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How to organise an empowering open meeting. Radical think tank training document July 2016

By Roger Hallam

We all agree that we want to create empowering situations where people want to take collective action to make a better world. This “how to” document takes the radical view which is supported by overwhelming evidence from many fields of psychological and social research, that people get empowered by doing it for themselves – not being told what to think and do. Or as a Spanish activist mate told me “people know it sucks” – the task is to create spaces where they can gain the collective identity and confidence to do something about it.

Concretely this means a massive change from the old progressive left/activist way of doing things – talks and speeches are out – small group discussion and practice exercises and role plays are in. My own research shows that people coming out of the participatory type meetings laid out below are 80% empowered while those coming out of the old 4 speakers and a short question and answer period come out with 20% empowerment. It’s that stark – so let’s get with the programme and do what works!

Okay so below is a basic routine for a participatory meeting. There are of course variations on the theme and once you have “got it” on what turns people on – them doing stuff not you – then you can play around with the details and adapt designs to particular circumstances.

Here then is a detailed description of a first open meeting for a campaign or on an issue.

Promotion

The meeting – call it a get together, meeting, gathering – whatever makes it sound not too old boring political. And use everyday language not lefty language. Say what people are doing in the third person not want you want people to do. “People are pissed off about X . There is a plan for 100s of us to get together on the 4th September to decide what we are going to do about the situation. It’s gonna be cool – tell your friends” – use street language – make it sound like a meet up of mates.

Before the meeting

Have 2-4 people (depending upon the numbers expected) to explicitly welcome people as they come into the room. There should be no time for people to start feeling nervous or unsure of themselves. The opening line should be “Hi I’m Jo, thanks so much for coming. You coming about this x issue right?… great (let them say why they’ve come). Great okay so this is the situation… sorry what’s your name… great..” Note: get them to speak about why they’ve come – their name – and affirm and feed back to them what they tell you “so you found this recent pay cut a real bummer”.

Then go through what will be happening a bit and lead them to a table or circle of chairs for 7-8 people. As people come through the door fill up the circle’s one after another. Introduce the other people in the circle – you are a host to the party! “So this is Jack – he’s from Hackney too – Jack this is Joe and Tracy.. “ – say something they have in common so they have something to start a conversation about. So they are straight into having a chat before the meeting. Again, no time for feeling awkward – the aim is they feel welcomed, appreciated, and valued – and hey, they are now talking with some cool people in a nice small group.

Next bring round the nibbles – so they want a drink – have some on hand? People love food. Not just because it is nice but because of the sub conscious message that this is a relaxing space. It gives something to do with their body so they are more relaxed. The body affects the mind – that’s how it works.

Run up to starting

Start the meeting a bit late but not too late, 15 minutes max. This gives more time for pre-meeting chatting and for late people to get into the room but not so late that it starts to piss people off. Everything so far then is telling people this is familiar, it’s nice, it’s relaxed. Remember most of these people may never have gone to a political meeting before. The Golden Rule is people cannot move too far out of the comfort zone in one go without wanting to go back into it – there is a sweetspot – challenging (I.e. exciting) but not too challenging. In the meeting all the non-verbal cues need to be reassuring – the welcome, the chatting – people like to meet other people – and the food.

Starting the meeting

Two people introduce the meeting – two voices holds the attention better. The two people need to reflect the audience – and be biased towards the less confident groups – I.e. they should be women and ideally a minority group. This sends a reassuring message to these groups that this set up is run by “people like me”. Again, this is empowering.

They first welcome people enthusiastically – they may say something self depreciating – “ Hi this is the first time I have organised a meeting like this so bear with me..” this is good again as it sends the message “these people are like me” – you want to avoid the “they are the experts and I am just here to learn from the great and good “ which subconsciously sends the message “you cannot act from your own initiative because you know fuck all”.

They introduce the theme of the meeting – not more than 2 minutes otherwise people start to get turned off and starting thinking the space is where they learn from the top guys rather than each other.

You also want to introduce the procedural values of the meeting in clear and accessible language. “Okay so we want everyone who has come this evening to be able to have their say – everyone is important and valued here and so everyone should have time to speak. So at the beginning of each time in the groups people will speak in turn around the circle to start off with. Remember this is about listening as well as speaking and working together as a group not just mouthing off. Its also about making sure people who often not get to speak get really heard so we will ask women rather than men to summarise the discussions in the groups…. “ and so on.

Keep this short – you can remind people about stuff more in the second input. Again put stuff in the 3rd person – “at this meeting this is happening because .. (say value in ordinary language)” not “I / We want you to do this because…” This then subconsciously informs people of the rules of play and 90% of the time people will accept this if they know it beforehand. It is so much more effective than trying to shut people up in the middle of their flow when they have not been told what the rules are.

So then you say:

“Okay so let’s have a bit of time to get to know each other. I know some of you have been chatting before the start of this meet up so what you can do is go round with each person speaking in turn – say who you are, why you came to the meeting and what you feel about the situation/issue X”

Note don’t tell them what to do – frame it as “what you can do .. is”. Also note the word feel – we want people to emote a bit – share feeling – this is the quickest way to overcome isolation and build connection “ Well to be honest I was pretty fucked off about this whole situation. I tried to put it out of my mind but really I was pretty angry about it all.” “Yeah you know I actually feel the same. You know you try to just get on with stuff but deep down I know it sucks”.

… Make sure the 3 questions are written up on a big board or sheet. Most people need to be told 3 times something new to take it in. Give people 15 minutes for chats in their group of seven people – once the go round is done they can chat if they have time. Organisers go round each group and checking everything is okay – bit of “social stroking” – … “Hi you all okay? Great.. That’s right just go round in turn and each person talks about the things to talk about are up on the board – who you are , why you’ve come and how you feel about all this stuff”.

All this then is doing two things – first people are relaxed – they are in nice small groups – they are getting to know each other – it is feeling safe. Second they start to own the issue. This process is two-fold. First the act of speaking on the issue makes me feel more in touch with how I really feel ( I may not have really voiced my feelings about it up to this point). Second you suddenly realise there are other people who feel the same. This gives rise to a great feeling – at last you are not alone and isolated but we are all together – part of a group. Maybe we can do stuff together on this issue…

Second input

Go around the groups and tell each group they have 1 minute to close up (this gives them some forewarning and so it is not such a big interruption when the minute is up). Then someone at the front calls everyone together. An option here is to ask for 2-3 testimontials – “would say 2 men and 2 women like to get up and come to the front and say what they have been talking about – just for 2 minutes nothing longwinded”. This means again people see “people like me” who I can relate to saying stuff I am thinking but which I have previously largely kept to myself. And people are not afraid of saying it.

Okay then you introduce the second break out group (note don’t use jargon – EVER!) – say “ okay we’re going to go back into our groups and talk about what we want.” Here you may have some proposals for a campaign – e.g. a rent cut – or wage increase – or a cut in pollution levels. You can have a number of proposals already to discuss or get the groups to think up new ones depending on the state of the campaign.

Again give people 15 -20 minutes to discuss.

In the second input you can give more information about the campaign and the issues – several people here can give input – Note you do this at this point in the meeting not at the beginning. Once people now feel they “own” the meeting and are comfortable in their groups they can hear information without thinking that the speakers own the meeting. So this is why you do this stuff here. The inputs though need to be short and a different person doing each one. Ideally a 5 minute input could be shared by 2-3 people – “okay so Tracey and Joe who are from around here are going to speak about X”…

Second break out group session

By this time the groups will be nicely functioning – people know each other – they are mates and everyone should be empowered to speak (people can be reminded of this before the break out and/or there can be another go round to start the break out group period). They can be asked to agree on 3 proposals. One woman from each group then feeds back to the main group the 3 proposals and briefly says why they are important. It is especially important all the feedback people here are women as this is the part of the meeting which is most technical/political and the social learning we all have socked in is that this is a man’s thing. Women doing it makes it clear this is for everyone especially the women present in the room – the message is “we are definitely (still) part of this”.

The ideas are written on the board and if similar or effectively the same proposals come forward, then they are grouped together. Then each person in the meeting comes forward and ticks three ideas they like. Note don’t ask people to do the three they like the best as this tends to create pressure and they spend too long thinking about it. This is a group thing – not one individual deciding for everyone. Note again the use of bodies being involved in the voting process – the act of your body ticking the sheet sending a unconscious message to the brain which goes “My body is doing this – therefore I believe in what I am ticking – and I own this process – I am participating in a democratic situation”. The bodily movement then reinforcing the feeling of being part of something and so a sense of empowerment comes through the shared ritual.

There will then be 2-3 proposals which come out on top. Read these out and have a clap and cheer for the winners. This creates some excitement – we are acting as a group and decided in a transparent democratic way what we think should happen. Note a key part of sustained empowerment is the creating a transition from individual feelings to group action. Feelings are great but without action any empowerment goes away within hours or a days after the meeting “that was great but nothing is changing – it was not real”. In many meetings then this is the stage at which a new stage of empowerment starts which is quite excilerating – “something is actually going to happen here – and I am part of it –wow!”

So lastly split people into groups with a list of stuff they can do. This can be done in a number of ways. Note: make sure there is enough time for this in the meeting.

If the meeting is part of an ongoing recruitment process then there can be a list of collective activities that people can sign up going from low commitment to higher commitment. Each person in the go round says what they want to do. Then everyone has a “commitment sheet” to take home with them on which they write what they are going to do and then sign it”. This is just for them – but they each person stands up in their group and say what they are going to do. This process is a standard way to ensure that after the meeting people are not overwhelmed by the “noise” of their busy lives and their commitment falls by the way side. There are two processes here. First again it is bodily thing – the body writing down what you will do informs the mind that this is real and has to happen – this is unconscious but can increase follow through to action by 30%. Second telling people who you now know and respect that you are going to meet with them next Thursday to do X puts your reputation on the line. Everyone has heard you verbally commit – it’s not just down in the minutes somewhere where you and they can easily forgot (“ah sorry mate I didn’t realise I was down to do that”.. routine). If you don’t turn up people are likely to think you are crap and we are all super sensitive to what others think of us – particularly those within our support network.

Alternatively if this is a new campaign or you want to provoke more initiative you can split into themed working groups for the last break out group, e.g. outreach, coordination, direct action, social media and press, design and art stuff etc. Each group again has a go round each person saying what they think could happen and any contacts/skills they have. Then there is a discussion on priorities for the group “okay so we are going to do X next Wednesday, and Y tomorrow” . Then you repeat process above – each person writing down what they are doing, they sign it and then read it out to the group.

A third variation on the theme is that the meeting is designed to raise participation in one or more actions. If the action is civil disobedience then it is useful to use conditional commitment – “ I will if X number of others do the same”. If there is a target for the action to go ahead on the commitment sheet you can have the following question:

I will do X if at least Y other people commit to doing it as well”. Yes/No.

Then people can put down their details. People can discuss it in the group and encourage each other to do it.

Alternatively (e.g. if there is no set target yet) people can be asked:

how much other people would have to do X for you to take part as well”

Circle one option below:

I would do it however many other people do it

I will do it if (please circle) 5 10 20 50 100 400 1000 5000 other people do it

I would not do it however many other people do it.

From this information you can get an idea of where the critical mass is and then go back to people with the critical mass target. E.g. if 30 people in the meeting say they will do it if 20 or more others do it then it is on for those 30 people. If 40 people say they will do if 50 or more people will do it then this could be set as the target.. “look 40 people will do it if 50 do it so let’s get out there in the next week and get the extra 10 people and then it’s on!”

Doing conditional commitments in meeting is still in its infancy so more feedback is needed to polish this up. However, the principle is that people are encouraged to act on the basis of other people acting and for many this is the key issue for direct action and other higher risk/commitment collective activities.

Note: the admin back up needed for this is CRUCIAL – a record of all the details of each person is needed here and then need they need to be contact within 24 hours of the meeting (see below)

Note: during this section 2-4 people go round with a bucket (make sure already some change and notes in there before you start) asking for donations “for organising the meeting and getting thing to move forward”. You can combine it with helping a political group “and 50% goes to XXX group”. Put the bucket in the middle of the circle so people can see each other putting in money. This encourages everyone to do it.

Note: this is also the time to get names, emails, and telephone numbers. This is best done on a laptop so people type in the correct letters. 20% of written emails are difficult to read! So if you use a clipboard sheet, layout it out so it says “IN BLOCK CAPITALS PLEASE” in the email box for each person. You can also have a section for what are you interested in “please circle .. admin, doing stalls, helping on the 25th july demo, doing direct action etc. “ This is vital information for the follow up and maximising the escalation process after the meeting. Remember we are building a movement here, not having a nice one-off get together.

Finally coming back together

Here it is great to have 3-4 final testimonials of 2-3 minutes again biased toward women and minority speakers. People go “ “Well to be honest I was pretty unsure about coming tonight but well it was really great – I’m really thinking we can go places with this.. I particularly like… e.t.c.)

After each person there is a clap and cheer e.t.c.

Then do practical summary of the state of play – next meeting – next action e.t.c.

And then a final testimonial from the 2 faciliatators – and heart felt thanks for coming along and final clap and cheers. (Traditionally somewhere in hear everyone sings a song – like in the American civil rights movement!)

Follow up after the meeting

It is totally vital people are followed up after the meeting – with a phone call, text and/or email, thanking them so much for coming, reminding them of what they have committed and reconfirming the details (eg place and date) of future activities – three things. Getting people to do this is a great job for new people – I.e. it is easy and does not involve any risk/big commitment. Also new people sound more approachable “ Hi Jane here – I am new to the group and I know it was the your first time to the meeting last night. Just wanted to says thanks so much for coming. I really appreciate your involvement and that there are more people getting involved as well as myself. I think you said you were going to do X. So we are meeting to sort this out next Wednesday… see you then…”

In small groups it can be good to have 2-3 people who have the formal role of regularly checking up on new people – so they have a personal contact in the group they can go to ask about stuff they are unsure of rather than just emailing “the group”. Personalisation is the key to the persistence of commitment and continued involvement. And immediately being given stuff to do and small responsibilities – people like to have something to do. Again the body/action informs the mind. The process is I act and therefore am committed not I am committed and then I act.

Also, in a meeting there is always distribution of enthusiasm. Usually the most enthusiastic people come up afterwards to speak to you. “Hi I’m Jack – I just wanted to say what a great meeting thanks for organising it. … “. These are your future key activists – pro-active (that come to you) and positive. So in the conversation you want to get them involved in a training process. Escalation is all about getting exponential growth. For example, you hold a meeting and get 3 people coming up afterwards, 2 of which agree to get trained to run their own meeting. They go to a 2 hour training and learn the stuff in this text. They have organisde their own meetings knowing the KEY POINT is to identify the 2 most enthusiastic people coming to those two meeting and to ask to be trained to run their own meeting. So after the two meeting there are 4 people now running meetings – then 8 then 16 … This needs to be conscious and systematic and micro-designed.

After a few meetings you can then predict an average increase in commitments. So for a direct action with a conditional commitment target of 500 people you might need 25 meetings each of which gets 10 people to make the commitment. That is 250 people in the bag, and then through other channels and then with the momentum effect of 250 asking others they personally know to come on board you get to your target of 500. The meeting then is to get to the 30% of the target identified by research as the tipping point where things take off of their own accord.

More broadly then the meeting has to be embedded in a detailed (i.e. it has numbers on it) escalation/momentum plan of mobilisation. This needs to be worked out beforehand and be part of an overall strategy. So you don’t do the meeting and then have 10 people keen to do stuff but not have any real idea of what you want them to do. Everyone needs to know the plan and off you go.

Variations on the theme and add-ons

The meeting should not go on for more than 2- 2.5 hours and stop at a pre-agreed times so busy people know the deal. Make sure that you stick to the time so the vital “getting commitments” section at the end is not rushed. In larger meetings it is good to have a time keeper. This does not prevent the vital “and we are all going to the pubs afterwards” add on which is a great time/space for forging personal connections (and having a well earned drink!)

The main add on is to do exercises and role plays. It is well established that people learn best through doing and acting out the roles they are going to do for real in the future. So these can be added into the middle section of the meeting. They need to be clear in the aims and well explained and so not too complicated. Don’t be too ambitious, particularly with new people meetings. A 5-10 minutes exercise which involves getting people up off their chairs is fine. Again this is a body thing – the more people move around a bit the more they will enjoy the meeting.

In large meetings it is still (even more!) vital to split people into the small groups. Make sure you have a big enough space to do this and have the chairs set in circles. This is totally scalable and has been done around the world in meetings of 1000s of people – you just need enough welcomers/stewards – say 1 for every 25-50 people coming to the meeting. You can have people sitting in circles with 1000 plus person picnics/general assemblies. You then need a PA to communicate the key elements. In a really big assembly you can split the assembly into 2 or more large groups and have 2 or more PAs doing the intro bit e.t.c. for each large group. The voting e.t.c. then can be done over social media (see RTT document on how to organise a general assembly/picnic).

Conclusion

Once you have read the text above you want to create your own checklist of what you need to do before during and after your meeting. Some of the elements above might not be relevant as the model covers several different sorts of meeting but a number of key elements are the same

They are:

  • Welcome people into the room one to one
  • Short intros
  • Discussion in group of 7-8 people
  • Brainstorm and ticking for getting ideas and agreeing on collective action
  • Conditional commitment to lever collective action
  • Write down and read out commitments to consolidate agreed actions
  • Bucket for money
  • Get everyone’s details
  • Pick out top enthusiasts for training to run more meetings
  • Have a training of trainers programme – think exponential growth!

Behind these ideas are basic principles

  • Most people get into stuff because they are made to feel welcomed and appreciate, often more than the rationality of the issue itself
  • People get empowered by the act of speech
  • People get empowered by moving their bodies to do stuff eg voting, exercises
  • People need a clear pathway to action to turn positive feelings into ongoing and increased practical commitment – I.e. stuff to do.
  • Everyone, however sussed, only has 24 hours in a day – growth comes through getting more NEW people involved – trained and doing stuff – so you need to recruit and have a programme.

That’s about it. Good luck!

How pledging to act with other people (“conditional commitment”) could change the world

By Gail Bradbook

This piece was originally posted on Compassionate Revolution in June 2016:

Compassionate Revolution was launched in summer 2015 as a grass-roots run platform for hosting pledges of collective action- “I will if you will”. The pledges can be acts of art (like mass graffiti), acts from the heart (like group meditations or modelling kind behaviour in politics) and acts of civil disobedience (like tax or rent strikes, work to rule, blockades etc). Here’s why this initiative is so vital at this time.

According to political theorists like Hannah Arendt and Gene Sharp, power is always located in the collective – i.e. amongst all of us ordinary folks. This is true, despite the fact power may seem to be centred in Whitehall or in the billionaire owned media, or in the City of London or any other places we feel we have no power over. Since we are being pushed around by an Establishment, increasingly disdainful of true democracy and definitely without our or the planets interests at heart, the fact that we don’t wield our power as a collective can be a real stick to beat ourselves with! Over inability to assert our power implies that it is our collusion with or passivity which allows the system to stay in place…

We hear “Why aren’t people on the streets” when the latest scandal erupts. And “People are so apathetic, nothing will ever change”.  These statements presuppose two things:

– that actions, demonstrations, blockades and so forth emerge spontaneously, when in fact they are always organised. When Rosa Parks sat on the “white” part of the bus in segregated America, spurring a wave of similar acts of defiance, the event was carefully orchestrated by the civil rights movement- it was no spontaneous act. Campaigns for change need to be organised, this doesn’t imply central management, but it does imply a body of people committing to an action and calling for others to join in. The “system” has worked hard over many years to erode the organisations that are able to mobilise people, like trade unions. Fortunately the internet offers new mechanisms for more nimble, grass roots organisations to mobilise people. Horizontal, distributed networks have increased power.

– that people are passive because they don’t care. The passivity of the population is ensured by a number of mechanisms – sure it includes distraction through mind numbing media and socially acceptable drugs. Passivity can also be maintained by providing a vested interest in the status quo, however this is constantly being undermined through economic forces and the erosion of public services. Gene Sharp, in Power and Struggle, argues that obedience is often merely habitual and sharing examples of disobedience will encourage others to join in.

The civil rights movement in the US mobilised only 1% of the US population. A recent university study shows that when 3.4% of a population rises up a revolution is possible. This is about 2.2million people in the UK, (bear in mind around 10 million people vote Labour or Green and that beyond party politics many movements have a complaint about neo-liberal capitalism at their heart (the environmental, peace, anti-austerity and economic justice movements for example).

So the question is, if we argue that 2.2m people in the UK would like a rapid redistribution of wealth and power (a revolution) how are we to go about organising that?

Tim Gee, in Counterpower suggests that social change happens through the 4C’s:

The raising of Consciousness about an issue, the Coordination of different organisations, a stage of Confrontation (civil disobedience) and Consolidation of gains by having detailed policy solutions ready and energy to drive them home.

Within the current landscape we possibly have too much consciousness raising – the echo chamber of sharing on social media, of this issue and that disturbing fact and so on. The solutions offered are generally to pay an organisation some money and to support the re-sharing of information (what I call, tongue in cheek, the pyramid selling of sh*t information!). Perhaps 2.2m already know enough but need encouragement and example to act? Coordination amongst groups can be weak, as is the spreading of confrontation, despite incredible efforts by some amazing campaigners, in the face of media lock down, on reporting successful actions.

So how does the “ordinary, progressive, left leaning” individual decide to get involved in an action and commit to doing so? How could organisations best coordinate and share resources, without needing to form coalitions, requiring the merging of cultures and detailed agreements? Conditional commitment- the use of pledges “I will if enough others will” offers a simple way forwards.

Pledging to join collective action is not new. The labour movement transformed when wild cat striking was replaced by organised unionism “I will strike if you will” is the basis of a strike ballot.

The successful rent strikes of 1915, through “Mary Barbours Army” involved the pre-agreed actions of groups of women in tenement blocks. Those involved placed their pledge ‘RENT STRIKE. WE ARE NOT REMOVING.’ in their windows. “This is how they organised the resistance: one woman with a bell would sit in the tenement close, watching while the other women living in the tenement went on with their household duties. Whenever the Bailiff’s Officer appeared to evict a tenant, the woman in the passage immediately rang the bell, and the other women put down whatever work they were doing and hurried to where the alarm was being raised. They would hurl flour bombs and other missiles at the bailiff, forcing him to make a hasty retreat.”

The Women’s Tax Resistance League (part of the movement of suffragettes), formed in 1909 with the slogans ‘No taxation without representation’ and the more direct declaration: ‘NO VOTE, NO TAX’. 100 members were willing to take up this form of protest. A two-tier approach was adopted, which meant that some took action immediately (40), while others declared they were willing to become tax protesters once the total number of members reached 500. (However, the total never exceeded 200 – this was before the days of social media!)

The current successful rent strikes in UCL have been designed and organised by conditional commitment expert and activist Roger Hallam. First it focused on one hall, through face to face contact, by asking people how they felt about rent and the condition of the hall and whether they would strike if 100 people did it together. By the deadline 150 had agreed to strike and the story went viral (35,000 shares of a Guardian article). Then numbers increased to 700, half through online sharing.

The Keystone Pipeline pledge of resistance is possibly the most successful current example of conditional commitment. By March 2014 there had been 398 arrests of peaceful protestors who had pledged to undertake acts of civil disobedience in their opposite to the Keystone Pipeline, which would transport the dirtiest tar sands energy across North America. A further 162 were arrested in 2015 and by June 2015 over 97000 people had pledged their willing to participate in peaceful actions which might lead to arrest.

The current challenge is to get pledging / conditional commitment at the forefront of our collective psyches. Organisers of actions could spend time considering how to mobilise a greater number of people. For example those at home can support a Direct Action against an organisation (for example by participating in a telephone blockade of the organisation targeted). Roger Hallam encourages organisers to think about escalating their actions to achieve greater outcomes each time and involve more people. He has given detailed information about what supports this process. Dissent can be designed!

As grass roots movements and organisations gain confidence in conditional commitment, it will be possible to agree “cross fertilisation” of movements – encouraging those focussed on one action to support the simpler pledges of another, building cooperation and numbers. This itself can be done as a conditional commitment- “We will involve our network in your action if you will involve yours in ours” or “we will work together on a joint action if 6 other organisations agree to be involved”.

In this way, escalating actions and mobilising across networks, in a joined up but loosely held strategy, could be the process for seeing the big changes required.

So the Compassionate Revolution website can host pledges of action – we are trying to offer a range of pledges so that people can exercise their muscles of “peaceful mischief” and feel part of a collective (not all actions are illegal and we de-risk for the majority). A new action can be advertised to those who have already joined another actions. If we demonstrate the viability of this approach maybe Avaaz and others will step up to offering civil disobedience to their bigger databases. We need to normalise these approaches and we have social media on our side to reach the numbers. Join a pledge or several?:

Or start your own pledge!

10th May -RTT Meetup

Come to our next meet up/social evening for the Radical Think Tank – a network of academics and activists researching practical ways to bring about radical bottom up political change. We will be discussing how to take the network forward – organising events, trainings, and documents as well as funding. Bring food to share. Hope to see you there. Thanks.

10th May 6.30pm, place will be confirmed via facebook: https://www.facebook.com/events/217733158605947/

31 May – Getting Ahead of the Curve: Runaway Climate Change and how to build political collective action to stop it.

Getting Ahead of the Curve: Runaway Climate Change and how to build political collective action to stop it.

31st May 6.30pm Kings College London, Strand Campus

This Radical Think Tank event follows on from the very successful evening we had on how to build more effective campaigns (9.5 out of 10 on how informational it was on the feedback). Building upon the mechanisms and strategies reviewed during that event, in this workshop Roger Hallam will do another participatory presentation on how to build the political movement needed to reduce carbon emissions so as to stop the world going over the 2C limit set at the recent Paris Conference.

First we will look at the coming catastrophe squarely in the face, not just to realise the gravity of the situation but also to identify that it is our inability to understand the nature of tipping points which explains why we on course to create runaway global warming in just a matter of years. Ironically it’s the understanding of tipping points which also holds the key to developing the successful strategies of mobilisation needed to stop carbon emissions. The massive mobilisation climb needed to deal with climate change is possible but requires a radical departure from the failed NGO strategies of the last 25 years. Provision of information and consciousness raising campaigns will never get us out of first gear. Drawing upon network theory, research on the psychology of persuasion, and instructive examples of explosions of political change from the past we will map out the best bet pathways to mass mobilisation. Learning involves doing, so the workshop will include real time feedback from participants and break out discussions.

Roger had been involved in designing growth mechanisms for campaigns, co-op networks, and social enterprises for 30 years. He is presently a PhD researcher at Kings College London, engaged in designing effective mechanisms for successful radical political collective action. He helped design the successful campaign to create the UCL rent strike – the first pre-organised rent strike in London since the 1970s. He is now working with a number of campaigns to maximise their potential for mobilisation including the IWGB trade union which recently won 30% wage increases due to innovate campaigns against two large corporate courier firms. The IWGB president described his work as “genuinely fantastic”. Collective action can and does work if you know how to create it.

This event is organised by the Radical Think Tank – a network of academics and activists researching practical ways to bring about bottom up radical political change.

radicalthinktank@gmail.com 

 

Radical Think Tank Members

Name: Indra Dewan

Your background/what you do: teach sociology in HE; live in community and practice participatory governance (amongst other things); involved in activism (Newham Monitoring Project, Defend the Right to Protest, Calais volunteer); researcher – currently nonactive

Why you think RTT is a good idea: it is the best thing since sliced bread – an exciting movement which focuses on participation and equivalence to bring together multiple interlinking strands – activism, community, research, academic knowledge – with the aim of furthering justice in a truly democratic and sustainable way.

 

Name: Joel Lazarus

Your background/what you do: Community educator and social scientist

Your research interests in regard to RTT: Very interested in learning and co-producing knowledge about what works best for creating successful, participatory, radical democratic movements and campaigns. I’m particularly interested in transformation and how we can help people cultivate the self-belief and intellectual power (sociological imagination) needed to transform themselves and their world.

Why you think RTT is a good idea: We desperately need ‘think-and-do tanks’. One major reason for the successful of the NeoLiberal political project has been the colonisation of ‘civil society’. This is much easier when you have state power and money, but, at this time of permanent crisis, it is vital to make a sustained effort based on a scientific, pragmatic approach to democratising civil society.

 

Name: Hugh Chapman

Your background/what you do: I’m a community artist and theatremaker. I’ve been involved in a number of grass-roots campaigning activities in Cambridge including facilitating community engagement in town planning, organising a number of hustings in Cambridge in the run up to the 2015 election and setting up a series of meetings with MP Daniel Zeichner and local experts to discuss Cambridge’s approach to addressing climate change. I was also involved in setting up Fossil Free Cambridgeshire, a citizen-led campaign to get the local councils to divest from fossil fuels. I moved to London last September to study an MA at Central School of Speech and Drama.

Your research interests in regards to RTT: I’m especially interested to explore creative approaches/formats for workshops and other events aiming to develop participants’ political agency.

Why you think RTT is a good idea: I completely agree with the need for a more participatory politics to address the social, economic and environmental challenges we’re facing today. And I think RTT is approaching this in the right way. In my experience it’s hugely valuable to be part of a network of like-minded progressive thinkers who can support and inspire each others’ work.

 

Name: Roger Hallam

In a few sentences say who you are and what you do:  I am a PhD Student at Kings College London researching the design of effective radical political collective action. I have a background as an organiser and trainer in various social movements and for workers co-ops and housing co-ops. I am now working with several campaigns and networks in London to work out ways in which they can more effectively achieve their aims. Through this work I met Dan and together we founded the Radical Think Tank.

What areas of research are you interested in with regard the RTT: I am particularly interested in the following: how to run meetings in a participatory way to maximise participation and empowerment; how to use conditional commitment to lever critical masses of people to take collective action; and how to design direct and political action to put the opposition into a dilemma as to how to respond  – and thus to win political ground. I am also interested in the design of broader strategies of bringing together groups at a macro level in ways that maintain participation but also create effective collective political power. I am therefore interested in the models being developed in Spain and various post-occupy organisational innovations around the world.

Why do you think the RTT is an good idea and is needed: I think RTT is vitally necessary to connect practical research with the growing need for activists to become more skilled and effective in their work. So much important knowledge is lost between generations of activists and there needs to be some educational organisation which can prevent this and build up an evidence based stock of knowledge about how to bring about radical bottom up political change.

 

Name: Guinevere Carter

Your background/what you do: Student Activist, key organiser of Fossil Free UCL and UCL Cut the Rent

Your research interests in regards to RTT: I am very passionate about making education more accessible and maintaining universities as a hotbed for critical thought. I am currently writing a paper on the dire consequences of the neoliberalisation of Finnish higher education.

Why you think RTT is a good idea: Activism and protesting is vital to a functioning democracy, and right now we need it more than ever: nationalism is on the rise, the climate is dangerously changing, poverty is increasing in lots of the world, and the 2007 financial crisis only served to increase power in the hands of those that caused it. The repetitive protests and AàB marches in opposition to these over how shit everything is has become demoralising and ineffective of late. This is why RTT fills me with a renewed optimism, it promises to employ more effective strategies and to apply technology in benefit of progressive goals, through crowd sourcing knowledge and conditional commitment. So far these tools have been extremely underutilised, and I am confident that they will dramatically strengthen campaigns and increase the pace of change when implemented.

 

Name: Tim Linehan

In a few sentences say who you are and what you do. I am a professional working with charities.

What areas of research are you interested in with regard the RTT. I’m interested in futurology and how social science can help us map a better future; I’m also interested in how social science can pathologise and marginalise non-conformists; I’m interested in how/whether people who do not vote, participate in democracy in other ways;

Why do you think the RTT is an good idea and is needed. I think some charities have been co-opted into political agendas through funding arrangements; I think the main political parties are sometimes more interested in marginally and trivially differentiating themselves than in representing people and rethinking their policies. I think politics is seen as something that happens somewhere else and that these issues need to be tackled through grassroots movements and that a forum to learn from others is desperately needed.

 

Name: Lynne Davis

In a few sentences say who you are and what you do.
I work in participatory food systems and community organising. My work is varied, from facilitating a community goat microdairy in Bristol to facilitating the Open Food Network, working with communities to organise around food, to working on the Land Workers’ Alliance core group.

What areas of research are you interested in with regard the RTT
I’m interested in linking together the diverse social change groups and networks and exploring new ways diverse groups can make decisions. I’m interested in exploring ideas in direct democracy and exploring how they can effectively be scaled.

Why do you think the RTT is an good idea and is needed
The fragmentation of what is generally considered the left is in many ways a strength. However given there is such a sharing of values between groups on the left it feels remarkable that neoliberal capitalism has come to such an extreme. I am excited that RTT is trying to research, develop, implement and trial ideas that can help us organise. We have all the solutions already, we just need to become organised.

 

Name: James Deane
What areas of research are you interested in with regard the RTT? 
Working with autistic people to engage them in decisions about themselves. To support and collaborate with other concerned citizens to create parallel organisations. To explore and develop exchange and provision outside of the monetary system. Collectively develop messaging to prime and activate the populace especially those with the most to gain and who are at the sharpest end. To popularize and make real housing coops. To participate in think tank discussions, forums and debates toward practicable aims.
Why do you think the RTT is an good idea and is needed
The situation is stark. people show little hope and understanding. courage and ability to act together is needed now.
Name: Simon Thorpe
In a few sentences say who you are and what you do.

PhD candidate at University of Warwick School of Law. Also freelance editor (of words) from time to time, and former managing editor of the Birkbeck Law Review. Researching radical constitutionalism, esp in anarchic movements/orgs. Either a historical account, or a focus on Spanish citizens’ platforms (still working out methodological feasibility).

What areas of research are you interested in with regard the RTT

The proposed project looking at how the Spanish citizens’ platforms are doing it, basically. That’s something I ought to be looking at for my own PhD anyway, so seems like a no brainer to team up with RTT on it if possible.
Why do you think the RTT is an good idea and is needed 

Too long the radical left has been on the back foot, fighting defensive battles in a Sisyphean struggle against neoliberal encroachment. Not without good reason. But now is the time to move beyond reaction and into action. Beyond negation and towards affirmation of the radical, new and truly innovative. Neoliberalism came from a determined think tank called the Mont Pelerin Society. Now it’s our turn to put our heads together to turn history around; to paraphrase Srnicek and Williams’ book, to invent the future. New ideas are sorely needed, and so the Radical Think Tank is sorely needed.

Name: Andy Paice

In a few sentences say who you are and what you do. I’m a London based facilitator, coach and mindfulness trainer and I’m very interested in the whole issue of how we create a grassroots democracy based on participation and inclusivity. I’m actively involved in the Assemblies for Democracy initiative and am part of a planning group working towards a Citizen’s Convention on the Constitution.

What areas of research are you interested in with regard the RTT I’m interested in seeing what areas of collaboration there might be and I’m also very interested in the How to Do It conference you are planning.

Why do you think the RTT is an good idea and is needed It’s important for academics, activists, conveners and facilitators to come together and deliberate how we create a participatory society. There is a definite change in the air and RTT sounds like a good group to help catalyse this.

 

Name Lucy Latham

In a few sentences say who you are and what you do. I work at an environmental arts charity and am part way through a Master’s degree in Social and Political Theory. I have been part of several community initiatives and am mainly interested in art and politics for progressive change.

What areas of research are you interested in with regard the RTT. Community empowerment and resilience, education and participation, environmental sustainability, progressive politics, campaigning, protest and mobilisation, art of dissent. I’m also looking for thesis topic ideas!

Why do you think the RTT is an good idea and is needed (something we can quote!) We need a collective space where we can share ideas, experience and energy; where people can feel part of something active and empowering.

Are there other individuals or networks you think we should contact and/or link up with? New Economics Foundation, COIN, Housmans Bookstore

Any other ideas about how to make RTT a roaring success!? Fundraising gig?! I’ll keep giving that some thought.

 

Name: Gail Bradbook

In a few sentences say who you are and what you do.

I lead a project called the Compassionate Revolution which hosts collective acts of “art, heart and civil disobedience”-we claim: “together we are irresistible!”. I have initiated a “pledge” on the site concerning taxation and democracy: “The Golden Rule Tax disobedience” which asks for 5000 people to pledge to join a symbolic tax disobedience (it is designed around takeaways from café’s so is something everyone can do.). Our wider strategy involves encouraging further pledges on the site and supporting the ones that are there (for example to sabotage the media billionaires).

I am a mother of two boys, living in Stroud in Gloucestershire, my part time day job is running a charity (Citizens Online) and I have a  back-ground in research science. In recent years I have been a Director of Transition Stroud, Chair of the Governing body of Tax Justice Network and founder of “Street School Economics”.

What areas of research are you interested in with regard the RTT?

How best to design “conditional commitment” based actions including the current tax one and future debt based rebellions

How to bring different networks together- perhaps this needs its own conditional commitment? (I’ll work to bring in my network if 12 others will).

Planning for social change within an internet / network age. Being better prepared to respond to crisis / opportunities.

Why do you think the RTT is an good idea and is needed (something we can quote!)

We need to think strategically and tactically about seeing change- what tools and processes will work, how do we encourage people to work together, I feel this needs fresh thinking about. I have been hoping for something like RTT for a long time- I’m super happy about it!

Are there other individuals or networks you think we should contact and/or link up with?

I have put you in touch with some, there will be others but I would like a more crisp way to explain this and I feel it is important to bring people in at the right time – being clear on what they could add. (people are busy and if I ask them now / they say no the moment may be lost). Others who may be interested: Caroline Molloy (Open Democracy OurNHS, Tom Steinberg- former Director of MySociety, Rich Wilson Osca, Joel Benjamin, Debt Resist UK.

Any other ideas about how to make RTT a roaring success!?

A really cool cartoon about what it is. Different ways of being involved – using conditional commitment approaches perhaps.

 

Name: Sophie Gale

In a few sentences say who you are and what you do:

I have been a teaching assistant for a couple of years and will be training to be a teacher this September. Conscious and impassioned about the possibilities for empowerment of teacher and pupil – I am keen to explore the dynamics of this relationship in a classroom/school context and the ways in which co-learning and exchanging can facilitate and enable questioning, critical thinking, innovation and direct action.

What areas of research are you interested in with regard the RTT

Broadly speaking: environmental justice, social justice/equality, democracy

Specifically: privatisation of education, curriculum and educational policy

Why do you think the RTT is a good idea and is needed (something we can quote!)

Being part of a network of impassioned and proactive people working on disparate but wholly interconnected issues is empowering and fills me with hope!

Are there other individuals or networks you think we should contact and/or link up with?

Not sure which ones you’re already linked with (had a look on your website) – where can I find this info?

Any other ideas about how to make RTT a roaring success!?

Be as diverse and as accessible as possible! I’m sure you’re super conscious of this – but joining a network is daunting enough as it is – but even more so if you don’t see yourself identifying with its members (no matter how much you actually do have in common!)

Name John Hoggett

In a few sentences say who you are and what you do.

I have am have been involved in the climate change movment since the millenium. I have a variety of participatory education experience. I have a passionate interest in countering the evils of psychiatry. I helped set up Speak Out Against Psychiatry and for a short while I set up and helped run the Rose and Thorn Theatre Company that used theatre and paticpatory discussion to help mental health service users get more of what they want. I helped set up Reading Roadbusters which supported the anti-Newbury Bypass Campaign.

What areas of research are you interested in with regard the RTT

Building a huge climate movement that is effectively grass routes led. Working with communities of interest, such as benefit claimants and homeless people, to resist austerity. Building as grass routes and effective anti–psychiatry movement. Bringing the academic research on the approaches advocated by RTT to campaigners and activists in an easy to understand manner.

Why do you think the RTT is an good idea and is needed (something we can quote!) The work of Paolo Friere seems to have laregly passed UK politics by. Leaders seem to have not learnt that to be effective, and moraly legitimate, they need to work with the people and not manage them. For example: the anti-austerity movement has pockets of people resisting eviction or working with homeless people to effectively campaign but these are isolated incidents and have not been generalised or picked up as major strategies by the major anti-austerity campaigning organisations. Yet the power to significantly have an impact on austrity policies is most likely to arrise by the kind of work that Radical Think Tank is proposing.

By bringing people interested in this approach together in a variety of ways, both formal and informal, some kind of movement to promote more particpatory and effective approaches is likely to arise.

Any other ideas about how to make RTT a roaring success!? Parties, talks, workshops, conferences, facebook pages for perticular interests and projects, offer mentoring, create a peer mentoring system for people working on both academic and practical projects, create a skill share database.

 

 

Name: Dave Downes

In a few sentences say who you are and what you do.
I am a Technical Tutor at an FE College in North London. I am also a 3D Tutor at the same college. I despise what’s happening to education and know this country can well afford 3 years free education for every adult to study exactly what they want to regardless of that study being ‘vocational’ or not. Instead of which, some of our better students are turning down the opportunity to attend university because they do not want to be saddled with that debt: ‘Students who acquire large debts putting themselves through school are unlikely to
think about changing society, Chomsky suggested. “When you trap people in a system  of debt . they can’t afford the time to think.” Tuition fee increases are a “disciplinary technique,” and, by the time students graduate, they are not only loaded with debt, but have also internalized the “disciplinarian culture.” This makes them efficient components of the consumer economy’ Noam Chomsky.

I am also an activist, trade unionist and being robbed by a parasite landlord on a monthly basis and that rent just keeps rising – my wages do not. I am interested in the idea of a rent strike and believe that rent is theft.

What areas of research are you interested in with regard the RTT

Education, Radical Ideas in Art & Design, Rent and Property.

Why do you think the RTT is an good idea and is needed (something we can quote!)

Because people’s lives are being overwhelmed by a system that is only interested in profit, exploitation (of people and planet) and unsustainable growth. It feels like time to take a stand.

Are there other individuals or networks you think we should contact and/or link up with?
Grass roots housing campaigns – Radical Housing Network for instance. There is fantastic energy around Momentum/Jeremy Corbyn so that should probably not be ignored.

Any other ideas about how to make RTT a roaring success!?

I think energy should be put into bringing back those people who feel abandoned by the system – ie, large swathes of the working classes. Be careful though, they do bite (as exemplified in the EU vote when two fingers were shown to the entire global elite).

 

 

Name:  Matt York

In a few sentences say who you are and what you do:

I am a co-founder and a current organiser with Operation Kindness, a global family of activists, communities and grass roots campaigns. Our purpose is to imagine, articulate, implement and actualize alternatives to neoliberal globalization based upon kindness, altruism and love, which deliver:

  • Environmental sustainability
  • Equality of access to resources and opportunities
  • Restorative and redistributive justice
  • Universal access to legal rights
  • Genuine participatory democracy

We choose kindness and love as a frame of reference within which a visionary set of transformations will occur, resulting in principled and non-violent revolutionary social change. Operation Kindness activists, local groups and country groups express our core aims and principles in a variety of ways mirroring the diversity of the communities we grow within.  You can find out more at: http://www.operationkindness.net

What areas of research are you interested in with regard the RTT:

Everything RTT is proposing is highly relevant to our work: research into grassroots campaigns in order to discover effective mechanisms to achieve bottom up transformative political change/ research into practical strategies and processes to create radical political participation.  I believe we can build capacity through such evidence, and hope we can contribute to same.

Why do you think the RTT is a good idea and is needed:

The effects of neoliberalism have reached such pandemic proportions that it is often not consciously recognised as an ideology, but accepted on faith as a natural and self-evident universal.  An initiative like RTT can begin to join the dots between radical theory and activism and play a leading role in subverting and supplanting the current neoliberal worldview whilst simultaneously providing a clear pathway for transition to the next system model.

 

Name: Alice Ragland

In a few sentences say who you are and what you do.

I am a PhD student in the Multicultural and Equity Studies in Education program at Ohio State University.  I study revolutionary social movements and Black liberation movements, the criminalization of youth of color, the police state and mass incarceration, and the detrimental effects of neoliberalism on public education.

What areas of research are you interested in with regard the RTT?

Education policy, multicultural education, educational inequities, education & poverty, economic inequality, school-to-prison pipeline, policing, surveillance, and mass incarceration

Why do you think the RTT is an good idea and is needed?

I was looking  for education think tank jobs for the future, and I noticed that nearly all of them were ultra conservative and based on the neoliberal principles of school choice, competition, standards- all things that I am diametrically opposed to. It’s scary to think that the institutions and think tanks informing some of the most important policy decisions are more concerned with profit than they are with improving the lives of the people their policies will impact.  There needs to be more balance when it comes to think tanks, and there definitely needs to be a radical voice in these policy discussions.

Are there other individuals or networks you think we should contact and/or link up with?

I’ll let you know.

Any other ideas about how to make RTT a roaring success!?

Not sure if you already have a fundraising plan, but if not, a solid plan for raising funds would make it successful. Conservative think tanks unfortunately have millions and millions of dollars under their belt, so we need to be able to compete.

 

Name: Dawn Lingo

In a few sentences say who you are and what you do.

I am a congregational organizer, a Unitarian Universalist. I work for Congregations United to Serve Humanity (CUSH) which is an affiliate of the statewide WISDOM network in Wisconsin and the national Gamaliel network. I work on immigration, education, transportation, criminal justice.  In my personal time, I work on women’s and LGBTQ issues.

What areas of research are you interested in with regard the RTT

I want to be a more effective and powerful organizer. I am interested in learning more about which strategies work and why.

Why do you think the RTT is a good idea and is needed?

Organizers need a resource to help us make better use of limited resources.

 

 

23rd March 2016 – How To Make Radical Campaigns More Effective

How To Make Radical Campaigns More Effective

This evening event will provide you with important recent research which points to concrete ways in which campaigns can increase participation, dramatically create effective collective action, and take direct actions which overcome our opponents.
Rather than deal with general principles it will look at specific procedures and mechanisms – how to run meetings, how to speak to people about taking action, and which actions maximise your power to win. The recent successes of rent strikes and living wage trade union campaigns in London provide case studies which will be looked at in detail.
If activists and organisers want to win their campaigns, this event will provide invaluable skills and knowledge about how to do it. If we want to build a better world we need to stop doing what we have always done and start doing what works.
All welcome – the event will be participatory and fun! We look forward to seeing there.
The workshop will be run by Roger Hallam from the Radical Think Tank – he is a PhD researcher at Kings College London working on the design of effective radical political collective action.

For more information please email us at radicalthinktank@gmail.com

How to Create a Rent Strike

This text is a bit of a rush job as both myself and David are heavily involved in spreading the UCL strudent rent strike as I write this (February 2016). It aims to give the essential details on the key factors which bring about a rent strike – open meetings, trained canvassers, and the ace card – conditional commitment. Feel free to edit and proof read and send up your copy to radicalthinktank@gmail.com. 

Rent strikes:
How to organise the next hundred!

By the people who helped organise the first three.

Roger Hallam and David Dahlborn (Radical Think Tank).

February 2016

 

Intro

It’s well overdue but the rent strike has at last appeared in the global capitalist hot house of London. Millions of people in this city know they are getting screwed. As ever, social scientists and seasoned activists know things are getting worse, but this is no guarantee that collective resistance will happen. Collective action requires organisation and this freshly produced pamphlet tells you the good news – it’s actually damn easy to organise a rent strike in London right now but you need to know what to do. And here you get it from the horse’s mouth – both of us – David and Roger have been closely involved in “real existing” rent strikes so what we are going to tell you here is no theory – it’s the details of actually how to make them happen.

Needless to say, there may be other ways to get people to strike and no doubt other activists involved will have their own take on what makes them work. This text is not written by committee. And we will edit and adapt it as we get feedback and more information. But we think it is really important to get the word out there and this is definitely one of those areas where knowing what has been made to work can help enormously. A vital part of making rent strikes work is to build quickly on recent successes. Rent strikes depend upon collective confidence – if people know that they have worked recently elsewhere then you are already half way there in getting more to happen.

So apologises in advance for any errors or possible inaccuracies – this is not the definitive guide but it will get you on the way. No doubt if and when more strikes happen the powers that be with change their tactics and so we shall have to so as well – situations are always changing. If you are seriously thinking of getting stuck into creating a strike yourselves then by all means contact us (and/or the Radical think tank) and we would love to have a chat and provide more detailed briefing/training. Thanks.

David and Roger

 


 

Setting the Scene

Much of the inspiration for this guide has been drawn from the experience of the student housing campaigns and rent strikes in London over the past year. The inspiration for radical grassroots organising and action has also been drawn from the recent campaigns and methods used by independent trade unions such as the IWGB and IWW in workplace disputes.

Some advice might seem basic to experienced organisers, but hopefully collecting these steps all in one place can be helpful for both hardened campaign veterans and anybody just getting started with creating a strike. Of course, there are many general methods and tactics that apply to all forms of campaigning. If there is one thing that distinguishes housing campaigns from other forms of organising it’s that it requires active participation and bold actions to be taken by a large number of people – just like a union campaign in a workplace. Even if the key organising group in your campaign may be small you will need to use methods to convince and encourage many others to take part.  Therefore this guide will include advice on how to build democratic and inclusive campaigns and assemblies to increase participation, as well as strategies for how to apply our collective power and leverage to disputes with the landlords.

Landlords and rent are oppressive. Property owners can set the rate of rent without asking renters. They can force us to move or sell us shoddy, rip-off services. Poor maintenance, conditions or pest control can make life hell for us while the landlords live well off the profits of our rent. Renters can organise campaigns and renters’ unions to give us power and collective leverage over the landlords.

Without the rent we pay the landlords would be powerless and the strength of a powerful housing campaign comes from using this advantage to take control of our homes by organising democratic campaigns and assemblies by renters for renters. This is a method with revolutionary potential as it gives us the means overcome the power of the class that is profiting off our rent and low living conditions by means of direct action, and it will also enable successful campaigns on local everyday problems.

Organise!

Organising is the key to successful housing campaigns. To fight campaigns the most effective way is to have numbers on your side and an open, democratic organisation that gives everybody a say and an opportunity to get involved. You need to set out with a clear, concrete idea of what you want to achieve. You also need to know why you want to do it so that you can convince others to join the campaign. As we will show below you need to talk face to face to your flatmates, neighbours and residents in your block or on your street, or in student halls. Find out what problems they’re facing; what issues do they have to deal with on a daily basis?

These problems are probably linked to structures that can be explained by mismanagement or unfair distribution of resources. Do flats have cockroaches? Are there leaky taps? This is probably because the landlord doesn’t invest enough of their profit in maintaining our homes. Does the rent go up every year? The landlords are making us pay while they continue to profit! If you interpret these problems correctly and explain how they’re connected to exploitation and propose a solution you can get more people to take action, especially if you’re all together in the union or a renters’ assembly.

The best way to talk to people is to simply knock on their door and ask if they’ve got time for a chat (see below). Take your time to understand people’s concerns and tell them how you interpret their problems and how to solve them. Ask them to put their name, email and phone number on a sign-up sheet so that you can stay in touch. In particular, demonstrate that you’re actively working to solve problems. People are inspired by active campaigns. They will be much more likely to join an interesting campaign with a strategy and planned out-ward facing activities. From this point on you will be able to unionise more tenants and organise even better and more participatory assemblies.

What do you want to demand? – Some general points

This is up to you. A housing campaign can place any demands on the landlords. Improving your rent or maintenance levels are two obvious options. Maybe you want your landlord to improve fire safety in their properties. Maybe you want them to boycott a particular provider, or maybe you want to abolish the landlord altogether and establish a co-op that’s sets rents at running costs and not for profit.

When running a democratic and inclusive campaign the best demands will be those supported by the majority of the renters taking part in it. This will mean that there is a large number of people who will go far to make sure the demands are met. This does not mean that the demands necessarily have to be moderate – if you can convince a majority of people that it’s in their interest to cut the rent by half, then go for it. Remember that more people are likely to get involved with issues that directly affect them – this is why rent is a very effective key to encourage action.

Example:

At UCL, before the rent strike, we heard that student tenants were angry over bad living conditions and construction works that were preventing them from sleeping and studying. A few activists spent a weekend to canvass the entire tower block where they lived to ask everybody what they’d like us to do about this problem. A lot of residents were fed up but had given up hope that things could change. However, when the activists proposed that we could organise collective action and start a campaign by signing a complaint letter everybody they spoke to thought this was a great idea.

Step by step:

  1. Prepare and research. Make a plan and a strategy for the campaign. What do we want to achieve and what do we need to do it? Find out what procedures are usually involved in making complaints. Learn the law and know your rights, and prepare the tactics you need to use to reach your goals.
  2. Make a list of the flats/floors you need to canvass. Get to know those who live there and how to contact them. Draw up a map and a spread sheet to keep track.
  3. Research and canvass renters in your area. What are the problems that matter? Who owns/controls the property they live on? Who would join the renters’ assembly? Find out what people think and explain how you can help.
  4. You know what to do and who’s ready to do it. Call a renters’ assembly and canvass your area to get people actively involved. Make sure that there is a concrete action plan that the assembly can vote to adopt and get the ball rolling. Use your contact lists and make sure everybody is convinced and geared up to fight and to win.

 

Plan for victory

Anybody can become an organiser with some practice, and the best way to practice is to go out and take action. Pick your fights with the landlords, present clear demands that you’ve agreed upon in the renters’ assembly or ballot and escalate your campaign until you win.

Escalation means that you start out small, and step-by-step increase your pressure as you gain more power and support. Campaigns are often not won by a single dazzling knock-out blow with shining news coverage, but by a determined process of cumulative pressure and provocation. Housing campaigns are no different and all the plans you make should bear this in mind. Always plan strategically to stay two steps ahead of the bosses and leave them guessing what you’ll do next.

You’ll have to adopt the tactics you use to your local situation. Some campaigns might be won by using mass indirect action tactics like letter writing and petitions, most are likely to require more radical collective direct action – most likely a rent strike – and it’s important to see how some tactics are more effective than others. What will make or break a housing campaign, however, are the number of people who take part in the actions.

If you plan backwards from your target you can break the campaign into manageable chunks in relation to what you can handle. I.e., one week canvass one hall/block/street, each campaigner speaks to 20 people. Next week use what you learnt and draft complaint letters for everybody to send to the landlord. Carry on like this, or if you feel the time is right, escalate. Keep canvassing regularly to update residents to remind everybody of the next action or assembly. Sooner or later you will put your landlord in a position where they either feel forced to give you something or to strike back. Be prepared for both, in particular for repression so that you know how to counter it and turn violence and threats from the bosses to your advantage.

The key is to force the landlord into a situation where they have no choice but to act.

In practice this can mean a lot of things. Maybe the landlord is forced to act under the threat of a rent strike; maybe they’ll be forced to act if they’re blockaded by angry protesters; or maybe they’ll be forced to act under public pressure and exposure to scrutiny by the press or authorities. This will depend on what your landlord’s weak points are and how you can plan to maximise the strengths of your campaign to put pressure on them.

There’s nothing to stop individual cases to be treated as collective disputes – in particular evictions. Neighbours need to stick up for one another and if one eviction is prevented everybody will benefit.

Psyche your landlord by being assertive, loud and vibrant: Release frequent public communications about your campaign, blog posts, open letters and press releases, and help them reach a wide audience. Publish letters from the landlords and publish your replies online – don’t let them get away with individualising disputes, make sure disputes are made public.

Communicate with your landlord: They may be dicks, but make sure the landlords know what you’re disputing, that you’ll be taking action and why by writing to them. You don’t need to tell them everything if you want to plan surprise actions but some actions, such as rent strikes, work well as threats – so if you plan to strike, make your landlord well aware of this to give them plenty of time to offer concessions. Stay open to negotiations, if the landlords make any offers, and make them look bad when they refuse to meet with you.

 

So onto the nitty gritty

With these general points in mind we need to look in some detail at how the first three rent strikes were created:

The first two began largely because tenants were so pissed off with their living conditions – rat infestation and 24/7 noise from building work. Activists were quickly involved and union officers were soon off the mark to support a strike. With the latest UCL strike in early 2016, however, we started from a clean slate and this is what makes this case interesting for people reading about how to create a rent strike from scratch. This strike is the first genuinely pre-organised rent strike since the 1970s. Activists came in from the outside and, as laid out below, organised a canvassing campaign, planning out how strike could work in these halls. The fact is that if it can be made to happen at Max Rayne House at UCL it could be made to work in a hundred other places. The reason the strike went ahead was not because of anything particular about this hall but because of the way we went about mobilising people. Of course there are always a lot of reasons which can mentioned when discussing why something happened and so the factors we have chosen here are only what we think are the key ones. Other activists involved in the campaign would no doubt mention others. The point is however that, in our judgement, these are the important things to focus on – the approaches which make that crucial difference between getting a strike to happen and not getting to that vital tipping point.

 

Pre-planning is crucial.

With two strikes happening in the Spring of 2015, we knew something exciting was happening here. We both met each other around this time and agreed that there was a massive potential to use the example of these initial strikes to pre – organise another one from scratch. We also knew from previous experience that campaigns that win are ones which are pre-planned – they develop a clear and precise objective – a date when it will be achieved and then work back in detail week-by-week on what needs to happen by when. Along with a several other local organisers we had several planning meetings and discussed a number of mechanisms, drawing upon new ideas of radical political effectiveness.

The plan we drew up was broadly as follows:  We knew the key time to strike would be the first week of January 2016 when the rent for the second term of the academic year was due. There wouldn’t be time to mobilise to a strike at the beginning of the first term and the beginning of the third term would be too far in the future and would co-inside with the heavier work load of students revising and taking exams. This structural decision is vital – pre-planning enables you to pick the best time to do everything – you are choosing the best conditions rather than having outside conditions impose sub-optimal choices upon the campaign.

The next thing, as mentioned, was to work backwards from the strike the process of escalation which would bring it about. This is called “reverse engineering” and is very empowering – the group thought process is not “how are we possibly going to bring about this strike” but rather “wow the strike has happened – given it has already happened how did the build up to the strike take place”. The objective has already been achieved and the group has to use its imagination to work out backwards the stages leading up to it.

We knew the backbone of mobilising tenants would be canvassing – we wanted 1000 out of the total 5000  UCL student tenants to go on strike (more on this below) for there to be a critical mass – i.e. a number which would make it pretty sure we could win a rent reduction. Working backwards we worked out how many people and hours of canvassing this would take and how much training would be required. We worked out a timeline of what needed to happen when, in order to create a smooth escalation up to when the strike would be called. So parallel to the canvassing would be a petitioning campaign, followed by a handing in of the petition (accompanied by creative direct actions) to the landlords; then a deadline by which the landlords would have to agree a rent cut; and then, on the basis of none being given, the calling of the strike and the use of canvassing and in-hall activists going along their corridors to get the necessary number of commitments for the strike to go ahead.

In order to kickstart the campaign an open meeting would be called at which it would be clear the campaign would be well organised with a clear aim and strategy, as worked out by the pre-campaign meetings over the summer. The impression to be made is that this is sorted and it’s going to work.

This then was the plan – details were filled in on two big sheets of paper with parallel lines showing time lines for different lines of actions and escalations happening simultaneously. The point here is not that all this would definitely happen like clockwork but that we had thought about everything in advance and had an idea of what we would do in all these circumstances. As the phrase goes “the plan is worth nothing, the planning is worth everything”. In other words, doing the planning means that when “events” happen – you are not endlessly starting from scratch but know where you are going and adapt the plan as you go along to these events.

 

Super-organised and participatory initial open campaign meeting

Empowerment is created by participation, not by speakers standing up in front of people telling them what to think. This is a big lesson which has been proven by research over and over again (see references for Roger’s paper on this) and so a good way to mobilise people in a meeting is to get people to talk to each other. People love to talk in small groups – everyone relaxes and has a good time and from this flows an ownership of the campaign and an excitement about getting involved. Add in having free snacks and drink and people are even happier – it’s more like a get together with friends than a “meeting”!

The meeting then was publicised around all the halls and throughout the first week of the academic year. Around 30 people came to the meeting. The chairs were arranged around four tables and as people came in they were sat around these tables in groups of around 8 people, already facing each other, and so people started chatting. The meeting started with a five minute intro from Angus, the Student Union Halls Representative. He made clear this was an open participatory campaign and everyone was very welcome to be involved. At the same time he made clear it would be super organised with a clear and precise objective – to get a rent cut in January 2016.  The meeting then split up into the table break-out groups and in each group there was a go round where people in turn introduced themselves and then talked about why they had come to the meeting. You could tell everyone was beginning to relax as people shared stories about how crap their accommodation was and how unfair the rent was. The meeting came back together and one person from each group summarised the thoughts of their break out group. Then Angus spent no more than another 5 minutes explaining the general aim of the campaign and the main ways we could go about achieving it. A rent cut would be called for but it was up to everyone in the room to participate in deciding the size of the rent cut that they wanted to demand. He give some stats about the economic situation – the level of profit the landlords make etc., and then we split back into the break out groups for around 15 minutes to discuss this central issue – the rent cut we wanted to get.  Again we came back as one large group and one person from each break out group summarised the general feelings of their group. After a short discussion it seemed like all the groups would support or go along with a rent cut demand of 40% and this was confirmed by a vote by people putting up their hands. This rent cut would create a social rent – enough to cover the cost of running the halls but not to provide unfair additional profit. Upon making this decision several people spoke about how excited they were about being involved in the campaign and how amazing it would be to collectively bring about a sizable rent cut.

Finally we split into four working groups – action in halls, canvassing, designing materials, and social media. By this time in the meeting everyone was really animated – and you could see lively discussion happening in all the groups. Finally the date was announced of the next meeting and people ate up the last of the food and drink.

We have gone into some detail here because first impressions count and because too many meeting disempower rather than empower people. The key thing here is that you have to split people into groups because this enables more people to speak and it is this very act of speech which gives people the crucial feeling that this a campaign they want to be involved in. And creating a rent strike is all about high participation – there is a lot to do! This meeting went spectacularly well – because it was pre designed to go well – we didn’t leave it to chance. One participant interviewed later said “it was the best meeting I have ever been to”. And of course the proof is in the pudding – at the following meeting 28 people turned up – effectively the same as the initial open meeting. Usually initial open meetings get lots of people but there is a significant fall off on the second meeting. But this did not happen so we were off to a great start.

Skilled canvassers and effective scripts

Creating a rent strike is all about getting a lot of people in a concentrated space and time to take collective action. It is not the usual story of getting 20 odd activists from around the whole of a city to do something. This means that social media and leaflets are just not going to do it for you. The people you have to get to are not going to make time to read your leaflet or go onto your facebook page – they have plenty of other things to do. There is no getting around the fact that you are going to have to knock on their door and speak to then – or rather get them to speak to you. This is the only way you can get the mobilisation, in the concentration you need, to get to the critical mass required for a strike. Basically if you don’t go door-to-door, it ain’t gonna happen!

The second thing to realise is that there is canvassing and canvassing. A lot of people have the idea that door knocking is a pretty straight forward thing – you just do it. But like many other areas of activism, people are massively more effective if they are trained, skilled and therefore confident in what they do.  So we did two things. We piloted scripts – experimented with different things we said and worked on what worked best. Then we typed out a core script (see below) and organised 2 or 3 short training sessions each week where someone who have already gone canvassing role played a tenant, while a new trainee canvasser read from the script. This was done several times with the trainee getting feedback between role plays, till they got the hang of it and understood what they were trying to do. They then went away and ideally learnt the script by heart – not so that they just recited it to people but so that it gave them the confidence to know what they were saying when a tenant answered the door. Again the proof is in the pudding – we found that without training or a good script only 30% of tenants said they would be willing to “probably” or “definitely” withhold paying their rent. Once people were trained and had a great script this percentage went up to over 60% – this is the difference between a strike happening or not happening.

Contrary to the popular myth about being pushy, the key to effective canvassing, like with the good meeting design, is to get the tenant to talk to you not to talk to the tenant. Again this can appear counter- intuitive – you are there to tell the person about the way things are – right. Wrong! Tenants will agree to withhold their rent to the extent that you listen to where they are at. The point is that most tenants are already pissed off and obviously it goes without saying that they would like a rent cut. But no one has asked their opinion before and so often they have not explicitly thought through the situation. Giving them the space to do this makes them more conscious of their feelings about the issue.

Therefore the best way to get to people to consider striking is to approach the situation indirectly. The first time canvassers knock on doors the aim should be to simply “ask you a few questions about the rent and accommodation”. You ask then what they think of their rent – and then their accommodation and enter into bit of a conversation. Only then do you suggest the possibility of changing the situation. So here is the script for the first round of canvassing

(Non-spoken notes in brackets. …… means a pause or wait for their response)

  • Hi sorry to disturb you. I’m (your name) – I’m working with the students union – with Angus the rep for the block/accommodation here.
  • If you just have a minute would it be okay if I just ask you a few questions/ it won’t take long
  • Oh – take a piece of chocolate – that’s to welcome you in here!
  • Okay so I don’t know if you know but last year there was quite a lot of unhappiness amongst students in this block and other blocks about the high rents and the accommodation. In fact, I don’t know if you know this, but the rent has increased here by 60% in real terms in just the last five years and some students have really struggled with their finances.
  • In that time the budget for the room maintenance has actually gone down. In fact recently there been a leak and it been found out that the university authorities make £16 million pounds a year straight profit out of the UCL students rent here  – so they don’t even use it to maintain the flats/accommodation.

 

  • So what I was wondering then is how high do you find the rent – like very high?, high?….. okay?…

(always will say something here)

  • Okay great so you think it’s very high/high/okay
  • And so what about the accommodation – are there any problems with your room

(enter into personalised conversation here   – write down the details. Empathise – “oh yeah those blinds look pretty crap” – summarise their comments – feedback what they have said to you in different words)

(Mention others have the same problem “oh yeah I’ve got 4 other people on this floor who have the same problem – yeah that’s really pretty bad”)

  • .. okay so generally speaking what would you say about the accommodation/room – really bad/bad/okay…
  • … (give their answer)
  • .. okay great thanks
  • So I don’t know if you know but with all these problems with the rent increasing and bad accommodation a lot of students last year stopped paying their rent – there was a rent strike – like it was really bad – like there was cockroaches and rats running around in people’s flats
  • .. (they usually go .. yuk)
  • Yeah it was really bad. So basically there is a plan for students to delay paying their rent for a few weeks at the beginning of January to get a reduction in the rents– because – you know – a lot of students are actually struggling to pay their rent and it’s really bad for them (key phrase)
  • … (they say yeah.. )

(may add) – yeah you know it’s like a lot of students don’t get the help from parents and all that..So the question is then is if say 1000 students in this block and the blocks around here stopped paying their rent for a few weeks in January so that we can get a 40% reduction in the rent would you be okay not paying your rent as well..

(might say yeah here..)

  • So would you definitely? … probably? …maybe? (leave a long gap between these words). Okay so that’s great thanks – so you would definitely/probably. In fact over 60 per cent of students in this block have so far said they would take part.

(so if they say probably or definitely or maybe go..)

  • Okay so can I just take your name – your first name is fine
  • And if you can just put your email down here.. if you can put it in block capitals that would be great

(quick in with the comment on the block capitals)

(take back the clipboard back and check the email is clear to read – That is vital!!)

  • Oh great thanks/thanks very much
  • And what’s your mobile number

(read back out to check) –

  • Okay thanks so much for you time – we/Angus with me in touch
  • Yeah thanks.. bye..

 

The general principles behind the script

(this script was developed by Roger who has 20 years experience of canvassing for workers co-ops)

Getting a yes is emphatically not about “selling pressure” – it is mainly a matter of the following:

  1. If you are personable you can you get a good connection going with each renter. People are different – they have different voices and confidences – the name of the game is to mirror their mode of expression – if they are confident and loud so are you – if they are quiet and cautious and you should be same as well. Once you have mirrored their behaviour you can bring them into the middle ground and gain their confidence – subconsciously once you are on their level they are likely to listen and agree with you
  2. You have to be nice – this is a really big factor in whether people will agree with you. This is closely connected to being confident. Say something funny or self depreciating and they will warm to you – like “er sorry I’m just getting going with this survey bear with me.” (the sub-conscious message is that you are confident in admitting you are a bit rubbish at doing this – and this breaks down the “professional canvasser” v “normal person” dynamic)
  3. With all the questions the subconscious message is “nothing is a problem here” – pressure, preachyness, and getting all moral is a total killer – unless they are like you (pretty rare!) in which you can mirror it – but you are always following them.
  4. You feed back to them their own position and answers and their own comments. People love this because they are being listened to (at last!) and they will open up. Then they will like you and then subconsciously want to be part of your gang – i.e. not pay their rent.
  5. Give them the information and let them sort out the moral/political message. So not “and it’s really terrible that people can’t pay their rent” but rather “at lot of tenants can’t afford to pay their rent” – not “we want people to go on this rent strike” but “and a lot of students are planning to not to pay their rent.”
  6. Note above that the phrase is “not paid their rent” – not “rent strike” – use verbs not nouns – action phrases – and never any slogans or lefty language – and this includes the word “strike”. Of course if they are a lefty (but most people are not!) you can use this language and you can mirror it.

So the secret is the more you are like them the more they will like you and the more they will be open to joining with others in your campaign – it’s totally counter intuitive. Of course this is only part of the story – the rest is the intrinsic rightness of our case and the factual information we give them. But these are set – the facts cannot be changed. What can be changed is your delivery – how you come across. Even if you think this is a small matter – it is even a smaller matter getting good at it. An hour of practice will increase how good you are by 50-100%. And what more you will enjoy it a lot more and people are much more likely to enjoy talking to you. It’s an all round win-win.

Note the basic idea is that this first canvassing is centred around a survey – three questions – what they think of the rent level, what they think of the quality of the accommodation, and would they be prepared to width hold their rent if a critical mass of others did likewise. From this data you can map out the tenant situation. In particular you can identify the tenants who are the most enthusiastic and ask them to help canvass their blocks or corridors a second time round. They are the core people to mobilise the people they know on their floors.

 

Decision-time: Getting the timing right and concentrating forces.

It’s important to realise that this strike nearly didn’t happen – twice. The first “crisis” was the decision to go for a strike at the beginning of December. One of the things often overlooked in designing a campaign is the stamina of the people involved. A general rule is that without results people lose heart and stop taking part. So the timing and pacing of a campaign is a vital design consideration. Start too early and the goal seems too distant to be credible – start too late and you don’t have enough time to get everything properly organised. With this campaign it was clear by November that not enough canvassing was happening to mobilise over 1000 people over all the UCL student halls. Although the percentage willing to not pay their rent was high – over 60%, there were simply not enough people do all the necessary door knocking. The plan was not going to plan! Without a clear assurance that we would get enough people to strike it was seriously considered calling it off and maybe building for a strike in April 2016 – the next time students had to pay their rent. But at the same time we knew that this would be a blow to morale and there was no guarantee that enough activists would still be around to do another 3 months of slog. The obvious solution was to reduce our ambition. A general rule of thumb in mobilisation is that you cannot make too big a jump all in one go. Going from two small spontaneous strikes involving a few dozen people to bringing out the whole of the UCL student tenant body was biting off a little bit more than we could chew! However the good thing about canvassing most of the halls in the October and November was that it was possible to identify the most pissed off hall and this was Max Rayne House in Camden. It was therefore decided to concentrate our limited resources on this hall with 300 tenants.

The Final Rounds of Canvassing and the Beauty of Conditional Commitment.

A key consideration in this scary decision to “go for it at Max Rayne” was the re assurance of using conditional commitment in the strike call. What this means is that we would only call a strike if a critical mass of students seriously committed to not pay their rent. The last thing both we and the tenants wanted was to not get enough people to make a strike effective and lose by being picked off/evicted. Based up the previous strike, and literature on the subject, it seemed a good bet that if you can get 30% or more a group of tenants to strike it will be near impossible politically for a landlord to evict them all and they will be forced to negotiate. There were 300 tenants in the hall so the target “critical mass” was set at the nice round number of 100 tenants willing to strike. Of course this is just a calculated guess but this figures seemed pretty objectively sufficient for a successful strike. The other factor was whether it felt like a critical mass subjectively for the tenants. Our research, asking tenants where their threshold of how many other tenants would have to width hold their rent for them to do the same, showed most people’s point of action was 70 or 80 other tenants. This is confirmed by other research (e.g. by Kickstarter the fundraising website which uses conditional commitment to raise money for arts projects) which shows that once conditional commitments get to 20-30% a lot more other people are prepared to join in if asked.

The beauty of conditional commitment (CC) is that it overcomes the “collective action problem” – the “I want to do it but only if other people do – no one else is doing it so I won’t do it” problem. This is the fundamental problem of mobilisation for rent strikes (and loads of other collective actions). When you’re canvassing it is soon obvious that everyone is pissed off and everyone wants a rent reduction.  So why doesn’t everyone just strike and get it? Because no one wants to make the first move. You will never get a rent strike to happen by knocking on doors and saying “would you be prepared to strike to get a rent reduction” – what you need to say is “would you be prepared to not pay you rent to get a reduction in your rent if a 100 other tenants (or whatever is a credible critical mass) do the same”. You then take their details and when you get past the 100 mark you get back to everyone and tell them that it is on.

In this case we already knew from doing a statistically significant amount of canvassing across several halls that around 60% of tenants would “probably” or “definitely” strike if a critical mass of others did the same. This was the crucial empirical data which showed a strike is possible is you use conditional commitment to lever it.

In the specific case of Max Rayne we went round before Christmas and it was clear there was enough support for the strike. What’s more a comparison was done of how willing tenants would be to strike without or without CC. Without CC only 50% expressed a willingness to strike; with CC this went up to 78%. Of course this is just a verbal commitment not actual action so it would be reasonable to assume that less people in both groups would do it. However the difference is clear and significant.

It was decided set up a bank account so that people would pay their rent into this account and so we would have a transparent way of showing that 100 people had not paid. With all the money in one account it would be more difficult for the landlords to pick people off with threatening letters. People were emailed and leafleted to pay into an official student union account at the beginning of January. However due to the timing of the start of term and being able to pay everyone back if we did not get to 100 people, there was not enough time to organise getting everyone to pay. This created the second “crisis” – how could we get a credible 100 plus people to commit not to pay without the account. Again flexibility saved the day. With 2 days to go before calling off the strike if we didn’t get to the 100 people, it was decided that if people simply emailed the campaign email address to say they would not pay we would take that as a clear commitment.  Both of us spent two evenings in a mad dash knocking on doors to get people send the emails. On the last evening before the deadline there were only 70 commitments but by the end of the canvassing we got it up to around 115. It was a close run thing! In the event we worked out we had commitments on the doors of 150 people – 50% of the tenants. 80% of tenants supported the strike (but some had already paid their rent not knowing the situation, or it was paid by institutions for them). The strike was solid!

The script used to create these commitments then was roughly as follows:

Hi sorry to disturb you. I am working with Angus the student union rep and I am just calling around to update people about getting a rent reduction for the tenants here. You know with the Cut the Rent campaign.. (just about everyone did by then)

Yeah.. so the situation is the student union is backing the campaign and if over 100 tenants commit to with holding their rent then they will negotiate a rent reduction for all the tenants  (then mention that tenants in the other 2 strikes did the same thing and got £1000 plus of their rent back). So basically we need 100 tenants to commit to not pay their rent which is the number we need to be able to negotiate a reduction. We are on 60 commitments (or whatever the figure is) at the moment so we only need 40 more people. Would it be okay if you can make that commitment. Basically all you have to do is email the email address now and that is it – you just say your name and room number and that you will not pay your rent so we can get a rent reduction.

(if unsure about it ..)

So basically it’s a win-win situation. If we don’t get to 100 people the strike does not go ahead so you just pay your rent as normal – and if we do have over 100 people then the strike will go ahead and we will be able to get a rent reduction.

 

Note that as the evening goes on the persuasion becomes easier – i.e. the number of commitments already in the bag goes up from 60 and nears 100. So you can say “look we have 90 – we only need 10 more for this thing to go ahead …” it all gets a bit exciting! People start phoning their friends in other corridors and volunteering to see the people you we have missed along the corridor – we give the most enthusiastic strikers a list of the doors we haven’t managed to canvass and those which are “maybes”.

We can see from the figures then that we only just got past the 100 mark in time. It is a good bet that if we have just asked people to strike without using CC, persuasion rates would have fallen from around 80% to 50% and we would not have got over 100 commitments by the deadline. What you say to people counts and CC gives you that vital boost of credibility.

You can see from this story that the reality of getting this strike to happen was a bit messy. What you want to take away from this is that you need the bank account sorted in good time. The good news is that people were willing to pay into the account once they knew others were doing the same and “this is what people are doing” – and if the CC element is clearly explained – you will get the money back if we don’t get the 100 people to pay by the deadline. This then creates an excitement – CC turns the whole thing into a race against time and people who are already committed and paid in have a strong motivation to get other tenants to do the same. “Look I have paid into the account – we just need another 20 people to do it for the whole thing to go ahead – so can you do it as well, yeah?” A tipping point is reached and the tenants will mobilise themselves – as happened via the communal kitchens on each corridor on the evening of the deadline in this campaign.

The strike is on: Media and Negotiations.

At the time of writing the strike is now on but the negotiations have yet to be concluded. The point of this text is primarily about how to get to this point but it is worth saying a few things about how to organise matters from this point on. In the present fevered climate in London there is massive interest in rent strikes – shown by the 36,000 shares on the Guardian news piece on the action. It is easy however to get drawn away by the seduction of mass media attention and not make sure that the main issue is being attended to – the morale and solidarity of the tenants. The key structural aim with a strike campaign is to create a cross over whereby the original activists pass over responsibilities to the tenants themselves. This is tricky and messy but necessary if the tenants are going to own the strike and thus commit themselves to it. Therefore it is important as many as possible join the closed facebook page, that they are included in the media appearances, and help with publicity.

A key mechanism is to hold an “open space” meetings along the lines of the first campaign meeting described above. Just week into the strike we held such a meeting with Max Rayne tenants. Over 50 tenants came into the common room. Crucial to the turnout was getting the union to pay for free pizza for everyone! We gave a short summary of the state of play and then split everyone in groups of around 10-12 people and there was a go round in each group where people introduced themselves and shared why they were not paying the rent. We then came back together and did another five minutes on what actions could be taken. Then again everyone split back into groups and, munching on a second piece of pizza, discussed what they could do. There was a great animated atmosphere and ideas were flying around. People got up to speak to people across the room about various mini projects – it looked like a film would be made and short interview/stories posted on tumblr etc.

The point here however, as with the first meeting, is that the content is not so important as the fact that people are able to connect and work together themselves – no boring long speeches by outsiders. This is how radicalisation happens in reality – through personal interaction not external information.

On negotiations – as mentioned this has yet to happen – but the general framework is that any offer will be decided whether or not to be accepted by the tenants themselves. The rules need to be clear, as this is an important decision and it is vital it is seen to have democratic legitimacy. Therefore the campaign has decided that all tenants will be given a minimum of 5 days notice of a general meeting and that, after discussion in break out groups, the decision to accept or reject an offer will be taken by majority vote of those present. The point here is not that this procedure is necessarily perfect but that there is a procedure in place. Structurelessness is a recipe for confusion, disillusionment and bitterness – i.e. – not good!

Other stuff

Any activist reading this will no doubt have noticed we have missed quite a bit out. There is plenty to be said about how to organise well, how to do media campaigns and create direct actions. However these subjects are much the same as on any other grassroots radical political campaign and knowledge on about them is relatively well known. If and when we have more time, we may produce a longer booklet which goes into them in more detail but given the time constraints in getting this text produced we have concentrated upon the key specific elements which are needed to get a rent strike on the go. But briefly here is what the campaign has done on these other areas;

Good organisation: All this stuff is often forgotten (bit like the washing up!) but is vital to the effective running of a campaign. Most importantly meetings need to have skilled and competent facilitation – people need to be trained (and not just white men). Meetings need to regular, advertised well in advance and start on time  – and ideally be somewhere quiet where people can sit in a circle. Minutes need to be taken and people should write down what they commit to and tell people so they are accountable. Where needed working groups should take on set responsibilities and have a contact person.

Media: We have had the standard closed Facebook page for activists and open one for promoting the campaign and open events. Various people have taken on doing Twitter and other social platforms. Press releases has been sent to the mainstream media and people asked to respond the initial rush of media requests for interviews via the facebook page.

Actions: We have had stalls and leafleting to get over 1000 people to sign an on line petition. There is talk of organising direct actions now the strike is happening. There is a lot of potential here and a future campaign may want to focus on more on this sort of activity. However a word of warning – it is easy to feel good about actions just because they are actions (“vanity metrics”) – but this will not necessarily persuade your target group of tenants to go on strike. As we have tried to make clear a rent strike is different to many campaigns. The key focus has to be on door to door mobilisation. It’s this hard graft which is most necessary. Of course mobilisation can go on line after a certain point – but when starting from scratch  there is on avoiding going to talk to real people.

 

Don’t forget the broader picture!

So there you have it. Obviously at the present state of play (February 2016) it would make total sense that if you are reading this and planning to organise a strike yourself you should contact us for a chat and come to a specific training event we plan to hold. Time allowing we can meet and discuss the specifics or at least talk on skype. Remember the devil is in the detail and there is no better way of getting your head around that detail then talking to someone who has already done it. Obviously you should adopt our approach to your particular context. For instance you may want to start with some pilot surveying and then call a meeting  – or you may be responding to an existing group of tenants who want to go for it – or a general meeting which has already been held.

We have focused here on the nitty gritty because this is what people need to know. But this focus should not be mistaken for a lack of vision or strategic awareness. At the same time as learning canvassing scripts etc we need to develop a long time line of mobilisation. It is vital that as and when strikes grow we have a plan to create participatory and democratic network of tenants across London and other cities. We can be sure that as soon as this thing takes off all sorts of opportunists – whether political parties or hard left top down set ups with descend to try to take it over and mess it up. So we need to create organisational forms based upon participation which cannot be captured. This is another big challenge but we need to be modelling it now, not after suddenly things taking off – and if it does take off you can be sure it will be sudden. There is a massive repression at the moment and if people see there is a tried and tested way to free themselves, in our social media age, it will go global in no time at all. So if and when others get involved in creating the next few strike we need to start network meetings to work out not just the next step but the next three or four!

So thanks for reading this and good luck.

 

About Us

David is a full-time student finishing a BA in Jewish History at UCL. He lives in West London and has in the past been a student union organiser on housing issues and has worked in a hospital, call centres and as a chugger. He wants rent to be abolished and social housing to be a universal right.
Roger has been involved in social movements for more than 20 years as a trainer and organiser with a particular background in participatory design. He is currently doing a PhD at Kings College London on the design of effective radical political collective action and has co-founded Radical Think Tank.

 

To contact us via email: radicalthinktank@gmail.com.

To contact the UCL, Cut the Rent Campaign: uclcuttherent@gmail.com.

Thanks.

 

 

 


 

Some references and links:

This text has been written by Roger and David and has been printed as part of the Radical Think Tank (www.radicalthinktank@wordpress.com). The RTT is a new open network of radical academics/researchers, activists and community organisers which aims to create concrete information and training on how to bring about bottom up radical political change. It is free to join and people can connect via the website/facebook page or regular London get togethers to collaborate on research projects and the writing of “how to do it” texts. We are helping organise a big event on 9-10th April : “How to do it: Building Bottom up Political Participation” at Kings College London – where people will participate in sharing knowledge and collaborate in developing best practice texts on a wide range of grassroots cultural and political activity. It gonna be fun so please come along! See www.how2doit2016@wordpress.com.

To contact the UCL Cut the Rent Campaign, write to uclcuttherent@gmail.com. The campaign also has a twitter page @rentcutUCL and a facebook page www.facebook.com/uclcuttherent.

For more information on conditional commitment check out: https://radicalthinktank.wordpress.com/2015/11/01/introduction-to-the-design-of-effective-political-action-for-london-activists/ (on the RTT website).

For more information on participatory meeting design see the prize winning paper: radicalthinktank.wordpress.com/2016/01/27/prize-wining-paperempowerment-by-design-an-open-meeting-of-the-university-college-london-cut-the-rent-campaign/ (on RTT website)

There is not much on rent strikes in print – and least as yet, but here are a few great texts on the state of the art of creative contemporary radical activism. Here are two  books/websites to check out:

Blue Print for a Revolution, Srdja Popovic.

Beautiful Trouble – A tool box for Revolution (also check out the website – they have a section on debt strikes).

 

 

 

 

We are international! Introducing Radical Think Tank Australia!

My name is Dan, I have been doing activism for a while and have learned, studied and thought about how to organise more effectively. I worked to set up the Radical Think Tank but left the country when it was still in the early stages of development.

I have been in Sydney for the last couple of months soaking up the sun and the sea but my radicalism and revolutionary zeal remains. I spent some time in the vegan activist community, organising actions where we show the reality of meat, dairy and egg production to people by showing footage of factory farms and slaughterhouses on the streets and on trains.

During my time there it was clear that people wanted to increase participation in the actions so they could reach more people and spread the message in a more impactful way. I offered to run a workshop to share the ideas, research and knowledge that the Radical Think Tank promotes.

I ran the workshop at a fundraiser for Hart Acres Animal Haven, which was organised to provide space to house a new cow. The workshop was able to draw some more people to the event to raise some money for the sanctuary (please check them out if you want to donate).

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In the workshop I shared some basic ideas, the key theme was that every action that vegan activist group does should have to goals 1) promoting the vegan ethic, 2) increasing participation in activism. I will run through a few of the ideas here to give you a flavour:

  • Branding – in order to increase participation in activism the people doing it need to gain a reputation, not as a closed group of friends, but as a group, a movement who of people who are open, that people can join in with. This brand can resonate with vegans who will support it, and with the wider public who receive its positive message.
  • Open Space Meetings – Open space meetings are an effective way to get people to participate in activism, to strategise, design actions and be empowered as activists. Open space meetings bring people into a space, who possibly have never done any activism before, get them talking about their concerns and their hopes, and then get them discussing possible actions in small groups, deciding on a course of action in a democratic manner. Open space meetings are effective as they create a sense of community, empowerment and ownership of the activism. It brings people into the group as an equal member, which creates sustained participation and enables the building of a movement. Not only this, but these kind of meetings also help keep the movement creative and innovative, open space meetings create an environment where the free sharing of ideas is possible and everyone are encouraged and empowered to participate. This is important, as to keep people interested and participating in your work, you need to be cool, fresh and creative. Research of the Radical Think Tank shows that feedback from meetings run this way leaves people feeling 80-90% empowered. Click here for some info on open space meeting design.
  • Variety – it is very rare that the first bit of activism somebody does is direct and confrontational, rather people get inducted into these kinds of actions, they climb the commitment ladder. You can get people involved in your cause by asking them to sign a petition, do some leafleting, help with some printing, or something else. If people have many ways to engage with your group, join the community, and be empowered they may be doing direct actions in a month or two as they begin to feel more comfortable with campaigning. For this reason variety is key. A good activist group needs to have lots of ways which they engage with potential activists, demonstrations, open space meetings, educational and cultural events, brainstorming, leafleting, petitions, email updates, creative direct actions etc.
  • Conditional Commitment – If you want to do an action that requires a certain amount of people to make a splash, then conditional commitment is an effective way to get the numbers. In the UK The UCL Rent Strike has made a massive impact. 120 students went on strike against cost and conditions of accommodation and successfully forced UCL to pay compensation. A critical factor in this action was the fact that people weren’t asked “will you go on strike”, which only had a 50% agreement, they instead asked “would you go on strike if 100 people will”, when this approach was used 78% of people agreed and the action was able to get enough people to go ahead. This is a really simple detail, but it is the difference between success and failure and shows why campaigning need to be intelligently and strategically designed. See here for more info on conditional commitment.

The key thing about this workshop was to split people up into groups, because people don’t want to be lectured to for ages, people learn by participating. So it was important to get people to participate, apply the ideas and experience strategic thinking. I split them into groups and gave them a question – in 6 months time you want to have 500 people on the streets showing footage of factory farms, how are you going to get there?

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People split up into groups and had some awesome ideas including the aspiration to set up
location based mini cells for organising, but out of these discussions it was decided that there would be regular meetings for strategising and movement building. It is from these discussions that the proper planning and strategy can take place to get more activists.

I will be giving this workshop in Brisbane for animal activists there too, and will work with any and all radical campaigning groups who are fighting for justice. Get in touch with the Radical Think Tank if you want to chat.

I will sign off with a message I received from someone I have been organising with in Sydney and who attended the workshop:

“Hi Dan, thank you so much for trying to help out the Sydney scene during your travels. Now for the hard part…trying to get people out of their preconditioned mind set to make the necessary changes. Really wish you could stay….for the short time our paths crossed, I have to say you are a breath of fresh air. Thanks Dan, keep spreading the message.”

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.