Step outside for a moment…

Occupy London was in court last week. The court found against them and, subject to appeal, the City of London can proceed to evict. The occupation is illegal.

I can’t help feeling that the power of the Occupy movement is tied into that very illegality. In a way I’m glad the court ruled as it did. I’m not glad that the individuals involved have had all their hard work in marshalling and presenting a case dismissed (read one perspective on the Occupy London site). I’m not glad that the encampment outside St. Pauls won’t be there to continue the outreach, education and activism it’s been doing so well. I’m certainly not glad that in the near future activists may be involved in a potentially traumatic eviction. But I am glad that Occupy still occupies the ground outside of the law. Occupy has set itself against the system. The law is part of that system.

It seems to me that there is plenty of organisations that fill the role’s that lawful activism can fill, and with some obvious success. But there is this other role – refusing to allow our activism to be framed in terms of legal and illegal, and instead doing what is right, just and necessary. That seems to be the role that Occupy should stand for, and hold out for.

All this got me thinking of facilitation. Is the same true? Do we all too often try to fit our values, our state of mind as facilitators into roles that the mainstream frame for us? Do we need to occupy ground well outside of the norms of mainstream facilitation-lore? There are certainly folk trying their hardest to create new spaces and explore new roles away from these norms – many of them referred to elsewhere on this blog : Viv McWaters, Johnnie Moore, Chris Corrigan to name a few.

When Rhizome met as a co-op back in November we spent a good while talking about our work. We reiterated that we saw ourselves as radical, but, in honour of our diversity as a collective of facilitators, we consciously refused to define that in any one dimension. We spoke of radical politics, radical process, and radical relationships within Rhizome and without. We also spoke of doing work that was radical for the groups we work with, whatever that may be for them. Seems to me that it’s about standing for the roles that are less comfortable, that are not filled elsewhere, in the mainstream.

We’ve been consciously trying to design our work with that in mind. I felt we were doing that well when Maria and I sat down to plan our recent facilitation training with the staff team at 38 Degrees. From the outset we let them know that we wanted to work with them on shared attitudes, values, and states of mind rather than facilitation technique, tools and skills. Our designing process had real energy and excitement – we tried to be intuitive and innovative. On the day we threw them into learning by doing right from the start with a series games that gave them the choice to compete or to share facilitation and co-operate. Out of their individual and diverse experiences of the same activities we were able to open conversations about their margins and mainstreams and those of the supporter groups they meet with. It felt like we were at least in the region of a radical approach to working with this group – getting to the root of what it means to be facilitating rather than do facilitation. It wasn’t perfect – there were some tools and approaches that at least some of the group would have liked to explore in more depth, for example, but it felt like there was some good learning happening. I know there was for Maria and I.


Clicktivism….a few links

The debate about clicktivism (online activism) is raging on… is it an effective substitute for good old-fashioned face-to-face activism? does it encourage shallow, almost meaningless engagement? is it the way forward? are local groups a thing of the past. All good stuff.

Political Dynamite have just uploaded a clicktivism post sparked by 38 Degrees recent, and very successful, forests campaign. It’s worth a read, but follow the link to the Our Kingdom post for the full experience!

on-line activism

I met David Babbs of 38 Degrees to discuss participation on-line, how it works and its impacts. 38 degrees was set up in May 2009 to enable people to be engaged in change using social software and email. 38 degrees is the angle of slope which naturally causes an avalanche; the analogy being that enough people weighing in on an issue will cause a similar effect on public opinion.

Since the launch it has built its membership to 120,000 people and has a target of 1% of the UK population by 2012. I’m not sure how percentages relate to degrees, but I imagine 600,000 plus people campaigning on a regular basis will have considerable impact. Some trade unions have similar sized memberships, but their democratic structures are vastly different to 38 degrees – as they are based on an elected representative structure. 38 degrees uses a range of participatory methods to continually engage its members in decisions.

On a monthly basis one in twelve members are asked to fill in a survey using Survey Monkey. This poll informs which campaigns get initially promoted on the 38 degrees website. Suggestions for campaigns also flow in through Facebook, Twitter and email. Specific polls are carried out with a 10% sample of membership to see what catches the enthusiasm of members and an on-line deliberative tool has been used with 3,000 people to delve deeper and work more deliberatively.

David admits that 38 degrees aims to attract more left of centre people, but acknowledges that the on-line spaces have attracted people from a wider spectrum of opinion. As he says, traditional organising was dependent on physical community (the workplace or the community you live in), whereas now, people also interact in global and distributed communities on-line. Social software has enabled us to extend our friendships as well as our networks of co-activists. Clearly the quality of these friendships is different from ones where there is regular physical meeting, but 38 degrees isn’t promoting on-line activism as better, it’s just recognising that it exists and is using it to enhance campaigning.

We also talked about how power is distributed in an organisation like 38 degrees. Whilst some campaigns originate in the office, they only persist if the membership is attracted to them. Just as a physical crowd responses to speeches, by shuffling, smiling, sighing, groaning and so on; so a campaign that has support is accompanied by flutters of ‘likes’ or ‘comments’ on Facebook, flurries of ‘tweets’ and the a few more complaints than for other issues. As in a face to face facilitated session, the feedback you get impacts on the direction you take next. The ‘leader’ can only lead by consent – as consent is demonstrated day to day in real time by the memberships’ reaction to campaigns on-line. 38 degrees is distributing decision making on a daily basis – a fact reflected on a wider scale in David’s observation that whereas in previous general elections the media stories where highly controlled by spin doctors, this election sees ‘messages’ unravelled and repackaged within minutes on-line, by the various users of blogs, You Tube, Facebook et al.

As to impacts…well at the time of writing 38 degrees had just had a huge number of people involved in raising the issue of the recall of MPs. A couple of weeks later and all three of the main party leaders are advocating the recall of MPs in the leadership debate. Cause and effect? Who knows, but certainly a high degree of influence.

But, I’ll leave David to sum up why on-line activism is a powerful tool…

Don’t vote! It only encourages them

So, the UK election date was called today. On May 6th we go to the polls. No doubt the blogosphere’s crackling with comment, impassioned pleas, and a fair amount of cynicism, even apathy.Don't vote, it only encourages them

Already the news teams are out interviewing Jo Public who are coming back thick and fast with comments such as those I heard on the news bulletin this lunchtime “whoever wins will line their pockets first”, and “they’re all the same”. And once again I’m reminded of the old anarchist sayings “Don’t vote, it only encourages them” and “Whichever way you vote the government always gets in”.

Will any of the parties make real lasting change that will take us towards a genuinely more inclusive, just and ecological society? I have my doubts. Not because of a lack of sincerity on the part of some politicians – I have too many good friends active in the Green Party to believe that. But because of a system itself which seems to grind idealism down under the vast historical weight of the status quo. Sure change is possible, but within tightly defined parameters or when it’s a choice of lose power or deliver change.

But apathy? Doing nothing? It’s tempting. It’s so easy to be a spectator in today’s world. We can even interact by phone vote or twitter. But is it meaningful or does it provide just  enough of a veneer of meaning to satisfy us and prevent us taking real action?

Rhizome’s about activism – working with people and organisations to make activism more possible for them. For some that activism might involve the mainstream political process. For others it’ll be much more do-it-yourself. For some it’ll be a campaign to challenge an injustice through nonviolent direct action. Others will be building a positive alternative. And for a few it’ll be all of the above. Stopping airport expansion, starting a community garden, voting in a local election to keep the BNP out…all of these are vital to a vibrant, changing society. All of them need people to get up and make them happen. The alternative? Another 5 years of Brown-Cameron-Clegg or their sound-alikes talking about a better society whilst our experience of it gets worse.

Each one of us has something we’d like to see changed. Why not start that process of change now. Sure, vote on May 6th if that’s your thing. But don’t leave it at that. There are 364 other days of the year needing you to make change in them.

There are hundreds of organisations out there who can help you make change – whether, like us, it’s by sharing skills, or like 38 Degrees (see our upcoming interview with 38 Degrees director David Babbs) mobilising people to mass action. There’s your local Transition Towns group making sustainable change at a local level, or you might be lucky enough to have an autonomous social centre in your town .

So, in the words of the lovely collective “Get off the internet. I’ll see you in the streets”