How do we build a participatory movement? Let's ask the panel…

A couple of times this year I’ve been asked to sit on a panel as a speaker advocating nonviolent direct action or radical social change. Flattering to be asked. But my take on these topics is that they are fundamentally participatory – empowered social action making change from the grassroots up. And yet we revert to formats for these discussions that cut the grassroots right out of the picture.

In both cases I’ve opened a dialogue with the organisers about doing something a little more in keeping with the topic – raising the status of the people present from audience to contributors. But there always seem to be obstacles, for example the lecture theatre-style banked seating. But in reality it seems to be a natural tendency to go for what we know, and the lack of imagination and aversion to risk to try something new. And of course many of the audience will enjoy the session on some level, which reinforces its credibility.

I also spent the best part of the day at the Occupy LSX camp a week ago. I happened to choose the day of a conference of representatives from occupy sites across the UK. The format? A very long list of speakers (in stretches of an hour or more) talking at the crowd over the PA system. Personally I simply can’t sit still and do the speakers justice for that long. There was half an hour set aside for informal mingling, but half an hour in a programme that ran from 1pm to 8pm…….

Now our friend over at the Dwight Towers blog would be chucking out phrases such as “the sage on the stage“, and “ego-fodder” around now. In fact, in this last instance, he was – I had the pleasure of meeting up with him at Occupy LSX. Now I’m a little less harsh in my criticism. I’m willing to go with the possibility it’s more about the fact that this kind of session format is the norm, than about ego trips.

But we’re a movement for change, right? We challenge the norms of society, right? Time to walk the talk and talk less from the stage. It’s not like there aren’t alternatives. I suppose it’s just that many event organisers still aren’t as familiar with them, or that they seem risky compared to the tried and tested panel of speakers. Problem is that from a participation perspective we’ve tried it, tested it, and it fails.