19 Feb 2016, Auckland
First of all, I am very sorry I cannot be there in person. I know there is an amazing line up of speakers today and great discussions planned, and also it would be great to meet and talk with you all, people gathered together to discuss the important topic of how we create positive change in the world.
I also want to thanks Rowan, Rebecca and Niki for organising this event and all the support team. I think this is an important and timely discussion.
My background in social change begins with my family. I grew up in a house where discussion and debate was part of life. I remember long slow Sunday breakfasts where the family would sit around and talk about things, all kinds of things – personal events, what was happening with family and friends, and what was happening in the world around us.
These discussions were always tempered and underlined by a suspicion of power – the corporate and political elites. My father was a Hungarian revolutionary, forced to flee his homeland after the 1956 uprising. My mother had grown up as a middle class coloured woman in South Africa and had left her country alone to live in a strange land around the time that Apartheid was being constructed. They met in England and I was born there, and came out to Aotearoa in the mid 1970s. My parent were what I’d call ‘progressive’ although I grew up with a very clear awareness of the consequences of both left wing and right wing tyranny.
After school I went back to England and was living in the North during the great miners strike. I got involved with strike support work, and later become actively involved in the anti-nuclear movement, especially at Molesworth Peace Camp. I joined up with the peace convoy in 1985, where I witnessed vicious police brutality first hand when they smashed the Stonehenge Free Festival.
I returned to Aotearoa in 1987, where I became active in anarchist politics, drug law reform and civil rights education and advocacy. I was also on the fringes of the Unemployed Workers Right movement where I met the fabulous Sue Bradford, who was speaking today. I later became involved with Native Forest Action alongside Steve Abel, who is also here. I co-founded the Hemp Store in 1997 as a platform for activism and in 1998 I joined the Green Party and established the Wild Greens, a direct action group that was involved in a range of activities, including free e-testing at dance parties, critical mass bicycle rides and the anti-GE campaign. I became a Parliamentary activist in 1999 and since leaving Parliament in 2008 I have been mostly trying to work out what it would mean to create an ecological civilisation, in particular how Permaculture Systems Design can be applied to social, economic and political change.
My theory of change is rooted in Non Violent Direct Action. At its simplest, Direct Action is based on the understanding that people do not usually give up power just because you ask them nicely. It can be worth trying that, but Direct Action is about taking power into our own hands to create the change that we want, as far as we are able. To illustrate, climbing up a coal fired power station chimney stack and hanging a banner to protest is communication technique. Occupying the power station and closing it down, even for a few hours, is a Direct Action. An anti GE march is a protest. Uprooting GE crops is a direct action. Petitioning for the regulation of power companies is lobbying. Establishing a community owned power company is Direct Action. The key thing is, that it is directly linked to the un-mediated achievement of your goal.
A good Direct Action, IMO, is one where, if your opponents leave you alone and you get to continue doing what you are doing, you win, and if they try to suppress you, you win, because it galvanises broader support for your campaign. This is important because sometimes we do actions without thinking through – ‘what happens if they just leave us alone?’ The danger of getting what you want.
I want to make it clear that I do not oppose lobbying, marching, protesting or hanging banners. I have done most of those. All of those are tools for social change that can be useful either alone, prior to, or in conjunction, with Direct Action. I am simply making the point that if we do not have an awareness of the value of and the right to do direct action, to take power directly into our own hands, we remain supplicants, begging for change rather than making it ourselves.
So my first principle is that, as fully functioning human beings, we have the right and the power to create change.
My second principle is that in order to do that we need to unite our allies and divide our opponents.
There are so many elements to that simple statement, and it should be a basic consideration when planning any action – essentially doing things that make your movement more attractive and make your opponents more repellent. But I just want to focus on the one element that I think is the most important. In fact I would argue that this is actually the single biggest issue facing us. The most politically attractive thing we can do is articulate a compelling vision for change. Without a clear, if broad, picture of what we wish to create, positive change is impossible. How can we make a better world if we don’t know what it looks like? Why would people join us if we don’t know where we are going? How can we expect people to leave the comfort of what they know unless they think it will be better than where they are now? Because people know things can get a whole lot worse than they are, including under the leadership of idealists who want to change the world.
I am strongly of the view that actually people do want change. I think there is a significant enough number of people (and it doesn’t need to be a majority) who see that we cannot possibly go on like this – ecologically, socially even economically things cannot go on like this – I think there is enough to create a groundswell for change that it could sweep our opposition before it. But change to what. People cannot see what the alternative looks like. And to be honest, neither do we. Perhaps a few do, but most activists are defined more by what we are against than what we are for. More by what we hate than by what we love. And love and hope are what will empower people. Fear and despair are disempowering.
I have recently been running workshops for groups of people – many of them change agents – to begin to envision a positive future. Most of them have never imagined what a positive future might look like. Some find it almost impossible to do so. How can we possibly create a better world when we cannot imagine that there could even be one? How can our actions have energy and power if we cannot imagine that anything good will result from them? On the other hand one of the most interesting insights to come from a workshop was from a man who saw for the first time how close it is – how everything we need is here and within our reach.
So, after many years of political and social activist, I think that this is the most important insight I have. That we need to collectively create a compelling vision for change if we want to build a more powerful and broader movement.
I think we all have bits and pieces of it, but not in a coherent or explicit way. Of course some people are doing things, organising discussions and forums around new economics, social justice issues, environment but we spend a lot more time rehearsing how bad things are getting, than we do talking about how things might be if we succeed in this struggle to reclaim our world. I think this is a critical task for us, to keep our eye on what we want, to build energy and enthusiasm and engagement around the new world that we are making, and especially to connect that vision with our work as activists and change agents. By doing this, we become capable of taking the initiative rather than just reacting. And the time is right – the anti-TPPA campaign (and massive respect to the organisers all over the country and supporters) has brought into question in many people’s minds the whole neo-liberal project. To benefit from that, we need to articulate something better, that resonates with people’s basic values and which they can see themselves in.
The danger of this approach is that it can become too idealistic. History has many examples of the lofty ideals of social movements being co-opted and betrayed by so called friends, or crushed by their enemies. Open mindedness, generosity of spirit, visionary thinking does not mean to become naive or unaware. Our vision must be grounded in our work and in the structures we create to make it real – in our creative direct action.
Last weekend I ran a one day workshop up north on understanding and influencing the political system. The session was part of the Kaipatiki EcoFest and was held at the Matakana Hall. A big thanks to Trish Allen for getting me up there and organising everything. We had about 12 people there on the day, as a few had to drop out at the last minute for various reasons. The great thing for me was that the people who came were the kinds of people who will really make use of what they learned. Many were local community and environmental activists and it was a real joy to work with them. As usual, I learned a great deal from the discussions. Perhaps the best feedback I got was from one participant who said, as she left at the end of the day, that she had come along with a bunch of excuses in mind as she had intended to leave at lunchtime! So much for making plans I guess. Since the weekend I have had some really positive feedback in emails from people who were there and some offers to help to get the workshop into High Schools – which is something I would really like to do, especially given the low rates of participation in the last elections. I need to do more work to fit the workshop into school timetabling and link the learnings to the curriculum but I think there is a lot of potential in the idea. On my way home I managed to catch up with Graeme North, one of the founders of modern earth-building in Aotearoa. It is always a pleasure to talk with someone so knowledgeable about their subject and still so passionate about creating accessible, non-toxic buildings that arise out of local materials and the local community. Graeme has a great built-in bullshit detector so it is always interesting to ask his opinion about various things going on around the place! All in all a great trip, and worth it despite the long drive from the Eastern Bay of Plenty.
I just found this link to a documentary made in 1985 about the Stonehenge trashing (they got the year wrong on the title). I was about 18 at the time and appear in the video a couple of times. Big love and respect to all the Convoy Crew, those still with us and those who have passed over
This is available as a one day workshop, a weekend intensive or as an on-going engagement with your campaign.
The workshop examines the essential components of a successful social / political change campaign and applies them to your movement. Part of the process involves applying a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) to your organisation to help identify strategic priorities. We also look at long term planning (timeframe in relation to the longevity of the issue) and look at a range of strategies and tactics available to you, including both direct and indirect action as appropriate.
Part of the strategic planning also involves identifying where further up-skilling is required. A range of modules are available to support this, including: how to work the media; how to lobby politicians effectively; leadership, decision-making and group culture; conflict resolution. Outside support in up-skilling may also be required and I can help arrange providers if needed.
The workshop is interactive and uses brainstorming, small group discussion, video and roleplay to draw out the knowledge of participants and build on it. It is suitable for teenagers to adults.
Develop an understanding of the elements of a successful social / political change campaign
Develop a reflective understanding of the your own organisation / movement and the context in which it operates
Develop a strategic plan for your campaign
Identify a range of tactics appropriate to your campaign
Identify potential allies
Develop a range of skills to help implement your strategic plan
Introductions and Ice-breaker
Talking about Power
What is power and where does it come from?
What kinds of power do we have as change agents?
Direct versus indirect action
Lessons from the past
Key elements of a successful campaign
Reflecting on your organisation
Identifying strategic priorities
Developing a campaign map
Milestones along the road
The six aspects of an Non Violent Direct Action (NVDA) campaign
Work the media
Understanding who the media is and what it does
How to make things easy for journalists
Writing effective press releases
Preparing for interviews
Understanding political processes
Using the select committee process
Using MPs effectively
Leadership, decision-making and group culture
The functions of leadership and collective leadership
Effective facilitation – making meetings work for everyone
Group culture and walking the talk
Confict resolution tools
Understanding the cycles of groups
The functions of conflict
Tools to make effective use of conflict