Democracy starts the day after the election…..Days like today can seem

There’ll be a lot of people in the community activist groups, the campaigning organisations, and the co-operatives that we work with who will be feeling the anger, frustration, disbelief, despondency, resignation, powerlessness and more that an election result like the one we’ve just had here in the UK can bring about. So much time, energy, hope has gone into making change and we’re still left with a government who divide and rule, who pit us against each other – those in work against those on benefits, those from the UK against migrants and refugees, the non-disabled against the disabled and so on.

Here at Rhizome we believe in community and we believe in action. Neither of those things is election dependent. There’s been a lot of talk about promises, pledges and vows this election. Our promise, pledge and vow is to continue to work with you, to the best of our ability, to support you to make change, to build community, and to take action that delivers real democracy.

Support is out there if you want to work by more genuinely democratic processes like consensus decision-making, or to take action despite the political system through nonviolent direct action. Here’s a quick run down – whether it’s for formal advice or an informal chat, mentoring, training, facilitation of meetings, try:

  • Rhizome – that’s us. We can help you with your group and organisational processes to build a culture of cooperative democracy. We can also help you strategise and plan for action, as well as train you in the ethos of nonviolent direct action and its techniques. We have lots of free resources on this website

Then there are our sister organisations who can make a similar offer:

Days like today are hard. But this is where democracy really starts – when we decide to set aside mere formalities such as election results and engage in real democracy – in our workplaces, community groups, families, and neighbourhoods. Relearning and rekindling the values of community, of empowerment and of relentless nonviolent action. Get in touch.


Organise resistance not compliance. Build mutual support you come across an inspirational resource. Today tweeted the link to London Coalition Against Poverty’sBuilding mutual support and organising in our communities” pamphlet.

If you’ve ever struggled to organise in an effective and inclusive way, there’s something here for you.

Full of stories from independent community groups. Read it! Then share it with others. It’ll be going up on our Resources page.

Our Tottenham – community democracy at work

“Since about 2009 my activism has focused on trying to build towards a better way of running society from the bottom up with full participation and real direct democracy and on a human scale. The first step seemed to be to get everyone who was active in a variety of ways in a local community all working together to resist bad stuff and do good things and to start to make their own power; and then to get the previously inactive people involved and gradually build a new type of democracy – simple !”


So opens a post on the Community Democracy blog where James Holland gives examples of genuine people-powered democracy at work in an age of austerity. He’s involved in Our Tottenham and sees the Our XX model as one that can and is spreading. Keep an eye on it.


No Right Turn – resources to resist the far right


Our community development friends Sostenga have created some free session plans and resources to support community development responses to far right groups mobilising in our communities. They’re asking folk to share and contribute.

Here’s what they say:

“The emergence of the EDL (English Defence League) and various splinter groups in the last few years, and their antagonising marches in communities they perceive as un-British adds new importance to us tackling the far right and their politics of hate. While none of the national voluntary sector organisations seem willing to take on this work we think it is important to share tools and resources that can help community development workers and activists do something proactive. These resources are quite basic, and we see them as a starting point. Building on work started in Yorkshire & Humberside in 2010, they are currently being developed in Brighton as a response to the now annual March for England that will be descending once again on April 27th. The aim is to create talking points and engage people around these issues. We would love to hear about and share through the No Right Turn website other similar projects.”


Let us (and them!) know how you use the resources, how effective they are, and what innovations you make.

From novice to ninja

I’m doing a little bit of helping out with a project to support people through their journey to being better informed and more skilled activists. The project goes by the name of A.S.K for the World| Activist Skills and Knowledge.

The premise is simple enough. Help people to asess their own knowledge and abilities on a scale of ‘novice’ to ‘practitioner’ to ‘expert’ to ‘ninja’, then provide them with the resources to learn, develop and progress up the levels. The clever bit (and the tricky bit) is that whilst resources means all the usual web links, books, videos etc, it also, and crucially, includes a community of people who can mentor and coach each other.

Novice on climate science? Well, eventually you’ll be able to connect with practitioners, experts and hopefully ninja climate science folk who can do their stuff and give you the support you need. Peer-to-peer development. Got to be worth a shot.

The project’s at an early stage – a bit rough and ready and lots more work to do. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts,


Hearing voices: activists engaging communities

Yesterday I was facilitating at the regular meeting of the Building Activist Networks Forum. The theme of the session was supporting activists in engaging with their communities. To be precise, I was co-facilitating – with Naveed from Oxfam UK.

Right from the start we identified that all we could do in the time that we had was to open up the conversation. And we suspected it was a conversation that few activists, and few organisations that support activists find the time to have. We felt the conversation usually started with “what do we do to support our activists in engaging their communities?”, and didn’t often cover “why do we want to engage the community?” or “who are the community anyway?”. It was this latter question we focused on.

We asked the participants to step into the shoes of the community that their activists were trying to reach and identify some of the types of people they wanted to engage but struggled to so so? Why isn’t it working? What are the needs and aspirations of these members of the community, and what are the obstacles to successful engagement from their perspective. Through some thinking, some drawing, and some fantastic roleplaying (hats off to our volunteers) we brought some of these characters into the room and got to talk to them about these issues. I think it worked – I took it as a good sign when, during a break, a participant accused us of having “provoked an existential crisis”.

We had been asked to enable these capacity builders to identify the skills their activists needed for successful engagement, and the skills they needed, in turn, to support the activists. In reality we took a step back and identified the states of mind, a necessary foundation to the skills, and one that was well-received.

The activity itself was one that’s easy enough to replicate more or less wholesale with activists to help them have the same conversations and reflections and begin to develop the states of mind we were working with.

Naveed then facilitated a lovely capacity builder ‘lonely hearts’ in which participants got to ask for support and find who in the room could help them… “capacity builder WLTM experienced public speaker to inspire network of activists….” and so on. I’m not sure love blossomed across the crowded room, but some serious and passionate networking was done.

The Forum is open to anyone who works to support networks of activists regardless of the issue, size of network, paid staff or volunteer. Get in touch if you want to be kept in touch.

Empowered communities

A month ago I started watching this on Casper ter Kuile’s blog. I soon realised it was a powerful video, but have only just found time to finish it. We don’t hear enough about community organising in the UK activist scene. Much of the activist movement is about mobilising people who, in the grand scheme of things, are already empowered – whether through class, education, income or whatever. It’s just under half an hour long, so make yourself a cuppa….

Inside Out: Thrive from Church Action on Poverty on Vimeo.

A new space for community and voluntary action?

Here’s news of an interesting event….

NCIA Assembly at the Bank of Ideas
Occupy community groups and public services: a discussion to find a new
space for community and voluntary action.
Tuesday December 13th, 2pm to 4pm, Room 1.05, The Bank of Ideas, 29 Sun
Street (near Liverpool Street station), London

Amongst other things billed as: “one of those unexpected opportunities: to make links between voluntary sector workers and activists, find out what is emerging and imagine alternatives.”. More details follow (and on The National Coalition for Independent Action website)

NCIA has been documenting threats to voluntary action from cuts, commissioning, top-down management methods, and loss of confidence and purpose in organisations. Meanwhile, people persevere in local community action – they care for each other, organise support and activities, ask questions, challenge and change the status quo.

In a recent Guardian article, Stuart Hall notes that weighty professional voices have joined protests against structural reforms and cuts. But he also highlighted the role of unexpected developments and counter-movements, resistance, alternative visions. All are welcome to listen to some of our members talk about their experiences and to join in open discussion about how to defend our unique, ungoverned space.

Invite friends and colleagues, but let us know if you’re attending if possible, so we have an idea of how many to expect. If you’re coming from outside London, we may be able to cover some travel expenses. Please get in touch with us first to check: or

In praise of activism

I’ve been feeling a little guilty about recent posts on the Occupy movement. Not because I’ve said anything that on reflection I disagree with, but because I know that I’ve been offering a negative critique of both choice of tactics and the robustness of the actions so far without balancing it with a positive critique. So it’s good to read a positive assessment of activist organising from Chris Corrigan and be reminded that whilst, as a community of changemakers, we could undoubtedly do things much better, we’re pretty damn good at it most of the time. Whilst not Occupy-specific, in his post The activist model of action Chris makes an upbeat assessment of those working for change and shares some observations about how to organise most effectively:

When you are working for community change, there is often more at stake than working within organizational settings.  Leadership in organizations, especially commercial organizations tends to focus on efficiency, production and increasing revenues.  Within communities, change is often precipitated by the threat to lives or livelihoods, addressing violence or inequality and improving complex indicators of health and well-being.  Those needs have a way of focusing activist on doing things well, and people who don’t work in this world would do well to learn from those that do.

Starhawk has also been blogging from the Occupy frontline in the USA, and finding real power, energy and inspiration on the streets. Despite my reservations about the choice of tactics, like Climate Camp, Occupy protests are providing a focus and a way in to people who are just starting their activist journey.

I particularly appreciated Chris’s words on activist’s power and privilege, an issue that plagues parts of our movement, and is deservedly getting more attention nowadays than when I first got involved:

If you come to a change initiative with privilege (ie you have power within the system) the best thing you can do to enable change is to check in with your privilege and step out of the conversation to create space for new leaders and new forms of leadership to come forward.  Asserting your privilege closes space down.  Becoming an ally to change initiatives is a powerful and important way to support emerging solutions and to allow leadership to come from anywhere.  People with power and privilege can open lots of space if we get real about how our power works.

Reporting back from Peace News

Just back from a couple of days at the Peace News Summer Gathering. On Sunday I ran a couple of workshops – the first on public speaking and the second an introduction to nonviolent direct action. I’m happy that they were well received, though as always there are lessons to learn.

One of those lessons is about assumptions. This is the third year I’ve run the public speaking session, and it’s only ever attracted a handful of people. Then this year 19 people showed up. I’d planned for a lot less so it was a pleasant surprise, but one accompanied by some very quick recalculations of the mental arithmetic of workshop design – size of groups, time taken for feedback from small groups and other exercises, stretching materials between a larger number of people and so on….

On the final morning of the Camp I was facilitating a meeting on People Power, focused on learning from the Arab revolutions and looking at our own organising and activism in the light of these momentous events.

Gabriel Carlyle, Peace News co-editor, gave a short but incisive overview of the build up of events in Egypt (read what he wrote on the subject on the Peace News blog). He reminded us that the “Facebook and Twitter revolution” wasn’t as instantaneous as it might have been portrayed in the media, but was the result of a decade or more of capacity building and mobilising, much of which seemed to fail abjectly at the time but played an integral part in the success of the uprising a few years, months or days later.

There were many highlights, but the nonviolent direct action trainer in me homed in on his reference to the 15,000 people trained in the philosophy and techniques of nonviolence over the months before events in Tahrir Square and elsewhere. 15,000, trained in groups of 100. I’ve been training people in nonviolent techniques since about 1994 and until Monday if I could claim 1500 trainees in that time I’d have been happy. Seems like if we want a revolution we need to step up our game. Over a million of us marched against the war on Iraq. The nonviolence trainers I’m networked with probably managed to train just a few hundred people over that period, working flat-out, at a time when the population was outraged and wanting to act….

As a consequence of Gabriel’s presentation, I finally got round to buying a copy of Tweets from Tahrir, the story of the Egyptian told in the form of the tweets of those taking part. Powerful stuff – get yourself a copy.

Then the participants spent time in groups imagining themselves 10 years hence after our own people-power revolution had happened and piecing together the highlights, and then telling the stories. It seemed important to start with a positive. From there we began to look at whether those present, and the groups, networks and movements they were part of had a role to play in bringing about profound change in the social order, and if so what that role could be. A useful discussion. It’s certainly got me thinking. 15,000 people, eh?

Re-energising activists

A week ago, I spent the day in the company of NGO Capacity Building Forum folk, facilitatingWordle: Capacity Building a day of Open Space and skill sharing. The theme for the day was Re-energising and Re-motivating Activists, and it drew a crowd from 14 or so NGOs that work with grassroots networks of activists – individuals or groups. There was certainly a lot of energy and motivation in the room. As always with the Forum, ideas, problems, experience and solutions were shared freely and everyone went away with new contacts and new ideas to try out.

The format was simple – a morning with a couple of hour-long Open Space conversations, followed by a sharing of insights, issues and themes which the group then ranked to give us 2 top priorities to work on in the afternoon. Over lunch I worked with 3 others from the group to develop these 2 ideas into 90 minute skill sharing sessions to explore those themes, which we then delivered in 2 co-facilitation pairs. 

The idea that emerged top of the pile was how campaigning organisations could work together more effectively. The next choice was around activists working effectively as part of their local communities – in other words being active in a community rather than being a slightly separate community of activists. Both were delivered using a mix of tools, but we set out to make them as experiential as possible after a morning of talk, with one session drawing on forum theatre whilst the other used a fishbowl roleplay.

I’d asked one of my co-facilitators to run the evaluation in advance and the technique used was one I hadn’t come across before. He drew a large hand, fingers outspread, on a piece of flipchart paper and asked everyone to write upto 1 comment per finger on post-it notes. Each finger represents a different view of the event and it’s outcomes:

  • thumb – thumbs up, so something that was positive or ‘cool’
  • index finger – used for pointing, so something you’d like to point out – could be positive, negative or neither
  • middle finger – improvements, things that worked less well for you
  • ring finger – think engagement rings, so something that you’re now committed to doing
  • little finger – what you’re hooked on – an idea that grabbed your attention and got you interested

The evaluation was very affirming all told. Here’s a sample of responses:

  • thumb – the Open Space and the opportunity to meet and network
  • index finger – “Role plays hard but makes you think issues from different angle”, “Best open space I’ve done”, “Should replicate [the event] for activists”, “Need more action planning”
  • middle finger – more skills sessions, some complaints about the room we were using (it was hard to keep it well-ventilated), and requests for a more specific topic, were amongst the suggested improvements
  • ring finger – “Open Space”, “shaking up existing groups”, “learning more facilitation techniques”, “encourage activists linking up”
  • little finger – lots of excitement about storytelling (the topic of one of the morning’s conversations), and connecting activists in diverse communities and in more personal relationships

A small working group went away tasked to make th next event happen later this year. As always, if you want to hear about NGO Capacity Building Forum events, drop us a line and we’ll ensure you get on the email list

Two worlds collide on one small planet (or getting cross over culture)

Here at Rhizome we talk a lot about activism, though we like to think we have quite a broad view of what that actually means . We see it as both the more obviously political ‘campaigning’ work and the building of alternatives, building community. What’s one without the other, right?

Not for everyone. This week I engaged with a discussion on the Transition Network website. In fact I kicked off the comments on a piece about how more and more transition initiatives were interacting with activist groups and how this was worthy of more reflection and discussion. Right there you can see where I might have come at it from – the separation of transition from activism as if the 2 communities operated in total isolation with no cross over. From the response my thoughts received it seems like some folk wish they did, but I get ahead of myself….

It’s all placards and balaclavas

I posted a comment in which I tried (badly perhaps, I’ll let you judge – feedback always welcome) to express my feeling that there was an artificial difference being created between activism and transition-type work, that most, if not all, of the activists I know did both – perhaps not formally under the banner of transition, but transition-style community and resilience building. Off the top of my head I’m thinking of things like creating housing and workers co-ops, involvement in permaculture projects, community development work and so much more. The response wasn’t exactly warm and welcoming. Recent comments have thawed things a bit, I’m glad to say.

with apologies to Cath Tate cards

It seems that to those who don’t identify as ‘activist’ those of us that do are not as well thought of as we might like to believe, nor is what we do understood:

“How can people who have spent years seeing what is wrong and reaching for their placards and balaclavas adapt to a movement that is focussed on enablement and solutions?”

“as soon as you get a group going to build local resilience, that immediately attracts a lot of campaigners that say: “But if you believe in all this, why don’t you come to this or that?” The answer should be: “Because the time I use in campaigning isn’t used in building resilience locally in this or that way.” In reality, most people aren’t very strongly pro or anti campaigning, so they are swayed by whoever offers the most tempting package. And it usually the campaigner package is the most tempting, because it offers like-minded company and entertaining activities at a very low price: just be another one in this march, just put your signature there, just do this very little bit. Things like growing an allotment or organizing a local Energy Fair are way, way more work intensive, and a lot of the work isn’t as much fun, no matter how you try to make it fun.”

What I find interesting are the assumptions present here:

  • Activism is purely negative. “No”, “Stop”…etc (or as friend once put on their placard “Down with this sort of thing”. No sense of the positive worldview that might inspire people to try to prevent harm to humans, non-humans and the planet
  • Activists are not only not engaged in positive activity, but wouldn’t be any good at it if they were – hmmm see above
  • We wear balaclavas (implied violence??) – last balaclava I wore was probably aged 6 and almost certainly knitted by my nanna
  • If we engage with transition or similar movements it’s with an agenda, to get them to campaign (against their will) – now there may be a grain more truth in this one… but it’s certainly not true of all activists
  • That campaigning is easy, not time-consuming and great fun

What I find worrying are the possible consequences for community groups. Picture the scene: an activist who’s also keen to work locally and help build alternatives to the systems that s/he campaigns ‘against’ attends a transition meeting. Somewhere in that meeting s/he uses the word “activist” or “activism”. Worse still s/he uses it with reference to the assembled masses. Hackles are raised and the temperature gets a tad icy. Maybe our activist is told in no uncertain terms why transition is not activism and their sort shouldn’t try to make it so. Maybe nothing’s said and s/he returns home knowing that something’s wrong but not sure quite what. Another missed opportunity to build a stronger and more diverse movement….

If we can’t tolerate those who are fundamentally on side how are we going to build the resilient community that is at the heart of the transition ethos? If we make enemies of our friends, how will we deal with those we have least common ground with?

Falling off the high horse

Ah, but here’s the rub. Firstly reverse the scenario – are we the ‘activist’ movement really any different? A transitioner who’s keen to add an international, political element to their work walks into the meeting of her/his local direct action collective. How long before the hackles go up here? How long before s/he says something that’s not suitably anti-capitalist or direct action orientated (“we could visit our MP….”). OK so I’ve deliberately used a part of the movement that has a less mainstream culture and is harder to ‘join’ than, say, a local Friends of the Earth group. But are those more mainstream groups really exempt? Don’t all groups have a culture and aren’t cultures always a source of difference?And aren’t there as many assumptions made about those who choose not to campaign?

Secondly, how have we contributed to these assumptions being made? How have we communicated in a way that allows them to seem reasonable. There’s no reason to doubt that the authors are reasonable, intelligent and committed individuals and yet there are assumptions aplenty about the nature of activism. Have we communicated our difference in an exclusive manner?

And in conclusion

Back to the main thrust – how do we handle difference? How do we as folk that are committed to a better reality work to overcome that seemingly fundamental human trait of highlighting difference and using it as an excuse for having ‘power over’, for discrimination and oppression.

So a few thoughts for those of us doing capacity building work…. I’m more and more convinced that this needs to be central to the work we do. I know that recruitment and retention is a key issue in a lot of networks, often with a clear ‘difference’ problem (older group members having difficulty in recruiting younger people, for example). It’s not just about set piece responses. It’s not even just about the basic group dynamics stuff, though that can’t hurt. It’s about supporting and enabling ourselves and the groups we support to cultivate an attitude that helps them welcome difference.

And, crucially, that same attitude allows those same people to engage the wider world more effectively as campaigners, meeting people where they’re at. It also allows us to climb down off our moral high ground and see the more subtle human causes behind the issues we face and deal with them more intelligently.

I’ve been reading George Lakey’s latest book, Facilitating Group Learning: Strategies for Success with Diverse Adult Learners and I’m sure this won’t be the only reference in this blog over the next few months. George suggests that we need to suspend our attitude of judging difference and get back to simply being curious about it

“Curiosity is abundant in small children. By the time people are adults, judging seems to have replaced curiosity as the primary mental operation. As an impediment to intellectual development,the loss of curiosity is particularly marked whenever difference appears”

Recent news coverage of police officers beating up a submissive terror suspect remind me that this kind of behaviour is inevitable when we’re briefed to be afraid of difference and believe that difference is a threat to us. In this case the police were apparently briefed to expect violent resistance, and they acted out all of the fear, tension and excitement that the warning had created in them even though they didn’t meet the predicted resistance. Aren’t we activists sometimes the same? Aren’t we in danger of seeing all employees of certain corporations or government departments as ‘bad people’ and using that stereotype to legitimise inhumane treatment. Now, admittedly with activists that’s rarely the cause of administering a beating, but it can lead to other behaviour that fails to recognise and respect the full dignity of the human being we’re dealing with.

Back to where I started – how to work together in an atmosphere of difference and mutual respect, firstly with those with whom the differences are, relatively speaking, slight, and then with those with whom we are more profoundly different until we can honestly say we have the attitudes, skills and knowledge to create resilient and sustainable communities.

Please share your thoughts and experience.

Lunching out on accountability

I recently left a comment on Dwight Towers blog. It turned out to be quite a long one and had the makings of a post in its own right. So I’ve taken it and made it even longer. The problem as posed by Dwight:

there are also some people [and their track record goes on for years in different groups] who persistently don’t do what they say they will, and “lunch out” repeatedly. And in the NVDA/non-hierarchical subcultures I’ve seen, this is tolerated far too much. We have no real accountability structures [and it does my nut].

Accountability and leadership

Dwight’s right. Accountability is a huge issue in many groups, and especially those at the non-hierarchical end of the scale. There’s a real fear of it in some non-hierarchical groups because it smacks of leadership and leadership is a dirty word. Without leadership how do you hold someone to account for anything (“who am I to appoint myself the person that holds others to account?”)?

There’s an association of leadership with leaders – people that take power over others, or are given it by flawed (s)election processes. Groups that eschew those processes in favour of, say, consensus, can also eschew the very concept of leadership, leaving themselves vulnerable to lack of accountability and a lot more besides, including the “lunch out” culture Dwight describes.

That kind of thinking can seriously paralyse groups and whole movements. Ironically it can lead to more hierarchy and less accountability because the more “sorted” people will often just get together and make stuff happen cutting out those they consider unreliable altogether. This in turn leads to accusations of elites, hidden agendas and so on.

(As always) ask yourself why

But anyone that consistently volunteers and consistently fails to deliver has some kind of issue. They don’t just get out of bed and say to themselves “today I’ll go and bugger up a meeting”. The only way we can solve the problem is to find out what that issue is and put in place appropriate support.

Possible issues might include:

  • genuinely wanting to help but not receiving adequate support to do so. There’s a classic problem in many groups and organisations of lack of support for volunteers (and in some cases even staff). It’s a sink or swim approach, and not everyone sees that kind of water as enticing. People are busy changing the world. They don’t have the time to babysit other people (in all probability, no-one babysat them…) and there’s no sympathy to spare. Besides, being able to do a task doesn’t make me automatically able to show others how it’s done. All very understandable, but not a sustainable approach to working in groups
  • poor consensus process leading to people “agreeing” to things they don’t really believe in, so once away from the pressure of the meeting they let it slide. Sound familiar? This can happen for several reasons
    • poor process can lead to very long meetings. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence of meetings in which, after 3 hours people would happily agree to hack off their own arm if they thought it would get you home this side of midnight… I exaggerate, but you get the point
    • it can also be caused by peer pressure. This in turn can be aggravated by some of those tools becoming increasingly common in some groups’ practice of consensus – handsignals, temperature checks. Useful in the right moment, used in the right way. But they can bring an unwelcome “weight of majority” that we’re not all assertive enough to resist
    • and of course poor listening can turn a half-hearted expression of interest into a firm commitment to take on an action point in a very short time indeed, leaving our half-hearted group member trapped into a task they aren’t committed to
  • lack of adequate summaries throughout a meeting, alone or in combination with poor minute taking allow people to leave a meeting with a task which later they realise they don’t really understand, and if there’s no between meeting support system in place….. They can also leave a meeting with a task they hadn’t realised they’d volunteered for. More on that below
  • hypercritical groups – people would rather lunch them out than risk doing the task and being told in precise detail that they’ve done it wrong. Of course these judgements (“you’ve done it wrong/to an unacceptably low standard”) are often very subjective. “You’ve done it wrong” may just mean “you’ve not done it as I would have”. In the long-term this pattern of behaviour means that people simply stop volunteering (and possibly stop attending). Another manifestation of this can be a culture in which not volunteering for tasks leads to criticism, so everyone feels pressured to take something on even though they are fully aware they can’t deliver
  • this is often combined with lack of sympathy to people’s commitments. The ‘lightweight syndrome’ – changing the world is the most important thing and your kids/partner/sick relative/job/time off/health problems aren’t recognised excuses in our hard-core group, so get with the programme and take on the task
  • poor interpersonal dynamics in a group can lead to people behaving in this way as one way of attracting the attention of the group
  • volunteering people is another problem – it’s easy to say “Matthew will do that. I’ll ask him later”. Matthew gets minuted as taking it on, but does he ever get told that? If he does get told, does he have any real sense of ownership of the decision or the task? In a month’s time when he faces the ire of the group for failing to deliver (surprise, surprise!), does anyone actually remember he was volunteered rather than volunteering himself?

Years of poor meetings creates a culture where lunching out on tasks, and many other problems, are at least acceptable if not the norm, so there’s a real need to find ways of moving forwards.

What’s the solution?

Possible strategies include –

  • air the issues – easy to say and hard to do, but part of the problem is often that no-one’s willing to break a group’s bad habits. You have to start somewhere and whispered conversations in the pub, or rants to your partner or housemates when you get home from a meeting don’t make any difference (except to your blood pressure). If you can raise the issue and deal with it sympathetically, great! Of course raising the issue in a ‘pointing the finger of blame’ way won’t help in the slightest
  • ask rather than assume – don’t guess why it might be happening. If you’re not sure ask the person or persons involved. It could be a quiet chat outside of a meeting. Be calm, listen carefully, and above all be willing to hear that some responsibility may lie with the group. There’s at least 2 sides to every story
  • offer mentoring or buddying between experienced and less experienced people (or other appropriate support around roles and tasks). We have to find the capacity to coach and mentor volunteers, and offer any other support they need if we’re to build long-term movements for change. And of course, if we don’t then we create an informal hierarchy of the skilled – those willing to dive in to the water and swim
  • set clear expectations in meetings (including deadlines, expected quality of the outcome, systems of accountability) using a decision-making process that people are actually committed to
  • recap after each agenda item to ensure that people are happy with the tasks that (you think) they’ve agreed to. Watch for body language, facial expressions, or tone of voice that may contradict their agreement to take on a task and be willing to voice that difference. Recap again at the end of the meeting and make a point of getting in touch with anyone who had to leave early, especially if you know that the minutes take a while to get sent round
  • distribute accurate notes of the meeting quickly – make them detailed enough to genuinely remind people what they’ve agreed to. If tasks have short deadlines think about using more than one method of communication. It only takes a work crisis,or a hardware problem at home cutting of the broadband and someone may not see the minutes in time. Pick up the phone if need be
  • create a culture of constructive feedback for the ongoing learning and development of the group. If you’re involved in preparing the agenda, suggest that the group sets aside the final 5 minutes of each meeting and start evaluating them to set an example. Take on board the points raised and make changes. Extend that culture bit by bit, perhaps asking for feedback on a task you took on. Perhaps offering a few words of constructive feedback on a task in private until the group is happy to have these conversations in public
  • have a realistic expectation of what the group can achieve. This stops the group demanding more of people than they are in a position to deliver
  • see the whole person – remember that for many people their activism is one facet of their lives, so put it in perspective and make room for socialising, fun and other types of meeting that don’t create such a weight of expectation and action points. Be grateful for what they can offer. If you choose to offer more that’s your choice and shouldn’t be a judgement on others
  • and if nothing else works and the problem does simply lie with an individual who has an unreaslistic view of their ability to deliver on promises, be brave enough to say so when they volunteer for a crucial task and gently explain the problems it can cause and the resentment that can creep in. Value the contribution they do make by attending meetings and any roles they take on during meetings

Supporting groups to tackle the problem

If you support groups with this problem as a volunteer or staff member you could do worse than to consciously set a good example. This might involve:

  • delivering on the tasks you agree to take on
  • offering a sympathetic ear to struggling volunteers
  • asking for feedback on your work and acting on it
  • offering constructive feedback to the group
  • getting good quality minutes of meetings and events out within 48 hours of the meeting
  • mentoring people through tasks they want support in
  • biting the bullet and asking the uncomfortable question – why is this happening?
  • facilitating the odd meeting for the group and including clear expectations on minute taking, detailed descriptions of the action points that need taking on, summaries and so on
  • and of course using your network communications to highlight groups who are avoiding or tackling the issue successfully

On a larger scale there’s a need to step back and look at the model of group you promote, consciously and unconsciously. Does that in any way send out a message? Does it encourage healthy group dynamics? If you don’t explicitly promote a model of healthy groups people will fall back on the norm, and the norm is not great.

I don’t mean to make it sound easy. Often these problems are entrenched. One person’s ‘failure’ to complete tasks has met with an unsympathetic response. That’s caused more tension and the problems deepen and grow. Left for months or years this can seriously damage a group. However, the standard response of tolerating it and hoping it goes away (or more specifically hoping the ‘problem person’ goes away) will not work. If the original problem lay in the group even if that person leaves the problem remains.

Take that first step…

The many faces of activism

I’m not long back in from facilitating a 2 hour ‘information meeting’ for the Steiner School Leicestershire Interest Group. As meetings go it was relatively straightforward – no crucial decisions to make, no deeply embedded history of conflict and so on. The group’s very recent, and I got into conversation with them about building their awareness of their group dynamic nice and early to avoid it setting in stone.There was already a high level of awareness which gives hope that this group may thrive.

One thing led to another and I volunteered to facilitate the meeting. The brief involved all the usual things about getting the task done in the allocated time (the task being giving people a chance to find out more about Steiner education, to get up to date with the project to open a Steiner school in Leicestershire, and crucially to have an opportunity to get involved). The more demanding bit was to do this without reinforcing the existing group dynamics of the project – a core group of 4 families doing all the work. But with a sincere and open approach it wasn’t that hard. The meeting went well and new volunteers came forward to offer skills, time and resources. There was also the option to make tentative offers – in other words an offer that was dependent on receiving appropriate support, mentoring and skill sharing. It would have been nice to see more offers, but as many people still haven’t decided whether the school is for them that’s not too surprising. I’ve shared some of the evaluation comments below this post.

For a moment I considered whether this was really Rhizome work, not that I don’t facilitate outside of Rhizome. No, the question was “Is it really activism?”. I think the answer has to be ‘yes’. For some of these parents it’s all about building a better world for their children. Quite literally – a creative, humane educational experience that build world-changing values and attitudes in the next generation. This, as well as having had a baby in the last year reminds me that there are so many more faces of activism than the ones many of us are familiar with. It’s not all petitions, banners, marches and ‘lock-ons‘. There are countless folk out there working away to build alternative social structures. So here’s a few to interest and inspire:

The Association of Radical Midwives is a resource to allow women (and their partners) the empowering birth that many aspire to but few get.

There’s also a growing homebirth and freebirth movement. Despite recent media campaigns here in the UK to undermine the strong reputation for the safety of homebirth.

I’ve always been inspired by the midwives of the Farm, an US commune that started out as a hippy convoy snaking its way across the USA on a journey long enough that several babies were born en route. The women of the Farm became self-taught midwives (well, with a little help from supportive doctors along the way) and have gone on to challenge a lot of current birthing assumptions, such as the need for significant medical intervention in a breech birth. This DIY approach to life has a lot in common with other elements of activism.

And of course then there’s the home education movement and the related but lesser known unschooling movement, vegan parenting and so much more.

And that’s just the early years – hundreds of people pioneering ways of living that fulfil their ideological view of the world. Activism? I think so.

Pick any other aspect of life and dig around and there will be an activist ‘scene’. You get up in the morning and there’s folk campaigning for different daylight saving hours. You eat breakfast – foodmiles, localism, organic, veganic. You go out – transport, local amenities and so on…

It’s both humbling and inspiring to think that by the time you turn on your computer (open source software, corporate domination, conflict minerals….) to start your day’s work as an activist or someone building the capacity of activists you’ve already connected with this much activism.

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….



“Take me to your leader!” 2

It’s easy to point out all the potential problems for groups with hierarchical models of leadership. It’s less easy to know what to do about them. If you support groups, whether on a local or regional level, or as part of the team at a national NGO or community organisation what’s to be done?

A lot of organisations start by changing the language of groups organising – moving away from Chair(man), Secretary, Treasurer to less formal and traditional words such as ‘co-ordinator’, ‘steering group’, ‘core group’. Well worth doing to send a message that your groups work slightly differently. But it seems to me that more needs to be done to actively counteract the norm.

Like it or not, the assumed model is one of leadership from the top down. Even if members of a group don’t particularly share those values that’s what’s likely to happen by default, simply because there’s not that much experience out there of the alternatives. So you might try:

Clearly articulating why

Tell both your groups and the wider organisation why you want change. And I don’t mean just ideological sentiment about power and leadership. I’ve nothing against that at all, but if you can give clear and practical reasons they carry a lot of weight both with the ideologically committed and those who have no problem with the good old-fashioned committee structure. But tell them they can attract and keep more members, have more effective and enjoyable meetings, increase the level of skill within the group, and sustain their activity for longer, and more…that’s pretty irresistible. If the bottom line is that you’ll make more change in the world this way, what campaigner’s going to say no?

Yeah, I know there are some that will say no because their power base is threatened or because they’re feeling anxious about doing things a different way. But it’s been a useful exercise because what’s just happened is that you’ve brought to light deeply entrenched group dynamics issues. And you have more chance of dealing with them now they’re in the open.

Modelling shared leadership

Walk your talk in the way you structure your team, put on events, communicate with your local groups, make your decisions. Is the way you’re currently set up genuinely a partnership? How participatory is it for local activists? Is communication a conversation or a monologue? Does your practice change in the light of what you hear from the grassroots?Are events planned with activists or for them. Who sets the agenda? Where does the power lie in the relationship? You get the picture.

Check out the Ladder of Participation and see where you sit.

Of course there’s a lot of tension here for those of us that work in capacity-building and network support. Our teams may go to great lengths to model the values and the practice of shared leadership, but be part of bigger organisations that adopt very traditional power-relationships. We’d love to hear about your experiences of that tension and how best to navigate potentially choppy waters.

Offering relevant training

Provide training in the necessary skills supported by relevant materials. And not just facilitation skills, although that’s a good start. It’s still possible for the Chair to simply morph into ‘facilitator’ – meetings are more inclusive but the underlying power structures don’t change.

So think about other group dynamics related training; training that opens people’s eyes to the roles that they play in groups; training that equips people to value diversity and be able to draw on that diversity to strengthen and not weaken the group; training which opens up groups to those on the margins as well as those in the mainstream.

Elsewhere on this blog we’ve talked about values over technique. Ideally your training will pass on the attitudes and underlying values of shared leadership and not just a set of tools. Tools that can be used to forge shared leadership, but can also be used to create a poor impression of shared leadership because the underlying state of mind isn’t there.

Highlighting where it’s working

Reinforce the message in your newsletters, emails and websites. Make shared leadership so prevalent in your communication that it feels odd to do it any other way.

What else has worked for your organisation or group?

You might also want to read “Take me to your leader!” – first post in the series.

Modelling shared leadership

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

“Take me to your leader!”

cartoon by Nopolymon aka T. Coffin

I’ve had leadership on the mind this week, mainly due to spending some time writing a proposal for some work developing a youth leadership programme for young people involved in the Woodcraft Folk.

For some leadership is a dirty word. It’s too closely related to hierarchy. Indeed there’s a moment on many direct actions when the police first approach activists and invariably ask to speak to whoever’s in charge. Much of the direct action movement takes great delight in being able to answer that “no-one is in charge”. In principle this is one thing I love about the movement: it’s fiercely non-hierarchical opening up space for new models of leadership – co-operative models. Of course it doesn’t always live up to its own rhetoric (who does?), and the person who answers “no-one’s in charge” is often one of the more assertive (dare I say dominant) personalities in a group and as such carries much of the weight of the traditional leader.

But I digress…. so leadership is often embodied in an individual. We have a leader, or a small committee of leaders. They are expected to fulfil all of the functions of good leadership: to inspire; to provide clear direction; to resolve disputes; to set the ethical standards for the group or movement; to speak with confidence and authority; to have a deep understanding and analysis of the issues; to be able to make hard decisions and so on. So far so bad….

For community groups, leaders can be the death knell. However competent they are, the very model of leadership breeds problems, and we’re often expecting people to do it with no training and little experience. Let’s look at a few of the problems:

Leaders can disempower people – one look at our heroic leader and I’m left feeling deflated in that “I can never be like him (and it’s usually a him), so I won’t even try” way.

Leaders can create a gulf between those that lead and those at the bottom of a group or organisation. Others are left with no opportunity or motivation to develop skills and knowledge because much of the work is done by the leaders.

Leaders can undermine sustainability of groups. It doesn’t take a group long to settle into a dynamic of active leader and passive group. OK so the group might be a group of activists, who undertake a lot of activity, but in terms of the roles within the group they can be passive. That may work for many groups, but it’s totally dependent on the leader. And leaders have health problems to. Leaders move to new towns, cities or countries. Leaders get new demands on their time… there are lots of reasons why a group might lose its leader. For some groups that’s terminal. There’s no-one with the skills or experience to take over and the group wilts and dies.

Leaders can cause disharmony and fuel competition which can lead to factions within groups and unhealthy group dynamics. Perhaps there’s someone else who aspires to the leadership role. Perhaps there’s a disaffected minority that have been on the rough end of some of those hard choices or alienated by those ethical standards. Perhaps one person does all the TV and radio and becomes the only person the media wants to talk to.

So what’s the alternative? Collective leadership. Let’s disembody leadership. See it as a series of roles that need to be fulfilled for a group to be well led. Those roles all need to happen, but do they really need to be done by just one person? Or a small handful of people?

Well functioning groups know this already. They value the input of all members. They know what members have to offer (because they’ve had that conversation). They know what members want to learn, and encourage and support skillsharing. They make time for this process alongside their activism, indeed they see it as an essential foundation for their activism. They welcome diversity. They plan for the long-term – they see the life of the group as more than the task at hand and establish resilient and sustainable groups. Founder members have understood the need to give away the authority that founding conveys on them as quickly as possible. They’ve created a culture of equality, open communication, supportive peer feedback, shared responsibility and mutual inspiration. They make themselves redundant as quickly as possible.

We live in a culture in which leadership from above is the default setting. We all understand it, even if we’re not all comfortable with it. It’s easy for groups to fall into this model of leadership through an absence of action rather than deliberate choice. Making change to a more empowered and empowering approach is easier once you realise that it’s not only (not even?) a political or ideological decision. It can be a practical decision about both the long and short-term success of your group. Of course, stepping away from the culture of top-down leadership isn’t always easy. It’s easy to find support and ideas for what’s considered normal and right, less easy for the alternatives. And of course we have to fend of our own socialisation to accept the model as best.

However, you’re not alone. Folk like Rhizome exist. See our links and resources pages for more ideas. And if you’re doing it and making it work, share your success with us (and we’d happily hear about the challenges too).

And for the facilitators reading. How’s it read if we replace ‘leader’ with ‘facilitator’? Whether we like it or not we’re often cast in a leadership role by the groups we work with….

“Take me to your leader!” 2: some thoughts for organisations wanting to promote shared leadership.

Activist Mediation Training

19-29 February’s proving popular. This also just in:

Want to learn mediation skills

Interested in helping support activist groups engage with disagreements and conflict, to make them more effective?

Want to deal with conflicts in your personal life that interfere with
your activism?

Mediation training for activists in London on 19-20 February, from 11am – 5pm.

The aims of these days are:

  • To train people in conflict resolution skills that they can use in their own lives and activist work
  • For people interested in volunteering with us to receive training and to meet with us to discuss taking it further.

You are expected to attend both days (please talk to us if you are
interested but this is not possible for you).

Day 1 – How we deal with conflict, Conflict resolution tools, Basic
mediation skills practice.

Day 2 – Mediation skills and process practice.

Details of the training days

Booking essential: Please email Please introduce yourself, explain what activism you are involved with, and what you hope to use your conflict engagement skills for. There will only be 12 places.
Venue: In central london. Wheelchair accessible.
Cost: We are asking for a £10 donation to fund expenses and help set up a travel fund to help with our mediation work. If money would prevent you from attending, then get in touch.
Creche: We are not providing creche facilities, but if childcare
issues are preventing you attending, please get in touch and we’ll try
and sort something out.
Lunch: Not provided. Bring your own or buy nearby.
Transport and Accommodation: Get in touch if you have any issues or can offer a lift.

For further information have a look at our website

Greener Together

The community development folk at Sostenga, in co-operation with Co-operativesUK, have produced a new resource for greening up your act – The Greener Together Toolkit to complement their website.

What I particularly like is the focus on making collective action accessible to newcomers, on proactively involving them, and on assuming that they may have skills and insights to offer a group. Refreshing.

It’s a topic we’ve posted on before: