A long long time ago (a month – a virtual infinity in Internet years) I was challenged in a friendly manner to produce a post about my ideal kind of activist group. Life took some highways and byways, but here we are, another month older, if not wiser.
And here’s the post… What think the all (or, looking at my stats, “both”)?
The first question is, I think, what is the group for?
If it’s “consciousness-raising,” a space to hang out mentally and kick ideas around, then the criteria for success will be different than a group that is more explicitly about trying to right a wrong (though in my experience, if you keep your eyes open while ‘campaigning’ you can learn heaps and have your cerebral furniture re-arranged plenty).
So, a campaigning group is going to have four dimensions I’d want to know about.
Does the group know who it is that it’s up against; what makes them tick, what their (potential) weakspots are. Does the group make sure it isn’t just painting a caricature of its opponents as the Irredeemable Bad Guys, a pantomime villain onto whom all the ills of the world can be pinned?
What is the group’s formal relationship with these opponents? When do they engage? How? How did it go last time? (Was a post-mortem done? Were learning points actually enacted?)
What are the impending battles? What are the chances of success?
What does the public know of the group? What is its image with various kinds of people, if it has one at all. Is it clear to a vaguely interested person what they could do to support the group without getting massively involved (coming to meetings etc)? Is there reliable and up-to-date and useful information on the group’s website/facebook/whatever. Is the blog kept updated?
3 ) Other campaigning groups
What relationships are there with other groups campaigning on similar issues? Are there formal or informal links? What are the flows of information, the co-ordination to avoid duplication/stepping on toes etc. How are organisational egos (“we’re the sexiest motherfuckers around, so we don’t care that you had pre-existing plans for that date”) managed.
Has the group tried to make links with non-obviously connected campaigning groups, for mutual support and learning (NOT for colonisation and domination)
Who is on-board? For how long? What are the agreed minimum standards of behaviour? What sanctions exist if those are not met? How are conflicts managed? How do people become part of the ‘core group’? What are the formal hierarchies? If there are no formal hierarchies, how are the informal hierarchies named and addressed? [If you're in a group and someone denies there are informal hierarchies, my advice is "run, don't walk"] What is the relationship between meeting the short term goals of the group (campaigning against something the opponents are doing, for example) and the longer-term needs of the individuals within the group. Are there learning plans for the group, and for individuals within it? Is there an accepted culture of mentoring?
How is exit from the group managed? Does anyone chase up those who are not participating anymore to find out why not?
A functioning group would, in my opinion, have considered and explicit answers to all these questions (and more). Anything else is doomed (without knowing it) and unreflective smugospheric club.
An Ideal Group would have solid-but-provisional answers to the questions above, obviously. I envisage a core of 5 or so people, with others called on for specific tasks (Getting 5 people together on a monthly basis is hard enough. It becomes exponentially more difficult after that).
In it for the “long-haul” (all aware that things can change, that life can intervene)
Agree (more or less) to certain achievable medium-term goals
A mix of shared and unique skills
The group explicitly has learning objectives, and post-mortem techniques
The individuals in the group are encouraged to have learning objectives and to use post-mortem techniques
* There is a shared and explicit awareness of the likely existence of status games, dominance plays, etc
* There are explicit mechanisms to deal with conflict
* There is a commitment to retry and audit processes so they get progressively less hairy (e.g. anonymous feedback forms after meetings etc).
* There is a shared understanding about what interpersonal baggage can be brought into the room, and what should – if at all possible – be left outside.
Graham Purchase on Anarchist Organisation – superb stuff about open meetings to plan projects!!
Here are a couple of type ups of flip-chart brainstorming that I found on my hard drive…
What makes an effective group?
Clear achievable aims
Keeping it inclusive
Keep focus on challenging council
For every council action have a relaying of it back to group- rapid reaction possibility
Good listening and attention
build on others’ ideas- not “mine” or “yours”
don’t interrupt while others talking
frame QUESTIONS rather than STATEMENTS
appreciation to criticism 5:1
communicate clearly with the outside world
have clear aims/purpose
being accessible to new and potential members
comedy and paper
strong understanding of each others’ weaknesses and strengths
emphasis on avoiding illegitimate hierarchies and decisions by consensus (group work)
famous role models
exciting, engaging meetings (e.g. do admin and finance at the end)
Qualities of a “Good Activist”
Clear communicator, focus
passionate! Inspire, enable, engage
knowing where and when (timing) to apply pressure (“intelligence” networks)
pragmatism, picking the right battles
knowing how to use the media
bringing others with you
maintain knowledge networking
not assuming that everyone understands the issue you are pressing, and being willing to explain!
Works, is not lazy