more like people

helping organisations to be more like people

The divisiveness of unity

Monday, March 11th, 2013

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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Scaling back our assumptions about scale: Why ‘bigger’ often means ‘worse’

Sunday, February 3rd, 2013

A pretty, but unrelated picture from Tulum, Mexico by Jen Wilton

A pretty, but unrelated picture from Tulum, Mexico by Jen Wilton

It’s easy to equate ‘significance’ with ‘scale.’ In brief, ‘more is better… or at least, more relevant.’ The news perpetuates this, deeming something ‘newsworthy’ based on the numbers of people or the amount of geography affected, but we also reflect this in what we choose to give credence to on social media and in our lives, more generally. In government, we look to policy, far more than we look to local examples. In organisations, we look to executive decrees, far more than we do to what the person across the office is doing differently at their desk… But in doing so, we may be missing much of the really important stuff.

Relying on scale to determine significance can give the impression that the world is full of mostly bad news. Bad things can happen at a scale that good things very rarely do. A war, an oil spill, a hurricane – the impacts are huge, via almost any lens we choose to view them. But the really good stories don’t often happen in a way that affects such large numbers, all at once (and when they do, we probably have reason to be suspicious – think of the 1st Obama win, and how few of the hopes of millions were realised?).

But there’s a core issue here: We only take things seriously if they are BIG.

Think of all the small scale stories you’ve heard of really amazingly positive examples of one thing or another in the world. It may have been an ignorant idiot who posted a derogatory picture of a Sikh woman he saw with facial hair, but saw the error of his ways. Or the story of the Mexican city that governed itself for 6 months without elected leaders or police. Or the European cities that removed all traffic regulation and reduced accidents and improved traffic flow.

You probably know the kinds of stories I’m talking about. They make you feel good, but then you likely dismiss them and often forget about them soon after. The train of thought often goes: ‘that’s cool! …but so what? There are bigger problems in the world, these individual examples won’t really change anything.’

But good things are often far more subjective than bad things. We don’t all agree that the same things are necessarily ‘good.’ No one wants an oil spill, or a war to hit them. What we do want is far more varied, meaning that a great example in one place won’t necessarily be a great example in another place. Or trying to ‘apply’ a great example across a wide range of people and situations (like so much government policy, or organisational strategy), rarely works because the same approach will be received differently, from one place or community, to the next. (Read ‘Walk Out Walk On’ for an excellent explanation of ‘scaling up’ vs. ‘scaling across’).

What if we could see each of these small scale examples of the kind of world we want to live in, as reminders of the possibilities that exist all around us? They won’t look the same where we are, but that doesn’t mean they can’t offer a sense of hope, inspiration and possibility for us to create our own positive examples in the spaces we’ve got.

One of the biggest challenges we face, is our inability to imagine possibilities that are not part of our current realities. Because we haven’t experienced it, it seems impossible.

For the last eight months I’ve lived in Oaxaca, Mexico, a city that did just what I described above, governing itself for 6 months, without any semblance of government structure. With no police, its crime rates dropped to record lows. It only came to an end when the federal government launched a campaign of terror, just before Christmas in 2006, re-asserting control and dismantling the systems that local people had created to organise their lives together. Until then, self-organised systems were ensuring a kind of participatory democracy – while still often a messy experiment – that few of us have ever known.

But it was possible. Lack of government does not necessarily mean ‘chaos’ – people can come together and achieve amazing things without imposed bureaucracies. It may seem inconsequential to many, but it demonstrates potential, where many of us would previously have seen only a pipedream.

What about the story I also mentioned above about the guy who posted a picture making fun of a Sikh woman with facial hair. While his act was callous and ignorant, he was able to see the error of his ways. When the woman confronted him online, not with offence or anger, but with compassion, explaining why she had chosen not to remove her facial hair, as part of her spiritual practice, he was able to shift at a level many of us think of as impossible.

She did not respond with anger and defensiveness as so many of us would. He was not as permanently ‘bad’ and unable to learn, as many of us would have assumed of someone taking such a stupid and offensive action. If she can find compassion for him, and he can change, they demonstrates another often unimagined ‘proof of concept’ for the rest of us to take on.

Or what about Bohmte, Germany, where the city decided to get rid of all their traffic regulations? Traffic flow improved and accidents dropped considerably.

We often assume the worst of others, but when we are forced to really take responsibility for our own actions, and think of others in the practical choices we makes (like whether to drive or stop), we can create more effective and well-ordered systems that work for everyone.

‘It would never work here,’ many have said of this story. At some level they’re right. We can’t cut-and-paste our solutions across differences and expect the same results. But it did work there (and actually has in several other bold cities around Europe, where the EU has supported its ongoing implementation, because it has been so successful). The possibility this offers for changing how we choose to organise ourselves is immense.

Large scale systems are far too complex to often be radically changed overnight by a single event, so if we rely on scale to tell us what’s worth paying attention to, ‘good news’ will never be able to compete with a few really big horrible stories.

How many revolutions, as moments of great hope, have truly gone on to offer the kinds of change that people had expected of them?

If we can change the world, our countries, or our organisations for the better, it won’t be the result of one attempt to do so. It will be the result of many actions, almost invariably spread out over vast time and space, in which people make the choices to affect whatever is in their scope to affect, gradually connecting with others who are doing the same.

When we dismiss small scale examples of positive change, in practice, we dismiss any real possibility of positive change, at all.

What we, as a planet, want and need, cannot be captured by any single change. While a bomb or a flood will invariably be bad news for everyone affected by them, we can’t say the same of the far more subjective notion of positive change. There is no ‘good bomb’ that will spread positive effects in the ways war spreads bad ones. We’ve got to figure out what we really want for ourselves and in conversations with those that surround, and take action to make these things possible where we are.

And conversations don’t make headlines, but they are often the places where good things start to happen. I’m doing my best to give even the smallest examples of a better world the significance they deserve. If they can inspire me to see a new possibility, they can do the same for others. And who knows where they might take us? It might change the world, though we’d probably only notice retrospectively…

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The Law of Organisational Affluence or ‘Why hotels are more than a waste of money’

Sunday, December 30th, 2012

‘The more social change organisations decide they need to pay for things, the less good work they do.’

Once, a local dog jumped into one of the tents we stayed in...

Once, a local dog jumped into one of the tents we stayed in...

Let’s call this ‘The Law of Organisational Affluence,’ and before you write this blanket statement off, let me add the disclaimer that, like all ‘laws,’ it will probably have almost as many exceptions as it does validations.

But indulge me…

Necessity breeds reciprocity

In countless community groups, artist networks and activist collectives, there is so little money going around, that people must find other ways of getting things done, often with the help of others.

Travelling to an event? Can you get a ride with someone?

Staying overnight? Can you crash on someone’s couch?

Need to promote something? Can you see who will add it to their newsletter, website, or put your flyers in their lobby?

Comparatively, in most wealthier organisations, the ease, convenience and predictability of a cash transaction comes to change the nature of these kinds of questions quite a lot.

Travelling to an event? Get a taxi.

Staying overnight? Book a hotel room.

Need to promote something? Pay for ad space.

In each of these later scenarios, the trade-off for ease, convenience, and predictability, is not just a question of the additional money spent – something more is lost when we start to assume that such expenses are a) ‘needed’ and b) the best way to address these needs.

Cash transactions close the door to a more reciprocal kind of give-and-take, and this reciprocity has long been one of the underpinning tenets of the kind of work our organisations do. Without a community and a culture of this kind of reciprocity, it is far easier to lose track of the bigger picture that our work is a part of.

Of course there will be times when any organisation will really need these things, but there is a significant difference between organisational cultures when such expenses are the exception, and when they are the rule.

Slummin’ with students

Working with a small student organisation last year, I travelled a fair bit. This usually meant staying on couches of those hosting me. I also slept on gym floors, in tents, at a couple of youth hostels and multiple scout camp dormitories with this particular organisation. Whatever the students got, that’s what those of us who were paid to be there got as well.

It was basic. Not a luxurious way to work, but hotels were one of many things that were simply not in the budget.

And while this was largely a question of necessity, it had some very positive side-effects. The lines between staff and students in the network were far blurrier than the paid/unpaid divide in most organisations. This made for immeasurably stronger relationships than most of those I’ve experienced in institutions where such delineations are more clearly defined. And stronger relationships usually meant a much higher standard of work getting done (relative to my experiences with wealthier organisations), because people really felt a shared sense of commitment to each other and the actions they were involved in. They also just felt more comfortable together, having had considerably more ‘in-between time’ to get to know each other. And the lack-of-hotels was definitely a part of this.

If I had retreated to lonely hotel rooms after each workshop (as I have with other organisations), it would have been more than just my bed (or sleeping bag) that changed. I would have missed countless hours of important conversations with students – whether about the campaign they were spearheading on campus, or something entirely unrelated going on in their lives. Both helped us work better together, though would have been unlikely to fit into the formally scheduled activities. Avoiding hotels opened the possibilities of the kinds of relationships that rarely emerge when shared time is entirely pre-determined by scheduled activities.

Even if there had been a budget to pay for hotels, doing so would have undermined the work. I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental that this particular organisation didn’t write these kinds of costs into most of their funding bids.

In times of scarcity, these kinds of interactions are made plentiful by necessity, but when there is more money in the picture, such experiences are often lost.

Necessity breeds reciprocity; reciprocity nurtures stronger relationships; stronger relationships build community; community improves the odds of better work getting done.

‘But!… But!… But!…’

I can hear the arguments – ‘I shouldn’t have to sleep on someone’s couch/ troll through my networks to find a ride/ beg and borrow for the things I need to do my work!’

To which I say, ‘why not?’ Are these really such major sacrifices to make for an important cause? And are they in fact sacrifices, or simply trade-offs? A minimal loss of privacy, for a greater sense of connection with the people who are a part of your work and your cause?

The sense of entitlement that can often sneak into organisational cultures does not just cost money – it costs relationships, and may well affect the quality of work that is or isn’t being done.

But we’ll never know about the potential we are missing if we don’t give it a try.

What can you avoid paying for, next time the choice arises?

What can you stop budgeting for, the next time you’re writing a proposal?

What might you do instead?

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The Story of ‘More Like People Action Week’

Sunday, August 26th, 2012

Question: How long do you think it took Paul and Liam to plan the first ever ‘More Like People Action Week’? Answer: A few hours on the Sunday evening before it started.

Lorna Prescott's (@dosticen's) pic fr/ a living room work meeting she had during #MoreLikePeopleWeek

Lorna Prescott's (@dosticen's) pic fr/ a living room work meeting she had during #MoreLikePeopleWeek

So the first everMore Like People Action Week has come to an end!

What began as a random Tweet from @PaulBarasi last Sunday afternoon, managed to become something significantly more in the course of just a few days.

There were blogs about the week in the Guardian Social Enterprise Network and CivilSociety.org.uk.

There were over 300 hundred Tweets from over 70 people, expressing their support and sharing their ideas and actions for making their organisations ‘more like people.’ (See some of the Storify highlights further down).

There were several blog comments sharing success stories more widely, as well as links to resource and ideas that people felt were relevant to the ‘more like people’ themes…

Now I won’t pretend that this week has changed the world in any major ways, but it’s definitely done something to demonstrate the potential of some of the principles it is about.

Paul and I, with an ocean and a six-hour time zone spread between us, working entirely via Twitter, a few emails and 2 Skype calls, with nothing to back us but our own enthusiasm and that of the people who got involved, helped the ‘more like people’ ideas find their ways onto the UK national media radar, and into the consciousness of far more people than had previously known about it.

Beyond a few targeted Tweets to people we felt would be specifically interested, there was no top-down communication, not even an email list, to get things rolling. We just put it out there, approached some editors, and shared our own experiences and ideas around.

Sidestep the steps that aren’t working for you!

Has your organisation ever planned an awareness-raising or action-focused day or week around the theme of your work? Did it take more than a few hours to plan it? I’m guessing the answer is ‘yes.’ I’m also guessing that you’re not alone.

One of the big frustrations Paul and I have often had with so many organisations, is their inability to get things done, particularly within a reasonable length of time. The endless processes that inevitably need so many levels of approval make it very hard to organise anything in a timeframe that allows individual passion and energy to still play a part.

And though we might often feel we need to follow these processes, the truth is, there is always unmediated space to make things happen. Just because you could write a proposal, ask for approval, redraft the proposal, secure some budget, and allocate roles, doesn’t mean you always have to!

If this last week was about anything, I hope it was about showing that you don’t need HR or Senior Management (not that either can’t play positive roles!) to make our workplaces better than they are. There are always things we can start to improve, and you never know what kind of ripple effect they might have if we give them the chance. Individual change can encourage other individual changes. Gradually, more people acting differently can shift cultures, systems, organisations… But let’s not get ahead of ourselves – the point is we have more power than we often realise, so why not try exercising it more?

What next?

Obviously we’ve played our hand for a ‘More Like People Action Week’ for the foreseeable future, but these ideas can travel much further than they have since last Monday. So don’t let this random allocation of time stop you from helping your own organisation to be more like people, whenever you feel so inclined!

Maybe you could start your own ‘More Like People Action Week’ at your office? It wouldn’t have to take more than an email on Monday morning with some encouragement for people to share their contributions more widely, on Twitter, or a blog.

Strategy? Let it happen. Budget? No need. Approval? What for? ‘More like people’ should feel infinitely easier than the processes we’ve become so used to in so many of our organisations. I can’t think of a good reason why an employer would be against it, but if they somehow were, I can see even less reason why you’d feel the need to ask for their permission to do it. Think of it as an opportunity to demonstrate some initiative for improving the organisation, at no additional cost to those higher up!

But maybe you just want to practice it yourself, thinking of something you can do a bit differently to make your office a more human place to be? If so, feel free to comment about it on this blog, or Tweet about it using the #MoreLikePeople hashtag on Twitter, so others can be inspired or can try your action out themselves…

The next steps are up to you!

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More Like People Action Week! (#MoreLikePeopleWeek)

Sunday, August 19th, 2012

August 20-24 is ‘More Like People Action Week’. Your chance to find something you can do to make your organisation a bit ‘more like people’ and share it with the world. Nothing is too small. Change happens when we start anywhere, follow it everywhere!’

Today I got a simple Twitter message with a great idea from my friend and colleague Paul Barasi (@PaulBarasi). It read:

“Mon-Fri is #MoreLikePeople #ActionWeek. Individuals do 1 small thing 2 make their org more human.”

Twitterfall, Qatar

Can you set up a TwitterFall at an event to broaden participation?

…And with that, the first ever ‘More Like People Action Week’ was born!

So whether you’re staff, manager or director, working nationally or locally, in a public, voluntary or private sector organisation, why not start the week by thinking:

“What would my organisation look like if it became More Like People?”

“What can I do now to help make it more human?”

There are a few ideas further down, but basically…

What you do is up to you!

You might scrap a policy, change how you act in a certain context or relationship, involve more people in more decisions, try altering the way you do a particular piece of work… you might just ask more people you work with what they’d like to do, and let everyone give it a shot!

And when you do it, let the world know!

If you Tweet about your action using the #MoreLikePeopleWeek hashtag, anyone else can see what you’ve done and might get inspired to try it themselves. If you’re not on Twitter, feel free to add it as a comment at the bottom of this post, for all to see and learn from…

More Like People – what’s that about?

‘More like people’ is about learning to do things in our organisations, more like we’d do them at the pub, in our living rooms, at the park, around a kitchen table… It’s about:

  • Dropping the systems, attitudes, behaviours, and structures of the ‘professional’ world, and reconnecting with a more natural way of organising that predates any of our bureaucracies.
  • Improving working cultures by bringing the values, personalities, strengths and abilities of the people in our organisation to the forefront.
  • Closing the gap between the mask we wear at work and who we really are, because we’re at our best when we’re being ourselves.

‘More like people’ might apply to your own behaviours, maybe listening more closely to someone you’ve had trouble communicating with, choosing to hold a meeting in the park, or a pub, involving more people with valuable opinions when you make decisions…

‘More like people’ might apply to organisational structures or policies, which could mean getting rid of meeting agendas and letting them flow as people raise what they need to, crowd-sourcing decisions across the office, or via Twitter amongst a wider range of people involved in your work, letting staff make up their own job titles, or write joint job descriptions together as a team, making organisational learning public, so others people and organisations can learn from it…

These are just a few ideas to get you started. The point is, you’ll know better than Paul or I will what ‘more like people’ means in your context… but if you try it and share it, someone else might be able to try it out at their office too!

Have fun! (If it’s not fun, think about what might make it that way…)

Liam (@hackofalltrades)

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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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Where the organisation ends and the movement begins…

Sunday, June 10th, 2012

Today an excellent article about a campaign I have been very active in was printed in a newspaper not-at-all known for its progressive tilt.

It will introduce the campaign to a massive and influential audience who would likely have never heard of the issues before today. This could potentially shift (or spark!) UK public debate on something which has thus far been a fringe interest for a relatively niche part of the activist world.

In other words, I’m pretty damned excited about it!

While not mentioned, I can say with confidence that I played a significant role in the story appearing as it did. As it happens, I was lucky enough to play that role in a paid capacity for one of the organisations involved in the broader campaign.

The organisation I was working with – like all of the other organisations involved, actually – was not mentioned in the article, however, part of the framing of the story, and some of the people whose’ stories were told, came from dialogue I had had with the author, and introductions I had made over the last few months.

I’m not saying this in any way to promote myself, but that when I was working with that organisation, there was a regular emphasis (while much subtler than it can be in most NGOs) on getting the name into the press. This was for obvious reasons most of us will have experienced – building recognition, reporting to funders, etc. All sound reasons, in their own right.

Organisationally – this news story didn’t check any boxes, won’t appear in any reports, or secure future support for their work. Yet it spent resources paying me to help make it what it was.

From a movement perspective though, this story is big news. As I write, it has over a thousand Facebook ‘likes’, demonstrating a reach well-beyond that of most of the organisations involved.

When this many new people become aware of an issue, it makes work much easier for the activists involved, as they are not having to explain it from scratch in every conversation and interview, because the knowledge base of the people you are talking to has expanded overnight.

Further, when this many new people become aware of an issue via an incredibly sympathetic introduction (like this article), it goes that much further to building public pressure for the kinds of changes you hope to see…

But our organisations don’t have an investment in this kind of change. In many workplaces, as soon as it became clear that there would be no direct benefit to the organisation of me putting several hours into emails, research and introductions, I would have been expected to re-direct my attention to a more pressing organisational priority.

Luckily in this organisation, this wasn’t the case.

But the fact that it so often is, highlights the very uncomfortable reality that so often occurs when we create social change organisations: from the moment they exist as separate entities, their interests are not always those of the causes they were set up to fight for; in fact, sometimes they are at odds with those causes.

Work that focuses on maintaining and growing the organisation itself – recruitment, publicity, fundraising, marketing, human resources, IT, among others – are all, at best, tertiary to supporting the cause; if we ‘x’, than we can ‘y’, and hopefully ‘z’ will happen.

But like in the case of this article, ‘z’ might not be aligned with doing ‘x’, meaning it is not where organisational effort will necessarily be prioritised. Which might be inconsequential, but might also be a massive missed opportunity for the movement.

I only mention this, as a reminder, as we are sitting in our organisations, to spend less time emphasising the organisational outcomes, and more emphasising those relevant to the broader causes we exist to serve.

If we cannot prioritise the cause over the organisation, than we have lost our reason for being and are draining effort and resources from places that might use them better.

More positively, how can we make sure that ‘organisational priorities’ don’t trump ‘movement priorities’?

What might help us to remind ourselves about the real reasons we are doing what we do in our organisations, to avoid becoming self-perpetuating machines, detached from the causes that initially sparked our passion?

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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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We’re running a public workshop on managing online campaigns, November 1st!

Friday, October 15th, 2010

Hi there folks! We’re running a workshop next month on ‘e-campaigning’; using social media for social change, and how an in depth understanding of the broader changes (in communication, learning, sharing and management) enabled by online technology, can help your organisation to get more from your online campaigns.

It’s happening from 2:00-4:30 on November 1st, in Central London and is being run on a Pay What You Think Its Worth basis (not as catchy as PWYC, I know…). We only have a limited number of spaces available, so please book-on and help share the details with the managers in your lives who may not yet have taken-up the technologies some of are finding more-and-more critical to our campaigning work.

You can register below, or read more about the event and register on the Eventbrite page itself, at http://ecampaigning.eventbrite.com/

Look forward to seeing some of you there!

Liam

‘Managing e-Campaigns: Why social organisations get more from social media for social change’

November 1, 2010, 2:00-4:30pm. Central London

Online event registration for Managing e-Campaigns: Why social organisations get more from social media for social change powered by Eventbrite

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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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