“De-fragging the movement” or “The definition of insanity…”

I went to the first half of an event today that was all about how important it is to organise (hold meetings, “do” activism) differently. From one hundred feet up the meeting would have appeared to be almost EXACTLY like any other meeting. From six and a bit feet up, it was almost exactly like any other meeting (with one minor innovation for which I, cough cough, can take the credit). I left at the beginning of the second half, when it was clear it wasn’t going to get any better. Someone who stuck it out said it petered out…

Rather than go blow-by-blow against it, I am imagining using the same space. I have allowed myself a very slightly higher budget (for biscuits, a bit of printing etc) but the same space and amount of time. I’ve also imagined a few more volunteers. But nothing extravagant…

Chair/Facilitator/Convenor/Curator/Whatever-ridiculous-pseudo-term-is-in-vogue-among-the-bien-pensant: “Thank you so much to everyone who has come today, from near and from far.

“We’re here today to celebrate a book that – 30 long years ago – talked about how we on the “left” need to act, and interact, differently. So, the only way to hold this meeting without being hypocrites is to make it different from what you all are used to experiencing (1), what we as organisers are used creating.

It’s a scary business, to step outside your comfort zone. (2) But it can also be incredibly liberating. And we have no choice!

So the first thing we are going to do, in order to begin to thicken the web of interactions that will make this event both fun today and potentially movement-building, is to have you turn to someone you don’t know. You’ll know their name from the name badge they collected upon registration. You have a coloured bit of paper with you. You are going to find out a tiny bit about who that person is – their job, their activism, where they’ve come from. And then, on that bit of paper you’re going to write their completion of the following sentence “Feminism, to me, is about…”. Ask them if they want their name attached to that, or if they want it to be anonymous. We’ll collect all of those papers, put them up on the wall over here. And through the course of the day, our volunteer twitterer will be sending out some of these quotes as tweets.

[4 minutes]

Right. Thank you for doing that!

Before we begin, I want to read you out some greetings from people who wanted to be here but couldn’t.

Jane Smith from Salford. “I hope it goes really well. I am looking after a sick parent today – nothing else could have stopped me coming. I really look forward to hearing about the discussions.”

Tom Davis from North Wales: “Fraternal greetings. I read “Beyond the Fragments” when it came out, and it was life-changing. I hope its message, sadly still relevant, can inspire new generations of activists.”

Sarah Jones from Liverpool: “It’s such an important book for me. I wanted to be there, but finances prevent me. Please keep me informed about Liverpool actions and activities.”

Most of what we do today is going to be in small groups that then feed back into a bigger discussion. Instead of having long speeches from people, which could just as easily be filmed and posted up on youtube for you to watch on your own, we’re asking our speakers to respond to things that come out of the discussions. They will spot similarities, give anecdotes, sound notes of caution and so on.

We do not want you to be a passive consumer.  There’s no point you sitting there having ideas that then don’t get shared. That means that your ideas don’t get shared, challenged, refined. It means that we go away from here without the benefit of each other’s wisdom, humour, compassion and energy.  We need to be each other’s “co-producers”.

We are going to be filming the speakers. We have their permission to do this, and we will be putting their contributions up on a website very soon as part of a record of this event. We would also love to film any contribution you want to make, but will only do so with your explicit permission. There is a a “vox pop” opportunity in the corridor outside, where you can tell us why you’ve come, how it’s gone, what you’ve gotten out of it and anything else you care to mention.  These will get stitched together into a short film.

We are also going to be typing up the flip-charts that are dotted all around the room. Most of those flip charts have questions on them.

[What lessons does the left have to learn from the recent electoral successes of UKIP?
How can the smear job of the “humourless castrating feminist” be challenged?
How can we help young women activists gain confidence in writing, public speaking etc
What are the most important and effective ways to challenge sexism in our schools, religious institutions, friendship groups, families?
What sustains us? Where do we get our morale?
How might social media be useful or dangerous to the “feminist movement”?
What books or films, plays or songs do you think help explain feminist positions well to people who are ignorant of them, or not sympathetic?]

Some of the flip charts are blank, so YOU can write the questions that you want everyone else to answer.

A note on boredom and frustration. These are the elephants in the room in any event like this. Traditionally, if you are find that the process is not working for you – if a speaker is going on too long, if the conversation seems bogged down – you only have three choices

Your first is endure it with gritted teeth, leading to resentment that spoils the rest of your time, and probably spills over into the next session, or onto innocent bystanders – collateral damage.
Your second is to try to change the format and its momentum. There’s a very low-likelihood of success and high-risk-to-reputation with that, and only the very brave or semi-feral ever try it. Apropos of nothing, I should mention that Dwight Towers is in the room.
Your third is to leave the meeting, which demoralises you, demoralises other people and creates bad love all around.

But here, today, there is not just a third way, but a fourth way! Using the “law of two feet”, you can get up and start writing on the walls instead of climbing them. Or you can go to the back of the room and read some of the material there. Or go outside and be interviewed by our “vox pop” crew.

[At this point, just for comedy value, I would have a “plant” in the front row leap up, grab a marker pen and start writing on a flip chart].

One last thing – there are anonymous feedback forms, so we can do better in future, and share our successes and failures. If you leave early, please do take a minute to fill in the form, ESPECIALLY if you’re leaving because you’re not happy!

So, next thing. We are going to create small groups to discuss some key questions.

[UPDATE – Dwight Towers pinched the divide-by-ages idea. And he WILL be punished for such calculated plagiarism, don’t you worry about that…]

Can everyone under the age of 30 gather over there.
Can everyone between 30 and 50 gather in the middle.
Can everyone over 50 gather on that side of the room.

For ten minutes you are going to introduce yourselves to each other and come up with some answers to a question which we have written on a sheet of paper and will give to each group –

Under 30 – had you heard of “beyond the fragments” before its re-issue? How might its message be transmitted and enacted now?
Between 30 and 50 – when did you hear about it? What impact has it had on your activism?
Over 50 – what is your memory of the impact the book had at the time? What impact COULD it have had? Why didn’t it?

We’ve given you a flip chart and a scribe, and one of the core group of organisers is going to facilitate and report back the highlights/consensus of your discussion to everyone.

Right, you have one minute to report back on your group’s discussion. At the end of the minute I am going to start to applaud, even if you’re in the middle of a sentence. Everyone else will join in with me and then we will hear from the next group.

So, Lynne, what surprised you or inspired you in what you heard from those three groups?
(Lynne for a few minutes).

Right everyone. Time for a 10 minute break. There’s water and biscuits over there, but lunch is up to you. We will let you know about places to eat when the time comes! Please go up and talk to someone you don’t know!

(Rings bell to get attention, or applauds). Thanks everyone. I just want to read out a couple of the “feminism is about…” quotes that you wrote down, because they’re so powerful, so inspiring – (reads a couple out, and maybe also that Pat Robertson one, just for the lulz – “The feminist agenda is not about equal rights for women. It is about a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.”

Right, now we are going to create six small groups with roughly equal numbers of young’uns, no-longer-quite-so-young’uns and coffin dodgers – can we have two people from each of the under 30 and 30 to 50 group to get together with one of the over 50s….

The key question we are asking you is this – “Why are we, thirty years after its publication, is the book still so frighteningly relevant? That is, what have we been doing WRONG? “

Do that for ten minutes. Then we are going to ask you to take your list, prioritise it and focus on the top three problems you’ve identified. And we are going to ask you to brainstorm “solutions” and things we could start doing differently to each of those..

We are asking the scribe to write everything down – these comments will then get typed up and put up on the website so people who weren’t here can see the outlines of what we discussed. Your name will only be attached to a comment or suggestion if you explicitly WANT it to be. Anonymity is the default setting!
Remember the law of two feet rule – if it’s not working for you, take yourself off to a corner!

[30 minutes]

Right, we are now going to hear back from each group for 90 seconds. In that time we want to hear their top three problems and some of the solutions they recommend. Your speaker has to be very focussed and clear! We will ask each one if they want to be filmed. They can say yes and then change their mind later if they’re not happy with how it goes – we will simply delete! At ninety seconds I will applaud and everyone else will join in!

[10 minutes]

Right, lunchtime! You can go here or here or here – and for you outatowners, there’s a map on the wall listing the obvious places folks could go.

After lunch.

Chair (perhaps a new one – share the skills out!): “We know this is the tricky post lunch slot. We also know that if there’s one person whose energy and intelligence can overcome that, it’s Lynne Segal.
We’ve asked her to talk for 30 minutes on two things.
One is the history of “Beyond the Fragments” – why and how it came into existence, how it was received, and any regrets she or the other authors have about it.
The second thing is far trickier, and is going to demand that she thinks on her feet. Or rathe, that she thought over the lunch break! She is going to respond to some of the suggestions that you, in your groups, put forward as potential solutions to the perceived failures of feminist – and utopian in the good sense – organising.

After Lynne’s speech there’ll be a couple of minutes for you to turn to the person next to you to “test out” any question you have, and then we will do a short Q and A. Then, in the final section of the day, we are going to find out what skills and knowledge we have in the room.

Lynne for 30 minutes, strictly adhered to. Applause. Turn-to and then 20 mins Q and A…

Right – the skill share thing. We need to know what skills we need, what skills we want. You have two bits of paper. On the white one, write down something you are good at. On the coloured one write down something you would LIKE to be good at. Hold them up to your chest and walk around the room. If you find a match between one of your sheets and someone else’s – as in you’ve written the same thing on different coloured paper – why not stop and exchange contact details?

Then run novice lines.

Chair: “Right, everyone. Thank you so much for coming, Hopefully you’ve made some new friends, reflected on the strengths and weaknesses of your own activism, your own groups.
All the write ups will go up soon, from the break out sessions and the flip charts.
Lynne’s talk was videoed, as were some of the small group feedbacks. Those will go up on the website imminently.
And the feedback will go up on the website to, but ONLY IF YOU WRITE SOME!! Please be brutally honest in your feedback.
Before you write that feedback though – and this isn’t an underhand way of trying to get you in a good mood to write nice things – I want you to do two things. I want you to go up to someone you’ve not spoken to and just say hello. That should only take you a few seconds.

Right, and that final thing? I want you to thank Lynne for coming and sharing her experiences and wisdom, all the volunteer twitterers, scribes and video operators for their work, and most of all yourselves for participating so fully. Applause please!

(1) Or “consuming” if you want to be cynical about these things.

(2) “Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally” as Keynes said.  Or, as Machiavelli pointed out: “It ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.

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11 Responses to “De-fragging the movement” or “The definition of insanity…”

  1. hb says:

    definitive constructive criticism, DT. i’d have loved to attend that. just googled “novice lines” 🙂

  2. Sarah Irving says:

    Shouldn’t the gentleman from Wales be sending sororal greetings?

  3. Ursula says:

    Bunch of women get together to organise a meeting about feminism, obvs they need a dude to mansplain to them how he would have done it better…..

    • dwighttowers says:

      Really? Is that the best you’ve got? Ad hominem (literally!)?

      I have learnt so much from feminism. I learnt so much from the book “Beyond the Fragments.” I feel it was dishonoured on Saturday by a boring format that doesn’t work, except to make life easy for organisers and passive for “audience” members, who are treated as ego-fodder.

      If the format is so successful, how come the movement is in such a mess? How come it is losing.

      I also think you have dishonoured yourself and Beyond the Fragments with this, frankly, feeble, response.

    • Sarah Irving says:

      So any form of comment or critique is invalid if it comes from a man? OK, as a woman and a feminist, who was at that meeting (were you?) – and left because it was so utterly draining of energy and enthusiasm – I would like to say that your comment is cheap and embarrassing. Many of the techniques described above for making meetings better are those drawn from women facilitators and the feminist movement, aimed at making meetings more accessible for women, less patriarchal, and less hierarchical. It is sad, therefore, that feminists (and maybe this is especially a problem of left feminists who’ve allowed themselves to have their non-hierarchical heritage outweighed by the tedious Trotskyite chalk-and-talk, sage-on-the-stage aspects of their political background) have apparently forgotten these good practices that come from their own movements. So it’s a man reminding them of the existence of these possibilities? Big deal. Rejecting the idea that one gender is inherently right and the other wrong is the basis of feminism – just because in this case the roles are flipped over doesn’t make the female right.

    • Sarah Irving says:

      It’s also pretty depressing in movement-building terms that an effort to give a constructive outline of how a meeting might be made less turgid and hierarchical is met with sarcasm and patronising responses. Maybe this is one reason why our ‘movements’ – such as they are – are going nowhere fast? Because any attempt to evolve and change is met not with thought and useful argument but with shallow sniping aimed at preserving the egos of poor organisers.

  4. asegar2 says:

    Dwight, whatever your sex I want to congratulate you on your excellent script for a meeting that would, I’m convinced, be far more effective than what you suffered through. And I challenge you (in the friendliest way) to give something like this a go yourself. I don’t know if you’ve attempted to run such a meeting like this; I’ll share that when I started delving into participant-driven events myself 20+ years ago I was terrified that people wouldn’t like/appreciate what I felt compelled to try.

    Slowly I got over my fear and got better at facilitating these strange beasts—perhaps these two improvements are related, perhaps not. But you’ve gotta start somewhere. And I believe you have the insight to do, at the very least, a better job than most of the people you describe in the front of the room.

    Just my 2 cents. (What is that in UK English?)

  5. dwighttowers says:

    Hi Asegar2,
    the good news is that when I get the chance, I *do* organise meetings on these formats… and they work really well. (I can confidently say I know this because I circulate anonymous feedback forms after encouraging people to be brutally brutally honest). And the bits that don’t work, I either refine/rejig or throw overboard. And of course, there is no “perfect” meeting – you have to have a plan but be willing and able to innovate as you go – something we could learn from the military “no battleplan survives contact with the enemy.”

    I get my ego-needs met by creating (or, as the buzz-phrase has it “curating”) these opportunities for people to link, learn, share and generally connect. I am intensely bored of hearing myself talk for more than about 4 minutes, and embarrassed (as a white heterosexual middle-class male in what calls itself the ‘non-hierarchical movement’, I have been *trained* to be embarrassed of taking up space at the front of a room.)

    The fact that these facilitation techniques work is what always drives me wild about the set-piece events put on by people who *claim* to be all for movement-building and emancipation and all the other phrases, but lack the insight, the skill or the courage or something else to actually DO anything differently. And when you suggest that they could (or should), you get the mansplaining thing thrown in your face. It’s worse than a shame, it’s shameful.

    “2 cents” – nah, we’ve been getting US TV shows here for ever, and so we’re a complete cultural colony these days.

    All best


  6. asegar2 says:

    Glad to hear you are doing what you espouse so well!

    Best wishes,


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