Saturday, August 23, 2014

Regional Gatherings are go

We're about to set sail on another round of Regional Gatherings for Friends of the Earth local activists and other friends of Friends of the Earth - seven networking and training events between late 2014 and Spring 2015 covering every English region. 

And I'm doing some convening and coordinating work to kick this into gear, since my team is responsible for project managing each event.

Dates and locations are being pinned down ASAP, but in parallel with that we'd like to get thinking about what the Gatherings will cover. Just like our annual festival/conference Basecamp, we're keen to get as much input as possible from local activists and - well, anyone with an opinion - into the development of these events. 

Here is some of my informal thinking - fairly evolutionary rather than revolutionary, I think, but I'd really welcome a dialogue here with anyone who's interested. As well as the questions below, I'm particularly interested in your best experiences of Gatherings and other events, what we could replicate and where we could innovate.

Feel free to reply with any views here (although this is strictly an informal space - talk to me at work if you want to contact me officially). 

Obligatory caveat: these are my thoughts rather than any official statement, written in sand rather than on tablets of stone, et cetera, et cetera. You know the score. :-)

What are Gatherings for?

The core aims of Regional Gatherings in general are straightforward and uncontroversial – to put on an event where participants can:

  • Network together
  • Learn from each other as well as from staff 
  • Get updates from Friends of the Earth and feed back in turn.
  • Have a rich and rewarding experience. 

It's the question of content where things get interesting, and for me there's some key lessons from previous events we need to apply

A Gathering can't be all things to all people

One key lesson for me previous rounds of Regional Gatherings is that it’s hard – not to say counterproductive – to meet all needs with a single one-day event with two to three staff in attendance. It may well be better to plan separate events/teleconferences which give the issue the time it needs and ensure an engaged audience. 

It may also be more appropriate to do a dedicated event for a beginners (which curiously enough is what we're planning to do) rather than trying to stretch the audience too wide for one event. I occasionally describe environmental campaigning and Friends of the Earth in particular as like a long-running soap opera - so much has gone on before that getting people up to speed is a job in itself. 

So agenda-building is always a two-stage process:  while it's great to get lots of ideas from everyone, and there's a lot of campaigns, issues, policy areas and skills we could cover, the corollary of that is that at some point we have to arrive at a manageable agenda for a Gathering and a Plan B for anything we can't cover.

So, what do we prioritise? What are the issues we're going to unite and prepare for action around as a movement?

Let local groups be local groups 

Another vital principle, particularly in light of the success of our annual Basecamp festival, is to let local groups be local groups. That means not just getting their input into content development, but to supporting them to have networking spaces as well as to suggest and run their own sessions. 

In other words: If the relationship between Friends of the Earth and its local groups is as peer-to-peer as possible, let's create and run events based on that assumption. 

So, what format of networking works best? (remember, not everyone knows each other and the beauty of these events is that we can bring together unfamiliar as well as familiar configurations of people) How can we best create the conditions for dynamic peer-to-peer learning and support?

Basecamp and questions of style

Gatherings are popular with our experienced activists and I feel we have broadly an approach and a model which works. But it’s worth saying here and underlining several times that Basecamp has been a game-changer in terms of our approach to what's possible with activist events. A more relaxed approach, a wide variety of sessions, a focus on making the experience inspirational as well as educational - all of this has been a breath of fresh air for us,

And so while much of the carnivalesque Basecamp is too time intensive and expensive to replicate in full, for this coming round of Gatherings we are asking ourselves (and you) if there’s learning we can apply from it?

PS - we can has working group? 

Incidentally, what we're also looking for is a small working group of friendly local activists who can be a sounding board and an inspiration for the Gatherings. Expressions of interest from people outside Friends of the Earth are also welcome - I think at least one external perspective could well be very useful. Again, expressions of interest to my work alter ego at the usual e-mail address.

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