Just what do you want?

The Rhizome blog’s been kind of quiet of late. One thing that might change that is you. We asked ourselves what was stopping us posting, and for some of us it’s astumbleweed simple as not knowing enough about who you are and what you want. So why not tell us? In fact, why not use this space to tell us.

You are hereby invited to guest post on the Rhizome blog – tell us about you, or your work, or your worldview. It’s a blatant opportunity to self-publicise, promote your work or cause, tell us your favourite joke and simultaneously help us to understand what makes you tick at the same time.

We always intended this to be a community space and you are that community.

If you need a little prompting, then get in touch and we can chat to you by the communication medium of your choice and your guest post can be an interview instead.

It’s that or the tumbleweed continues…


A year in the life… report back from the rhizosphere

Rhizome’s a year old! We did our first work in February 2010, and formally incorporated as a co-op in March that year.

At the time we took the decision that rather than write policies detailing our ethics and standards we’d borrow from the principles of open source software and adopt a practice of transparency – reporting back on what we do through our blog, and through a yearly post (let’s not call it an annual report – it’s far too informal for that), and letting you decide whether you think we’re an ethical organisation. Ethics on paper are meaningless. Ethics in practice….. that’s altogether harder. Here’s what we said at the time:

Why not just write a policy? We talked about that. Everyone has ethical and environmental policies these days from governments to arms manufacturers. Policies are ten a penny. We’ve decided that for now we want our values to live, breathe and possibly grow and change – we want to share the concepts with you here and then share the practice with you through our blog. We’ll be taking the value of transparency seriously, posting regular thoughts and evaluations of our work in practice, sharing the tough choices we might sometimes need to make, posting information about our ongoing ecological and social footprint. And of course we’ll be asking you to interact with us every step of the way.

Walking our walk

We’re far from perfect, and you’re very welcome to engage us in dialogue about where you think we could improve our practice. We’ve broken this down into:

  • Who we’ve worked with
  • What work we’ve done
  • Our footprint – choices we’ve made
  • A few issues that we’re dealing with at the moment

Who we’ve worked with

Over the last year we’ve trained, facilitated, mediated and offered phone and email support to around 27 groups, networks or organisations as diverse as Bridges, a Shropshire development education centre and Greenpeace UK.

6 Billion Ways | Bretton Woods Project | Bridges Shropshire | CPRE | Crude Awakening | Fairtrade Foundation | Friends of The Earth | Gathering Momentum | Greenpeace | Labour Behind The Label | Leeds University People & Planet | Low Carbon Communities | NGO Capacity Building Forum | Peace News Summer Gathering | PEDAL: 100 days to Palestine | People & Planet | Reclaim the Fields | Sheffield University People & Planet | Steiner School Leicestershire Interest Group | Sustrans | Threshold Centre | Transition Leicester | Transition Towns Conference | World Carfree Network | World Development Movement

The following word clouds give you some idea of the nature of the work we’ve done, it’s proportion (bigger the word the higher the proportion) and how much work we did for paying clients and how much we did for free (or just for expenses):

Of that work here’s how it broke down in terms of facilitation of meetings and other processes, training, and other support (mediation, phone and email support etc):

We’ve brought in a modest income from the paid work we’ve undertaken (too modest if truth be told- see below) and used that and some seed money we started Rhizome with to fund the pro-bono work:

Of course our work isn’t confined to these things. We also maintain a blog and a website with, hopefully useful, resources. We’ve uploaded over 130 posts – a mix of reflections on the work we’ve done, signposts to other people’s events and resources, and thoughts and advice on the issues we concern ourselves with – participation, activism and consensus. We won’t pretend we have a huge readership, but it’s growing steadily. For some reason we also became the 56th most influential UK environment blog though we’ve sadly slipped in the rating a little since then!

Our footprint

The people we choose to give our money to for the various services that an organisation like Rhizome needs to exist probably gives you a fair idea of our ethics in practice, so here’s a quick rundown:

Banking: we opened an account with Triodos Bank – we like their ethics. With Triodos, it’s not just avoiding the bad stuff, but actively supporting the good.

Insurance: we hunted around for an explicitly ethical insurer, but failed to find one that would either offer the type of insurance we needed or answer emails and phone calls efficiently enough to make doing business with them viable. So we went with Towergate Professional Risks who are, at least, specialists in our field.

Another big expense for us is travel. With the exception of a couple of taxi journeys (eg: to venues that weren’t accessible by public transport on a Sunday) all of our Rhizome related travel was by foot, bike, bus and train. That’s not to say it’s without consequence. There was a lot of it. We contemplated working out the mileage and from there the carbon emissions, but life’s too short.

Design and printing: Stig helped us to design and lay out our publicity materials. Calverts printed them. Stig’s a designer for many activist, green and arty folk. Calverts are a London-based workers’ coop with good environmental credentials. The card is 100% post-consumer waste. We used digital printing to accommodate our small print run. Vegetable inks aren’t available for digital printing, sorry.

Office space: we don’t have an office, we both work from home. As such all of those decisions on things like utility providers are made by us individually and with our families and not as Rhizome. Our registered address is at an Ethical Property Centre

Website: we opted for a low-cost, do it yourself approach and started a wordpress.com blog. WordPress produce the wordpress.org open source blog software that enables you to host a blog using their themes and structure. We like them for this. We have recently heard some criticism of wordpress.com via Network 23, and will keep an eye on things:

Issues arising for Rhizome

We thought we’d share some issues that are ‘live’ for us one year into the journey that is Rhizome.

Financial sustainability: Times are hard, unless you happen to work for a transnational bank, energy company, or be a Tory cabinet minister. Times are especially hard for a lot of the folk we traditionally work for. That translates as hard times for us. We haven’t brought in as much paying work as we’d hoped to despite reasonably good contacts, and, we think, decent reputations. We’re exploring a few avenues, writing a few funding bids, but not expecting miracles. One of the consequences of hard times is that we’ve been slower than expected to expand the pool of people who make up Rhizome.

Growing a diverse network: A year in we had expected Rhizome to be more than just Carl and myself. We’d like to bring you an even wider range of skills and experience, and we’re fully aware that 2 white men of roughly similar age doesn’t shout “diversity”. It hasn’t felt like we have that much to offer potential members of Rhizome. We’re not bringing enough paying work to offer them a secure income. However money isn’t all, and we’re thinking that now’s the time to invite a few people to dip their toes into the water and join the fun. We can offer exciting opportunities to train and (co) facilitate. We can offer mutual support, a window on the world in the shape of the blog, and a chance to help develop Rhizome.

Anything else you want to know?

We said we wanted to be transparent and we mean it, so feel free to use the comment function below to pose a question (or of course, make a comment!)

“Take me to your leader!”

cartoon by Nopolymon aka T. Coffin

I’ve had leadership on the mind this week, mainly due to spending some time writing a proposal for some work developing a youth leadership programme for young people involved in the Woodcraft Folk.

For some leadership is a dirty word. It’s too closely related to hierarchy. Indeed there’s a moment on many direct actions when the police first approach activists and invariably ask to speak to whoever’s in charge. Much of the direct action movement takes great delight in being able to answer that “no-one is in charge”. In principle this is one thing I love about the movement: it’s fiercely non-hierarchical opening up space for new models of leadership – co-operative models. Of course it doesn’t always live up to its own rhetoric (who does?), and the person who answers “no-one’s in charge” is often one of the more assertive (dare I say dominant) personalities in a group and as such carries much of the weight of the traditional leader.

But I digress…. so leadership is often embodied in an individual. We have a leader, or a small committee of leaders. They are expected to fulfil all of the functions of good leadership: to inspire; to provide clear direction; to resolve disputes; to set the ethical standards for the group or movement; to speak with confidence and authority; to have a deep understanding and analysis of the issues; to be able to make hard decisions and so on. So far so bad….

For community groups, leaders can be the death knell. However competent they are, the very model of leadership breeds problems, and we’re often expecting people to do it with no training and little experience. Let’s look at a few of the problems:

Leaders can disempower people – one look at our heroic leader and I’m left feeling deflated in that “I can never be like him (and it’s usually a him), so I won’t even try” way.

Leaders can create a gulf between those that lead and those at the bottom of a group or organisation. Others are left with no opportunity or motivation to develop skills and knowledge because much of the work is done by the leaders.

Leaders can undermine sustainability of groups. It doesn’t take a group long to settle into a dynamic of active leader and passive group. OK so the group might be a group of activists, who undertake a lot of activity, but in terms of the roles within the group they can be passive. That may work for many groups, but it’s totally dependent on the leader. And leaders have health problems to. Leaders move to new towns, cities or countries. Leaders get new demands on their time… there are lots of reasons why a group might lose its leader. For some groups that’s terminal. There’s no-one with the skills or experience to take over and the group wilts and dies.

Leaders can cause disharmony and fuel competition which can lead to factions within groups and unhealthy group dynamics. Perhaps there’s someone else who aspires to the leadership role. Perhaps there’s a disaffected minority that have been on the rough end of some of those hard choices or alienated by those ethical standards. Perhaps one person does all the TV and radio and becomes the only person the media wants to talk to.

So what’s the alternative? Collective leadership. Let’s disembody leadership. See it as a series of roles that need to be fulfilled for a group to be well led. Those roles all need to happen, but do they really need to be done by just one person? Or a small handful of people?

Well functioning groups know this already. They value the input of all members. They know what members have to offer (because they’ve had that conversation). They know what members want to learn, and encourage and support skillsharing. They make time for this process alongside their activism, indeed they see it as an essential foundation for their activism. They welcome diversity. They plan for the long-term – they see the life of the group as more than the task at hand and establish resilient and sustainable groups. Founder members have understood the need to give away the authority that founding conveys on them as quickly as possible. They’ve created a culture of equality, open communication, supportive peer feedback, shared responsibility and mutual inspiration. They make themselves redundant as quickly as possible.

We live in a culture in which leadership from above is the default setting. We all understand it, even if we’re not all comfortable with it. It’s easy for groups to fall into this model of leadership through an absence of action rather than deliberate choice. Making change to a more empowered and empowering approach is easier once you realise that it’s not only (not even?) a political or ideological decision. It can be a practical decision about both the long and short-term success of your group. Of course, stepping away from the culture of top-down leadership isn’t always easy. It’s easy to find support and ideas for what’s considered normal and right, less easy for the alternatives. And of course we have to fend of our own socialisation to accept the model as best.

However, you’re not alone. Folk like Rhizome exist. See our links and resources pages for more ideas. And if you’re doing it and making it work, share your success with us (and we’d happily hear about the challenges too).

And for the facilitators reading. How’s it read if we replace ‘leader’ with ‘facilitator’? Whether we like it or not we’re often cast in a leadership role by the groups we work with….

“Take me to your leader!” 2: some thoughts for organisations wanting to promote shared leadership.

Planning the year ahead…but no blue tea thinking

blue tea - somewhere between black and green

Carl and I met this week for a general catch up and planning session. He very kindly made the journey to Leicester and after an early lunch we adjourned to a local cafe and explored a wide range of topics.

Naturally we had to cover the mundane stuff like finance, developing this website, publicising our existence and so on. But we talked about the year ahead as well. So here’s a taste of what we discussed and decided:

research and writing…

We already share our learning through this blog. But we realise that we’ve written loads of stuff over the years about building, supporting and empowering grassroots campaign networks, community organisations and so on. So we decided that the time has come to pull it all together into one place. We’ll be looking for funding to write a book that we hope will be of use to anyone involved in the life of a local campaign group or community organisation, NGO capacity-building staff, national networks and so on. If we get the funding we’ll blog it chapter by chapter so you can interact with it, and help shape it. Then it’ll be stuck together and made available to download, for free we hope.

We’re also considering a piece of what we like to call barefoot research, to look at participation on a community level – the aspirations and the obstacles. Barefoot because we’re practitioners not academics, because we want to approach it from the bottom up and work with communities. Whatever we come up with will shed some light on why people do or don’t get active in their community. This seems like essential knowledge to have in a world in which rebuilding community  and localising our economy may be our biggest hope in the struggle against climate change.

new media

Our conversation took in the social media. Clearly we already blog and the good news is that Carl has offered to write more regular posts, so look out for those. But it’s easy to believe that without a Facebook page you’re nothing. Nothing personal to those of you on Facebook, but we feel that right now we can live without it. Same goes for Twitter. We’ve played around with the odd tweet, mainly directing people to our blog or another blogger’s post that’s grabbed us, but in general we decided it was a technology we could live without for now.

It’s a bit like the blue tea on offer in the cafe. We’re very comfortable with black tea, green tea, even white tea… but there comes a point when the latest tea doesn’t really add much to the sum total of humanity’s tea-experience. Facebook and Twitter are a bit blue tea for us right now.

training, facilitation and coaching….

Lots in the pipeline, which you’ll read about as we reflect and report back. Specifically we talked about addressing the issue of the lack of funds in NGO training budgets to send staff on the training they want and need (at least at the end of the organisations that we deal with, network support and capacity building staff). We’ve tried to co-ordinate a couple of courses this year with our friends in the NGO Forum, but budgets have been tight and we haven’t been able to make it cost-effective. Given that we rely on work with the NGO community to fund us to work, for free, with other groups, that’s a problem. So we’re going to explore some funding options to work with NGOs as partners and design and deliver bespoke courses for their staff.

We’re also thinking about more coaching, as we’re often approached by people who want skills and want tailored support, but are the only person in their group or organisation that requires the support. Training isn’t appropriate, so coaching is the way forward…


We haven’t co-facilitated anywhere near as much as we’d have liked to. Shame – opportunities for learning from each other would be welcome. In general it’s been a pragmatic choice – the paid work we’ve been offered rarely pays enough to warrant two of us. And we’re a tad busy to co-facilitate the pro bono stuff. So we’ll keep looking for opportunities including outside of Rhizome. We’re both Turning The Tide volunteer resource people so we may well co-facilitate some of the work we do for them.

And for the curious – Carl’s was breakfast tea, mine mao feng green tea.

Rhizome: spreading the word

Rhizome’s still fairly new and there are plenty of organisations and networks out there that haven’t heard about us. We’d appreciate your help to change that.

We’ve finally got round to producing some publicity materials – a series of 8 postcards with a little bit of info about Rhizome and a funky photo on the front. If you can distribute a few to friends and contacts working in activists networks or the NGOs that support and work with activist networks, get in touch.

Of course you can also link to this site, mention us on your blog, tweet about us, or just use good old-fashioned word of mouth.

We can’t offer you more than our gratitude and the reassurance that you’re helping Rhizome develop into a sustainable resource for community activism. So, in advance, thanks…

And for those that are interested in such things, Stig designed the cards and Calverts Co-op printed them

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.

Consensus: the deep end

13 participants and 4 facilitators, including myself, gathered in Oxford this weekend for Consensus: in at the deep end a full weekend workshop to explore consensus decision-making in more depth than consensus training usually allows.

Of course consensus is a widely used word. You hear it everywhere – the Blairs, Browns and Camerons of this world are constantly talking about reaching consensus in parliament, at the United Nations or the G8. Usually they mean that enough weight of opinion has formed around the dominant world-view that it will hold sway. So what’s new. That’s not the consensus we were exploring in the workshop.

Rather we were talking (and doing!) about a radical process that challenges people to co-operate at a deep level in order to achieve outcomes that don’t alienate, and don’t create disaffected minorities. It demands empathy, deep listening, the willingness to suspend personal agendas, openness to surprise, creativity and new ideas and a genuine attempt to find solutions that work for everyone.

The weekend’s agenda was handed firmly over to the participants. Friday evening was spent in reflection on people’s personal and collective understanding of consensus. Instead of creating a group agreement the group explored the underlying concepts – how to make the group fully accessible to those at the margins of the group.

To satisfy the inevitable urge for discussion, Saturday morning was spent in Open Space. The group then identified the issues that they most wanted to take forward into a more experiential phase of the workshop. Whilst they took a 30 minute break, we facilitators huddled and created experiential activities to explore and learn deeper skills around those issues.

The values of consensus proved to be a strong theme throughout. Consensus is often seen and taught as a decision-making process, and of course it is. But the process is only a framework for a way of inter-relating. Consensus is a state of mind and heart which is expressed through a decision-making process. It seems to me that understanding that state of mind/heart is far more powerful and effective than understanding the technicalities of a decision-making process without having that grounding in the values that it enshrines. Here’s a reflection from one of the participants, taken from an email I received this week

Something that really had an effect was the ‘persuasion exercise’ with someone against the wall and through dialogue attempting to bring them towards the larger group. It really brought home the point for me that when entering into political dialogue I will often wear the ‘party hat’ and actually to build strong consensual networks and relationships that hat needs to come off more often than not- to create a space to share common values and ideas that can lead to action together- with folk that share similar politics and also those who don’t.

Consensus is practiced widely here in the UK, but often at a shallow level with plenty of competition, poor communication and intolerance within what is supposed to be a co-operative, empathetic model.

I’m not sure how deep we got, but we certainly created activities that gave participants the chance to develop the practice of empathy, listening, and supportive curiosity. We threw them into high pressure roleplay to explore the pre-conditions for effective consensus. We practiced facilitating groups to not only reach decisions but to understand the values of consensus more deeply by the end of a meeting. And we explored tools and techniques that could be used in the consensus process.

I haven’t read the evaluations yet. I left those with my co-facilitators in Oxford. When I see them I’ll share them.

For me it was a good weekend – engaged participants and the challenge of designing the agenda as we went along, which I think we rose to.

Consensus: in at the deep end

Upcoming workshop: 8th-10th October 2010

Plunge into a deeper exploration of consensus and facilitation in activist movements – whether in small or large groups, networks, open or closed groups.

This weekend is for people with experience of facilitating consensus who want to deepen their skills and understanding, to share problems and look for solutions. It will be highly participatory and the agenda will be led by participants’ wants and needs. It won’t be ‘for experts only!’ – it will be for people with some experience who are interested to go a bit deeper.

This workshop will be a space to:

  • Deepen our understanding of consensus
  • Build our confidence and skills to share our understanding with other people through good facilitation
  • Reflect critically on how we’re using consensus in our movements

Friday 8th (7-10pm), Saturday 9th (10-6pm) & Sunday 10th (10-4pm) October 2010

Organised and facilitated by Rhizome and the Seeds for Change Network. For more information contact us or Seeds.

Building the capacity builders

On 11th February, we facilitated a couple of sessions at a facilitators’ skill-share. 35 capacity builders from 10 or so of the UK’s campaigning organisations came together to build their skills. The Rhizome contribution was to facilitate a session on ‘facilitating learning’ and co-facilitate one on dealing with ‘difficult’ behaviour in meetings and workshops.

This was the first event of its kind for a little known group called the NGO Forum. It’s a meeting of capacity building staff from a wide range of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from Friends of the Earth through to Campaign Against the Arms Trade taking in CPRE and WDM along the way. The Forum’s been around for 4 or 5 years now and in one guise or another we’ve been involved. We sneak into meetings once in a while to see if we can be of use.

The ‘facilitating learning’ session went down well. It was a very short taster of a longer ‘training for trainers’ workshop. For us the key message is that people need to be involved in their own learning. As facilitators we need to bite the bullet and accept that it takes more time, but participation gets better results. Yes, it adds unpredictability to a training session – once you open up the learning to the group you can never quite tell what direction it will take, except to say that it will go in the direction of whatever the group want to learn at that moment. We don’t see this as a bad thing.

Dealing with difficult behaviour is also about participation. Commonly it is barriers to participation that spark off difficult behaviour. We facilitators can be as guilty as anyone of stereotyping people as ‘difficult’. We write them off and try to either ignore them or marginalise them so they cause as little disruption as possible. This doesn’t work for at least two reasons. Firstly these problems rarely go away because we sweep them under the carpet. It might seem to work at first, but they’ll come back sooner or later, probably magnified. Secondly, if we take the time to think about what’s going on then we’ll often see that the problem lies with us, or with the group as a whole.

This session focused on analysing group dynamics in order to understand what the barriers to participation might be and only then trying to find a solution. When you step back and understand that the group, or our facilitation of it, has limited someone’s participation in the group in some way, the ‘difficult’ person can be seen in a new light.  A common example is that our ‘difficult’ person simply hasn’t been listened to, and is feeling undervalued and alienated. No wonder they kick off in some way. Once we understand that we’re failing to meet the needs of the person in question, leading them to behave in a way we see as difficult, we can take action.  Take a breath. Look around. Understand the situation and then use an appropriate facilitation technique. It’s often as simple as a bit of active listening

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!