Breaking and entering (or why newcomers need to be old lags)

A couple of weeks ago there was an attempted break-in at a neighbour’s house. This prompted the local police to drop a ‘Burglary Alert’ leaflet through all our doors.

OK, so you’ve just checked the web address and confirmed you’re on the Rhizome blog and not some neighbourhood watch site. What’s all this got to do with participation or activism or consensus?

Well a phrase jumped out at me from the leaflet that brought to mind a topic we’ve talked about before on this blog and will inevitably return to because it’s one of the biggest problems campaigns and activist groups face – making our networks, our groups, and our meetings accessible to newcomers.

And the phrase? Try looking at your house through the eyes of a burglar. Of course the police want you to get into the mind of a burglar and then lock all potential avenues of entry to make your house impenetrable. For activists and campaigners we need to reverse the process – try looking at your network, your group, or your meeting through the eyes of a potential newcomer; then unlock all entry points and make your ‘house’ fully accessible. Newcomers shouldn’t need experience at breaking and entering to get active and get involved.

Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to have been part of many networks and groups and to have been paid to help support others. My experience is that most community campaign groups aren’t thinking first and foremost about their group dynamics and about access and participation. And that may be entirely appropriate. After all they exist to campaign not to discuss process. However many of them are simultaneously concerned by their inability to attract and/or keep new members. But when pushed to think about the reasons why that may be the case, they often externalise the problem. I’ll paraphrase a few reasons I’ve been offered in the past:

“we can’t attract young people because there aren’t many young people living here, they’ve all moved away looking for work….

…they’re busy with jobs and starting families – they’ll join the group when they retire…

…we get lots of new people to meetings, but they don’t come back…. we think it’s because people today find all this talk of human rights abuses shocking and depressing…

…people live busier lives today that they used to, it’s not surprising our group is getting smaller…

Now there may be some truth in all of these, but further dialogue with the group usually uncovers some deeper group dynamics issues, all of which pose barriers – locked doors if you will – to newcomers getting involved. We rely on the sheer weight of  newcomers’ passion for the issues to drive them to break and enter the group or network. But for each one that successfully does so (often only to find themselves frustrated by the meeting they attend) how many more turn away at the locked door and go elsewhere, or worse still do nothing?

Making change in the world isn’t supposed to be an elite club that requires the passing of an endurance test before membership is granted. It’s not supposed to be like one of those masochistic Japanese game shows, or have an “I had to put up with it to prove I was serious, so should they” mentality about it. Everyone should be offered countless opportunities to make change every single day.

So groups – take a deep breath and look at yourselves from the outside. You may have fantastic publicity, but if the reality of the group’s meeting don’t match the publicity you’ll still lose people. You may have great, accessible meetings but fail to let the right people know about them. Or you may need to change both how you attract people and then the meetings and events you attract them to.

Change is not easy. It may help to remember your own experiences of joining the group. How easy was it? Really? Of course Everyone comes with differing expectations and needs, so we can’t assume they’ll share that experience. You may have been used to a certain meeting culture, for example, which made your group quite comfortable to join. Others may not share that experience. Then put your house in order – unlock windows and doors, put a welcome mat out and stick the kettle on.

And those that support groups? We need to take the time to create safe spaces for a little self-reflection to happen, so that groups can face the challenge of opening up their meetings, accepting that they are sometimes the reason people don’t return for a second reason. That’s a tough conversation to have, but an essential one and one that can ensure the longer term survival of the group, and the continuation of the campaign to another generation.