Why do you think people become involved in your organisation; what are you doing right?
Jim Cranshaw: What I think we are good at is not being controlling in the way we organise and being very open and participatory. I think that’s why we have a large amount of activists who are involved and manage to address broad parts of the cuts. We don’t try and control what people want to do, we try to find out how people want to campaign and what they want to campaign on and then support and empower them to do that. The second thing we do that I think is quite unusual is a lot of training for other groups, what we are trying to do all the time is create more activists. What we’ve done at the moment is train a lot of young people in youth centres that are getting closed down across Oxfordshire and now they are out there doing direct actions, doing media stunts, we just support them in doing that. We are not trying to do everything ourselves but trying to increase the overall size of the movement.
Can you tell us more about how you involve people?
Jane Laporte: We leaflet outside the local customer service centre or job centre with a simple leaflet saying when we meet. We get people through that who have got housing problems, either from private landlords, or people housed by the council, or other problems, like not being able to bid for housing. We’ve had a few key people who’ve got involved and they’ve spread the word to friends of theirs and they leave leaflets at children’s centres where they take their kids and leave leaflets at schools. We get more people that way than people coming from leaflets at the housing office.
Jim Cranshaw: We try and make our meetings really accessible and focused on new people, so say if there is a new person they get a disproportionate amount of attention from the people who have been there and work out what they are wanting out of the experience. Apparently people come to meetings for a lot of reasons that aren’t political in a lot of cases but they will become activists if you can work out what their social needs are. We also try to involve people in meetings, using go-rounds, methods that are used in consensus based decision making but without using consensus based decision making because we also find that that can be very cult-like. We are not waving our hands about all the time but we are trying to be really participatory. So that’s how we do the meetings.
Also I think one of the reasons why so many people have got involved, apart from just the political situation and the fact that people are angry is that people seem to want to do certain things, like some people want to make videos for example, or some people just want to write blogs. We just try and get people to do whatever they want to do, because it’s better to have some activity than none. That makes us less able to be strategic about where we focus our activity but at the same time we do have more capacity, so that’s the trade-off.
Harry McGill: I would just like to concur with what he says there. I think when people come to our meetings for the first time they really become the star of that day. I think it is very important that they are embraced and made to feel completely comfortable and part of the group, encouraged of course to come back and take a part in the group.
Pragna Patel: How do you make them stars of the day? How do you do that without embarrassing someone?
Harry McGill: Well we focus on them.
Pragna Patel: What does that mean?
Harry McGill: We listen to them, we listen to what they are doing, we make sure nobody is interrupting and we do what we are supposed to be doing: show interest, show support and encourage them to open up. I suppose we smile a lot and look friendly, which always helps doesn’t it? Maybe even crack a joke or two in spite of everything. Be warm and embracing.
Linda Burnip: I think it’s really important. I know a long time ago when I was a shop steward and I was trying to get people to go to branch meetings what people said was “Well, we don’t actually like walking in the room by ourselves because we don’t know if we are going to know anyone”. So we used to arrange beforehand and all go together. Anything you can do that makes people more comfortable is really important.
Lani Parker: Thinking about how you do it without making people embarrassed, one of the things you can do is to model that thing of everyone has a turn, everyone is listened to, so it’s not only you, it’s not “Oh! You’ve come to this meeting, amazing!” but it really is a part of the culture, it’s embedded in the way that you do things. I always feel inspired if I go to a meeting where that happens.
Jane Laporte: I think for groups whose reason for being is to deal with people’s individual issues and build wider campaigns around them it is quite easy to focus on new people. The main reason people come to the group is because they have a particular housing problem and they will be quite desperate to get it off their chest. If they’ve bothered to come to the meeting then it’s because they really need some help on it. I think it’s harder to be inclusive when you’re having a meeting which is less about particular cases and about trying to build some kind of strategy or looking at things in an abstract sense.
How do you meet that challenge? How do you balance democratic participation, which can be time consuming, with the need to make quick decisions?
Harry McGill: I think the idea of being inclusive and embracing is done on a more general level, not at policy driven meetings where it’s “Let’s get the job done”. I think our structure seems to be quite good in that respect. Our meeting is a drop-in at a café, where you can have a cup of coffee, have a chat, listen to what people are saying; but we are not pushing big ideas, we are just making connections with people. We also have policy meetings which are where we will be pushing things ahead.
Pragna Patel: What we find is that when you have very vulnerable people and you are trying to involve them in wider issues, aside from their own individual situation that can be difficult because they are caught up so much in their own problems and survival issues. At the same time being user-led is very important for us. We do that by trying to set up support groups which are more casual, more about discussing issues at a pace that is much slower and more accessible than in policy or management meetings.
Linda Burnip: I think there is a problem all of us have; limited time and limited resources. I think really the more that you can get people involved and the more they understand then the more of you there are to do the work. I see it as really useful, empowering people and getting them to have more say.
We organise totally differently to everyone else here because we are national and scattered all around the country. Also I suppose because a lot of disabled people are isolated and confined because they haven’t got the right support to get out from their homes so we very much use social networking. If we want to know what people think about something we message all our Facebook members and put something on our website and they all send back messages and then we sort of work from those responses we get.