Sunday, March 2nd, 2014
We’ve all experienced Grumpy Cat; that person who comes into a meeting or a workshop, seemingly set on bringing everyone else down, blasting any suggestion that might offer the potential for positive change. They often cloak their intentions in notions of ‘being realistic,’ or by regular references to health and safety legislation, or funding requirements. But whatever they call it, the effects are often the same: they suck the life out of the room. What’s the best response in these situations?
I’ve done work with a few different organisations lately, in which Grumpy Cat has made an appearance in meetings or workshops. Grumpy Cat takes different forms in different offices, but his or her (usually his) demeanour sets him or her (usually him) apart from colleagues; Grumpy Cat doesn’t smile, Grumpy Cat doesn’t get excited, Grumpy Cat always has a problem with something.
Now I’m reluctant to label someone as ‘negative’ – I think it is an incredibly loaded term which is regularly used within organisations to silence internal critics and avoid dealing with a critical issue (much like calling someone ‘unprofessional’). I’ve been the ‘negative’ one before, because I was the only person in a group who was regularly willing to highlight subtle forms of discrimination, or point out that something the organisation had long done just wasn’t working.
So I have a lot of empathy for a certain kind of person who tends to receive the ‘negative’ label. But I try to distinguish between ‘negativity’ that is critical of the way things are being done in the present (where they may be doing active harm), and negativity to any ideas of change which at least offer the potential to make an existing problem better.
Even beyond that, I am split in terms of how to best respond when there seems to be the latter kind of negativity in the room. Grumpy Cat may be grumpy for a whole range of reasons, and each probably call for a different kind of intervention. For example:
1) If Grumpy Cat is unhappy or even depressed in life, generally, and their way of engaging is one facet of that unhappiness, how can a facilitator or colleague support Grumpy Cat?
2) If Grumpy Cat is angry at their organisation, but hasn’t found a constructive way of handling it, how can their specific frustrations be raised or addressed?
3) If Grumpy Cat is used to being the person who looks for anything that could go wrong – a common trait in management due to hierarchical accountability structures – how can we help them come into group settings with a different attitude?
However, if the result of any of the above is that Grumpy Cat is actively, if subconsciously, blocking positive changes (thus propping-up the status quo), is it fair to not call that out and hold Grumpy Cat accountable for preventing much-needed progress? A certain form of politeness can allow Grumpy Cat to keep something destructive going, simply by constantly reiterating the impossibility of the change that is needed, through comments about ‘being realistic’ and the like.
Ultimately, I find the balancing act lies in finding empathy with Grumpy Cat, without letting Grumpy Cat ruin the work others are trying to do to bring about change. This could mean having a one-to-one chat with them during a break, to either see if you can get a sense of where they’re coming from, or to highlight the impacts of their attitudes on others. More generally, I often introduce the (cheesy but effective) ‘Yes-And’ over ‘No-But’ approach when starting a session. This forces people to avoid responding to any new idea with dismissal (highlighting ‘why it wouldn’t work’), instead encouraging them to improve on the new idea (‘what could make it work?’).
I’m keen to hear your own thoughts on this, as I’m sure we’ve all sat in a workshop, training course, or meeting with Grumpy Cat before, whether we’ve done so as a facilitator or a fellow participant… Any tips or thoughts are greatly appreciated!
I wrote a book called Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people. You can order it here.
Sunday, February 16th, 2014
Having just received the 2nd print run this week, I thought it would be a good chance to look back at the 1st 500 copies of Anarchists in the Boardroom and see what others have said about it so far…
Due to ordering more books, the new books being slightly lighter, and the upfront costs being covered, I’ve been able to drop the price on the 2nd print run considerably! £12 is now the registered retail price, but you can order books on the website for:
- £11 including shipping within the UK (instead of £15)
- £14 including shipping within the EU (instead of £18)
- £16 including shipping to the Americas, Asia and Africa (instead of £20)
- £17 including shipping to Australia and New Zealand (instead of £23)
In the meantime, I wanted to reflect with this brief Storify story, as to some of the things that others have been saying about the book. It’s nothing like a complete list, but it gives some sense of the community that has begun to emerge around the book and the things they are doing with it.
Once again, I want to say a massive thanks to everyone who’s brought the book to this point! It’s been exhausting at times, but it’s been an amazing journey so far! Thanks for helping shape it!
Sunday, January 26th, 2014
There’s an old political tradition (that probably never had a parallel in the world of management theory) of pamphlet-printing; producing 10-20 pages about a specific theme and selling them as cheaply as you can to encourage the spread of the ideas.
Lovingly hand-folded and stapled by anarchists :-)
The pamphlet tradition lives on in anarchist circles, while havingbeen mostly forgotten by others in the age of the internet. Some could argue that this is just nostalgic, but there’s also something about the ability to physically pass something around. Something cheap enough to give away to a specific person, at a specific moment, without much thought, that doesn’t require you to both be on the same online platform, or to even remember to send a link after a face-to-face conversation.
Having written a book already, I wanted to distil a couple of key elements from it in a more radical, but also more physically shareable format. So I wrote ‘The constructive subversive’s guide to organisational change,’ Steve Lafler did some illustrations, and Active Distribution printed it and are selling it for £0.77 (+shipping).
You can read the first draft on ROAR Magazine, or the second draft on openDemocracy, and then order a physical copy (or three…) from Active if you’re so inclined.
Alternatively, if you haven’t got the book yet (or want another one for some reason), order one of the last 10 copies from the first edition print run, and I’ll throw in a copy of the pamphlet for free when I send it out.
Good ideas should be passed around. And sometimes the internet just isn’t the right way to do it…
Happy constructive subversion!
Monday, December 30th, 2013
Last summer I did a workshop in Ottawa, which was attended by Joel Harden, an old friend from the Toronto activist world, who I hadn’t seen for close to a decade. It turned out he was writing a book, with a lot of similar themes to mine! His is called ‘Quiet No More: New political activism in Canada and around the globe.’ It’s good! Here are a few reasons why you might like to read it.
Quiet No More
Quiet No More is an account and analysis of grassroots organising in social movements, unions and political parties in Canada and beyond, looking at the changes in activism since the rise of the Zapatistas (twenty years ago, on New Years, FYI).
I wanted to include a few quotes and passages that were particularly powerful to me.
This is a quote Joel borrowed from Pam Palmater, a lawyer from the Mi’kmaq First Nation, active in the Idle No More movement, which emerged in December 2012 amongst indigenous communities in Canada, to challenge the active colonial policies being pushed by the Canadian government. Palmater, describing Idle No More, had this to say:
“This movement is unique because it is purposefully distanced from political and corporate influence. There is no elected leader, no paid Executive Director, and no bureaucracy or hierarchy which determines what any person or First Nation can or can’t do.”
Some of Joel’s own words resonated strongly with me as well, for instance, his conclusions about what makes the organising processes of new social movements unique:
“…one is struck by the organization of grassroots movements, whose boldness and creativity demonstrate that the future is truly unwritten. On paper, networks of green organizers shouldn’t be able to stall energy giants, but activist mobilizations have had that very result. Networked round dances, flash mobs, and blockades shouldn’t shift the edifice of Canadian federal politics, but they have…”
And while less-inspiring, Joel’s critique of current trade unionism also struck me, capturing the increasingly transactional nature of many workers’ relationships to the institutions which were critical in bringing about things like forty-hour work weeks and weekends:
“As recent internal union studies have shown, the wider malaise that workers feel with conventional politics includes existing frameworks of trade unionism. In this cynical context, workers often treat unions as insurance agencies rather than sites for collective action.”
More optimistically, Joel’s reflections on the victories of grassroots leadership in the Chicago Teachers Union (who then chose to pay themselves the average wage of their members, a democratic act which is largely unprecedented amongst union brass), and the Canadian Labour Congress’ pensions campaign (which placed its emphasis on the human stories of pension cuts, told by those experiencing them), also explain the organising changes that are happening in the union movement:
“Simply put, direct democracy is the soul of grassroots unionism. It empowers union members to be leaders, and realizes this requires substantial change for unions themselves. … Today, there is much talk in organized labour about ‘branding themselves better” to withstand employer attacks – but the idea that a better pitch is needed misses the point. Effective union organizing will not be driven by brilliant ads, or by focus-group-tested messages that get released, like carrier pigeons of old, only to bring back good news later. Effective union organizing must being by developing the political capacities of union members, the vast majority of whom are spectators in politics.”
While Joel and I place our emphasis in slightly different places (I probably have a bit more faith in the possibilities for NGOs to create change, whereas he probably has a bit more faith in the ability of political parties to do so), we are definitely singing from similar hymn sheets, in our respective writings.
We may also diverge a bit on our sense of the value and importance of autonomous organising methods and the issues often associated with ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness,’ but we are both coming from the perspective that progressive institutions need to change (in a more democratic, transparent and participatory way), if they want to affect wider change themselves.
In brief, I suggest reading it, if you are at all involved in activist organising, inside or outside of progressive institutions. The stories that Joel tells offer hope, and the analysis he adds offers strong insights, from a seasoned activist, as to how we can bring that hope to play in our own activism.
I wrote a book called ‘Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people.’ You can buy the paperback or ebook (PWYC) here.
Monday, December 23rd, 2013
Last month I did a talk at the Open for Change conference in Amsterdam. It was called ‘Open is a gateway drug.’ (You’ll have to watch it to find out what it is a gateway to, though). It was a great event and I reckon there were at least a few more self-identifying anarchists in the crowd by the end of it. Here’s the video.
“Open” is a gateway drug – Liam Barrington-Bush – ODC13 from Open for Change on Vimeo.
I wrote a book called ‘Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people.’ You can buy the paperback or ebook (PWYC) here.
Wednesday, December 11th, 2013
Someone suggested to me today that their charity had been unwilling to adopt more democratic, participatory, transparent organising structures, in significant part due to the perceived ‘reputational risk’ associated with doing so. Without pointing at that organisation, more than any other, this is my Third Sector-goes-Onion response to the idea that a more democratic structure could be seen as a reputational risk. It is the ongoing story that doesn’t make sector press ‘news’ each day.
“Charity maintains undemocratic Industrial-era management in 2013!”
Welcome to the Aid Factory! (CC synapticism on Flickr)
Today, a leaked report from AidHope International, one of the world’s biggest development charities, revealed that the organisation employed a management structure designed in the late 1700s to maximise the number of pins that a pin factory could produce.
In a confidential document entitled, ‘The Way Forward: Relearning the Lessons of Taylorism,’ the organisation describes its approach as “a blueprint for treating a group of passionate people as cogs in a poverty and corruption-ending machine. And then replicating that machine wherever we can get funding to do so.”
Their management structure centralises decisions with those furthest from the ground, offers minimal opportunity for those affected by the organisation’s work to have their voices heard, and crushes anything in the way of creative or innovative thinking, though endless sign-off processes. The practices used by AidHope – which advocates for more transparent, participatory and democratic forms of government in Africa – is based on a few key principles:
1) Only those furthest from the action are qualified to make decisions that affect it,
2) Solutions can be copy-and-pasted from any situation to any other situation that seems kinda the same,
3) White men just seem better than anyone else at all the stuff that pays really well…
Under ‘The Way Forward’ document, lower-level managers were made to feel just a little bit more important than the people they managed. However, they were also made to feel deeply insecure about their position, because of the assumption they were meant to know everything that each of the people they manage know, and work on directly.
The document suggests that managers should pass blame down to their most junior employees, while credit for their subordinates’ work should be hoarded, until their own manager becomes aware of it and decides to take it for themselves.
Decades after such methods began to be discredited in management circles, AidHope has clung to them, drawing fierce criticism from key stakeholders for the seeming hypocrisy of its dated and deeply undemocratic internal practices.
John Eggleton, a Departmental Oversight Controller at the Office for Aid Transparency, expressed shock at the revelation, stating, “It is deeply regrettable that AidHope have brought their good name into disgrace, by demonstrating such a massive gulf between what they tell others to do and what they do themselves.” When asked what he felt could repair the damage done to the organisation’s reputation, Eggleton said his salary grade did not give him clearance to offer solutions, only to feign outrage on behalf of his superiors.
Similarly, when David Luffbottom, Chief Executive of fellow aid organisation, CrossHelp, was asked about the AidHope International situation, he was equally indignant; “Clearly, AidHope haven’t been doing a very good job – I mean, there’s no way anyone who might ever consider leaking a document of this magnitude should have even known it existed!”
Meanwhile, at AidHope, the press team scrambled to prepare a response, telling this reporter that the charity would have an official statement prepared by early next week, once the appropriate directors (one of whom was on annual leave until Monday) had signed-off on it.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, one AidHope senior manager disclosed that the organisation’s board had “thought about changing, but came to the conclusion that no one else within or around the organisation would do things as well as they did.”
Making reference to some of the alternatives to the management structures employed by his organisation, the manager said: “I once heard a senior colleague refer to participatory budgeting, or flat management structures, or consensus-based decision making at a reception at the [House of] Lords, but he was seriously sauced at the time and was probably just taking the piss to get a laugh out of the Peer who was hosting us.”
“Ultimately,” explained the insider, “we realised how hard it would be to justify our own jobs if we began to practice anything that might resemble real democracy, and so decided to just keep doing what we’d always done. Just like everyone else.”
I wrote a book called ‘Anarchists in the Boardroom: How social media and social movements can help your organisation to be more like people.’ You can buy the paperback or ebook (PWYC) here.
Monday, December 2nd, 2013
Self-publishing is both possible and in many ways, fun. But it’s also really exhausting. And I’m wondering if we can find a way to avoid going to a publisher for the next Anarchists in the Boardroom print run, without also burning me out… What do you think?
Me talking about the book at the Open Development Camp, Amsterdam
So it’s been just over 2 months since we self-published Anarchists in the Boardroom!
It’s been an amazing experience, and have made it down to the last 50 copies already!
It’s been a really successful experiment in what can be done without traditional institutions, though it has had some limitations.
If I’m honest, I’m not sure I can keep up with the work involved in self-publishing. It’s been seriously exhausting and has at some level made it harder to enjoy the many amazing conversations that the book has opened up.
There are so many aspects to the work a publisher and their partners traditionally do, even after the book is printed: store distribution, individual book distribution, speaking tour bookings, web selling software, arranging reviews and interviews and finding publications for guest blogs and editorials…
I’m a big fan of DIY – when I was 17 I started a hip-hop promotion company to give myself stages to play on, and had self-produced a vinyl 12” on my own a few years later. I co-founded an international youth exchange without an organisation when I was 20. I really, really enjoy the learning process of taking on a whole new project, and figuring out the skills I need to make it happen along the way.
But this book is proving a massive task. And the time I’m spending with a range of the tasks involved is keeping me from a) doing the stuff in the process I know I’m actually good at and enjoy, and b) doing the paid work needed to pay rent.
It’s also been a significant part of my 60-80 hour work weeks for the past two months.
But enough about me, let’s talk about you!
Having sold almost 500 copies in the first two months, without institutional backing, I reckon odds are pretty good that I could go to a traditional publisher with this and see if they’d like to take it on. This would free up a lot of my time and hopefully provide a bit of institutional backing for some of the logistics of the process.
But it would also mean less control over the process.
Alternatively, I could not print any more and leave it as a Pay What You Feel It’s Worth ebook, and see where it goes in exclusively digital format. This wouldn’t address doing any of the publicity, but would take care of some of the practical and administrative logistics. It’s the lowest effort option, and one that would leave the book’s future in the hands of the universe and see what people do with it…
The other option is more collaborative: what if we collectively became ‘the publisher’?
Basically, what if we figured out all the things that needed to happen to keep this book growing (logistics, publicity, distribution, etc) and shared some of the jobs around?
If there were a small crew of people who wanted to get involved in helping with these things, I would happily share book income around accordingly (though wouldn’t expect this to be a massive amount).
I’m open to ideas, but wanted to avoid a totally traditional division of labour, instead seeing who might be up for sharing a bit of the various tasks involved.
Anyway… I’m just tossing ideas around, but wanted to see what others thought about the 3 possibilities I’ve put forward – or suggesting a new one, if you can think of an option that I haven’t. Here, once again, are the options as I see them:
1. Approach a publisher – lose some freedom, gain some time; get some publicity and distribution support
2. Offer the ebook only going forward – save time on logistics, still have to do publicity work, and miss out on having something to sell at events
3. ‘Collectively self-publish the next batch’ – share the load, may involve extra coordination, maintains freedom about the process, addresses some of the questions of scalability of self-publishing.
Anyway, I haven’t totally thought the details of the 3rd option though, but I’m keen to discuss if you’d like to add ideas to the comments below.
Thanks so much for being a part of the journey!
PS – if you order one of the last 50 copies, I’ll inscribe something personal in it, either for you, or the lucky recipient you choose to give it to for a gift this holiday season
Saturday, November 30th, 2013
On Monday I got the chance to hear John Dada speak. John holds a lot of wisdom, much of which cuts directly against the so-called ‘best practices’ of the development world he’s involved with. One of the key lessons I took from John’s talk? Don’t get too focused on doing one particular thing; you’ll miss what’s going on around you!
John Dada w/ Indy Johar at Hub Westminster on Monday
“You need to cut down and focus on microfinance,” one funder told John Dada, after the Fantsuam Foundation had expanded its work into yet another previously unknown discipline in rural Nigeria.
This is typical advice from many of the ‘experts’ in the development world: ‘specialise in one thing and focus all of your energies on it.’
There’s a particular worldview that this makes perfect sense within. The jargony term this worldview assigns to organisations not heeding this advice, is ‘mission drift.’
John Dada doesn’t buy it though.
Instead, he throws an alternative approach out there, speaking at Hub Westminster on a rare UK visit on Monday evening: “No service should be allowed to stand on its own, because it wouldn’t work.”
Fantsuam Foundation has a serious case of mission drift! What began with microcredit loans in rural Nigeria, moved into local IT provision and training, HIV/AIDS clinics, affordable housing, and eventually a community-owned tractor – crowd-funded by the modestly-sized, but committed network of support that Fantsuam has built-up within and beyond Nigeria through the approach they call ‘integrated community development.’
I describe some elements of John’s work in Anarchists in the Boardroom.
Integrated community development stands-up where so many development projects fail; it doesn’t try to see social issues through the various specialised lenses our organisations like to apply to them.
John was initially trained as a nurse in the UK, but has not let that limit the work he has been involved with. Nursing can only address some of the issues faced by people living in a complex world; if John was to decide to draw clear lines around what he would and wouldn’t do to support the community he was working in, he would not have achieved a fraction of what his organisation has been able to do.
What I took away from hearing him speak on Monday, is the importance of relationships; that building and maintaining trusting connections with people is far more important than many of the specific skill sets involved. We can often learn new skills more easily than we can build new meaningful relationships.
Thus the mission drift: when you’ve built up strong relationships in a community, you can’t just farm people out to another ‘service provider’ and expect them to pick up where you left off.
I remember working at the Scarman Trust a number of years ago, supporting people who had set-up small-scale community projects around London, but who had come to the end of the small grants (usually about £1,500) the organisation had given them. I’d usually done workshops with them for several months, met with them one-to-one, helped them with everything from keeping receipts in order and finding venues to hire, to figuring out what they wanted to do next.
Often, near the end of their grants, I’d end up referring them to one of a handful of other organisations – sometimes funders, sometimes other local groups in their areas. Some people were fine with this, but others were offended. Most ignored the referrals, no matter how much specialist expertise these folks I was trying to put them in touch with had.
One woman put it to me very succinctly: ‘Why do we have to talk to them? We want to keep talking with you. We know you. We don’t want to go to someone else.’
I don’t mention this as a particular endorsement of my own work, but as an indication of the centrality of relationships.
Only in certain professional settings do we seem to forget this; we tell ourselves that we can pass people around, between professionals, services, departments, organisations, without this affecting the people themselves, their health, their trust, their level of engagement, their openness, their commitment to working with us… If we’re not careful, people, churned through so many services, become passive, hand-me-down ‘beneficiaries,’ as uncommitted to engaging with us, as our ways of working suggest we are to engaging with them.
Fantsuam’s work keeps relationships at the core of what it does, adapting services and projects, and learning the skills needed to address the needs of the community, with those in the community itself. This may all seem incredibly inefficient to some of you, but I’m certain that the real inefficiency lies in our attempts to wedge people into services that don’t respect the importance of the relationships we so-flippantly bounce them between, with little regard for what someone invests in opening themselves up to someone else.
And because John and Fantsuam pay attention to people and relationships, one can never say too far in advance, what their next project might be. The community will make that clear though. For many years it has continued to do so. The work emerges to fit the needs of the people involved, which are never as fixed as the business plans we write often make them out to be!
Maybe our organisations would be better off if they could embrace a bit of mission drift and follow the winding road of the real world, rather than the linear trajectory plotted out on a piece of paper so long before?
Tuesday, November 26th, 2013
Julian Dobson has written what will hopefully be the first of many guest posts here about a phenomena in which a local community has constructively subverted their local institutions to create something far better than what was there before. You can help to crowd-fund the book about the Incredible Edible community/guerilla gardening project here.
Incredible Edibles Todmorden
After five years of austerity and with more to come, the need to rethink local economies is more pressing than ever. Governments are not going to do it for us. The big society has evaporated as a political idea. Many of the new private sector jobs are precarious, low-wage roles with few prospects, barely keeping body and soul together.
No wonder people are looking at new approaches to local economies and better ways of doing society – ways that reflect many of the ‘more like people’ principles promoted here.
For six years now one of these experiments has been taking place at the back end of a neglected Yorkshire valley. Frequently dismissed as just another community growing scheme, Incredible Edible Todmorden is serious about rethinking the local economy. But it recognises that economies start with people.
Incredible Edible has come a long way since its co-founder, Pam Warhurst, came back from a conference inspired to take action in her community; since community worker Mary Clear dug up her rose garden and planted vegetables with a big sign saying ‘help yourself’; and since ‘propaganda planter’ Nick Green turned the derelict medical centre where mass murderer Harold Shipman used to practice into a free feast for passers-by.
So here are ten tips for an incredible edible community, neighbourhood or town.
1 Start with what you have. Get out there and do stuff – see Pam Warhurst’s TED talk.
2 Don’t write a strategy document. Council officers are useful – see Nick’s 17-ish tips for activists. But don’t wait for them to set the pace.
3 Don’t ask for permission. Hope starts with action. See Joanna Dobson’s post about this.
4 Make it easy. If you eat, you’re in. That’s why the Incredible Edible ethos is spreading around the world.
5 Propaganda planting starts conversations. See my 10 brilliant reasons why you should plant veg in public places.
6 Make connections through kindness. Here’s why.
7 Start now, but think two generations ahead. That’s why learning is at the heart of Incredible Edible actions. See this story on Todmorden high school’s new aquaponics centre.
8 Rediscover lost skills – especially the art of wasting nothing.
9 Reconnect businesses with their customers. Local food is about local business and jobs. Have a look at Incredible Farm which is selling fruit trees and salads and providing classes and workshops for young people.
10 Redesign your town. See the Green Route in Todmorden that links the town up with edible veg beds and bee-friendly plants. And then think about how the whole town can be different.
And if you like the sound of these, support our Kickstarter campaign to help spread the word and tell the Incredible Edible story. We have just two over weeks to make it happen, so if you’d like to support it, please join us.
Friday, November 15th, 2013
Disclaimer: As I write this, I am livid. I’m sick and tired of seeing my friends experience the costs of other friends’ inability to challenge our own privileged status in our organisations. And no, I won’t stop shouting about it!
White people: still pretty shit at recognising our own privilege. [CC Boston Public Library]
Before I begin, I’d like to suggest reading Sue’s ‘Open Letter to the Movement,’ Nishma’s ‘Inclusive movement: A call to action,’ Guppi’s ‘On Posh White Blokes in NGOs,’ and if you want to really delve deeper, Andrea Smith’s piece on ‘The Problem with Privilege.’
…Think of this as one angry person of traditional privilege’s open letter to all of the people who also hold traditional privilege in environmental and social justice organisations.
We all hold privilege in particular situations, but some of us experience it as the norm, rather than the exception in our lives. We are usually, but not exclusively, white, male, straight and at least semi-affluent. And whether we pay attention to it or not, traditional power structures have been built in our image.
I use the verb ‘hold’ quite deliberately in relation to privilege. I increasingly feel it is less passive an action than I used to think. Traditional privilege is held by those who’ve always had it, by continuing to pursue the status quo, as others are excluded and silenced by it. When we aren’t actively challenging privilege, we may well be perpetuating it, regardless of what other worthy work our organisations are doing.
Very few unions, NGOs, voluntary or non-profit organisations I work with have bucked this trend.
Discrimination: Still going strong
We’ve had information about racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. available to us for a long time now. We’ve seen lunch counter sit-ins and riots, and declared ourselves to be friends of those who have struggled – and often given their lives – to create a world that treats them as human beings.
Most of us will acknowledge many of the ways that discrimination still takes place in the world: police violence, pay gaps, media portrayals…
But there are plenty of ways we still don’t acknowledge discrimination.
- Do we acknowledge the ways that only posting our new jobs on job websites frequented primarily by others with considerable privilege is likely to mean we continue to look like the same organisation we have since the 1950s?
- Do we know how much more difficult it is for someone who has grown up in a home that speaks another language, or even dialect, to feel comfortable enough to claim ‘excellent written and spoken English’ when they see it as a constant requirement in all our job descriptions?
- Do we look at the ways that the dismissal of visceral, spiritual, traditional forms of knowledge that are core to so many other cultures, can make it far harder for others to feel comfortable in meetings, or working relationships more widely?
- Do we ask ourselves how it might feel to attend yet another panel filled with white men, given yet another space to tell a wider audience what various white men have to say about a topic?
While it’s not to say there aren’t specific – and at times valid – reasons for each of the above, continuing to assume that their occasional validity makes them universally ok, means we are constantly closing and dead-bolting our doors to others who should be free to help shape the organisations and movements we are a part of.
Maybe some people with less in the way of traditional privilege really won’t want to engage, preferring to create alternative spaces that work for their communities. But even if this is the case, there is a level of responsibility on those of us who hold traditional privileges to make sure that is not the only option on the table.
As a white male, I won’t pretend I understand all of the ways in which lots of people struggle with discrimination in work places. But I’m also doing my best to accept what I’m being told about so many other peoples’ experiences of organisational cultures, rather than trying to judge them through my own lenses. When one story after another corroborate very similar feelings of dismissal and exclusion in social change organisations, I have to assume that I’ve got it wrong, and that my lack of understanding is the result of a blind spot afforded by so many layers of privilege I bring into my work.
I know that several of my good friends have become deeply depressed, and even suicidal, in large part due to their inability to be heard or have their concerns addressed within the largely white, patriarchal structure of our organisations.
Too often, when they have reached this point, their issues have been dismissed as unrelated mental health issues, absolving the people and organisations’ of any culpability for what has happened, de-legitimising peoples’ own perspectives on their lived experiences.
This is why I’m so angry. These stories are avoidable, if we actually took on the realities of the harm we are causing our friends, and to the causes that are losing their efforts and perspectives, each day.
From intellectual to visceral change
My gradual process of accepting the judgements of others about their experiences of our organisations, comes from a visceral acknowledgement of the issues, not just an intellectual one.
One way that organisation’s perpetuate certain demographics and dynamics is through the notion of professionalism that tries to keep everything work-related within the realm of intellect. This is European Enlightenment thinking (which feels incredibly foreign in much of the world), dominating our organisations. Many other cultures see more visceral, emotional understandings, to be just as important as one’s intellectual, rational point of view.
The empathy we need to find is not going to be found via intellectual understanding of someone else’s struggles, but through a visceral sense of empathy and human connection, and a clear sense that what they are experiencing is fundamentally wrong. When we try to relegate these conversations to the intellectual, we can easily make the rational case for why we continue to do what we’ve always done. When we feel some sense of connection with what someone else is feeling though, it’s far harder to ‘mansplain’ (or ‘whitesplain’) it away.
Privilege as wallpaper
I’ve written before, as have others, about the invisible nature of privilege when you have it; that the same things that exclude some, make others feel at home (or at least not too far from it).
But when we feel at home, we often de-prioritise the need for change. Everything else comes to be more immediately important, even when we intellectually recognise that all is not right.
Every time we de-prioritise asking the questions about making our organisations truly welcoming places for people who haven’t had very similar life experiences to our own, we reinforce our power and privilege. Privilege is making the choice to continue to inflict hardship on others, because doing so is easier than digging into a realm of very difficult questions, about ourselves, about our organisations, about the ways we relate to one another and on whose terms. Privilege is also simply being ‘too busy’ to open this can of worms. Without much effort, I can choose to put privilege on the backburner again and again, but that doesn’t give someone experiencing its flipside the ability to stop experiencing it until ‘other things settle down a bit.’
Is privilege our priority? No.
Addressing this stuff is HARD. But not nearly as hard as it is to be on the receiving end of it, day after day. That’s why all of us, when we find ourselves in positions of privilege, need to push it to the forefront – shout about it wherever we can.
Maybe a starting point for those who haven’t begun to make an effort in this area, is to acknowledge – even to ourselves – that it is not as high a priority as we claim it is.
If we acknowledge that, how do we feel about that acknowledgement? Are we comfortable with knowing that when we choose not to prioritise looking at the individual and institutional forms of oppression we are a part of, we are assuming they are less-important than the wider social and environmental justice aims of our organisations? We are accepting the depression and the resentment of people we consider our friends as an acceptable cost of our work?
I’ll leave that with each of you to answer for yourselves. It’s not that any of us can change all the ways that privilege affects people’s lives, but we can be more conscious of it, along with the many ways we benefit in different situations. We can also change specific parts of our work or our behaviours to open up new spaces for others to be able to shape some of these critical conversations.
But here’s the simplest starting point, highlighted by Guppi in her ‘On Posh White Blokes in NGOs‘ post: listen to what others are telling us and don’t try to explain it away. If we can’t do that, we won’t be part of any solution.
Chapter 4 of Anarchists in the Boardroom delves into the questions of power and privilege in social change organisations. Feel free to order a copy.