Prize winning Paper: Empowerment by Design: An Open Meeting of the University College London Cut The Rent Campaign.

This article won best PhD Paper at the 2016 MeSSCA (Media, Communications, and Cultural Studies Association) annual conference. It shows clear evidence of how meeting design significantly affects the level of empowerment and motivation of participants. It presents a big challenge to the deeply held myth that people are motivated by being given information (by the great and good) when in fact it comes from creating spaces where people can speak for themselves.

This paper reports on a research project to test the outcome of a conscious design to increase empowerment and a sense of community at the first open meeting of University College London (UCL) Cut the Rent Campaign (CTR) that took place in October 2015. In a “natural” randomised controlled trial the CTR meeting was subject to a participatory design intervention and then compared with a “control” meeting of a similar campaign the following evening which followed a more conventional structure. A comparison of a range of data from the two meetings shows significantly higher levels of empowerment and community produced by the CTR meeting. This research then provides compelling evidence that personal and group empowerment can be effectively enhanced by smart meeting designs which increase participation.

Background

My PhD research project is to engage in action research intended to investigate and test various mechanisms aimed at increasing the effectiveness of U.K. radical campaign groups. This involves working with specific groups to create design interventions and monitor the results in terms of the affect on their ability to win campaigns. In April 2015 there was a spontaneous rent strike by students at two UCL halls (Marshall 2015). Tenants felt driven to this action by rent increases, sub standard accommodation, and a high level of noise from building work[1].  The success of the strike, in leading to a formal review of the complaints by the university authorities, led to a planning process over the summer for a wider rent strike by the 5000 UCL student tenants in January 2016. Activists felt like such collective action was possible given widespread discontent about rent levels which have risen by 60% in real terms in the past five years. Documentation, passed to the campaign, shows that the university authorities now made £16 million a year profit from rents[2]. I was involved in this planning process and worked on a participatory design for the first open meeting of the Campaign at the beginning of October which was adopted by the campaign organisers.

Design and Methodology

The hypothesis to be tested was that by breaking up into small participatory groups, a campaign meeting can significantly increase empowerment and community. The design to be tested involved the meeting splitting up into groups of six to ten people.  As people entered the room they were asked to sit at separate tables where they would be facing each other in small groups. The meeting started with a  ten minute introduction about the background and aim of the campaign, and how the meeting was to be conducted. Then each of the groups were asked to have a “go round” where each person would speak in turn about why they came to the meeting and what they thought of the rent situation. This was followed by a more general discussion within the groups. After fifteen minutes the groups came back together and Angus, the student union rep, proposed a number of options for the level of the rent cut to be called for by the campaign. This rent cut would be the campaign’s primary demand. Discussion of the issue then took place in the same small groups. After these discussions everyone came back together and one person from each group gave their group’s view and the reasons for it. All the small groups had decided on a 40% rent cut and this was confirmed by a vote. Finally the meeting again split into four working groups to discuss specific actions in the areas of canvassing, organisation in the halls, design of materials, and direct action. Again one person from each group reported back to the full group and minutes were made of the decisions taken before the meeting ended.

The primary method of assessing the effect of the meeting on empowerment and community was an anonymous questionnaire filled out after the meeting. This was supplemented by five interviews of participants and notes taken from my participation in the meeting. The number of people going to the follow up meeting of the campaign was also noted. My definition of empowerment involved testing for both internal efficacy – how individuals felt about their own ability to make a difference, and external efficacy – how they felt about the ability of the campaign to make a difference (Balch 1974). A sense of community was tested by asking about levels of participation in the questionnaire and the feelings of connection created by this participation during the interviews.

A significant problem with such signal test methodologies is their weakness in assigning causality –it is unclear what has created the outputs. For instance, in this case, it might be the case that a meeting without the use of small groups would have created similar results. This problem is overcome by creating a randomised controlled trial (for examples see John et al 2013). In this case it was created “naturally” by the coincidence that the following evening a very similar campaign group at UCL was also holding its own first open meeting. This campaign aimed to promote free education and was part of the National Campaign against Fees and Cuts (NCAFC). The meeting was effectively identical to the CTR meeting. It was the same length and involved a similar number of students (around thirty) from the same London university (UCL). The only significant difference was the design of the meeting. At the NCAFC meeting no time was spent in small groups. The event followed the conventional design for left wing campaign meetings. There were four speakers who spoke for fifteen minutes each. They were seated in a straight row facing three rows of the other people at the meeting. After the talks there was twenty minutes for questions during which five questions were asked by four people (one person asking a question twice). Two of the speakers answered all these questions. Twenty two of the thirty people in the meeting never spoke.

Results

Fifteen anonymous questionnaires were filled out by a random selection of the approximately[3] thirty people at each meeting. The questionnaires for each meeting were identical and a comparison of the data is laid out below:

 

 

Question: How participatory did you find the meeting?
very low low okay high very high
CTR 2 8 5
NCACF 5 5 3 2
Question: How much do you agree with this statement?
“I really feel empowered by the meeting to do radical political campaigning”.
Not at all not much a bit quite a lot totally agree
CTR 3 4 8
NCACF 7 2 5 1
Question: How much do you agree with this statement?
“As a result of the meeting I really feel the campaign can be effective in its aims”.
Not at all not much a bit quite a lot totally agree
CTR 2 9 4
NCACF 1 10 4

 

The questionnaire also included a space for written comments. The difference between the comments from the two meetings is reflected in both their content and the amount written. There were five comments from the NCAFC meeting, three of which were generally positive and two negative. The positive comments dealt with the content of the talks and the negative comments with the process of the meeting – lack of focus and clarity. None of the comments were more than one line of text. There were eight comments from the CTR meeting, all of which were broadly positive. Six of the comments explicitly praised the structure of the meeting – the small group discussions, the democratic nature of the meeting and the general atmosphere of excitement. Four of the comments ran to several lines and one took up eleven lines. Two of the forms also included unrequested comments against the score questions which indicated enthusiasm for the level of empowerment.

These results were also reflected in the five interviews I conducted with participants of the CTR meeting. All interviewees drew attention to the empowering affect of the small groups. They reported that these groups enabled them to make a connection and develop a sense of solidarity with the other people, most of whom they had not met before. This had made the meeting more relaxed and fun. Three of them mentioned that they got a feeling of empowerment from involvement in setting the aim of the campaign in a participatory and clearly democratic manner. These feelings of being part of a group were then reinforced by working together, again in small groups, on specific actions to be taken together to make the campaign a success. The overall affect was to create a sense of community which had not been present at the beginning of the meeting. This led one interviewee to enthuse that it was “the best meeting I have ever been to”. Two of the interviewees had also been to the NCAFC meeting. In contrast to their feelings about the CTR meeting, they reported that they found the NCAFC event boring and unfocused and, as a result, they felt alienated from the campaign and not motivated to join in future activities.

I attended both meetings as a participant observer and noted the development of a distinct difference in the atmosphere at the two events. At the beginning of both meetings there was a similar sense of awkwardness and nervousness. In both settings most students did not know each other and many had not been to a political meeting before. There was a sense of being unclear what was going to happen and what was to be expected. However the atmosphere of the CTR meeting changed dramatically once the first small group session started which included a go round where each student spoke. This seemed to quickly break the ice and students then engaged in animated discussion, sharing their strong views about the injustice of the rent rises and stories of poor maintenance and financial pressures. This excitement continued to build and reached a peak when the democratic process decided that the campaign should demand a 40% rent cut. Two people spoke out spontaneously about their excitement about the prospect of working collectively to achieve this aim and the major political implications of a successful rent strike. This new found sense of collective identity and community feeling followed through into the working groups, where I noticed all the participants in each group making contributions.

In contrast the NCAFC meeting never broke out of the initial formal and nervous atmosphere. The speeches were delivered in a half apologetic tone as if subconsciously the speakers picked up on a lack of engagement from the audience. Several people left early and I noticed other people checking their mobile phones. There were no indicators of community or common identity, not least because most people in the meeting never spoke. The responses to questions were given by just two of the speakers who seemed mainly to be talking to each other. During the questions at the NCAFC meeting the pronoun “you” was used four times, while “we” was not mentioned at all. In contrast in the feedback reports during the CTR meeting the pronoun “we” was frequently used.

While some people in the CTR small groups spoke more than others the inequality was much less extreme than in the large group. As a rough average two people in each small group spoke for 50% of the time while the time spoken by each of the other individuals was broadly equal across the rest of the time. The time spent in the three small group sessions was 1 hour 10 minutes. This meant that 6 people spoke for approximately 15 minutes each and the other 24 people spoke for around 6 minutes each. In contrast the NCAFC meeting involved two individuals speaking for around 25 minutes each (these two answered all the questions) and the two other speakers talking for 15 minutes each. The four people asking questions spoke for around two minutes each and the remaining twenty two people were silent for the whole meeting. This contrast is illustrated by the tables below.

 

Table 1: An approximation of the minutes spent speaking by the thirty individuals at the CTR meeting.

 

Table 2: An approximation of the minutes spend speaking  by the thirty individuals at the NCAFC meeting.

At the end of both meetings explicit details were given of the follow up meeting and people were asked to come along. The following week 28 people turned up to the CTR meeting, effectively the same number as the initial open meeting, while only 9 people went to the follow up NCAFC meeting.

Discussion

These two meetings produced very significant differences in levels of empowerment and community feeling which was consistently supported by all the sources of evidence. 87% of CTR meeting participants, who filled in the questionnaire, found the participation level in the meeting “high” or “very high” compared with only 33% for the NCAFC meeting. A similar pronounced difference showed up in the two questions on personal empowerment and the views on how likely the campaign would be to achieve its aims. 80% of CTR participants agreed “quite a lot” or “totally” with the statement that they felt empowered by the meeting and 86% agreed “quite a lot” or “totally” with belief that the campaign would achieve its aims. This compared with 40% and 27% respectively for the individuals attending the NCAFC meeting. The randomised controlled trial structure of the research provides strong evidence that causal factor of these differences was the differing design structure of the two meetings – namely the three periods of small groups discussions which took place during the CTR meeting. This view was explicitly supported by the written comments on the questionnaires and feedback from the subsequent interviews. Concrete material evidence of significantly different levels of empowerment and community was provided by the big fall off of people going to the subsequent NCAFC meeting, compared with the follow up CTR meeting.

There is much scholarly support for the view that the creation of free and safe spaces are essential to the process of political empowerment (Lefebvre 1974, Harvey 2012) but there is very little detail in this literature on how the design of the communication in these spaces affects this process. The evidence from this research supports the view that empowerment and community are not created by the transfer of information, from those deemed to be especially knowledgeable, but by the communication flows between participants in small groups. More radically it supports evidence from other fields of research that empowerment, and thus group identity and community, are created by the physical act of speech rather than the content of that speech. Literature inspired by Freire (1970),  in participatory education, and Rogers (1961), in counselling,  found that individuals feel more empowered and connected when they are able to speak, in their own words, to name and describe their personal reality as they see it – in a free and non judgemental space. This discovery is supported by advances in cognitive psychology (Lakoff 2009) and neuroscience (Damascio 1994) which show that our thoughts are not separate from our emotions and bodily actions. How we physically act – in this case whether or not to speak – directly influences our level of empowerment. As speech is a linear process (only one person at a time can speak in a group) the physical design of four separate groups in the CTR meeting enabled the absolute amount of speech to increase fourfold compared to the NCAFC meeting which remained as a large group. In addition, in a small group discussion there is much more equality in the distribution of speaking time between people than in a formal speech and questions format.

In a campaigning group context emotion affects (Goodwin et al 2001) are enhanced by the intimacy of the small group which encourages participants to relax and share their views, uninhibited by the larger group setting. This process of realising that others are similar to oneself leads to the development of a new radicalised group identify (Klandermans 1997). This emotional response was reflected in the questionnaire by the unusually high number of participants in the CTR meeting opting for the top score of “totally agreeing” with the two positive statements about empowerment. The feeling of community and ownership of the campaign was also reflected by the participants’ unconscious opting for the pronoun “we” rather than “you” and the enthusiastic and universal contribution of inputs into the working groups towards the end of the meeting which organised specific follow up actions.

In contrast, while both meetings started out with similar levels of caution and separation between participants, the NCAFC meeting structure only compounded these feelings of isolation. There was no opportunity for participation – for people to speak and connect with each other. By remaining as a large group only one person at a time could speak out of the thirty people at the meeting. This drawback was compounded by a full hour of the meeting being taken up by four consecutive speeches without any interruptions.

Although the importance of participatory structures has been taken up in the spheres of business and management (Senge 1994, Slater and Bennett 1990 for overview), progressive political culture seems resistant to responding to these findings. This blind spot is explained by Lakoff (2009) as being due to an outdated notion of rationality, based upon Enlightenment thought, which privileges information over emotional and mind-body dynamics. The eighteenth century view that individuals are primarily motivated and empowered by the force of verbal argument is not how the brain works. Political empowerment comes from the experience of human connection and being able to co-create our political reality with our peers. Strategies which focus on these processes are increasingly successful in contemporary political confrontations as supported by growing research on the importance of peer-to-peer messaging in mass mobilisations (Bennett and Segerburg 2013, Earl and Kimport 2011). As a meta survey of civic resistance campaigns shows (Chenoweth and Stephan 2013), the critical variable in predicting campaign success is the ability to create this mass participation.

Conclusion

Although this research focuses on the comparison of just two meetings with a limited number of participants, it benefits from having being able create a robust randomised control trial structure. The meetings happened in the natural course of events and thus were not affected by any skewing affect of researcher intervention. None of the participants in either meeting were aware of the nature of my research. We can therefore be confident that the results of the research would be replicated in any similar circumstances not subject to research observation. The strong and consistent evidence from a multi-methods approach – the questionnaire, interviews, participant observation, and data of follow up attendance – support the compelling conclusion that the introduction of small group discussions was the cause of significantly higher levels of reported and observed empowerment and community feeling.

One of the main speakers at the NCAFC exhorted her audience to “get out and speak to people more”. The evidence from this paper would instead lead to the advice to “get out and enable people to speak more”. This is the paradigm shift which a presents a profound challenge to contemporary progressive political culture.

Bibliography

Bennett, W, L. and Segerberg, A. (2012). The Logic of Connective Action. Information, Communication and Society. 15, 5: 739-768.

Balch, G. (1974). Multiple Indicators in Survey Research: The Concept “Sense of Political Efficacy”. Political Methodology, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Spring), pp. 1–43.

Chenoweth, E. & Stephan, M.J. (2013). Why Civil Resistance Works. The Strategy of Nonviolent Conflict. New York. Columbia University Press.

Damascio, A, R. (1994). Descartes’ Error. Emotion, reason and the human brain. London. Putnam.

Earl, J. and Kimport, K. (2011). Digitally Empowered Social Change. Activism in the Internet Age. Cambridge Mass. MIT Press.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. London. Penguin.

Goodwin, J.  Jasper, J.M. and Polletta, F. (2001) Passionate Politics: Emotions and Social Movements. Chicago, IL. The University of Chicago Press.

Harvey, D. (2012). Rebel Cities. From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. London. Verso.

John, P. et al. (2013). Nudge Nudge Think Think. Experimenting with ways to change civic behaviour. London. Bloomsbury.

Klandermans, B. (1997). The Social Psychology of Protest. Cambridge, Mass. Blackwell.

Lakoff, G. (2009). The Political Mind. A cognitive scientist’s guide to your mind and its politics. London. Viking.

Lefebvre, G. (1974). The Production of Space. Oxford. Blackwell.

Marshall, T. (2015). UCL students threaten to withhold rent over “unbearable” living conditions in halls. Evening Standard. 8th April.

Rogers, C. (1961). On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy. London. Constable.

Senge, (1994). The Fifth Discipline. The art and practice of the learning organisation. New York. Currency Doubleday.

Slater, P. and Bennis, W. (1990). Democracy is inevitable. https://hbr.org/1990/09/democracy-is-inevitable. Accessed October 13th2015.

 

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[1] See details at  https://www.facebook.com/uclcuttherent/photos/pb.325834490934209.-2207520000.1449158183./382647635252894/?type=3&theater  and  https://www.facebook.com/ucluhallsrep/photos/pb.221947474646190.-2207520000.1449161325./419904491517153/?type=3&theater

 

[2] See details at https://www.facebook.com/uclcuttherent/photos/pb.325834490934209.-2207520000.1449158183./382647635252894/?type=3&theater

[3] In the NCAFC meeting several people left before the end of the meeting.

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Current Research Projects and Research Proposals

We are already involved in working with a number of campaigns around London. Much of this is integrated with Roger’s PhD research on the design of radical political collective action. Here is a summary and a taste of what we are doing:

Reclaim Brixton – done a workshop on effective political action and looking to facilitating the process of designing direct actions.

Occupy LSE – done a questionnaire after their first open meeting to assess the response to an open participatory design of the meeting. Working on designing direct actions.

University College London Cut the rent Campaign. Helped design the campaign and done trainings on facilitation and canvassing. Shown that if a canvassor is trained they can double the number of positive responses to the question of the willingness to go on rent strike. Got concrete data to show that people more willing to strike if they are presented with a conditional commitment structure (ie only not pay if a minimum of others do the same).

Kings Graduate Teaching Assistant Campaign – tested the effectiveness of giving a conditional commitment on the willingness of 500 students to email the Kings authorities to pay GTA in a fair way. The use of conditional commitment increased commitment from 47% to 82%.

London Radical Assembly – Helping to create documentation to facilitate a participatory structure for a London wide network.

These then provide some examples of how RTT research can and should be embedded in ongoing campaigns and groups working for radical social change.

Current projects:

Designing mechanisms to enhance the effectiveness of radical campaign groups.

This is the subject of Roger’s PhD research which is now integrated into RRT. He in the process of recruiting students and activists to help collect data for this project. Specifically this means being involved in campaigns to see how they work and design how they can work better. The research is presently based around three mechanisms which are being tested for effectiveness:

Open space meetings: where people come together to discuss a political situation and split into small groups so as to increase participation.

Conditional commitment: where people agree to act collectively with others on the condition that they also commit to act. (Roger and Guin)

Dilemma actions: direct action which aims to be the authorities into a lose lose dilemma – to repress the action and risk creating further mobilisation or do nothing and concede political ground. (Roger and David)

There are of course other variables, mechanisms, and tactics which RTT could research but these three act as an entry point into the field and through this research we may come across others which are equally or more important. The aim then is to accumulate concrete data on how campaign effectiveness can be improved.

Other projects being presently discussed are as follows:

  • A reading group on radical effectiveness. (Dan Melissa Roger)
  • Learning from Spain: to research the organisation of radical grassroots networks since 2012. How are they organised and how successful are they? (Roger and Dan)
  • Information and communication technology and radical democracy: to research how ICTs can be used to enhance genuine participatory and direct democracy (Matt, David, Roger)
  • Creating participatory political culture: Given the increasing general alienation from established political structures and conventions what are the changes needed to create a new vibrant participatory political culture (Melissa).

This is just a start and, as mentioned, new members are encouraged to suggest new projects and/or variations on the above themes. Where ever possible RTT would aim to work with other networks and organisations and at least initially benefit from piggybacking on their credibility. This would also help with fundraising. The longer term vision/aim is to help create a network of radical media and campaigning organisations to create a larger scale “complex” for the radical Left. By bring together media, research/training, and political action major synergies would occur. Again this is an exciting vision which needs planning for the RTT and related networks.

The Organisation – How It Works

Since the summer of last year a number of ideas have been thrown around. While there is still much work to be done we have developed the following basic structure.

Members: these can be academics, activists or community organisers – anyone interested working with others to further the aims of the RTT. To join this collective/network you simply have to fill in the form on the website stating your agreement with organisation’s aims and giving and details of your background and of what areas who are interested in researching. This information will be put on a members page and people can then contact each other. At the moment membership is free and involves no set commitments but this may change as the organisation evolves over the coming year.

Research projects: Any member can start up or suggest a research project. They can ask for support for this project and attract commitments to it from other members. This could just a small data collection exercise, help with a specific design intervention proposal, or a larger research idea. If they get the level of commitment needed they can then start the project. They can report on it on their own page on the website and via the facebook page. The idea is there not any central control of projects – RTT is an “open source” organisation. Anyone can initiate ideas. This connects with the idea that research data can be crowd-sourced – drawing in many people from academia and/or social movements to contribute their own data and do their own research (see more on this below).

Publications and Collaborations: The results of research will be put on the website and freely promoted. The main format will be “how to do it” documents – advice on how to do specific areas of social change work backed up by research undertaken by RTT and other sources. This might take the form of one page bullet point sheets, or small booklets which go into more detail, and eventually books length publications. We will actively seek to collaborate with other networks and organisations on specific projects so as to engage with a wider audience and combine our credibility and resources.

Administration: the organisation is presently being coordinated by Roger, with Guin and Graham admining the website and facebook page. As the organisation grows we will formalise these roles and create an admin group which is accountable to the rest of the organisation. In order to push forward the aims RTT we plan to attract funding to create waged positions and finance its promotion etc.

Meetings/Get-togethers: We are starting to have regular get togethers – evening socials in London where we can share food and throw around ideas. Decisions about structure and resources can be made at these meetings. These meetings will evolve into more formal decision-making processes in the future but the main aim at present is to create a lively network of people thinking the same thing- radical change needs research and education.

So this then is the general organisation form as of January 2016. We will continually add to it and make it more concrete over the coming year.

 

The organisation then is centered around the development of projects and an evolving set of ways of working. Here is the outline we have so far:

Projects.

RTT comprises of a number of research projects. People commit to these for the duration of the project but not necessarily need to have any ongoing RTT commitment after the completion of them. However this commitment would be clear and solid for the duration of the project. As long as the research project is within the general aims of RTT any member can initiate a project and make a commitment to joining in a project’s research team or network. This way the organisation has an open structure aiming to engage the maximum number of people in finding out and contributing data. This works a bit like the crowd-sourced models used in areas such as astronomy where people can given some data to collect and analyse. So for example a RTT project might want to collect data on how empowering people find meetings. A standard questionnaire could be produced online which can be downloaded and people anywhere can join the project, use the questionnaire to get data at the end of campaign meetings and then enter the data onto a aggregating openly accessible programme they can access directly. This then is the future of open source collaborative research – getting lots of data from many people and sharing it freely rather than the old model of the “expert” researcher trying to do it all by themselves and hiding and restricting access to the results.

Ways of Working.

Open networks only work well if they have clear rules and norms. And these need to be rooted in and reflect the ethical and political values of the network. Here is a summary of what we have so far:

  1. RTT is a participatory organisation which aims to encourage involvement and give respect to all its members regardless of background.
  2. Its meetings and organisation will make decisions by consensus and aim to use creative methods to come to the best collective decisions
  3. Its projects will have clear aims and the commitment of those working on the project will be well spelled out. People will then be expected to fulfil their commitments.
  4. RTT will set achieveable short term aims which are attainable so it is clear where the organisation is headed. Such aims with be set at full meetings of the organisation using an outside facilitator if needed.
  5. Any major conflict or disagreement in the collective will be dealt with by using mediation techniques and members will be expected to participate in such processes if the need arises.
  6. RTT will aim to make all its activities enjoyable and fun. These involve ways to create good will and support between members such as sharing food, social events – and generally keeping it light!

Of course developing and improving on these ways of working is a project in itself and as RTT learns about good and creative practice in other organisations and networks it would wish to incorporate these ideas into its own ways of working.

 

Fundraising.

Last but not least there’s the tricky issue of money. RTT is hopefully going to grasp the nettle that if the organisation is going to become a significant political and educational force then it needs to pay people to do run the operation and to fund the research. So at the beginning of 2016 we plan to start raising money. The ideal situation is to have a large network of supporters and to be able to fund the organisation from many small donations (like 38 degrees). This might be more possible if we link up with radical media organisations and political networks and engage in joint crowdsourcing ventures. In the meantime an idea is to raise around £5-10,000 from immediate supporters, radical charities and individuals. Another idea is to ask for donations from our work with campaign groups – their ability to pay might vary greatly so a donation would round the problem of having a set rate. Asking for money from rich people can be very effective but raises of the problem of independence so an idea is to have a blind trust – if people want to give above a certain level it is donated through a third party and so we do not know who it is from. Lastly there is the possibility of getting money from public funds such as via university research bids. Of course again there is the problem of independence but this could be assessed on a case by case basis and it seems that it is certainly possible to get funding for radical research project via this route.

 

Conference April 2016: Creating Bottom up Political Participation

‘How to do it’ 

Creating Bottom up Political Participation

9-10th April 2016

http://www.how2doit2016.wordpress.com

This weekend event brings together people from many different backgrounds to learn from each other and work together on how to bring about concrete radical social change. It is concerned with how to improve and increase participation so that many more people can contribute to and help achieve our aims. It will involve people who research and study this area in our universities and also political activists and community organisers who are working  to build participatory groups and organisations in their local areas. The question we all want to know is “how to do it” and by coming together we can learn so much from each other and be inspired by each other’s experience and knowledge.

As we all know we are living in a time where conventional political processes have lost relevance and credibility for most people. The real decisions are made by unaccountable elites. Massive state and corporate funding is spent on researching how to control people and make sure they remain passive workers and consumers, while very little support is given to increasing the knowledge of citizens on how to create cultural and political participation – on how to create radical new ways of organise our society. There is plenty of debate on what is wrong and many worthy ideas about how to create change but very little practical information on how radical collective action can be made effective – how it can be shared and created on a large scale. We urgently need to focus on the practicalities of how these ideas can be turned into action.

The event will walk its talk. It will not involve long boring talks to passive audiences but instead be centred around many varied workshops where a small number of short presentations will be followed by a discussion of the issues in small groups where everyone will be able to participate. Through the inclusive of many varied voices we get a better idea of how to effectively create change. Summaries of our collaborative conversations will be written up in the sessions. These texts then will provide practical advice on “how to do it”. This collectively produced information can then be used and adapted by groups and individuals after the event to help increase the knowledge and skills required to create bottom up participation in projects and campaigns. We will tbe bringing together theory and practice to show not only that “another world is possible” but also how to create it.  It’s going to be good!

More detailed information.

Topics we will be looking at during the event.

The list below is a summary of the topics of some of the sessions.

  • Practice: the stories of actual existing community groups and political campaigns
  • Participatory education
  • The role of language in encouraging participation
  • Participation through radical art and culture
  • Opportunities and challenges of participatory organisation in large global cities such as London
  • How to create larger scale collective political action
  • How to create our own media organisations
  • How to organise participatory meetings  and consensus decision-making

This is just a list we have at the moment. This is your event – you can create and organise your own workshop and will be given a room and time slot. The idea is that groups which come to the event can use sessions to look at the issues around how they can work better through involving greater participation (not just to advertise themselves).

The organisation of the event

The two days of activities will be centred around workshops on these themes. There will be no speeches by supposed important people but instead the focus with be on bringing people together in small sessions. While there will be room for variations the main format with be to have three or four short presentations made by people from differing background. They could be people from universities sharing research, activists and community organisers working on the ground or people with personal stories to tell of their experiences. After the presentations we will break into small groups for discussion and the presenters will join in the discussions. To make sure everyone gets the chance to voice their views, the small groups will start with a go round where each person speaks in turn. Then there will more general discussion with a view to building up a picture of “how to do it” in the subject area being discussed. At the end the whole group may get back together and one person from each of the smaller groups will summarise their discussions.  These summarises of the collective thoughts of the participants will get written up to be read in real time on line by people at the event. All being well all the written documents will be available online after the event and can changed on and off line discussions and collaborations (maybe in a similar way to Wikipedia). In this way we will all continually gain better collective knowledge of what works best in the many aspects of creating bottom up political participation.

There will be event facilitators present at all of the discussions – people who will encourage everyone to participate and help the group come to a common view on the issues discussed. We will have a standard training sheet to brief people taking on this role so that everyone taking on this important role has some training

Here are some more ideas about how the weekend will be organised.  These ideas will take on more shape as more people get involved in making the event happen.

  • “Speed networking” as individuals or groups. This is a way to meet and connect with other participants quickly and establish common areas of interest.
  • Breaks and informal sessions. The ‘bits in between’ are just as important as the main sessions.  You can organise your own spontaneous workshop of a theme of your choice at the weekend. We will also have “open space” sessions where people can just come and meet each other and talk about whatever you want. There will be time and space allocated on each day for all these fringe events.
  • Food is an important way of bringing people together and we are looking into creating a meal where we can all bring food to share. There could be a grand picnic (indoor or outdoor, weather permitting) or even possibly communal cooking. There are long traditions of using such occasions to encourage people to share their stories and ideas.
  • We will aim to create a lasting record of the event by recording and videoing people’s  experiences of the event and their views on the issues discussed.
  • The event will encourage people to keep in contact each other and share contact details. There will also be reunion gatherings following on from the event to build upon on the enthusiasms created by the weekend.

 

This is your event
This is an “open source” event – it is your weekend and it is a space where you can initiate your own ideas for sessions and workshops. Instead of having a small group holding all the power and responsibility for all the decisions, small working groups will take on organising the various parts of the event and they will be able to initiate their own ideas of what they want to see happen. We very much encourage you to join in one of these groups if you are interested. A website is being created and anyone organising a panel or workshop can promote it on the site and post comments and ideas. As mentioned, we already have various spaces booked for you to use. There is an open timetable with time slots allocated on a first come first served basis. The locations may not all be at Kings College but spread around different London university sites or free spaces in London.

The event is going to bring together then many different groups and organisations which rarely talk to each to each other. It is through combining different ways of looking at issues that more creative and effective ways of working are discovered.  University departments are being invited such as Culture Media and Creative Industries at Kings College, Anthropology at London School of Economics, and Politics and Sociology at Goldsmiths. Many radical and progressive organisations are also being asked to come along: Free University of London, Open Book, London Citizens, Radical Assemblies etc., as well as many more small campaign groups and community organisations

You are welcome to organise cultural events and evening entertainment for the event – such as group games, dances, cabaret, comedy, music – or yoga, walks etc. We want to have some fun and this always helps towards the sharing of ideas and building of connections.

A book and blog/website will be created afterwards with all the contributions – both articles and personal reflections on the conference. We need people to join a working group to organise this important follow on process so conversations and contribution can continue after the weekend. This may lead to the creation of short but detailed manuals on how to do things better in the various areas addressed at the event.

This event then this is going to be different – part academic conference, part political gathering,  part festival! It seeks to overcome the sterile separation between the cultural, political and educational. By bringing them all together we can create something genuinely new and innovative. We may find ourselves outside our usual comfort zones but we believe that mixing different people and purposes in a context of real equality and mutual respect is an empowering and exciting idea whose time has come.
How to get involved:

Please fill in the questionnaire below.

At present (and this could change) we have a coordinating group which is meeting monthly. We are promoting the conference and setting down its main structures. We are working towards separate working groups dealing with different parts of the organisation and administration of the conference itself. We welcome any ideas on all of this.

So if you could fill out the questionnaire below that would be great Thanks

How to do it Questionnaire.

Name and email?

Would you be interested in attending the event?

Would you like to do a presentation – if so on what topic?

Would you be prepared to organise a panel yourself, or with one or two other people? This would involve finding four people to do presentations and then you put this session on the programme at the time you want and in one of the booked rooms. If so put your ideas here.

Would you be prepared to be part of a conference organisation group- e.g. part of the welcoming team, organise the running of the two days – the timetable, food, note taking, IT etc.

Would you be interested in helping out with any other area of the conference – such as social media/publicity, feedback design, facilitation, etc.

Would be you interested in being part of the coordinating group which meets once a month to help make this a great event?

 

Thanks. Email Roger on organics2go@googlemail.com if you have any other ideas or comments.  We will soon have an online blog and facebook page. Please forward this text and questionnaire to all the people who you think might be interested in getting involved – we want this event to be spread as much as possible via personal recommendation on social media.