Hello to new after-the-Conversation-article readers – barriers to skillsharing…

Today the Conversation posted another article of mine about Extinction Rebellion – you can read it here.

I got a high profile follower out of it, and a lovely email from someone, and a media request.

Anyway, if you’ve come here, you’re probably interested in social movements, and so you’re in the right place (or one of the right places), because I write a lot about this. (If you’re interested in climate histories, try allouryesterdays.info.)

One of the things that makes movement-building so difficult is this; a social movement organisation is going to be made up of people with years under the belt who (usually) have skills, knowledge and relationships at their fingertips and also “newbies” (the term is common, but misleading and patronising – they may have lots of experience, either from other movements or from real-life experience!) Even if the experienced ones see the need for creating opportunities for “newbies” to learn the ropes, it can still break down.

a) the experienced person may not know how to be a mentor, to create right-sized tasks, offer right kinds of support and feedback

b) the “newbie” may not know how to accept the mentoring, or be willing to take it

c) the newbie might take the mentoring and not learn “fast enough”

d) the newbie might take the mentoring, learn the skills and then become unavailable either because they drop out of the group because of personality conflict, burn out or circumstances beyond their control (new job, caring responsibilities etc)

(And this is before you even get into the murky psycho-dynamics of power, domination, the avoidance of responsibility etc)

These frustrations (and others) may well lead even an experienced person who is totally committed to “movement building” to just keep mission-critical jobs on their own personal to-do list. This can have serious consequences for the longevity of their group, because potential “committed individual” can’t find a ‘way in’ and so vote with their feet, and leave. If so, then the experienced hard-core can say “nobody helps, I’m burnt out” or soldiers on but is more skeptical and resistant to using any of their finite time and energy trying to build up the next person who comes along wanting to be involved….

This below from a 2008 PhD thesis (Woodsworth, 2008 p. 123) , about Climate Camp, does a good job of explaining the mechanics of this..

We’re so screwed. So very very screwed.

But in case you think we’re not, and you insist on asking “well, how do we break out of this?” I guess I would spout some platitudes about

a) make sure your experienced people understand this dynamic and the dangers

b) try to make the training of new people as routinised and as automated as possible, with new people gaining the required skills in as low-input way as possible, (creating an ‘automated’ training programme?!) with rewards and encouragement

c) make sure that the group does regular skills audits about what skills it needs and has in what depth – its absolute gaps and single points of failure. See for example this list.

All these are fine ideas. Getting them to work in practice, even with intelligent, committed members, is so difficult as to be functionally impossible.

We’re so screwed. So very very screwed.


Woodsworth, A 2008 Growth in the UK climate direct action movement: Experience, politics and practice. PhD Thesis, University of East Anglia, School of Environmental Sciences

One thought on “Hello to new after-the-Conversation-article readers – barriers to skillsharing…

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  1. I used to donate to the Conversation, sadly their moderator took a dislike to me. Which is sad, as the articles in the Conversation are of a high standard and a very good read.

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