Activism energy supplies

27 August 2008 by Jennifer

Some thoughts on the need to nurture the “next generation” of activists, influenced by Starhawk’s i.m.o. excellent book “Truth or Dare“.

This is another article angled towards the UK out-bi community, but which may also be of interest to other people.

Thanks to everyone who commented on my post about children at BiCon, or to the related thread on LiveJournal.

In this post, I want to pick up on a related theme which was evident in some of the responses, which might be summarised as: “But we can barely manage to run BiCon as it is!”

Anyone with this kind of scarcity concern is going to be rightfully cautious of any suggestion that might increase the organising team’s workload. So I want to talk now about the subject of activism energy supplies, especially the question of where new activists come from and how. (I know I’m not the only one who’s been thinking about this recently, and I look forward to hearing what comes back from BiCon 2008 on the subject.)

Limiting factors

One limitation to the number of “active activists” around any event is caused by people feeling that the event itself isn’t for them.

I’m sure there’s an element of this at play around BiCon, BiFest etc. But I think it would be overly hasty to lay any apparent organiser shortage entirely at that door. Even within the categories of people that those events currently serve well, there are some obstacles to organiser recruitment. For instance:

  1. some people who would happily join in don’t realise that their help might be needed;
  2. some people who would happily join in don’t have the impression that they’re qualified to contribute; and
  3. some people who would like to do a small amount are getting offered a large amount or nothing.

These are at least partly matters of awareness, public perception, structures and management skills.

The words "activism energy supplies" appear in a vivid green against a background photo of blades of grass.

D.I.Y. vs the professional look

softfruit recently raised a question about perceptions of the BiCon organiser role:

It has me reflecting on the way we try to professionalise the image of bicon to people who’ve never been, as along with BCN it’s one of the few faces the community has. But under the gloss, it’s more like a bunch of mates clubbing together to hire a really big holiday cottage for a weekend away together than like a Pride event.

One thing that struck me about that comment is that I could think of two different meanings which might come under the heading of “Being professional”.

Firstly, I think there’s a kind of competence which is about people being well taken care of. One hopes that people will be at that reliable level in their professional capacities (though in reality they aren’t always), but of course it isn’t necessarily linked with being paid.

Secondly, “Professional” often also implies a separation of roles. The idea is that you leave the “personal you” at home when you go to work. That might be expressed via “work clothes”, and will almost certainly involve “things you don’t talk about with certain people”. And in terms of a company or organisation, there will be a “party line” about how the organisation presents itself to the world. Behind the scenes, it might not look like that.

As an activist I do aspire to be competent and to take care of people, and I’d be surprised if any of my peers didn’t share that aim.

It’s the necessity to present a façade which I think is more up for question. If we do need a façade, I think it’s only at certain times and places. If it goes so far that “ordinary people” can’t imagine themselves as co-organisers with us, then clearly it’s not serving the community well.

(This also connects up with the question of the expectations laid on organisers, and how much or little they get appreciated, as recently pointed out by Sanjibabes and others – see especially ajva’s comment and the responses to it.)

It’s whom you know

Not long ago, someone I consider to be a pretty experienced activist in other fields, and who’s been to BiCon a couple of times, said to me something like: “I’ve never really understood how you get to be on a BiCon organisers’ team. Is it just about ‘who you know’?”

I didn’t reply at the time (the conversation moved on in other directions). But afterwards, I thought about it a lot. And I’d have to concede that at the moment, i.m.e. the answer is basically “yes”.

Contrary data points would be very interesting, inasmuch as presumably they would indicate other “routes in”.

I’m reminded of an anecdote which Starhawk tells in ‘Truth or dare’:

When the Reclaiming Collective began, we were influenced by the style of organizing we had learned in civil disobedience groups. We envisioned a large collective, open to anyone, composed of smaller work groups that we jokingly called cells.

After a couple of years, however, we noticed that nobody seemed to be joining the collective. When we questioned likely prospects, we found out that they didn’t know how to join. Although we imagined ourselves to be open, in reality we had become a tight group of friends that newcomers found intimidating. Because, in theory, no one belonged or didn’t belong to the collective, no one could figure out how to get into it.

(I found it quite striking that almost every commenter on the Children at BiCon LJ thread was someone I’ve known for at least a few years – even though it was on the BiCon LJ, which must include a lot of readers who first went to BiCon in 2006 or 2007 and whom I’ve never met. I don’t mean I know all the commenters in the “close-knit group of friends” sense, but certainly no less than “We’ve been in workshop sessions together” or “I’ve heard you speak”, if not “We’ve chatted in 3d”.

Most were of relatively mature BiCon-going vintage – several easily 10 years or more – and there was no-one I’d think of as a “newcomer”.

To me, this tends to bear out the idea that in the present climate, the average new BiCon-goer isn’t quick to form a view of themself as an owner or equal leader of the event.)

Skills as obstacles

Of course, whether people do or don’t hear about activism opportunities is partly just down to the kind of chat that happens naturally among friends. If your friends are running BiCon, you’re going to hear about it.

But I think with the bigger events, there’s also quite a bit of deliberately only inviting people one knows well; and there’s a logic to that caution, with teams as they’re currently structured. With most BiCon teams of recent history, especially the smaller ones, there are few or no roles available which could be taken by an inexperienced person. And you can’t afford to have someone on your team who’s going to take on an important role and do it wrong.

The following story, also from “Truth or Dare”, touches on that as well as on perceptions:

… as a group matures it becomes harder for new people to enter. Like a climax forest, in which dense shade prevents new seedlings from taking root, the skills, experience, and sense of community in an established group may intimidate newcomers.

As an example, in doing nonviolent civil disobedience, we found that as a core of experienced blockaders developed, newcomers experienced less of an immediate sense of empowerment from the actions. During the Diablo blockade of ’81, few people had blockaded before. Consensus, solidarity, meeting facilitation, all called forth new skills and generated a great sense of experimentation. The group’s ideology – that we were all equal, that everyone should rotate responsibility for aspects of the group’s functioning such as facilitating meetings or talking to the media – had a basis in reality, for the gaps in our levels of skill were not very great.

Four years later, I participated in a much smaller action at Livermore. Half the people were new, half experienced. Some had been through dozens of actions at that same place. The tone and feeling of the action were very different. For any problems that came up, we could draw on a backing of previous experience. When specific skills were needed, such as that of facilitating large groups, some of us were there who had practiced them hundreds of times. Newcomers felt a little like outsiders.

At Diablo, power-with, influence developed freely and spontaneously out of the group. If someone turned out to be great at facilitating meetings, we all felt empowered because that person represented the possibility that anyone could do the same. Four years later, when the same person was much more highly skilled, newcomers felt disempowered: “I couldn’t do that – it requires lots of practice – I’d better let the expert do it”. And, of course, their attitude reflected a new reality, for reaching a level of skill and experience equal to that of someone who’d been facilitating meetings for the past four years would, in fact, take time and practice. The group had more to lose by letting someone new attempt facilitation, because now the gap in skills was much greater.

We most successfully planned for succession by setting up trainings in skills we had learned and teaching strategies we had developed. Also helpful was having a variety of levels upon which people could practice. A new facilitator might start out in an affinity group meeting of ten people, later attempt to facilitate a cluster (a group of affinity groups) of thirty, and finally feel confident to try facilitating a spokescouncil of a hundred or so.

A group is an entity, a being in and of itself. A group that stays together over time develops a culture of its own, a shared history, a style of relating, unspoken rules, in-jokes. That culture can be very powerful, but from the outside can be hard to penetrate. It becomes a de facto boundary – often one that is invisible to those inside.

To be sustainable, a group must understand, anticipate, and plan for its own needs to change over time.

In drawing a parallel with that anecdote, I don’t mean to imply that someone necessarily has to have gained their relevant skills from running that same event before. Yes, there is expertise specific to any event which has a history (e.g. awareness of past traditions which influence people’s expectations); but there’s also lots that all similar events have in common, so that people may have gained relevant skills through paid work or other activism.

What I mean is more that for any job where specific skills are needed, whoever’s putting the team together needs to know and trust that you have those skills. So that constraint still tends to favour people in their existing friendship/co-activism network.


Some people have been thinking about and working on a volunteering directory for the UK bi community. This would be one way of helping to link people with jobs that would suit them. Last I heard, this project was only in its early stages, but I think it’s an excellent idea.

Job design

What I’m thinking about too is the art of how jobs are designed as a project’s being set up. Each possible job needs to be matched with its person in terms of both skill level and time commitment, as well as preference.

Allowing people to develop their skills via similar tasks at different scales, as Starhawk said, is an aspect of this.

I think it might also imply subdividing jobs sometimes. It may seem easier to have only one person doing all of a job (or even several jobs all at once), but in the long run it means (a) they’re probably somewhat more likely to get bored or exhausted, and (b) no-one else gets to know how to do it. So that has a down side too.

I do have more detailed ideas about this, but I think they’ll have to wait for a sequel.

Underlying philosophy

Meanwhile, I want to say something about my beliefs about activism and about people.

People want to do cool stuff

It’s pretty much axiomatic with me that people enjoy doing cool stuff. People get satisfaction from seeing something happen in the world as a result of their actions, and from exercising their creativity. And even very dull tasks can become enjoyable when done cooperatively in friendly company.

E.g. some people actively enjoy cooking; I prefer creative results that last longer than a meal or two, but I’ll happily potter about loading or unloading the dishwasher, chatting or listening to something on my MP3 player. Some people will happily stuff envelopes but don’t want the responsibility of deciding what’s going in them; for others, it’s the other way around. (I don’t object to either of those jobs, as long as I’ve got people to talk to during the envelope-stuffing.)

In my experience, for pretty much any task in a project such as BiCon, there’s someone who’ll actually enjoy it. (In the world as a whole, this is not true; there’s lots of work which is horrible to do, whose only redeeming feature is that it pays some amount of money. But I don’t think any of those jobs is part of organising the typical UK bi event.)

It follows that any time I see someone martyring themselves by taking on stuff that they’re not really enjoying, I think “Wasted opportunity!”

Starhawk again:

Martyrdom is no model for an ecological society. Sustainability teaches us to cultivate an ecological laziness – getting the most results for the least energy expended, not by depleting scarce resources but by intelligently observing and joining with the larger patterns around us.

Yes, there are occasionally times when the chips are down and whoever’s available ends up mucking in to make the situation work, out of a commitment to producing the result, whether they enjoy the process or not. But that to me is a last resort, and I always want to know what was missed in the earlier stages such that it came to that.

(And if, ultimately, we’ve managed to create activism roles that no-one in the whole world wants to do, then I’d have to wonder why we don’t just stop doing it that way and create something else instead. There’s so much that needs doing in the world, why not pick something we can enjoy?)

Not everyone, not all the time

Of course I don’t mean that everyone, all the time, has spare activism energy. Some people are “fully booked” with what they’ve already taken on. And some people need all their available energy just to get through the day (though I think a taste of activism enhances any life, if you can possibly fit it in, even in tiny amounts).

But (at least here in the UK in 2008), there are also plenty of people searching for something worthwhile to fill some spare time, or for an interesting new challenge. It’s just a question of casting the net wide enough to find them.

What people don’t want

Here are some things that people don’t want:

  • To take on a job of apparent size x, only to find that it was really a job of size 2x, 4x or 10x and proceeds to eat their life.
  • To be drawn to a job which they would find enjoyable, but discover that in order to get the enjoyable part, they also have to take on a significant amount of other stuff which is of no interest to them.
  • To have either less support/cooperation from others than they need, or more overlooking/interference than they want.
  • To feel unappreciated.

People who have either too much of a load or too little satisfaction are the ones who get burnt out.

The next generation

Even when people are thoroughly enjoying themselves and teams are basically functioning well, lives change and people move on. So the time to nurture the next generation is before they’re needed to step up and take the lead.

In a BCN some time last year (can’t lay my hands on it right now), Paul Crowley quotes Pat Califia as saying something along the lines of “Every activist’s first job is to replace themself”.

I’m not saying we aren’t already doing that at all. If you’re reading this about to go to BiCon 2008 (or indeed at BiCon), and you recognise yourself in some of the above description of not quite knowing how to get stuck in or whether your help would be welcome, then I commend unto you the session on “Volunteering in the bi community”.

(And if I look at my own history, then in retrospect I think my account of the first Fitting & Misfitting workshop partly served that purpose, though it’s not exactly how I was thinking of it at the time. Writing that up for other people seemed the natural thing to do, but that’s partly because I just have naturally low thresholds for both wastefulness and boredom :-) )

What I’m thinking is more that to whatever degree we’ve been doing it up till now, we could do more of it if we paid more attention to it.

Activism energy supplies
Limiting factors
D.I.Y. vs the professional look
It’s whom you know
Skills as obstacles
Job design
Underlying philosophy
People want to do cool stuff
Not everyone, not all the time
What people don’t want
The next generation

4 thoughts on “Activism energy supplies”

  1. Very interesting and thought-provoking excerpts from the book. I really relate to what you said about the facade as well.

  2. Re LiveJournal links, good point! The BiCon LJ was ported to DreamWidth, so I think probably the thread does still exist in archives there, it’s just a question of what date that was.

    Here’s the link for the archives from 2008:

    That year probably also includes a long thread in response to my “Children at BiCon” article.

    If anyone reading this finds either of those threads before I go looking, please let me know :-)

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