more like people

helping organisations to be more like people

Quiet No More: How activism is changing organising

Monday, December 30th, 2013

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.

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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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Unpacking boxes

Tuesday, May 28th, 2013

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 get TRADical! (One way traditional organisations might subvert themselves for good)

Wednesday, July 4th, 2012

Imagine a bank, a national student charity, and a think tank shutting down an evil corporate office with some cleverly planned people-power?

…Not easy, is it? You can imagine all the things that might get in the way of such an event taking place…

The importance of non-violence direct action in 2012

MYM Barclays action, photo by @MissEllieMae

MYM Barclays action, photo by @MissEllieMae

As our world gets both more heavily interconnected and the excesses of capitalist inequality become impossible for most of us to ignore, non-violent direct action is becoming a more-and-more central piece of social change efforts.

Yet, most NGOs – with the notable exceptions of Greenpeace and a few much smaller radicals – are still scared to death of doing anything that might cross any polite lines of acceptability, for fear of what it might mean for their public image, their charitable status, or their funding arrangements.

In recent years, much of the debate has involved organisations ignoring protesters, and protesters accusing organisations of selling-out.

But today I came across an interesting hybrid.

Following the massive public debate shifts in the UK and abroad that have arisen from Occupy, UKuncut and other self-organised non-violent direct action movements, it appears some of the ‘very serious people’ have picked-up on the value this breed of peaceful protest can offer their causes.

As much of what I write relates to helping organisation find ‘more like people’ ways of organising – approaches that allow us to ‘do what we would do if we weren’t being paid by someone else to do it’ – this is pretty interesting to me.

Move Your Money (a company limited by guarantee, for the record) is made up of some fairly straight-laced UK progressive organisations. The Co-operative Group, London Rebuilding Society, the National Union of Students, New Economics Foundation… Groups that do good, but which are not exactly known for doing so with especially ‘in-your-face’ tactics.

The campaign aims to get UK bank clients to close their accounts with the range of tax avoiding, arms-financing, interest-rate fixing, obscene-bonus-giving financial institutions in the country, and put their cash somewhere where it can be doing good, rather than evil.

MYM has been going as a partnership for a little while now, but has clearly decided to do something different to the work of any of its member organisations, who I presume play some role in both its finances and strategic direction.

This morning, MYM organised a flashmob at Barclays bank in Westminster, to coincide with its (now former) CEO, Bob Diamond’s testimony to the Treasury Select Committee over the bank’s LIBOR scandal.

And guess what?

They shut it down!

Obviously this is small fries in the scheme of the kind of business this scale of institution does, but given the ripple-effects of other ‘one-off’ sit-ins and shut-downs of the last year, it demonstrates a very bold move, given the partners involved.

I’ve spoken with countless frustrated staff in national social change organisations in recent years, wishing their organisations could do more to engage with both the radicalism of emerging social movements, and the networked organisation they have modelled, but who have had their hands tied in any attempts to do so in their work.

For all of you out there, this might be an example which can both open new possible ways of organising around your cause, while keeping the existing powers-that-be at ease that they won’t be seen as the ‘domestic terrorists’ Greenpeace and Occupy activists have often been made out to be in the press.

Let’s call it ‘TRADicalism’: a way of carrying out and inspiring radical actions, using some of our traditional organisational resources and experiences, without smearing the organisation’s name in the process. It’s about letting the old structures of antiquated charitable status and funding guidelines keep doing what they do, but finding new ways around them when we feel it is needed to advance our causes (and ultimately, our organisational missions!).

I won’t pretend I have investigated all of the ins-and-outs of the law on this one, but if you’ve got the institutions involved in MYM confident enough to have their names in the background of something like a peaceful sit-in to shut-down a corrupt bank, you’re in pretty safe company!

  • Do you know other examples of this kind of ‘arms-length’ radicalism, from more traditional social change organisations?
  • Do you think there is any potential here?
  • How long do you think we’ve got til the powers-that-be patch up the loopholes in their legal frameworks, which could allow this kind of thing to happen?

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Technology, self-organisation & some dreams for the #Occupy movement…

Sunday, October 30th, 2011

On my first day hanging around Finsbury Square, the 2nd London manifestation of the #Occupy movement, I met a young guy named James. James handed me a couple folded pieces of paper and asked me to write down why I was there and put it in his carboard box. So I did, having been intending to describe some of my thoughts on the #Occupy movement for the better part of a month. Below is a slightly extended version of the story I gave him…

Guy Fawkes in a suit
Day 2 @ #OccupyLSX. Photo CC Liam Barrington-Bush.

I’m here for the possibility of something different. For the first time in my lifetime, I feel like something is emerging – though still a long way from being realised – that has the potential to bring us to a better global situation than the one we’ve been stuck with.

I’m sure its lineage could be traced back through countless forms of social change and human organisation throughout history, but I can see a clear link between #Occupy and the anti-globalisation movement ten years ago, where I first ‘learned’ to be an activist.

In Seattle, Quebec City and Genoa, we were getting to know each other; discovering that not only was there a significant group of us who saw the systemic problems in the world, but that we could be in touch with more-and-more of them via the still relatively crude version of the internet we had going back then.

For a decade, a massively distributed (if still niche) global network has kept a conversation going, percolating in a range of more issue-specific campaigns, but drawing the links between the vast array of social problems we are collectively facing.

…Then social media happened and the scale and quality of the conversation began to shift in ways few of us could have imagined possible. A few things happened in the following years that I’ve been thinking about lately:

  • The discovery, via MoveOn.org, Avaaz.org and a range of other ‘clicktivist’ websites, showed us that not only could we connect with each other on the issues we believe in, we could also demonstrate our shared belief (and crowd-fund that belief!), in only a few seconds, with literally millions of others around the world. But most of it stayed online.
  • The emergence of the environmental direct action movement, captured most effectively (but by no means exclusively) by Climate Camp, began to bring together relatively small, but still big enough to be viable, groups of people to put their bodies on the line (in the tradition of Trident Ploughshares and many others), but also to model the Ghandian notion of ‘being the change you want to see in the world’. Small temporary villages were erected on the sites of some of the UK’s worst climate crimes, and began to model what it might look like for a few hundred people to live more sustainably than we tend to in the West. But they remained a very niche and short-term presence.
  • Then in November 2010, Britain saw unprecedented student protests – over 10,000 in London alone – but remarkably, without the NUS or any other traditional student organisations to back it. Facebook events and Twitter hashtags took the devastating implications of the proposed education cuts, and spread them like wildfire, connecting with a massive section of the student body, without any of the infrastructure that tend to keep these protests within certain (non-threatening) parameters. Like many protests before it, it raised the level of debate on the issues far above where it would have been without them, but it didn’t actually get in the way of the Government’s plans to make education unattainable for the vast majority of young people in Britain.
  • This spring, UKuncut emerged. The direct action of Climate Camp, with the distributed leadership of the student protests coming together, keeping tax dodging corporations from doing business until they paid their fair share of taxes. What took UKuncut a step further, was its ability to practically ‘get in the way’, at a lot of different times, in a lot of different places, essentially regulating (albeit on a small scale) the offending companies that Government has refused to regulate themselves. But it didn’t offer a positive longer-term alternative to corporate tax evasion, beyond better Government regulation.
  • Many won’t like this next piece, but I see this summer’s UK riots as part of the same continuum of ‘leaderless’ events; if as a warning of the destructive potential of mass self-organisation, but also as an expression that those with the least to lose in our society are still involved in the same networked world of the (broadly) middle class activists. Ugly as much of what happened those days was, there was a clear expression of power that came out of a place many least expected it would or could. And the spread and breadth of that was new, spread through handheld technologies, person-to-person, as much as through the media. However, it stayed mostly isolated from ‘the mainstream’ (an issue which needs a lot of unpicking in its own right).
We are the 99%
Day 1 @ St Pauls. Photo CC Liam Barrington-Bush.

(To be clear, this is a UK-centric perspective, though you can tie very clear links and inspiration with and from recent liberation movements in the Middle East and workers occupations in Latin America.  As these are not areas I feel especially qualified to write on, I’ve focussed on my local examples.)

All of these stages are still critical at every emerging moment of change; different people are ready to be involved in different ways, and Avaaz, Climate Camp and Facebook-initiated protests are all providing in-roads to newly-aware members of ‘the 99%’. What makes the #Occupy movement feel different to me is how much we are beginning to bring all of them together. And then some.

What we’re starting to see now:

  • Drawing together of these themes – a harder core of activists at forefront (a la Climate Camp), massive informal ‘infrastructure’ of donors, supporters, messengers (a la Avaaz), a direct disruption of the system (a la UKuncut) and a large scale self-organisation via web platforms (captured during the student protests, the summer riots and elsewhere around the world).
  • The beginnings of a more inclusive space, even if it is fraught with tension and is bringing broadly-middle class activists’ relative privilege to the uncomfortable surface. Some of the difficult conversations about difference and discrimination are beginning to be had, as they invariably rear their ugly heads when a bunch of people are living in close quarters together. It will likely be messy, but it’s important that it is happening. I get the impression there has been greater inclusivity amongst particular American occupations thus far, particularly on Wall Street, where people who really never would otherwise cross paths are starting to do so, and are starting to make sense of difference within the group, rather than ignore, or actively dismiss it.

What we haven’t seen yet:

  • The inclusion of or connection with a wider range of communities. I’ve heard several examples from a range of #Occupy cities, of non-white/straight/male/middle-class activists being told they are ‘being divisive’ for highlighting the range of inequalities they have faced, that make their positions very different from those of much of the rest of the 99%. This is something we need to address, and need to have addressed for us by those who are very much more likely to be the victims of police violence, job discrimination, street harassment and a range of other kinds of oppression as this movement grows, if we want to have a movement that truly begins to represent the 99%.
  • The resilience of the movement to sustain and expand itself as a viable ‘alternative to Government’. There are better and worse examples of groups operating independently of an official government, within an existing state. Hizbollah, for example, have at many times been the de facto government in a range of Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, offering essential services to those in need. In the 1970s the Black Panther Party began to operate on a similar basis in primarily Black neighbourhoods in California and elsewhere in the US. Hizbollah and the Panthers both represent some of the better and worse elements of the ‘state-within-a-state’ paradigm, but both managed to forge a space outside of that controlled by Government, which could address a range of basic human needs in the process. What excites me about #Occupy, is the potential to create something functionally parallel to Government, without the rigid hierarchy and likelihood of violence associated with the above examples. Perhaps this is the next challenge for the movement?
St Pauls. At Night. With #Occupy.
St Pauls. At Night. With #OccupyLSX. Photo CC Liam Barrington-Bush.

I think #Occupy is the first baby steps of a true alternative to the broken system we currently share, emerging with each new occupation and each new practical answer to a basic human need; from toilets, to democratic processes; recycling, to education;  food provision, to communications channels.

I feel that the ‘alternative’ to capitalism that the media keeps patronisingly asking us for, will not be able to be summarised into a single ‘ism’ or sound-bite, but will grow differently in an infinite number of places around the world, connecting with the successes of other ‘occupations’, while remaining independent and distinct from what they have achieved. We really are becoming the change we want to see in the world… so for better and worse, the only thing we can guarantee is that it won’t happen without us.

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Helping protest ‘to be more like people’?

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

This blog is a partial departure from the norm here. It’s a response to a period of change in the UK that I saw play-out once before in Canada and feel needs to be fundamentally challenged, having seen its devastating social consequences there. More immediately, this is a follow-on from Lisa Ansell’s blog on the Big Society, and the importance of grounding our resistance in the immediate needs of those hit hardest by the social injustices of the current government’s cuts. It’s an attempt to make our resistance to injustice ‘more like people’.

Black Panther Emory Douglas' 'Paperboy'

Black Panther Emory Douglas' 'Paperboy'

The Black Panther Party doesn’t get mentioned much by most people I work with. Maybe it’s because I’m based in the UK? Maybe because the staff at larger voluntary organisations are disproportionately white? Maybe it’s because there’s been a long-term effort to distance ourselves, as a sector, from radical politics?

I don’t doubt that the answer is some combination of these things and more I haven’t mentioned.  Without delving into the motivations too deeply, I think the Panthers provide an example that requires revisiting in light of the ‘Big Society’, the cuts, and most importantly, the notion of community organising that has been held-up by David Cameron and Company since before last years’ election.

This blog is partly a response to Lisa Ansell’s excellent post on ‘using the Big Society to fight the cuts’ – a pragmatic look at opposing the current government’s agenda, and the impacts it will have on peoples’ lives. I think the Panthers’ offer some key learning in this area, while they are often unknown or dismissed by the voluntary sector for their Maoist leanings or their advocacy of armed self-defence.

Without delving into these debates either, the Black Panthers succeeded (for a time, at least) in combining active campaigning and critical DIY service provision, as Lisa (rightly) suggests we need to, if we want to build a truly broad-based movement that includes and is led by those most impacted by the current ‘austerity measures’.

A challenge for the ‘left’ and the ‘centre’

This is a challenge to both the activist ‘left’ and the voluntary sector ‘centre’, acknowledging the need to step in and create alternatives to the state when it fails to provide for basic human needs, AND for the fundamental importance of actively challenging (by, as Malcolm X stated, ‘any means necessary’) those shortcomings. On a philosophical level, these ideas can seem in contradiction, but in the lives of people who are seeing critical lifelines disappear, both approaches are essential.

This was something Huey P. Newton and the Panthers understood. Like other movements that have emerged organically from the communities they supported, the Panthers knew that in order to get their political platform taken seriously in poor, black neighbourhoods, they needed to demonstrate how it related to peoples’ immediate needs, as well as their bigger picture aspirations and values.

They started ‘Breakfast for schools’ programmes in schools, they defended people against police brutality, they assisted the elderly to get to the shops and to medical appointments, providing those appointments themselves when people had no insurance to cover them… but through all of these efforts, the Panthers maintained that what they were doing was a stop-gap to pave the path for a more just world in which their services wouldn’t be required because they would be guaranteed rights for all. The government could never pretend that what the Panthers were providing was a justification for their own lack of provision; quite the opposite! They tried to ignore, discredit and otherwise undermine it, realising that the challenge presented by the group was far more fundamental to their power than the challenges of much of the mainstream organised left.

Black Panthers as a model voluntary organisation?

The Black Panthers were a model voluntary organisation, in the sense that they provided leadership, opportunities and infrastructure for people to support their local community’s core needs. But in doing so, they never pretended their makeshift provision could be the whole solution, within a country that systemically marginalised minority communities from coast-to-coast.

This combination of services and activism created a deep credibility throughout the United States.

The Panthers were not intellectuals presenting ideas for bigger picture change without obvious benefit to those hit hardest by inequality. Simultaneously, they weren’t offering piecemeal or plaster solutions to vast social ills, as so many charities had in those same communities. Instead, the Panthers offered people the opportunity to become active players in their own liberation – whether through the creation of immediate services, or the organised resistance to their state-imposed oppression.

Saul Alinsky's 'Rules for Radicals'

The Panthers’ approach was closely mirrored by the community organising of Saul Alinsky in Chicago (albeit, without the guns and non-racially specific), which Barack Obama was trained in the methods of, and is (in name, at least) behind parts of the Big Society agenda. The government seemed to have missed the analysis that I (and many others) have pulled from this period of history…

What this means for charities and activists?

So while the protests of tens-of-thousands of students facing the loss of their education prospects provide an inspiring example and clear demonstration of public opinion, it is not the entire solution.

Alternatively, most of the health or literacy services cobbled together by voluntary organisations on increasingly ragged shoestring budgets are important, but also incomplete in weaving an inclusive, believable and holistic narrative of positive social change for those at the wrong end of the current cuts.

‘More Like People’

I usually talk about the ‘More Like People’ idea in relation to institutional voluntary organisations. In this case I feel it also applies to the ad hoc activist groups that can be equally alienating to people impacted directly by losses more fundamental than say, libraries and forests (not to discredit the public movements around each of these important issues, but only to put them into perspective).

How can we – those of us concerned with equality in the face of a drastically clawed-back state – create the conditions for greater social justice? I think we can blur the lines – stop retreading the Blairite notion that services and campaigns should be inherently separate from one another. Stop trying to hold a philosophical high ground by refusing to step in where the state is clearly failing.

Whether or not the government’s model of community organising recognises the factors critical to its pioneers’ successes in the ‘60s and ‘70s, its lessons are not ones we can afford to ignore in 2011…

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#Ask4Change: Making better use of our ‘cognitive surplus’

Friday, October 8th, 2010

Imagine if, as Clay Shirky has suggested, a fraction of the time we spent collectively pissing around on the web, could be channelled into constructive, positive and relatively easy actions for social change…

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Twitter Revolution

Image by Patrick McCurdy

Ed Whyman and I have been bumping into each other at events and on the street for at least six months. The first time we met – in the company of David Pinto – we mulled over the idea of a piece of social technology that could match-up small tasks related to good causes, with people a) interested in that particular good cause, and b) with the skill set required to easily do that small task.

On Wednesday afternoon, after a couple of hours at the Centre for Creative Collaboration, conversationally moving between abstract ideas and practical ways of applying them, Ed and I (with the valuable technical input of Andy Broomfield) revisited the idea we had tossed around several months before.

Cognitive Surplus

A few months ago I saw Clay Shirky speak at the RSA on his new book, Cognitive Surplus. His thesis is basically that more and more of us have loads more leisure time than we used to and that the internet is gradually enabling our collective free time to connect with others to do things that we wouldn’t do otherwise, whether sharing YouTube videos of cats doing cute stuff, or giving away stuff we’d otherwise throw away.

I didn’t immediately put the pieces together, but yesterday, Ed and I’s conversation made me think about how this concept might apply to our idea of a still-to-be-built social wotsit…

The social wotsit we were thinking of

Imagine if you were a campaign group or a charity, working around:

  • Human rights
  • Youth violence
  • Drug addiction
  • Cancer treatment
  • International conflicts
  • Etcetera…

And you needed:

  • A database cleaned
  • A legal letter written
  • A venue for a meeting
  • A speaker for an event
  • A CSS edit to a website
  • Etcetera

Now imagine if you were a person (difficult, I know), who had a particular interest in [insert cause from above], and had [insert relevant skill or asset associated with listed need] and had a particular amount of time on your hands, whether five minutes, or five days… and said charity or campaigning organisations was able to easily get hold of you and let you know (with no obligation) that they could use your help… Is there a chance you might do it?

Crowd-sourcing a Twitter app?

So we (Andy Broomfield’s technical knowledge was of great help here) started thinking about this as a Twitter app… we’re continuing the conversation on a Google Doc… and are wondering if anyone with some of the relevant skills or further ideas would be interested in helping make this happen? Or if something just like this already exists and we don’t have to bother?

We are working on an ‘everyone does something that we can all feel good about’ kind of basis, so no money will change hands, but credit will be appropriately shared around… Check out the Google Doc if you’re interested in taking part!

Cheers!

Liam

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eCampaigning in a Leaderless World

Friday, September 24th, 2010

*I originally wrote this piece for FairSay.com in March 2010*

Though people have managed to self-organise throughout human history, we are at a moment where the fusion of this self-organisation, with ever-expanding social technology, is creating spaces that no longer require the type of ‘leadership’ we’ve become so used to… So what does this mean for traditional campaigning organisations?
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Protesters

Image courtesy of Steve Lawson

Do we live in a leaderless world? Obviously not – we don’t have to look far to see how the decisions of bosses and politicians shape much of our everyday lives. Are there places in our world that exist outside of a top-down form of leadership? Yes – people collectively-organise, often to great effect, in many realms of life. And though this has been the case for all of human history – whether in church groups or terror networks – we are at a moment where the fusion of this kind of self-organisation, with ever-expanding social technology, is creating spaces that no longer require the type of ‘leadership’ we’ve become so used to.

For those of you already immersed in this world, the modern-legend that is Trafigura – the story of the PR firm that won an injunction against the reporting of Parliamentary proceedings involving its client, and then had it over-turned by a leak and a spontaneous, 12-hour online uprising in the ‘Twittersphere’ – is likely a familiar one by now. What the Trafigura ‘campaign’ represents though, is more than a ‘good over evil’, or ‘David and Goliath’ kind of victory – it represents a fundamentally different way of achieving social change, than that which most of our organisations will have had any previous experience being a part of.

What’s different about Trafigura?

What’s different about Trafigura, is the absence of a ‘head’; a lead body – usually an organisation, but at least a charismatic individual – who can determine, broadly, the direction through which a likeminded group can move to achieve its aims. The only ‘leader’ of this campaign, was the idea that people have a right to know what happens in Parliament, regardless of the reputational effects that may have on the people or groups involved. And that was it – this idea exploded and very quickly became a trending topic on Twitter, feeding into a range of major blogs, mainstream news stories and, within half-a-day, the repeal of the gag order itself – a campaign victory by any traditional measure. But no single person or group could honestly claim the victory, because what happened was bigger than any of the individual parts.

What does this mean for us?

So what does all this mean for traditional campaigning organisations? Potentially, a lot, though it is still ‘early days’. We can no longer assume that our knowledge, history of voice, or positioning will place us at the centre of mass collective sentiment around our issues or areas of work. On some level, the ‘need’ for a central organising body in a campaign seems – at least superficially – to be less relevant that it has ever been. As so many people can achieve critical mass, without being told to attend a particular event, or sign up to an organisation’s platform, the potential for self-organisation is vast, and can, at times, outweigh the benefits of subscribing to an organisation’s campaign actions. As institutions, it is impossible for us to move as quickly as individuals can, in response to an event or a piece of news. With the connecting power of social media, vast numbers of individual people are able to move very quickly, in roughly the same direction, without a helmsperson to steer the ship.

So are we, as campaigning organisations, on the verge of forced redundancy, in light of this shift towards decentralisation? No… or at least not necessarily.

If, in the coming months and years we are able to adapt to this changing terrain, and accept, that we won’t always be able to ‘lead’ every campaign we want to take on, I think we will find our roles to be ever-more important, as e-campaigning becomes part of more and more peoples’ social media routine. Alternatively, if we cling to the more traditional, command-and-control mechanisms of brand consistency and uniform messaging, people may very well find other ways of getting themselves heard on the issues they care about, that are less-restricting to their personal schedules or ideas of activism.

Practically speaking though, what would campaigning look like in this new environment? The ever-allusive answer is that it could look like a lot of different things, which is another reason it may be harder for some organisations to adapt effectively. It’s much harder to plan for a campaign when you:

  • don’t know when it might happen
  • don’t know exactly what it’s going to be about, and
  • don’t know what contribution you might be making to it.

What to do about it

But luckily we’re not flying totally blind here and there are still things we can do to prepare! The key is in flexibility; if a Trafigura-esque (spontaneous, leaderless) ‘campaign’ emerges within your area of expertise:

Make sure you’ve already got the relevant information available online – reports, stories, interviews – so you can start to link to it and share it around, as soon as the topic appears to be taking off. If people are linking to your information repeatedly, it builds a collective sense of trust that your messages carry some authority in the given area. Trust will make your next steps that much easier.

Figure out who the others are who seem to have some authority on the issues. This may cut against some organisations’ instincts, but promote what they are saying and doing as well, whether via Twitter, a blog, your website, or a Facebook page. Reciprocity is an important tenet of social media culture, and will inevitably benefit your both work and your cause, if you can demonstrate that you’re involvement is bigger than just your organisation.

Lastly, (and maybe most importantly) be prepared to offer whatever makes sense to those in the ‘campaign’ who are most active and vocal. Maybe this means providing a meeting space for activists looking to move their online actions into ‘real world’; maybe this means making an introduction to a relevant politician whom you’ve already built a relationship with; maybe this means setting-up a one-off campaign action for supporters to engage with… your potential types of contributions in such a situation could be endless, but your potential returns could be greater than those of many of our most successful traditional campaigns.

The potential for unprecedented numbers of people to come together to affect change has never been greater; let’s make sure that, though we might not be in the middle of it all, at least we can find ourselves a place where it counts…

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