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.



cropped-counteract-960-x-250A new resource for activists in Australia is now up and running – CounterAct is

“a new project launched to support communities in taking effective, creative, strategic nonviolent direct action on issues of environmental and social justice.”

We look forward to learning from them and collaborating wherever possible!

Expert and expertise

I’m wary of the role of expert. It has connotations of power over a group. And let’s be honest there’s a part of my ego that would love to fill the role of expert for the affirmation it might bring. Expertise I’m more comfortable with – it’s just a statement of competence.

The feedback from a recent nonviolent direct action workshop at Warwick University (not part of the formal academic curriculum, I hasten to add) was almost entirely positive. But it did raise the issue of expert and expertise for me. Not for the first time a student group wanted more information on my activist background than I feel comfortable giving them. Not because I’m worried about implicating myself in acts of dodgy direct action, but because it puts the spotlight on me whereas I want it to be on them (and I don’t trust myself not to enjoy the lime light just a little too much).

But am I being too dogmatic about this? Moi? Surely not. The role of facilitator is to make things easier for the group, and if a little personal background would make the session easier, then it’s a good idea. And as for the ego stuff? Time to get over myself, perhaps?

The session posed a second, equally common challenge – how to support groups through the realisation that taking effective nonviolent direct action may not be compatible with staying entirely within both the letter and the spirit of the law. Some would argue that the whole point is to stretch, if not break the law – that it’s a fundamentally disobedient discipline. There’s no judgement meant on the Weapons Out of Warwick students. There’s a natural and understandable desire to want to avoid any more trouble than is absolutely necessary. It’s probably the line between nonviolent action and nonviolent direct action. All I can hope is that I left them knowing that it’s possible to take nonviolent direct action, fall foul of the system, and live to tell the tale. The students have taken their planned action. I hope to check in with them soon and hear first hand how it went.

Confidence, community, consolidation…..and cop-outs

It’s been a busy week. The last 8 days have seen me working with Hannah co-facilitating a days training for Greenpeace volunteer Greenspeakers – building their skills and confidence in their role as public speakers. A few days later I spent an afternoon with Warwick University students helping them prepare for nonviolent direct action on the arms trade. The following evening Maria and I facilitated a meeting and skills building session with Community Harvest Whetstone, a community supported agriculture scheme that’s party of the Transition Leicester movement. And then this weekend Perry and I worked with Hackney Cohousing Project on their consensus decision-making skills (and mindsets, naturally).

Not every week is like this. I couldn’t sustain it. As I type, my concern is that my co-facilitators and I won’t find the time to fully reflect on the work we’ve done. That reflection is essential. We always try to ensure the participants in our workshops are given enough time to reflect and consolidate their learning, but sometimes we fail to do the same ourselves. I know I sometimes cop-out and tell myself that there’s reflection and learning going on at a subconscious level, and I’m sure there is. But there’s a power in making it conscious. One way that I personally reflect is on this blog. So you’ll soon know how conscious that reflection is if you see posts on all of the work I’ve just mentioned in the next few days and weeks! If not you’re well within you’re rights to assume I’ve copped out.

The practice of nonviolent direct action

Saturday’s ‘peaceful resistance’ session for the Combe Haven Defenders went pretty well. We got very practical very early on in the day. Nothing new there, at least not in a nonviolent direct action workshop. But we started with the stuff that’s often seen as more “advanced” – locking on. That’s bike locks, handcuffs and all that other stuff that’s designed to prolong an action by making it harder to remove the activists. The group had a lot of enthusiasm for these practical sessions. There’s nothing like having a road driven through a beautiful stretch of countryside on your doorstep to confirm the necessity of these tactics. And besides it’s fun (at least in practice sessions!)

Contrary to some media reports these folk were far from the predictable young / student protesters. The age range was good – from teenagers to pensioners with everything in between. Indeed the older women there were the ones who had already notched up arrests and court appearances for action to stop the tree-felling that prepares the way for the road.

I’m sure there was a lot of useful learning about personal perspectives on nonviolence and direct action, about specific action techniques, about confrontation, about the law. But the real strength of this kind of workshop is that it builds community. It’s hard to spend several hours with others practicing linking arms, linking legs, locking yourselves together by the neck, without some group-building happening whether you like it or not. In many respects the workshop was a 6 hour long team-building exercise, which should stand the campaign in good stead. And this was reinforced by a the desire for a closing conversation, at the group’s request, about how the group could stay in touch and mobilise for action together.

Obviously, from a facilitation perspective, there was plenty of room for improvement. There always is. It turned out to be quite a large group, so the biggest improvement might have been to have a co-facilitator, especially for the hands-on sessions, of which the day was mostly comprised. I have a tendency to want to micromanage lock-on practices because I like to ensure safety and support messages are hammered home. This kind of action can easily lead to injury. After all that’s the premiss of the tactic – you can’t move us without hurting us. With two groups practicing with different equipment simultaneously that was harder. But maybe no bad thing? Maybe finding out for yourself in a relatively safe space is good enough, if not better. The evaluations bear out both perspectives. There was a comment about wanting more direction in some of the practice sessions, against an overall back drop of appreciation for the chance to get physical and learn by doing.


Defenders, destruction and deja vu

Spoof Bayeux Tapestry graphic showing George Osborne on a digger

The Combe Haven Defenders are making news in their resistance to the new Bexhill to Hastings link road. I’m getting a strong sense of deja vu. It’s all a bit 1990s – people being evicted from trees, tunnels being built. It’s even being called the Second Battle of Hastings echoing the Third Battle of Newbury as that anti-bypass campaign was often referred to. And this is just the start of a new road-building extravaganza if the UK government gets its way.

Back in the 90s the monumental and majestic struggle against the Newbury Bypass led to the phrase “noisy defeats and quiet victories”. Whilst the Bypass was built the wider roads programme was dropped. Or shelved as we now know.

These protests are vital. At the risk of sounding too detached, they’re crucibles in the heat of which the movement develops, learns and moves forward. Old tactics will be resurrected, but they’ll also inevitably be improvised upon. Innovative variations or new tactics will emerge. Lessons will be learnt about how we work together; about avoiding, surviving and succumbing to burnout; about how the law is being applied in 2013. Absolute beginners will, within a few weeks and months, become some of our most experienced direct activists. It’s a boot camp for the activist community. If only it were a simulation. Sadly another swathe of the beautiful English countryside is at stake, not to mention the impact on climate change that the increase in traffic the new road generates (if it’s built) will have.panoramic view of Combe Haven

Much of my day today is going into planning and preparing a 1 day session for the Defenders on “peaceful resistance”. I’ll be down there on Saturday. In many ways the session needs to be a crucible in its own right – a space in which participants can meld their experience, forge connection, hone and sharpen their inspiration, skills and resolve. No pressure there then. Of course it’s not all about preparing for the “front line” – it’s also about finding a role that works for each and every participant. And the joy of this kind of campaign is that those support roles are so very valuable.

I’ll let you know how it goes.You can follow the campaign through the Defenders blog. Or of course you can call in sick and join them…


Linking arms. Stopping arms

Lat month Adam and I co-facilitated an nonviolent direct action training for activists from the Stop The Arms Fair coalition. These dedicated folk work hard to pop the bubble that surrounds the arms trade. You know the one – it allows those that work for the trade to pretend that it’s all about our defence, that they’re keeping the world safe, and that airshows such as those at Farnborough and Fairfield are harmless entertainment for all the family, rather than arms trade fairs.

It’s been a few years since Adam and I worked together on NVDA training. In the intervening time, we’ve both developed activities and exercises. This was a great opportunity to share some of those ideas and see them in practice.

Within a week of the training: An arms dealer steps over a protester in the doorway of the Imperial War Museum

We took the group through a range of activities to explore the ideas behind NVDA, but also the practical skills of holding a space, actively (but nonviolently) disrupting the events of the Arms industry, passively resisting removal and arrest, dealing with confrontation, and more. We ended with time to prioritise and plan their next steps – at least one of which came very soon after the session.

We threw them into some very dynamic roleplays early in the session. I have to admit watching with some anxiety as our role played police got well and truly stuck in to the activists holding some space. Too much, too soon? If you’d asked me in that moment, I’d have said an unequivocal “yes”, and was itching to tone it down a little. Adam was leading on the activity. He’s firmly grounded in best practice (I’ve learnt loads from him over the years), and he’s done this before this way. In hindsight, whilst it clearly challenged the group in many ways, it also seemed to accelerate their formation as a group and deepened the learning from the day. One of those examples of the best learning coming when people are uncomfortable, and that sometimes we facilitators need to get uncomfortable too.

We evaluated using weather metaphors. “Stormy” came up quite often, so we inquired into how people were using the word. I think it’s fair to say that the interpretation was “challenging, energetic, dynamic, even difficult, but in a good way”. Feedback after the event was as you might expect, mixed.  A friendly, relaxed session with good energy, but perhaps failing to make use of all the resources in the room – both in terns of having two facilitators on tap, and in terms of drawing enough from the considerable experience present in the participants.

Occupying direct action

I spent Sunday morning in Southend-on-Sea at the Occupy National Conference. I was there running a short (2 hour) nonviolent direct action (NVDA) workshop, as well as getting a feel for this particular moment in Occupy UK.

Whilst you can’t satisfy everyone in every workshop, the energy, engagement, and conversation afterwards spoke to a decent workshop. My sense of the Conference was that it had involved (and would go on to involve) a fair bit of sitting and talking. So we focused on doing – exploring a few physical aspects of NVDA (holding a space, passive resistance and so on) and using those as stepping-stones to talking about communication, safety, comfort, mutual support and more. There were those in the group with considerable experience of NVDA, so it felt very much like an informal co-facilitation. And that’s a good thing. I recently wrote that I thought Rhizome hadn’t engaged enough with Occupy. Nice to redress that balance, if only slightly…


Trainer as social engineer?

It’s been a funny few months in terms of feedback on training I’ve been involved in facilitating.

In February myself and a co-facilitator received one of the most affirming pieces of feedback I’ve ever received. To paraphrase we were told that we didn’t teach the group anything, but they learnt loads. Music to the ears of anyone that believes in an elicitive* and participatory approach to learning – we simply create the frame within which the participants paint their own artwork drawing on their own experience, knowledge, and vision.

This weekend it was suggested that there was social engineering taking place in a workshop. It was fairly obvious that the criticism was leveled at me in my role as trainer. From an empowering and empowered model of training to manipulator and puppeteer in a couple of months (and yes, when  asked what social engineering meant in this context manipulating towards hidden ends seems a reasonably accurate paraphrase). That’s some fall from grace.

Perhaps naturally, there’s a part of me that wants to write it off as a participant with “issues” about working in groups. Whether or not there’s any truth in that is not the point, however. It would be far too easy to stop listening at that moment in time but something in me says there’s more than a measure of truth in the criticism.

Of course the role of trainer can be slightly (or vastly) different from that of impartial meeting facilitator. Much training is still based on the ’empty vessel’ approach of the trainer pouring his or her wisdom into the group. Maybe there are echoes of that left in the training I run? I certainly feel that the work I do is far more elicitive than it once was, as I’ve learnt to trust the group to have the answer, and to craft the right question. But on reflection however committed to drawing out learning from the group I am, there are definitely times when I have my own agenda or worldview as a trainer and that leaves open the possibility of ‘social engineering’.

This was a nonviolent direct action (NVDA) workshop. I do have a model of NVDA that I train around, which includes many assumptions – co-operating as a group we are more powerful than we are as individuals; leadership is best when shared throughout the group; safety and support roles are as important as ‘action’ roles (or perhaps more important); and so on. These may seem like sensible assumptions, but do I always articulate them and check them out with a group? No. Am I ever drawing out learning to confirm certain pre-occupations and biases of my own, however widely shared. At times, almost certainly yes. Can I see that the fiercely autonomous individual, the free spirit, or the  self-sacrificing martyrs out there will find these assumptions grating? Yes. Does the fact that these folk can be on the margins of groups mean I shouldn’t listen? No.

I’m grateful for the interaction, especially as we were able to explore it more after the session was over. More work to be done on defining my role as trainer, preferably in collaboration with the group I’m working with, and continuing to develop the skills and attitudes needed. But isn’t that the joy of the role of trainer?

* Training for Change, in their handy glossary of terms, describe elicitive tools like so:

elicitive tools: exercises or activities that draw out participants’ knowledge, wisdom, feelings, humour, curiosity, motivation, and so on. When facilitators use elicitive tools, they find that the participants already know most of what the facilitator wants to teach, and the facilitator only needs to add. Elicitive tools invite participants to do most of the work of education, instead of the facilitator!

Spring into action

The 99% Spring has started. From 9th to 15th of April, US activists will:

“gather across America, 100,000 strong, in homes, places of worship, campuses and the streets to train ourselves in non-violent action and join together in the work of reclaiming our country.”

So what about here in the UK? What if you’re a community, activist group, NGO, trade union wanting to prepare for nonviolent action? I thought it was worth reminding ourselves of the resources out there. Sources of training include:

Rhizome trainers will be at work in public sessions at:

We’re more than happy to tailor something specific for your organisation. We can also help you develop your own pool of nonviolence trainers. Get in touch. And of course there are plenty of reading and self-study materials out there including on The 99% Spring website.

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.