Social Movement Learning: Partisan Collective and “Activist Skills and Knowledge”

How do we know what skills and knowledge we have? How do we know who else in the group can help us, or would benefit from our help? How do we spot “single points of failure”? What do we do about burn out – before, during, and after?

All these (good) questions were on the agenda yesterday evening when I facilitated a skill-share session for a new Manchester collective, Partisan. This blog post is a chronological account, written to a) remind me what I did and b) think about what could have gone better.

The absolute best thing was that an email questionnaire was filled in by a bunch of the attendees and put onto a spreadsheet by my contact at Partisans, who did a great job.  This helped in two ways. One, it meant that I was able to make a relatively specific/relevant to the group questionnaire for people to fill in (see below for the top of that)


Secondly, in response to the “how could it all go horribly wrong?” question, everyone independently wrote about burn out, and so that gave me the cue to structure the second half around that – I made a separate sheet listing the questionnaire answers and the questions I wanted people to tackle.

burnout discussion

The following email went around

Dear x

We’re holding a Partisans Collective meeting on [date and venue], starting at 6pm sharp.

It’s to help us all figure out what skills and knowledge we need to make Partisans a really big success over the coming year. We will look at what resources we have, what we need and – where and how to get those resources.

There’s a short questionnaire below (You don’t have to answer all the questions if you don’t want). Please fill it in if you are coming, and send it back before the night – it will help us plan the evening. If you can’t come, please please please fill in the questionnaire and send it back!


    1. What skills and knowledge do we need to make Partisans a success? (we will make a list based on the answers we get)
    2. Which of these skills and knowledge do you personally have at a level you would be happy to teach people “the basics”?
    1. Which of these skills and knowledge would you LIKE to get/become better at? (we will be running training)
    1. Given your experience of any similar sorts of projects to Partisans,

a) what should Partisans Collective do MORE of?

b) What should it stop doing/do less of?

c) What should it start doing?

    1. How might “it” all go horribly wrong (and any ideas you have for stopping that from happening!!)
    1. Anything else you would like to say

Before we kicked off, I asked how long the meeting preceeding had been, and if people were in a good mood. It had been 90 minutes, and not fraught – if it had been longer/bad, I would have figured out something particularly high energy and fun to start with. As it was, I gave everyone two pieces of paper (one green, one plain), and a name badge each, and very briefly (three sentences) introduced myself. I explained the session would be an hour, tops. I made a general plea for name badges at meetings – there will always be people, new or nameblind- who don’t know everyone’s name, it makes it easier for them to interact.

Two bits of paper
I then asked people to write something they were good at on the green bit of paper and something they’d like to be good at on the coloured bit, in big letters.
[I did NOT do introductions/go round, because there were twelve of us, and it is tokenistic unless people have a minute or two each. Even then it’s fairly lazy/crap, imho.]

Some people “cheated” and wrote more than one, but that’s fine.

Things folks were good at
writing, research, Djing, organising events ideas, meeting design [that was me], teaching, programming, numbers, liaising with people, sewing, spreadsheets, organisation, customer service, chat, public speaking, music events, vocal voluem, networking, hand-sewing, banner-making, social media and blogging.

Things folks wanted to be good at
Painting, drawing, websites, design, graphic design, organising accounting, managing money, practical organisation, machine sewing, event organisation, networking, time management , funding, public speaking, cooking, speaking Japanese, technical stuff, social media strategy,/marketing, interpersonal skills

We then stood up and circulated. As people found a “match” they were asked to shout out “huzzah”. There were several huzzahs, which helped the mood.

I then got people to self-organise in a line based on day and month of birth (not year), and then talk to the person next to them about anything while I sorted out the next bit. Date of birth is a neutral way of randomly mixing groups (unlike, say, height), and if you have 30 people there’s a very good chance two people share the same birthday. (with twelve of us we had a consecutive day situation).

Then the “novice lines”
I had people help move tables out the way to create enough space, then had everyone line up in a row. I explained the basics – one step forward if you’re a novice, two steps forward if you’re a practitioner, three if you’re an expert and four if you are a ninja. I asked people to try to compensate for their upbringing (if you’re female or working class you are generally taught to think you’re not as good; if you’re male and middle class you’re generally taught that you are ‘all that’ [race matters too, of course – this was an all-white audience, and I think I’d be nervous, as a white cis-gender male ‘lecturing’ BME people about the scars of institutional racism.]
I asked people to close their eyes and visualise where they were going to step to (so they weren’t influenced by other people’s moves). The novelty here was that if people couldn’t do something, they were told to stay put, where as in the past I’d had ‘can’t do and ‘novice’ on the same line.
So, I chose cooking as the first exercise, as I always do; nobody minds admitting to being a bad cook, and thanks to gender roles, women tend to be better and step further forward than the men, on balance. Two people stepped forward as far as expert, and I asked them both to say a little bit about how they became good cooks (“practice” and “I’m vegetarian, so I had to learn”).
We then did “liaising with people” from the green sheets of paper (I always go to the green sheets, since there will be someone in the room who is going to step forward to expert)  and I made up some definitions on the hoof that made people laugh. Again, there were a couple of people stepped further forward, and I asked one to say why she was good, how she got good. She was willing to run a workshop on this t somepoint. She then got volunteered to take over facilitating the novice lines – which she did well – on plumbing. It emerged that nobody was a good plumber BUT that one person’s dad was a plumber, and could perhaps be persuaded to do a skillshare session.

People seemed to like the novice lines – both for the ease of use and my attempt to counter-act how gender/class works to have people under-estimate themselves. I encouraged people to take it on and modify it. After all, all you need is white and coloured A5 paper…

Now that people knew the idea, I had them all individually fill in the sheet I’d made, and give them in to the co-ordinator.  This now means Partisans Collective has a better idea of who (in the room) has what skills from a self-sourced list of crucial skills,  at what level, and who wants to beef up their skills.  That should make it easier to spot single points of failure, and to organise for groups to work together on projects with the aim of spreading skills.  Fingers crossed!!

Burn out
That had all taken about 25 minutes, which meant that there was enough time for a good discussion of burnout.
I had put up flipcharts around the room with the following questions, but rather than just have people circulate (which I’ve done in the past, with mixed results), I had people in groups of 3 or 4 talking through before writing up on the flip charts, and had given everyone a sheet of paper with the questions on, as well as anonymised quotes from the questionnaire (see above). The four questions were;

  1. What are the causes of burn out?

2. What can be done to minimise these causes?

3. How can people who are feeling burnt out be supported?

4. What can you do to create cultures of support and accountability that make burnout less likely to happen, and less likely to damage your group (both its individuals and its group functioning)

This part seemed to work well – I eavesdropped and there were some very astute observations and practical suggestions being put forward within the groups.  I  kept an eye on everyone’s participation; nobody was disengaged, though some people listened a lot more than they talked (which is fine!). If groups are five or more, you usually get a dynamic of three people talking and two/the rest listening. So groups of three are usually best, groups of four tolerable. I did not use the ‘law of two feet‘ since my sense was that this was a relatively stable group whose members knew each other and would not have any individual dominating.

I pushed them to move on to the third and fourth questions, and then write up in the last few minutes before the hour was up. People had also written on their own sheets

After people had done that our time was up. I decided not to have us all looking at each flipchart in turn, or have a closing plenary. If the group doesn’t have the will and ability to collate from the flip-charts and the sheets that people wrote on, and use the conversations they had in their groups (which were full of sensible, implementable ideas), then a closing plenary wouldn’t help. And in general, plenaries tend to suck the energy out of a room, imho.  I finished with cheese – I asked people to go up to someone they did not know well/at all and shake their hand (I judged this was culturally appropriate) and thank them for their input and ideas.  People did that and it seemed to finish the meeting on a high.


Verdict: It was fun and useful for me, and hopefully/seemed to be for them too. They have now experienced “novice lines” and realised how easy it is to do, and had good conversations about burn out. My impression is that they are skilled and serious about this, and that they will avoid some of the classic mistakes of these kinds of groups.   I chose not  to do feedback forms (I am less enamoured of them than I used to be). I asked people to get in touch with me, or go via Sandy if they had anything to add.

So – what did I personally take away

  • Additional proof of concept (and, therefore, that it is time [or will be after my thesis] to get of my fat arse and make this stuff happen more)
  • People don’t read instructions on sheets – you have to say it out loud, or tell them to read the instructions!
  • Encourage people to be very specific in their white and green paper writing – “technical stuff” creates too much ambiguity.
  • Select the topic for the person who is going to take over facilitating the novice lines, and make it one that is unambiguous.

4 thoughts on “Social Movement Learning: Partisan Collective and “Activist Skills and Knowledge”

Add yours

  1. This is a great blog post. I have recently taken on chairing the communications committee of my local community library and my first task to get an idea of the skills and knowledge that the group currently have. I will be implementing your advice at my next meeting! Thank you 🙂

    1. thanks for that encouragement! Do let me know how it goes, and if I can be of any assistance, I will try!

      Am thinking on some new tools and techniques, and will post them on this site.

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