Class, conflict and confusion

George Lakey’s writing about class over at the Waging Nonviolence blog. 3 recent posts have touched on different aspects of class. In Do we mean what politicians mean by ‘class’? he helpfully gives his interpretation of the different classes and the qualities of each, as well as offering some conclusions on the relevance of class (mis)understanding for activists:

After looking closely at family backgrounds we can see that some activist conflicts are not so much about ideology as about class-based assumptions. In the midst of a campaign, a class conflict can result in losing the support of the class that loses, with no one in the organization realizing what’s really happening — and the whole organization losing. The stakes are high.

In Middle class confusion about class war, Lakey critiques recent writing by Bill McKibben on campaigning against fossil fuels through the class-lens. Here’s what he says about a common middle class assumption:

The middle class is socialized to remain confused about power. That’s how middle-class people can create narratives that ignore class struggle and assign the primary responsibility to — in the case of energy policy — consumers. The amount of privilege and the appearance of power given to middle class individuals make them especially prone to versions of “blame the victims.”

And finally in Opening ourselves to the realities of class he recounts a positive tale of  an alliance across class and draws lessons for today’s individual activists and movements:

Movements will grow stronger if we understand each other better across class lines, but class is often made a matter of statistics instead of lived experience…

..Our chance to defeat the 1 percent depends on our willingness to give up demanding that others become like us, and instead learn to walk in their shoes. That’s true when it comes to race and gender, and other differences including class.

I’m not advocating a dismissal of action in favor of obsessing about political correctness. A living revolution focuses not on rigid rules but on opening ourselves to others’ realities, and being grateful when they are willing to express them. We can open in the course of an action campaign, as MNS did in its blockade. We can open in the safety of a workshop. It means going outside our comfort zones, in workshops as well as campaigns.

The result is expansion, of ourselves and of our movements.

One of the other strengths of this latter post is the collection of statements that Lakey’s gathered and edited together to help shed light on the values and thought-processes of people from differing classes. Here’s a snippet of these 3 voices:

You may encounter my fear, so please insist that we can make contact. Underneath, I’m a decent and ordinary human being…

…please remember that underneath my facade of correctness lies a living, breathing passionate person who would love to show it…

…If we’re not speaking up it’s not because we don’t have something valuable to say. To work successfully with us, listen.


Group culture and fracture lines

It’s an interesting question for facilitators – how much do you challenge an organisation or group’s existing culture, or how much do you simply reflect it back to them?  It’s a question I’ve been asking myself again in recent months, a reflective process aided by the peer review and co-facilitating we try to do in Rhizome.

If the group wants to talk in greater depth than time allows, to catch up when they don’t see each other enough though they work in the same organisation or network, with breaks expanding to swallow the day, if they want to problematise issues at every opportunity, or keep jumping around talking about different issues all at the same time, where do the boundaries lie in our facilitation role?  It’s not the first time I’ve come across this issue, and won’t be the last.

Despite a facilitator’s best strategies – careful structuring of the time, summarising periodically throughout where the group is at and where it still needs to go, reflecting from time to time if people come back from breaks late or talk at interesting tangents, sometimes group culture like a river will take the easiest route.  It can be uncomfortable knowing in advance that at the end of a session we will run into people’s dissatisfaction at not having fulfilled all their group or personal objectives.

So where does responsibility finally lie?  That’ll partly depend on the style of the facilitator, which can depend on the day and on the negotiated relationship with the group.  It can also be addressed in preparatory negotiations with the key contacts, as long as it’s made clear to the group during the session that you’ve been instructed to challenge their culture; negotiating whole group consent can help in this regard.

Sometimes it clearly helps groups to shake things up a bit – if people are used to hiding behind tables and laptops, why not a circle of chairs?  What warm-ups can you usefully utilise that will help people to step beyond their comfort zones, but not in a way that makes them feel unsafe or that they’re likely to plain reject.  You sometimes have to feel around the boundaries, and experience helps this process.  Thinking about how it’s possible to create a safe learning environment thus helping people try things out that might feel uncomfortable is a good distinction to reflect on.

This distinction was very clear at the recent Power and Privilege Training for Trainers weekend, led by George Lakey, formerly of Training for Change and the Movement for a New Society.  TfC are big on creating ‘containers‘, letting conflict bubble up so that it can be addressed – which is often not the same as resolved.  However, it didn’t go so well – in addition to cultural clashes and issues around the role of the facilitator, quite some people present where left feeling unsafe.  This feeling of lack of safety negatively impacted on the level of participation of some attendees; for others, they left the training feeling unsafe – shaken and stirred.  Not good – more on this in the future from your intrepid Rhizome facilitators who were there.


Dealing with power

Anti-oppression training and large-group work
An advanced training for trainers with George Lakey, Manchester, UK. 20-22 July 2012

Legendary US activist trainer George Lakey is making a rare visit to the UK, where he helped to train a generation of nonviolence trainers in 1970. As well as increasing the number of training and facilitation tools that participants can use effectively, George will be helping us to deal with diversity, power and privilege within training and large-group facilitation and decision-making. He will be helping participants examine how conflict develops in activist groups around issues of oppression (to do with race, age, class, disability, sexuality, gender or other forms of discrimination) and how to turn these conflicts into opportunities for liberatory steps. This is a unique opportunity to draw on 50 years of activism and training with one of the most experienced cross-cultural activist trainers in the world.

This training has been organised by Milan Rai, co-editor of Peace News, as part of George Lakey’s Peace News speaking tour of the UK, and supported by Rhizome. Peace News is seeking the greatest possible diversity of participants in the training, and people from the widest spectrum of radical social change activism and community organising.   

If you would like to participate, please read the notes below, fill in the application form and submit it to by 30 April 2012.

This training is aimed at people who are experienced activist trainers (nonviolence, direct action, facilitation, consensus decision-making and so on) or who have helped facilitate large-scale activist or radical community organising group processes (Climate Camp, Occupy, G8 and so on). 
Participants are expected to be actively planning to engage in activist training or large-scale facilitation in the next two years. After you submit your application form, someone from the organising group will phone you to talk through some of the issues.

The charge for the weekend is £30-£70 on a sliding scale for income. Peace News does not want to exclude anyone on the grounds of cost, so please do contact us if the charge for the weekend, or the travel expenses involved are a barrier to participation: 020 7278 3344; 07980 748 555;

Download Application form