Organise resistance not compliance. Build mutual support

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

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

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

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Building your cultural capacity for capacity building

A couple of weeks ago we co-facilitated the first of the Co-ops UK ‘Working with Conflict’ workshops in Manchester, part of an innovative and responsive training programme commissioned by Co-ops UK and being provided by experienced training co-ops across the country. Rhizome is leading on the working with conflict workshops and we’d opted to pitch the training at the level of cultural, attitudinal and behavioural change, rather than just skills building. Skills building is important, but to us changing attitudes and behaviour is where the real, solid and effective change happens.

It was heartening to find that many of the coops attending were very aware of the impact of organisational culture on their ability to function effectively. That’s not something you can always assume – historically cooperative development and support was aimed at structural issues such as finance, legal frameworks and marketing. In this training we gave the participants space to share their struggles and their successes in terms of avoiding, controlling or turning round cultures of conflict. And there were lots of examples of coops doing just that. One coop shared that they now prioritised recruiting for the ability and attitudes to co-operate, not for skills to do the tasks of the business.

This awareness and willingness to work on changing organisational culture isn’t always so easy to find. Through other work we’ve done recently we’ve had reason to ponder the nature of capacity building as an act of growing the culture of activism. Our work often focuses specifically on growing and supporting networks of grassroots activists (and not just growing the numbers of activists, levels of skill, amount of activity or any of the other criteria by which capacity building success are often measured).

Discussing one organisation’s plan to build up an activist network was disappointing. What they said they wanted turned out to be very different from what they’ve ended up going with. In Rhizome we’ve seen this same, flawed, approach so many times – so many assumptions that demonstrate an underlying culture of the organisation which conflicts with their stated aims and plans.

Of course many of us don’t always live up to our aims – none of us are perfect. But to thrive we need to recognise that an organisation’s values and impact are not defined just by their mission statements, their stated aims, but by the attitudes and behaviours of the organisation as a whole, as well as those of the individuals in it. And where there is a substantial difference between what we say and what we do, it fundamentally dilutes our message, compromises our abilities, weakens our capacity. Ultimately it hobbles the organisation and risks its future.

If you want to see the gap between your rhetoric and your reality – check out your work against the Ladder of Citizen’s Participation. Sherry Arnstein wrote:

“There is a critical difference between going through the empty ritual of participation and having the real power needed to affect the outcome of the process… participation without redistribution of power is an empty and frustrating process for the powerless. It allows the powerholders to claim that all sides were considered, but makes it possible for only some of those sides to benefit. It maintains the status quo.”

Many of us working for social change might read that and heartily agree that that’s exactly what corporations, politicians and states do. We may be less inclined to notice when NGOs do the same through their own ‘democratic’ processes, or when ‘grassroots’ networks do the same through informal hierarchies and unacknowledged oppressive behaviour.

If you want to have a lasting effect then social change organisations need to be honest about which rung of the ladder they aspire to, and which they currently occupy. Our experience is that unless this is firmly out in the open, and groups are actively working towards integrating the rhetoric and the reality, the level of participation will almost always slip downward as other factors assert themselves at the cost of empowerment.

At Rhizome we feel that relating to or working in an organisation or network is all in the attitude. And that attitude needs to be nurtured and held throughout the organisation – in other words be part of the organisation’s culture. It’s not sufficient for a team of paid or voluntary capacity builders to have the right attitudes, if they don’t have the support of the wider organisation, or the power to make organisation-wide change. The right attitude to engagement needs to be part of your organisational culture from top to bottom. Otherwise you risk being seen as milking the networks for more action, more funds, more weight to your campaign, and ultimately your capacity and support will wither.

So if you’re building or supporting an activist network, some of the ways in which a culture of participation and empowerment might demonstrate themselves in your capacity building programme include:

  • Make involving staff realistic and genuine. There’s often an ideal of all staff taking a part in the life of the network through some kind of support or mentoring role, and that’s a laudable way to ensure that the network becomes central to the whole organisation. However, it’s rarely in every staff member’s job description, it’s unlikely to have been a consideration in their recruitment and in reality, they may not have the interest or relevant skills. If you’re going to do this you need to do it properly – check, assess and train them and integrate it properly into the roles.

  • Whatever you’re planning needs enough lead in time. It doesn’t matter how urgent the campaign, the emphasis is on you to get your act together – strategise and plan appropriately, don’t dump unworkably short project plans on your volunteer networks. There’s your own internal bureaucracy, plus giving your activists a genuine chance to contribute, co design and participate at a pace that works for them – which, if they’re volunteers, may be a lot slower than you’d like. Working with the conflicts will take time. Whatever lead in time you were thinking of, double it, and then double it again.

  • Involve activists and potential activists from the start. Check out even your most basic assumptions (that they want a network / that a network will work for this organisation etc) and keep them involved. And by ‘them’, I don’ t mean just the easy to relate to/ ‘onside’ activists. You need to talk to the ‘hard to reach’ and the ‘awkward squad’ as well as the potential & as yet unreached activists. And whilst you’re talking to them, try to understand them better. You might find that they’re not so hard to reach, or so awkward after all.

  • Consider that the networks might be able to be more self-supporting than you first think. Whilst setting up and running networks can be time-consuming and difficult from a distance, if you’re willing to trust people and cede some/all control, supporting people to do it themselves allows you to focus your resources and empowers the networks.

  • Commit to a proper programme of mentoring and training. Give it time, proper resources, and look for depth as well as breadth. Plan to see how it can be made self-supporting; a mentoring programme that turns out new mentors, a training programme that builds the skills and attitudes needed to train others.

  • Don’t just assume it’s just the network folk that need training. Your staff and organisational culture needs to be supported and developed. Training them is a fast and effective way of doing this.

The bottom line is that there’s a need to build the cultural capacity of your organisation for change, which allows you to accept and celebrate diversity, feel safe devolving some or all power to your activists, and co-produce and co-design projects, materials, strategies, campaigns. That needs to be replicated in (and learnt from) the network itself. Without building this cultural capacity no amount of people, funds, webspace, petitions, hashtags or events will build you a genuinely resilient and effective network.

How to – get on a training about working with conflict

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

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

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

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

Carl and others

Training activists with Labour Behind the Label

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

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

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

Hannah

Exploring Shared Values

Craig Freshley’s latest Good Group Tip popped into my inbox this morning. As ever, a useful reminder of what makes a good group. This time Craig talks about shared values – something we also talk about from time to time. He says:

In principle, values are those things most important to us, the things we value. For most people, they are ideals, beliefs, rules to live by. We are generally drawn to people who share our values. At the core of every defined group of people are shared values.

Practical Tip: Discuss values as a group and make a written, short, agreed-to list of the values you have in common. Simply having a discussion about values helps us understand each other. Deciding which values we share defines our group and helps people decide if they want to join the group and it also helps people decide to leave. A written list of shared values also serves as a code of ethics, a place to turn for guidance when the decision making gets tough.

Shared values are the steadfast ground on which we stand when things are in turmoil.

I agree wholeheartedly, and recent Rhizome work with a number of groups has led them to understand that they need to visit or revisit their vision and values precisely because it’s become apparent that they aren’t necessarily shared. I’d also like to take the tip one step further and suggest that groups don’t just agree values, but take the time to understand the many different interpretations of the words we use to describe values to ensure that they are deeply shared. Values more than some other ideas are hard to pin down in language and the room for miscommunication is significant. I’m sure that’s implicit in Craig’s thinking, but let’s make it explicit.

I might say that a core value of the group is ‘open communication’. You might agree. So far so good. But what if we have different ideas on what that means, and what behaviours demonstrate open communication? If so there’s still plenty of room for conflict. So check out your assumptions and interpretations for a really deep foundation to your group.

Matthew

Presenting issue versus real issue

What I found really interesting is that, for some time now, various conversations between co-workers and with clients have brought one clear issue to the fore. The Co-ops Practitioner networking session on ‘Governance and Participation’ that  I facilitated on Tuesday 22nd January raised it yet again. Having worked through a process to define, develop and discuss issues affecting them in relation to governance, the issues brought up initially were totally different from those which were unearthed after further discussion. More than that – the real issue was in fact the underlying one, everyone knew it was there but the courage that needed to be used to raise it had to be gathered through a longer conversation.

This happens so often to us as consultants, as advisers, as outsiders brought in to help with an organisation or group. So often it gradually becomes obvious that the support required is not the support asked for. It has really caused some discussion amongst Rhizome workers as there is a real power issue to be borne in mind – we cannot force the issue even if we can ‘see’ it – we need to enable the client to identify it – on the other hand we are wasting our clients and our own time and money by not cutting to the chase.

Is it just our cultural norm to ignore, or just not draw attention to, the awkward or potentially conflictual? What is missing from our ‘safe spaces’ that preclude this direct approach? Aren’t we actually grown-ups able to deal with the truth and to be honest and authentic, committed to collaboration and communication? Do we really deeply understand the positive impact on the group when we act courageously and face the issues in order to resolve them constructively?

At the networking event we did manage to get to the hub of the issue – that whilst working very effectively advising others, the practitioners themselves are facing some difficult times, opaque and confusing structures and expectations from a range of stakeholders and that this is in danger of encouraging them to default to competing rather than collaborating. A real Tyranny of Structurelessness. This theme was also raised at the event by Bob Cannell’s presentation when he described hierarchy and competition as our default positions – it takes effort and commitment to challenge the norm and to work in a highly collaborative and co-operative way. Every successful co-op knows that it is attention paid to the process that enables the success of the product.

When working in a consultant role, we are often expected to provide our clients with a quick fix – a better governance structure or support to develop a strategic plan – but the support for using and adopting them, for the relationship management and sheer effort of building the skills and confidence for collaboration and co-operation – are rarely catered for. As a result, the opportunity to change and develop is lost. Can we say that we have done the best job possible in those circumstances?

Real learning and self-reflection

The great thing about the networking session was the openness to change and learning that the group met the challenge of the experiment with. There was no role play to obscure emotional investment and there was a direct correlation between the way that the group behaved and that feelings and reactions of our clients, the Co-operative Hub, and Co-operatives UK when faced with having to reflect on a real situation. Many members of the group noticed that if it difficult for us to do this, how much more difficult must it be for our clients? If we don’t organise ourselves in non-hierarchical, transparent and accountable ways then how can we provide support for those who are struggling with exactly the same issues?

We didn’t end up with a toolkit for advising our clients around governance and participation, nor did we expect to. But we did experience some real learning about our own struggles and effort to understand and practice the principles and values of co-operation ourselves and real understanding and empathy for others in the movement. This is crucial to our ability to authentically support others – none of us is on this journey alone.

Maria

Group as nation state: newcomer as immigrant

Ever travelled to another country or culture? For some it’s exhilarating, exciting, full of interest and new experience. For others it stressful, full of uncertainty and the potential to offend. Visiting a partners family for the first time can provide a similar experience – especially if it’s for a significant event or festival. You thought you knew how Christmas, for example, was celebrated and then you discover a whole new way of going about it.

And what’s this got to do with groups and newcomers? Simply that every group has a culture of its own. It has a blend of certain personalities, in-jokes, power dynamics, sexual tensions, jargon, assumed aims and priorities and much more. In many ways a group is like a nation-state – it has a definite character and sometimes its culture, like a border, can prevent a real barrier to the incomer, the immigrant would-be group member.

So how do groups integrate newcomers? There’s a real danger that like many immigration debates the default option is intolerance and xenophobia – at best “they can come in as long as they conform to our way of doing things”. I’m not suggesting that’s an official group position, but it can be the message the group’s culture puts out if there’s no attempt at cross-cultural communication.

Some newcomers may be willing to get involved on those terms. Others, like many immigrant communities, will want to retain links with their heritage. In this case it may be the way they’ve done things or witnessed them done in other groups.

Successful integration is going to involve a bit of give and take, a healthy dose of curiosity, time and effort given to communicating, and flexibility. The result? A group that is strengthened by its diversity, not weakened by it. A group whose culture is open and inviting. A group that grows and flourishes.

What does that boil down to in real terms? Here’s a few things to add to the to do list:

  • Realise that strong groups pay attention to their culture, so if you’re not aware of what yours is, pause and try to see your group from the outside. Better still ask recent recruits what they thought of the group at first. Even better still, ask those who came along but fell by the wayside what it was about the group culture (if anything) that stopped them crossing the border.
  • Think back to your ‘first meeting’ experiences – how did you feel? What were the obstacles? What would have helped you integrate into the group more easily? Having said that, remember not everyone is the same – your experience is useful but not universal. If you’re the kind of traveller that finds new cultures exciting, don’t forget those for whom they are daunting.
  • Take the time to talk to new folk, to ask questions and take an interest in the answers – show a willingness to learn from their previous experience and try new approaches. Cultures can grow and develop and each new member has a contribution to make.
  • Many groups offer few opportunities for newcomers to get involved in roles that offer real responsibility and real opportunity for interest and development. Be careful not to create hierarchies based on ‘time served’ with the group. You don’t want to equivalent of qualified, but immigrant, teacher and doctors working as cleaners because your nation-state doesn’t recognise their experience and qualifications. Find out what folk want to offer (and want to learn!) and make use of their energy, ideas, skills and talents. How do you find out – ask!
  • Evaluate! Each meeting and event should have at least a few minutes dedicated to finding out how it worked for those involved, including (especially?) newcomers. However don’t offer this opportunity unless you genuinely intend to listen to the feedback, and if need be, make some changes. Anonymous written evaluations are a safe bet. If you can create a culture where folk can speak their evaluations (so you can ask follow up questions), great. Whatever works for the group members.

How many trainers does it take to change a lightbulb?

Actually the question I’m pondering should be “how many minutes do we need to switch on the lightbulb in the minds of those we train?”. Jo wrestled with this question recently as she wrestled with delivering a short workshop. I spent Saturday afternoon delivering another very short workshop for Greenpeace Network Co-ordinators. The topic was dealing with “difficult behaviour” and increasing engagement in meetings though Jo’s 60 minutes makes my 75 minutes seem positively luxurious.

Some (wiser?) facilitators might have politely declined the request. Others might have taken the time to explain the folly of such time limits. A younger me would have set off at breakneck speed to cover as much ground as possible. Nowadays, for me and my Rhizome colleagues, it’s about catalytic interventions. Cumbersome phrase, but one that came up at our first meeting of the expanded Rhizome coop and has reasserted itself many times since. Can we catalyse meaningful change through our work? Big ask in 75 minutes. I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that Saturday’s workshop will lead to sustained change in knowledge, skills and, of course, the attitude of those attending. But it was possible to get the lightbulbs at least flickering if not shining by keeping it simple and going for a little depth over covering breadth. And of course by keeping it as experiential as possible. You can learn a lot from a little doing.

At Greenpeace’s request we spent the last few minutes gleaning top tips from the group to give their peers who were attending other workshops something to work with. The tips also help give me a useful insight into what had been learnt. They reassure me that it was a useful 75 minutes. Of course there’s more to be done, including dialoguing with the client on how to reinforce this work, but its a start:

difficultbehaviour

click on the image for a clearer view

engagingpeople

click on the image for a clearer view

I was also roped in as a scribe for a workshop on “catching and keeping” people in local action groups. One thing that came across strongly in both sessions was that people don’t evaluate their meetings. Newcomers have no opportunity to say how the meeting worked (or didn’t!) for them. Neither do others who struggled with the meeting for whatever reason and may well have been labelled as a “difficult” person because of their struggle.

Ironically the 75 minute time restraint meant I opted not to formally evaluate my session. Perhaps a bad call (and bad example?). I’m relying on the evaluation of the day as a whole, plus my intuition and observation, and these top tips to guide me in future sessions. Is that enough?

Matthew

Rhizome, Oxfam, and the power of facilitation

Here’s a guest post from Naveed Chaudhri, Activism Team Leader, Oxfam Campaigns:

Oxfam is planning to pilot a new annual campaigning event, and we recently decided to ask our activist network for help in working out what it could look like. Staff had already been through a rigorous innovation process, and we wanted to consult on the initial outcomes. But we didn’t think our ideas were strong enough, and were looking to their grassroots campaigning expertise forto add a bit of inspiration.

We provided a really challenging brief for Emily and Maria, our Rhizome facilitators, for a one-day creative workshop, held in October. Inevitably, our internal priorities and plans stopped us from being objective; working with Emily and Maria freed the process from the straitjacket of our organisational thinking. Understanding that our very specific needs from the day could easily hamper people’s creativity, we basically briefed them to manage us! Ceding control allowed the three Oxfam staff members present to observe ideas as they emerged, and participate in discussions, without limiting the productivity of thoughts and conversations (this definitely wasn’t a focus group!).

What resulted was a very sophisticated piece of facilitation, controlling (not a comfortable word!) the space and the energy in it to generate the kinds of outcomes we had hoped for, opening up possibilities by stimulating “left brain” thinking, before helping the group sort, evaluate, and then develop its ideas.

This word “control”. Anyone who regularly facilitates groups has at hand a range of more or less powerful techniques to guide processes, manage interactions, and help groups achieve tasks, whether operating in fairly open spaces, or to more predetermined briefs, as here. In my own facilitation life, I’m interested in the power of relinquishing control to others, collaboratively exploring things like notions of identity, and releasing motivation through story telling (this learning document, co-written with Richard Watts from the everyone foundation, sets out a few of my preoccupations!). But a power relationship inevitably exists between the members of a group and its facilitators and organisers. This can sometimes be based in part on relative levels of skill and self-awareness, but more often, is just a function of the leadership that is tacitly assumed by people with roles assigned to them by organisations such as Oxfam. Of course these roles come with a certain set of skills and access to knowledge. But fundamentally, it is the participants in a session who decide, consciously or not, to give power to the people running the session, and/or to their fellow participants.

It was a real pleasure to watch two very skilled people negotiate these sensitivities, helping a big and well-resourced organisation with a very clear sense of what it wanted, do something which, by its nature, it couldn’t do by itself. Our exercise of control was to recognise our own weakness.

Note: these are my personal thoughts and not those of Oxfam GB.

Oh, time it is a precious thing…

Having limited time to deliver a workshop focuses the mind wonderfully. What can actually be achieved, in terms of getting people thinking differently and then doing differently, if you only have 60 minutes? This was the situation for a short capacity building workshop for LeedsTidal at their Crisis Opportunity event in late October.

If it is a group who don’t know each other well, if at all, how do the vital things, like making sure everyone knows everyone’s names and where they are coming from (in many senses) and feels safe and comfortable, come about? If a facilitator concentrates on that important process, only 40 minutes will be left at most, and probably only 35 if we start late due to toilet or smoking needs, people getting lost and so on.  So the choice is whether to sacrifice a high quality start to a workshop, getting people feeling welcomed and included, or trust that in the ensuing activities relationships will form and the group feel empowered and safe.

Another choice is the type of activities. Do you play safe, knowing that if the temperature in the room isn’t right, certain things may not work, especially something that is a bit more challenging than an ideas storm? Do you try role plays or even a forum theatre approach when, without the time to get people feeling really comfortable with each other, they might shrink from this? Or do you trust that the urge to learn and experiment will carry people through? Do you negotiate? “We don’t have much time, we could do this or this, what would you like to try?” “How would you feel about over-running by 10 minutes to enable us to reflect on our learning?”

I opted for a fairly traditional kind of facilitated discussion with a focus on thinking about motivation and what people want out of groups. We explored though private pair discussion and the use of post-its what made everyone in the room get involved in a group, what they actually wanted out of joining something. We looked at a couple of classic motivational theories –  Maslow and McClelland – then broke into small groups to think about an imaginary group member and how the group might meet this person’s needs – I handed out “character cards” for this – and ended with an ideas storm about what a group can do to make a new person feel welcome and involved, what roles or tasks they could be offered. On the wall, a flip sheet diagram to show the tension between task focus and people focus worked very well to help people see what needs doing to keep a group healthy.

I admit I was exceedingly anxious and spent far too long working on the design of the workshop, all the time worrying about the lack of time. I apologised frequently about having to be directive and pushing discussions along too fast, but at the same time noticed there were very thoughtful comments and exchanges in the discussions about how to meet the needs of various imaginary characters, and the suggestions for ways of including new people were sensitive and creative. Maybe I was focussed too much on the lack of time, and had not been trusting the creative cooperative spirit of the participants!

Jo

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.

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,

Matthew

‘Peeragogy’ and the Spanish Inquisition

Peer-to-peer learning and elicitive models of education have been on my mind of late. As often happens a couple of highly relevant links popped into my inbox (hat tip to Dwight Towers).

The first is yet another excellent post from FacilitatorU titles “It’s not the Spanish Inquisition” on curiosity and questions. It invites us to be naive and curious in our questions like TV detective Columbo:

“Columbo was an unassuming and seemingly absent-minded character. He dressed in sloppy clothing, drove a dumpy car, smoked a fat cigar, and seemed to ask the most innocent and naive questions, usually in passing. His trademark move was to spin around on his way out the door at the close of an interview, rubbing his brow, saying, “Oh I’m sorry. If you don’t mind, there’s just one more thing that I just don’t understand….” Columbo’s disarming, humble, and innocent attitude, always got him the answers he needed to solve the most difficult cases.

What if you were to navigate via curiosity to help your groups solve their most difficult cases? What, if anything would you have to change in your attitude or approach? Oh, and there’s just one more thing that I’d like to ask. What, if anything would you have to change about the way you see yourself as a group leader?”

 

The second is Howard Rheingold’s post on the DMLCentral blog “Towards Peeragogy”. Rheingold’s post is set in the world of digital media learning, but translates to other settings. From the outset it grabbed my attention:

“The more I give my teacher-power to students and encourage them to take more responsibility for their own learning, the more they show me how to redesign my ways of teaching.”

Later he continues:

“In retrospect, I can see the coevolution of my learning journey: my first step was to shift from conventional lecture-discussion-test classroom techniques to lessons that incorporated social media, my second step gave students co-teaching power and responsibility, my third step was to elevate students to the status of co-learner. It began to dawn on me that the next step was to explore ways of instigating completely self-organized, peer-to-peer online learning.

The ultimate test of peer learning is to organize a course without the direction of an instructor. Although subject-matter experts and skilled learning facilitators are always a bonus, it is becoming clear that with today’s tools and some understanding of how to go about it, groups of self-directed learners can organize their own courses online”

 

That’s a big gauntlet to throw down to participatory educators everywhere. As always, feel free to share your successes and struggles here.

Matthew

Hearing voices: activists engaging communities

Yesterday I was facilitating at the regular meeting of the Building Activist Networks Forum. The theme of the session was supporting activists in engaging with their communities. To be precise, I was co-facilitating – with Naveed from Oxfam UK.

Right from the start we identified that all we could do in the time that we had was to open up the conversation. And we suspected it was a conversation that few activists, and few organisations that support activists find the time to have. We felt the conversation usually started with “what do we do to support our activists in engaging their communities?”, and didn’t often cover “why do we want to engage the community?” or “who are the community anyway?”. It was this latter question we focused on.

We asked the participants to step into the shoes of the community that their activists were trying to reach and identify some of the types of people they wanted to engage but struggled to so so? Why isn’t it working? What are the needs and aspirations of these members of the community, and what are the obstacles to successful engagement from their perspective. Through some thinking, some drawing, and some fantastic roleplaying (hats off to our volunteers) we brought some of these characters into the room and got to talk to them about these issues. I think it worked – I took it as a good sign when, during a break, a participant accused us of having “provoked an existential crisis”.

We had been asked to enable these capacity builders to identify the skills their activists needed for successful engagement, and the skills they needed, in turn, to support the activists. In reality we took a step back and identified the states of mind, a necessary foundation to the skills, and one that was well-received.

The activity itself was one that’s easy enough to replicate more or less wholesale with activists to help them have the same conversations and reflections and begin to develop the states of mind we were working with.

Naveed then facilitated a lovely capacity builder ‘lonely hearts’ in which participants got to ask for support and find who in the room could help them… “capacity builder WLTM experienced public speaker to inspire network of activists….” and so on. I’m not sure love blossomed across the crowded room, but some serious and passionate networking was done.

The Forum is open to anyone who works to support networks of activists regardless of the issue, size of network, paid staff or volunteer. Get in touch if you want to be kept in touch.

The perfect group? A dangerous fantasy?

The MindTools website is a useful source of all kinds of resources, articles and ideas. I’ve just read the latest e-newsletter on beating self-sabotage which has a great article on perfectionism in it. Read the article and then translate it from the business world to grassroots groups. Recognise any situations? Here’s a few of the characteristics of perfectionism the article lists which I see groups struggling with day-in and day-out:

  • You don’t like taking risks, because there is then no guarantee that you can do the task perfectly. You stick with safer tasks, because you know that you can achieve them.
  • You don’t enjoy the process of learning and working; you only care about the result…
  • You often exhibit all-or-nothing thinking: either something is perfect, or it’s a failure…
  • You don’t handle criticism and feedback well…
  • You may apply your own unrealistic standards to those around you, becoming critical when colleagues don’t meet those expectations. As a result, you may not have many close relationships at work.
  • You have a difficult time delegating tasks to others.

All of these are a recipe for dysfunction in a group, for alienating and driving away new members, for preventing groups achieving sustainability and resilience. Here’s an example:

For instance, imagine that you never delegate tasks to your assistant, even though this is why you hired him. You often stay late at work to finish tasks that he could have done. You don’t delegate tasks, because you believe he’ll do them incorrectly, and you’ll look bad.

Forget assistants and think instead of “the rest of the group” or “newcomers”… a very familiar problem in groups as this manifests itself in terms of control, unwelcome micromanagement, lack of genuine access to skills and responsibility, lack of support, and informal hierarchy.

The article goes on to talk about strategies for dealing with your own perfectionism and has more wise words many social action groups could learn from, such as:

Don’t Fear Mistakes

Mistakes are part of life. They can even provide rich learning experiences, if you have the courage to examine them. Your mistakes can teach you far more about life and your abilities than your successes will.

Make a real effort to learn from each mistake that you make. You’ll grow as a result.

So maybe the perfect social action group is not desirable after all? What we’re looking for is the group that’s imperfect, comfortable with its imperfection, and with good processes to grow, learn and share.

Quotes from the article with permission: © Mind Tools Ltd, 1996-2012. All rights reserved.

An appreciative audience for Crowd Wise

I spent the afternoon in London on Wednesday at a meeting of the Capacity Building Forum. You may be glad to know that there was, finally, talk of agreeing a new name (the current one hardly trips off the tongue) and creating a website so that the outside world can locate and get involved with the Forum. Essentially it’s an informal gathering of staff from various network based campaigning organisations, with a few odds and ends like Rhizome thrown in for good measure.

An hour of the agenda was given over to a skillshare on Crowd Wise, which Perry came along to offer, with Adam from the Fairtrade Foundation and myself as backing vocalists. When we’d suggested Crowd Wise as a topic for the day, I knew there would be interest, but it was actually met with very palpable excitement.

We tried out the method, and whilst Perry added up the votes from our practice session, Adam and I took questions on our recent experiment with Crowd Wise as part of a consultation with Fairtrade Foundation campaigners. The questions we were asked give a glimpse of why people are finding Crowd Wise exciting. There were several questions just to clarify the possibilities –  for example how were people kept in touch with the process when, like with the Fairtrade Foundation, Crowd Wise was used over a series of events.

We also talked about marginal voices – were they really heard in the process? Our experience from recent work is yes. The group builds a collaborative way forward that includes recognisable elements of those voices. Indeed 2 such voices attended a feedback meeting I ran for the Fairtrade Foundation, and seemed in no way resentful that the outcome ignored their views.

We also had a short discussion on whether Crowd Wise brought the possibility of consensus to organisations with hierarchical structures. The answer? Yes. And this is where a lot of the excitement lay. I suspect Perry might be kept busy over coming months and years….

Matthew

Building a strong grassroots foundation…

We’ve not been reporting back on so much work of late. It’s not that were not working, just that we’ve been working more on one project – facilitating a dialogue between the Fairtrade Foundation and their grassroots campaigners.

The Foundation wants to offer campaigners membership – a place in the formal governance structure of the organisation – in recognition of their amazing energy and efforts in building awareness of fair trade here in the UK. Rhizome has spent the last few months gathering campaigner responses, talking to other membership organisations and testing options and facilitating an emerging consensus using the Crowd Wise process.

Although the initial brief was for a fairly traditional consultancy approach, we pitched a few other ideas at the Foundation. These included using a combination of techniques such as Open Space and World Cafe at regional or national level to initiate a conversation, uncover the issues and suggest ways forward. We suggested coupling these with Crowd Wise to test out possibilities and build towards a widely owned outcome. We settled on a fairly traditional opening process using discussion groups, phone interviews, phone conferences and a web survey to elicit concerns, excitement and other responses, followed by a series of 5 regional events at which we’d employ Crowd Wise.

We kept campaigners and other stakeholders informed of every step through a dedicated project blog, which allowed those not able to make an event to follow and interact with the process.

It all culminated in a short report earlier this week, and in a report back workshop at the Foundation’s annual Supporter Conference, today.

For Rhizome the work created an exciting opportunity. Our paths had crossed that of Perry Walker a few times of late. You may have noticed his biography appear on our Who We Are page as we invited him  on board. Perry’s a Fellow of the New Economics Foundation and developed Crowd Wise (amongst other things). And alongside Perry we were able to test Crowd Wise in a new situation – a series of 5 connected meetings. We’ll talk more about what we learnt from that soon.

The Foundation seem happy with the outcomes even though they differ significantly from the initial proposal they had developed. They also found the process valuable and plan to share their reflections with colleagues in other countries.

One interesting reflection that I heard today from a veteran Fairtrade Town campaigner was that he had been surprised at the regional event that he attended that many other campaigners weren’t interested in the offer of a governance role. Then he remembered that when he was less-than-veteran he had also been focused on more immediate and more directly campaign-related concerns.

This was one of the strengths of the process – it brought campaigners of all stripes and experience together in a way that challenged their assumptions and asked them to step into each other’s shoes.

Occupy Wall Street

Some interesting stuff over in New York. Good site to look at – Occupy Wall Street for an ongoing story of the occupation and resistance. Some food for your media thoughts in the week running up to the Rebellious Media Conference. And if you’re just thinking of going we’re afraid it’s sold out.

Riots, revolution, reflection

I opted out of blogging about the recent riots on the streets of Britain. Who needs another mouthy blogger chucking around half-formed and ill-informed opinion about what goes on in the minds of disenfranchised youth? But via the Transition Newsletter I came to Laura Penny’s Penny Red blog and her post Panic on the streets of London which articulates sensible stuff on power:

Months of conjecture will follow these riots. Already, the internet is teeming with racist vitriol and wild speculation. The truth is that very few people know why this is happening. They don’t know, because they were not watching these communities. Nobody has been watching Tottenham since the television cameras drifted away after the Broadwater Farm riots of 1985. Most of the people who will be writing, speaking and pontificating about the disorder this weekend have absolutely no idea what it is like to grow up in a community where there are no jobs, no space to live or move, and the police are on the streets stopping-and-searching you as you come home from school. The people who do will be waking up this week in the sure and certain knowledge that after decades of being ignored and marginalised and harassed by the police, after months of seeing any conceivable hope of a better future confiscated, they are finally on the news. In one NBC report, a young man in Tottenham was asked if rioting really achieved anything:

“Yes,” said the young man. “You wouldn’t be talking to me now if we didn’t riot, would you?”

“Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night a bit of rioting and looting and look around you.”

Eavesdropping from among the onlookers, I looked around. A dozen TV crews and newspaper reporters interviewing the young men everywhere ‘’’

There are communities all over the country that nobody paid attention to unless there had recently been a riot or a murdered child. Well, they’re paying attention now…

…Riots are about power, and they are about catharsis. They are not about poor parenting, or youth services being cut, or any of the other snap explanations that media pundits have been trotting out: structural inequalities, as a friend of mine remarked today, are not solved by a few pool tables. People riot because it makes them feel powerful, even if only for a night. People riot because they have spent their whole lives being told that they are good for nothing, and they realise that together they can do anything – literally, anything at all.

Looking around Penny Red I followed a link to Another Angry Woman‘s post Fuck the lot of them. Not for those of you averse to the odd expletive. She’s talking about the dismantling of the NHS:

And so we feel powerless. Those of us who care feel betrayed by our government, betrayed by those who are supposedly on our side. We did what we could, but it was not enough.

Imagine if we had tried. Imagine if the message had got out and the people had mobilised. Rioting in the streets, and every single person whose life has ever been touched by the NHS standing outside Parliament, daring the fuckers to vote the wrong way. Imagine if the fuckers voted the wrong way, then.

Imagine if we did without the fuckers entirely. Democracy is rule of the people. Democracy is power. Democracy is not trusting some crooked bastard who throws your letters into the shredder to somehow represent your interests. We could have saved the NHS. There’s a remote possibility we still can.

And we’re back to power and riots. Power’s at the heart of activism. Many of us choose to organise by very specific models of power (power with). Fundamentally it’s about trying to ensure power is used for social and ecological justice, whether you lobby someone else to do so, or take it back direct-action style and make the world more just yourselves. But riots? Not our scene, right? But what are we doing that has the equivalent force? What are we doing to ensure we can’t be ignored? Of course there are loads of example of inspiring direct action every day of the week. But what are we doing on a scale that can’t be ignored and can take effect quickly enough to deal with the increasingly urgent need for change?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot since getting back from the Peace News Summer Gathering and having a semi-joking conversation about training 15,000 people here in the UK in nonviolent civil disobedience – our version of the riot. So now, without the joking – fancy giving it a go? Get in touch…..

Plan to win

Welcome on board to Plan to Win, a new organisation supporting social action and learning in Melbourne, Australia. The folk at Plan to Win say:

 

Plan to Win assists individuals, groups and campaigns to develop the skills and clarity required to win change in the world.

The challenges we face on our planet today require powerful social movements made up of passionate, skilled and resilient leaders.

There are lessons to be learnt from past movements, useful tools and theories, and abundant creativity to keep coming up with fresh solutions. There’s no power like people power – connected, strong, principled and hopeful.

Let’s work together to make our dreams a reality.

We look forward to learning from you.

Hat tip to Dwight Towers.