Speech to a room full of burnt-out activists

So, yesterday the whine, today the roses?
This morning I sat with a dear friend and we imagined dubbing over that famous scene in Pygmalion so that Audrey Hepburn isn’t enunciating “the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain” but rather “the blame for pain falls mainly on the frame.”

Which is to say, what do you EXPECT is going to happen if you get a whole bunch of people who have fought long, thankless and often futile battles against various forms of venality/selfishness and stupidity, while being patronised and ignored in a room and let them vent?

They’re going to vent. They’re going to let out that pain and humiliation and the need for recognition.  Not all of them, but enough of them to make it very difficult to proceed with the strategic work at hand.

So, imho, you have to frame it. You have to name those emotions, and where they come from.  Here’s how I would do it.  Suggestions? I am all ears…

Advertise the meeting as x.15 for x.30, e.g. encourage people to come slightly early, allow time for mingling.  Give each person who comes an agenda that has been printed on coloured paper (light blue, light green), with a hand-written “thank you for coming!” on the top of it.  Personally say hello to each person, if you can.  Ask people to spend a minute or two reflecting on whether they think the agenda is right.  If they’ve got a suggestion, ask them to make it to you directly at the outset, so minor modifications can be made at the facilitator’s discretion (big ones will need agreement, of course).

Start no more than 5% of the expected meeting time late (e.g. 2 or 3 minutes late for an hour meeting)  Rather than shouting (which is the equivalent of fingers on a blackboard, imho), have someone start to play a guitar (if they can do it well!), or have some nice music that you turn the volume of up gradually till everyone is looking at you.

Smile!!! and gesture to seats. Enough people will sit down that everyone gets the hang of it. As soon as people are sat, before any hands can go up…

“Thank you to each and every one of you for coming here.  Your time, energy and commitment make this group what it is. Please turn to the person next to you and – if you both want – shake hands.  Say hello to each other at least.

[Pause while this happens]

“We are all in this room today because we care deeply about [issue x].  I look around this room and there are people I know very well personally, others I know by reputation mostly.  I know that all of us are making deep and real sacrifices to try to make the world a better place.  We have not always agreed with each other on everything, and nor will we.  Some of us get on very well, some not so well.  And our friendships and relationships wax and wane over time. But all of us have this much in common – we know the need for change, and we try so hard to make it happen.

“We’ll check the agenda in a minute, and make sure everyone is happy that – if we get through it – their hopes for this meeting will be met.  But before we do that, I want to get us all thinking about the price that we have all paid to be here;

“When we are ignored or patronised or fobbed off by bureaucrats, told we’re trouble-makers and “the only person who has made an issue of it”, that leaves us wanting to be recognised.

“When work colleagues or family members roll their eyes or repeat something from the Daily Mail, that can leave us wanting to retaliate.

“When all our hard work on a campaign ends in a short-term defeat, we can feel like failures, angry at the world and angry at ourselves for not trying hard enough, not having been strategic enough, or disciplined enough. And we want someone to affirm our worth.

“These are all scars, as sure as the scars someone has after an operation.

“And we carry these wounds with us, and they can sometimes make us do things we don’t really want to, make us do things that create difficulties for others in the group.

“Things like taking up a lot of time in group discussions, or interrupting other people, or not waiting for your turn to speak.  Things like drifting from the subject because you’re bored and need to talk about your own project, or how hard you yourself are working.

“This costs us.  This means that we spend more energy and time in meetings than we need or want to, than we can afford. It can make meetings demoralising, frustrating for others.

“So before we look at the agenda, I hope we can all of us – myself included, most definitely – can just take a little time to think about how the damage inflicted on us can play out in ways that then damage our collective efforts.  We are not to blame for those feelings, but we can – if we choose – channel them into useful purposes.”

“If this seems too abstract for you, I ask you to just wait for thirty seconds while the people for whom it is not abstract at all have a chance to reflect. Then we’ll look at the agenda….”


About dwighttowers

Below the surface...
This entry was posted in a little self-knowledge, activism, climate, competence and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Speech to a room full of burnt-out activists

  1. leavergirl says:

    I don’t understand. If this is a meeting of people who come to vent, why is there a pre-made agenda? If you invite them to vent, let’em vent, no?

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