Occupy: learning from Climate Camp? Part 2

We’ve had a lively 3 way conversation about what the Occupy movement can learn from the experience of movements such as Climate Camp. We (Dwight Towers, Seta and myself) ranged quite widely – leadership, accountability, meetings that work even for those with little time and so on. One area we didn’t cover was vision and values.

I’ve heard many conversations about how Climate Camp lost its way. It started as a direct action focused, radical, one-off event to kick-start climate activism in the UK. There are those that would argue that by its second year (one-off, remember) it was already losing focus on action, especially affinity group direct action, and instead becoming more about education with a set piece mass action of dubious value. And yet, talk to some of the people who came into the movement via Climate Camp and they’ll often rave with enthusiasm about the very same event being written off by the original visionaries as having lost its way.

Wherever you sit on the issue, what happened and why? How can Occupy guard against the same thing happening? Indeed, should it?

Does a clarity of vision, especially radical vision, alienate others or inspire them? Can we bring new folk into a movement that’s taking a stance that the mainstream would see as hard-line, even extremist? As always I have my own views on all this, but I’m more interested in yours….


Occupy: Learning from Climate Camp?

Until recently in the UK Climate Camp could, with some justification, have been called the most dynamic force in activism. Now that baton has passed to the anti-cuts movement, and specifically the Occupy movement.

There are lots of similarities between Climate Camp and Occupy.

  • Both have strong anti-capitalist leanings (it’s not true to say that to a (wo)man they’re all anti-capitalist)
  • Both have their primary tactic in the title
  • That tactic usually involves taking and holding a symbolic location and creating an autonomous and sustainable zone, however temporary
  • Those autonomous zones are one element of practicing alternative social structures. Other aspects often include using consensus decision-making and non-hierarchical organising, or at least attempting to
  • Both use direct action
  • They believe themselves to be useful entry points for newcomers to their particular form of activism
  • Their core support is the mainstream of activist culture in the UK – white, middle class and educated, although both might consider themselves at the radical end of that culture
  • They’re proactive with the media and have caught the attention of the mass media

Given the similarities it seems appropriate to have a conversation about lessons that Occupy groups could usefully learn from Climate Camp. Climate Camp had some undoubted successes, but slowly and inexorably self-destructed (or at least ground to a halt). So we’re going to have that conversation, and who better to have it with than you and Dwight Towers, a fierce critic of some of Climate Camp’s choices and culture, and an equally fierce proponent of effective movement building.

So lets start nice and broad and see where it gets us…. We’ll use the comments function to keep the conversation going over the next week or so, so bookmark the page, and more importantly join in. Over to you and Dwight.

QUESTION: What are the most important lessons that Occupy Groups can draw from the Climate Camp (here in the UK, or the many international Camps) or indeed similar movements?

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!)

Catching up…..

Seems like a while since I got round to reflecting on the work we’ve been doing on the blog, so here’s a quick catch up. Common Ground Since its inception Climate Camp has been an amazing experiment in working by consensus, a kind of petri dish or hothouse. It’s tried to create a process capable of bringing together hundreds of activists spread across the whole country to plan and carry out very complex action camps as well as many other activities. The process has had to be capable of dealing with large group consensus,  and a structure that has included spokescouncils, emergency spokescouncils, working groups,  a neighbourhood system, and open meetings. All that on top of the usual challenges that face a group using consensus decision-making. Inevitably it’s had its highs and lows. And some of those highs and lows have seemed exaggerated – as you might expect from anything grown in a hothouse. I still meet people for whom Climate Camp has been their introduction to consensus decision-making, who have found it empowering and liberating. But the process hasn’t managed to build a coherent and united community, which effective consensus should. As a result, in early June there was a meeting of some of the survivors of the process, coming together to take stock, reflect and begin to move forward. Myself and Emily Hodgkinson, mentioned elsewhere on this blog, and doing her first piece of work under the Rhizome banner, co-facilitated the 2 day meeting. We negotiated considerable time and space for looking at process (not enough by any means, but a significant proportion of the overall agenda). Climate Camp has had action at its heart. Any activist movement has a huge momentum for doing. Being and processing often suffer as a result. Besides, what’s the point of having a process oriented psychologist on the facilitation team if you don’t tap into her considerable skill? It was a useful weekend for everyone involved. I continue to learn loads from the process work approach to groups and what at first seemed almost mystical is now making loads of sense. They’ve invited us back for the next meeting, so it can’t have been that bad an experience for them. Evaluation comments included the very affirming “Wow, incredible stamina, energy and capacity to ground the group”, and “Very impressed with the focus you managed to inspire and great diversity of methods” to a couple of comments suggesting we “intervene a bit less, sum up less” and a challenge to explore the dynamic of own working relationship more deeply “Perhaps Matthew – as a white male you could look out for moments where you appear to be silencing or overriding Emily”. That provided the topic of conversation for the journey home…

The following weekend I was facilitating a 1 day workshop for Transition Towns folk, and related groups on Facilitating Consensus. A follow on from an introductory workshop last October, this one drew folk from Transition Leicester and Chesterfield as well as the local Steiner School community. My sense of the day was that the participants found it useful. There was a wealth of experience in the room (isn’t there always?) and the interactions between participants were clearly very valuable, and once more I’m reminded that our role is simply to put structure to those interactions. I was left aware that the group was quite diverse and that finding scenarios that worked for everyone in the various experiential sessions was a challenge. I certainly didn’t get it ‘spot on’, and that impacted on the depth we go to. We played with doing some of the group ‘discussion’ activities in silence, which had a profound effect on the group dynamics and opened people’s eyes to how they usually work. As is my current wont, we focused primarily on the role of facilitation in cultivating the co-operative values behind consensus rather than the ‘technical specification’ of the decision-making model.

definition of facilitation negotiated by the group in silence

The last few weeks have been dominated by some work we’ve taken on for a large NGO with whom we have a long-standing relationship. We’re supporting them in involving their grassroots supporters to design a participatory approach that gives those supporters a more effective voice in the organisation. We’re currently engaged in a consultation exercise, though time constraints mean more is being done by phone and web than face-to-face. We’ve brought in Perry Walker, originator of Crowd Wise, and we’ll put a raft of ideas that emerge from the consultation into regional Crowd Wise sessions where the grassroots will get a second chance to engage: shaping, prioritising, and merging proposals into one front-runner that has widespread support.

What’s coming up in the near future? We’re at the Peace News Summer Camp, UK Feminista Summer School, facilitating some training for mediators, and facilitating an Open Space and skill sharing day with the NGO Capacity Building Forum….

A vision for visioning…

A week ago I spent the day with 16 staff and volunteers from 4 sustainability organisations that all share the same faith background. We came together to vision for a sustainable faith community here in the UK and possibly internationally.

Having read and blogged about Donella Meadows paper on visioning in the run up I was determined to create a space for visioning, and not just for slightly more creatively framed strategy (which is what I think a lot of visioning days offer groups). Here’s a few things that emerged from this group that seem relevant to the wider world:

Visionaries without vision?

Those of us who work on issues such as sustainability are probably viewed as visionaries in our communities, and not without good reason. We work, day-to-day, to bring a message of a more sustainable world closer to reality. Visionary stuff, surely? And yet we can struggle when asked what our vision is. My faith based group definitely didn’t find it easy to vision. I noticed that encouraged to use colour, movement, pictures, most fell back on words. Encouraged to lift their eyes to the horizon they chose detailed examples from the foreground all of which highlights the difficulty that visioning presents us with.

Visioning is was hard work for most of us and there’s a danger that the struggle leaves us feeling unfulfilled and dissatisfied. So do we need a vision for visioning? How do we support a creative and dynamic vision for the future?

Come over to the dark side

In this particular visioning, denial, fear, the bleak future and a recurring reference to the ‘dark side’ all reared their head and at moments dominated.

That we, as a community of change-makers working to support others through their own struggle for sustainability can be overwhelmed by the weight of issues like climate change is telling. That we put on a brave face and project positivity is a potential problem because it means we’re working from an inauthentic place. If we need authentic action to make genuine and lasting change (and it makes sense that we do), then do we need to stop being  positive when we’re not feeling it and do the work necessary to vision beyond the bleakness? Or do we admit that we don’t have that vision and use our skills as trainers and facilitators to work with people as peers and to find a way through the darkness to a collective vision together?

Teaching new dogs old tricks

One of the disappointments of the day for some people was that they felt that there was a lack of new thinking. What emerged for many was a restatement of the radical founding vision of their faith. This got me thinking. Isn’t this true for many groups and organisations? Isn’t the struggle not for a constant supply of new thinking but to stay true to the initial vision and articulate it in a way that’s relevant for each new generation?

Isn’t the same true of many social change organisations? By their nature they tend to start from a vision, but over time begin to drift – mission creep, institutionalisation diluting radicalism and so on. People split away and new organisations are formed, often claiming a greater connection to the original vision, and so it cycles. For many organisations this can take years. Climate Camp is a useful case study because it’s shown us this dynamic at work in just 5 years. The founders have gone from articulating a clear vision to leaving the movement in droves because they feel that the movement is no longer true to their vision. But was the founding vision articulated to each new generation of climate camper? If so was it articulated in a way that inspired. Or was it simply assumed that the vision was clear to all, and shared by all? I generalise, but there’s some learning in there somewhere for all organisations.

And as for us facilitators – do we have a clear vision? Do we need to have an inspiring vision of what visioning can offer a group and movement or is that an obstacle to their visioning? Do we need to regularly reconnect with our founding vision for a piece of work, whatever its nature (and for our work as a whole) and successfully articulate that as the meeting or workshop unfolds?

Who you gonna call?

We regularly report back via the blog on workshops, meetings and events at which we’re working. We often don’t find time to mention the support we offer by phone. I type this because towards the end of last year I seemed to be doing this quite a bit. And it’s something I find quite satisfying – one less train journey, and more importantly, helping a group or organisation to be more self-sufficient.

  • In the latter weeks of 2010 I spent time on the phone with a facilitator from Climate Camp helping explain the intricacies of Open Space and coaching him through the process.
  • Having delivered one workshop at Leeds University, I wasn’t able to make another date, but was able to offer support from a distance to 2 students who felt confident enough to take the workshop on themselves with appropriate support. We talked through possible tools they might use to achieve their ends (forming affinity groups for upcoming protest at education cuts)
  • And then So We Stand wanted an external facilitator for an internal visioning meeting. Again, not able to be there in person, I was able to be on the end of the phone a day or two in advance. A discussion and some (hopefully) well-chosen questions clarified the aims of the day and the agenda needed to meet those aims.

At other times we’ve been asked to spend half an hour commenting on an agenda for a training session, asked  to suggest a specific technique for a certain part of an agenda, asked to support groups through the development of a co-operative structure and so on.

So to quote Ray Parker.. “Don’t get caught alone, no, no….. who you gonna call?”

Shared planets and open spaces: part 2


Shared Planet agenda wall - improvising without a wall

It seems like I’m blogging about Open Space with regularity nowadays. Awareness of the technique is clearly growing amongst the campaigning NGOs and networks with whom I do a lot of my work. And it’s being used to good effect. Of course it’s a far from perfect methodology and some of the issues were touched on in the first part of this post. I’m hoping to bring you a fuller critique of Open Space sometime soon.


In the meantime, Open Space was in use at the Climate Camp gathering in Manchester on Saturday and at People & Planet’s Shared Planet conference on Sunday. Rhizome was able to offer a little phone support to climate camp folk on how Open Space might work in the context of their meeting. I was at Shared Planet on Sunday giving more direct support to Beth from the People & Planet staff team who was facilitating an Open Space that day.

When P&P first asked for support we outlined a number of possible options, from facilitating the day ourselves, to training them to do so, to the option they finally chose: training P&P staff as Open Space facilitators and offering ongoing support by phone, email, and in person on the day. On Sunday, my role was to troubleshoot, help physically set up the space, and offer Beth any support she needed. On the morning this amounted to getting on with co-ordinating the physical set up whilst she found herself time to grab a coffee and sit and rehearse her opening spiel. Once she was ready, we walked through her spiel to fine tune it. I’ll speak with her later this week to debrief the opening of the space This model of support is very satisfying. It would have been easier (and cheaper) for P&P to simply ask us to facilitate the day, but instead we transferred the skills to their staff team, and were able to help consolidate them through the ongoing support.


Balloons to mark breakout spaces

On a more random Open Space note, P&P opted for 20 breakout spaces. The venue (the rather grand Aston Web Great Hall at the University of Birmingham) wouldn’t allow us to affix anything to the walls, so someone had the ide of using helium filled balloons tied to chairs to mark breakout spaces. Perhaps not the most eco-friendly option, but it made me smile and served its purpose well. Although breakout space number 20 did pop…..


Local groups: successes and challenges

The NGO Forum met on Thursday at WDM’s offices in London. The session focused on learning from each other about supporting local group networks. The topic was obviously a hot one as about a dozen new organisations responded to the publicity and joined the session. Many of them are at the early stages of founding networks, or wanting to grow existing small networks.

I was there, co-facilitating the session with Katharine from WDM.

After introductions and a bit of a warm up, we heard presentations on models of local organising from staff and volunteers involved in the networks of Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and Climate Camp. These 3 models had been chosen to span the spectrum from top-down organising with limited autonomy, through to the decentralised model of ‘disorganisations’ such as Climate Camp.

The questions that followed highlighted the issues for this group of capacity builders:

  • how to reach out and grow the size of a network
  • if and how NGOs utilise networks as fundraisers
  • how to deal with the ageing demographic of local campaign groups
  • the benefits of groups rather than active individuals
  • when NGOs throw volunteers in at the deep end (to deliver training to their peers, for example) how many sink, and how many swim?

The rest of the session was given over to the group, borrowing from Open Space, to set the agenda and have the conversations that were important to them.

Interestingly there wasn’t a huge demand for space on the agenda… there seemed to be some reluctance to embrace the open space which was reflected in the evaluations. Quite possibly this is because open space is still relatively new in campaigning NGO circles – it could well have been the first time many of those present had encountered it. And, because it was a relatively short session they didn’t have long to acclimatise.

As an aside, from those NGOs that have experienced open space I’ve seen a rapid rise in interest and find myself asked to use open space regularly nowadays…

Katharine took away the evaluations, so I’ll feedback on those in more detail when she sends them round.

This was a precursor to a full day skillshare on November 30th. If your organisation would benefit from being there, contact us or subscribe to the Forum email list Capacity_Building_NGO_Forum-subscribe(AT)yahoogroups.com – replacing (AT) with the @ symbol.

This is a topic we’ll come back to – we’ve experienced many different models of network and many different approaches to capacity building and support. Common themes emerge which are worth blogging about, so as always, watch this space…

Loose change or climate change?

Finance Team at Climate Camp are appealing for your cash. Here’s what they have to say:

Dear everyone,

The Edinburgh camp starts next week, but we really need some cash NOW. If you’re coming and can make a donation now, ahead of the camp, please do today. Or if you can’t come, but you support the camp, please donate today too! We need to pay for about £5,000 of stuff in the next ten days, and most of our income comes at the camp.

The best way to donate is right now via online or telephone banking. Our account details are:

Account Name: Camp for Climate Action
Account Number: 65204281
Sort Code: 08-92-99

For other ways to donate (slower, but still very much needed), see:

Entrance and participation in the Camp is free, to enable everyone to attend. When and where possible we have tried to get donations and skip materials. Nevertheless we cannot get away from incurring (significant) costs for marquees, food, plumbing, publicity, loo roll etc. We therefore ask for donations based on what people can afford. Suggested donations towards camp costs:

  • Kids, free
  • Teenagers, £5-10
  • Adult on benefit £10-15
  • Low-waged adult £15-20
  • Average or above average wage £20-30, or more if you can manage it!

The suggested food donation is £7 per day (£3 for lunch or dinner, £1 for breakfast), but please give what you can afford.

Thanks a lot for any donations you can give 🙂
The Finance Team

Just do it!

Here’s one for the film buffs and direct action junkies amongst you. Coming soon, but not to cinemas:  Just do it, a documentary to inspire action on climate change. This film needs your help, as this isn’t going to be distributed along the normal commercial lines. So here’s the trailer to give you a taste followed by 3 ways you can help in the filmmakers words:

1. JOIN our facebook page and invite your mates – through strong online networks we hope to be able to both fund and distribute the film without mega bucks or big billboards.

2. DONATE to the film – without your help, this film can’t be made. We’re making it because we believe that this is a story which needs to be told. Do you? Whether it’s a tenner or a grand, your contribution is essential and hugely appreciated.

3. PASS IT ON – Got mailing lists? A blog? Twitter? A friend with a blog? Spread the word – the more people bigging it up, the more people will be inspired to take action.