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.


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….



Studying direct action at the university of life…

I find myself in two minds about the student protest.

On the one hand I’m relieved that there’s some resistance and that it’s (at least for now) sizeable. In recent months and years we’ve missed so many opportunities for making change as a nation, and as a species. The immediacy of climate change should have spurred a rethink of the way we structure our society, the way we trade internationally and so much more. The banking crisis should have catalysed a change to a more human-centred and sustainable economic analysis. It would be devastating if the current round of cuts went through without significant resistance.

But on the other hand I’m left wondering about the efficacy of what’s happening. Student protest? Another march, another occupation. Tried and tested or lacking imagination and effectiveness? These tools are succeeding in making the student voice heard. But that’s only effective if the powerholders are listening.

A massive majority of people opposed GM food, but the government and their corporate pals went right ahead anyway. It took a persistent campaign of direct action to set them back 10 years. Over a million marched through London against war and their voices were ignored. The government may listen, but the voice of the people is often a whisper compared to the roar of the voice that really calls the tune – the voice of the $, £ and €.

For me it’s the difference between resistance that’s essentially an act of lobbying – that is pressuring someone else to make change, and direct action. Direct action is about making the change regardless, with or without permission and co-operation from our “lords and masters”. At the very least direct action amplifies the voice of the people. At it’s best it also makes change along the way. I’d urge students to look wider than their own movement for ideas for action. And to those that condemn direct action so freely to the media, read your history. Think civil rights movement, think the roads movement of the 1990s…

Are the sit-ins, marches and occupations making real change? Would we be better placed organising to withhold fees or student loan repayments? Organising cheap, co-operative or squatted accommodation for students? Organising food co-ops? Setting up a free university (ideally ‘teaching’ in more empowering ways, and having a more enlightened political analysis). We’d certainly be better taking the time to ensure all action was focused at the real heart of the issue. Who is driving these cuts? If in doubt, follow the money trail and ask who stands to profit most. That’s where to focus the action.

Of course it’s easy to sit here and commentate from the sidelines. Rhizome will be making a small contribution, by facilitating some of the So We Stand nonviolent direct action trainings. The first is at Leeds Uni tonight. We’ll take a whistle-stop tour of some of the ideas behind direct action and nonviolence, practice a few techniques for making action more effective, and for dealing with confrontational situations. We’ll also cover the all important legal rights. And, if we have time, we’ll do an introduction to action planning. We’ll let you know how it goes.

Neighbourhood watch

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s strategy ever done for us?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Tipping the balance

I’ve just finished a series of 12 phone interviews with campaigners from the Fairtrade Towns network, and NGO partners of the Fairtrade Foundation. This was one small part of the Foundation’s mid-point review of their 5 year Tipping The Balance strategy.

The excitement for me in this kind of work is having the opportunity to connect with dedicated and passionate campaigners who have found their niche, the campaign that gets them out of bed in the morning wanting to change the world. The interviews confirmed what I already know, but can sometimes forget – a campaign backed by a coherent social movement is a very powerful thing indeed. One thing I’m left with is that grassroots campaigners, at least in this case, have clearly tipped the balance.

Of course it’s a challenging time for the Fairtrade movement: many large transnational corporations are climbing onboard and putting the Fairtrade mark on their products. Some of these corporations have been anathema to many campaigners for years and are now (uneasy?) allies. Fairtrade more than many campaigns highlights the issues raised by using  the current economic model as a tool for change. But if you accept that model, it’s fair to say that Fairtrade in the UK is a success story.

Personally I’m uneasy about solutions that advocate more sales/economic growth as part of building utopia. Not surprising perhaps for someone with a background as an anti-capitalist activist. But I don’t have pretend to have the answers to poverty and social injustice.  The challenge for me is to ensure that as I listen to campaigners I hear their story and not my own.

And that’s one of the things I’ve always loved about facilitation, whether it’s  facilitating training, meetings, or consultation: it nudges me into this slightly surreal bubble where I have to put my own ‘stuff’ to one side and focus on other people. It’s a great form of self-development and self-discipline. Starting to facilitate was certainly a personal tipping point in my work within groups. It felt like I ceased to be a problem and started to be part of the solution of good group-working. And if in some small way that facilitation work can help to tip the balance in the wider world…well that’s what Rhizome’s all about.

Thinking outside the ballot box

So the UK election is over, although we don’t yet know who’ll be forming a government. How does it feel? Are you convinced that we’re going to be living in a fairer, more just society within the next few years? Me neither. Personally the old adage – “whichever way you vote the government always gets in” still rings true for me.

I can’t help it, but I just don’t believe this is real democracy.

Have you ever had Neapolitan ice cream? You know the one – 3 flavours in one tub. I’ll let you decide who’s strawberry, who’s vanilla and who’s chocolate. The issue for me is it’s not the flavour of ice cream that’s meaningful. It’s the tub they’re in. If the fundamental structure isn’t conducive to democracy you won’t get a democratic result. In this case the tub is capitalism. The people calling the shots here are the big corporations. Many of them have more cash than many small countries. They certainly have more power. Through their lobbyists they have the ear of government every day of the year at the highest levels. You and I get their ear for a day every 4 or 5 years. Not quite the level playing field we’re so fond of in this country.

Voting alone is not enough for us, the people, to be truly empowered and for there to be real change in society. The best we can hope for from the current system is a change of flavour. But what if we don’t want ice cream? I don’t want to downplay the value of the actions taken to secure the vote for all of us – whether the fight for women’s suffrage or the formation of the labour party to get the working man and woman’ voice heard. But the world has moved on and labour is now new labour, and the corporations are running the show.

Let me give you an example. If I ever doubted who was calling the shots, the attempted introduction of genetically manipulated (GM) crops crystallised things for me. In 1996 US corporation Monsanto tried to import GM soya into the UK. Fortunately Greenpeace were there to stop them by occupying loading cranes and obstructing the boats. They had hoped to get the GM soya into the food chain unnoticed so that by the time we became aware of it, it was too late. How do we know this? Because that’s exactly what they did in the USA. Simultaneously Monsanto and Agr-Evo (now Bayer CropScience) were quietly growing trials of GM potato and oilseed rape across the UK. Each and every trial contaminated the ecosystem with invisible, self-replicating, unstoppable genetic pollution.

The point is that they did all of this with the blessing of the government of the time. In fact as public opinion raged against GM the government’s response was to talk of educating us at the supermarket checkout through pro-GM adverts. The government never ceased in its unswerving loyalty to the corporations. What stopped the corporations in their tracks was not our government representing our views, protecting our environment, our health, our economy. No it was people taking action. People like Greenpeace. People like the dozens of autonomous activists who went into supermarkets and fields.

Yes, much of that action was through the parliamentary process – lobbying MPs and the like. But what caught the headlines, what forced GM into the daylight, what threw the biggest spanner into the works was nonviolent direct action. It’s no surprise that many activists refer to direct action as direct democracy. People together making the change they want to see. Now that’s real democracy!

For me making real change involves thinking outside the ballot box. It involves people working together in all the days between elections to change their communities. It’s for us to inject humanity back into society on a daily basis. And humanity can’t be squeezed into an ice cream tub.

A breath of fresh air…

If the election campaign has you fed up with lying politicians, spin and public apathy, if you fancy a proper debate about real action to change the world, you could do worse than get yourself to the Peace News Summer Camp. We’ll be there running a few workshops. Why not join us?

Why Rhizome?

At Rhizome we believe in making change in the world. Specifically we believe in ordinary people and communities taking control of their lives, environment, and destinies.

Change from the grassroots up is powerful and sustainable because it’s rooted in a community. It’s rooted in their values and aspirations. The people making change believe in it. History has shown us that you can no more deny grassroots change than you can turn back the tide. You can try and suppress it but it spreads. Like the rhizomes from which we take our name, eventually it forces it’s way through the cracks in the pavement.

We’re here to accelerate the pace of change by offering communities of activists the support they need to participate effectively in change-making. Participation in change is the essence of what we do.

In practice, it might mean direct support for a community group, or it might mean improving the support offered by a national organisation or network.

So “Why Rhizome?”? Because there’s more change to be made in the world.

But that’s not all.

Rhizome provides a co-operative structure that brings together a wide range of skilled and experienced facilitators. It creates an energy and an excitement that inspires us, so that, hopefully, we can inspire you. It provides the mutual support we need to help us work sustainably to support community activism. We hope that we’ll also provide a ‘right livelihood’ for ourselves. That support allows us to give our time, skills and experience to the communities and organisations we work with all the more effectively.

We can learn from each other, share the good and the bad times, prove that two heads are better than one, innovate, and get better at what we do all the time.

We’re at the start of a journey. Feel free to join us along the way!