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.


Cohousing and consensus – in Scotland

There was a time when I thought nothing of spending far longer travelling to deliver a piece of work than actually delivering it. Nowadays my personal sustainability is a little higher on the agenda so it’s far more of a rarity. Last weekend I made an exception and travelled to Fife to run a consensus decision-making workshop for the folk in the Vivarium Trust’s living group.

It’s an exception I’m glad to have made for many reasons. Fife is my old stamping ground – I lived there for a decade or more in the 90’s and early 2000’s. And a very good friend of mine’s living there again, so there was the chance to catch up and spend a little time together.

And of course there was the workshop itself. There are groups that just get it. And the cohousing groups I’ve worked with over the last couple of years seem to number amongst these – open, curious, eager to be challenged and to challenge, and wanting to model a different way of doing things without feeling the need to inflate their egos along the way. Refreshing!

The Vivarium Trust promotes cohousing as a positive way forward, especially in addressing the housing needs of older folk (by which they mean 50+). They also have a living group – about a dozen people coming together to set up a pilot project in Fife.

I say that the group got it – they certainly tackled activities I’ve seen most groups struggle to do with relative ease. Though it may not have felt easy to them! Of course,that doesn’t mean that they’re not without their issues – what group is? Like many cohousing groups, the primary focus may have (understandably) been on the project rather than the process. This workshop gave them the opportunity to be together, to get to know each other better, and to develop a shared understanding of their decision-making process and their group dynamics.

The workshop itself has been developing for a couple of years. Since talking to other trainers about the need to refocus on consensus values over consensus process, I’ve been playing with a number of approaches that explore building empathy and understanding across difference. I’m glad to say that this one seemed to work with Vivarium.

I’m enjoying the chance to work with cohousing groups. So far, at least, there’s a lot less of the competitive mindset I’ve witnessed all too often in some activist groups. Maybe it’s the aspect of cohousing as an intentional community. That focus on community and community building cannot be ignored. In campaigning and activist circles the intention is often more on mobilising around an issue and the community is more haphazard, and less intentional, at least in recent years. There are noticeable impacts on the consensus process.

At a Rhizome meeting this week we mused on the difference between community building and movement building in 21st century Britain. We noted that movements can be full of individuals and don’t necessarily build community. More on that in future blog posts, I’m sure.


Consensus and cohousing

I spent Friday in the company of 17 folk from 6 cohousing projects in the southern half of Wales and England. We came together for a 1 day consensus decision-making workshop that I was delivering for the UK Cohousing Network.

Those of us who do a lot of work with the activist community can sometimes forget that it’s not the only hotbed of radical democracy. Consensus seems to be the assumed decision-making process for many (most?) cohousing projects. In some ways this is odd, as it’s certainly not the assumed norm for co-operative businesses. Most rules for co-ops assume majority voting. What makes co-operative living different to co-operative working, I wonder?

Whatever the answer to that question, there was no doubt that these cohousers were curious, committed and keen to share their wealth of experience in group decision-making and group dynamics. As is the Rhizome preference we focused on the state of mind that is consensus rather than just the mechanics of the process. I’ve been playing with a few activities that help support exploration of empathy and connection. I trialled a new activity to give us insight into the tension between personal values and shared group values (between the stand aside and the block). These seemed to work well, especially the latter, thanks to the volunteer that shared her story with us.

Of course not everything worked that well – one of the practice roleplays needs a rethink. Maybe the scenario I used needs overhauling and more detail adding, or maybe it needs to go altogether. It’s hard to say – one participant astutely pointed out on their evaluation form that whilst the activity itself didn’t feel like it worked well, it might have played a role in paving the way for the activity that followed, which did work well. Sadly this workshop wasn’t co-facilitated so I don’t have the benefit of a co-facilitator’s wisdom in debriefing the session.

And I’m aware that there was more to be done to equalise the voices in the group. As a group we had conversations about this – that sometimes everyone gets to speak, but that doesn’t mean they all get heard equally. I could have done more to support the group in modelling that dynamic.

There was an immense amount of experience in the room, and it’s always humbling to work in that environment. There were those who have spent years immersed in Quaker Business Method as well as others that have used consensus decision-making in various groups at various times over many years. In many ways it felt as if just bringing them together to talk and share was the most useful contribution. The fact I was there to structure some specific learning was a minor detail (and some might say even an obstacle!).

There was a lot of energy in the group at the end of the day, which I take to be a good sign. Their evaluations were very affirming, though they didn’t steer clear of also confirming what I suspected about the practice roleplay, for which I thank them.


Formal consensus and Crowd Wise

Perry and I were delivering a day’s training on consensus for Talk Action yesterday. The day covered an overview of formal consensus (often simply called consensus or consensus decision-making) and an introduction to Crowd Wise. We rounded off with a ‘clinic’ – collectively troubleshooting a consensus-related issues for one of the group and trying to apply the day’s learning to that organisation’s needs.

One of the things that makes this training more interesting and perhaps challenging is that it draws in people from a wide range if backgrounds and organisations – those whose work involves participatory engagement, such as community workers and freelance and local authority planners; staff and volunteers for small charities and community organisations; staff from NGOs of varying sizes; as well as those with an activist or campaigning background. Yesterday we had participants from a local authority, Garden Organic, the Occupy movement, a local CVS support organisation, a network of residents associations and more.

This was the second time out for the training and we’d had a good clear out, de-cluttering the content and focusing on the experiential activities wherever we could. It seemed to go well, and there was a lot of energy and warmth at the end of the day.

Inevitably there are a couple of activities we will tweak again for next time. Our warm up activity produced less clear learning about consensus than last time. Similarly the clinic tended towards broad group dynamics topics where we had hoped it would be more obviously consensus-focused. Talk Action have the evaluation forms, and we’ll come back to you and share some headlines when we get a look at them. We’ll also let you know when the next course is running. Maybe see you there?

As an aside, Anna from Talk Action tweeted her way through the morning – not something I’m used too, but an interesting insight into what at least one participant was taking away from the course:

A forum for consensus

Hannah and I were at work with the Detention Forum on earlier this month, facilitating a 5 hour session on consensus decision-making. The Forum is “a loose network of over 30 NGOs who are working on immigration detention issues” and as such is evolving its processes all the time. The co-ordination group are trying to work as consensually as possible and want to support other working groups and the wider Forum to do the same. Hence the training.

This was very much a chance for the Forum to explore whether formal consensus was for them, or whether there were elements or values within consensus that were useful to them without necessarily adopting the formal consensus process wholesale.

We threw them into a decision-making experience out of which we drew the values, attitudes, states of mind, of co-operative decision-making. These we discusses, explored and mapped onto the formal consensus process before throwing them back into another decision-making activity.

It’s clear that all the talk of values had an impact – reaffirming to the participants how they envision their relationships in meetings, causing pause for thought in some cases. The session left them with challenges and questions – one being about sharing the experience and learning with the wider Forum. How do you support others to work towards these laudable values? How do you make the transition from values to actual behaviour in meetings?

Fortunately Hannah and Perry will be working with them again at the end of the month, with a focus on facilitation. I suspect the role of facilitation in supporting groups to work to their higher values will be on the agenda!

With the Forum’s permission we used the session to so some internal skill-sharing. Hannah was keen to learn more about facilitating consensus training. Not that you’d have known she had more to learn from her assured performance!

From the evaluation we seem to have been successful in supporting people to see beyond consensus process to consensus values, and in helping them to appreciate that potentially tricky aspects of consensus, such as the block, are positive when used appropriately.

“It was very timely and useful for us, giving us much to think about but also helping us to think differently about meetings and discussions we’ve already had, seeing them in context…

I was quite cynical beforehand but this session has completely changed my mind”

Of the couple of ‘negative’ comments we received one was concerned with an activity we did in which we asked some people to take on roles. The roles were unnecessary in this instance and as much (or more) would have been learnt without them. Hannah and I drew the same conclusion in our debrief conversation. Always good to have that confirmed by the participants. The other was simply a comment that the formal consensus process wasn’t, in this participant’s view, appropriate for the Detention Forum.

Nonviolent direct action and action consensus – training materials

Earlier this year we worked on some example training materials for Stop New Nuclear to use in preparation for their Fukushima anniversary blockade of Hinkley power station. There are trainings planned for Oxford, Leicester and Birmingham, and hopefully more in the pipeline.

It seemed a shame to use the materials for just one campaign, so we’ve uploaded them to our Resources page – an example agenda and pdfs of the various supporting materials. The trainings are: nonviolent direct action and consensus decision-making (quick decisions, and spokescouncils, in this case).

We don’t expect anyone to use them exactly as they are. For a start you’ll need to replace the nuclear power based examples with ones relevant to your campaign. But they give you a foundation on which you can add your own stamp, tailoring them to the time available and the group’s needs. If you use them and have any feedback, good, bad or indifferent, we’d receive it gratefully.

Looking forward to it….

The start of 2012 is a bit hectic here in the rhizosphere. The exciting thing for me is that almost all 7 of Rhizome’s facilitators are in action in January and February.

Perry’s facilitating a day of meeting facilitation skills with the folk at Climate Rush, looking at their own meetings as well as public meetings they hope to organise. And that theme of facilitating internal and external meetings runs through several other pieces of work we have lined up – Maria and myself will be running a day’s training for the staff of 38 Degrees, and then Jo and I will be doing something similar for staff at WDM.

Carl is leading on a 2 day mediation course happening in early January, co-incidentally starting on the first day of the International Year of Co-operatives – us, a co-op, training members of other co-ops as mediators to support co-ops, and all for Co-operatives UK.

Meanwhile Emily (with her Transition hat on) and I will be training the 3rd generation of facilitators for Transition Leicester’s Footpaths project.

Perry and I are working with Talk Action on a day long consensus decision-making workshop on January 26th – which will hopefully run a few times each year, if the pilot is a success.

And Jo’s also leading some work for Greenpeace, organising and facilitating a review day for the team of volunteer political lobbying trainers, who we trained in 2011, to happen in late February.

We’ll also be revamping some old resources and publishing some new ones to support this work – all available to download for free from our resources page. This includes guides on all aspects of mediation, an area of our resources we’ve been painfully slow to add to. I hope they are worth the wait!