Reclaiming the fields: rivers, cafes and commercial greenhouses

Saturday, I was co-facilitating a day’s meeting with the emerging Reclaim the Fields UK network. RTF exists elsewhere in Europe as a network of mainly young people trying to take back control of food production. Until Saturday there was no equivalent network here in the UK.

45 people came together from a range of projects, some rural and some urban, at Grow Heathrow to share stories, connect, and begin to think about how they can work together as a UK network.

A few days ago there seemed to be a shift from the organisers and we were being asked to facilitate all of the above plus a few much more concrete agenda items – discussion and decision-making on an upcoming international day of action, for example. Suddenly the agenda looked overfull and the emphasis on lovingly preparing the soil and sowing the seeds of the network looked threatened. Some negotiation followed and it was agreed that there was no need for a co-ordinated response to the day of action – groups and projects could decide autonomously on their response and we could go back to a more reflective agenda.

In the morning we asked people to draw and then tell their stories using the metaphor of rivers. We then heard from folk at Organic Lea about the history of land movements in the UK – Kett’s rebellion, the Levellers, the mass trespass at Kinder Scout and more. The afternoon was spent in a World Cafe process designed to explore and deepen the participants’ understanding of the common ground between existing projects as a step on the road to an effective UK network. Running a World Cafe in an old commercial greenhouse with long benches for seating, and few flat surfaces (except the flagstone and gravel floor) to write on required a little ingenuity, but we improvised and it worked fine.

I came away content that we’d done a good job. Not that there wasn’t stuff to learn.

The shift in emphasis on the agenda, I mentioned above, told me that we had been too quick to accept the original ‘brief’ we’d been given. It had all seemed very clear, but we should have questioned it a bit harder, because if there’s other things on the organisers’ minds they will come out, if not in advance then on the day. Indeed it may not have been a shift – it may have been there all along, just not being articulated.

We also changed the third and final question of our World Cafe – an intuitive decision which we hoped would help create a firmer foundation. The original final question had seemed OK to us, and to the organisers in the run-up, but on the day we weren’t convinced it added enough to the existing discussion.

The last half hour was given over to finding volunteers to ensure that another gathering could take place to start planning the detail of a network. In reality people began to share a series of disconnected or loosely connected ideas, many of which were unrelated to future gatherings. It’s clear from this that the World Cafe hadn’t created enough space for all of these ideas to emerge and be heard. We ran with it and still had time to find a working group to take forward the idea of a second gathering in Bristol or Glasgow. I think we could have got the working group decision sooner had we been firmer in articulating what we saw the purpose of that final 30 minutes as being. I think there was enough reluctance at dictating such a narrow purpose for the group to feel empowered to use the time for other things. And that’s no bad thing, although it might have been had we not brought it back to the next gathering in time.

I haven’t seen the evaluations yet. But will post them and some photos when they’re sent across to me