Studying direct action at the University of Life – in Sheffield

Following the support we gave to Leeds Uni students at the end of last year, we were asked to facilitate a 3 hour nonviolent direct action (NVDA) workshop on Saturday, as part of a weekend of activities at Sheffield Uni. People & Planet staff were on tour supporting their university groups. Our workshop made up a part of the programme.

I think it went well, and the overall energy and ‘vibe’ from the 24 participants were good. They were engaged and threw themselves into the practical exercises with enthusiasm. And I kept it very practical with the exception of a more discursive opening activity to explore personal definitions of effective action.

I was acutely aware that some of this group have an action in mind for the not so distant future,and it seemed appropriate to ensure that they had some experience of working together behind them.

Yes we could have used more time. There are so many facets of nonviolent direct action we could have covered. I was particularly hoping to get time for a quick decision-making exercise. It’s a favourite of mine which teaches a practical skill whilst giving the group an experience which can help bring them closer and point up any group dynamics issues they need to be wary of. But what we did cover was covered in-depth. We finished with a legal rights activity which led to loads of questions. The group had plans to eat together, and the table reservation saved me (and them) from a long discussion. Sadly it also knocked my 5 minute evaluation on the head, but feedback received by email has been good.

The group was very mixed – some exploring NVDA for the first time, others already veterans of several actions. One or two had been at the Leeds workshop. It felt like a safe space for all concerned. The more experienced were both generous and supportive in sharing their experience without alienating the less experienced.

I’ve already been in touch about next steps – possible workshops with students from Leeds and Sheffield (and elsewhere?) on odds and ends we’ve not had time to cover, plus legal support and legal observing. You’ll hear about it here.

Shared planets and open spaces: part 2


Shared Planet agenda wall - improvising without a wall

It seems like I’m blogging about Open Space with regularity nowadays. Awareness of the technique is clearly growing amongst the campaigning NGOs and networks with whom I do a lot of my work. And it’s being used to good effect. Of course it’s a far from perfect methodology and some of the issues were touched on in the first part of this post. I’m hoping to bring you a fuller critique of Open Space sometime soon.


In the meantime, Open Space was in use at the Climate Camp gathering in Manchester on Saturday and at People & Planet’s Shared Planet conference on Sunday. Rhizome was able to offer a little phone support to climate camp folk on how Open Space might work in the context of their meeting. I was at Shared Planet on Sunday giving more direct support to Beth from the People & Planet staff team who was facilitating an Open Space that day.

When P&P first asked for support we outlined a number of possible options, from facilitating the day ourselves, to training them to do so, to the option they finally chose: training P&P staff as Open Space facilitators and offering ongoing support by phone, email, and in person on the day. On Sunday, my role was to troubleshoot, help physically set up the space, and offer Beth any support she needed. On the morning this amounted to getting on with co-ordinating the physical set up whilst she found herself time to grab a coffee and sit and rehearse her opening spiel. Once she was ready, we walked through her spiel to fine tune it. I’ll speak with her later this week to debrief the opening of the space This model of support is very satisfying. It would have been easier (and cheaper) for P&P to simply ask us to facilitate the day, but instead we transferred the skills to their staff team, and were able to help consolidate them through the ongoing support.


Balloons to mark breakout spaces

On a more random Open Space note, P&P opted for 20 breakout spaces. The venue (the rather grand Aston Web Great Hall at the University of Birmingham) wouldn’t allow us to affix anything to the walls, so someone had the ide of using helium filled balloons tied to chairs to mark breakout spaces. Perhaps not the most eco-friendly option, but it made me smile and served its purpose well. Although breakout space number 20 did pop…..


Shared planets and open spaces

People & Planet have opted to use Open Space Technology for the second day of their flagship conference for student campaigners: Shared Planet. Rhizome is providing support in the form of a training for Open Space facilitators; mentoring for key staff over phone and email; and then being there on the day (November 7th) to support both the physical set up of the space and the facilitation of its opening.

Yesterday I was in Oxford delivering the training for Open Space facilitators for a small group of People & Planet’s staff. We started with a shared experience of Open Space which I facilitated for them. We debriefed – identifying the areas of Open Space that excited them; those that challenged them; and the issues or questions that arose for them in relation to applying Open Space to Shared Planet. From there we worked through a series of practice activities to help them build an understanding of the logistics behind Open Space and the confidence and skills to facilitate it.

The day raised several challenges about the use of Open Space:

P&P have put a lot of effort into facilitation training over the last decade. Training for their annual crop of graduate interns (much of which I’ve had the pleasure of delivering) and training for the student groups that make up their campaign network. At one stage I heard one participant wonder whether Open Space didn’t throw out the facilitation baby with the bath water. The concern? That the small group conversations that are integral to Open Space are unfacilitated and therefore open to domination and a lack of participation.

Of course Open Space has the law of two feet – namely that if you don’t want to stay in a session for whatever reason – poor dynamics included – you can get up and go. How well does that really work here in Britain? There’s a deeply ingrained sense of politeness about these things, combined with a common experience of sitting through long and tortuous meetings. Will people really get up and move? Yes, of course some will, but perhaps not all…

There was also the issue of control. I see this in many NGOs that work with grassroots networks. Fully letting go of the agenda on any level is tough. The NGOs have strategic directions, priority campaigns, and funding commitments. Individual staff have poured heart and soul into their area of work and developed specific skills and expertise. What if these priorities aren’t what the participants choose to discuss in their Open Space conversations?

P&P staff discussed contingency plans around both areas . The former I have a lot of sympathy for. The latter risks closing the Open Space and needs to be handled very carefully.

As for the training? Overall, a good day. Here’s a quick glance at the evaluations:

  • A really good introduction to Open Space – good pace, good explanation and good practical sessions
  • As ever, Matthew invites participation and was gentle and friendly
  • The right balance between helping us learn and stepping back to let us get on with it!
  • 10/10
  • More time on Shared Planet issues would have been cool
  • I didn’t get the newsroom concept at all in the intro
  • less time spent preparing to practice the introduction and giving more time for the other group to practice