The Craftivism Q&A

23rd March 2012 by

We’ve had a hankering recently to know all about this thing called craftivism, so we’ve kidnapped Sarah Corbett, founder of the Craftivist Collective, locked her in the Otesha dungeon and turned our interrogation lamp on her. Here’s what we learned… [Thanks, Sarah!]

Oh, and if you can’t get enough craftivism, watch what happened when Otesha patron and comedian Josie Long got crafty with the collective.

Alright, then. What’s craftivism when it’s at home?

Craftivism is activism through using craft methods: provoking people to think about global injustices in a non threatening, non preachy way, normally as street art or as gifts to people, and through cross-stitch (like mini protest banners left in public), hand-embroidery (like our Don’t Blow It hankies to give to MPs, teachers, bankers etc) and other craft methods (bunting, shrink plastic gifts etc).

What’s this collective, and what led you to get involved in craftivism?

The Craftivist Collective came about in 2008 when I came to live in London for a job. I felt like a burnt-out activist like many do, going on lots of marches, signing lots of petitions, going to activism meetings and not feeling like we were getting anywhere.

Plus I’m not a natural extrovert, so didn’t like doing stunts, dressing up, talking to strangers, asking them to sign petitions, going on marches, and I don’t like some forms of activism that are aggressive and demonise people. Craftivism was also a reaction to clicktivism and slacktivism and not feeling I fitted into some groups – I’m too scared to ride a bike, I’m not vegan and I love fashion and reading Vogue.

I also got really into cross-stitch because I’m naturally creative and didn’t have space to paint, plus I could do cross-stitch in my room, on public transport and to calm me down after a stressful day at work.

You also get time to reflect and think when crafting and it feels achievable, so I wanted to craft items with social justice messages in them that I could think about whilst stitching – but then leave them in public places for other people to think about the issue.

So I went to see my nan in Shetland in August 2008 with a bag of craft and a burning desire to be an activist again but in a sustainable and fun way, and in Shetland I came up with the idea for Mini Protest Banners to make and put up in public. I googled craft and activism groups and the term craftivism popped up. I contacted Betsy Greer, who coined the terms, and asked if there were groups I could join but there weren’t, so I just started doing it alone.

The banners wouldn’t tell people what to do or be negative but would be quotes or facts to provoke people to think about our global neighbours. I cable-tied them to places linked to the issue (e.g. flagship unethical stores if the fact was about sweatshops; outside financial districts talking about extreme, unbridled capitalism etc).

People started commenting on my blog asking if they could do it too, so I set up the collective for people to email me their banners, or join me in London to do craftivism, and its snowballed from there. We now sell kits, create instruction videos, workshops, events and people around the world deliver our projects, which is amazing! :) I’ve gone part-time in my job to have more time to give to it.

The ‘collective’ is a loose term for people who get involved, whether they are abroad or meet us at our monthly stitch-ins in London. We want everyone to feel part of our collective and encourage people to email us a photo and blog about their craftivism piece for us to put on the website, tweet, fb etc.

What’s the nicest public reaction you’ve ever had to your craftivism?

So many to count! :) People often ask us what we are doing when we are in public in a group or as individuals. When we explain it, most of the time people are really interested, ask more and then leave telling us to keep doing it. Some people take photos to send to friends or take a flyer to give to someone they know who is crafty and would love to hear more about us.

The reaction I am most proud of is from a banker who is quite high up in Goldman Sachs. He was given one of our prints by his long-term friend from uni. He emailed her to thank her and said it prompted him and his wife to have a thoughtful long conversation about what they can do in their position to help the most vulnerable. = amazing! :)
And have you ever had a very bad reaction to the craftivism you’ve done?

Sometimes, very rarely, we get comments from more hardcore activists saying we are too positive, too cute, too fuzzy to make a difference. We try and have a dialogue with these people to say we are not campaigners but rather there to provoke people to think about an issue in a non-threatening way We also see our value in reaching new audiences who might be nervous of activism and don’t feel they belong to other groups that might be louder, more extrovert or just into different things.

We are passionate about engaging shy, creative types into activism and being that stepping stone. Plus we reel through the list of benefits of craftivism. Normally that ends in the other person understanding our benefit in the activism world. But you can’t please everyone.
There seems to be a bit of a craft revival – knitting, bodging, cross-stitch, sewing – they all seem pretty zeitgeisty right now. What do you put that down to?

There is always a resurgence of craft in a recession- mostly it links to the Make Do and Mend ethos. But I also put it down to people feeling stressed, disempowered and wanting to do something. Crafting really helps people’s confidence, helps them feel valued, helps reflection, creativity and feeling you have achieved something.

I think I’m a bit rubbish at making things. Shall I not bother?

I didn’t go to art school and was never taught any formal craft skills. I learnt by doing and watching YouTube videos and still get lots wrong (my nan always tuts when she sees the back of my messy cross-stitched pieces). I make sure that all of the projects I create are accessible to all regardless of craft skill or political experience.

We create instruction videos for people to learn from, kits people can buy with instruction sheets and suggested content and we offer talks and workshops. If you really don’t want to stitch with us you can be an honorary ‘Craptivist’ who buys our postcards, gift cards, prints, ‘Craptivist’ badge (our mentor Sam Roddick came up with that name!) and spread the word through giving these gifts to people.

What’s the collective got planned – anything coming up you’d like to shout about?

Lots! :) All our events are on our website and Facebook and tweeted. We do monthly free Stitch-Ins at Royal Festival Hall every 3rd Thursday of the month, 7-9pm, where people can come and bring their own craftivism project do to, buy one of our kits and get a free tutorial from one of our experienced craftivists or just come and have a look, chat and see if they want to get involved.

We also do paid workshops that have more structure where you learn about the history of crafitivism, the benefits, some craft skills and can discuss justice issues with other attendees (for our June and September Sunday workshops 2-4:30pm email barley@fabrications1.co.uk to find out more).

Plus I get booked in to do talks and workshops for organisations (in the past they have been with Southbank, Tate Gallery, Hayward Gallery and others) so I’m looking to book more this year (if any one knows anywhere that might want a craftivism talk or workshop please get in touch!).

I’m off to Berlin in May to do a talk and workshop at an event DaWanda.com have asked me to do; some craftivists in Glasgow are planning on getting me up in October to deliver a workshop and teach them how to deliver them; I’m working with St Fagan’s museum outside Cardiff to deliver a workshop to complement an exhibition they are doing in June; and Ink-d Gallery, Brighton, have asked for more artwork and prints from me to show – I’m looking to book a workshop in the Gallery with them and stitch on my own underneath my craftivism work and tweet people to join me.

What’s your big dream? If craftivism achieved what it’s setting out to do, in its entirety, what would a craftivist utopia look like?

So many dreams: to be featured in Vogue, to deliver a TED talk, to have our products selling in lots of shops and e-shops across the world especially non-political shops, to deliver talks around the world on the power of craftivism, have more exhibitions, get funding to do Craftivism Bootcamps to train people up to deliver projects, workshops and talks so it’s not just me (I would make them a certificate at the end to prove they are a craftivist!).

My dream is that everyone knows the benefits of craftivism and it is seen as another great tool to encourage people to be the best people they can whilst they are on this planet. Encourage people to fulfil the world’s potential to be a just, fair and sustainable, beautiful place. Oh and I would, selfishly, like to be a full-time craftivist rather than have a part time job to pay my rent!

Three Little Pigs

21st January 2012 by

Click for the full size image. More cartoons here.

Happy… Alban Arthuan!

22nd December 2011 by

I had a very godless upbringing. Raised by two lapsed Christians (of different denominations), Christmas was never, for us, imbued with religious or spiritual significance. It was a time for presents, get-togethers and feasting. (And the greatest of these was presents.)

Apart from the rampant consumerism, there’s not much wrong with this, and I don’t begrudge anyone their Christmas, but that lack of a real anchoring by strong belief means I’ve been feeling less and less able to identify with Christmas, and the uncomfortable feeling that I’m a heathen interloper squatting in someone else’s festival has grown unignorable.

But ditching Christmas leaves a couple of issues unresolved. First, there’s a good reason why most traditions have a midwinter festival: we need cheering up when in the pit of the darkest, dampest part of the year.

Second, I’ve begun to feel that ritual, whether religious or otherwise, might play a much more important part in our sense of groundedness and well-being than I’d suspected. That revelation was a bit of hard sell for me at first, being the arch-eyebrowed secular sceptic I am (was?).

So this year my partner and I decided to mark the winter solstice in some way, suspecting that it actually chimed a great deal with how we actually saw the world and the way we draw meaning from it: the importance of the seasons, of the sun and of the circular flow of life. [*Bursts into Lion King theme song*] A bit of internet research suggested this hunch was right.

You could go the whole hog and make a very elaborate celebration. Since talking to others about it, I’ve heard of an incredible variety of ways that people mark the solstice, mostly in an improvised and very personal way. One friend walks through the night of solstice with the same friend each year. Others write notes of their regrets or things they would like to leave behind, and then burn them. Still others embrace more formal druidic traditions. But as first-timers, a little embarrassed at trying to create a tradition from scratch, we kept it basic.

We gathered some evergreen fronds (great word) from the neighbourhood and decorated the living room (evergreens represent the fact that, contrary to appearances, life still goes on even in the depths of winter). We made a sun decoration, golden on one side and pitch black on the other, which spins on a thread, turning from shining to dark as it turns in the air currents, a reminder that we’re moving from the darkening to the lightening phase of the year. And we lit some candles.

You’ll notice that this, to the untrained eye, looks quite a lot like Christmas. That is, of course, because Christianity borrowed and adapted a great deal of pre-existing rituals. But to mark them and acknowledge them as they were originally meant was a surprisingly powerful experience (particularly the active effort of gathering and decorating), and I was left wishing that the meaning of the evergreens and other borrowed traditions had been explained to me during childhood Christmases.

It could have been an awe-inspiring and magical experience for a child to have those meanings spelled out: the notion of this mindbogglingly large ball spinning in space,  tilting towards and away from the sun; the dormancy of life under the frozen ground quietly biding its time.

Still, better late than never. And we have something to build on for next year (and perhaps other seasonal turning points). And for the first time in a long time, I’ve felt I’ve drawn some personal meaning from a midwinter festival. Enjoy your own, whether solstice, Christmas, Hanukah or whatever it is that grounds you and cheers you at this time of year.

Positive impact Christmas

9th December 2011 by

I have avoided cycling through central London in an attempt to ignore the spirit of consumption that’s hanging from lampposts, exhibited in shop windows and adorning Christmas trees.

It seems the terms and conditions of Christmas include tons of waste in the shape of cards, wrapping paper, useless unwanted gifts, disposable decorations, broken light bulbs and “unstorable” Christmas trees. Were the pagan and Christian origins of Christmas so waste-oriented?

I’m sure lots of traditions and cultures sculpted our current festive season. Can we shape it even further with the choices we are making today?

I’m sure we can by prioritising values over stuff and by trying to minimise our impact. What are our options then?

Cards

Get crafty and make your own cards with recycled materials. Cereal boxes, old maps or tetrapacks are a great starting point. If you have kids or know someone who has, have a card making session with them (it helps the creative mood if cake or ice cream is included).

Gifts

Give time instead of products. Who do you know that could benefit from your cooking, gardening, sewing, singing or baby-sitting skills? Make your own tailored coupons (you could even add a ‘use by date’). If you are keen to spend some money then visit your local charity shop in search of hidden treasures, or support local traders. Think about all those friends trying to make a living selling their music, paintings, photos and books. We could all have a happy festive season supporting each other. You could always just re-gift.

Wrapping paper

Tea soaked newspaper looks amazing. Or just use it as it is preferably in sections with lots of images or nice patterns. Magazines, posters, old promotional material is also useful. You could also use a forgotten blanket. How? Check out this website to find out all you need to know about cloth wrapping.

Decorations

Last year I came across home made edible Christmas decorations. What a great idea! You just eat them through out the season or afterwards. If you think mice will eat them before you do so, try swapping decorations with your relative / neighbour or give a new look to the ones you have. Ideas for hand made Christmas decorations here.

Lights

I’ve got mixed up feelings about lights but I guess that if you can’t live without them go for solar powered ones. If all you want is to impress your friends, use Shelter’s housebling to avoid scary electricity bills (it includes snow). Check how mine looks below.

Christmas tree

Ever tried a totally different approach? How about a wish list post-it note Christmas tree? I thought it was a fantastic new idea but a quick Internet image search proved me wrong.


Check out this guide with 19 Christmas tree alternatives. It might be already too late for a pallet Christmas tree but you could keep it in mind for next year.

We can all make the world a better place this festive season by finding more sustainable ways to celebrate it.

Smiles and positive vibes, Calu

Monthly Challenge: Boxing clever

1st December 2011 by

Do your family, flatmates or friends ratchet up the heating to sauna temperatures at this time of year? This month’s challenge is for you to persuade them otherwise in a way that raises a grin and doesn’t feel like finger-wagging.

At Otesha HQ we cut the carbon, save cash and stay cosy by using our famous Winter Box, where we pool our tea cosy hats, our charity shop jumpers, our warmest but often naffest knitwear.

If you can challenge your own family, mates or workmates to see who can donate the weirdest winter-wear, you stand a better chance of getting them enthused. If you succeed, we’d love to see photos of your own winter box (with contents modelled as the lovely Luci has for us, left).

Email them to gavin@otesha.org.uk

Cleaning up Climate Week?

30th November 2011 by

This week the (R)oyal Bank of Scotland announced that they are cancelling their sponsorship of Climate Week.  This sponsorship arrangement from a bank which used to call itself the ‘Oil and Gas Bank’ was considered nothing more than a bit of nasty greenwash by many organisations and individuals. Letters were written (including this one from us at Otesha), protests were made, and RBS are no longer sponsoring Climate Week.

In our letter addressed to anyone and everyone involved in Climate Week we called for concrete action, rather than rebranding, from the “UK bank most heavily involved in financing fossil fuels”, and argued that “(s)ponsorship from companies with such weak green credentials lends legitimacy to the flawed concept that one small action is a sufficient reaction to climate change and that changing the lightbulbs allows us to continue ‘business as usual’.”


We’re pleased to hear of these cleaning, greening developments: greenwash is a tricky thing to get one’s head around. There are so many familiar questions: Can ‘bad money’ do good? Is a small change better than no change? Would we be able to achieve anything if Lord Greenwash doesn’t give us any money?

It’s incredibly important that the messages we try to spread aren’t undermined, though – so we need to keep on calling out greenwash: letting polluters know that putting a little cash into events like Climate Week won’t save the planet; and that exploiting the earth at the expense of current and future generations as well as the local and global environment is not okay.

Maria Lam of Climate Week says the 2011 event was “the biggest environmental occasion ever run in Britain”.  It’s great to get thousands of people involved, interested and hopefully taking action, and I hope that as Climate Week gets cleaner and greener, more organisations and individuals will feel able to participate.

But aside from ensuring a greenwash-free event, we also need action to be sustained across months and years. Questions about the value of individual media-intensive environmental events could probably give me enough material for at least one more blog, so I’ll leave this here after one last thought: climate change will be for life, folks, not just for Christmas – our actions have to match that.

Reclaiming our future: UK Youth at the UN climate talks

23rd November 2011 by

Our friends at the UK Youth Climate Coalition are heading to Durban for the crucial climate talks about to start there. They’ll be making sure that the politicians and bureaucrats hear the voice of youth – and of future generations. This is the first of a series of guest blogs by the UKYCC which we’ll be publishing, as they keep us up to date on progress at the talks. Thanks for your hard work and dedications, guys.

It’s that time of year again, when diplomats and negotiators, in iron-clad grey suits come face to face with young people who are ready to flashdance and cheerlead their way to the future.

Those two things might seem worlds apart, but in just a few days in Durban, South Africa, the UK youth delegation from the UK Youth Climate Coalition will join with other young people from across the world for the United Nations annual climate talks.

The countries of the world come together once a year to try to formulate a plan that will reduce emissions and prepare for inevitable changes to our climate. That meeting is called the Conference of the Parties, and its 17th annual meeting is about to start.

We believe that young people are the ones who truly have the overwhelming passion and energy to show that, despite the lack of success these talks have had during our lifetimes, we want the most ambitious solution possible to climate change.

And the reason we’re so strong as a group is because we all have our own individual experience. The climate negotiations are crucial to solving climate change, but they are not the be all and end all. We’re all involved in a huge variety of projects around climate change and empowering young people in our local communities, and that’s where our strength and energy come from.

Youth are not the bystanders in this process, we are the ones who will be dealing with the consequences of these decisions for decades to come. And what’s more, progress, or lack of it, has impacts for every young person back on the streets of the UK. Progress towards a low-carbon, clean future, would provide new opportunities for growth and jobs. Politicians and diplomats are bargaining and procrastinating over our future.

And don’t be beguiled by our facepaint, silly costumes, propensity to dance and sing and wear colourful clothes. We’ve also spent the year fundraising hard and in particular learning about climate change policy. Behind our sunglasses and flowery shirts, we’re armed with the tools to have conversations with negotiators on their level.

What’s more, we hope to communicate what’s going on in these talks back to young people in the UK and that they will get in touch with us. Every young person has a stake in this process and we want to make sure that they know what’s being decided in their name, about their futures.

And we’re also excited to link up with the hundreds of young people from all over the world who scrimp and save to come to South Africa, who study detailed policy, who plan creative actions to open politicians’ eyes. We want to help shape the efforts needed and decisions taken to tackle climate change for the lives of all young people.

Find our blogs at un.ukycc.org, follow us @ukyccdelegation and email us your thoughts and hopes for a clean, safe future – delegation.enquiries@ukycc.org

Youth Delegation to the UN Climate Talks, UK Youth Climate Coalition

Power and privilege

18th November 2011 by

Otesha is going to be at the NUS’s Student Activism 2011 conference tomorrow at Goldsmith’s University. Below is a post I wrote for their blog explaining the workshop we’ll be giving. It’s a subject the Otesha team is thinking a lot about at the moment, so I’m sure we’ll have more to say about it here in the nearish future.

Our ‘Power and Privilege’ workshop is likely to be one of the most personally challenging events at Student Activism 2011 – both for the participants and for us. It can be an intense but also intensely rewarding experience. How do we know? Not just because we’ve delivered it many times but because we’ve been challenged by it ourselves when we have taken part as participants.

Based on the principles of anti-oppression, it aims to make visible many of the often invisible, structural imbalances of power and privilege in society and to confront our own biases and prejudices – even those of us who strive hard to avoid exercising such bias in our selves and our own lives and relationships.

And it shows that, while we may strive hard to avoid exercising prejudice, some of us are privileged by societal norms and structures, no matter whether we are committed to fighting privilege. Prejudice is not, as one writer has said, only ‘individual acts of meanness’ but something much more all-pervasive.

Having these issues laid bare is, we think, essential to activist communities and groups who genuinely want to make their work and their movements inclusive and diverse, and to ensure that everyone has access and everyone has a voice.

And for Otesha, as an environmental education charity, we see it as essential to addressing environmental injustice whereby the ravages of environmental destruction hit the poorest and marginalised the hardest. Ensuring that all voices, perspectives and needs are heard and respected is crucial to environmental justice, and anti-oppression work can do much to work towards this. Whether your work has an environmental, social, or economic focus (though at Otesha we don’t think they can be separated!), these questions are crucial to successful, effective activism.

So this Saturday participants in our workshop will engage in personal reflection, get training in how to improve individual practices and conclude with practical action planning. This introductory workshop is meant to give participants the tools to embark on an ongoing process of change, and begin to build a more just society and stronger environmental and social movements. We hope you find it stimulating, thought-provoking and that you can make it integral to your campaigns.

If you’re interested in learning more about anti-oppression work and thinking, here are some really thought-provoking resources:

My burning question on bankers’ bonuses and CEOs’ salaries

10th November 2011 by

Not very often, but once in a while, a top-tier banker or CEO will appear in a broadcasting studio or broadsheet newspaper interview and be asked: Are you worth it? Do you deserve it?

It seems the answer they give is always yes, sometimes with some humility and sometimes all-guns-blazing, arguing that their know-how and talent creates wealth for the rest of society.

George Monbiot this week pointed to research showing that bankers’ performances are no better than if they had thrown dice to make investment decisions. But, as he admits, present them with this evidence and it often makes no difference to their self-belief.

For me, these TV studio encounters are frustrating. There is a burning question I want to see the financiers answer. I think it would be illuminating and help blow some fresh air through the debate, opening up an important angle that’s often not looked at.

It’s not ‘Are you worth your salary?’ It’s not ‘Isn’t the gap between the richest and poorest hurting the whole of society?’ – though these are important questions.

It’s:

“Why do you want so much more money than anyone actually needs?”

Pressing them to answer this question would make for an absolutely riveting interview. Many of the honest, or even dishonest, answers I can imagine being given would confront viewers, and perhaps the interviewees, with the question of how much wealth and how much consumption is enough, and how much is moral.

What might the honest answers be? Here are a few guesses:

“I want to earn enough so that I can move only in circles of similarly rich people and so I don’t have to mix with ordinary people unless I choose to.”

“I like to know that I possess more money than I could spend because the knowledge of this abstract wealth gives me a feeling of security and self-affirmation.”

“I want to buy stuff: Rolexes, swimming-pools, multiple homes with more rooms than I can use, haute couture, yachts, limousines, racehorses and private jets.”

“I want to reach that point where my wealth is so great that I can live off the interest on my existing wealth without having to do work that is actually productive.”

“I want to live with and die with more money and material possessions than 99% of human beings.”

“I want my children to go through life knowing only ease and total material security, provided for in every way so they don’t have to learn how to make their own way in the world.”

Their claims that they deserve their remuneration seem to convince some people, even some of those who can never hope to earn such sums themselves but respect those who have been able to.

But what would it do to the debate to air this question of what we might want enormous incomes for? Many people, most likely, would still identify with these desires, still want them for themselves and still see them as legitimate and justified reward for supposedly hard work and irreplaceable talent.

Many others, though, might find themselves feeling new disgust, anger, alienation or even pity towards those who want incredible wealth.

Airing the question, though, would help bring out some deep questions for all of us, because the gap between top-flight financiers and the rest of us arguably has a parallel in the difference between most of us in rich industrialised countries and the vast majority of the world’s people who would regard our lifestyles as those of kings and emperors.

It would put on the table for all us the question of how much is enough, whether there is a gap between what we desire materially what we need to live decently, whether our desires are compatible with natural limits and others’ well-being, and what we are prepared to forego for the greater good and greater equality.

This is an increasingly important question, because if we cling to a sense of entitlement to riches and great material ease, but the economy and declining available energy make these less and less attainable, the anger that may result can take ugly political directions into scapegoating and extremism. We all need to be prompted to re-evaluate what we can collectively afford to have and afford to desire.

So come on, Paxman, give it a shot.

Twinkle twinkle little fingers – consensus in action

7th November 2011 by

For the first time recently I’ve taken part in meetings (one small, one very large) where decisions were made by consensus. That’s not to say ‘We turned up and happily it turned out that actually we all agreed, so that was nice and easy’. Rather it means that we were making decisions under a formal ‘consensus decision-making process’ with particular ways of operating and reaching conclusions.

An Occupy LSX general assembly in progress using consensus decision-making

As someone who had only had experience of this through one workshop at a conference, putting it into practice – and using it with others to make important decisions – was a whole new bag for me. So this post is not a 101 in consensus decision-making, because I’m still learning, but more a ‘How it was for me’.

But essentially, the basic principles include having no votes where a decision is decided by majority – any decision made has to have the buy-in of everyone. And that really means everyone. A ‘no’ is in effect a block, or a veto, which sends a message that “I am so unhappy with this proposal that I would feel unable to stay in the organisation/camp/etc if it goes through”, and this can be exercised by even the smallest minority present (though there is an unwritten rule that anyone should limit themselves to one or two of these in a lifetime).

The 'I agree!' twinkling-fingers signal

To try to avoid blocks, however, there is a whole menu of ways to facilitate genuine discussion, listening and negotiation, much of it communicated via hand signals while speakers talk so that the meeting’s general warmth or coolness towards what’s being said can be gauged quickly, or so the type of intervention someone wants to make (clarifying question, direct response, technical point, and so on) can be understood by the facilitator.

That’s not to say it’s a quick process! Even those who are passionate about the value of consensus decision-making admit that it can take frustrating long hours to reach consensus even on simple matters. And a skilled facilitator seems to be really key.

So my first active experience was in an Otesha team meeting recently. We are keen here on using non-hierarchical structures and processes wherever possible, and it’s something we try to pass on also to the people who take part in our Cycle Tours, so it makes sense that we use it ourselves.

My next active experience of consensus decision-making was very different from our small Otesha team meeting. This time I was sat on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral in a very large, diverse crowd, gathered for one of the twice-daily ‘General Assemblies’ of the Occupy London Stock Exchange protest camp. [Anyone, by the way, is allowed to turn up for these open-air meetings and contribute to decisions made about how the camp is run and what its strategy should be.]

This was an extraordinary experience. In a large crowd, the use of hand signals, and the eagle eyes and inclusive instincts of a skilled facilitator, seem even more (or perhaps just differently) important. [Here, there was a microphone (unlike Occupy Wall St which uses a ‘human mic’ technique thanks to a police ban on amplifiers).]

Josie Long addresses Occupy LSX

It was deeply impressive. This time it was held very efficiently and quickly because it was to be followed by a scheduled roster of speakers for a rally (including Otesha’s patron, Josie Long, who was as funny and passionate as ever). But that does not mean that dissent was stifled.

One or two voices objected to a proposal to pay travel expenses for Occupy representatives from other parts of the country to visit London, because it had not been made clear what proportion of the camp’s finances this might swallow up. These voices were heard, and in fact the rippling sea of waggling up-turned fingers showed it was a popular point, so the decision was deferred until better financial information would be brought to a future assembly.

Fascinating was that this all took place open to passers-by, tourists on open-top buses, any Londoner within earshot. And as many of the speakers pointed out, the stereotypes and insults flung at the camp by sections of the media often dissolved for curious visitors when they saw the collective discipline, inclusivity and openness with which decisions are being made in the lee of St Paul’s. Consensus decision-making is at the heart of the Occupy protests, not as a nice add-on but as an integral part of their agendas in itself, as the core of what is an experiment in finding alternative or deeper modes of democracy and organisation. That the protests do not have one hard and fast agenda is criticised by outsiders. But ‘the process’ is the agenda: experimenting in how society can feel its way to alternatives that just might work better than current systems.

So how did I take to it? Well, the positives:

  • It felt good to have a recognised process that values everyone’s views – something that can act against the conscious or unconscious shouting-down, pulling of rank, brandishing of expertise, machismo or bias in favour of extroverts that you might find (and probably have found) in standard meetings.
  • It makes sense to have a process which seeks everyone’s buy-in to a decision, even if for some that means ‘It’s not my favourite option, but I’ll accept it for the good of the group’, because it seems obvious that this stands a better chance of there being good morale, and therefore of loyalty and low turnover of staff (if it’s a ‘staffed’ organisation in question).
  • If people feel they and their concerns really will be listened to and so they really can speak their minds, important information is likely to be brought out and discussed that might otherwise have emerged later in a way that causes problems.

The negatives?

  • I’ve got a nagging feeling that it doesn’t eliminate the various ways in which we human primates will ruthlessly try (consciously or unconsciously) to ensure we get our way, whether by body language or anything else. This is where even a skilled facilitator will have to work hard to be very aware and find ways to circumvent these tendencies.
  • Sometimes I might find I’m not ready to have an opinion on something but am expected to give my view. We might all have different ways of mulling over a subject, and not everyone will deal well with being called upon to think aloud in company in this way and express thoughts that might not yet be fully formed. On the other hand, it can be good for those of us less comfortable in thinking aloud to actually do it, practice it and become comfortable, to ensure we are being active rather than passive.

I’m sure I’ll come across lots more positives and negatives as I get more experience in this way of working.

Occupy LSX at St Paul's. Can this many people really reach consensus?

As one Occupy Wall Street participant has pointed out, the movement has been confounding those who assumed it might be impossible to operate consensus models on this scale. The camps may fail or ‘succeed’, whatever that means. Their methods may be flawed in many ways. What is clear is that for those with direct experience of the camps, whether as a one-time drop-in or a pavement-hardened camper, they have already scored a success of kinds by demonstrating for many for the first time the thrill of finding they are capable of joining with others to participate in experiments in direct democracy. They are often messy, often frustrating, but they prove the falsity of claiming that there is no alternative to current systems.


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