If we are going to create the world we want, we need to get together with other people to build it. I have collected some tools and methods that I think are helpful. I have deliberately focused on ways that support dialogue in face-to-face gatherings of groups to address collective social challenges.
We rarely have honest conversations, particularly on difficult issues. We may have more diverse people living next to each other or working together but most of our social circles are people like us. If we are lucky, we will go to schools and workplaces and get to know individuals who are different from us, with various ideas of organising life.
Methods that have dialogue at the heart of them are often good containers for allowing us to let issues go or confront them through open communication and genuine listening. We need each other because on our own; we won’t solve these issues. We also need to remember that the success of implementing solutions often depend on people owning the idea and how motivated they are than on how smart an idea is.
Tools based on dialogue allow people to take responsibility for own learning and ideas, create a space for their assumptions to emerge, to question their judgments and views, and to change the way they think. They also generate or build on new ideas or solutions that are beyond what any one individual could come up with.
Gloria Steinem, the community organiser, activist and writer shares her wisdom from her time in India, when she and her peers moved from village to village to gain support for Gandhi's vision. They did not begin by sharing Gandhi's vision of the future; they started with people’s needs. Her advice:
- -If you want people to listen to you, you have to listen to them.
- -If you hope people will change how they live, you have to know how they live.
- -If you want people to see you, you have to sit down with them eye to eye.
We are not very good at actually listening and holding multiple viewpoints; we want others to come to our way of thinking, yet we don’t understand their lives and we don’t listen when they are telling us. Often this is to do with our egos; we want to prove/convince the other person our viewpoint. We can also think about those who are missing from our conversations. Who are the most marginalised in our communities? How can we listen to them? Perhaps the simplest but most profound thing we can learn from Gloria Steinem is “one of the easiest paths to deep change is for the less powerful to speak as much as they listen, and for the more powerful to listen as much as they speak”
Appreciative Inquiry invites us to see ourselves and the world with an appreciative eye. When used in the right way, this kind of inquiry allows lively conversations that use the best of what is around us as the starting point of what might be.
Appreciative Inquiry looks at the best in us, not the worst; to our strengths, not our weaknesses; to possibility thinking, not problem thinking. It can be used on a one in a one setting or in a group.
Asking the right questions is the key to having lively conversations that move people forward, so they can successfully address community issues. A good question:
• Is thought provoking and invites reflection and finding deeper meaning
• Expands possibilities or focuses attention
• Brings underlying assumptions to light
• Stimulates curiosity and creativity
We should avoid asking 'why' questions – (unless carefully constructed) - as these make people feel defensive and needing to justify their answers.
Questioning Stimulates creativity Motivates fresh thinking Surfaces underlying assumptions Focuses intention, attention, and energy Opens the door to change Leads us into the future
More information can be found in 'The Art of powerful questions: Catalyzing insight, innovation and action by Vogt, E., Brown, J., and Issacs, D. (2003).
A Small Group
• negotiation and pursuit of narrow interests to the co-creation of common purpose
• problem-solving to possibility
• blame to taking responsibility
• retribution to restoration
Campaigning is a great tool for change and has led to women winning the right to vote, same sex marriages, workers rights as well as local action to improve beaches or stop environmental destruction.
Campaigners are often creative and multi-layered when taking action, the fight to get the vote for women challenged established truths (ideas), exercised strikes and boycotts (economics), placed women's bodies in the way (physical) and worked through political parties (political).
It is easy to name victories is some campaigns, for example stopping the local authority from selling off a local playground is a clear victory. For other campaigns, we need to know that we can't pack up and go home, that the struggle for justice and equality is often incomplete or compromised. Campaigns for social justice are often like relays, we run our stretch and pass on the baton.
Many of us thought the fight for gender and race equality had been won, rejoicing in the freedom to access jobs and other opportunities denied to us. We forgot that none of us lead single issue lives and that the common ground with class, economics and the environment, has not been forged yet. Furthermore, the idea of a goal (e.g. end violence against women and girls) indicates a static end point, when in fact, the struggle for women's emancipation will continue, even if we stop violence against women. The work is not done, it just moves on. That is why celebrating all the victories that happen during our stretch of the relay, however, small or incomplete is important.
World Café is a simple and effective way of holding group conversations. It involves creating a ‘café’ style environment, with rounds of conversations for a small group of 4/5 people seated around a table. People move to a different table after 20 minutes of conversation.
One person can stay behind as the table 'host' for the next round of conversations, welcoming the next group and summarising what has been discussed previously. Each round or table has a specific question that builds on the conversation.
Questions are also key to converstions in World Cafe and a really good starting point is Vogt, E., Brown, J., and Issacs, D. (2003). The Art of powerful questions: Catalyzing insight, innovation and action. Whole Systems Associates: Mill Valley, CA
Open Space allows small or large groups to self-organise and deal with complex issues in a very short time. In Open Space meeting people design the agenda together, allowing the discussions to be shaped by the enthusiasm and interests of the individuals in the room. Open Space works best where conflict is present, things are complex, there is a diversity of players, and there is an urgency. The greater the diversity of people, the more likely you are to have breakthrough results.
An Open Space meeting begins in a large circle, with one facilitator. After an initial welcome, the facilitator opens the space, by introducing the burning question that has brought people together. The facilitator then explains that the agenda will be developed by the group on a large wall. People are then invited to propose sessions and discussions on topics they want to explore, in response to the burning question. At the beginning of the collective agenda-making, the facilitator explains the basic principles and one law of Open Space.
Whoever comes are the right people
Whenever it starts is the right time
Whatever happens is the only thing that could have
When it’s over, it’s over.
One Law - the law of two feet: People are encouraged to move to another group if they are in a conversation where they are not learning or contributing.
The recipe book for great conversations by Annette Zera and Susan Murray is a great resource and it can be found here
Art and Activism
If we take the broadest definition of art as the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination whether through music, drama, poetry, literature or dance, then we can see what a powerful tool it is for social change. Art validates us, nourish us, mocks the powerful, connects us, questions, embarrasses, persuades and best of all, makes us feel powerful. While 'activist artists', who create art that is political are important, it is our imagination and creativity through everyday living that can be more potent in social change.
In this blog I am interested in how we use our creativity and imagination to challenge power, expresses our dissent, heal our pain and connect with each other.
Poetry, song, music and works of visual representation have been used to create and communicate a group's story, stating who people are and what they stand for. Forms of expression are found in Irish rebel songs, African Americans spiritual songs or in the creation of the rainbow flag to reflect the diversity and inclusiveness of the LGBT community. Creative expression is important in developing group solidarity, a sense of belonging and common purpose, as well as a means of overcoming fear and anxiety.
In Sep 2015 hundreds of artists, campaigners and performers held multiple creative actions and performances throughout the British Museum, including pop-up theatre, live music, spoken word performance by a group of children, a Quaker Meeting for Worship, a bagpiper smeared with oil to stop BP's sponsorship of museums. Similar methods were used to stop BP's 26 year old sponsorship deal with the Tate.
Like many people when I think about politics, I feel disheartened and believe that most of our politicians don't care. At the same time, I feel that politics is too important to give up and leave to them. The political party system is broken. It is wrong that UKIP (a political party that I don't support), with votes from 3.9 million people gets one MP, and yet the Conservative party gets 331 MPs from 11.3 million people. With MPs coming from a narrowing pool of professional (male) politicians, it's important that we rethink how politics can work for the 99%.
Action through politics and hence government, is one of the best ways to eliminate, minimise and deal with significant challenges, whether it's climate change, inequality or economics. We cannot leave it to them (a narrow group of rich boys and their guardians in the corporate media) to make politics better. They won't.
It often feels like politicians listen more to donors and lobbyists than voters. The registration of lobbying firms is a farce - the government only requires lobbying firms to register, not corporate in-house teams. The way political parties are funded means that they are increasingly dependent on rich donors and it's very expensive (costing around £20-£35k) for ordinary people to stand as MPs, even if they have one of the established political parties behind them. These are some of the ideas that can help improve politics:
- -Introduce more transparency
- -Field more independent candidates, to break the monopoly of the main political parties
- -Minimise costs for entering parliament so it is not dominated by the those who can afford it
- -Introduce proportional representation - see why the current systems broken
- -Set up new political parties - the Women's Equality Party or Something New
- -Reimagine the role of state and political parties with an example here of how the Labour party could work
The problems in our political system don't just stop there, the revolving door between minsters/senior civil servants and the private sector further undermines our democracy. Is it right that Dave Hartnett, HMRC permanent secretary for tax, who negotiated deals that let off multinationals from paying tax, joined HSBC and was a consultant for Deloitte after leaving HMRC? Rupert Harrison, George Osborne's chief economic adviser, who was behind the deregulation of the pension industry joined the world's largest money manager, BlackRock. Allegedly, he cannot lobby the UK government for two years on behalf of his new employers but this runs out in Jun 17, the Conservative Party will still be in power.
Whether we like it or not politics offers one of the best ways to create change and we have to engage with it but we don't have to put up with the current political system that rewards the rich who have easy access to our MPs.
Social Movements start when people refuse to accept that they can't do anything about a wrong they see. Social movements are ways that people press for social change. Occupy, the Arab Spring, disabled people against cuts - these movements may seem impromptus, but they are often linked to deep unsatisfaction. Movements can be aimed at a particular policy or be more broadly aimed at cultural change.
There is a lot to say about social movements; there is a whole academic discipline. If movements can generate ideas that resonant with people, sustain the interest of these people, build trust amongst members and diminish in-fighting, then they have a chance of surviving and winning. Social movements are not easy to sustain but when their time has come, they have literally changed the world, again and again.
Social Movements often try to model the behaviours they are fighting for, while at the same time fighting a cause. For example, Occupy sought to work democratically within, while protesting against social and economic inequality. We need to know that this is hard - creating both a democratic organisation and fighting the cause at the same time. One way to help us is to realise that there are different roles for all of us and no one person has all the skills that a movement needs. Here, you can find George Lakey talking about the work of Bill Moyer in identifying the different roles needed in social movements, namely the advocate, helper, organizer, and rebel. The key thing about this work is recognising the importance of valuing and deliberately seeking out diverse skills and perspectives.
What is success in social movements?
'Success is an elusive idea. What of the group whose leaders are honored or rewarded while their supposed beneficiaries linger in the same cheerless state as before? Is such a group more or less successful than another challenger whose leaders are vilified and imprisoned even as their program is eagerly implemented by their oppressor? Is a group a failure if it collapses with no legacy save inspiration to a generation that will soon take up the same cause with more tangible results? And what do we conclude about a group that accomplishes exactly what it set out to achieve and then finds its victory empty of real meaning for its presumed beneficiaries? Finally, we must add to these questions the further complications of groups with multiple antagonists and multiple areas of concern. They may achieve some results with some targets and little or nothing with others' - William Gamson The Strategy of Social Protest (2nd edition, 1990)
Theatre of the Oppressed
Brazilian theatre director Augusto Boal started asking questions about why theatre had to be in the form of “monologue” - where the audience passively consume the performance? He started experimenting with interactive theatre, creating instead a “dialogue” between the audience and the stage. His assumption was that dialogue is the common, healthy dynamic between all humans and that oppression is the result of the absence of dialogue and the dominance of monologue.
The most used technique is Forum Theatre where a dilemma is posed to the group in the form of a theatrical scene, which usually has an adverse outcome. Participants are asked to step into the play and take on the role of one of the actors to try to change the outcome. They are invited to imagine new possibilities and solutions, and to actively try to make them happen in the moment. As a result of the group problem solving, highly interactive imagining, physical involvement, trust, fun, and vigorous interpersonal dynamics, the participants learn how they are a part of perpetuating their problems and how they can be the source of their liberation. When done right, this is a powerful tool.
This may seem a bit odd, it is not an obvious tool for change, however when you are putting your body and mind on the line, you need to be intentional about caring for yourself. Audre Lorde stated "Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare." We need to own this declaration and carry it with us, saying no to the next meeting, action or activity.
The injustice or wrong you are fighting for may is unlikely to be eradicated today, or you may find that your small act is part of a larger change that needs to happen. You have to give your permission to care for yourself, to have fun, to laugh and to dance. The burden cannot fall on you alone; it falls on all of us.
You must have time to do things that make your soul burst with joy, however frivolous they may seem, otherwise you will burn out. You are not a hero and nor should you seek heroic status, you are needed to continue the small work of the day to day stuggles. You may want to balance reflection with action. Reflection is not just be about the work, it is be about you. Your cause maynot be realised in your lifetime, so allow yourself the pleasure to live and care for yourself. So dance, sing, jump, laugh, eat, travel, rejoice and relax just for the sake of.
non-violent direct action or civil resistance
Civil resistance sometimes called non-violent direct action, includes blockades, sit-ins, strikes - the power is in the disruption. Sometimes these actions are a form of civil disobedience (refusal to obey certain laws) and may involve breaking the law intentionally to force the issue into the political and public arenas. Campaign for Accessible Transport was one of the first disabled people's groups to use direct action through the 'Right to Ride' campaign. Large groups of disabled people regularly attempted to access 'inaccessible' public transport, with protestors repeatedly bringing central London traffic to a halt.
Civil disobedience against the poll tax involved a nationwide network of campaigns and non-payment unions. People resisted at every level, refusing to register for the poll tax, opposing liability orders and therefore clogging up the legal system and refusing to pay. It was highly effective. Tax collection was ineffective. The situation forced Conservative government to get rid of their leader and abandon the tax.
Direct action is not an easy route. Some of the people I have spoken to, who have taken part in direct action talk about their fears around personal safety, job security (if they get a conviction or if their employer finds out), letting their family down and the current climate of making protest difficult - arrest, imprisonment and court costs.
Connecting people, ideas and resources
One of the things I have tried to do with this blog is focus on what people can do when they get together - rather than on who individuals or leaders. Therefore, I have consistently favoured methods that bring people together. Often people identify as activists, those working in charities or public sector, social entrepreneurs, small businesses, trade unionists, local residents - separated by space, sectors, disciplines and access to information. We need individuals, organisations, networks or spaces which connect people, ideas and resources. We need each other more than ever because it is going to take all of us to tackle our problems.
So, where can you find these individuals, organisations, networks or spaces which connect people, ideas and resources?
- -Look out for groups or teams that constantly seek out a diveristy of ideas, people, displines, spaces and are curious how this ties up together. Pay attention to those who are willing to listen to the least powerful or most excluded
- -Find networks to join, especially those that deliberately try to cross-pollinate ideas and share emerging practice to stimulate creativity, for example Communities of Practice
- -Find platforms, which are great for giving people the tools and resources they need to organise themselves, for example Meetup, Crowdfunder, Movements.org
Some people have created these types of networks if they cant' find them locally or they have found them online.