Group as nation state: newcomer as immigrant

Ever travelled to another country or culture? For some it’s exhilarating, exciting, full of interest and new experience. For others it stressful, full of uncertainty and the potential to offend. Visiting a partners family for the first time can provide a similar experience – especially if it’s for a significant event or festival. You thought you knew how Christmas, for example, was celebrated and then you discover a whole new way of going about it.

And what’s this got to do with groups and newcomers? Simply that every group has a culture of its own. It has a blend of certain personalities, in-jokes, power dynamics, sexual tensions, jargon, assumed aims and priorities and much more. In many ways a group is like a nation-state – it has a definite character and sometimes its culture, like a border, can prevent a real barrier to the incomer, the immigrant would-be group member.

So how do groups integrate newcomers? There’s a real danger that like many immigration debates the default option is intolerance and xenophobia – at best “they can come in as long as they conform to our way of doing things”. I’m not suggesting that’s an official group position, but it can be the message the group’s culture puts out if there’s no attempt at cross-cultural communication.

Some newcomers may be willing to get involved on those terms. Others, like many immigrant communities, will want to retain links with their heritage. In this case it may be the way they’ve done things or witnessed them done in other groups.

Successful integration is going to involve a bit of give and take, a healthy dose of curiosity, time and effort given to communicating, and flexibility. The result? A group that is strengthened by its diversity, not weakened by it. A group whose culture is open and inviting. A group that grows and flourishes.

What does that boil down to in real terms? Here’s a few things to add to the to do list:

  • Realise that strong groups pay attention to their culture, so if you’re not aware of what yours is, pause and try to see your group from the outside. Better still ask recent recruits what they thought of the group at first. Even better still, ask those who came along but fell by the wayside what it was about the group culture (if anything) that stopped them crossing the border.
  • Think back to your ‘first meeting’ experiences – how did you feel? What were the obstacles? What would have helped you integrate into the group more easily? Having said that, remember not everyone is the same – your experience is useful but not universal. If you’re the kind of traveller that finds new cultures exciting, don’t forget those for whom they are daunting.
  • Take the time to talk to new folk, to ask questions and take an interest in the answers – show a willingness to learn from their previous experience and try new approaches. Cultures can grow and develop and each new member has a contribution to make.
  • Many groups offer few opportunities for newcomers to get involved in roles that offer real responsibility and real opportunity for interest and development. Be careful not to create hierarchies based on ‘time served’ with the group. You don’t want to equivalent of qualified, but immigrant, teacher and doctors working as cleaners because your nation-state doesn’t recognise their experience and qualifications. Find out what folk want to offer (and want to learn!) and make use of their energy, ideas, skills and talents. How do you find out – ask!
  • Evaluate! Each meeting and event should have at least a few minutes dedicated to finding out how it worked for those involved, including (especially?) newcomers. However don’t offer this opportunity unless you genuinely intend to listen to the feedback, and if need be, make some changes. Anonymous written evaluations are a safe bet. If you can create a culture where folk can speak their evaluations (so you can ask follow up questions), great. Whatever works for the group members.
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March them up to the top of the hill and then march them down again?

In a few days time there will be a march in London. The TUC have called a March for the Alternative for Saturday 26th. I’m hearing excitement from various quarters and even seen an email speculating it’ll be as big as the million strong 2003 march against the Iraq war. Simultaneously there’s a call to turn Trafalgar Square into Tahrir Square through a 24 hour protest on the same day.

Earlier this week I read Mark Rudd‘s post How to Build a Movement in which he also draws on the millions-strong 2003 marches to stop the war. I was struck by his distinction between activism and organising:

The current anti-war movement’s weakness, however, is very much alive in young people’s experience.  They cite the fact that millions turned out in the streets in the early spring of 2003 to oppose the pending U.S. attack on Iraq, but that these demonstrations had no effect.  ”We demonstrated and they didn’t listen to us.”  Even the activists among them became demoralized as numbers at demonstrations dropped off very quickly, street demonstrations becoming cliches, and, despite a massive shift in public opinion in 2006, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan droned on to today.  The very success of the spontaneous early mobilization seems to have contributed to the anti-war movement’s long-term weakness.

I first got an insight into articulating what it is when I picked up Letters from Young Activists: Today’s Rebels Speak Out, edited by Dan Berger, Chesa Boudin, and Kenyon Farrow (Nation Books, 2005).  Andy Cornell, in a letter to the movement that first radicalized him, “Dear Punk Rock Activism,” criticizes the conflation of the terms “activism” and “organizing.”  He writes, “activists are individuals who dedicate their time and energy to various efforts they hope will contribute to social, political, or economic change.  Organizers are activists who, in addition to their own participation, work to move other people to take action and help them develop skills, political analysis and confidence within the context of organizations.  Organizing is a process—creating long-term campaigns that mobilize a certain constituency to press for specific demands from a particular target, using a defined strategy and escalating tactics.”  In other words, it’s not enough for punks to continually express their contempt for mainstream values through their alternate identity; they’ve got to move toward “organizing masses of people.”

Aha!  Activism = self-expression; organizing = movement-building.

Marching can be joyful, full of solidarity, fun, exciting and empowering. But is it powerful? And by that I mean will it make the change advertised on the poster? I don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade, but if we just march time and again we fail*.

There has to be more to it. Even if, as seems likely, the government aren’t listening to us over the cuts, we can still make change if the marches are acts of movement-building and not just self-expression if they’re a springboard to local and national action (and not just more marches but a diverse range of tactics with well thought out strategic impact), to the formation of well-functioning action groups and networks, to newcomers being welcomed into an accessible and growing movement. So if you’re going along on 26th don’t just march, build a movement. Make connections, plan for action, and seek out and welcome newcomers.

Thanks to Dwight Towers for the nudge to Mark Rudd’s post and to other posts on movement building by Cynthia Peters and Michael Albert both of which deserve a post of their own, and who knows, may get one.

*I’m talking UK context here. There are marches, for example Burmese monks marching in the face of a brutal military junta, and all of the recent uprisings in the Middle East that are an altogether different thing. They are powerful acts of civil disobedience and revolution in the face of significant repression. Our marches need to be a tool to peer-educate and empower people to powerful acts of civil disobedience and not an end in themselves.

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

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:

Breaking and entering (or why newcomers need to be old lags)

A couple of weeks ago there was an attempted break-in at a neighbour’s house. This prompted the local police to drop a ‘Burglary Alert’ leaflet through all our doors.

OK, so you’ve just checked the web address and confirmed you’re on the Rhizome blog and not some neighbourhood watch site. What’s all this got to do with participation or activism or consensus?

Well a phrase jumped out at me from the leaflet that brought to mind a topic we’ve talked about before on this blog and will inevitably return to because it’s one of the biggest problems campaigns and activist groups face – making our networks, our groups, and our meetings accessible to newcomers.

And the phrase? Try looking at your house through the eyes of a burglar. Of course the police want you to get into the mind of a burglar and then lock all potential avenues of entry to make your house impenetrable. For activists and campaigners we need to reverse the process – try looking at your network, your group, or your meeting through the eyes of a potential newcomer; then unlock all entry points and make your ‘house’ fully accessible. Newcomers shouldn’t need experience at breaking and entering to get active and get involved.

Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to have been part of many networks and groups and to have been paid to help support others. My experience is that most community campaign groups aren’t thinking first and foremost about their group dynamics and about access and participation. And that may be entirely appropriate. After all they exist to campaign not to discuss process. However many of them are simultaneously concerned by their inability to attract and/or keep new members. But when pushed to think about the reasons why that may be the case, they often externalise the problem. I’ll paraphrase a few reasons I’ve been offered in the past:

“we can’t attract young people because there aren’t many young people living here, they’ve all moved away looking for work….

…they’re busy with jobs and starting families – they’ll join the group when they retire…

…we get lots of new people to meetings, but they don’t come back…. we think it’s because people today find all this talk of human rights abuses shocking and depressing…

…people live busier lives today that they used to, it’s not surprising our group is getting smaller…

Now there may be some truth in all of these, but further dialogue with the group usually uncovers some deeper group dynamics issues, all of which pose barriers – locked doors if you will – to newcomers getting involved. We rely on the sheer weight of  newcomers’ passion for the issues to drive them to break and enter the group or network. But for each one that successfully does so (often only to find themselves frustrated by the meeting they attend) how many more turn away at the locked door and go elsewhere, or worse still do nothing?

Making change in the world isn’t supposed to be an elite club that requires the passing of an endurance test before membership is granted. It’s not supposed to be like one of those masochistic Japanese game shows, or have an “I had to put up with it to prove I was serious, so should they” mentality about it. Everyone should be offered countless opportunities to make change every single day.

So groups – take a deep breath and look at yourselves from the outside. You may have fantastic publicity, but if the reality of the group’s meeting don’t match the publicity you’ll still lose people. You may have great, accessible meetings but fail to let the right people know about them. Or you may need to change both how you attract people and then the meetings and events you attract them to.

Change is not easy. It may help to remember your own experiences of joining the group. How easy was it? Really? Of course Everyone comes with differing expectations and needs, so we can’t assume they’ll share that experience. You may have been used to a certain meeting culture, for example, which made your group quite comfortable to join. Others may not share that experience. Then put your house in order – unlock windows and doors, put a welcome mat out and stick the kettle on.

And those that support groups? We need to take the time to create safe spaces for a little self-reflection to happen, so that groups can face the challenge of opening up their meetings, accepting that they are sometimes the reason people don’t return for a second reason. That’s a tough conversation to have, but an essential one and one that can ensure the longer term survival of the group, and the continuation of the campaign to another generation.

The agenda-less meeting?

too much on the agenda?

Thanks to Dwight Towers for nudging me towards Chris Johnston on social change. In particular I’m mulling over Chris’s post Death to the agenda meeting. Like Chris I’d also invite you to take a look at Dwight’s post Adventures in the Liminal Zone – why do newbies not come back? and the discussion that it provoked.

Getting rid of the agenda – baby and bathwater?

Chris suggests that the agenda is a major obstacle to newcomers at a meeting getting involved in the group long-term. Here’s a taste of his argument:

The agenda meeting is designed for informed and committed people to share information and make decisions.

It’s an awesome format to use if you have a load of interested, experienced, and bought-in people sat in a room who want to get from A to B. It marshals interest and energy in a fair and disciplined way. It’s great at this. Go the agenda meeting….

The agenda meeting is not designed to satisfy the needs of inexperienced and not yet committed people for socialising, autonomy, mastery and purpose.

I find myself agreeing with the intention to find ways to make meetings more accessible to newcomers, but not with his conclusions. I don’t want to get into a point by point rebuttal because we’re not in conflict – we’re both arguing for the same outcome, and frankly they get dull very quickly. So I’ll keep it quick and then meander off into my own thinking. Chris says:

Strength #1 of the agenda meeting is information sharing. But why would you share info with newbies this way? Just have a comprehensive website – quicker, easier and more satisfying for the newbie.

A few assumptions here I’m not comfortable with:

  • newcomers are less well-informed – it’s a broad generalisation and like all generalisations there are plenty of exceptions to the rule to trip us up. Like the student campaigner I spoke to who had been campaigning for 3 years at university, including a year as a sabbatical campaigns officer. He rolled up to a meeting of a ‘town’ campaign group who treated him like he knew nothing and had no experience…. The fact that he stayed involved was due to his passion for the issues and not for the group
  • newcomers all have web access/choose to use the web
  • they’re all using it to read the website of the group we’re thinking of joining
  • they’ve all done that reading in advance of the meeting
  • the existing members of the group are all equally well-informed and don’t need an agenda to equalise their understanding and through understanding their ability to participate in the meeting

Strength #2 is making decisions. But why would you ask newbies to make decisions about issues they have little knowledge of, on tactics they have no familiarity with, in a room with people who know far more than they do?

Again, so many assumptions – see my student campaigner example above. But primarily, why ask them to make decisions? Because it sends a clear message that they’re a valued part of the group, that their opinion and experience (however much or little) counts and because it’s empowering.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against different types of meeting. Some more social, some more planning or whatever. I’m against tha assumption that the more focussed planning type meeting can’t be made accessible to interested newcomers.

Ideas for saving the baby and just getting rid of the bathwater

The problem is not the agenda per se but how it’s structured and facilitated. Let’s look at some common agenda related problems and a few things you can do about them:

Agenda is overfull. The group alleges to meet from 7.30 pm to 9pm but puts at least 3 hours worth of material on the agenda and wonders why meetings run late. This also means there’s no room in the meeting for simple but vital things such as time to get to know newcomers (icebreaker, proper introductions), breaks that can be used to socialise and find out about the group and each other, space to explain the group’s process and quirks such as the use of handsignals, consensus decision-making. All this means that for newcomers it’s sink or swim, and the water is not inviting.

So the golden rule is do less and do it well. Realistic agendas with some open space to react to local or world events, to take time to get to know each other, and especially newcomers, and so on. If you’re facilitating and your experience tells you there’s 3 hours of material for a 1.5 hour meeting, pause. Be creative, and if necessary be brutal with the agenda. There’s what the group needs to do, and there’s what the group would like to do. Creativity might take you to small groups working on different items in parallel (and even with a meeting of only 4 people you still have 2 small groups!), tools such as roving ideastorms to get a lot of work done quickly without the potential tedium of small group feedback and more.

As for the other stuff – financial report backs, hours of announcements, personal hobby horses. Find other ways to communicate those: newsletters, emails, websites.

Agenda set in advance. Great for allowing facilitators to prepare a process for the meeting, but a recipe for inflexibility and exclusion if not handled right. A pre-prepared agenda can easily take away the ability of newcomers to offer agenda suggestions. Accepting those suggestions sends a clear message – we value your input. How many groups have enough members that they can afford not to send that message?

Even the most pre-set agenda should only ever be a proposal subject to change in the light of new events such as an influx of newcomers or a breaking crisis that demands immediate action. Facilitators need to embrace the challenge of reworking agendas on the hoof. Co-facilitation is great for that. I facilitate the introductions whilst my co-facilitator reworks the first half of the agenda to take into account the need for change. Of course planning in some open space can save a lot of hurried reworking….

And of course pre-set agendas can place power in the hands of those who set them. There’s enough written about informal hierarchies already so I won’t add to that here. Let’s just say it sends a message, deliberate or otherwise, that there’s “them” and there’s “us” within the group. Newcomers are left feeling alienated, or jumping on the bandwagon of politicking to become “us”. Bring on the unhealthy, and ultimately self-destructive group dynamics. This group will implode in 10, 9, 8, 7…….

Preset agendas usually contain lots of assumptions about the priorities of the group, about the level of knowledge, about who gets to speak and so on… “OK so on to  the X campaign…. Jo, you’re our resident expert, tell us what to think and do”. Assumptions need to be aired and if necessary challenged. They create weak groups that fall to pieces in moments of crisis. To quote Jeremy Hardy talking about “the rallying cry of the left: ‘I thought you were bringing the leaflets’“.

It might be an assumption about process (that we’re all familiar with and believe in consensus, for example), an assumption about priorities (that the action we’ve been planning for weeks is still more important than the war that’s just broken out), assumptions about knowledge (we all understand the issue well enough to discuss taking action on it). I’m sure you can think of others.

Agendas create a focus on tasks. Let’s face it, the agenda is usually about getting stuff done. Fair enough I hear you say – we’re activists, we like to get stuff done.

Building in time to your agenda to balance task with maintenance, that is how we feel about getting stuff done, is hugely undervalued but has such an impact on the life and effectiveness of a group. Meetings aren’t a penance. Well, at least they shouldn’t be. They best ones are a balance of effective action and, dare I say it, fun. We want to build groups that we enjoy being part of whilst getting stuff done.

Agenda formalise roles within groups. With each task tends to go “the person who usually does that thing”. Could be the facilitator – were not exempt! That closes the door to skillsharing, creativity, and change within group. Don’t let the agenda threaten a culture of openness, experimentation (And yes, some will fail. Pick yourselves up, dust yourselves off and chalk it up to experience) and challenge.

So, to-agenda-or-not-to-agenda? The agenda is a tool for your group. It’s not your group. It has no magical power over you. Use it to improve your meetings not ruin them. Keep it alive, flexible, spacious, welcoming and it will serve you well.