Zombie, dinosaurs and crocodiles

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

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

photo: Bob Jagendorf

photo: Bob Jagendorf

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

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

Barry Kid Photography

Barry Kid Photography

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 Just a bunch of out of date fossils with a nostalgic view of how change should be made (cue: “in my day we didn’t have t’internet.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

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

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

Norbert Nagel / Wikimedia Commons

Norbert Nagel / Wikimedia Commons

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

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

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



Conformity and consensus

Just worked through Dave Pollard’s Links for the Month. TheraminTrees YouTube video (a touch under 10 minutes long) summarising studies on group conformity stood out from some other amazing resources. Probably because I’ve been pondering this stuff of late, including in my recent post on certainty:

If you don’t have time to watch, here’s a taste of the author’s conclusions from his review of the studies that show a real tendency to conform to group views:

“Being part of a group doesn’t mean agreeing with every part of that group. We should always feel able to voice legitimate criticisms with any group…. When we stop feeling able to do that we give those groups a status and an authority that they don’t deserve and that they actually don’t possess. If a group can’t handle legitimate dissent it’s not a group I want to be part of”

Immediately the possible impacts on consensus decision-making are apparent. How do we move towards a shared group decision without eradicating minority opinions and dissent? How do we embrace those views and weave them into our decision-making? If we manage this how do we avoid co-option – by which I mean bringing them into the majority fold in order to exert some level of control over them? Hard questions with many, many examples of failure to illustrate the need to ask them.

Dave’s blogged about consensus as a force for the status quo in the past, and this research adds weight to his thinking, even though I’m stubbornly holding out in the belief that whilst it may often be like that it’s not a default setting of consensus decision-making itself, just how groups (choose to) use it. At the time I wrote:

The interesting aspect of this conversation for me is how radicals can come together and be conservative when gathered collectively to make a decision. Consensus tends to attract folk looking for an alternative to the status quo, disillusioned with mainstream models of power and decision-making. You could argue that they’re folk looking for radical change. So if Dave is right (and I’m sure he’s not the only one to have observed this trait in groups using consensus) what happens? Why do we default to conservatism?

Maybe the studies quoted in the video answer that question.

This week I met with my Leicester-based Rhizome colleagues. Given we live in and around the same city we don’t meet often enough, and it’s always refreshing when we do. Much of our conversation relates to this post – how we as Rhizome need to explore the diversity that 10 different facilitators with very different backgrounds and approached represent, embrace it and root ourselves firmly in it. When we do that we’re in a much better position to support other groups effectively. We need to model the struggle to have shared values but differing visions of the future which disable so many groups. The inability of people to reconcile their differences seems to be a major contributing factor to conformity. Eventually “the other” (whatever or whoever that might be) is alienated, made unwelcome, or forced to conform for the group to move forwards because there’s an expectation of a very narrow shared vision.

We’ll continue to share our journey into co-operation without conformity with you. Please share yours with us.

The Four Roomed House

There are many ways to prepare people at an event for what may happen. The notion I find myself using most often is the four roomed house:

This version is 4rooms.gif from loosetooth.com. Those of you with particularly good eyesight may be able to see that it acknowledges a man called Claes Janssen and his Four Rooms of Change theory.

I explain it by saying that I hope most of those present manage to spend much of their time in the room of contentment. Even so, every so often something will happen that contradicts our understanding of the world. Our initial impulse is often to push it away, to pretend it hasn’t happened. We enter the Room of Denial. Sometimes it does go away. But often it does not, and we are then faced with the combination of our old view and this new fact or event that is incompatible with it. We enter the Room of Confusion. But if we can keep in our minds these two apparently incompatible things, we will find a new understanding of the world that reconciles the two, and move into the Room of Renewal.

I add that most of us would like to shuttle too and fro between Contentment and Renewal – but it doesn’t work like that. The only way from Contentment to Renewal is via Denial and Confusion.

Finally, I say – and this is the point – that if at some point in the event people feel thoroughly confused, they should congratulate themselves. It is probably a sign that they have let in a new view of the world, a sign of success.

The more the participants operate in everyday settings that demand that they present themselves as knowing exactly what to do at all times, the more important it is to acknowledge the value of uncertainty.


What’s your agenda?

Later this month the Rhizome co-operative will gather for a 2 day meeting. 6 out of the 7 current Rhizome folk will be there plus 3 others who may well sign up by the end of the 2 days.

We’re scattered across the UK. Of the 9 folk attending 2 are from Manchester, 2 from Leicester, 1 from Glastonbury and the rest from London. The upshot of that is that we don’t meet very often and we have to make the meeting count. We need to find time to simply get to know each other better, to have some fun together, to share ideas and skills, to talk about internal processes, to look at our place in the world, and more.

We’ve said all along that we want to emulate the principles of open source software and be a community-built project. Well you are our community. What do you want to see on the agenda for our 2 days together? Are we doing the right work? Are we sharing the right ideas and info through this blog? What’s emerging in the world that Rhizome should be turning its attention to? Please share your thoughts.

Right to Refuse to Kill – job opportunity

War Resisters’ International is looking for a Right to Refuse to Kill programme worker (full-time)

The RRTK worker will share the responsibility for organising work from WRI’s international office and have specific responsibility for running WRI’s international work on conscientious objection and military recruitment. A commitment to pacifism, good computer skills, and language skills are desirable.

Salary: £23,296.68 per annum.
Deadline for applications: 1 April 2012
start date: 1 September 2012

Information and application form

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.

A space to learn about Open Space

Here’s a shameless plug for an event I’m facilitating in Birmingham on September 1st on Facilitating Open Space as part of the Environmental Training Network’s wider programme.

The last couple of years seem to have seen a real growth in interest in Open Space Technology in the campaigning NGO community, and we’re receiving regular requests to facilitate it. However, in the spirit of putting ourselves out of work as quickly as possible we’d also like to encourage organisations to develop their own skills and capacity. This is one such opportunity.

Here’s the June 2011 to March 2012 ETN Programme, including booking details. Hope to see you there.

Are you sitting uncomfortably? Then I’ll begin..

Add these to your bedtime reading !

We’ve always tried to be transparent about our learning here at Rhizome, but Viv McWaters has far outshone us with her fantastic post Tasting an amygdala hijack.  A cautionary tale of when the lizard brain asserts its presence. You only need to look at the comments to know that Viv’s experience resonates with facilitators far and wide.

Meanwhile Johnnie Moore sent me over to Yes and Space for Geoff Brown’s take on the Inner Game. More uncomfortable (but great) lessons for facilitators…

Here’s a list of things I noticed when practicing the Inner Game yesterday …

  1. A constant habit of filling spaces of silence with my own voice and the next instruction or question … and then
  2. As I ‘shut-up’ more and more, I began to notice more about the group – their tone of voice and body language all of sudden became clearer
  3. As my attention to ‘tone of voice’ increased, I began to notice the status games being played … and then
  4. I found myself doing less and less and my interventions became smaller and less frequent. But, the things I did offer supported the group to go deeper into it’s work.
  5. As my attention and focus on the people in the room wavered, I noticed my inner voice jumping in to ‘rescue them’ and ‘do something’ and ‘regain control’.

And last but not least, Lynn Walsh on resistance, sharing and letting go which includes some a participant’s eye view of workshops that highlight where we can so often go wrong….

Speaking in public? Some helpful hints…

I’m not much of a newspaper reader, but I did pick up the Work section of last Saturday’s Guardian, which had been left on the seat of my train home from Gathering Momentum. The front page advertised a guide called The secret to public speaking. Once you cut past the decision to hang the whole thing on a recently released film, there’s some useful hints and tips.

Training by tweet?

Brighton Uncut put on a twitter direct action ‘training trail’ on Sunday. I was very sceptical, but finally got round to looking at it today and enjoyed my meander through their material. I’d be interested in your views.

What do you think? Where does this stand on the waste of time => better than nothing => the perfect training experience scale?

Clearly this kind of thing gives many more people access to information (981 views of the first stage of the trail already). But is a little information is a dangerous thing? Is there ever a substitute for the face-to-face and experiential quality of a workshop, where it’s a safe space to make mistakes knowing no-one will actually be arrested or hit over the head with a baton? Maybe it’s best to give people enough to get them motivated and then let them learn through the real thing?

5 tools for co-operation

Kate Whittle over at Co-operantics has produced 5 cartoon booklets for Co-operativesUK in a series called From conflict to co-operation. They’re aimed at community co-ops but look useful for any community initiative or enterprise. The tone, length and content all seem great from a first glance. Take a look:


Recently did some training with an NGO on negotiation. The training was on a live issue and so I took people through several concepts in negotiation and then did a follow up meeting to help them identify how to proceed and how to gather the data to back up their arguments.

Here’s a link to a paper that covers the theory – http://www.fao.org/docs/up/easypol/550/4-5_Negotiation_background_paper_179EN.pdf

We also looked at WATNA and BATNA – the worst and best alternatives to a negotiated settlement. These help you think through your bottom and top line, but also to enable the people you’re representing in the negotiation some input into the scope of your remit and for them to understand the constraints that are current.

And using the concepts from ‘Getting to Yes’ (from the Harvard Negotiation Project), the difference between principled and positional negotiation.


A crude awakening

If you haven’t already, take a look at the crude awakening website for details of the latest UK mass mobilisation against oil and tar sands – Saturday, 16 October 2010

If you’re an affinity group planning to take part and in need of some nonviolent direct action or affinity group building training – we might be able to help, so get in touch

A Grand Meet up

We had our inaugural AGM – I had beans on toast and Matthew had white tipped tea. We affirmed all the administrative and operational activities that had gone into setting up the co-op; agreed that there were no funds to distribute in any direction; and that we were still open to new members.

On the last point, we agreed to stay as we were right now, as there isn’t an avalanche of work and that prospective members should see themselves as self organising rather than as employees or workers. At the moment we agreed a crude split of 95/5 – as Carl does a lot of work elsewhere.

We also agreed that we needed to get more co-facilitation practice; and have since agreed to at least one expenses only job.

Why Rhizome?

At Rhizome we believe in making change in the world. Specifically we believe in ordinary people and communities taking control of their lives, environment, and destinies.

Change from the grassroots up is powerful and sustainable because it’s rooted in a community. It’s rooted in their values and aspirations. The people making change believe in it. History has shown us that you can no more deny grassroots change than you can turn back the tide. You can try and suppress it but it spreads. Like the rhizomes from which we take our name, eventually it forces it’s way through the cracks in the pavement.

We’re here to accelerate the pace of change by offering communities of activists the support they need to participate effectively in change-making. Participation in change is the essence of what we do.

In practice, it might mean direct support for a community group, or it might mean improving the support offered by a national organisation or network.

So “Why Rhizome?”? Because there’s more change to be made in the world.

But that’s not all.

Rhizome provides a co-operative structure that brings together a wide range of skilled and experienced facilitators. It creates an energy and an excitement that inspires us, so that, hopefully, we can inspire you. It provides the mutual support we need to help us work sustainably to support community activism. We hope that we’ll also provide a ‘right livelihood’ for ourselves. That support allows us to give our time, skills and experience to the communities and organisations we work with all the more effectively.

We can learn from each other, share the good and the bad times, prove that two heads are better than one, innovate, and get better at what we do all the time.

We’re at the start of a journey. Feel free to join us along the way!