Online meetings about skills and knowledge- some suggestions….

Who has what skills and knowledge in your group? What would happen if one of the person who is in charge of the website, the social media, the dealing with Freedom of Information Act requests died/left town/turned out to have been a cop all along?  What would it do to the ability of the group to function?  What can you do to reduce the fragility of your group and even make being in the group more rewarding and fun for the current members?

The Active Citizenship Toolkit tries to help you think through these questions. This document makes a series of suggestions about how you could – online only (1) – hold a meeting (or meetings?) that get the members of your group thinking about what skills, knowledge and relationships they have, and what they want, and then discussing it in meaningful ways that lead to concrete commitments to further action.

Marc from Active Citizenship Toolkit is happy to talk you through this, or co-facilitate – or, if you really really want –  to facilitate. (Here’s an account of one I did earlier).

‘However, in the absence of SOMETHING (and to be clear, we’re not saying the toolkit is the be-all and end-all), then the existing patterns of behaviour – of skills and knowledge being hoarded in a few hands, of boom-and-bust social movement organisations, will persist.’

Throughout I am going to use the language/jargon of the toolkit – elements, level descriptors, absolute gaps, single points of failure etc.  You can find descriptions of these on the activecitizenshiptoolkit.net website.

First off, decide what you want to achieve (doh).

There are three possibilities here.

(1) Do you want to have a general discussion of the mission of your group, and what skills, knowledge and relationships you need to achieve that mission? That’s a can of worms, and the sheer scale of it will make some people nervous and then possibly angry or fatalistic  (“this is just a waste of time- we should be getting on with planning the next protest” or “wow, this is impossible, we’re wasting our time even trying to slow down the apocalypse”).  So, if you’re going to do it, it will need some thinking about how to avoid these problems.

The output might be a roughly agreed list of the skills, knowledge and relationship that the group needs.  Whether you then straightaway decide to see what you actually have (an audit) and then look at the gaps, well, it might be that you strike while the iron is hot and have two or three linked meetings, or you might decide it’s best for people to mull this stuff over, get used to it.  There is of course no absolute rule here – different pathways will be appropriate for different groups at different times.

There are lists of elements that are considered by some to be “essential” (see here), but it is the act of having the conversation(s) about this that are probably more important – they mean that previously tacit understandings of what the group is trying to achieve, and how, are brought out into the open: how else are people going to learn and flex their strategy muscles?

(2) Do you want to “start at the other end of the telescope” by instead focussing on the current skills and knowledge (relationships are harder to talk about) of individual members?  That has its advantages (very concrete) but you can miss the wood for the trees.

The agreed goal/output of this might be that every individual ends up knowing who to turn to/where to look for help in upping their skills and knowledge on their particular goal (if they have one – people are, after all, allowed to not be in the right headspace, temporarily or permanently, to take on the hassle and commitment of learning new skills/knowledge).

The beauty of this option is that it can probably be done as a one-off, with individuals then responsible for the follow-up (though of course you can pair people as buddies, for mutual support).

(3) Do you want to try to start somewhere in the middle of this?  That will probably require some forethought and preliminary conversations.  It might involve a couple of people coming up with a list of crucial elements beforehand – one that doesn’t purport to be comprehensive – and use it as a way of toggling between what the individuals want and what the wider group “needs”.

The agreed goal/output of this might be that there is a list of elements that all agree are super-crucial, and an agreement to get more people up-to-speed on these, to at least the level of practitioner.

When to meet and what to be aware of

Once you’ve made the decision on ‘where to start’, you have to find a time and date for the meeting that works for most people.  You will have to accept that

  • it is very unlikely that there will be one time that all members of a group of more than about 6 people can do.
  • some times of day will make it hard for parents of young children to participate, others will be problematic for shift workers etc.   But you have to meet some time, and you need a way for those who are not going to be able to make it to be included meaningfully.
  • it is very unlikely that everyone will be equally committed to the purpose of the meeting. Some people just really resist the idea underlying this – that groups of people trying to make the  world marginally less awful have an obligation to work systematically and at some level of abstraction on their own internal capacities. And while they may not come out and say it (or even be fully aware of this themselves), they will find ways to drag their heels etc.

If you want the meeting to be genuinely inclusive, you need to have answers to the following questions.

  • What about people who don’t have internet that can cope with streaming/a video camera?
  • What about people who can’t be there on the day
  • What about people who thought they could be present, but then shit happens (sickness, caring responsibilities, end up having to do shifts at short notice, unable to say no to their boss for fear of not getting any more work).

Pre-work

You also need to get people to do a certain amount of pre-work, even if it is only to read something (there’s no point sending folks more than a single page. Even though everyone DOES have time to read two or three pages, there seems to be a cultural block on folks doing that: one page seems to be the limit.)

The pre-work will obviously depend on what you are trying to achieve.  But at a minimum, making sure people are familiar with the language (elements, novice, practitioner, expert, ninja) and have done some thinking about what elements they have and would like to have would be good.


The meeting itself

All the usual things apply

  • Start on time, but have a plan for admitting late comers.
  • Make the purpose of the meeting clear, in a friendly/non-ponderous way and what the hoped for outcomes are. This should have been in the invite sent out, but it’s a good idea to get a formal recognition of this (even if it is done on the basis of ‘speak now or forever hold your peace’)
  • Set a time that the formal part of the meeting will end (and stick to it).
  • If it is an “open” meeting, have a plan for dealing with zoom-bombers, disruptors etc
  • Welcome everyone, thank them for attending.
  • Try to set the right emotional tone
  • Get people into the habit of saying something, of communicating with one other person, via the chat function.
  • Make sure your facilitators (and you should have more than one, either working in combination or in sequence) know what the goals are, know what the timings are, and – this is crucial – are skilled in knowing how to both create space for folks to talk, but also to move things along, prevent domination and derailing (i.e. defending the space they create).  And make sure that they themselves don’t centre themselves too much (the subject of my next blog).

The list above gives off the implication that you are juggling thermo-nuclear warheads. That’s not the case though – it SHOULD be a relatively up-beat meeting. You’re talking about concrete things you can do, that will help the individuals in the group and the group itself become more effective.

Depending on numbers and technology, you can have breakout groups or not.  But since a functional group of people tends to be in single figures, or very low double figures, it might well be possible just to ‘go round’ each person. The main danger here is that one or two people, for whatever reasons, take ages to get to their point, or repeat it over and over.  This is where the facilitator’s skill comes in.

You can start with what people want, you can start with what people have (my personal preference is for the latter). You can have each person do both their haves and wants in one go, but I think this slows things down, means some people won’t be speaking until quite late in the meeting – unless there is a compelling reason, it’s best to split.

The faciltiators have to be alive to the danger of not setting themselves up as gurus who give seals of approval to individuals’ contributions, and also make it possible/likely for other attendees of the meeting to pitch in with comments/questions after each person has spoken.

You can also use the chat function, or (and this would be my preference) a Gdrive document that all can edit (since it is easier to keep as a long-lasting document, and it can have different headers that people can fill in their contributions under, rather than suffer the ‘tyranny of the timeline’).

The main thing is to try to get the outputs that you wanted at the outset (unless the meeting veers off at useful tangents, and the flow suggests that pulling things back onto your (literal) agenda would be harmful. That’s not to say laissez-faire and just allowing people to derail what you’re doing)

After the meeting

This is the most crucial bit.  And it’s where most of these sorts of things fall down, because people are fixated on the meeting itself being a success, and then knackered and busy for getting the aftermath.

There needs to be a post-mortem of what went well/could have been done better, but crucially also

  1. Some sort of public account of the event, partly for those who weren’t there, but also as an aide-memoire.  This account needs to go up sooner (within a few days) rather than later
  2. Whatever follow-up actions which  were agreed in the meeting – e.g. a workshop on a specific element, a second smaller meeting among a few people, the circulation of how-to guides etc etc, needs to be done asap.  Not doing this is incredibly destructive of credibility and morale,  and sends the signal that the appearance of action is what matters, not the actual action itself.

To achieve these, you probably need an additional person, who wasn’t involved in the grunt work of putting the meeting together, who definitely has the time and energy in the hours/days afterwards, to make this stuff happen – i.e. a “sweeper.”

Some closing remarks

This way of thinking is probably going to be new to many people.  Mostly at school and in work we are – if encouraged to think about our learning at all – given a list of things we had to do “or else.”  Many people come to activism to get away from these sorts of enforced learning situations, the hassle and stress that comes with them, and don’t appreciate it when it follows them to what is supposed to be a safe haven.  So, this Toolkit is likely to provoke resistance.  However, in the absence of SOMETHING (and to be clear, we’re not saying the toolkit is the be-all and end-all), then the existing patterns of behaviour – of skills and knowledge being hoarded in a few hands, of boom-and-bust social movement organisations, will persist.

We have opportunities to challenge those patterns. Internet connections and well-designed and facilitated meetings about these patterns are necessary but not sufficient.  We also need clarity, courage and persistence…

Footnotes

(1) Ideally you would do this face-to-face, but this bloody pandemic is making that impossible (or rather, the enormous failures by our political lords and masters in responding appropriately to the pandemic, prolonging it and causing unnecessary misery is making that impossible). Still, while we are in various forms of lockdown, we can use this time to have important discussions.

Further reading –

Fac-ego-tation (stealth forms of ego-foddering. T800 ego-foddering is what you know you are going to get at a chairs-in-rows-facing-the-experts meeting. T1000 ego-foddering usually involves fac-ego-tation.)

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