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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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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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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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Social media for organisational change @ ECF2014

I was lucky enough to be invited to speak at the eCampaigning Forum in Oxford on April 11, 2014, describing how social media can act as a ‘Trojan Horse’ for the constructive subversion of organisational bureaucracy. Here’s the video to prove it.

…If you’re not yet convinced that you want to commit 28 minutes of your life to watching me talk, here are a couple of teasers:

  • I describe ‘three stages of organisational social media embrace’: ‘the new fax machine,’ ‘the social engineering project,’ and ‘the more like people organisation.’ Most organisations are stuck at the second stage, but the real magic happens at the third stage.
  • You’ll get to see silly image macros that involve the Hulk, the boss from Office Space and a bunch of wanky pics that come up when you search ‘professional’ in Google Images.
  • I explain constructive subversion, as a way of changing your organisation, without expecting the turkeys (senior management) to vote for Christmas (flatter, more democratic, transparent and trusting organisations).

I’m especially keen to hear peoples’ thoughts on this one, and if they have been able to put any of the ideas into practice in their own workplaces.

May your subversions be constructive!

Liam

EDITOR’S NOTE: For those who really don’t have time for the video, here is the ‘3 stages of social media embrace’ I recently described on the ECF list. They are admittedly crude and no org will fall 100% into one of them, but I think they provide a bit of a sense of a trajectory for getting the fullest potential from online campaigning tools.

1. The new fax machine – it’s a tool that gets given to a low-ranking member of staff to handle, with little-to-no autonomy or recognition of its significance. ‘One Tweet per week’ kinda thing. Where lots of orgs were a few years ago, and at least a few still are… The point tends to be to keep up with the Jonses, cause others are doing it. Nothing more.

2. The social engineering project – highly specialised digital teams that add up lots of metrics and then conflate them with campaign success or failure. This tends to involve lots of assumptions about the people who support us, boxing them into demographic groups and feeding them lowest-common-denominator (clicktivist) actions based on those assumptions. The point to this approach tends to be bigger numbers, and that more=better. (This is obviously true in many situations, but can be a misleading metric of success in many others, if it is a kind of involvement that minimises what people feel they are able to offer to a cause, to give people something that is likely to boost total figures).

3. The more like people organisation – everyone who wants to, tweets, blogs, shares, etc. The tone is less managed, the line between staff, members, beneficiaries, supporters, etc is blurred as freer conversations emerge within and around the organisation. There is an honesty and openness rarely found in many more trad orgs. These conversations lead to freer collaborations and faster responsiveness, as important information tends to travel where it needs to more effectively through networks than hierarchies. The point becomes about nurturing stronger relationships, which lead to more resilient networks. This stuff is far harder to measure, but comes from a deep belief that if we aren’t building stronger networks amongst those who care about our work, we are making ourselves very vulnerable to a range of outside shocks that might make top-down campaigning models more difficult or impossible (laws, tech changes, natural disasters, etc). It also recognises that there is vast untapped potential within and around organisations, that our structures prevent us from realising, and which social media has the potential to open-up, through freer connections between people, ideas, and those needed to make them happen.

This last one is much closer to how social movements tend to organise, and I’d argue that it offers the most potential significance and impact for organisations, because it can start to model new ways of organising that move beyond the Industrial-era hierarchies most of our orgs have ended up adopting over the course of several decades, which have come at massive cost to the people and causes we champion.

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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Quiet No More: How activism is changing organising

Last summer I did a workshop in Ottawa, which was attended by Joel Harden, an old friend from the Toronto activist world, who I hadn’t seen for close to a decade. It turned out he was writing a book, with a lot of similar themes to mine! His is called ‘Quiet No More: New political activism in Canada and around the globe.’ It’s good! Here are a few reasons why you might like to read it.

Quiet No More

Quiet No More is an account and analysis of grassroots organising in social movements, unions and political parties in Canada and beyond, looking at the changes in activism since the rise of the Zapatistas (twenty years ago, on New Years, FYI).

I wanted to include a few quotes and passages that were particularly powerful to me.

This is a quote Joel borrowed from Pam Palmater, a lawyer from the Mi’kmaq First Nation, active in the Idle No More movement, which emerged in December 2012 amongst indigenous communities in Canada, to challenge the active colonial policies being pushed by the Canadian government. Palmater, describing Idle No More, had this to say:

“This movement is unique because it is purposefully distanced from political and corporate influence. There is no elected leader, no paid Executive Director, and no bureaucracy or hierarchy which determines what any person or First Nation can or can’t do.”

Some of Joel’s own words resonated strongly with me as well, for instance, his conclusions about what makes the organising processes of new social movements unique:

“…one is struck by the organization of grassroots movements, whose boldness and creativity demonstrate that the future is truly unwritten. On paper, networks of green organizers shouldn’t be able to stall energy giants, but activist mobilizations have had that very result. Networked round dances, flash mobs, and blockades shouldn’t shift the edifice of Canadian federal politics, but they have…”

And while less-inspiring, Joel’s critique of current trade unionism also struck me, capturing the increasingly transactional nature of many workers’ relationships to the institutions which were critical in bringing about things like forty-hour work weeks and weekends:

“As recent internal union studies have shown, the wider malaise that workers feel with conventional politics includes existing frameworks of trade unionism. In this cynical context, workers often treat unions as insurance agencies rather than sites for collective action.”

More optimistically, Joel’s reflections on the victories of grassroots leadership in the Chicago Teachers Union (who then chose to pay themselves the average wage of their members, a democratic act which is largely unprecedented amongst union brass), and the Canadian Labour Congress’ pensions campaign (which placed its emphasis on the human stories of pension cuts, told by those experiencing them), also explain the organising changes that are happening in the union movement:

“Simply put, direct democracy is the soul of grassroots unionism. It empowers union members to be leaders, and realizes this requires substantial change for unions themselves. … Today, there is much talk in organized labour about ‘branding themselves better” to withstand employer attacks – but the idea that a better pitch is needed misses the point. Effective union organizing will not be driven by brilliant ads, or by focus-group-tested messages that get released, like carrier pigeons of old, only to bring back good news later. Effective union organizing must being by developing the political capacities of union members, the vast majority of whom are spectators in politics.”

While Joel and I place our emphasis in slightly different places (I probably have a bit more faith in the possibilities for NGOs to create change, whereas he probably has a bit more faith in the ability of political parties to do so), we are definitely singing from similar hymn sheets, in our respective writings.

We may also diverge a bit on our sense of the value and importance of autonomous organising methods and the issues often associated with ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness,’ but we are both coming from the perspective that progressive institutions need to change (in a more democratic, transparent and participatory way), if they want to affect wider change themselves.

In brief, I suggest reading it, if you are at all involved in activist organising, inside or outside of progressive institutions. The stories that Joel tells offer hope, and the analysis he adds offers strong insights, from a seasoned activist, as to how we can bring that hope to play in our own activism.

———–

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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Talking Anarchists in the Boardroom w/ David Wilcox

Today I sat down with David Wilcox, one of the UK voluntary sector social media and network thinking veterans… and he interviewed me about the book! You can see more of David’s work at http://socialreporter.com/, but here’s the interview we did today:

You can also get your copy of Anarchists in the Boardroom here.

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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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The divisiveness of unity

Causes of all stripes have long-rallied others under the banners of ‘unity’ – united we stand, unified voices, etc. But I’m increasingly unconvinced that unity is something we should aspire towards. Worse, our attempts to create it, both in organisations and in movements, might be undermining the very most basic common ground we already share. Instead, could ‘diversity’ be the key to a range of our aims and struggles?

‘We are the 99%’

Occupy LSX, Day 1, London, photo by Liam

Occupy LSX, Day 1, London, photo by Liam

‘We are the 99%’: The Occupy slogan the world has come to know since a group of frustrated and inspired citizens set-up camp in Zuccotti Park in September 2011 and sparked a global movement.

The slogan has been cause for much criticism by both progressives and the mainstream establishment. ‘It’s too vague,’ they clamber. ‘What do they actually want?’ they ask, condescendingly.

But these sources of criticism may also be the movement’s greatest strength; they leave plenty of room for literally millions of people to assign their own meaning, within an incredibly basic ideological framework that simply says, ‘I want the world to work for the vast majority, not a tiny minority.’

After that, it’s up to each inspired individual to choose what we/they choose to do.

I call this (as of today, at least) ‘baseline unity, practical diversity.’

Encouraging emergence

The result with Occupy is well-documented. People found their own ways to make the movement their own. At times these approaches and actions absolutely contradicted one another, but they also managed to change public discourse on issues many traditional organisations have been struggling against for decades. (Not to mention all the specific Occupy-related projects and campaigns that quietly emerged from the broader movement, tackling everything from internet monopoly to legal definitions of corporate personhood, disaster relief to toxic debt).

The ‘unity’ at the core of Occupy really didn’t extend beyond a slogan. It was diversity that made it what it has been able to be.

The emergent efforts of countless autonomous individuals, with only this basic sense of common ground, unleashed a kind of collective power the world has rarely seen.

In complexity science, emergence refers to the unpredictable and ever-changing results of countless interdependent variables in a system, acting and interacting autonomously. What at first appears as chaos, gradually takes on a coherent order, as each actor becomes aligned with the others, creating something that no individual could have seen coming.

Schools of fish, flocks of birds, and… what do you call a group of ants, walking in a line, all carrying things way bigger than them? Yeah, that. All emergent phenomena. A couple very basic rules, the rest is up to each individual, and voila! You have a remarkably well-ordered system, without the hierarchy or imposition of a singular ‘right way!’

Margaret Wheatley writes extensively about emergence in her first book, ‘Leadership and the New Science.’ I can’t recommend it enough!

So the lesson of emergence, is that to create well-ordered, effective systems, there must be freedom for everyone within the system to find their own best ways of working towards a simple, shared goal.

Yet for countless years the mantra of so many organisations and movements has been based on the idea that ‘we must have unity if we are going to be successful.’

But unity is inherently singular. People are too varied a species to happily give up our autonomy for something we don’t absolutely believe in, as any ‘basis of unity’ will require, when it involves two or more people.

Organisational reliance on far-more unity than most of us are willing to commit to (because of its cost to our own autonomy), means that we end up giving far less of our energy and potential to our work than we might in a less-controlled environment.

What if passionate support for our mission statements was our only requirements of staff and volunteers? What if it was up to them to figure out the rest? What if we accepted that people within our organisations might not all agree with each other, and let them find their own best ways of advancing the cause, connecting with colleagues or others beyond the organisation, when it made sense to do so?

The disclaimer I put out after many blogs like this one (the ones with especially ‘wacky’ ideas), is this: please don’t tell me why ‘this would never work,’ instead, I ask you to ask yourself (and each other, if you feel like commenting), ‘what could make this work?

…And if you haven’t noticed over the last two weeks, I’ve been crowd-funding a book I wrote. You can join nearly 100 others in getting it published on StartSomeGood.com, if you want to help it see the light of day by ordering your copy now.

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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.