Two worlds collide on one small planet (or getting cross over culture)

Here at Rhizome we talk a lot about activism, though we like to think we have quite a broad view of what that actually means . We see it as both the more obviously political ‘campaigning’ work and the building of alternatives, building community. What’s one without the other, right?

Not for everyone. This week I engaged with a discussion on the Transition Network website. In fact I kicked off the comments on a piece about how more and more transition initiatives were interacting with activist groups and how this was worthy of more reflection and discussion. Right there you can see where I might have come at it from – the separation of transition from activism as if the 2 communities operated in total isolation with no cross over. From the response my thoughts received it seems like some folk wish they did, but I get ahead of myself….

It’s all placards and balaclavas

I posted a comment in which I tried (badly perhaps, I’ll let you judge – feedback always welcome) to express my feeling that there was an artificial difference being created between activism and transition-type work, that most, if not all, of the activists I know did both – perhaps not formally under the banner of transition, but transition-style community and resilience building. Off the top of my head I’m thinking of things like creating housing and workers co-ops, involvement in permaculture projects, community development work and so much more. The response wasn’t exactly warm and welcoming. Recent comments have thawed things a bit, I’m glad to say.

with apologies to Cath Tate cards

It seems that to those who don’t identify as ‘activist’ those of us that do are not as well thought of as we might like to believe, nor is what we do understood:

“How can people who have spent years seeing what is wrong and reaching for their placards and balaclavas adapt to a movement that is focussed on enablement and solutions?”

“as soon as you get a group going to build local resilience, that immediately attracts a lot of campaigners that say: “But if you believe in all this, why don’t you come to this or that?” The answer should be: “Because the time I use in campaigning isn’t used in building resilience locally in this or that way.” In reality, most people aren’t very strongly pro or anti campaigning, so they are swayed by whoever offers the most tempting package. And it usually the campaigner package is the most tempting, because it offers like-minded company and entertaining activities at a very low price: just be another one in this march, just put your signature there, just do this very little bit. Things like growing an allotment or organizing a local Energy Fair are way, way more work intensive, and a lot of the work isn’t as much fun, no matter how you try to make it fun.”

What I find interesting are the assumptions present here:

  • Activism is purely negative. “No”, “Stop”…etc (or as friend once put on their placard “Down with this sort of thing”. No sense of the positive worldview that might inspire people to try to prevent harm to humans, non-humans and the planet
  • Activists are not only not engaged in positive activity, but wouldn’t be any good at it if they were – hmmm see above
  • We wear balaclavas (implied violence??) – last balaclava I wore was probably aged 6 and almost certainly knitted by my nanna
  • If we engage with transition or similar movements it’s with an agenda, to get them to campaign (against their will) – now there may be a grain more truth in this one… but it’s certainly not true of all activists
  • That campaigning is easy, not time-consuming and great fun

What I find worrying are the possible consequences for community groups. Picture the scene: an activist who’s also keen to work locally and help build alternatives to the systems that s/he campaigns ‘against’ attends a transition meeting. Somewhere in that meeting s/he uses the word “activist” or “activism”. Worse still s/he uses it with reference to the assembled masses. Hackles are raised and the temperature gets a tad icy. Maybe our activist is told in no uncertain terms why transition is not activism and their sort shouldn’t try to make it so. Maybe nothing’s said and s/he returns home knowing that something’s wrong but not sure quite what. Another missed opportunity to build a stronger and more diverse movement….

If we can’t tolerate those who are fundamentally on side how are we going to build the resilient community that is at the heart of the transition ethos? If we make enemies of our friends, how will we deal with those we have least common ground with?

Falling off the high horse

Ah, but here’s the rub. Firstly reverse the scenario – are we the ‘activist’ movement really any different? A transitioner who’s keen to add an international, political element to their work walks into the meeting of her/his local direct action collective. How long before the hackles go up here? How long before s/he says something that’s not suitably anti-capitalist or direct action orientated (“we could visit our MP….”). OK so I’ve deliberately used a part of the movement that has a less mainstream culture and is harder to ‘join’ than, say, a local Friends of the Earth group. But are those more mainstream groups really exempt? Don’t all groups have a culture and aren’t cultures always a source of difference?And aren’t there as many assumptions made about those who choose not to campaign?

Secondly, how have we contributed to these assumptions being made? How have we communicated in a way that allows them to seem reasonable. There’s no reason to doubt that the authors are reasonable, intelligent and committed individuals and yet there are assumptions aplenty about the nature of activism. Have we communicated our difference in an exclusive manner?

And in conclusion

Back to the main thrust – how do we handle difference? How do we as folk that are committed to a better reality work to overcome that seemingly fundamental human trait of highlighting difference and using it as an excuse for having ‘power over’, for discrimination and oppression.

So a few thoughts for those of us doing capacity building work…. I’m more and more convinced that this needs to be central to the work we do. I know that recruitment and retention is a key issue in a lot of networks, often with a clear ‘difference’ problem (older group members having difficulty in recruiting younger people, for example). It’s not just about set piece responses. It’s not even just about the basic group dynamics stuff, though that can’t hurt. It’s about supporting and enabling ourselves and the groups we support to cultivate an attitude that helps them welcome difference.

And, crucially, that same attitude allows those same people to engage the wider world more effectively as campaigners, meeting people where they’re at. It also allows us to climb down off our moral high ground and see the more subtle human causes behind the issues we face and deal with them more intelligently.

I’ve been reading George Lakey’s latest book, Facilitating Group Learning: Strategies for Success with Diverse Adult Learners and I’m sure this won’t be the only reference in this blog over the next few months. George suggests that we need to suspend our attitude of judging difference and get back to simply being curious about it

“Curiosity is abundant in small children. By the time people are adults, judging seems to have replaced curiosity as the primary mental operation. As an impediment to intellectual development,the loss of curiosity is particularly marked whenever difference appears”

Recent news coverage of police officers beating up a submissive terror suspect remind me that this kind of behaviour is inevitable when we’re briefed to be afraid of difference and believe that difference is a threat to us. In this case the police were apparently briefed to expect violent resistance, and they acted out all of the fear, tension and excitement that the warning had created in them even though they didn’t meet the predicted resistance. Aren’t we activists sometimes the same? Aren’t we in danger of seeing all employees of certain corporations or government departments as ‘bad people’ and using that stereotype to legitimise inhumane treatment. Now, admittedly with activists that’s rarely the cause of administering a beating, but it can lead to other behaviour that fails to recognise and respect the full dignity of the human being we’re dealing with.

Back to where I started – how to work together in an atmosphere of difference and mutual respect, firstly with those with whom the differences are, relatively speaking, slight, and then with those with whom we are more profoundly different until we can honestly say we have the attitudes, skills and knowledge to create resilient and sustainable communities.

Please share your thoughts and experience.


Sharing values, Graphic Guides and Common Cause

Following our earlier phone meeting which I blogged about at the time, I met with Steph and Jeannie today to progress work on creating “effective meeting” resources for Transition initiatives.

Steph and her son have produced a great 3 minute video – a Graphic Guide to Groups which draws on John Adair’s action centred leadership but adds a values twist:

There’s the promise of more to come.

Steph’s also created a values-mapping activity that helps groups sort out what are their group values and what are their personal values. I plan to try it out soon and will report back on the blog.

This took us on to discussing the dangers of values-based groups. It’s a short hop, skip and jump from values to high horses and a fundamentalism of sorts. In short we can become judgemental and that alienates people. The values of compassion, common humanity, diversity, and open-mindedness can sometimes get lost.

And whilst we’re talking values, we also spent a little time talking about the Common Cause report which explores campaigning from a values standpoint, and more particularly campaigning in a way that reinforces the more selfless values. If we’re going to make bigger-than-self changes we need to appeal to bigger-than-self values.

Sharing values

I spent an hour and a half on the phone today to Jeannie and Steph, 2 of the facilitators that attended the Transition Network Dreaming Circle back in December. We were talking about meetings, more specifically trying to shape some meeting training agendas for transition groups.

Very quickly the conversation turned to values, and how we facilitate a process of helping groups articulate their values, shared or otherwise. Values seems to be one of the areas prone to assumption. We assume everyone else has the same ideals, beliefs and principles until we discover otherwise – a discovery that often leads to confusion and conflict and can be a real obstacle to groups functioning well. We noted that many groups hit problems when they expand. The founders are drawn together by a sense of shared values. Because that sense is strong they don’t feel the need to carefully articulate what they mean. Why should they? After all they all agree… Then new folk join and cracks begin to appear as the realisation dawns that there’s now a diversity of perspectives, and worse still of values. Sound familiar?

OK, time for a quick step back, because one of the problems is that it’s not always clear what we even mean by values. It’s a slippery word that can mean different things to different people… and as such I’m hesitant to try to pin down a definition here. I suspect for some it’s an emotional affinity with certain ideas or actions. For others a more cerebral yardstick by which to measure the ‘right way’ forward. As a facilitator I think it’s more important to raise the question “What do we mean by values?” than try to have the ‘right answer’. Phew, that’s wriggled out of that one.

Steph is facilitating a session to explore values for her local Transition initiative, so the whole discussion was given a definite context. We talked about tools and techniques for exploring values. The interesting thing, for me, was the realisation that we didn’t have a whole host of them at our fingertips. So we shared the ideas we did have, customising tools we’d used to for other more conceptual discussions. Many of the tools I use for this kind of discussion share a common approach – using some form of provocation, ie: a statement to bounce off that helps clarify our position. I’m thinking of spectrum lines, or of the process I co-facilitated with Rich from Seeds for Change last summer to explore the values people used to make strategic campaign choices. Here we used images of action, followed by a local radio-style interview using a few simple questions (see below) to provoke thinking and discussion :

  1. tell us about the action you’ve just taken part in
  2. what were you hoping to achieve?
  3. do you really feel this one action can make that kind of change?
  4. what would you say to those people listening that are thinking this is well-intentioned but won’t change the big picture?

It seemed to work, and it can’t be that hard to rework these or similar questions for different ‘values’ contexts. And I’m sure that provocation can be used Edward de Bono style for this purpose to.

The conversation also took in the work of John Adair, specifically his action-centred leadership model which balances the group’s task, with the needs of the group and the needs of the individuals. This could easily be rewritten as the group’s task, the values of the group and the values of the individual. Now I’m not a fan of top-down leadership, but strip out that assumption and replace it with a co-operative one and the model has useful implications for supporting groups to consensus through shared leadership. Clashes of personal and group values are often at the heart of blocks to consensus.

All in all an hour and a half well spent. As always, your thoughts, comments and, of course, tools and techniques are very welcome.

Dreaming of Transition: sharing assumptions

There’s a joke amongst facilitators that groups of facilitators are the hardest to work with.

Last week’s Transition Network’s Dreaming Circle saw 24 facilitators drawn from diverse cultures and facilitation approaches come together to talk groups. It was an immensely creative space, but inevitably there were things that could have worked better. Apologies in advance for concentrating on the “could do betters”. It’s where I do most of my learning.

Here’s a couple of things that stood out for me….

The common thread is making assumptions. Every group does it, and it’s a stumbling block to good process in groups. We make assumptions about what the group believes. We make assumptions on the process the group will use. We make assumptions on what the group wants to achieve. We make assumptions about what the group knows or understands. Usually these are based on what we as individuals believe, know, understand, want to achieve, and the processes we are familiar with. Making some of these things explicit early in the life of a group can save a lot of pain later.

What it means to facilitate:

In the Dreaming Circle group we didn’t do that explicit work. At one point on the second day there was open conflict involving facilitators wanting to move a process on, a participant not yet ready to move on, and others in the group unhappy at how the conflict was being expressed, and the patterns it might set if left unchallenged. In the debrief of the incident one key contributing factor was different parties’ understanding of what it means to facilitate.

Our facilitators (from Transition Network) were, consciously or unconsciously working to a model that required them to take responsibility to move the process along. This clashed with another take on their role (drawn from process work) – simply to name what was going on in the group, but not to attempt to do anything about it. That was for the group to decide. The issue wasn’t whether one model was right or wrong but that these assumptions had never been articulated and shared with the group. A useful reminder to all of us to ask a group, nice and early, how they see our role as facilitators.

Do you speak facilitator?

Every group of people has a certain amount of their own language – in other words, jargon. Facilitators aren’t exempt. What I feel that we should be exempt from, however is assuming that everyone shares our jargon or at least understands it in the same way. There were regular requests for clarification of terms such as ‘pattern language‘, and ‘constellation’.

It felt like this was one area in which the group was less successful in learning and modifying its behaviour, at least in the 2 days I was there. After so many requests we really ought to have been taking greater care to check out the assumptions in the language we used. It’s hard – when you speak these words so often, and when they’re part of your identity as ‘facilitator’, but it needed to be done.

A concern that I have about this ingrained jargon is that we might carry it with us when we work with groups who are not facilitators, and embed it into our training materials, embedding the assumption that it’s universally understood with it.

“What assumptions am I making?” is a powerful question. And the Dreaming Circle has reminded me to ask it all the more often Inevitably I’ve made some in this post, so feel free to point them out.

Dreaming of Transition

It’s been a busy week. I spent a couple of days mid-week last week in Oxfordshire at Braziers Park. Transition Network were running a “Dreaming Circle” that drew together facilitators from across the UK and further (Norway, Germany). The common bond? Wanting to support transition initiatives in creating good group process.

Like so many other networks, a few years in, some transition groups are struggling. And group process has been identified as one of the major reasons why initiatives are crumbling, and in some cases collapsing.

With such a diversity of facilitators in one space it was always going to be interesting, exciting and challenging in equal measure. I’ll post something soon about the way this group interacted and what I learnt from that. But for now I’ll focus on what it was all about and what came out of it.

The first day was spent getting to know each other, sharing our understanding of the symptoms and needs of struggling transition groups and talking about what we could bring to the network.

Day 2 was more practical – we used a variation of Open Space to set an agenda which was a mix of facilitators sharing their ‘trademark’ ideas and techniques and some practical planning around the type of support that we could offer transition groups and how it could be delivered.

The support topics that were proposed included sustaining involvement, effective meetings, choosing an appropriate organisational structure, starting an initiative and conflict resolution. A very long list of ways of delivering support was created, with quite a lot of energy around using humour, animation, video and cartoons to demonstrate some of the pitfalls of groupwork in an accessible way.

There was also talk of how to support individuals who want better process for their whole group to access support and then be effective changemakers within their group. This was a thread of conversation I initiated, so I’ll put down some thoughts on this blog soon.

Sadly I had to leave a day earlier than planned, so missed Day 3. But I understand that a working groups was formed to take the practical task of planning and delivering support further. Everyone was invited to sign up to both the support and the delivery mechanisms that most interested them.

Why the small ‘t’?

Whether we were together to support Transition initiatives (ie formally affiliated to the Transition Network) or any initiative doing the work of transition was a contentious issue. It wasn’t resolved whilst I was there. For the sake of inclusion I’m opting for language that allows for the latter. I know that here at Rhizome we’d be willing to support either.