I’m hoping to write a few posts on power in grassroots organising. This first one is about rules, how we use them and why they might not be as helpful as we think they are.
I’ve met a lot of people in grassroots groups and projects who like rules about how to behave and relate with each other. Including me! A safe space looks like this but not that. You should put your hand up like this if you want to speak in a meeting. You can eat this but not that. Some rules are written down and formalised in the shape of safer spaces agreements, ground rules, or methods of making decisions.
There’s an issue here that doesn’t get talked about much. Sometimes, the very people who have more power in the group are the ones who have most influence in making the rules. And, these same people can gain most benefit from the existence of the rules. This means that sometimes rules can actually make power less equal in a group even though the stated intention of rules in grassroots groups is to make power more equal.
By Kathryn Tulip
After it had happened a couple of times, I began to wonder why I got so upset when a colleague borrowed my books and returned them some time later dog-eared and with coffee rings on the cover. It took me a while longer to realise that I was getting upset about a class difference between us. My desire was to keep my books clean and tidy, my colleague seemed to me not to care about that. This led to some low-level conflict and reluctance on my part to share my books. We had very few books at home when I was growing up and lost or damaged things couldn’t easily be replaced, so I learned to be very careful with my possessions. My colleague’s experiences growing up and relationship with possessions seemed to be different, perhaps because lost or damaged items could more easily be replaced than was possible in my home. This was a conflict created out of two different experiences of scarcity. When we had that long overdue conversation, it was clear that this was just one small example of how class difference was playing out in our relationship. It was like a breath of fresh air to look at these niggles through the lens of class, and to start to bring an awareness of how class privilege plays out in our relationship.
We’ve arrived! We’re a small team of facilitators and trainers based in Oxford, Nottingham and Stroud. For thirteen years we’ve been running workshops and facilitating meetings for grassroots groups, co-operatives, NGOs, community projects and others working towards social and environmental justice, and until now we were known as Seeds for Change Oxford.
Earlier this year we realised something big needed to change, but we didn’t know what. We love the work we do, we love being in a worker’s co-op, but somehow we felt like we were stuck in the mud. From our work with hundreds of groups around the country, we know that many groups face a similar struggle, so we thought it could be useful to share some of our story.
We dared to say what we really think.