Civil disobedience, hard work and time

We tend to forget how long it takes for the dreamed of, planned for, struggled for change to actually take place. It is very easy for activists to feel disheartened and defeated after the early exhilarating stages of a campaign, or the excitement of an act of civil disobedience. It’s a long slog and much of it is just sheer bloody minded persistence. The anniversary this week of the mass trespass on Kinder Scout in 1932 reminds us how very long it can take. I don’t just mean the 68 years from 1932 till the Countryside and Rights of Way Act was passed in 2000, but all the centuries of struggle by poor and oppressed people for equal rights to the land, appropriated by the wealthy and powerful for leisure and profit. The line of dissent runs through the Peasants’ Revolt in the 14th century, which conjures the names of Wat Tyler and John Ball, through to Wynstanley and the True Levellers in the 17th, with radical writers such as Blake and Thomas Paine in the 18th, and the 19th century liberals and radicals who founded the Open Spaces Society keeping the energy flowing. We’re talking 700 years and there is still work to be done on the issue of open access for all.

The trespass on Kinder was an act of civil disobedience. It was planned and advertised and organised, one group coming from Manchester, another from Sheffield. Hundreds made the walk, there were some scuffles with keepers, six people were arrested and charged with riotous assembly and five imprisoned. But a few weeks later thousands did the same, such was the inspiration and strength that it produced, and many years later new laws on access to open land began to be drafted. The centuries of protest and writing and preaching and talking and pamphleteering seemed to culminate in this iconic action – a few hundred men and some women (who were kept back from the actual trespass) speaking truth to power, saying it is our land too. Rosa Parks on a seat on a bus, black students at a lunch counter, the crowds in Tahrir Square last spring, Occupy at St Paul’s – all are events which, like the crest of a strong wave, contain beneath them the persistence of many people fighting for change over a long time, and it is still ongoing. It is not just the act of civil disobedience alone which changes things, it is the work, the planning, the effort, the time – and the support and desire for justice of those who cannot take part in this one event – which the act represents.

Like many other actions of resistance and dissent, the trespass was remembered in song, “The Manchester Rambler” by Ewan MacColl. A version, combining another song, by John Tams and Barry Coope is worth a listen, not only for their beautiful voices but for the line “nothing changes, it all stays the same” ringing like a warning bell.

Jo

On being a facilitator

In early February, Matthew and I delivered a facilitation training for staff at the World Development Movement,  which had developed out of a Rhizome discussion last November with all seven facilitators. We had talked then about the difficulties of delivering meaningful training in a few hours, a single day. We understand why this happens – releasing significant numbers of staff and volunteers from their day to day jobs has a real impact. So we then talked about how we could have an equally real impact in a relatively short time. The phrase we used was making catalytic interventions. How do we ensure that our work catalyses real change?

Our training design changed because of this discussion, manifesting  in the training for WDM which in turn built on a recent facilitation training with 38 Degrees .  It was more playful and more powerful. It was not the traditional, logical progression of facilitation training but nevertheless clear, shared learning took place about what it means to be a facilitator as opposed to doing facilitation. We’re into ‘states of mind’ territory here, and that feels like a place where change can happen faster than when we’re training in technique and toolkits.

Maybe considering an analogy between photography and facilitation helps to explain this more clearly. Suppose you love photography, are fascinated by the work of say Shirley Baker or Diane Arbus, Mitch Epstein or Clement Cooper. You want to be a photographer, so you research in depth what tools your role model uses, which cameras, meters, lenses, equipment for reproduction, techniques for cropping or colouration, digital enhancement etc. But to be a photographer you need more than just the tools; you need to be able to see, to observe, to notice, to frame, to take risks, to wait, to trust yourself, to act at the right moment.  It also involves luck, fortuity, serendipity, happening to be in the right place at the right moment. The only way to be a photographer is to be a photographer – having a photographer’s state of mind, the instinct and the vision. The tools are only as good as the artist who uses them.

Being a facilitator is similar. The tools are useful, but unless you really are focussed on being a facilitator the tools will not work on their own – a facilitator needs to be open, listening, observing, taking risks, know when to speak or wait, sense the dynamics and energy of the group… it’s a state of mind.

A participant asked us during a break in the afternoon whether you could actually be trained to be a facilitator or was it a matter of having the right kind of personality and skills already. Through many years of running different kinds of training, I have several times come away with the feeling that some people there could not be trained to do or be whatever it was we were working on. Underlying this is the idea that someone has to “know” already whatever the training is aiming at, although they may not be conscious that they know it. In the course of the training they will recognise what is being developed and thus become conscious of their own understanding. The trainer’s role is to open people’s inner eyes, to make explicit what is already understood, to affirm their own understanding and enable them to voice it and thus to build their confidence, their trust in themselves. This is not to say that the people I’m thinking of could not be trained but maybe only that they were not at a point in their own development which coincided with what the training was saying. Maybe a month, a year further on it fell into place or began to make sense, maybe not.

Our agenda didn’t offer an explicit list of facilitation tools, but activities to get people thinking about group dynamics, power and decision making, mainstreams and marginals, listening and sensing, and most of all how everyone in the group is actually involved in facilitating. The question that the participant put to us seemed to show that, for her, it had worked, as did feedback from the organiser:

“Thanks for yesterday, it was really great, lots of people told me how much they enjoyed it and we already saw benefits in our meeting today. “

So how was it received? Some of the comments, either on the learning that people took away with them or what could have been improved on are:

“There are lots of ways of facilitation – I like the idea of shared facilitation, co-facilitation”

“The holiday graph visualised the complexity of a meeting”

 “More on how to facilitate groups… where there isn’t a shared culture”

“Lots of useful things we can use in practice – these have built my confidence”

“In the weather reporting discussion the question was too difficult and led to confusion”

“Time for us to talk about how we could apply what we’ve learnt”

“Problem behaviour session could have been longer”

“Shape and structure of the day – moving from the conceptual to the practical worked very well”

And as always we, the facilitators, sat down together to reflect on and learn from what we had experienced before running for our trains home.

Jo

 

When consensus doesn’t work

Over at how to save the world, Dave Pollard has written a thought-provoking piece on consensus entitled When consensus doesn’t work. It comes complete with a ‘will consensus work?’ flowchart that highlights some of the issues we raised in our When not to use consensus post.

He touches on some situations in which consensus does not work. Most of these are cases in which it should never even have been tried (and yet groups do try!). But one thread of his argument that’s relevant to groups who do meet the basic criteria for using consensus decision-making is our innate conservatism and how it prevents us making radical change:

There is another situation when consensus is unlikely to work: When the degree of change needed to achieve the goal is necessarily radical. It is in our nature to be resistant to change, and, while change is possible when there is agreement on its urgency or importance, or when the change is easy or fun to make, the more drastic the change needed, the more reluctant people are to agree to it. I have seen too many occasions when a consensus-seeking group opted, after exhaustive discussion, for a decision that was too modest to achieve the needed result, because getting the whole group to agree even in substance on radical change was just impossible. This is particularly true in businesses faced with change-or-die situations: groupthink seems to set in, with the participants trying to reassure each other and persuading themselves to stay the course, usually with tragic results

Now a “modest” decision as part of a conscious and longer process of change, that’s fine (and chimes with the information gap theory we blogged about a few days ago). But Dave’s right isn’t he? We’re often faced with the chance to do something bold, creative, radical and decisive and we opt for less. But is this a criticism of consensus as a decision-making practice or just of people in general? Does consensus support us less to make radical change than other methodologies? I don’t think so, at least not in terms of other participatory methodologies. Clearly a visionary dictator (not saying it’s a nice vision) can make a unilateral decision to make radical change. But the issue is whether when we come together as a group we create a dynamic that blocks change.

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?

Looking at the Climate Camp here in the UK, it more or less pulled itself apart, partly at least, because it was unable to agree a way forward when proposals for significant change emerged. The result of that collapse was that change was forced on the collective, but happened in a way that cost it more in terms of energy and cohesion than if it had consciously opted for change and managed that process.

I’m fortunate enough to have worked in groups that were faced with significant change and found a way to make decisions to support that change. One of the shared characteristics of the groups that did that successfully was a lot of underlying trust in each other. Another was humour – being able to laugh at the sudden fragility of the group when faced with change. Another was commitment – being so profoundly moved by an issue that changes had to be made and it was just a matter of time until everyone did the individual and then collective processing that made it possible.

I remember one meeting in which a campaign of direct action was agreed, although the legal consequences for those involved could have proved very significant indeed. This was a real change for the group – a step into unknown territory. At the next meeting the decision was reversed because we hadn’t caught up emotionally with what we’d decided idealistically. Eventually we did catch up, reversed the reversal and all lived to tell the tale. It sounds messy, but it needed to happen. We needed our wobble, our dip back into conservatism. We needed to acknowledge our weakness and humanity and to do so in a space where that was OK and wasn’t pounced on as ‘failure’.

Good consensus helps groups build those kind of spaces and groups – critical and supportive in the right way at the right times. Human and idealistic. So whilst I agree with Dave that what we see in consensus groups is often a default to conservatism, I think that consensus used well is a fantastic tool to tip us over the edge, collectively, into radical change.

Hat tip Dwight Towers (again!)