Power in grassroots organising. Part 1: Rules

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.

Why do we make rules?
Let’s go back a step first, and think about why we make rules. I think there are a few reasons. We can use them to train us into developing new habits, for example learning not to assume we know someone’s gender. Another reason is to set boundaries about ‘acceptable’ behaviour. I think there’s often a hope in grassroots groups that rules will help to increase participation – ideally people who often feel marginalised can feel safer and able to fully participate.

I know rules can be a lifeline. They can be the thread of hope that can support someone to stay involved in a group despite being marginalised, or simply not seen, which is a real and significant thing and I celebrate that. They can make the difference between someone being able to take part, and having to leave. For example, at the beginning of a workshop I facilitated, a woman in the group said that she had a history of abuse, and she wanted reassurance that there’d be no shouting while she was in the room. Everyone was happy to commit to this, she felt safer, and she stayed. I hadn’t actually intended that the group would create a group agreement (I tend not to use them at all because they can be used to silence people with less power in a group), but this woman had the inner resources to know what she needed, and to ask for it. I then asked if anyone else had requests for the group about how to behave, and a couple of other people made requests. I could feel the group growing stronger during that interaction, we all relaxed a bit, and I believe we created a bit more safety in that space.

With this same spirit of wanting to help make groups accessible and safer for everyone, many social centres and groups create policies, known as safer spaces agreements, that discourage certain behaviours, and encourage others.

There’s an assumption that rules equalise power
The problem is, there is sometimes an assumption – particularly amongst people with more power in a group – that rules equalise power, and also that everyone therefore can and should participate equally.

I used to have this assumption. For years I facilitated in a way that made sure everyone has the same air-time in a discussion, thinking that this would help to equalise participation, and equalise power in a group. I loved go-rounds, or tools like the one where everyone gets three paper clips, each one representing a chance to speak in a discussion. You throw your paperclip into the middle when you want to speak. I still sometimes use these tools, but the difference these days is that whilst I know these tools can be a quick fix for supporting more people to speak, I now know that alone, they aren’t enough to make it possible for people to fully bring themselves into a group, and actually these tools can make it harder for some people to speak, as it can feel forced or unnatural. In any case, take the tools and the facilitator away and the group often retreats to old patterns of behaviour where most people feel like they can’t fully participate in the group.

So, rules don’t equalise power, but they can change people’s behaviour in the short term.

Who makes the rules?
Who has the social capital to stick their hand up and suggest a ground rule? The answer is: not everyone. And, some people in the group are likely to feel like they have to accept certain rules, especially if they reflect the mainstream culture of the group.

Whilst there are exceptions, it tends to be the dominant people, and the dominant attitudes, that make the rules. For example, let’s take a look at the humble hand signal (e.g. putting your hand up to speak in a meeting). Hand signals are a celebrated feature of many grassroots groups. They are presented as supposedly equalising participation and making it easier for everyone to speak. Last year I was in a group of grassroots organisers, and we got into a debate about whether or not we wanted to use hand signals in our discussion. One person, who found it easy to participate in the group and described himself as ‘gobby’, said he’d prefer to use hand signals as a way of preventing him from talking over other people, and in helping him know when was his turn to speak. Then another person said that she didn’t feel that she ever had anything so important to say that it warranted putting her hand up.

So, someone who already feels at ease speaking gets to speak, and someone who doesn’t value (or doesn’t think the group values) what they have to say, is less likely to speak. This got me thinking: Perhaps, by themselves, rules do little or nothing to remove hierarchy in the long term, and actually they can let people with more power off the hook from developing responsibility of how to use that power.

This example is just a sample of two. Betsy Leondar-Wright did a much bigger study. Focusing on class, her research showed that working class people found stylised tools and processes off-putting and they didn’t increase their participation in meetings.

Rules need to be accompanied by an awareness of power
If the same dynamics that led to the power imbalance in the first place are still active, then something deeper is needed. Hand signals, group agreements and safer spaces policies can be great aids to help us participate in groups and access shared spaces. And, to make them more effective, they need to be accompanied by a collective awareness of how power flows amongst us in groups. I think that would help us create more sustainable, resilient & vibrant groups who have a genuine understanding of, and respect for, their own diversity.

If you want to get more aware of how power operates in your group, try this:
Get a piece of paper, and draw a big circle on it. inside the circle, write down the qualities, behaviours and values of the group that you think are more visible, more accepted, and more celebrated. We’ll call that ‘in’, or ‘the mainstream’. Outside the circle, write down the qualities, behaviours and values of the group that are unacceptable, or not seen, and maybe even shunned. We’ll call that ‘out’ or ‘the margins’. You’ll have a much richer picture if you do this exercise with your group, but doing it alone is a great start. If you do this with your group, find ways of increasing participation, whilst acknowledging that doing this exercise won’t be accessible to everyone equally. Notice what parts of you are ‘in’ – can you find genuine curiosity (rather than making assumptions) about some of the ‘out’ qualities, behaviours and values? And notice what parts of you are ‘out’ – is there anything you’d want to say to the ‘in’/mainstream of the group from here?

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