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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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Jim Coe: Theories of change vs dart throwing chimps

Jim Coe has kindly agreed to us re-posting his blog demolishing ‘Theories of Change.’ He has captured the essence of why so many organisational campaign planning efforts – as they are actually practiced – are unable to handle the complexity of the real world. The blog was originally posted at CoeAndKingham.org.uk

Jim Coe

Jim Coe will smash your theory of change

I wouldn’t ideally call it a ‘theory of change’, but I think it can be really helpful to develop – at an organisational level – a shared view of how change happens, the power dynamics at play, and the best ways to intervene.

The absence of this sort of analysis can be problematic for many reasons, to do with what flows into this gap in understanding.

However, it’s at the campaign level, not the organisational one, where ‘theories of change’ are all the rage these days.

And, as a planning process and tool, the approach has some obvious advantages:

It uncovers, and allows for interrogation of, assumptions about how change happens.

The process of developing theories of change can expose vague and unfounded assumptions and help ensure that strategy is anchored around the change you are trying to achieve.

The process of planning can give valuable space to reflect on the bigger picture.

This is true as long as it doesn’t just end up privileging particular groups or opinions and excluding others (which it can easily do, for reasons to do with how power plays out).

It can help create a common understanding.

Theories of change can get everyone on the same page, and help in communicating a common direction.

On the downside, though, I would say that campaign ‘theories of change’ are pretty much nonsense. In that they are based on – and then further encourage – a fundamental misinterpretation of how change happens:

1/ PREDICTION

Campaign ‘theories of change’ tend start from the expectation that social change is predictable and that the steps can be plausibly laid out.

In a few cases – to do with the stability of the issue or the context – some sort of formalised forward planning may make sense. And in theory, if not generally in practice, there is scope to continually adapt the ‘theory of change’ as the context evolves.

But even so, the ‘theories of change’ approach seems to be based on over-optimism at best.

In a classic 20 year study for example, political psychologist Philip Tetlock asked nearly 300 experts to make political and policy predictions in their specialist fields, and he then looked back on these predictions and reviewed their accuracy.

He found that the forecasts overall were barely better than a ‘chimp strategy’ [of randomly guessing], and in many cases they were worse.

Tetlock judged the reasons for this poor showing were to do with:

* How change actually happens (and its inherent unpredictability)

* The psychological properties of people making the predictions (we prefer simplicity, are averse to ambiguity, like to believe in a controllable world, etc.)

These factors combined make it unsurprising that predictions about what will happen and what actually does happen can be so far away from each other.

2/ THE SOURCE OF CHANGE

Theories of change – as they are typically applied – help promote a false and solipsistic sense of organisational self-importance.

They are attractive because they fit with our understanding of time, as something that goes forward. We intervene and this has effects that then lead to later outcomes.

This very much encourages a distorted, organisation-centred picture of the nature of change, with everyone else bit part players in it.

But social change is far more likely to be happening in all kinds of directions, driven by all sorts of actors and factors in all sorts of different combinations. Organisations find themselves aiming at moving targets rather than living in a world where everything else revolves around the organisation whose theory of change it is.

And so as an alternative I would suggest a more sensible approach to campaign planning, a ‘balance of forces’ approach, based on:

1. mapping where the power lies in the system
2. setting out the barriers to achieving the desired change (and the favourable factors)
3. identifying in what ways the campaign will intervene to change this balance

The campaign plan would then follow this logic, setting out

* What needs to change and

* Which changes the campaign is focused on helping to achieve, and how

Not in a grand, long-term blueprint sense, but in a ‘let’s do this and then see where we are’ kind of way.

Ongoing planning would then be about iterative course-correcting. Revisiting the analysis of the barriers to change along the way, tracking any progress, or shifts, and adapting strategy as needed.

This approach

* Embeds the importance of a robust analysis of power and the dynamics of change

* Focuses on outcomes and the kinds of interventions an organisation can best make to help achieve them

* Helps in shaping a common strategy

* Allows for a more fluid approach, a shift from ‘predict and control’ to ‘assess and react’

And its starting point is a much truer picture of how change actually happens.

Jim’s take on Theory of Change is closely related to the chapter of my book, Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people, on strategy and planning. You can order it here.

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Does your organisation need a social media policy?

Following this year’s eCampaigning Forum in Oxford, I find myself revisiting a perennial ECF question: social media policies. I’ve developed a simple flowchart tool to help your organisation decide if a social media policy is indeed right for you.

Does your organisation need a social media policy?

Does your organisation need a social media policy?

Jokes aside, I stand by this little doodle, in all its simplicity.

Like concepts of accountability and order more generally, the idea that social media ‘best practice’ is the result of some people telling everyone else what they can and can’t do is absurd and elitist… and is the kind of organisational behaviour that discourages actual ownership and responsibility amongst those doing the work, creating the very problems it tries to mitigate against.

What I tend to propose as an alternative, is simply having regular conversations amongst the responsible adults the organisation has hired, for whom social media will be a part of their jobs. You can all raise the thorny issues that the internet will inevitably throw in all of your collective faces, and work together to figure out what the best ways of handling these things are.

When the context shifts and a new thorny issue arises, whoever is facing it should be able to deal with it at the time. Then you can use it as an reason to revisit the discussion, acknowledging that you hadn’t predicted whatever has come up, but can work together once again to adapt the shared understanding of how to handle challenges.

The underpinning point here is that most organisational social media policies are based on a premise of mistrust – that staff will mess things up if given half-a-chance to do so. If this is truly the case, social media is not your problem – your hiring and/or management practices are.

When we have the chance to shape a process together, we both bring new perspectives into the fold and tend to feel more invested in whatever decisions or directions emerge. Collective process improves our sense of agency, responsibility and pride in our work.

So, like with so many organisational policies, skip the document, have the conversation. It may be the first step to unleashing some of the latent online potential our organisational structures have been restraining for so long!

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 order it here.

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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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Self publishing… minus the burnout?

Self-publishing is both possible and in many ways, fun. But it’s also really exhausting. And I’m wondering if we can find a way to avoid going to a publisher for the next Anarchists in the Boardroom print run, without also burning me out… What do you think?

Me talking about the book at the Open Development Camp, Amsterdam

So it’s been just over 2 months since we self-published Anarchists in the Boardroom!

It’s been an amazing experience, and have made it down to the last 50 copies already!

It’s been a really successful experiment in what can be done without traditional institutions, though it has had some limitations.

If I’m honest, I’m not sure I can keep up with the work involved in self-publishing. It’s been seriously exhausting and has at some level made it harder to enjoy the many amazing conversations that the book has opened up.

There are so many aspects to the work a publisher and their partners traditionally do, even after the book is printed: store distribution, individual book distribution, speaking tour bookings, web selling software, arranging reviews and interviews and finding publications for guest blogs and editorials…

I’m a big fan of DIY – when I was 17 I started a hip-hop promotion company to give myself stages to play on, and had self-produced a vinyl 12” on my own a few years later. I co-founded an international youth exchange without an organisation when I was 20. I really, really enjoy the learning process of taking on a whole new project, and figuring out the skills I need to make it happen along the way.

But this book is proving a massive task. And the time I’m spending with a range of the tasks involved is keeping me from a) doing the stuff in the process I know I’m actually good at and enjoy, and b) doing the paid work needed to pay rent.

It’s also been a significant part of my 60-80 hour work weeks for the past two months.

But enough about me, let’s talk about you!

Having sold almost 500 copies in the first two months, without institutional backing, I reckon odds are pretty good that I could go to a traditional publisher with this and see if they’d like to take it on. This would free up a lot of my time and hopefully provide a bit of institutional backing for some of the logistics of the process.

But it would also mean less control over the process.

Alternatively, I could not print any more and leave it as a Pay What You Feel It’s Worth ebook, and see where it goes in exclusively digital format. This wouldn’t address doing any of the publicity, but would take care of some of the practical and administrative logistics. It’s the lowest effort option, and one that would leave the book’s future in the hands of the universe and see what people do with it…

The other option is more collaborative: what if we collectively became ‘the publisher’?

Basically, what if we figured out all the things that needed to happen to keep this book growing (logistics, publicity, distribution, etc) and shared some of the jobs around?

If there were a small crew of people who wanted to get involved in helping with these things, I would happily share book income around accordingly (though wouldn’t expect this to be a massive amount).

I’m open to ideas, but wanted to avoid a totally traditional division of labour, instead seeing who might be up for sharing a bit of the various tasks involved.

Anyway… I’m just tossing ideas around, but wanted to see what others thought about the 3 possibilities I’ve put forward – or suggesting a new one, if you can think of an option that I haven’t. Here, once again, are the options as I see them:

1. Approach a publisher – lose some freedom, gain some time; get some publicity and distribution support
2. Offer the ebook only going forward – save time on logistics, still have to do publicity work, and miss out on having something to sell at events
3. ‘Collectively self-publish the next batch’ – share the load, may involve extra coordination, maintains freedom about the process, addresses some of the questions of scalability of self-publishing.

Anyway, I haven’t totally thought the details of the 3rd option though, but I’m keen to discuss if you’d like to add ideas to the comments below.

Thanks so much for being a part of the journey!

Liam

PS – if you order one of the last 50 copies, I’ll inscribe something personal in it, either for you, or the lucky recipient you choose to give it to for a gift this holiday season 🙂

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Integrated development: Embracing mission drift in rural Nigeria

On Monday I got the chance to hear John Dada speak. John holds a lot of wisdom, much of which cuts directly against the so-called ‘best practices’ of the development world he’s involved with. One of the key lessons I took from John’s talk? Don’t get too focused on doing one particular thing; you’ll miss what’s going on around you!

john dada and indy johar

John Dada w/ Indy Johar at Hub Westminster on Monday

“You need to cut down and focus on microfinance,” one funder told John Dada, after the Fantsuam Foundation had expanded its work into yet another previously unknown discipline in rural Nigeria.

This is typical advice from many of the ‘experts’ in the development world: ‘specialise in one thing and focus all of your energies on it.’

There’s a particular worldview that this makes perfect sense within. The jargony term this worldview assigns to organisations not heeding this advice, is ‘mission drift.’

John Dada doesn’t buy it though.

Instead, he throws an alternative approach out there, speaking at Hub Westminster on a rare UK visit on Monday evening: “No service should be allowed to stand on its own, because it wouldn’t work.”

Fantsuam Foundation has a serious case of mission drift! What began with microcredit loans in rural Nigeria, moved into local IT provision and training, HIV/AIDS clinics, affordable housing, and eventually a community-owned tractor – crowd-funded by the modestly-sized, but committed network of support that Fantsuam has built-up within and beyond Nigeria through the approach they call ‘integrated community development.’

I describe some elements of John’s work in Anarchists in the Boardroom.

Integrated community development stands-up where so many development projects fail; it doesn’t try to see social issues through the various specialised lenses our organisations like to apply to them.

John was initially trained as a nurse in the UK, but has not let that limit the work he has been involved with. Nursing can only address some of the issues faced by people living in a complex world; if John was to decide to draw clear lines around what he would and wouldn’t do to support the community he was working in, he would not have achieved a fraction of what his organisation has been able to do.

What I took away from hearing him speak on Monday, is the importance of relationships; that building and maintaining trusting connections with people is far more important than many of the specific skill sets involved. We can often learn new skills more easily than we can build new meaningful relationships.

Thus the mission drift: when you’ve built up strong relationships in a community, you can’t just farm people out to another ‘service provider’ and expect them to pick up where you left off.

I remember working at the Scarman Trust a number of years ago, supporting people who had set-up small-scale community projects around London, but who had come to the end of the small grants (usually about £1,500) the organisation had given them. I’d usually done workshops with them for several months, met with them one-to-one, helped them with everything from keeping receipts in order and finding venues to hire, to figuring out what they wanted to do next.

Often, near the end of their grants, I’d end up referring them to one of a handful of other organisations – sometimes funders, sometimes other local groups in their areas. Some people were fine with this, but others were offended. Most ignored the referrals, no matter how much specialist expertise these folks I was trying to put them in touch with had.

One woman put it to me very succinctly: ‘Why do we have to talk to them? We want to keep talking with you. We know you. We don’t want to go to someone else.’

I don’t mention this as a particular endorsement of my own work, but as an indication of the centrality of relationships.

Only in certain professional settings do we seem to forget this; we tell ourselves that we can pass people around, between professionals, services, departments, organisations, without this affecting the people themselves, their health, their trust, their level of engagement, their openness, their commitment to working with us… If we’re not careful, people, churned through so many services, become passive, hand-me-down ‘beneficiaries,’ as uncommitted to engaging with us, as our ways of working suggest we are to engaging with them.

Fantsuam’s work keeps relationships at the core of what it does, adapting services and projects, and learning the skills needed to address the needs of the community, with those in the community itself. This may all seem incredibly inefficient to some of you, but I’m certain that the real inefficiency lies in our attempts to wedge people into services that don’t respect the importance of the relationships we so-flippantly bounce them between, with little regard for what someone invests in opening themselves up to someone else.

And because John and Fantsuam pay attention to people and relationships, one can never say too far in advance, what their next project might be. The community will make that clear though. For many years it has continued to do so. The work emerges to fit the needs of the people involved, which are never as fixed as the business plans we write often make them out to be!

Maybe our organisations would be better off if they could embrace a bit of mission drift and follow the winding road of the real world, rather than the linear trajectory plotted out on a piece of paper so long before?

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Chapter 8 of Anarchists in the Boardroom explores more of John’s story, in relation to complexity and our organisational obsession with fortune telling (often disguised as ‘strategy writing’). Feel free to order a copy.

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Guerilla gardening for the whole family

Julian Dobson has written what will hopefully be the first of many guest posts here about a phenomena in which a local community has constructively subverted their local institutions to create something far better than what was there before. You can help to crowd-fund the book about the Incredible Edible community/guerilla gardening project here.

Incredible Edibles Todmorden

After five years of austerity and with more to come, the need to rethink local economies is more pressing than ever. Governments are not going to do it for us. The big society has evaporated as a political idea. Many of the new private sector jobs are precarious, low-wage roles with few prospects, barely keeping body and soul together.

No wonder people are looking at new approaches to local economies and better ways of doing society – ways that reflect many of the ‘more like people’ principles promoted here.

For six years now one of these experiments has been taking place at the back end of a neglected Yorkshire valley. Frequently dismissed as just another community growing scheme, Incredible Edible Todmorden is serious about rethinking the local economy. But it recognises that economies start with people.

Incredible Edible has come a long way since its co-founder, Pam Warhurst, came back from a conference inspired to take action in her community; since community worker Mary Clear dug up her rose garden and planted vegetables with a big sign saying ‘help yourself’; and since ‘propaganda planter’ Nick Green turned the derelict medical centre where mass murderer Harold Shipman used to practice into a free feast for passers-by.

So here are ten tips for an incredible edible community, neighbourhood or town.

1 Start with what you have. Get out there and do stuff – see Pam Warhurst’s TED talk.

2 Don’t write a strategy document. Council officers are useful – see Nick’s 17-ish tips for activists. But don’t wait for them to set the pace.

3 Don’t ask for permission. Hope starts with action. See Joanna Dobson’s post about this.

4 Make it easy. If you eat, you’re in. That’s why the Incredible Edible ethos is spreading around the world.

5 Propaganda planting starts conversations. See my 10 brilliant reasons why you should plant veg in public places.

6 Make connections through kindness. Here’s why.

7 Start now, but think two generations ahead. That’s why learning is at the heart of Incredible Edible actions. See this story on Todmorden high school’s new aquaponics centre.

8 Rediscover lost skills – especially the art of wasting nothing.

9 Reconnect businesses with their customers. Local food is about local business and jobs. Have a look at Incredible Farm which is selling fruit trees and salads and providing classes and workshops for young people.

10 Redesign your town. See the Green Route in Todmorden that links the town up with edible veg beds and bee-friendly plants. And then think about how the whole town can be different.

And if you like the sound of these, support our Kickstarter campaign to help spread the word and tell the Incredible Edible story. We have just two over weeks to make it happen, so if you’d like to support it, please join us.

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‘Occupy Sandy operationalised Occupy Wall Street’

This summer I met two activists in New York City who had helped spearhead Occupy Sandy, a self-organised disaster relief effort that emerged from the Occupy Wall Street networks after Hurricane Sandy hit NYC. I wrote this piece for rabble.ca, but wanted to share the two interviews in their whole, because they were so damn good. Below is the audio and transcript of my interview with Michael Premo. Stay tuned for the 2nd interview, with Tammy Shapiro.

michael premo

Michael Premo of Occupy Sandy

Normally when I interview activists or staff from organisations and movements about something they’ve been involved with, I end up adding a ‘meta-narrative’ explaining how their story fits into a range of wider trends I am exploring. With Michael Premo, a film maker and housing justice advocate who helped kick-off a self-organised disaster relief effort in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, I didn’t have to add a word.

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How things kicked-off

Occupy Sandy started the day of the storm. So there was a couple efforts happening. The sort of person-to-person effort that was occurring, was myself, a friend, Diego, Laura Schlomo, a couple other people, just headed out after the storm, to just check on people, to see what was what and what was happening and who was doing what. At the same time as our friends, Bobby and Brie, were driving out to the Rockaways and some of the neighbourhoods, Breezy Point, that were on fire. And I had a relationship with a group in Red Hook, called the Red Hook Initiative. And I just literally called them cold on the phone to see if anyone would answer the phone at their office, as we were driving down into Red Hook. I talked to them and I said, ‘Look, we want to help you help your community in any way that we can. What we can provide is the potential to be able to amplify your needs throughout our networks, so that you can identify what you need and we can support you getting what your need and support you until you’re at a point where you’re up and running and back in your normal functioning. And that became the first site of Occupy Sandy, which was in Red Hook. And then we sort of set out with that explicit intention to be able to support community-led rebuilding hubs throughout the city and we called those sites hubs.

And throughout the city we just went kinda door-to-door, and were talking to people who owned store fronts or had churches, saying ‘Hey, how can we help support you, and compliment the resources you’re getting through your networks, so that we can really work together?’

At the same time there was this sort of like emergence of people who wanted to help, and trying to figure out how to help. And so what happened was this network of little drop-off sites emerged in people’s lobbies, on their street corners where people were like, ‘well I didn’t get hit, but I have a front porch. If people want to drop of stuff on my porch or in my building, you can drop off stuff and then we’ll figure out how to bring it out to the areas.’There was one story of one girl who volunteered to do that and her neighbours got up in arms, she had no idea, her whole hallway was filled with goods that you couldn’t even get in and out of the hallway, so, people had to kinda scramble to get all that stuff into two or three carloads.

The transition to longer-term support

There was a group of folks within Occupy Sandy who understood that there are really multiple disasters; there’s the initial disaster and then there’s the long-term disaster that happens after the sorta volunteers leave, after the cameras leave, that is deeply related to the failures and ongoing crisis of capitalism as a system. And so we wanted to set up our initial, our goal was to set up the initial house with the stated and implicit intention to be able to have community-led rebuilding, so that when we got to that point when we were transitioning away from immediate relief, and into a sort of longer-term recovery and rebuilding and redevelopment phases, there would be some type of infrastructure, some type of support network, to be able to support for that long haul.So in about, I would say between December and March, the efforts started to transition from the immediate relief, to the sort of longer-term recovery.

What was the relationship between Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Sandy?

So there’s this theory, there’s this school of thought called ‘complex sciences.’ In those, one of those ideas is network theory and there’s another theory is called ‘emergence.’ Some people have written that in order to support the emergence of social movements, it’s necessary to develop a community of practice, right? Shared values, shared principles, that has a sort of like, cohesion and language and way of working, that will kind of support the further emergence of sort of, positive activity and positive action, right? So Occupy Wall Street in a lot of ways was sort of the seeds that helped create a community of practice. And what happened with Occupy Sandy is in a lot of ways we operationalized some of the more abstract ideas that were floating around Occupy Wall Street. So what I mean by that is sort of lateral, horizontal sort of approaches to, sort of, problem solving, as well as analysis, right? So if you could free up those systems of being able to sort of analyse a problem, being able to, like, strategize a problem, and being able to, like, implement those strategies, and open that up to a lateral or horizontal structure, so that you’re really supporting creativity, innovation from your community, to be able to like, really problem solve in a dynamic way, that speaks to and represents the inclinations and desires of multiple segments of your society, or of your community. It really creates the conditions to really have a robust, and really dope solution, right? And so with Occupy Wall Street, it created a cadre of people that sorta had worked together, had a working relationship, had a degree of sorta like a community around how and what they wanted to see in the world. So when Occupy Sandy hit what happened was those kind of tendencies and ideas were able to be turned into like, robust, sophisticated operation. In terms of Occupy Wall Street, I think there’s been three phases.

There’s the initial phase, which is the 53 days of the physical occupation. Then there was the second phase, which I think includes things like Occupy Homes and StrikeDebt, which sort of stretched over the year. And then you had Occupy Sandy, which really put into practice some of these goals and ideas, right?

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My new book, ‘Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people’ available in paperback and epub now.

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Unpacking boxes

Capulalpam de Méndez is one of a small but growing number of Mexican towns that have succeeded in kicking mining companies off their lands. Many activists have tried to understand their success, where so many others have failed, and while varied, the answer usually has something to do with ‘community.’ This doesn’t translate very well into either a ‘best practice,’ or a ‘scalable strategy,’ but does hold some critical thinking points for those of us trying to make some part of the world a little bit better than it is.

Procession from Capulalpam. Creative Commons 3.0.

Procession from Capulalpam. Creative Commons 3.0.

Jen and I woke-up before 7am on Saturday, met up with our friend Yeyo and took a series of overcrowded forms of public transportation to the cold and rainy village of Capulalpam, in the Sierra Juárez mountains.

We joined a couple dozen others in the town’s church, heard some prayers, burned some incense, and headed off, picking up others as we walked from the cathedral, to the dirt road that led out of town on a steep incline. We were young and old, grandparents, toddlers and plenty in-between, walking through a mountainous forest, en route to a meeting point where our procession would connect with similar gatherings from two neighbouring towns.

These three villages were celebrating the 3rd anniversary of their collective decision to issue a 100 year moratorium on any mining projects within their territories. The decisions had been reached using traditional Zapotec assemblies, in which consensus emerges through collective community dialogue. The event was equal parts religious ceremony, political rally, community feast and intergenerational dance. One municipal president rejected the imposition of global capitalism on their traditional way of life and the head of the regional tourism network declared that, “any development that is not sustainable, is not development!”

Prayers were said, food was served, mescal sipped and dances had (the rain had trickled-out by this point and temperature had risen, as the march had descended to a lower plateau). Kids played on a swing set looking out across the mountain range, while friends reconnected with friends and bands from each of the three communities set the mood with different styles of local music. Sometime that afternoon it became crystal clear to me: THIS was why mining companies – with all the financial and political power they wield – had been unable to maintain their operations in this little corner of the world.

In Capulalpam, activism is not the fringe activity of a relative few (which often separates us from many of our own friends and families). It is also not something that exists in a bubble, independent of other important and meaningful activities – activism is simply a part of life. And say what you will about the specifics of this approach, but it has meant that in the face of deeply corrupt state and federal authorities, and a Canadian mining firm bent on sucking the last ounces of gold and silver from the surrounding mountains, the community has won and has no intention of giving in. Instead, they have opted for a mix of eco-tourism, locally bottled water and small-scale building projects, supplemented by the ‘techio,’ an indigenous custom in which all members of the town take on a range of responsibilities for countless public services, for free.

In Capulalpam, resistance is an integrated part of life and something that is as associated with community, celebration, relationships and nature, as it is with the political mobilisations we often associate it with in culturally Northern/ Western countries.

The other end of the spectrum

As far as a spectrum of social change approaches might look, our organisations are basically teetering off the other end of the line, in relation to the scene I’ve just described. Firstly, they are professional – they are deliberately separate from the personal lives, the communities, and the natural world that they are a part of. Secondly, they have taken this separation a step further, compartmentalising their professional notion of social change into so many teams, departments and specialist divisions, discouraging anything that might resemble a holistic and integrated approach to changing the world.

Let’s look at this as two parts: internal change and external change. How could we break down the barriers between those of us who are working within an organisation? And how can we break down the barriers between our organisations, and the world that exists beyond them?

The meeting point. Creative Commons 3.0

The meeting point. Creative Commons 3.0

Now let’s stop looking at this as two parts and acknowledge that the continuum of relationships that are involved in our organisations’ work aren’t really confined to the little boxes we try to pack them into, including the mythical ‘internal/external’ divide. Our organisations (whether we admit it or not), are part of various broader movements for social, political and environmental change.

What do we do that gets in the way of these relationships? What do we do that blocks the energy of people who have a mutual interest in achieving a certain kind of change, from working together, from getting to know each other, from caring about each other?

This is the where ‘more like people’ comes from. Our organisations, as they stand, get in the way of relationships, trust, empathy, communication and more. For example:

Hierarchical decision making reduces trust and responsibility. How could our organisations involve more people in decisions, as the community of Capulalpam does through the assembly process?
Rigid standards of professional behaviour make it near-impossible for people to be themselves, to build trust, to open up to one another beyond the immediate practicalities of their work. How could our work incorporate more than simply ‘the practical tasks’ associated with a campaign or service, and offer a place to socialise, bring families, share stories, really get to know each other, beyond the professional masks we wear?
Teams, departments and job titles keep us from following our passions, our interests and our strengths, forcing us to regularly underperform in fixed roles that don’t bend to the complexity of the situations we’re dealing with, or simple human changes in mood, which might mean we’d be better off doing different work on a given day. How could we drop these divisions and let individual passion and energy dictate the flow of our work?

Capulalpam de Méndez – a community of roughly 1,500 people, have succeeded where so many campaign strategies have failed. It is hard to imagine most of our organisations moving towards a more integrated approach to social change. But I’d like to challenge all of us to find something we can do to unpack the arbitrary and limiting boxes that our work is so often confined to, and see what happens if we cease to be simply staff with job titles, situated somewhere within the pyramidal prisons of organisational charts, and start to become part of a community instead…

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Let’s not ‘make the most’ of Payment by Results

There’s a lot of talk in the UK voluntary sector about Payment by Results funding and what it means for our work. While there is a certain amount of criticism of this approach to allocating government money, there seems to be a strong view that we should still ‘make the most of it.’  But doing so would be a failure to our organisations, staff and critically, those we support. This is why I’m saying “No” to PbR.

Dia del Nino happy boy

Not a happy blog. But this boy sure is. I thought you’d like him better than a  generic PbR-themed image.

Payment by Results is not just an imperfect system, with flaws like any other. As a way of distributing public money, it really falls afoul of every indicator of accountable spending and quality public service:

  • It emphasises action over impact
    Even Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt recently admitted this, after a GP told him, “Payment by results doesn’t separate results from activity,” highlighting a fundamental flaw of a system that pretends it can measure impact, by measuring ‘the actions that we think lead to the impact.’ The result, as with target-based funding before it, is that in order to maintain funding, funded organisations have to make sure that ‘they do enough stuff,’ rather than making sure they do it well.
  • It encourages manipulation and ‘gaming’ of its own criteria
    When salaries and costs become directly linked to being able to demonstrate particular numeric achievements, it shouldn’t be surprising that people start finding ways – with varying degrees of honesty – to demonstrate those numbers. This is an example of the kind of system that breeds the very behaviours that it claims to avoid, bringing out dishonest and manipulative tendencies in those who didn’t previously show them.
  • It undermines frontline workers’ ability to respond flexibly to complex situations
    The same doctor who called out Jeremy Hunt over PbR’s emphasis on producing activity rather than results, also said “We don’t have the flexibility to bring about the change we need.” This highlights that if, receiving money you have already done the work for (and effectively spent), is contingent upon certain pre-defined criteria, you simply don’t have the choice to put your efforts into something else, no matter how critical it may be. PbR takes away workers’ and organisations’ ability to make judgements about particular cases or situations that may require putting effort into something that they aren’t being measured against. It creates machines that treat every situation with the same ‘objectivism’ that ignores the differences between any two people or situations.
  • It crowds out smaller organisations, leaving only large scale providers
    By making an organisation wait until it has finished (and ‘proven’ that it has finished) its work in order to receive compensation, most organisations will be unable to compete with the large reserves of large-scale private providers. This means that contracts will continue to go to a few large-scale, for-profit, scandal-plagued businesses (SERCO, A4E, etc) and smaller community organisations will have no way of bringing their local knowledge and experience of local issues to play for the people in their area.

In brief, it makes it harder to know if good services are being delivered and if money is being spent effectively, while encouraging worse results on both fronts. This is why PbR needs to be scrapped, not ‘made the most of.’ We owe that to everyone who relies on public and voluntary sector services, and who will see those services turn into box-ticking exercises if we keep our collective mouth shut on this one.

If you agree, please add your name to the “Say No To PbR” declaration and encourage others you know to do the same!

PS – If you’re thinking, “yeah, sure, but what do you replace it with?” I’ve written a bit about an alternative approach here.

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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.