Spokescouncils – learning from Stop New Nukes: Part 2

I was back at Hinkley power station this weekend for the Fukushima anniversary action. Actions at Hinkley have a new poignancy – the site for the new and much bigger Hinkley C reactor has now been cleared, despite valiant efforts to hinder it (a tree-sit and occupation of some farm buildings), and G4S security guards are everywhere.

Once again my role was that of spokescouncil facilitator. But whereas last time we had several days at a pre-action camp to help people get used to the idea of affinity groups and consensus, and in particular spokescouncils, this action had no such preamble. All spokescouncils were held in the immediate vicinity of the station and mid-action.

Over the course of 24 hours we held 3 meetings, all of them spokes-only meetings, so as not to distract people from the blockade itself.

  • The first to check in, share information and respond to anything that might arise from the group.
  • The second to plan the transition from the big ‘surround the station’ action to the more contentious blockade. Ingeniously, the group decided to solve the problem by moving the meeting into the roadway, thus the meeting became the blockade, and runners were sent out to tell others that the blockade had begun.
  • The third to check out how much energy the group had for maintaining the blockade after a cold and (for many) sleepless night and decide on an end time and process.

I don’t want to repeat the learning from previous involvement in this campaign. If you want that, have a glance at the previous post. But I thought I’d update you with what’s working well and less well (in my opinion, of course) in the world of spokescouncil consensus, Stop New Nuclear style

Working well?

  • I continue to be impressed at the willingness to co-operate within meetings. It felt like we were doing at least half decent consensus in a disparate group of people whose only connection was the choice to take part in a particular action. None of the posturing and positioning that I’ve witnessed elsewhere. And all this with a short introduction to the mindset needed for consensus, to hand signals and to spokescouncils at the start of each meeting.
  • The short intro, and the action setting mean that the group is starting the consensus process without necessarily being aware of where it’s taking them. I’ve been introducing each step of the process as the meeting unfolds (“lets hear a few perspectives?”… “any more perspectives that we need to hear?”…. “can anyone see a way forward that brings together what we’ve heard so far”… “any major objections to what we’re hearing”… and so on). It’s a potentially risky strategy, but one that’s working at the moment.

And less well?

  • The lack of a pre-action camp meant that not everything I’d hoped we could do to improve awareness of spokescouncils was able to take place – induction meetings and workshops, a flier handed out at the welcome tent, and so forth.
  • I probably should have taken a deep breath and done a formal intro to the whole group over the PA system since one was available. Partly this was an aversion to public speaking, and partly deference to those who had come to speak and whose words seemed so much more necessary than mine – for example the young Japanese couple who shared their personal story of the impact of the Fukushima disaster.
  • If spokescouncils are an affinity group tool, then we’re not really doing spokescouncils at all! Many, possibly most, of the people present were not in affinity groups. Some were in looser group formation (a few mates, the folk they traveled with on the coach…). Others were there as individuals. Whilst the spokescouncils did attract people from the looser groups, many of the individuals were essentially not represented. As I see it this will continue to be the case until we succeed in encouraging greater take-up of the affinity group model, or start  having fishbowl-format spokescouncils. At these latter meetings it’s easy enough to cluster individuals into ad hoc groups and invite them to select a spoke.

For all of these failings, in the relatively small confines of this action (the blockade focused on one gate only), and in the relaxed atmosphere of the action (once again the police took a laissez-faire approach), the meetings are working. Decisions are being networked out to the wider crowd, and I saw no signs of them being ignored. When there’s more than one physical location, and tougher policing? Then we’ll need the discipline of affinity groups and more experience in consensus. But we have a little time….

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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.

Spokescouncils – learning from Stop New Nukes

Photo: Stop New Nuclear

Hinkley Point nuclear power station was successfully blockaded on Monday 3rd for an entire day. The Stop New Nuclear organisers had decided in advance on an affinity group model of action, and therefore that communication and decision making would happen by spokescouncil.

I joined the fray on the Saturday to help facilitate the spokescouncils both at the camp and on the blockade itself. From Saturday to Monday I facilitated 4 spokescouncil meetings – 2 at the camp, 1 during a camp-wide practice blockade, and the fourth and final one at the blockade itself. With the exception of the practice, on the surface at least, the others seemed to go well. The practice spokescouncil hit problems, but that’s why we practiced!

In fact I was amazed by all of the meetings I facilitated or witnesses at the camp, whether spokescouncils and general camp info meetings. They all ended on or ahead of the scheduled time and ran pretty smoothly. There was a real will to co-operate that you can’t assume will be present.

But why ‘on the surface at least’? I think there were some real issues bubbling away under the surface. Nothing insurmountable, but issues nevertheless. So what was going on?

Experience and understanding

The most obvious was the challenge that spokescouncils presented to those less versed in the ways of affinity group organising. Some of the folk attending were not just new to consensus, but had also only formed affinity groups a few hours (and in some cases a few minutes) before their first spokescouncil meeting. I wonder whether some of the ease with which we got through the meetings was caused by the mild daze that some people were in, trying to catch up with a process that’s pretty weird if you’ve never encountered it before.

There were no scheduled inductions to consensus, and I think the quality of information at the welcome tent very much depended on the volunteer who greeted you. Some probably took the time to talk to people about how the camp worked, but I don’t think that was a universal experience. A few sentences from me at the start of the meeting don’t compensate for a proper induction.

Perhaps it’s also a comment on the nature of affinity group action here in the UK. It’s fallen out of favour in recent years. Somehow “affinity group based mass action” has become just “mass action” and affinity groups have become the preserve of long-standing activists from the peace movement and Earth First! We need to remember that in actions like this blockade it’s not as simple as stating that it’s an action configured around affinity groups and expecting everyone to know what that means and to have experience of affinity group processes. And even if folk understand all of the above, they aren’t necessarily part of an affinity group at this point in their lives.

So more induction and more awareness raising of the realities of affinity group activism, and the undoubted benefits that it brings.

Spokes 1: Fishbowls 0

By the time I arrived at the camp the first spokescouncil meeting had already taken place. It would have been good to have been there, but life’s busy and it wasn’t possible. Having said that there weren’t really any significant decisions to be made so it was treated more as a practice run. Everyone was welcome and affinity groups sat behind their spoke in the traditional ‘pizza slice’ formation with spokes effectively working in a fishbowl. However it was discovered fairly rapidly that groups weren’t content to communicate through their spoke and lots of other voices tried to make themselves heard. The result was that by the time I arrived the camp organisers had already decided on a ‘spokes-only’ model for the remainder of the camp.

On one level that made things easier – smaller meetings, fewer distractions, crystallising the role of the spoke as a representative and so on. It’s a shame there wasn’t time and energy to keep working at it though and use the experience to build better individual and collective meeting practice. But nuclear power stations don’t blockade themselves and the action was understandably the focus.

Inevitably though the remaining spokescouncil meetings draw other people to them like flames draw moths. So at my first spokes meeting one or two people came along as observers. Did they just observe? Don’t be silly. They (though to be fair, not all) were amongst the most vociferous and tangential voices there. So we agreed to enforce the spokes-only ruling from then on, making an exception only for note takers where groups chose to send one.

Rule number 1: you can’t impose consensus

I said it was all fine on the surface. I’d go as far as to say that for most people the spokescouncil meetings were fine full stop. But there were definite signs of dissent, of people not buying into the authority of the spokescouncil to make decisions for the collective.

And why should they? After all they hadn’t been consulted on that decision, it was simply part of the model of action that the organisers had decided on. On one level you can say “if you don’t agree with these parameters, this actions not for you”, but the reality is people will still turn up because they’re passionate about the issue and it’s the only show in town. It’s not like there’s a choice of blockades, each with a different organising ethos so you can choose the one that works for you. People don’t necessarily think about the process until it becomes an obstacle to them taking action in a manner that fits their vision for the day.

This dissent began to manifest itself after the first action spokescouncil on the day of the blockade. One person sounded off to me, at length, about a decision, despite consenting to it in the meeting. Another activist made an announcement over the PA system that a consensus decision had been taken about an idea they were keen on and that we would “all” take their preferred action at a set time. In reality no such decision had in fact been made. A misunderstanding? That’s certainly the line I was given when I had a gentle word with them. An attempt to hijack the process? A response to being politely but firmly denied more time to talk on their subject by the facilitator (me in this instance)? We’ll never know. Suffice it to say that they were passionate about an idea and wanted to think that everyone else would be too. It’s also fair to say that they were representing personal rather than group views – not the role of a spoke.

Practice makes perfect

I alluded to a less than perfect practice run. The day before the blockade I co-facilitated a practice run. The original plan was for another nonviolent direct action session, but the previous ones weren’t generating that much interest or energy (no fault of the trainers). So I’d suggested that we change tack and invite everyone at camp for a full group run through. We created a few ‘scenarios’ to give folk a chance to practice their responses to aggression (both ours and the cops) and to practice the spokescouncil in a quick-decision context.

What happened was that whilst the spokes met and talked about the initial vague information they had, the group gave way to police pressure and cleared the road. By the time the spokes had got the full picture it was more or less too late. Some of the spokes were seriously annoyed that the authority of the spokescouncil to decide when the blockade should clear was clearly lost. Lessons were learnt about who makes the decision and about how long even a ‘quick’ decision would take in reality.

I left the blockade part way through the day to begin my journey home. The spokescouncil facilitation was left in very competent hands. I’m told one of the characters mentioned above came back for more and continued to “misunderstand” the process. Did it matter? In this action probably not – the police were playing it low-key and allowing the blockade to happen. In another action, with confrontation, fast-moving dynamics, the potential for injury and arrest? Of course it matters, which is why we need to continually reflect and learn.

And so to summarise – what I’d do differently next time

Some thoughts on what we could do to improve spokescouncil consensus for future blockades (and it’s just the start of a very long campaign….). I offer these with a great deal of respect for the organisers of this camp and blockade, and recognise that a small group of people simply doesn’t have the capacity to make all of these happen:

  • Don’t assume knowledge of the process or mechanics of spokescouncils – make space for people to find out more. We had prepared a written briefing for groups. I would have liked to see this given out to everyone, but only a few were ever printed, so I think the impact was negligible. But I think there also needs to be regular face-to-face briefings – whether for 15 minutes before meetings, informally over a meal, twice a day scheduled into the programme or whatever.
  • Communicate the rationale for using consensus, spokescouncils and affinity groups to support people in building an affinity for them.
  • Take the time to formally get consensus on using consensus, even if that means one long and difficult meeting to help you get to a process that is faster, more efficient and still consensual – like the spokescouncil.
  • Keep working at the model of meeting that allows affinity groups to sit in with their spoke. It’s going to take more patience and more practice to build a culture that understands and values why we sometimes ask groups to speak through their spoke, but if we never do it, we can never learn.

And what worked well…

It’s also worth reflecting on what worked well at Hinkley:

  • Negotiating a specific mandate at the last camp spokescouncil to facilitate action spokescouncils more firmly than would feel appropriate in an ordinary meeting. By which I mean keeping people focused, moving at an appropriate speed for an action setting, challenging over-contribution more quickly than might otherwise be the case, and so on. The spokes welcomed being asked and were happy to consent. I think the blockade practice had demonstrated that the role of spoke can be difficult, and any help they could be given to stay on topic and working together as fast as the situation demanded was appreciated.
  • Ask all affinity groups to empower their spoke to make decisions without reference to the group in situations that require a quick decision (which in this instance we defined as less than 15 minutes). Our practice showed that very quick decisions with reference to the affinity group were unrealistic.

Spokescouncils: blockades and briefings part 2

I’ve been pondering spokescouncils this week as I head off tomorrow to join the facilitation team at the Hinkley Blockade. Before writing the short briefing for participants I looked around on the web to see if it already existed. Whilst doing so I stumbled across some reflections by a facilitator on The Change Agency’s website (scroll down for article) gleaned from facilitation of the Australian Climate Camp, last year.

Since it’s been a while since I facilitated a spokescouncil, I read Tanya Newman’s ‘hot tips’ with interest and appreciation. As a minimum they should be of value to anyone organising a large consensus-based event, and to large group and consensus facilitators.

I’m slightly envious of the level of organisation. Looking back to my own first encounter with facilitating spokescouncils (at the 2005 G8 summit) it all seems a lot more shambolic and improvised – a haphazard throwing together of facilitators from the UK, the Netherlands, and the USA with varying levels of experience and no track record of working together (plus meetings involving 300-500 people and translation into several languages).

Hinkley should be fairly straightforward by comparison. I’ll be back to eat those words next week.

Spokescouncils – blockades and briefings

I’ll be at the Stop New Nuclear blockade of Hinkley, site of the first proposed new nuclear power station, this weekend. My main role is as part of the facilitation team facilitating spokescouncil meetings at the camp and on the action itself.

graphic: anticopyright seedsforchange.org.uk

For the uninitiated a spokescouncil is a method of making decisions by consensus within a large groups made up of separate, but co-operating, affinity groups. It allows groups to retain their autonomy whilst working together towards effective decisions. The basic mechanism is that each group speaks through a spoke, a single person empowered by their affinity group to take on that role. Sometimes the rest of the group are present behind their spoke. Sometimes just the spokes meet. Sometimes spokes huddle and consult their groups mid-meeting. Sometimes they’re mandated to decide on behalf of their group.

In preparation for the blockade I jotted down a few notes to support affinity groups in using the spokescouncil method most effectively. This will go to all groups taking part. There’s so much that could be said, but in 2 sides of A5 your options are limited. Anyway, I’ve taken out Hinkley specific stuff and put the short guide up on our resources page. I hope it’s useful for anyone organising an action camp and contemplating using spokescouncils. As always, if you can improve on it, please do, and send us your revised versions so we can upload those.