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Confronting the Whiteness of Big Green NGOs

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The actions of several big green NGOs at the London Climate March sparked some very uncomfortable conversations about racism in the environmental movement. But these issues have been festering within many green groups for years. If we want to understand and build a movement that makes space for our differences, we need to look to the roots of the racism that became visible at the Climate March.

A couple of years ago, having just finished running a workshop with my friend Sue about power and privilege in the UK environmental movement, the two of us randomly bumped into a senior manager I vaguely knew from a large UK environmental organisation in a pub. We had been trying to approach this organisation about working with them on these same issues, but hadn’t had much luck through other inroads. Finding ourselves in the same pub with the very senior manager responsible for internal training seemed like a fortuitous chance to open the conversation.

Our impromptu pitch was for a reasonable piece of work, rather than a one-off workshop like the one we had just delivered. One of the lessons Sue and I had learned while doing this work, we explained, was the need for regular ongoing reflection on the ways prejudice is subtly embedded in most organisations and individuals, even within the green movement. Once you acknowledge that we live in a racist, sexist and otherwise discriminatory society, it becomes silly to think that we can undo lifetimes of negative conditioning in a single workshop. One deep-dive into the choppy waters of our own social privileges, just isn’t enough to break long-established patterns and behaviours, so we were suggesting a longer term approach.

Unfortunately, the response was underwhelming. While this manager offered vague support for the general sentiment of our work, this sentiment was not backed by the commitment to push the issues forward or the resources to make them happen.

‘You see,’ he replied, ‘I have to view everything I do through the organisational lens. Investing in a year-long process doesn’t make sense because I don’t know how many of those staff members who have been through it will stick around. If they leave, then we’ve wasted our money.’

The organisational lens has a lot to answer for, but rarely have its costs been as clear to me. As one of the better-resourced environmental NGOs in the UK, staff leaving, well-versed in their understandings of power and privilege, must not be seen as an organisational waste. Some might go as far as to say it is a large organisation’s responsibility to make this kind of investment if they truly believe in movement building, knowing that staff will leave and join other groups or organisations, thus spreading their learnings in the process.

If the organisational lens prevents a well-resourced organisation from prioritising the need to address its contributions to wider injustices, than something is seriously wrong. But the organisational lens has a cascade effect, in terms of its negative impact on addressing privilege. Without the investment in the internal work, the issues perpetuate themselves, and eventually make themselves known to the wider movement, and even the wider public.

Lack of investment (time and money, both) in building better understandings of the issues, allows micro-aggressions and prejudiced assumptions to go unchallenged in the workplace. This makes the workplace uncomfortable and unsafe for less-traditionally-privileged staff (who are already likely a small minority in most big organisations). Word spreads that ‘x’ organisation isn’t really committed to hiring outside of its own image, discouraging others from different backgrounds from wanting to apply to work there (trust me, these stories DO spread). Then, with minimal diversity in the organisation, it becomes harder and harder to have the necessary perspectives in the room to organise anything broad-based and accessible to those beyond the largely-privileged demographics involved in organising it.

This is what brings us to the London Climate March of November 29th. In a nutshell, a group of large – predominantly white – environmental NGOs, at the last minute, swapped the banners and silenced the voices of Indigenous and Black and Brown climate activists, many of whom had travelled to London en route to the Paris climate talks, to raise their voices about the frontline impacts of climate change. Indigenous communities had come to London to take part in the protests, after the protest ban in France made it impossible to do so there, following the recent violence.

Even after this very group had been invited to lead the march – in recognition of being those most-affected by climate change – their critiques were deemed too radical by march organisers. Participants reported having placards snatched at by stewards, attempts to have their bloc’s banner covered, and actual physical pushing and shoving to get a less-controversial banner to cover theirs.

I’ve heard various whispers about the nightmare of coalition organising of this march; several NGOs left the process out of frustration. Those that remained seemed committed to controlling the day like a highly-choreographed piece of theatre, the photos and online videos of which, could fit nicely into a pre-determined campaign narrative about a non-confrontational version of ‘people power’ helping shape the outcome of COP21.

In a move I have never experienced in a dozen years of marching and protesting, organisers even insisted on hiring private security to help police the march, so committed they were to making sure it didn’t diverge from their plans. When this wasn’t enough on the day, march stewards called-in support from the police, with whom the ‘Wretched of the Earth’ bloc were left to negotiate for themselves, without the support of organisers.

Let’s reiterate for a moment: large NGOs in a Global North city organise a march about climate change, but when those who are facing sea-level rises and other life-and-death climate catastrophes raise their voices in a way the organisers find uncomfortable, the NGOs try to shut them up, turning to private security and then the police – with their long, established history of racism – to help them do so.

Let that sink in for a minute…

Now let’s trace a hypothetical line between the internal reluctance of these organisations to invest in deeper personal and organisational understandings of power and privilege, and the organising of the Climate March. It seems to me that organisations which had made the space to explore power and privilege issues – or even had a wider mix of people in the room – would have understood that:

  • Many Black and Brown people have negative and violent associations with law enforcement, and thus that the hiring of security would be a threatening move by a predominantly white organising group.
  • Those who are experiencing the first hand impacts of climate change most strongly are likely to have a different analyses of the issues than most London NGOs. Therefore, given the current and historical power dynamics involved, it would be critical to make space for different perspectives at the front of the march, even if they weren’t universally agreed.
  • Refusing to accept leadership – at the planning stage, or on the march itself – from those most-affected by climate change, replicates the colonial dynamic of Global North people and organisations telling Global South activists how they should respond to their own oppression.

Unfortunately, the attitude of the NGO senior manager I began with, is not unique to them or their organisation. I have seen it over and over in voluntary organisations and even grassroots activist groups, and when an NGO isn’t willing to put in the difficult work to get its own house in order, it shouldn’t be surprising when it makes a mess outside its walls.

If we don’t do the work needed to foster deeper understandings of power and privilege, shameful moments like that which played out at the Climate March are doomed to repeat themselves. Environmental justice will involve some uncomfortable conversations and confrontations, but the environmental movement needs to know that it can’t just shy away from – or in the case of the Climate March, actively try to silence – that discomfort. Either we face it straight on, or we will find ourselves on the wrong side of history.

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Coming to Consensus

A powerful idea’s unexpected journey around the globe

This piece was commissioned by Contributoria in September 2015.

 

Photo adapted from Kate Ausburn on Flickr, used under Creative Commons 2.0.

“It was an extraordinarily bad camping location,” DIY technologist Richard Bartlett says of Wellington’s Civic Square. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the slab of grass embedded in a concrete frame overtop of a car park in the centre of New Zealand’s capital city was not designed with camping in mind. Yet in October 2011, as the Occupy movement swept the globe, this questionable attempt at public space was repurposed and became home to the Occupy Wellington encampment for the next four months.

Among the 1,000-plus Occupy camps that scattered themselves like seeds around the globe in late 2011, Wellington’s was far from being the largest or longest-lasting. Yet it was the 40 or 50 tents in Civic Square that enabled a major development in one of the cornerstones of the Occupy experience around the world: the digitisation of consensus decision-making.

What is consensus?

Consensus is a collective decision-making process that aims to avoid the pitfalls associated with both executive decree and majority rules voting. Seeds for Change, a UK collective that offers training in consensus process, describes it as “a creative and dynamic way of reaching agreement between all members of a group. Consensus is neither compromise nor unanimity – it aims to go further by weaving together everyone’s best ideas and key concerns – a process that often results in surprising and creative solutions.” [A Consensus Handbook, pg 6]

Anthropologist David Graeber grounds this process in a much bigger picture when he argues that the consensus process – not voting – is the core of democracy:

“Voting is divisive. If a community lacks means to compel its members to obey a collective decision, then probably the stupidest thing one could do is to stage a series of public contests in which one side will, necessarily, be seen to lose… Democracy, then, is not necessarily defined by majority voting; it is, rather, the process of collective deliberation on the principle of full and equal participation.” [The Democracy Project, pp 184-186]

In many people’s minds though, the consensus process is the series of silly-looking hand signals regularly employed by activists to symbolise where people in a group discussion stand on a comment or issue. While rarely featured in most mainstream discussions of democracy and collective organisation, variations on the consensus process have been found among the feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s, Quaker religious traditions and countless Indigenous cultures across the globe, dating back millennia. However, in 2011, the explosion of the Occupy movement breathed new life into the process, introducing it to countless new practitioners.

The growth of consensus in recent years is testament to both the efficacy of the process itself and the emergence of networked communications technology. This is part of its story.

How consensus got to Wellington

Consensus process was fundamental to the Wellington Occupy camp from its onset. There remains some contention as to whether the “jazz hands“ landed in Wellington via a two-minute clip produced by Occupy Oakland, or an eight-minute clip produced by Occupy Wall Street, but there was agreement that watching videos of others doing it was all that was needed to train up this new cadre of activists for effective collective decision-making.

CONSENSUS (Direct Democracy @ Occupy Wall Street) from meerkatmedia on Vimeo.

As with so many other places, the process had a profound impact on those involved, as many experienced the ability to make group decisions without creating winners and losers, for the first time in their lives. Richard Bartlett described experiencing “radical insights” during Occupy general assemblies, in “…these moments where you have a breakthrough that takes you to a place that no individual could have got to on their own. Once you’ve seen this three or four times, you realise that the process is actually producing that, not a charismatic leader. I had a full-on, spark-of-light-to-the-eyeballs epiphany about that process!”

A fellow Occupier and web developer, Jon Lemmon, felt similarly, but had a new insight based on his elation with Civic Square consensus. “We should be able to translate this experience into software,” Jon said to Richard at the peak of the Wellington encampment.

From this initial observation came Loomio – an online consensus decision-making platform that Richard, Jon and a crew of local social entrepreneurs calling themselves Enspiral co-developed to preserve the central process of the Occupy Wellington experience after the camp had disbanded. And though dissemination of the practice from New York to Wellington happened via a YouTube channel (with a possible stopover in Oakland, en route), the process had another key step in its recent lineage, one that would become significant as Loomio began to spread around the world.

From indignation to consensus

On 15 May 2011, five months to the day before Richard, John, Ben and a few hundred other Kiwis descended on Wellington’s Civic Square, another city square was filling with citizens. In Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, an estimated 50,000 Spaniards came out in force, sparking a new movement for “real democracy”, enraged by the human fallout of the 2008 global financial collapse and the rampant cross-party corruption that plagued Spanish politics before and since.

The media termed the group indignados, or “indignants”. However, most of the participants refused to dwell on the systems they were fighting against, quickly placing their energies into something more constructive: the creation of “real democracy” in the square and beyond.

Miguel Catania had never been involved in activism before 2011, but on 15 May decided that he would add his voice to the tens of thousands of others who were fed up with how politics was playing out in his country. While Richard Bartlett and his fellow Wellingtonians are still visibly enthused when recounting their initial experiences of consensus process, Miguel is much more subdued in his descriptions of Day One in Puerta del Sol:

“The first assembly we did was very natural. Maybe there wasn’t somebody doing proper moderation to get to consensus. Anyway, in a natural way, we did it, because there were no leaders, there was nobody controlling things… it is a natural way of organising people in such situations. Like when you are among friends and want to take a decision to go to the movies, you are using this kind of process. You try to see other points of view, make everyone happy. It was a bit like this. We wanted to have a decision and of course we wanted everyone to be in the decision. It was a proper, natural process.”

In this case, the decision was to stay the night in the square. The basics of the process began to emerge via the input of a small core of veteran activists. These were largely people who had participated in the Global Justice Movement in the early 2000s and who began to introduce the hand signals that had been used in the street protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999.

What became clear within a few days in Puerta del Sol was that a pure consensus process was unlikely to work with such large numbers. The aim for 100% agreement continued, but with space to enable the group to move ahead if 100% consensus wasn’t proving possible.

In Miguel’s view, this was not in contradiction. Rather than a literal interpretation of the word, the 15-M activists moved towards a spirit of consensus that aimed to bring more and more of the group into dialogue and gradual agreement about a question, but without allowing a minority to prevent a process from moving forward. This process was about collaborative improvement of proposals through open discussion, rather than purely about the number of people who backed the specifics of the proposal in the end.

In the weeks that Puerta del Sol remained occupied, it quickly became clear that the square was not the right place to do the kinds of organising that were needed to confront the plethora of problems that Spanish communities were facing. The local nature of evictions, electricity cut-offs, food prices and other issues – along with ongoing police repression – led to the localisation of assemblies that summer, with hundreds of smaller groups forming in neighbourhoods around Madrid and most other Spanish cities.

And while many criticised the consensus process used in Puerta del Sol for its unwieldy and often epic meetings, variations on the method again became the standard process in each of the neighbourhood assemblies that emerged. Though challenging, the fundamental consequences of adopting any other system that offered less widespread input were consistently shot down.

But the processes used in Puerta del Sol and elsewhere in Spain didn’t just become more localised. They also spread like seeds on the wind, as several 15-M activists found themselves in New York City that summer, and brought a few significant hand gestures along with them.

We are the 99% (but let’s aim for 100%, OK?)

Figuring out how exactly consensus became the decision-making process of choice in Zuccotti Park, Lower Manhattan, in September 2011 is still a slightly contested chapter in recent activist mythology. David Graeber, who took part in the early days of Occupy Wall Street (and its precursor, the New York City General Assembly), in his book The Democracy Project attributes the choice to the presence of a mix of American Global Justice Movement veterans and some Spanish and Greek activists who’d recently hopped the pond and plugged themselves into the organising efforts.

Miguel Catania in Madrid distinctly recalls some fellow Spaniards – possibly named Nikky, Vicente and Angel – who had moved to NY after the Puerta del Sol occupation and had shared their learning with the New York occupiers. “It was very direct. They just took the process and said, ‘ok, this is very effective, so use it’.”

Another variation on the story suggests that a translated pamphlet produced in Puerta del Sol, entitled How to Cook a Non-Violent Revolution, and its accompanying appendix, A Quick Guide to Group Dynamics in People’s Assemblies, provided the practical training for the soon-to-be Occupiers.

More generally, Marina Sitrin, a fellow veteran of Occupy Wall Street who has documented and participated in non-hierarchical social movements around the globe, also includes the role of “movement media” in spreading images of the processes being used in other movements around the world. These images captured the imagination of activists elsewhere, who filled in the details themselves based on a cursory understanding of what was being done in other movements.

And back to Spain again…

While the dissemination of the process from Madrid to New York, and then New York to Wellington, was at least in some significant part the result of the emergent web of connections on the internet, the birth of Loomio was a significant shift. Whereas the tools of the web had enabled others to learn about consensus before, and to put it to use in the flesh from there, Loomio digitised the process, opening it up to countless more who couldn’t be or hadn’t been a part of the Occupy movement.

There are currently about 20,000 Loomio groups operating in 33 different languages, enabling more creative, inclusive and collaborative decisions to be made among a massive array of users. The Loomio platform has facilitated group decisions at a community art gallery around the corner from its office in Wellington for more than three years, while also helping aggregate public opinion to push Statistics New Zealand – a national government department – to produce the first national census in the world that offers respondents non-binary gender options (i.e. not just male or female). Current users range from schools and grocery co-ops, to activist groups, community gardens and even a few local authorities, who have seen the value of consensus process, even while stuck in stifling hierarchical bureaucracies.

In yet another unexpected twist, though, Loomio also reintroduces 15-M activist Miguel Catania to the narrative, having found Loomio while organising with Podemos, the new leftist political party in Spain that won five seats in the 2014 European elections. Podemos had emerged as one of the spin-offs of the 15-M movement. It was founded on the desire to bring the (relatively) radical perspectives and processes of the country’s massive street movement, into the corridors of power. This was always contentious among some participants, but activists like Miguel saw the transition as an important part of bringing direct democracy into new places.

Initially, Podemos spread like wildfire and many of the neighbourhood assemblies that began after the Puerta del Sol occupation, morphed into Podemos “circles” – democratic groups that continued to take local collective action while also feeding into national policy debates and priorities.

Podemos offered political opinions that were well beyond the existing political consensus, and showed signs of bridging the gap between the direct democracy of the street movements and the shambolic representative democracy of first-past-the-post elections and political parties. The party held assemblies at every level, offered countless inroads for new volunteers (not just door-knocking and making phone calls) and practised consensus process in most of its local circles.

The initial excitement around the party led to five seats in the European Parliament and a membership in the hundreds of thousands. When Miguel came across Loomio through an article in the tech press, he and fellow 15-M technologist, Yago Bermejo Abati, invited Ben Knight, one of Richard and John’s Loomio co-founders, to pay them a visit in late 2013. Ben gave a couple of small talks there and Miguel and Yago began to tell other Podemos activists and local circles about it, encouraging them to use it to support local organising efforts.

By June 2014, hundreds of new groups and thousands of new members were flowing to Loomio from across Spain. At one point that summer, 60% of Loomio’s global web traffic was coming from the country. Today there are more than 1,600 Podemos-related discussion groups on the site.

However, with its growth, a centralising force set in, gradually asserting top-down control over the party’s direction. Miguel had joined Podemos as part of its participation and outreach group, from working on technology and collective process in Puerta del Sol. But from the start he had seen elements of the party that were only interested in achieving better governmental policies, rather than also creating directly democratic structures. In some cases, there had been open high-level contempt for assemblies and the directly democratic organising processes that they represented.

This became vastly more prevalent with the creation of the National Citizens Council, a body that was in many ways rigged to consolidate support for the existing party leadership, and that, at the very least, drew power away from hundreds of thousands of regular members and into a much smaller group of elected representatives. “The power of the circles disappeared,” Miguel says over Skype, and so “most of the circles stopped using [Loomio].”

Miguel moved his efforts away from Podemos and towards one of the smaller new local parties that emerged after 2011, Ahorra Madrid. Now he finds himself in the role of “director of participation” in Madrid’s new city council, since Ahorra Madrid came to power in May. A loose network of parties that had made stronger efforts to keep the consensus-based methods of 15-M at their core, ended up winning in countless local elections across the country this spring, with Podemos’ influence far weaker than many had predicted, failing to win any local elections.

The lesson from May was clear to Miguel: “If you turn to more traditional structures where things are done in a more traditional way, people just don’t want to work anymore, if they don’t have the space to work and support… [The local elections were] a bit like proof that it was much more effective to have this more open structure, a more open way of taking decisions.”

While Miguel had put his efforts into Podemos, whose media-savvy campaigning had helped capture the national imagination, he is clear that without consensus, change is impossible:

“It’s the only way we can organise these kinds of movements, where everybody is really at the same level. It’s the only structure that can really take all the collective intelligence of a lot of people and create better ideas and better proposals and better actions, that include all the collective intelligence of the people around it.”

Fundamentally, Miguel says, consensus “is the most powerful way to get the best ideas”. It is a process that allows for better processes and ideas to emerge, so even when the process is flawed, collective deliberation can help to find, create or adapt something that works better.

While decision-making processes can seem relatively inconsequential with all the big issues and questions that the world is facing, changing the process through which decisions are made can in turn change the ways we ask and answers so many wider questions. As Richard Bartlett at Loomio so eloquently said of one of his key moments recognising the importance of the consensus process: “We used the consensus process to improve the consensus process… holy shit! This thing can fix everything!”

 

Photo adapted from Kate Ausburn on Flickr, used under Creative Commons 2.0.

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Structuring our Beloved Communities?

I wrote this piece for Contributoria, as my longest exploration of how we organise for social and environmental justice, since the publication of Anarchists in the Boardroom. It looks at the messy relationship between the kinds of organising structures we use, and the kinds of relationships we create. And I got to speak to some truly inspiring people in the process! Enjoy!

'I LOVE HUMANITY! LET'S FIGURE THIS SHIT OUT TOGETHER!'

Photo credit: shankbone on Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/shankbone/6193404069/sizes/l

In the early days of the US civil rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. used the phrase ‘Beloved Community’ to describe the kind of change he was working towards. The Beloved Community expressed a way of organising that made non-violence and compassion both its means and its ends, and placed strong relationships at the core of wider social transformation. The phrase, initially coined by philosopher-theologian Josiah Royce, articulated the idea that organising based on Love will create a culture of Love in its wake. King said:

“Love is creative and redemptive. Love builds up and unites; hate tears down and destroys. The aftermath of the ‘fight with fire’ method… is bitterness and chaos, the aftermath of the love method is reconciliation and creation of the beloved community. Physical force can repress, restrain, coerce, destroy, but it cannot create and organize anything permanent; only love can do that.”

The King Centre describes the Beloved Community as “an overall effort to achieve a reconciled world by raising the level of relationships among people to a height where justice prevails and persons attain their full human potential.” But what does the Beloved Community look like when we get past its romantic broad-brush prose? And how can we organise ourselves in ways that align our methods with the visions our social change organisations and movements are trying to create?

The chicken-and-egg of structures and relationships

“I often say to people,” Margaret Wheatley tells me over Skype from her Utah home, “if you get the room set-up right, you’re at least 60 per cent of the way towards creating what you want.”

While seemingly a far cry from the ideals of Beloved Community, Wheatley has spent decades exploring what helps people to work meaningfully together, primarily in organisational settings, and places great importance on structuring the kinds of spaces we gather in. Her first book, Leadership and the New Science, became a best-seller in 1992 and offered a glimpse of what human leadership might look like if it followed the organising patterns found elsewhere in nature. She is deeply critical of hierarchy and over-specialization and an advocate of self-organising and individual autonomy.

“If we’re creating a good process – people are highly engaged, self-motivated, thinking again, feeling creative,” she tells me, “what we’re really doing is reintroducing people to what it feels like to work well together.”

But to what extent is ‘working well together’ something that is created – by place or process – and to what extent does it emerge through the individual relationships involved? Or is this simply a chicken-and-egg conundrum that leads in an unending circle? Even if the ‘relationship/structure’ question is ultimately rhetorical, the exploration remains a critical one if we are going to find better ways of organising our communities, organisations and social movements towards something resembling a Beloved Community.

The political is personal

Following King’s articulation of Beloved Community, the feminist movement in the 1960s made a quantum leap in Northern/Western understandings of social change with the articulation that ‘the personal is political,’ grounding each of our lives in the wider social dynamics they are a part of. More recently, new social movements have traced this relationship back again, looking at how widespread system change is dependent on deep reflection about the kinds of individual relationships we choose to form together. In other words, the political is also personal.

Marina Sitrin lived in Argentina for several years in the early 2000s. An American activist and writer, she documented and took part in an emergent form of organising – Horizontalidad (or horizontalism) – that offered an alternative to the top-down structures of most political parties, unions and NGOs.

While many of our current organising structures were initially used to bolster the iron-fist management practices of the industrial era, horizontalism emerged in worker-occupied factories, neighbourhood assemblies and direct actions undertaken by unemployed workers after Argentina’s economic collapse in late 2000. Hierarchies were flattened, management teams disappeared, decisions were made via consensus and actions were taken collectively. Sitrin has written two books about her experiences there, offering eloquent articulations of horizontal organisational forms that have influenced countless social movements around the globe in the past decade.

“In Argentina,” Sitrin explains to me from Berlin, “the focus was on creating a new relationship where people could be heard, and finding that in that process it was developing… new ways of thinking about oneself, a new dignity.”

It is around this ‘new relationship’ that Sitrin’s work meets with Wheatley and others at the more progressive end of the organisational spectrum, grounding organising in the transformation of the relationships between those involved. “We are all bundles of potential,” Wheatley opines, “that manifest only in relationship,” highlighting that if we are to realise our individual or collective potential, it will be based on the quality of connections we are able to form with one another.

Liberation via Structure

Kiran Nihalani is a founding member of The Skills Network, a women’s collective based in Brixton, South London that organises cooperatively around directly-democratic principles. She finds it hard to distinguish between the means and the ends of organising, as have so many others – from traditional charities to revolutionary armies. “It is difficult to separate structures and relationships,” she tells me via email. “They feed off each other… [the structures] help people think about their relationships with others in the group (and people outside it) in a different way.”

In societies built on deeply unequal power dynamics, we often need to be reminded of equality, wherever we are used to finding ourselves in the social pyramid. “I would be a proponent of a little more structure,” Marina Sitrin cautiously encourages, based on the relatively loose methods used by most of the non-hierarchical groups she worked with in Argentina. “Structure helps facilitate more horizontal relationships.” Making explicit reference to King’s idea of Beloved Community, Sitrin continues:

“Beloved Community …doesn’t just happen magically; we’re coming with so much baggage… people are coming from the system where [they] are so divided from each other and so alienated from each other, and alienated from themselves, that we need help in relating to each other in an equal way… We need help with structure to not permit certain behaviours. And if we agree to those structures ahead of time, collectively, there’s nothing hierarchical about that.”

Similarly, Peroline Ainsworth, another founding member of the Skills Network adds:

“…in our context, where people are so used to feeling ‘less than’, realising that everyone gets paid the same rate, deciding on paid to unpaid ratios together and seeing that you can participate in making formal decisions is crucial.

…the nuances of interpersonal relationships, although they are important, need to be combined with the really objective structural stuff to make it real for people. …This is an essential starting point in situations where a lot of people are so used to being made to feel unequal, even though they are told that they are equal.”

Another core member of the Skills Network, Hannah Emmons, described the liberating nature of their organising structures as follows:

“I think if those [non-hierarchical] structures and processes didn’t exist… [members] would be exactly where they felt they belonged – at the bottom … that they didn’t matter. So the structures we put in ensure people know that they do matter, and they are relevant, and what they have to say is worth hearing …[In] the hierarchical state, there’s always someone at the bottom, and unfortunately the majority of the people coming through our doors, they believed they were at the bottom of that hierarchy. So …when we’ve kicked off the hierarchical structure, for the first time in ages for some of them in a public space, they are equally important as everyone else in the room.”

But are alternative structures enough to undo all the ways we inevitably adopt bits of the structural inequalities that surround us, when we have been raised in deeply unequal societies? Tana Paddock, co-founder of the South Africa-based Organization Unbound project, says this:

“Those experiences live on inside of us and we’re going to replicate them… So what do we do when these patterns come up? …No structure can keep them down. No structure can rid our inner selves from those patterns.”

The question then becomes: are non-hierarchical structures and processes enough? Or do we need to think beyond these nuts and bolts if we want to foster our own Beloved Communities?

The shortcomings of non-hierarchical organisation

According to Paddock, “the form should always grow out of the experience. All the time, no matter how beautiful that form looks from the outside, it can eat us.” While no advocate of hierarchy, Paddock is also dubious of the focus many social movements since the 1960s and 1970s have placed on non-hierarchical structures: “The feminist movement was hugely successful in experimenting with ways of flattening hierarchies,” she argues, “but in doing so they became quite ideological. And thus the ideology started to overrun everything else.”

Paddock stresses the need to stay open to a range of forms, and that those forms must remain responsive to the people in the group, and the contexts they live and work in. “Structures are certainly helpful,” she says, “but they are only helpful if they grow out of relationships,” pointing to various experiences where “pushing the structure on the people just because of a philosophy of participation can end up having the opposite result in practice and in experience.”

Similarly, in North America and Europe, the concept of horizontalism has become rigidly associated with the particular form of consensus decision making used by Occupy and the 15-M movement in Spain since 2011. The experiences of some participants in both movements reinforced the thesis of Jo Freeman’s 1970 essay , ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’ in which she argued that soft hierarchies simply replace formalised power when formal hierarchy is removed. In some of these protest camps, the rigid adoption of a particular form of decision making ended up placing power in the hands of those most versed in that process, often silencing those less familiar with the intricacies of ‘jazz hands,’ ‘blocks’ and ‘speaker stacks.’

Sitrin echoes Paddock’s sentiment about ensuring structures grow from the place they are being used, describing a far less dogmatic understanding of consensus in Argentina: “Horizontalism doesn’t necessarily mean any form of consensus… it’s that the group together decides what makes most sense for that group without anyone having power over other people.”

She continues by highlighting that in many of the neighbourhood assemblies, “there was no formal consensus process at all… People referred to consensus, but what they meant was finding agreement with each other by seeking a compromise in a conversation.”

Wheatley, too, warns against the wholesale adoption of any particular structure or process:

“The issue for me is getting hooked on one, and only one [process]… so it’s all that you know how to do. It’s just like people assumed I always want to sit in a circle [when facilitating a session]… I would urge people to stay with their game here and not get hooked on one particular practice.”

When relationships transcend structures

While in theory non-hierarchical structures are more egalitarian, this is not universally the case in practice. In fact, does an on-paper hierarchy necessarily create inequality, any more than a flat organisation automatically creates egalitarian relationships? Tana Paddock began to wonder about this question when working with a community organisation that had adopted a very traditional management structure:

“This place seemed to develop this really embedded culture of strong relationships and trusting relationships, so much so that no matter who came in, in those positions, they were forced to work in that way because it was so embedded in their being as an organisation, as a collective. …I’m in this place that looks on paper to be very structurally hierarchical, and it’s the healthiest place I’ve ever been, and it had consistently been like that for years and years. So it’s not just reliant on a charismatic leader or someone who’s really good at relationships, it seemed to really develop this really deep way of working, despite the structure… Who am I to say, ‘No! You should be a flat structure!’?”

Many of us have experienced moments where particular organising relationships become so much more than how they are described on paper. Peroline Ainsworth of the Skills Network describes some of the relationships she has there as feeling more “like equals than most relationships I’ve had in my life.” While they have initially been shaped by formal process, they have become “something that is more than and exists beyond and between the formal structures.”

This is further reflected in Hannah Emmon’s description of the day-to-day application of the Network’s decision making process, where a culture of ongoing dialogue has often come to supersede the formalities of consensus:

“The more important decisions which really need everyone, we do ensure there is everyone… However on smaller ones, I think we’ve got mini-versions of consensus, where… you turn to the next person [and ask their perspective]. Nothing in Skills happens completely individually… before anything is finalised it always comes back to the group before the next step happens. …We are always… conferring with each other.”

Amongst Argentina’s primarily Indigenous-led defence of the land movements, formal rules were often eschewed in exchange for a culture of direct discussion, and when needed, confrontation. According to Marina Sitrin:

“When faced with the challenge of different kinds of political parties… trying to infiltrate [assemblies], they tend to not have rules that [those parties are] not allowed to participate, but… a culture of calling them out. Which is a step forward.”

While this hasn’t always been the case within these movements, Sitrin sees this type of constructive confrontation as an improvement on the culture of passivity that pre-dated it. Rules become less necessary if you have a culture that offers collective accountability. “Once you have good trusting relationships,” Margaret Wheatley adds, “you can sit on the ground or meet on a bus and it all works … over time [structure] becomes less important.”

What does it all mean?

So let’s recap:

• Non-hierarchical structures can help us challenge the parts of ourselves and others which have been negatively shaped by wider social inequality and injustice.

• But those structures, just like their hierarchical counterparts, can become oppressive when used too rigidly, playing into wider social privilege and bestowing undue influence on those who know the systems best.

• Relationships may transcend the structures we create, though if we want them to do so in a positive way we still need to be very conscious of how we relate to one another.

Rather than juxtaposing structures and relationships, perhaps a Beloved Community is more about the intent behind them? “When you’re creating structure, where is it coming from?” Tana Paddock asks me pointedly. “Is it coming from a place of fear, of what could happen if you didn’t have that structure, or is it coming from a place of wanting to generate something positive?”

“Most institutions,” she asserts, “are created out of fear. Rules and structures are created [because]… something bad happened and you don’t want it to happen again, so you create a structure or a process or a regulation to keep it from happening again.”

If we start from a place of fear – expecting the worst and focusing on avoiding it – how much more likely might we be to create the very patterns we are afraid of? Many traditional organisational policies start by telling people what they can’t do, and end up spawning the kinds of dishonesty and carelessness they aimed to avoid. Might some of our most-seemingly democratic and participatory organising structures have the same effect?

Imagine if we organised primarily with the intention of liberating human potential? While the prevalent use of horizontalidad amongst Argentine social movements reflected widespread intent to create equal relationships, the specifics that emerged in groups varied vastly. And while the Skills Network remain strong advocates of consensus because they want to correct the powerlessness that so many of their members feel in wider society, it hasn’t stopped them from adapting their understanding of consensus to fit the needs and aspirations of those members.

In other words, there is no silver bullet that will address the rich complexity of human dynamics, but if we think more about the intent behind each structure, each process, and each relationship we form on the path to creating a Beloved Community, we may just find we get there along the way.

Thank you to Contributoria for commissioning this piece and making it available Creative Commons!

Photo credit: shankbone on Flickr

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To speak or not to speak?: Challenging white male panels

So a while back I was invited to speak at a CharityComms ‘brand management’ event called ‘Keeping your reputation spotless.’ I agreed to speak if they were ok with me debunking the entire notion of ‘brand management’ in a digital era, and the ethical implications of it more generally. Then, yesterday, I discovered that I was slotted to speak on a panel of four white men. What do I do, as a white man who doesn’t want to contribute to racism and sexism, and the unspoken implication that expertise has a race/gender? After much consulting of friends on the interwebs, I wrote this letter.

We can do better than this.

We can do better than this.

Dear CharityComms –

When I was first invited to speak on your brand management panel, I thought it could be fun; rarely do I have the chance to speak to an audience so invested in the status quo of organisational communications and public affairs, so thought it could be a good chance to constructively ruffle some feathers. I’ve been genuinely looking forward to it. As I said when I initially accepted, I think brand management works against its own stated aims, focusing on image and reputation, rather than integrity. It is a plaster to avoid dealing with deeper organisational problems, which is ethically messed up, but is also a losing game in an era of increasing transparency, when Trafigura, Ryan Giggs, and of course the dreaded Streisand Effect are part of the new reality.

But that’s not why I’m writing this letter. I’m writing it because I realised yesterday that I was lined-up to be one of four white men at the event’s opening panel. Admittedly, I didn’t raise this as a possible concern when I first accepted; it’s something I’m working on getting better at raising, and have included on my generic talks/workshops CV, but don’t always remember to do each time I’m approached to do a specific event. So I’m sorry for not raising it as a concern earlier.

But as I did raise in emails since, I feel the implications of an all white male panel (even if the chair is a white woman) are not good. The subtext becomes: ‘expertise in this field is directly associated with race, gender, etc…’ And I don’t feel comfortable – even if I feel I would be adding a useful criticism of the other panelists’ perspectives – being a part of that unspoken subtext. While I am glad there are women speaking throughout the rest of the event, an opening panel sets the tone, and is often the source of the photos that outlive the event, so is particularly important to have thought about these issues.

When I was told in reply that there was no space for another speaker, and that you were really keen to have me on the main panel (after I suggested doing a smaller workshop in the afternoon, instead), I decided – in consultation with many others – that I had to take a different route. While hearing from you that this balance would be taken more seriously at a future event is good, I have too often seen this kind of future promise of action on inequality not translate into real action, once the heat of the current situation is taken off. Old habits die hard. I also consulted Twitter and Facebook, garnering dozens of responses, the vast majority of which encouraged me to step back and make conscious space for other voices to be heard.

So I am politely withdrawing myself from the ‘Keeping your reputation spotless’ panel, with the hope that:

1) whoever you find to replace me on the panel can break through the current homogeneity, and

2) that this will become a real deep thinking point for future events held by CharityComms, even if it means a lot of initial work to forge more connections into communities who are not currently part of your existing speaker pools, and a deeper analysis of how current organising practices may be inadvertently closing doors to others.

I realise that addressing this stuff is always a work in progress, and that one female/person of colour speaker will not properly address the ways so many organisations end up at the point of creating all white/male panels, but by making this issue public, I hope it will keep it from becoming the back-burner concern I’ve too often see equalities issues relegated to. I hope that it leads to a deeper organisational soul searching as to the ways privilege and traditional power structures might be shaping your work, as it does all of ours, if we are not explicitly conscious of it.

So I apologise for the inconvenience and challenge this may cause, but hope that just as choosing not to be involved is part of my own process of addressing my own privilege, it can also be a part of CharityComms process of addressing the privileges that might be subconsciously shaping aspects of its wider work. I am keen to see what response this garners, in practice.

With Love, solidarity and respect,

Liam

PS – Here are two places to potentially start conversations about gender (The Womens’ Room) and race (Writers of Colour), specifically. Happy to discuss further…

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It’s time for the non-profit trade press to go Onion!

Someone suggested to me today that their charity had been unwilling to adopt more democratic, participatory, transparent organising structures, in significant part due to the perceived ‘reputational risk’ associated with doing so. Without pointing at that organisation, more than any other, this is my Third Sector-goes-Onion response to the idea that a more democratic structure could be seen as a reputational risk. It is the ongoing story that doesn’t make sector press ‘news’ each day.

“Charity maintains undemocratic Industrial-era management in 2013!”

Welcome to the Aid Assembly Line! (CC synapticism on Flickr)

Welcome to the Aid Factory! (CC synapticism on Flickr)

Today, a leaked report from AidHope International, one of the world’s biggest development charities, revealed that the organisation employed a management structure designed in the late 1700s to maximise the number of pins that a pin factory could produce.

In a confidential document entitled, ‘The Way Forward: Relearning the Lessons of Taylorism,’ the organisation describes its approach as “a blueprint for treating a group of passionate people as cogs in a poverty and corruption-ending machine. And then replicating that machine wherever we can get funding to do so.”

Their management structure centralises decisions with those furthest from the ground, offers minimal opportunity for those affected by the organisation’s work to have their voices heard, and crushes anything in the way of creative or innovative thinking, though endless sign-off processes. The practices used by AidHope – which advocates for more transparent, participatory and democratic forms of government in Africa – is based on a few key principles:

1) Only those furthest from the action are qualified to make decisions that affect it,
2) Solutions can be copy-and-pasted from any situation to any other situation that seems kinda the same,
3) White men just seem better than anyone else at all the stuff that pays really well…

Under ‘The Way Forward’ document, lower-level managers were made to feel just a little bit more important than the people they managed. However, they were also made to feel deeply insecure about their position, because of the assumption they were meant to know everything that each of the people they manage know, and work on directly.

The document suggests that managers should pass blame down to their most junior employees, while credit for their subordinates’ work should be hoarded, until their own manager becomes aware of it and decides to take it for themselves.

Decades after such methods began to be discredited in management circles, AidHope has clung to them, drawing fierce criticism from key stakeholders for the seeming hypocrisy of its dated and deeply undemocratic internal practices.

John Eggleton, a Departmental Oversight Controller at the Office for Aid Transparency, expressed shock at the revelation, stating, “It is deeply regrettable that AidHope have brought their good name into disgrace, by demonstrating such a massive gulf between what they tell others to do and what they do themselves.” When asked what he felt could repair the damage done to the organisation’s reputation, Eggleton said his salary grade did not give him clearance to offer solutions, only to feign outrage on behalf of his superiors.

Similarly, when David Luffbottom, Chief Executive of fellow aid organisation, CrossHelp, was asked about the AidHope International situation, he was equally indignant; “Clearly, AidHope haven’t been doing a very good job – I mean, there’s no way anyone who might ever consider leaking a document of this magnitude should have even known it existed!”

Meanwhile, at AidHope, the press team scrambled to prepare a response, telling this reporter that the charity would have an official statement prepared by early next week, once the appropriate directors (one of whom was on annual leave until Monday) had signed-off on it.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, one AidHope senior manager disclosed that the organisation’s board had “thought about changing, but came to the conclusion that no one else within or around the organisation would do things as well as they did.”

Making reference to some of the alternatives to the management structures employed by his organisation, the manager said: “I once heard a senior colleague refer to participatory budgeting, or flat management structures, or consensus-based decision making at a reception at the [House of] Lords, but he was seriously sauced at the time and was probably just taking the piss to get a laugh out of the Peer who was hosting us.”

“Ultimately,” explained the insider, “we realised how hard it would be to justify our own jobs if we began to practice anything that might resemble real democracy, and so decided to just keep doing what we’d always done. Just like everyone else.”

_______________________

I wrote a book called ‘Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people.’ You can buy the paperback or ebook (PWYC) here.







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No, I won’t shut up about privilege! …Will you?

Disclaimer: As I write this, I am livid. I’m sick and tired of seeing my friends experience the costs of other friends’ inability to challenge our own privileged status in our organisations. And no, I won’t stop shouting about it!

White people: Available in positions of power everywhere!

White people: still pretty shit at recognising our own privilege. [CC Boston Public Library]

Before I begin, I’d like to suggest reading Sue’s ‘Open Letter to the Movement,’ Nishma’s ‘Inclusive movement: A call to action,’ Guppi’s ‘On Posh White Blokes in NGOs,’ and if you want to really delve deeper, Andrea Smith’s piece on ‘The Problem with Privilege.’

…Think of this as one angry person of traditional privilege’s open letter to all of the people who also hold traditional privilege in environmental and social justice organisations.

We all hold privilege in particular situations, but some of us experience it as the norm, rather than the exception in our lives. We are usually, but not exclusively, white, male, straight and at least semi-affluent. And whether we pay attention to it or not, traditional power structures have been built in our image.

I use the verb ‘hold’ quite deliberately in relation to privilege. I increasingly feel it is less passive an action than I used to think. Traditional privilege is held by those who’ve always had it, by continuing to pursue the status quo, as others are excluded and silenced by it. When we aren’t actively challenging privilege, we may well be perpetuating it, regardless of what other worthy work our organisations are doing.

Very few unions, NGOs, voluntary or non-profit organisations I work with have bucked this trend.

Discrimination: Still going strong

We’ve had information about racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. available to us for a long time now. We’ve seen lunch counter sit-ins and riots, and declared ourselves to be friends of those who have struggled – and often given their lives – to create a world that treats them as human beings.

Most of us will acknowledge many of the ways that discrimination still takes place in the world: police violence, pay gaps, media portrayals…

But there are plenty of ways we still don’t acknowledge discrimination.

  • Do we acknowledge the ways that only posting our new jobs on job websites frequented primarily by others with considerable privilege is likely to mean we continue to look like the same organisation we have since the 1950s?
  • Do we know how much more difficult it is for someone who has grown up in a home that speaks another language, or even dialect, to feel comfortable enough to claim ‘excellent written and spoken English’ when they see it as a constant requirement in all our job descriptions?
  • Do we look at the ways that the dismissal of visceral, spiritual, traditional forms of knowledge that are core to so many other cultures, can make it far harder for others to feel comfortable in meetings, or working relationships more widely?
  • Do we ask ourselves how it might feel to attend yet another panel filled with white men, given yet another space to tell a wider audience what various white men have to say about a topic?

While it’s not to say there aren’t specific – and at times valid – reasons for each of the above, continuing to assume that their occasional validity makes them universally ok, means we are constantly closing and dead-bolting our doors to others who should be free to help shape the organisations and movements we are a part of.

Maybe some people with less in the way of traditional privilege really won’t want to engage, preferring to create alternative spaces that work for their communities. But even if this is the case, there is a level of responsibility on those of us who hold traditional privileges to make sure that is not the only option on the table.

As a white male, I won’t pretend I understand all of the ways in which lots of people struggle with discrimination in work places. But I’m also doing my best to accept what I’m being told about so many other peoples’ experiences of organisational cultures, rather than trying to judge them through my own lenses. When one story after another corroborate very similar feelings of dismissal and exclusion in social change organisations, I have to assume that I’ve got it wrong, and that my lack of understanding is the result of a blind spot afforded by so many layers of privilege I bring into my work.

I know that several of my good friends have become deeply depressed, and even suicidal, in large part due to their inability to be heard or have their concerns addressed within the largely white, patriarchal structure of our organisations.

Too often, when they have reached this point, their issues have been dismissed as unrelated mental health issues, absolving the people and organisations’ of any culpability for what has happened, de-legitimising peoples’ own perspectives on their lived experiences.

This is why I’m so angry. These stories are avoidable, if we actually took on the realities of the harm we are causing our friends, and to the causes that are losing their efforts and perspectives, each day.

From intellectual to visceral change

My gradual process of accepting the judgements of others about their experiences of our organisations, comes from a visceral acknowledgement of the issues, not just an intellectual one.

One way that organisation’s perpetuate certain demographics and dynamics is through the notion of professionalism that tries to keep everything work-related within the realm of intellect. This is European Enlightenment thinking (which feels incredibly foreign in much of the world), dominating our organisations. Many other cultures see more visceral, emotional understandings, to be just as important as one’s intellectual, rational point of view.

The empathy we need to find is not going to be found via intellectual understanding of someone else’s struggles, but through a visceral sense of empathy and human connection, and a clear sense that what they are experiencing is fundamentally wrong. When we try to relegate these conversations to the intellectual, we can easily make the rational case for why we continue to do what we’ve always done. When we feel some sense of connection with what someone else is feeling though, it’s far harder to ‘mansplain’ (or ‘whitesplain’) it away.

Privilege as wallpaper

I’ve written before, as have others, about the invisible nature of privilege when you have it; that the same things that exclude some, make others feel at home (or at least not too far from it).

But when we feel at home, we often de-prioritise the need for change. Everything else comes to be more immediately important, even when we intellectually recognise that all is not right.

Every time we de-prioritise asking the questions about making our organisations truly welcoming places for people who haven’t had very similar life experiences to our own, we reinforce our power and privilege. Privilege is making the choice to continue to inflict hardship on others, because doing so is easier than digging into a realm of very difficult questions, about ourselves, about our organisations, about the ways we relate to one another and on whose terms. Privilege is also simply being ‘too busy’ to open this can of worms. Without much effort, I can choose to put privilege on the backburner again and again, but that doesn’t give someone experiencing its flipside the ability to stop experiencing it until ‘other things settle down a bit.’

Is privilege our priority? No.

Addressing this stuff is HARD. But not nearly as hard as it is to be on the receiving end of it, day after day. That’s why all of us, when we find ourselves in positions of privilege, need to push it to the forefront – shout about it wherever we can.

Maybe a starting point for those who haven’t begun to make an effort in this area, is to acknowledge – even to ourselves – that it is not as high a priority as we claim it is.

If we acknowledge that, how do we feel about that acknowledgement? Are we comfortable with knowing that when we choose not to prioritise looking at the individual and institutional forms of oppression we are a part of, we are assuming they are less-important than the wider social and environmental justice aims of our organisations? We are accepting the depression and the resentment of people we consider our friends as an acceptable cost of our work?

I’ll leave that with each of you to answer for yourselves. It’s not that any of us can change all the ways that privilege affects people’s lives, but we can be more conscious of it, along with the many ways we benefit in different situations. We can also change specific parts of our work or our behaviours to open up new spaces for others to be able to shape some of these critical conversations.

But here’s the simplest starting point, highlighted by Guppi in her ‘On Posh White Blokes in NGOs‘ post: listen to what others are telling us and don’t try to explain it away. If we can’t do that, we won’t be part of any solution.

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Chapter 4 of Anarchists in the Boardroom delves into the questions of power and privilege in social change organisations. Feel free to order a copy.

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Talking privilege amongst progressives

My good friend Sue posted this open letter today, challenging the progressive/ green/ social justice movement she has lived and breathed for years, to look at the ways it had made her life as a brown woman more difficult than it should have been. Progressive people still discriminate, despite our best intentions. Sue is on stress leave because of it. Those of us who’ve been privileged enough to be able to walk into groups and organisations that are built largely in our image have  a responsibility to understand how we may be inadvertently closing doors to many of the people who should be front-and-centre of the kinds of change we are promoting. Thank you to Sue for putting this out there for the rest of us. I hope it can help to open up some much needed dialogue.

_______________

Dearest Movement

Being a women of colour in the uk movement/non-profit sector is incredibly difficult. I am on day one of stress leave that I had to fight hard for – I worked hard to realise it was not my own failing as a professional and it was ok to admit that I needed time out and that my body, soul and spirit had reached it’s limit. I totally love the movement, but I was no longer sure if the movement loved me. My PTSD has partly been brought on by an insane amount of direct action over the past few years, but for me that was not the main cause – my working life has been to stand with community, I love nothing more than a beautiful, cheeky action. It was the invisible power dynamics and homogenity of personality types in the spaces we work that doesn’t always leave room for people who have different dispositions, mental health needs, who question campaigns and priorities, come from a different political analysis or for me as women of colour to have a real seat at the table, that did me in.

The homogeneity in our movement is systemic and and it’s shocking as it comes from groups that often consider themselves the most progressive and working from a social justice background. I have a lot of respect and love for a lot of the people, orgs and groups that make up the various segments of our movement but they have become toxic spaces for people of colour to operate. I know I am taking a risk writing this – some people will feel hurt, I might be risking professional relationships, but the reason why I work in a non-hierarchical anarchist setting is so that I can keep my truth fresh.

I am at my last stand and it is time for allies to stand up and to begin to seriously change these dynamics. I don’t just mean a few workshops or putting in a wheelchair ramp (those things are AWESOME but you don’t tack diversity on) this is deep deep work to really take a stand. I don’t know exactly what that work will look like – and I give props to everyone who has begun it – I can walk with you on the way, but you are going to have to do this work, and not just if everything else gets done…but front and centre…if we truly want to hold the values of anti-oppression, equality and justice in your groups.

Having just come back from Global Power Shift it was this lesson that hit me hardest – we have the data, we know how to lobby mp’s we can shut down power stations, but do we relate and support our movements and especially those that don’t look and think like us. If we do not build a strong, beautiful diverse movement all of our elaborate and clever campaigns are for nothing.

I had internalised all race, power and privilege dynamics around me I thought I just didn’t know how to play nice, maybe I didn’t know how to do my job I’ve spent years doing, thought maybe I was too angry and questioned my own mental wellness. But after a week with global organizers in our conversations between our meetings and sessions I heard my story over and over and over…the light bulb went on…

Our community who operates in these environmental and social justice spaces need to know that those people closest to you – who might not look like you are struggling – to do the jobs we love and to keep a livelihood, to have a voice, to stand in our power, you are pushing us out of the spaces where we most need to be, to make sure you are connected to the people you are supposed to be fighting for, so that you yourselves don’t keep replicating those same systems that we say we are trying to fight. I know that this is not reserved to just race or gender, it moves across class, gender identities and sexuality, and I stand with you.

I’m close to giving up everyday, but it’s my love for the communities who are fighting, the world’s diverse communities who hold the deep analysis, solutions and stories that will wake us up and need to be heard at this time of climate change that keep me from packing it all in. So, I’m taking a bit of risk with my truth for the young generation of activists and social justice workers that often keep quiet on this because they don’t want to lose their jobs or become unpopular in our organizing spaces. I say this with deepest love for all the work that everyone does and in hopes that this will bring us closer to the society and vision that you are all working tirelessly for.

In answer to your question Nishma, this is may be the norm, but it’s not right and I can’t wait for us to Shake It Up!

Love,

Sue
x

For an inspiring incredible read on Indigenous views of feminism, decolonization and extraction read here! http://thefeministwire.com/2013/06/indigenous-feminisms-walia/

This note is in response to a blog by Nishma Doshi
http://www.nishmadoshi.net/2013/i-was-fired-because-i-gave-off-negative-vibes/

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Bosses shouldn’t be afraid of being tougher on misguided consultants

I got pretty worked-up when I read Gill Taylor’s recent piece in Third Sector, arguing that managers ‘treat staff too nicely.’  But when I calmed down, I realised that Taylor’s analysis makes perfect sense within a few of our organisations’ most widespread, but ultimately incorrect, assumptions about people and management. If we believe the worst of our fellow colleagues, it really is time we got tougher on them!

Gill Taylor

Gill Taylor, via Third Sector

Ultimately, there is a negative view of humanity at play here – people need to be controlled to avoid bad things happening. But there’s more to it. Here are three issues that underpin Taylor’s thinking:

1. The relationship between more and less senior staff is like the relationship between a parent and a young child.
While I could pick apart the issues with applying these attitudes to parenting, think of the traditional model: ‘I know best, listen to me, you’ll be alright, kid!’
This is the first assumption that Taylor – and most of our organisations – go wrong on. Management is one skill-set; counselling those who’ve experienced abuse, or running training courses, or working with youth on the street are others. Management is not ‘superior’ to other forms of work, even if our organisations have built this assumption into their structures, taking people out of jobs they do well, and making them become managers as their only hope of career progression.
If managers are superior to others, the patronising attitude outlined above makes perfect sense. This is what leads Taylor to say things like, “Treating staff too nicely isn’t necessarily good for them,” which can only conjure memories of a 1950s doctor telling a new mother ‘if you give them too much love, they’ll become spoilt!’

2. Problems are questions of fault, and the fault always trickles down the organisational ladder
When someone acts out, when an event doesn’t go to plan, when conflicts erupt at the office, organisational culture tends to scapegoat someone as ‘the cause’ of whatever bad thing happened. Rather than really try to understand the nuance of why an event failed (Were there other events on the same day? Were there unexpected cancellations? Did we know who we were pitching it to?), or why someone hasn’t been doing their job (Were they being adequately supported? Do they have issues outside of the office that are affecting their work? Are they being bullied?), many organisations find it far easier to nail someone with the blame. The last question that most organisations seem prepared to ask about troublesome employees, is ‘why did several of us think this person should be hired?’ Managers are the reason every employee is in an organisation, so perhaps asking themselves what made the person seem employable and how they could support the qualities that led to their hire, might be a good place to start when problems arise.

3. Compliance creates accountability
If we believe points 1 and 2, compliance (or ‘getting tough’) seems like a natural response. As a manager, you are superior to your staff and when something goes wrong, it is clearly that member of staff’s fault, therefore, how can you force them into being better employees?
But like a building built on a foundation of quicksand, this third assumption also crumbles under its own weight.
Compliance offers us the allusion of accountability, but trusting people and supporting them when they need it usually gives us the real thing.
Compliance measures that try to force people to prove they’re not screwing the organisation over (like so many sign-off processes and staff evaluations), often create barriers to meaningful contribution, and encourage the very behaviour they aim to avoid.
But if we assume that people who work in social change organisations want to do the right thing, the vast majority of the time, we might find that they do it. We can address the exceptions when they arise, rather than creating structures that assume the worst of all our staff, as so many policies imply, just by existing.

Ultimately, Gill Taylor and the many who continue the tradition started by an American Industrialist of the same last name (Fredrick Winslow, for the record), have a lot to answer for. Their assumptions and ‘solutions’ are what have made our organisations so much less like people, creating hostile, adversarial relationships, where they wouldn’t otherwise be.

While my gut response is reflected in my flip on the original article’s title, I hope that through conversation and experience, consultants like Taylor can see the error of their ways and try starting their work from an assumption of human decency.

But failing that, let’s stop giving them our business or the space to promote themselves, shall we?

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The way Dan Pallotta thinks about charity is dead wrong

I’ve noticed Dan Pallotta’s ‘The way we think about charity is dead wrong’ TED talk seems to be spreading around the internet quite quickly. The title grabbed me, but the content couldn’t be more off. So I thought I’d weigh in with an alternative perspective.

Firstly, where I agree with him: many of the ways our charities work, stifle innovation.

Definitely. But his approach is to turn the charitable sector into an extension of the free market. Even with an opening in which he acknowledges that human stories can’t be monitized, he goes on to prescribe market solutions for the rest of what the non-profit world should be doing. ‘Philanthropy is the market for Love,’ he tells us, hinting at the lens he views the world through early on in the talk.

But there is no ‘market for Love,’ and markets are not where the solution lies, in my opinion. Two of his specific arguments truly irk me:

1) That more talented people go into higher paying jobs, and thus are put off working in the non-profit sectors

2) That change is best achieved by massive organisations addressing massive social issues.

Mo’ money, mo’ talent?

Just look at the most highly paid jobs in a market economy and how many of them have even a minimal social value? Conversely, how many of them have a sum negative impact on the world? The financial sector (in the broadest terms), attracts those who are primarily interested in making money – to the detriment of all else.

I don’t believe that ‘the most talented people’ the world has to offer are the ones who have laid-off so many workers in the name of ‘staying competitive,’ or who have decided that wars and climate change are simply the ‘costs of doing business.’  These actions require a certain kind of deliberate ignorance, which is not a trait civil society organisations need. Quite the opposite!

As charities begin to reinforce the market logic that you should spend your time making as much money as you possibly can for yourself, it will only reinforce the many social and environmental side-effects that such an attitude has in an unchecked free market.

The motivations that often get people working in a charity or NGO, such as passion for and commitment to a cause, or a better world, more generally, are at odds with this. They see life’s goals as more pluralistic than simply ‘get as much as you can for yourself.’ That attitude is killing our species, our societies and the planet we all call home. Infinite growth, whether for an individual bank account, or a global economy, cannot be maintained on a planet of finite resources. It is the problem.

We need different ways of understanding value and success.

Further, the kinds of university programmes Pallotta describes as producing ‘the best talent’ still seem to churn out private sector MBAs who exchange everything in the world, for short-term profits, and who have been at the core of countless broader scandals and crises. Our ‘Ivy League’ institutions are indeed part of the problem. Some may come out with their moral compass reasonably intact, but the vast majority learn to run a kind of ‘efficient’ organisation that can only see budget lines, at the cost of anything that can’t be measured in money.

Dan Pink has written extensively about costs of trying to link money and motivation, and argued convincingly that intrinsic motivation (like passion for your work) is far stronger than extrinsic motivation (like a bonus, or a high salary). When our systems cater to the latter, lots of bad things start to happen, encouraging a range of ‘gaming’ tactics, in which dishonesty becomes the norm, and the true objectives are sidelined for the short-term targets with personal self-interest attached. Basically, these kinds of motivations (Pink calls them ‘if-then’ motivators) pit self-interest against collective interest, encouraging people to act selfishly, rather than trying to align ‘what is best for me’ and ‘what is best for us.’

Bigger is better?

There’s another idea that ‘bigger organisations are more efficient, and thus more equipped to address big social ills, than smaller ones.’

But this doesn’t hold much water, either.

Big organisations seem far better at producing quantitative results, at the cost of qualitative ones. And to the point where the ‘quality’ can actually be a sum negative impact (rather than just ‘not as good as it could be’ one). Stories abound of big NGOs that have ended up doing more harm than good, as their disconnect from the on-the-ground realities of so many of their own projects, means that for all their ‘efficiency savings,’ they were actually doing the wrong thing in the first place!

Billions and billions in governmental and philanthropic funds are channelled into the sphere of aid and international development each year, but many of the problems keep getting worse. We mean well, but for all our best intents, most of those costly, large scale efforts aren’t achieving what they are meant to.

When it comes to complex social change, context and relationships really are everything. Just because something worked well in one time and place, doesn’t mean it will easily be carried over to another. ‘Scaling up’ – a notion at the core of so many large programmes – is a doomed idea, as tantalising as it can be. Organisations which try to replicate one solution, in another place, often miss the critical non-replicable factors of individual relationships and nuanced context that were at the core of any initial successes.

Alternatively, Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze have advocated ‘scaling across’ – a more grassroots process, in which smaller, local projects can share ideas directly with one another, spreading value where it is needed, without imposing it as a blueprint to be followed to the letter.

‘Scaling up’ comes from the kind of managerialism still taught in many of the institutions Pallotta advocates non-profits get their execs from. It is the notion that distant, well-paid ‘experts’ know better than people who are experiencing an issue themselves, how best to address that issue.

The hubris of this long-standing belief is staggering, and is at the core of why many smaller, local efforts, often do better work than larger organisations – even when appearing ‘inefficient’: people understand their own situations better than anyone else.

If you knock down those two pillars of Pallotta’s talk, I think the rest crumbles with it. What he advocates is more of the same ‘NGOs should be more like the private sector’ approach that has been advocated – and often applied, at considerable cost – to the world of social change organisations for decades.

I say no. ‘More like people’ isn’t afraid to learn things from a range of places, but the lessons Pallotta advocates specifically undermine the sense of humanity that we need more of. If we want to make more of a difference through our organisations, let’s not rely on MBAs, devoid of any ethical grounding, or large scale development projects that have no way of really knowing what’s going on at street level. We don’t have to be puritanical, as Pallotta suggests, to avoid adopting the greed that creates so many of the social ills our organisations work against. We just need to stay in touch with the values that motivate us to create change in the world.

Like what you’ve read? Help publish my book, ‘Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people’ and pre-order it now!

3 comments

change how we organise. change the world. (PS – we can start crowd-funding the book now)

…The title is why I’ve written Anarchists in the Boardroom and have started the crowd-funding campaign to have it published today. In the last 12 or so years of varying combinations of activism and organisational development work, I really believe this to be true. The old ways are holding us back, limiting our collective potential to create change in the world and driving wedges between people who should be working together for something better. If we change how we do what we do, our time, effort and energy may go infinitely further than the old hierarchies could ever have imagined…

The ends do not justify the means. In the name of this slogan, many injustices have been spawned, from large scale atrocities, to out-of-touch campaigns and services, no longer serving those they began operating in the names of.

Dehumanising management systems and practices – even when they are well-intentioned – exemplify ‘ends-justify-the-means’ thinking every day, sucking the life out of the people who should be most committed to their organisations’ work.

The essence of management, as we know it, lies in the belief that ‘if we don’t tell others what to do, they’ll probably get it wrong.’ But it’s this belief that is wrong, yet most of our organisational structures are built upon it.

If we truly believe in equality, we need to organise ourselves with a clear sense of equality, ensuring that all of those involved have an equal voice in shaping what we do.

If we truly believe in human potential, we need to give it the space to reveal itself, not boxing it into a pre-set job title, or measurable outcome, but allowing it to find its own path to greatness.

If we truly believe in accountability, we need to be transparent in all that we do, making sure our work leaves nothing to be ashamed of, rather than simply trying to hide away the parts of it that might embarrass us.

There is no reason why we should have to undermine the things we believe in, in order to make the world a better place. Quite the opposite! In fact, doing so is usually a good indication that we won’t get where we think we’re going.

The adoption of industrial organising models has not brought the promise to social change organisations that it did for the manufacturing process. The kinds of social transformation most of us want to see are not made on assembly lines, but emerge through the countless autonomous actions of those who care, living their values in every stage of the change process, bringing about something new through their many individual choices to do things differently.

But I believe there is a path from the institutions of yesterday, to the unknown organising patterns of tomorrow. I’ve chosen to look to social media and new social movements for hope, but I’m sure others will find it in other unexpected sources of inspiration.

I’ve written this book as my first significant contribution to what will be a varied, messy, and unpredictable process of collective change, from professionalism to humanity; hierarchy to network; control to trust.

There’s no reason the same principles that can change our organisations can’t also change our world. Think of your organisation as one-of-many test grounds for something much bigger.

When we let go of our obsessive attempts to control complex groups of people (whether organisations, or societies), we open up new possibilities and human potentials in every realm.

But like the transition I describe, this book will not be published just because I want it to be. Others will have to want it to, if it is going to get beyond my laptop.

…Which is why today is the start of the crowd-funding campaign on StartSomeGood.com to publish ‘Anarchists in the Boardroom.’ You can visit the campaign page here to pledge, or read a snippet from the book if you’re still looking to be convinced.

Pledge for a book, pledge for a bit of my time, pledge for a few copies for the office and use them to spark discussions amongst colleagues as to how you can all start living your values in the ways you work to bring about a bit of good in the world each day…

And if you’re not in a position to pledge right now, feel free to share it with anyone else you think would be interested in reading the book.

I am deeply appreciative for whatever you can do to help make this happen and wherever we take the conversations from here!

Hugs,

Liam

Pledge now!

1 comment

More Like People is an association of freelance consultants, facilitators and trainers, working primarily in the voluntary, community and campaigning sectors in the the UK and elsewhere.

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