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.

Agendas, access and equality

Craig Freshley’s talking common sense again over on his Good Group Tips blog. This time he has words of advice on agenda setting. Amazing how such a simple concept as agreeing what to talk about can be so fraught with politics, power-plays and confusion! He writes:

“In principle, if we are a group of relative equals, deciding how we are going to spend our time together should be a group decision, or at least the group should decide the agenda-setting process. Further, every group member should understand the agenda-setting process and have access to it”

In that one short paragraph Craig’s put his finger on a number of important issues:

Firstly that agenda setting is an access issue as much as disabled access is, or having a hearing induction loop for the hearing impaired. It’s about letting people take part on an equal footing.

Secondly, if enough trust and accountability exists within the group then it’s fine to delegate the task of agenda setting to a working group, but the conditions in the group need to be right, and this needs to be agreed.

Thirdly, implied is that we often state we’re a group of “relative equals” (or indeed of equals, no relative about it), and yet in practice the way we set the agenda of a meeting gives the lie to that statement. An agenda set by a small number of people, an agenda set too quickly to allow for proper reflection, an agenda dictated by unrealistically short meeting lengths, an agenda only written on the chair’s notepad or with only a few copies printed…. all of these and more are obstacles to full participation, obstacles to equality and to access.

So at your next meeting consider who has set the agenda, and what that says about the power dynamics of your team, group or organisation – especially to those who didn’t have a chance to influence the agenda!


Roll out the welcome mat…

A recurring theme on this blog and on others such as Dwight Towers and Chris Johnston is welcoming newcomers into groups. Dwight has pointed us at Beyond The Choir’s take on welcoming new folk. Read their article Orienting new members and volunteers to a local group. Some wise words. In short they recommend

  • welcome interviews to get to know newcomers
  • meeting people where they are at in terms of commitment and time on offer
  • being nice! A much under-rated groupwork tool that helps people feel valued

Formal ‘ welcome interviews’ might not suit every situation, but the questions they offer are still a guide for an informal conversation. I’d also recommend placing stronger emphasis on the “what do you want out of this?” side of things, and aim to have a conversation in which the newcomer gets to do most of the talking. It’s through listening that we ultimately convince people they will be valued as a group member.

I’ve added the pdf here for those with less time and you’ll also find it on our resources page. But meander round their site when you have a moment.

Beyond the Choir: Plugging people in

Breaking and entering (or why newcomers need to be old lags)

A couple of weeks ago there was an attempted break-in at a neighbour’s house. This prompted the local police to drop a ‘Burglary Alert’ leaflet through all our doors.

OK, so you’ve just checked the web address and confirmed you’re on the Rhizome blog and not some neighbourhood watch site. What’s all this got to do with participation or activism or consensus?

Well a phrase jumped out at me from the leaflet that brought to mind a topic we’ve talked about before on this blog and will inevitably return to because it’s one of the biggest problems campaigns and activist groups face – making our networks, our groups, and our meetings accessible to newcomers.

And the phrase? Try looking at your house through the eyes of a burglar. Of course the police want you to get into the mind of a burglar and then lock all potential avenues of entry to make your house impenetrable. For activists and campaigners we need to reverse the process – try looking at your network, your group, or your meeting through the eyes of a potential newcomer; then unlock all entry points and make your ‘house’ fully accessible. Newcomers shouldn’t need experience at breaking and entering to get active and get involved.

Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to have been part of many networks and groups and to have been paid to help support others. My experience is that most community campaign groups aren’t thinking first and foremost about their group dynamics and about access and participation. And that may be entirely appropriate. After all they exist to campaign not to discuss process. However many of them are simultaneously concerned by their inability to attract and/or keep new members. But when pushed to think about the reasons why that may be the case, they often externalise the problem. I’ll paraphrase a few reasons I’ve been offered in the past:

“we can’t attract young people because there aren’t many young people living here, they’ve all moved away looking for work….

…they’re busy with jobs and starting families – they’ll join the group when they retire…

…we get lots of new people to meetings, but they don’t come back…. we think it’s because people today find all this talk of human rights abuses shocking and depressing…

…people live busier lives today that they used to, it’s not surprising our group is getting smaller…

Now there may be some truth in all of these, but further dialogue with the group usually uncovers some deeper group dynamics issues, all of which pose barriers – locked doors if you will – to newcomers getting involved. We rely on the sheer weight of  newcomers’ passion for the issues to drive them to break and enter the group or network. But for each one that successfully does so (often only to find themselves frustrated by the meeting they attend) how many more turn away at the locked door and go elsewhere, or worse still do nothing?

Making change in the world isn’t supposed to be an elite club that requires the passing of an endurance test before membership is granted. It’s not supposed to be like one of those masochistic Japanese game shows, or have an “I had to put up with it to prove I was serious, so should they” mentality about it. Everyone should be offered countless opportunities to make change every single day.

So groups – take a deep breath and look at yourselves from the outside. You may have fantastic publicity, but if the reality of the group’s meeting don’t match the publicity you’ll still lose people. You may have great, accessible meetings but fail to let the right people know about them. Or you may need to change both how you attract people and then the meetings and events you attract them to.

Change is not easy. It may help to remember your own experiences of joining the group. How easy was it? Really? Of course Everyone comes with differing expectations and needs, so we can’t assume they’ll share that experience. You may have been used to a certain meeting culture, for example, which made your group quite comfortable to join. Others may not share that experience. Then put your house in order – unlock windows and doors, put a welcome mat out and stick the kettle on.

And those that support groups? We need to take the time to create safe spaces for a little self-reflection to happen, so that groups can face the challenge of opening up their meetings, accepting that they are sometimes the reason people don’t return for a second reason. That’s a tough conversation to have, but an essential one and one that can ensure the longer term survival of the group, and the continuation of the campaign to another generation.

Mind your language

I have to admit to regularly using the word ‘guys’ to refer to my fellow human beings whether male or female. To me it has always seemed gender-neutral and I’ve used it with no conscious gender connotations. But no more. Two events happened in quick succession on Monday.

At the end of my ‘advanced facilitation’ workshop at the Peace News Camp one of the female participants got up to leave and said something along the lines of “thanks guys” to the rest of the group of both women and men. Then she corrected herself: “no, not guys”. A conversation followed in which one person recounted something he’d been told by a friend who’s recently undergone some gender-related training (in the public sector I think, but the details elude me). According to that training ‘guys’ is now officially deemed gender-neutral.

Fast forward a couple of hours and I bumped into two female friends as I left the Camp, greeting them with “how are you guys?. The response was swift and firm: “we are not guys”. One apology and some small talk later they kindly sought to downplay the situation by calling themselves “embittered feminists”. But why should they downplay it? They’ve struggled (and continue to struggle) for the right to define themselves a they see fit without reference to men or masculine language. ‘Guys’ clearly isn’t gender-neutral for them, no matter how many times it’s been laundered in an attempt to sanitise it.

All this reminded me of a recent post I wrote, and articles I’ve read on the margins and the mainstream. My friends were, in this context (and many others), the margins. If we’re to move beyond oppression, whether gender or any other type, it seems imperative that the mainstream doesn’t talk for the margins. Let the margins talk for themselves. And if they tell me ‘guys’ is inappropriate then it is. So, as of now, you have my permission to pull me up (nicely!) on using it in anything but all-male company.

As facilitators aspiring to full participation this is not simply political correctness. It’s pragmatism – if our language is a barrier to access, then we need to change it or our processes will stumble and even fail. And let’s face it, English is such a rich and diverse language that there are plenty of other ways to say “how are you guys?”.