Hearing voices: activists engaging communities

Yesterday I was facilitating at the regular meeting of the Building Activist Networks Forum. The theme of the session was supporting activists in engaging with their communities. To be precise, I was co-facilitating – with Naveed from Oxfam UK.

Right from the start we identified that all we could do in the time that we had was to open up the conversation. And we suspected it was a conversation that few activists, and few organisations that support activists find the time to have. We felt the conversation usually started with “what do we do to support our activists in engaging their communities?”, and didn’t often cover “why do we want to engage the community?” or “who are the community anyway?”. It was this latter question we focused on.

We asked the participants to step into the shoes of the community that their activists were trying to reach and identify some of the types of people they wanted to engage but struggled to so so? Why isn’t it working? What are the needs and aspirations of these members of the community, and what are the obstacles to successful engagement from their perspective. Through some thinking, some drawing, and some fantastic roleplaying (hats off to our volunteers) we brought some of these characters into the room and got to talk to them about these issues. I think it worked – I took it as a good sign when, during a break, a participant accused us of having “provoked an existential crisis”.

We had been asked to enable these capacity builders to identify the skills their activists needed for successful engagement, and the skills they needed, in turn, to support the activists. In reality we took a step back and identified the states of mind, a necessary foundation to the skills, and one that was well-received.

The activity itself was one that’s easy enough to replicate more or less wholesale with activists to help them have the same conversations and reflections and begin to develop the states of mind we were working with.

Naveed then facilitated a lovely capacity builder ‘lonely hearts’ in which participants got to ask for support and find who in the room could help them… “capacity builder WLTM experienced public speaker to inspire network of activists….” and so on. I’m not sure love blossomed across the crowded room, but some serious and passionate networking was done.

The Forum is open to anyone who works to support networks of activists regardless of the issue, size of network, paid staff or volunteer. Get in touch if you want to be kept in touch.