Tl:dr blog post about how getting the venue, design and delivery of a meeting right is if not a distraction, then only a very small part of movement-building. We need to de-centre ourselves and see ourselves as a (small) part of large ecosystems of dissent.
“How do we get decent feedback on why people never turned up in the first place? :/”
That – coming in the midst of a discussion about suitable venues (the wrong question?) – is the closer to the right question.
I will cut to the chase because life is short and we only have 12 [checks notes] 11 years until the total Mad Max climate catastrophe hits us [not].
The right question, if you are wanting to unmadmaxify the future is this – how do we build social movement organisations which people can be meaningfully and continually involved WITHOUT COMING TO MEETINGS.
So I’m going to talk about why so many people come to few meetings, or NEVER come to meetings. Then I am going to talk about why that matters. Then I am going to talk about why we focus on meetings (you can skip this) and finally, what is to be done.
- A very incomplete list of why people never come to meetings (please add to it – email me at email@example.com)
- They came to one once and were basically ignored
- They came to one once and were intimidated by all the hard-core activists competing with stories of their derring-do, and setting up competitions versus the derring-don’ts….
- They came to one once and were pressured into standing on street-corners selling unreadable newspapers
- They came to one once and it was clear the group that called the meeting had no viable plan or hope of success and was just a club for outrage/eargout
- They came to two but it was clear that all the real decisions had already been made/were going to get made in the pub afterwards, and they couldn’t go.
- They care about the issue(s) but just don’t see themselves as “activists” because they’re too old/square/consider themselves stupid/not brave enough [do not under-estimate the success of our lords and masters in creating prison bars inside the heads of most of the people under their control.)
- They can’t afford to come because it would involve getting a babysitter
- They can’t afford to come because it would involve paying for public transport (and middle-class activists with disposable incomes have ZERO real understanding of what it is like to be so skint that if you go to the pub you can have the 30p cordial and that is it because austerity has screwed you]
- They can’t afford to come because they have to get up early to go to a soul-destroying minimum wage job
But, you know, who cares about all those losers. We can have a revolution right here, with just us….
This: The. Waste. Of. Talent. And. Potential. Is. Staggering.
2. Why it matters
We end up being mildly white, mildly middle-class, invisible to the filters we either created or perpetuated. This blindingly white middle-classless does not go entirely un-noticed by those a) opposed to our goals and b) those who share our goals.
You can hide behind “it feels inclusive”. You can say “who are you going to believe, me or your lyin’ eyes”. But if you do those, don’t be surprised when your social movement organisation goes up like a rocket and down like a stick.
3. So why do we focus on meetings?
(Skip this bit if my particular brand of misanthropy and cynicism is not to your liking.)
We mean well. We want our movement organisations to prefigure a better world. We are sensitive to the accusation of race, class and gender bias (while disability issues are still a pretty distant second/third/fourth).
And there is a desire for a visible manifestation of “diversity”, to re-assure ourselves that we are inclusive.
Put it is way: say we “succeeded” in getting a small number of “diverse” people along to a meeting or three. What we would have built, unless we tackled the broader deeper questions, would be the equivalent of Potemkin Villages.
It would be a form of potemkin inclusivity (potemkinclusivity – see what I did there? My latest tedious neologism!!)
4. So what is to be done? Here is more unsolicited #oldfartclimateadvice
- You need to think about ALL the barriers why people might not come to a meeting, and realise that there is a very limited amount you could do about many of them. (footnote 1)
- Then, obviously, DO those things.
- Think of “services to the broader movement”
- Have a mental (written) list of people and organisations. If someone isn’t actually a good fit for your organisation, suggest they get involved in another. Introduce them to people in that group
- See your organisation as part of a broader ecosystem (this is one of the things that is really getting on my tits about XR – the conflating, by some within it and others who ought to know better, of it and the movement. Yes XR is the biggest, gaudiest player at the moment, but it is not the whole system (footnote 2)
- Have lists of jobs that people can do WITHOUT coming to meetings. When people DO those jobs then say thank you – in private or if they are up for it, by reading out in the meetings that those people won’t be at, the work they did, and applauding (I know it sounds cheesy, but it will make people who are currently involved and at the meetings realise that even when they do eventually stop coming – and they will – they could still be involved meaningfully in the project
- Can we please start to think about success as not about getting people to turn up to meetings (or even demonstrations) about growing movements.
- Somebody please please come up with a better term than the academic one – “legitimate peripheral participation” that we can all start using.
In practice, this is about
- finding out what knowledge, skills and relationships people HAVE
- finding out what knowledge, skills and relationships people WANT
- asking them how (if) they want to use their specialist skills for the health of the organisation. (who knows, maybe they want to “switch off “from that and cut onions.)
- asking them when they are available, to do what, for how long (while being aware that this will change – in both directions
(1) Here is a quote from an blogpost that is emolliently called “Whiny activists make my blood boil“
The ecosystem approach.
Have just read in the Financial Times of the failure of the Michelin “drive on a flat tyre” product. The writer made the point that it all hinged on enough garages installing the new and expensive kit, but that it wasn’t in their interests, so the product failed, and Michelin looked like greedy stupid muppets. Michelin had focussed on the quality of the specific product and that customers seemed enthused, but ignored the “ecosystem” of suppliers etc. Imho, it would never have happened if they had studied Peter Senge’s “The Fifth Discipline”!
My point? How on earth can “we” change the culture of ‘activism’ (fool’s errand? wrong task?) when there are so many interdependencies and – if you take the Transactional Analysis line – dependencies? We might (and I do intend) to “train up” (and learn from!) dozens of people to increase their repertoires around meetings, event reports etc etc. To what avail if they are simply in dysfunctional smugospheric/ego-foddering/Parent-Child (mis)organisations? The lament of activists for ever…
(2) I remember getting into an argument (I got into lots of arguments) during climate camp, the last big gaudy group that thought it WAS the movement, where people in the comms group were insisting that the most important thing was people turn up at the camp. For me, I always knew that most people who cared about climate change, who we were trying to “reach” (i’ll come back to the quote marks in a bit) either wouldn’t or in fact couldn’t. So exhorting them to do so could miss opportunities to engage, to learn, and to gain from them.
Next up: How I would design a meeting for 200 people that involved new people, old people and the what next question. Betcha can’t wait…