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.” http://the99spring.com

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.


Peace News Summer Camp 2012

It’s that time of year again when we plug the Peace News Summer Camp, not just because we plan to be there running workshops and facilitating discussion sessions. It’s a great gathering: purposeful but unpretentious, relaxed, small enough that you get to build relationships, and the programme’s good too. See you there?

Peace News Summer Camp 2011

Let’s let Peace News folk speak for themselves:

Bring your contribution to a hothouse of creativity, a small self-governed society run by democratic camp meetings, a viable example of the kind of world we are trying to bring about. The Peace News Summer Camp helps build a radical movement for the future by building a living community today.

We are camping in a family friendly and renewably-powered way from 28 July to 1 August in the beautiful grounds of Crabapple Community, near Shrewsbury in Shropshire.

Activities include: workshops and discussions, practical skills sessions, delicious vegan food cooked by Veggies of Nottingham, music, film, fun and participatory entertainment, a bar, campfires, and activities and facilities for kids and families.


Strategy and activism: hairdresser or architect?

As promised here are some edited highlights from the interview with Milan Rai and Gabriel Carlyle. The interview was recorded on a small digital voice recorder in a tent at the Peace News Summer Camp. Unsurprisingly the sound quality was low and I won’t inflict it on you. Instead I’ve trawled through it and transcribed the following nuggets.

But first why Mil and Gabriel? Mainly because they seem to constantly be looking to the next step in the campaigns in which they’re involved (Voices in the Wilderness and Justice not Vengeance to name but two) whilst simultaneously trying to create accessible campaigns and build the wider movement.

“I think having a more strategic approach is about letting go of that tight grip on that particular tactic or family of tactics and being willing to look at the range of things that will help you achieve the intermediate goals, the best intermediate goals, towards what you want to do…” Milan Rai

Why the focus on building the Movement?

MR: On Afghanistan there’s been so little activity going on and so whatever was done, in a sense, was good. Movement building that has been near the top of my agenda: how can we increase the amount of energy people have for doing things around Afghanistan?… I think there is what I decide for myself is the best use of my time and energy and then there’s what ends up being the best thing for me to do with a group of people… I wouldn’t say that I’d go 180° to what I’ve decided is a good idea to do but I would end a long way in order to end up with a situation where at the end of the whole process the people who have been organising it feel good about the experience and that they have gone in the direction that they’re happy with so that they have more energy to carry on.

GC: I think “is this the best use of my time?” and all the rest of it but in practice a lot of what one does, at least after that initial step has been taken of trying to get people together to do something, even if one’s got a clear conception of it oneself, in practice a lot of the moves you subsequently make are forced on you by factors you can’t really control… I’m aware of the strategic issues but I rarely get to put any of them into practice…

MR: I disagree with you because when you say you don’t practice strategy what you’re talking about is sitting down and making a strategic plan and putting all the elements in place to follow through on getting to that goal. But I think that you have certain skills and certain abilities and knowledge and resources that you can lay your hands on, and networks. And what you do is you figure out how we get to the next intermediate goal towards ending the war and building a movement big enough to stop all these wars happening. I think you’re doing that all of the time but not in a “I’m writing the blueprint for the next 5 years” kind of way. It’s making that assessment of what you have available and building from that, and I think you do that all of the time.

I think that my personal judgement is that the overriding strategic priority that I have is to encourage every single person I meet around activism to feel better about being an activist and about being involved, and to try to create an environment in which they feel heard and strengthened and supported and I think that’s the most important thing. Creating an environment in which people are encouraged to take another step, to get a bit more involved and to feel a little bit stronger in their opinions… that’s the way you do campaigning. It’s from people feeling more confidence and strength that more activity happens and maybe some of it won’t be the best use of resources but it’s something.

Intermediate goals?

MR: For example, trying to think about how to encourage people in the military who are feeling dissident about the war in Afghanistan, to make them feel they have some support out there and make them feel stronger in taking a stand, in making a difference, and for their families to feel there is support out there for that kind of thing… that’s an intermediate goal towards ending the war in Afghanistan and building a political and social force that is capable of stopping wars of aggression like this happening in the future.

What if cold dispassionate strategy says “do one thing”, but our passion and excitement tell us to do another?

MR: I think what happens in practice is that people cluster their activities around a family of tactics and so they apply those tactics to situations: they are direct activists so they do direct action around stuff. I think having a more strategic approach is about letting go of that tight grip on that particular tactic or family of tactics and being willing to look at the range of things that will help you achieve the intermediate goals, the best intermediate goals, towards what you want to do…

I think it’s perfectly sensible for people to say “I have expertise, or we have expertise, in doing a certain thing. If there’s a campaign going on there’s a contribution we can make in this particular way”. At the same time I think that the most important thing to do is figure out what your preferred intermediate goal is and to work out the best way to make that happen. And it might be that doing a direct action at this particular point is not the best way.

It’s about what fits the intermediate goal and a willingness to let go of the tactics and to try to figure out the set of actions that will help move you towards that.

GC: I’m not saying the only consideration, but a key consideration is efficacy rather than making your self feel militant or comfortable. I think all these things have at least 2 ways to face. When you do something there’s the effect it has on the external world and there’s the effect on the movement you’re trying to grow. So if we’re a direct action group but were going to stop being a direct action group to write letters because that’s what we’ve concluded from our strategic analysis is effective, and everybody goes home and nobody writes a letter then you haven’t factored in a key part.

MR: The passion versus rationality question – I can completely see that that’s how it feels as a dilemma. I look at it in a slightly different way, which is to say that there’s a difference between different kinds of activity which in terms of what kind of reward you perceive you’re getting from it…

If you’re a hairdresser within an hour or two, virtually immediately, you work on something; you see it change; you get feedback from the people involved – generally positive; you get paid straight away; and it’s all done. You’ve got immediate effect on the world, immediate feedback of appreciation and support, immediate financial pay-off, and it’s all taken place in a couple of hours.

Whereas, at the other end of the spectrum, if you’re an architect you may spend a long time designing some duct which no-one is ever going to see, and there’s a huge chain of people between you and the building going up. No-one’s ever going to thank you for that duct. And there’s a large gap in time and space between you doing your work and the end result.

I think what I’d say is that whatever kind of activism you’re doing of whatever family of tactics there has to be a mixture of stuff, where there’s some stuff that is long-term – no immediate visible effect kind of thing because that’s essential for social change – and stuff which you get some visible pay-off that something has changed because of what I’ve done, not within a couple of hours, but within an appreciable amount of time.

Can’t get no satisfaction?

MR: It’s about being clear what you personally find satisfying and then finding out whether you can give people satisfactory experiences which are just about them – it’s not about the world changing, but it might involve some change in the world that they find satisfying with different families of tactics. And I think that’s slightly different from passion and rationality

What advice would you offer to an activist group?

GC: It’s very simple stuff, obvious when it’s pointed out to you. And even if you know about it, having your attention drawn back to that stuff: What are you trying to achieve? If there’s some completely impossible goal what is the nearest thing you can think of, which is the intermediate goal as Mil was saying. What’s the most effective action? Do you live on the doorstep of some major player in the war? Do you have a local base? What is the thing that’s the largest increment or step that’s actually feasible? Then looking at the resources you have to deploy and seeing if they match up, and do what you can do that’s constructive.

Reporting back from Peace News

Over the course of Sunday and Monday I facilitated 3 two-hour workshops at the Peace News Summer Camp. I also grabbed the opportunity to pin down Milan Rai and Gabriel Carlyle, of the Peace News editorial team as well as long-term activists and movement builders, to interview them about strategy. More of that when I’ve found time to work through all 27 minutes of the recording and edit it for your delectation.

Back to the workshops… all three were well received. Inevitably there are small changes I’ll make next time round but I’d be worried if there weren’t.

What’s strategy ever done for us, co-facilitated with Rich of Seeds for Change and which I blogged about in The values of strategy, was an interesting collision of people. They included those for whom meeting the aim of a campaign is everything even if it leads us towards tactics that we don’t feel comfortable with, and those for whom the language of building strategy on the back of our existing values really resonated. To an extent it also felt like a collision of 2 agendas. We explored the question of how our values influence our strategy and then played with a couple of tools. Both could have been a 2 hour workshop in themselves. My favourite evaluation comment was that “it challenged me in the way I wanted to be challenged”. The improvements suggested included wanting to hear  strategy success stories from the facilitators’ experience of campaign groups around the UK.

Advanced facilitation was a bit of a departure for me, and one I very much enjoyed. I left the agenda open and roped in the group to facilitating all stages of it. They decided what needed to be done to set the scene, facilitating introductions and an icebreaker. They decided whether they wanted a group agreement and discussed the best ways to facilitate one, and then they listed and prioritised the facilitation issues they wanted to cover. I merely held the space for them, providing some of the pieces of the process jigsaw and chipping in with ideas from time to time. The group expressed a feeling that this approach meant that it took a while to get through the introduction and agenda setting and get to the heart of the workshop, but there was lots of learning along the way.

Public speaking brought together a spectrum of would be speakers from the quietly confident to the terrified. We spent 2 hours working on techniques to build confidence and structure an effective talk. The participants then delivered a small part of their talk to the group. Everyone felt able to engage with the practice and the energy of the group at the end was good. I split the group up for the final practice session in order to allow everyone to have a turn in the time we had. One criticism was that this reduced audience size and that some people would very much have liked to have practiced in front of the whole group. Noted.

“I found both of your workshops (advanced facilitation and public speaking) very useful, and shall endeavour to put the ideas and techniques that emerged into practice. Many thanks for coming to do the workshops” Dan – workshop participant

Peace News folk collected the evaluation forms, which included scoring the workshop as well as room for comments. They’ll crunch the numbers and send me the results in good time at which point I’ll share them with you.

Westmill Co-operative Windfarm in the distance behind the main marquee

The values of strategy?

I’ve been working up an agenda for a 2 hour strategy workshop at the Peace News Summer Gathering – co-facilitated by Rich at Seeds for Change. It’s great timing – happening alongside the conversation that’s been taking place on this blog about strategy.

We want to start where people are at and help them explore what values they currently use to make their activist-related decisions: why this campaign and not that one… this action rather than that action… this type of activist group or organisation and not another?

Which of these actions speaks to your values?

Then we plan to use a local radio style interview to get them thinking about those values and uncover the strategic elements (or lack of them) before moving on to introduce and practice a couple of tools mentioned in the various posts – smartMeme’s Battle of the Story and critical path analysis (aka stepping-stones).

Starting from people’s values seems like an intelligent thing to do. One of the reasons why Rhizome, Seeds and Turning The Tide facilitators have been exploring strategy over the past couple of months is the sense that much of what’s currently on offer leaves people feeling cold. It alienates rather than included and therefore makes consciously strategic thinking (and therefore strategic action) less likely  – except of course for the few for whom these kind of thinking processes naturally work.

Going in at the level of values should engage people at a level at which they really care. Of course values might not be the only criteria activists need to consider when planning action – and we’ll be asking the group we work with on Sunday what else they feel needs to be part of an effective strategic process.

We’ll also be exploring the area of shared values. Groups working from individual values and assuming that they are universally held within the group are storing up trouble for later. So an explicit conversation on which values are ‘mine’ and which ‘ours’, needs to happen.

Clearly there’s also the issue of whether there are identifiable pressure points, triggers or fulcrums (fulcra?) we need to focus on to be truly effective. Once identified, the challenge then becomes finding effective ways to act that start from our shared values. It’s unlikely we’ll manage to cover this latter area in the 2 hours we have… a follow-up workshop, maybe?

I’ll let you know how it went next week…

Telling the story of strategy?

smartMeme's Re:imagining Change

Simmering away in the background for the last 12-18 months has been a 3-way conversation between facilitators from Rhizome, Seeds for Change and Turning The Tide. As you’ll have seen from other posts in this strategy dialogue all have encountered enough issues with facilitating strategy for activists that they’ve been looking at new approaches. One such has been the story-based approach from the smartMeme collective in the USA .

Here’s a brief intro to what it’s all about, and a brief critique to explain why we’ve felt the need to customise the approach for a UK context.

Are you sitting comfortably?
In Re:imagining Change, smartMeme argue that the medium of stories gives us a new model for strategy. They talk in terms of Narrative Power Analysis, an analysis which runs something ike this:

We’re brought up on stories – everything from the creation myths of our religions to the existence of Santa Claus. We hear stories every time we turn on the news or read a newspaper – “the war on terror is keeping us safe”, for example. Just the phrase ‘war on terror’ evokes a whole cast of characters from the caves of Tora Bora, the streets of Kabul, Burnley and Wooton Bassett, the burning towers of New York, and the cells of Guantanamo Bay, along with all the cultures (and clashes of cultures) that come with them.

A story-based approach to campaign strategy homes in on the stories that people have heard so often that they’ve accepted and even internalised. These smartMeme call control myths – stories we’re so familiar with that we even propagate them through our own actions, lifestyles and conversation. Which of us, in our culture, doesn’t play a role in spreading the story of the need for consumerism, for example, even if it’s ethical consumerism?

The art of story-based strategy is to subvert these stories and create new endings that bring about the changes we want to see in the world. And because stories are engaging, story based strategy can also be more engaging.

Challenging assumptions
Buying into the prevailing control myths, by definition, means that we’re making assumptions such as: “I’m at danger from terrosrism”, or “the government wouldn’t lie to me”. Often we activists assume that if we could just shout loud enough about an issue and give people the facts they are lacking, they would join our cause. But people are conditioned to ignore information that doesn’t fit into their existing understanding the world –  the control myths that they’ve bought into.

The story-based approach says we’re much more effective as campaigners when we forget about bombarding people with facts and figures and find ways to challenge their control myth assumptions. The “facts” alone are not enough to persuade them. Their assumptions and pre-existing attitudes stop the facts making sense, so we need to meet them where they are at, join them in their story, and then subvert the ending.

The tool that smartMemes use to analyse control myths and find tactics to subvert them is called the Battle of the Story

The Battle of the Story
The Battle of the Story is a set of steps that help activists get inside the heads of those we campaign against and find the most useful points in their story to intervene and rewrite the ending. for example, we commonly take action at physical points in the story – at the factory gate, the annual general meeting, the supermarket or the government office. smartMeme advocate taking action at the point at which the assumptions are being made – what they call the Points of Intervention. This may well be the same physical location, but our action will be different. Will blocking the factory gate challenge control myths? If not we find new tactics…

smartMemes advocate the use of the meme: an image, action or phrase that can act as the capsule for our message a way of getting our message into the minds of those we campaign against in such a way that it opens those minds to a new ending to the story. They use case studies of banner hangs, billboard subverts, and dramatic action-stunts to illustrate the concept of the meme. An example would be the WTO/Democracy banner hang before the 1999 WT talks, which, they argue, reframed the talks and made new endings possible…

a meme?

A critique
OK so that’s a whistle-stop tour of quite a complex theory. We’ve been playing with it for a while, have trialled it at last year’s Peace News summer gathering, and used other facilitators to test out the exercises. And that’s led to the development of the following critique

On the plus side the theory shows:

  • the potential for a more creative and engaging analysis of the context in which we’re campaigning and which we want to change – a step away from dryer approaches to strategic thinking
  • the potential to get into our ‘opponents’ head in a more useful and constructive way
  • the potential to challenge us to use tactics that effectively take on the assumptions of the powerholders and help make change happen.

On the downside there are still problems we’re ironing out:

  • UK campaigners have been wary of the ‘meme’ – their response so far is that it feels like a PR exercise rather than a more meaningful action. The smartMeme approach has the feel of a very media-savvy technique which not all activists are comfortable with. To be fair we’ve tested it out with activists who tend to be wary of mainstream corporate media. For activists who believe in the power of that media, the response may be the opposite
  • the language and case studies used in Re:imagining Change are very US-focused and non-US facilitators might need to take the time to find alternative, and more culturally appropriate examples
  • the tools that smartMeme suggest don’t seem to live up to the creativity of the theory as a whole. For example key stages of the thinking process such as the Battle of the Story are offered as rather dry worksheets, and facilitators might need to liven the exercises up a bit
  • the language of traditional strategic thinking has always been full of jargon. With the smartMeme approach there’s a danger of replacing one set of jargon with another

In summary, the Battle of the Story is a useful process (though it may need streamlining), and the concept of Points of Intervention articulates a useful alternative for finding a focus for our actions. Memes? At the moment we can take them or leave them but that might change as our understanding of the process matures!

Parts of this post were first written for Making Waves, the magazine of Turning the Tide

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?