Stealing the Future

StealingtheFuture_m_webUtopian and dystopian writings often have a great appeal to those of us who consider ourselves to be working towards a better world. If that chimes with you, then you might want to know about Stealing the Future, written by a good friend of Rhizome, Max Hertzberg. In Max’s own words:

There are quite a few novels describing utopian societies, particularly in the science fiction genre (Ursula K. Le Guin‘s The Dispossessed, Kim Stanley Robinson‘s Mars Trilogy), but it’s rare to come across a book that doesn’t just attempt to describe a utopia set up in a new environment (new planet, new continent, ‘uninhabited’ island etc) but actually attempts to chart the progress of a society like ours to one with more utopian properties. Stealing the Future is an attempt to close that gap – an attempt to describe that phase of hard work, hope and (seemingly?) insurmountable challenges. It’s a thought experiment: how could the East Germany of 1989 go from Communist dictatorship to something much more equitable, much fairer and more just than we even dare dream is possible?

The book’s supported and enhanced by a whole load of related articles on the website. It’ll be launched at the Anarchist Bookfair next month. Happy reading!



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!


complex, conceptual and contentious

Adam and I co-facilitated a two day workshop with an international NGO about it’s future shape and governance. Two proposals were on the table. As we talked about them a tsunami of thoughts, reflections, ideas and contentions emerged. We scribbled furiously and summarised often and the group began to understand a shape to the discussions. This helped us to form ideas around themes. We’d already abandoned our client-agreed process plan and were now in emergent territory. But remembering the mantra of listen, reflect and clarify, the group nudged it’s way to a clear picture of what needed to be done to resolve the matter. We got to a resolution on some key matters and a wealth of emerging possibilities on how things might be implemented and what needs to happen next.

Aside from having to improvise, we also faced –

the challenge of a multi-lingual group (we worked in English, but contributions were made, and interpreted, in Spanish);

a range of involvement in the development of the proposals, from those who’d been involved for nearly two years to those coming with fresh eyes (as one participant’s research showed – …allowing for open discussion of differences, regardless of how time consuming… – is a sign of a healthy NGO);

a mixture of understandings and response modes, from detailed observations to those focussing on the big picture and keen to get on (I think we noticed and adapted to this variety of inputs);

the use of a block which wasn’t really a block (the participant resolved his block in his contribution);

a super-heated airless room far too small for the number of people;

the need to acknowledge privileged positions, be it on gender (the room was male dominated), geography (the global North was over-represented); language (it’s much, much harder to work in your second or third language);

the need to air what is happening now and what has happened with regard to people’s understanding of relations amongst the network, before any chance was had of shaping the future (late-ish manifestations of trust issues, which thankfully had some time to be aired);

and being brought in at a very late stage in the game when patterns and dynamics are pretty embedded, and some outcomes fairly inevitable.

I think they have more work to do, but am glad to have worked on something that made me really think on my feet and appreciate having a co-facilitator with me.

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.



Are we nearly there yet?

From time to time I find myself in discussion (or facilitating discussion) about whether or not campaigns and campaigners should declare their true colours and publish their vision and the route map for getting there. It’s not often that happens. More likely an organisation takes a step by step approach, raising awareness of, and lobbying for a ‘next step’. Yes the info on aims, vision, strategy might be available, but it’s not what the public encounter.

An example that springs to mind is fair trade but there are many other possibilities. The campaign for fair trade has focused on getting consumers to switch to fair trade brands of common goods. That’s gone hand in hand with working on companies to provide a ready source of those commodities that meet fair trade standards. In that respect it’s been a stunning success with the Fairtrade mark being very widely recognised and being the top ethical mark, in recognition terms here in the UK.

The problems sometimes raised are that this approach, fair trade or otherwise, simplifies issues, and leads consumers to believe that if they just switch to fair trade tea and coffee then all’s well with the world, which obviously it’s not. So what we need to do, the argument goes, is place fair trade in context of the wider issues of trade justice and the global economic system. Others argue that that’s too much for Joe Consumer to cope with in one bite and so on. I’m sure you’ve ‘been there had that argument’.

And of course it’s far too simplified a summary. Many fair trade insiders will (with much justification) say that they do a lot of awareness raising about wider trade justice issues. The problem is that work can get lost in the process of trying to formulate a simple understandable message for the public. It doesn’t fit easily on the side of a packet or on a leaflet.

There’s a danger that we end up with something akin to taking a small child on a long walk – “we’re almost there…. just around the next corner…. just keep walking for a while longer”. It’s a parallel I draw consciously, because it risks being a rather ‘parental’ approach.

Give it to me straight, I can take it

Last night I attended an open meeting of the Transition Leicester steering group. The group was looking for fresh energy and input. Several new folk , myself included, turned up. In one small group discussion I was part of we were looking at the strategic direction of Transition Leicester and very early on the question of whether the group revealed its full agenda arose. Was that too radical for folk to cope with? Do we talk changing lightbulbs and making your own compost and sideline talk of alternatives to capitalism until a later stage?

I prefer straight talk, cards on the table, and all that. But it has to be framed right. It seems to me that intellectual argument, facts and figures will only get us so far. What makes people undertake lasting change is a shift in values. In fact I’d argue that it’s a reconnection with existing values that The Man prefers us not to remember we have. All that commonly held stuff about equality, justice, humanity and compassion’s inconvenient for a consumer society, but I do think it’s present in all of us. We’re heavily sedated by all our consumer toys and told that self-centredness is a virtue. Turn on the TV for long enough and it’ll scream “me, me, me” at you.

So it’s not about radicalising people’s political views (although for some that might go hand in hand), it’s about articulating our values and connecting the dots to actions that embody those values. And if you buy into this argument then I think it’s good news because it’s simply (!) a case or reminding people what they already know to be true and showing some ways forward to rebuilding a society based on that truth.

Anti-capitalism, for example, frightens many people. But if it’s just about relating to others from  a position of common humanity and letting that run its natural course…. nowt too radical there. Make it a ‘system’, conceptualise it, and it can become too distant, too irrelevant for many, and risks becoming the preserve of the academic or activist elite. Whatever change we are making, and asking others to make, it has to be framed in human terms, or so it seems to me (today at least!)

The spark for today’s sermon was a lively debate I found myself in last night on making change. One member of the small group seemed to be advocating a very traditional top-down, academic, model of change. I’m going to paraphrase, and I’m aware it’s not an argument I have immediate sympathy for, so apologies if that comes through loud and clear and I stereotype…. “To make change we need knowledge, to access knowledge we need to speak an appropriate language, and oh dear, how do we communicate that to the masses who don’t speak the language? We need to educate them as they aren’t currently capable of understanding the change that is required”.

I’d prefer an approach that allowed for the possibility that people already have the answers and the experience to make change and all that’s needed is a drawing out of that experience, a sharing, and a collective analysis. And that can happen in any language. The best one? The language of the people making the change and not the language of academics, facilitators, professional campaigners or capacity builders.

So step by step or let ’em have it? I’d like to think that if we take the time to connect with the humanity in the issues we are active on, and phrase them in the language of the people we’re communicating too, then we can afford to be open about our vision from the start.
Implications for day-to-day activism? There’s a comments field below….



One against the many? Changing the culture of groups

Not for the first time in recent years I spent some of the time at the Transition Dreaming Circle advocating the design of some training to support individuals in making change in their groups.

As a trainer I regularly find individuals coming to open workshops searching for some ideas on how to change the culture, habits and dynamics of their group.  I also frequently work with a specific group and hear the anguished cry of “the people who most need to be here haven’t turned up”. Sometimes the need for change is urgent – groups are on the verge of collapsing for lack of new people, but seem incapable of attracting and then holding onto newcomers. Sometimes groups are functioning but it’s a painful experience for anyone sensitive to group dynamics.

Can we really expect individuals or minorities to turn around their group on the back of attending a single workshop in facilitation skills, or effective meetings or consensus decision-making? To me the answer’s a resounding “No”.

So we need another layer of learning, as a stand alone session or woven into the fabric of our other training. That layer needs to help people understand the obstacles to change, and how to make change attractive to groups.

So this post is an invitation to share ideas around creating that layer of learning. It’s a problem faced by all groups and networks of groups. A few of my own thoughts follow, which I hope to develop over coming weeks and months.

  • Is the group the real problem? All this  talk of groups needing to change is potentially very arrogant. Often I just encounter a single person who thinks the group needs to change. It’s worth supporting them to check that this is the right group for them and that their expectations of the group are reasonable for a group of its kind. Is there work to be done around the role they play in groups?
  • Understanding the problem. Any individual or minority wanting to make change will only fully succeed if they understand the situation that they’re trying to change. They then have the difficult task of getting the group to understand the situation.
  • Empathy v judgment. By the time an individual gets so frustrated with a group that they’re spurred on to take action to make change they may already be finding it difficult to empathise with those they see as needing to change. Blame may have crept into the equation. It’s easy to assume the worst – that those needing to change like the group the way it is. And worse, that the poor group dynamics serve some selfish, even devious, intention on the part of those same people.
  • Safe space to change. In reality people in dysfunctional groups are often unhappy but simply don’t understand what the problem is, or don’t know how to go about changing it. A lack of change shouldn’t be confused with a lack of desire for change. However, even if that desire is present, the dynamics of blame and pressure may set off defences that hinder change. So we need to support our changemakers in creating safe spaces for change to happen. Trying to impose change will only create a different negative dynamic.
  • What’s in it for them? One way to create a safer space for change is to ask yourself “What’s in it for them? why should these people, this group, change?”. For some it may be enough to articulate ‘noble’ rationales – to demonstrate that more campaigning activity may happen if things change, that more people will be reached and catalysed to action. Other people may be convinced by more personal arguments – you can spend less time in meetings, you can safely shed some of the burden of responsibility, you will still be respected and valued as an important part of the group.

So a few opening thoughts and the beginning of a framework for a training session: reflection on the personal role in groups and how we might contribute to the problem; developing empathy – understanding the problem from the perspective of those we might see as ‘the problem’, creating a safe space for change; in part by asking “why should they change?” and then communicating all of that in an accessible and supportive way…..

Let me finish by reiterating the invitation to share your ideas and experiences. Thanks.

Neighbourhood watch

I’ve just read Cooperative Streets – Neighbours in the UK, a recent Co-operativesUK report. It charts the decline in neighbourliness in the UK over the last 28 years.

Amongst other things, the average number of neighbours we each know by name has declined from 13 to 7. That’s perhaps unsurprising when you read that only 21% of us now say that it’s easy to start a conversation with a stranger as opposed to 78% in 1982. But enough of the statistics. What’s this got to do with activism consensus and participation?

More and more of us are realising the need for rebuilding community to solve the current ecological crisis. It’s not enough to wait for government or industry to change their practice – we have to do it ourselves in our in homes, streets and neighbourhoods. That’s at the heart of the Transition movement, for example. “Resilient communities” is a phrase I’m hearing a lot at the moment.

It’s no longer enough to think in terms of a community of activists making changes despite the disinterest, apathy or best efforts of the wider geographical or political community. If we don’t know our neighbours pulling down the garden fences to create that community garden, organising widespread action to harvest rainwater from our roofs, or collectively composting our waste will be a whole lot harder.

If you’ve ever watched The Power of Community you’ll understand what I mean. Cuba had no choice but to innovate and act together to beat the US imposed oil blockade in the same way that the rest of us will have to act to deal with peak oil and climate change. But I suspect they also had a head start on the neighbours front. And the kind of change that Cuba underwent will be greatly facilitated if we can build a genuine culture of consensus and participation.

So getting to know your neighbour is rapidly becoming a vital act of social change!

What’s strategy ever done for us?

I thought it was time for a more upbeat post on strategy whilst I find the time to edit 2 interviews that I hope to post soon – the first with Kathryn Tulip of Seeds for Change focusing on overcoming challenges in facilitating strategy at the grassroots, and the second with Peter Chowla of Bretton Woods Project offering insights into their chosen strategic process and how it’s benefited them as a small NGO. But in the meantime a reminder of what activists might gain from ‘doing strategy’….

What’s strategy ever done for us?Well apart from winning campaigns, allowing us to set the agenda, focusing our resources most effectively, helping us prevent burn-out, and therefore changing the world for the better? Not much.

Campaign strategy is a huge topic. Often it seems like a topic suited most to the more academic amongst us, to strategy geeks, to the kind of people who enjoy creating GANNT charts, PEST or SWOT analysis. Many strategic thinking tools are dry. They lack the passion that drives us as campaigners and activists. Maybe that’s a good thing? Maybe we need to step back, put our passion to one side, and look objectively at what we’re trying to change. Or maybe we need to let our passion have its head and guide our campaigns and actions. No doubt we’ll talk about tools for strategic thinking another time. Here we want to focus on ‘why be strategic?’

So with apologies to the Pythons, back to the question – What’s strategy ever done for us?

Whether you advocate objectivity, or passion there are very strong arguments for doing some strategic thinking. Here’s a sample of them:

Strategy allows us to set the agenda. How many campaign groups spend their days (and nights!) constantly reacting to the agenda of the governments, councils or corporations that they are campaigning against? Or firefighting the latest media article? This model of campaigning can be exhausting. Don’t you sometimes wish that our side of the story was being heard by more people, more often? Strategy can deliver that. It allows us to plan ahead and explore how we can get the message out there, by direct contact with the people who matter, through audacious direct action that the media just can’t ignore, or by creating our own independent media. It can put our opponents on the back foot running to keep up with us.

Strategy helps us to map out the landscape in which we’re campaigning. Who’s out there? Who’s working with us? Who’s working against us? Where can we be most effective? What are the natural alliances we could forge? All of this thinking helps us find the right action for our campaign group to take. Often, for example, the direct action element of the campaign might be missing or weak. Someone needs to step into that role and take action. Thinking this way means we don’t duplicate the work of other groups, unless more of the same is needed. It also means that we’ve thought about who the powerholders really are and not just jumped to the easy conclusions. Behind that politician may well be a corporate lobbyist pulling the strings!

Strategy keeps us sustainable – a bit of forward thinking gives us the luxury of planning to:

  • also look after ourselves as a group – making sure we take the time to improve the way we communicate, to have fun together, or to prevent unwanted hierarchies or bad habits developing, for example
  • bring in new people (and keep them involved!)
  • raise any money we need to fund the campaign
  • share skills so that we don’t become reliant on a few experienced individuals
  • take breaks when we need them, knowing others have the information and skills to carry on the campaign
  • build links in the community right from the start and not at a moment when relations are strained
  • make time for the positive actions that build alternatives to the problem as well as the negative tactics that are all about stopping the problem

Strategy can see us through the hard times. Understanding strategic models – analyses of how change happens in society – can help us deal with those moments of a campaign when it looks like we’ve lost momentum, and we begin to despair that change will ever happen. For example, Bill Moyers in the Movement Action Plan talks about a fifth stage of crisis and burn-out for activists at the heart of the campaign happening just before, or even alongside the campaign developing unstoppable momentum. Sometimes we’re just to close to the campaign to see how much we’ve actually achieved and what we have to celebrate. Good strategy involves plenty of celebration!

So there you go – four good reasons to take time to do strategy. If you need more convincing, take a look at some case studies from around the world put together by those lovely folk at the Change Agency. If you want to share you experience, add your comments or get in touch.

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”