‘stop’ stuff, especially when you can’t succeed every time, isn’t sustainable. No wonder people move on from NVDA to spend more time with family, children, growing veg, getting more involved in community arts and so on.

Splitting the movement – once internalised the argument also opens a rift within the movement. I saw this very clearly a recent Transition Town debate over transition and activism in which several contributors dissociated Transition from activism. Their choice of Transition over activism was about exactly this, it seems – wanting to be making a positive difference which they perceive activism as failing to do.

So it’s not surprising that the forces of darkness like to paint NVDA in this negative light, and prey on our own doubts about it. When a large corporation rolls into town kindly offering to tarmac the latest the last green space to provide us with a wonderful retail experience (cue Joni Mitchell), they accuse activists of saying “no” to jobs, “no” to progress, “no” to choice. Doesn’t really matter what the argument is, as long as they can portray us as the ones saying “no”.

But can we really counter that argument? Am I being disingenuous when I say that I see NVDA as a positive force for social change, one that says “yes” to life, to real choices, to our basic humanity, to liberation? You decide.


The core argument to me is all about intention. What is our motivation when we find ourselves sat on the bulldozer with our “Down with all this sort of thing!” placard? To me it’ firmly about preservation –

  • preserving the integrity of the natural world (and recognising our small part in that web),
  • preserving meaningful human interaction – local jobs, meaningful jobs, not factory farm jobs
  • preserving the possibility of a better future – putting a foot in the door to ensure some light still gets in

The Man may argue a good case, put a wind turbine on the roof of the new shopping centre, and call it something meaningful like ‘Oaklands’ (in honour of the acres of Oaks they felled to build it) but his intention is clear: profit before people, profit before planet.

Method in our madness

Good NVDA walks its talk – it doesn’t wait for some utopian future, it tries to work in utopian ways here and now. For me that’s the main rationale for affinity groups – building small utopian communities now, so that when we take action we’re doing so in a way that speaks to our values, that models the possibilities of future human relationships.

Scale that up and you have mobilisations such as Climate Camp. Now, I’m not an uncritical fan of Climate Camp, but it did try, did intend, to create a temporary, autonomous utopian space. Run by consensus (however flawed), powered by the sun and the wind, grey water systems, organic vegan food, creativity, art, music and of course action (again, however flawed).

The joy of resistance

Personally I’ve found NVDA is the only thing to sustain me in moments when the world really does seem to be going to hell in a handcart. It’s not the winning, nor coming close to winning. It’s the vision of something better, of standing up for that in the face of destructive power. Resistance in that light isn’t wearing or negative, but as vital as the air we breathe.

Action taken from this base is not negative, but an expression of a wildly optimistic view that humans can build a better future, at least for ourselves, and possibly for the non-human species we share the planet with. It’s an affirmation of life and liberty, and frankly there needs to be more of it

It’s no surprise that many direct activists also regard many overtly ‘positive’ activities as NVDA – community gardens, community co-ops, housing co-ops, social centres and much, much more – these are all part of the holistic view of NVDA. All part of the same positive picture. So, can we do positive NVDA ? I think many out there would say they already do.

Where’s the tipping point? Where’s the breaking point?

Here’s a taste of the latest NCIA newsletter:

“A friend once said to me that my problem was that my ‘circle of concern’ was wider than my ‘circle of influence’. Maybe this explains why I spend so much time being cross? But consider the following. Over the last week I have heard that:

  • Bob Diamond of Barclay’s Bank resigns in disgrace but is given £1.5M and a nice pension to make him feel better;
  • A spokesperson for an official report on school examination boards says on the radio that “competition is driving down quality”;
  • The director of Lambeth’s Children’s Services declares that paying lots of money (£200k per child per year) to private and charitable care homes does not buy quality services;
  • Homelessness is up by 20% in one year;
  • The charity Kids Company has started feeding centres for children and families – up to 70 at one centre alone – to stick a finger in the dyke for the 2.2 million children living in poverty.

All this stuff concerns our world of voluntary action and history will ask – in looking back – what we all did about it. We’re currently doing a tiny bit of research to try and sort out who, in the VCS, can be called an ‘activist’ in these terrible times. What’s coming up, again and again, are groups that we are calling ‘(maybe) getting ready for activism’. These are mostly professionally oriented, obsessed with funding, overtly complaining about what is happening but still playing the game, trying to keep their seat at the table but feeling deeply uneasy about the cuts and compromises that are being demanded. These groups are the backbone of the historic voluntary sector. In truth they are being decimated by the commissioners, the SERCO’s, the NACRO’s and the rest of the corporate charity raiders. Whether they decide to bite back or give in will be an important sign of just how lost we are in the fight for social justice and a radical alternative.”

They also report on a recent event in the north-east:

“Volunteering as dissidence gets an airing
Another sign that dissidence is starting to appear on the radar is indicated by an event that took place in Newcastle on 3rd July. ‘Hearing Uncomfortable Messages: Volunteering as Activism/Dissidence’ was even mounted by the ESRC, not known for its radical agenda. NCIA’s Sue Robson did a storming presentation on the role of community development as radical activism. Her powerpoint presentation is available if you want to get the flavour of this – we can email you a copy if you ask – “

Sustaining Resistance, Empowering Renewal

Tools for Effective Sustainable Activism
9 day workshop in the Catalan Pyrenees

10th to 18th November 2012

This workshop, hosted in a wild part of the Catalan Pyrenees, offers personal and collective tools to make our activism more effective. They can help us stay in it for the long haul, creating personal sustainability and adding continuity to our movement building. They can also ensure the collective dimensions of our activism exemplify the values we struggle for. They can help us stay inspired, nourished, empowered and strategically creative.

The workshop applies ecological/systems thinking, radical analysis and holistic-participatory learning to the practice of activism and the building of social movements. It offers practical methods for engaging in the inner work that underpins effective social engagement. It will also bring together activists from across Europe to share practice and strengthen networks. Funding is available for some participants, but places are limited.

More information and application form

Creativity in Action

Just in from some friends:

Creativity in Action is an experimental workshop hosted by the D.I.Y. Collective, Wednesday 11th July – Friday 13th July.

This is a two-and-half-day experimental workshop based out of a London location. From 6pm Wednesday 11th July till 8pm Friday 13th July a group of curious and adventurous beings will:

  • Experiment with London – We’ll invent our own games and play with new forms. We will re-envision and transform London.
  • Explore what ‘DIY’ means – investigate through play and practical action what DIY can mean, looking at ideas of autonomy and agency
  • Build affinity with each other – meet new and old friends, learn to work creatively together, and have fun in the process.

What will happen?
Half workshop, half experiment, we will first get to know each other and learn about key elements of reclaiming space, taking action together and collaborative group work. The second part will be entirely group-led – we will work together to decide how and where we’d like to make a space (or spaces) in London autonomous. We’ll plan how to do it, gather resources, then do it together. We’ve no idea what we’ll come up with – only together can we imagine where we’ll end up and how we’ll  end up there.

Who’s it for?
Have you ever had that feeling at a demo, a protest or a direct action that the space around you, maybe a field, a road, a shop or a churchyard, has transformed into a truly public space, that it’s now your land, that it’s everyone’s land, that usually unseen societal pressures have been lifted – just for a moment? This workshop is for anyone who has felt that kind of beautiful connection before or wants to feel it for the first time. Maybe you spent time at one of the Occupy camps, maybe you were part of Climate Camp, UKUncut, or any one of the groups that form part of our history of reclaiming ourselves and the world we live in. Or maybe you see new potentials in existing spaces everywhere you look but don’t know how to get started. No previous experience is required, only a body, an imagination, and a willingness to share.

Who are we?
The DIY collective have a background in reclaiming autonomous space and collaborative group work. We are artists and activists, wanderers and dreamers.

Where do I sign up?
Places are limited, so please book a place by emailing and tell us why you want to come. The event itself is free. Food will cost £10 or £15.

A note on legality
While the organisers of this event have no control over the legality of what the group will create, we will encourage the group to strongly consider the accessibility and consequences of taking illegal action. Each individual there will be encouraged to stay responsible for their own relationship with the law. There will be a thorough legal briefing.


  • email –
  • twitter: @diycollective
  • facebook: DIY Collective London


Linking arms. Stopping arms

Lat month Adam and I co-facilitated an nonviolent direct action training for activists from the Stop The Arms Fair coalition. These dedicated folk work hard to pop the bubble that surrounds the arms trade. You know the one – it allows those that work for the trade to pretend that it’s all about our defence, that they’re keeping the world safe, and that airshows such as those at Farnborough and Fairfield are harmless entertainment for all the family, rather than arms trade fairs.

It’s been a few years since Adam and I worked together on NVDA training. In the intervening time, we’ve both developed activities and exercises. This was a great opportunity to share some of those ideas and see them in practice.

Within a week of the training: An arms dealer steps over a protester in the doorway of the Imperial War Museum

We took the group through a range of activities to explore the ideas behind NVDA, but also the practical skills of holding a space, actively (but nonviolently) disrupting the events of the Arms industry, passively resisting removal and arrest, dealing with confrontation, and more. We ended with time to prioritise and plan their next steps – at least one of which came very soon after the session.

We threw them into some very dynamic roleplays early in the session. I have to admit watching with some anxiety as our role played police got well and truly stuck in to the activists holding some space. Too much, too soon? If you’d asked me in that moment, I’d have said an unequivocal “yes”, and was itching to tone it down a little. Adam was leading on the activity. He’s firmly grounded in best practice (I’ve learnt loads from him over the years), and he’s done this before this way. In hindsight, whilst it clearly challenged the group in many ways, it also seemed to accelerate their formation as a group and deepened the learning from the day. One of those examples of the best learning coming when people are uncomfortable, and that sometimes we facilitators need to get uncomfortable too.

We evaluated using weather metaphors. “Stormy” came up quite often, so we inquired into how people were using the word. I think it’s fair to say that the interpretation was “challenging, energetic, dynamic, even difficult, but in a good way”. Feedback after the event was as you might expect, mixed.  A friendly, relaxed session with good energy, but perhaps failing to make use of all the resources in the room – both in terns of having two facilitators on tap, and in terms of drawing enough from the considerable experience present in the participants.

Occupy London – series of community themed assemblies

Occupy London are inviting people to a series of assemblies to discuss ideas, experiences, visions and strategies that will make better social living a practise. Everyone is welcome, especially those working at the grassroots, as activists or within organisations and community groups.

The sessions will take place every Saturday afternoon from 2 – 4pm on the steps of St. Paul’s, starting from the 16 June until August. For more info see

Gaining power: challenges facing activists

National Coalition For Independent Action (NCIA) is joining forces with National Community Activists Network (NatCAN) to bring together activists to look seriously, and not so seriously, at the question of power and how to challenge the status quo.

Where and When

  • Thursday 19th July 2012
  • Resource for London, 356 Holloway Road, London N7 6PA
  • FREE

This is a one-day event to hear about practical work and discuss challenges and ideas, as well as thinking about how to change the world.

Help is needed to shape the programme. Please tell the organisers what topics you want to discuss, or speakers you would like to hear – email or add your comments to the online discussion

If you haven’t already registered with NatCAN, you’ll need to sign up before you can add your comments – it’s easy, just click on ‘Sign up’ on the top right-hand side.

Updated programme, times and details of how to book a free place soon.

If you can’t make it to London on 19th July, you can always sign up to the NCIA group on NatCAN – this space will be used to post the questions that people want to carry on talking about after the event.

Ayanna – workshops to nourish and inspire

Just in from a friend of ours:

The workshops/film nights aim to provide a nourishing and inspiring space, a time to slow The workshops/film nights aim to provide a nourishing and inspiring space, a time to slow down and breathe, to learn something new and have some fun. Most of them are being held at community centres used by local people, who will be involved in organising and promoting the event.

These workshops came about after some community workshop conversations under the name of ‘Ayanna’, an initiative started by a few activists and community workers in London which has brought together people doing local community based work for social and environmental justice.

These conversations started with a dream of doing something a bit different to the organisations many of us had experience working with. We identified organisations in the voluntary/third/campaigning sector as one of the barriers to truly exciting social change based on values of social justice – with models of funding, marketing, management hierarchies and bureaucracy that don’t often do best by the people these organisations claim to represent and advocate for.

Activities which are nourishing and inspiring were identified as really important, especially at a time of funding cuts, overwork and political mayhem.

We hope you can make one or more of the workshops. All are free of charge. All will be fun and you’ll learn something new, we promise! These events are all run by volunteers, though we’ve had a small amount of funding to help with costs.