Friday, May 10, 2013

Top ten things I learnt at People Power 2013

A couple of weeks ago I went to the Sheila McKechnie Foundation's People Power shindig cum campaigners' conference in London about which I'd heard so many positive stories.

I did turn up in a fairly jaded and misanthropic mood, having spent the previous two days on the road and longing less for a day of inspirational talks and more for several episodes of The West Wing followed by (or consecutive with) bed. Mollified by the provision of copious amounts of coffee and pastries, however, I settled down to the event.

People Power was bookended by two absolutely first rate but contrasting speakers in the form of Clive Stafford Smith of Reprieve (photo below) and Margaret Aspinall of the Hillsborough Family Support Group – the one all lawyer's flash and the other all softly spoken passion.

Photo made available under Creative Commons license by Ambra Vernuccio -

In between the two lay seminars, workshops and talks by a range of different campaigners, community activists and NGOsters. Props at this point to my colleague Lucy Pearce who did a session on cultural memory. And thanks to everyone who gave generously of their time.

So I settled down to happily borg what I could. Here are my top ten gleanings from the day, presented in the spirit of open source activism.

1. Brer Rabbit is Clive Stafford Smith's number one campaign philosopher. In other words, if you want to be thrown in the briar patch, make your opponents believe that this is the worst thing they could do to you.

I like this – it feels like a good antidote to we progressives' occasional tendency to favour earnestness and the frontal assault over good old fashioned strategy. It's also a handy reminder not to overestimate the intelligence of those who disagree with you.

2. If something's not working – consider stopping doing it rather than working harder. This is Clive Stafford Smith (again), pointing out that what we do is supposed to make the other side work harder, not us.

Both pieces of advice from CSS imagine us as the equivalent of a lightly armed guerilla force taking on a cumbersome legal, political or corporate order. We can move faster than they can.

3. Ah, the inevitable Saul Alinsky quote “Power lies with the people who have money or the people who have the people”

So, mobilisation; mobilisation; mobilisation?

4. Behind the successful implementation of a genius idea can lie years of refinement through failure. The Body Gossip team spent several years trying to get their teenage self-esteem project off the ground before they finally hit on a winning formula.

I sometimes think campaigners get caught in a false logic of repetition: if we are right in principle, we just have to keep doing the same thing until the universe comes around, repeat until your Finland station moment. Whereas a correct strategy also requires the right tactics.

5. Tweet like a human being – as the @_BodyGossip say, people buy into people not products. 

Or as I like to put it: campaigners should try tweeting like they are the rockstars they are (although perhaps not like Justin Bieber) .

6. The power of the elevator pitch

I know, I know, this is an artificial exercise which reduces your idea or your campaign to its lowest common denominator. But not everyone is going to hear you out for 50, 15 or even 5 minutes right off the bat. Complexity is often our friend – but friends shouldn't let other friends info dump the unwary and unheeding.

This is the lesson anyone who ever does a stall for the public tries to learn repeatedly, but it's equally if not more useful when talking to the time-poor and self-important. Like say, the trifling matters of politicans, businesspeople, funders etc, as the Body Gossip team found.

7. Build your team

Another Body Gossip one, this. Unless you're some kind of perfect master (and if you are – why do you need to read this?) you need other people on your team who can compliment your skillset and personality. If you try to do everything, you might not fail – you can teach yourself to do things which don't come naturally to you - but you'll be well on the way to being out of flow, grumpy and burnt out.

Skill gaps* are fairly easy to identify (although isn't it interesting that seldom we recruit at the grassroots for specifc skills? Perhaps this is something you could do more of). But what of personality traits?

If I was a coordinator of a local group again, here's what I'd look for in personality traits 
  • A people person – someone who can help strengthen the social glue of the team, who's fun to be around and can cover for me when I go down the analytical rabbit hole. Someone who's priority is 'are people having fun?'
  • A project wrangler and strategist - someone who thinks 'then' and 'then' and 'then' 
  • A visionary – someone who has their eyes on the horizon and asks the group to look that far ahead too.
In other words, the heart, the mind and the soul of the group.

*For skills I'd go hunt me a media officer and a planning geek right off the bat.

8. Don't forget about soft power and easy activities for volunteers.

Two experienced community campaigners - Steven Heard of SNUB (Stop Norwich Urbanisation) and John Hamilton of Lewisham People Before Profit went out of their way to praise the people who don't attend meetings, don't do publicity stunts or direct action or anything like that, but quietly get on delivering leaflets, putting up posters, doing stalls.

All too often we downgrade this work relative to 'proper campaigning', or view it merely as a gateway for deeper participation, but it's important to remember and value this commitment. And at all costs give these people something that they can do.

9. Don't assume you have the public on your side. 

One of the things that SNUB did in their campaign against unsuitable urban sprawl in Norwich was to hold regular 'village hall' meetings to check that they still had a mandate from the public. That's not just a great weapon for a campaign, it's a tremendously inspiring thing to know that people wish you well and have your back.

Again, a useful counter to the 'we are right and we though we are few we have expert knowledge' starting point that the environmental movement sometimes takes.

10. Online pictures and stories of yourself and your colleagues to promote your local group?

In a workshop on digitial mobilisation (Rachel Collinson from Engaging Networks) my thoughts turned to the idea that people - not issues, not merely being right - are the best recruiters. And how we could do a lot more to present a human face to the world at the grassroots.
So, why not put up profiles of your key members on your webpage? Share the fun that you have. Let your people be your best recruiters.

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