This guide is written by student organisers who started out with no experience and learnt by making countless mistakes and false starts. The idea behind this handbook is to support the next generation of student activists to not only avoid many of the mistakes we made, but to actively build and strengthen our movement. Hopefully, this will also serve to “de-mystify” the process of organising, and give more people the confidence to take part.
The important point to remember in all of this is that none of us are “experts”. The only real difference between people that “make things happen” and those that don’t is confidence and attitude. If you think things through carefully, and keep your plans simple, it is actually quite hard to do things “wrong” at all. There is no reason that your ideas are any better/worse than anyone else’s. Though of course, people who talk loudly and dominate meetings can make us forget this sometimes!
1.1 Getting Started
The type of groups or organisations you build at your university or college should depend on the circumstances you are in. Ultimately we’re working towards a mass movement, but in the short term this normally means organising a small group of people and building from there. If there are no groups already – no anti-cuts group, no anarchist society, no feminist society etc. – then starting from scratch can be a daunting task. Be encouraged though – if there is no radical left voice on your campus, you can bet there are other people just waiting for something to happen. Persuading people can be hard – but finding them is a little easier. Here’s some tips:
Find a buddy – one other person who you can work with, even if they are less committed than you. Starting out alone can be done but it’s much harder. So, talk to your friends and your course-mates about politics and conditions at your university and hopefully you’ll find people thinking along similar lines. If not, try your student union or existing student societies.
Research what is already happening, before you start. Get contact details for any existing left-leaning student groups, sympathetic student union officers etc. Even if events don’t sound that interesting or radical, they are an opportunity to run into like-minded people looking for something better
Once you’ve done some research, the final step is to just go for it and organise an event. If there’s something people are already frustrated about then this could be a meeting, otherwise it should be something more social like a film-showing or a discussion. Put posters up everywhere, and ask any sympathetic student groups to put out messages about it. Don’t worry if there aren’t many people at your first event – the main point is to find some people who you can work with
Be prepared. Before your first event, book a meeting space for a week or two in the future, and bring a sign-up sheet to get people’s contact details. If it goes well then at the end you should announce that you’d like to organise more things like this in future, perhaps start a political group, etc, etc, and pass the sign-up sheet around for anyone who wants to hear more or be involved. Make to speak with every attendee, find out what they want and what they are passionate about – take this into account when deciding on the next event. Congratulations – you just started a group!
Starting to organise on your campus should mean you are talking to lots of people. This can be intimidating. Remember to listen to people when you do this – it’s far more effective to say “what do you think about…” than it is to just say “we should do something about this! Here’s what I think we should do!”, because as well as possibly having good ideas, people like to be listened to!
1.2 Growing a Network
If a small group is to grow into something bigger, one of your tasks needs to be ‘networking’. To understand this, it’s useful to imagine your group’s influence as several ‘concentric circles’ – with active members at the centre; student sympathisers and staff allies next; and then the rest on the outside (see Figure 1.1)
The point of networking is partly to draw people further into the ‘circles’, and partly to make the most of people where they are. For example, one thing you should aim to do is establish contact with staff trade union reps and militant members of staff – drawing them from your ‘everyone’ circle into your ‘allies and sympathisers’ circle. Another thing that’s important is not just talking to the ‘inner circle’ – sympathisers may not want to come to all your meetings but they can still provide invaluable support. Some of them will have networks of their own. So, make sure that you have a way to keep them up to date with what you are doing too.
Tips for networking
Keep a list of contact details for friendly journalists, staff members, student union officers, activist groups, community organisations, etc. Make it available to everyone in your group (but don’t let a list of militant staff fall into the hands of management!)
Keep a list of friendly student groups, Facebook pages, email lists, etc. These can be used for publicising events.
Set up a web presence for your group - blog, Facebook, Twitter, etc - and keep it up to date! This gives people another way to contact you and makes your group seem more active. A blog is also a place you can accumulate information, history, and ideas to refer back to later.
If you use email lists, never use just one for everything. Instead, create two. One ‘announce’ list for announcing events, meetings etc. This list will be public, and you should sign up as many people to as possible (ie. your middle circle). The other should be a ‘discussion’ email list to which you sign up people who are most keen or active. This can be used for planning, sending out minutes etc. The point of this is to involve people who want to be involved, and give people who aren’t ready for that yet a way of keeping up-to-date with what you are doing, without flooding them with too much information.
Have a sign-up sheet for the email lists at every event you run – this makes it easier to sign up and get involved. If appropriate, announce your next meeting at the end, so interested people can come along.
Use multiple ways to keep in contact with people, rather than relying on just one. Publicise your events using posters and leaflets as well as online. Use Facebook, email, and Twitter, rather than just one of those. Talk to your coursemates face-to-face. Host stalls to ‘get out there’ and have discussions with people.
Make a special effort to welcome new people to your meetings, email lists etc. Always remind people in meeting call-outs that new people are more than welcome, and that you try to make meetings friendly, inclusive, and not just dominated by a few people.
Have a public ‘safer spaces’ policy and statement about how you are going to make your group more inclusive. It may sound like a small gesture but this kind of thing can be the difference between someone writing off your group, and someone getting actively involved. Many like-minded groups have such policies that you can easily adapt to fit your purpose.
Students normally manage to get a lot for free - using anything from university resources to shoplifting. However, you’re still likely to need money for something at some point. Try to keep your finances managed in a democratic way - delegate someone (a ‘treasurer’) to hold money for the group. Keep it in a locked money box with a book listing every time money goes in or out. Fund raising should be done in a way that is fair too - events can be donation or “no-one turned away for lack of funds”. If you are fund raising be clear how you intend to spend the money, and don’t pressure people to donate. If you have membership fees, make it so that people can opt-out if they are really skint (or do it on a sliding scale - the more you earn, the more you pay).
Pass a hat around, or bucket shake at meetings and events
Take donations (eg via crowdfunding)
DJ/club nights at local venues
Benefit gigs (bands, comedians, cabarets etc)
Accessing grants (in the UK, try the “Edge Fund”)
Sell food and drink at your events
Sell pin badges, stickers and other small items.
1.4 Be organised!
“Just because we’re anarchists doesn’t mean we can’t have a conservative filing system!” – Overheard at a Bristol University occupation, 2010
Being a student organiser means that it is really important to be well-organised. This doesn’t really need a whole sub-section to it’s own, but it deserves mentioning! Distributing meeting minutes and decisions quickly is vital for keeping a group going. Always give people notice of meetings, events, etc. well in advance, and send reminders just beforehand. Holding an archive of meeting minutes (for example, in an online folder), means that people can easily look back to see what was decided and what the main action points were – this prevents a situation where the students who’ve been involved longer have power over the group, because they remember meetings the others weren’t even at. Archiving of posters, demo-reports, materials, etc is also really useful – it will make it far easier to produce things in future, and will mean that any work you do will have more effect even long after you’ve left university or college. Finally, keep a list of contacts, meeting places, and maybe even lessons learned from each event you organise. Having this information accessible not only means that less experienced organisers feel more included, but it also saves time and means that everyone can take on work that is often left on the shoulders of people who’ve been around the longest.
If you do well and your group becomes a force for change on campus, people are going to start taking an interest in stopping you. Your institution’s management don’t want dissent at ‘their’ establishment, and police already actively monitor and disrupt grassroots organisers. Over the past few years, we have seen students considered to be organisers earmarked for expulsion at some universities. One guy in Cambridge even got suspended for reading a poem. Future employers may also be interested in identifying potential trouble-makers. There has been a lot written about this in-depth (see the resources section!) but there are a few simple tips that we can give, which might have saved people a lot of hassle over the years if they had been followed!
Use your group name, group Facebook etc. for anything public (eg. organising events) – rather than the names of individuals.
The real full names and contact details of members should never appear in print or online in relation to your group. First names or fake names should be enough if anything.
Student societies normally need a few named people down as ‘secretary’, ‘president’ etc. These people could get legal trouble if your society organises any demonstrations. So, consider calling the organisation something different and not formally linked to you when you are running a protest or action. (for example, in Bristol we created the group ‘Reclaim Education’ to run a week of action, and used our ‘Bristol Left’ society to book rooms).
When talking to the press, give a fake name – it is highly unlikely they will check. This practise also helps weed out “career activists” and people who just want their moment in the limelight.
Make sure it isn’t always the same person speaking in public or talking to management. They will get treated like the ringleader even if they aren’t.
Do not discuss anything ‘sensitive’ (eg breaking the law) over the phone or over normal email. Leave no written record and discuss in person only with people you trust. Assume university-run email can be read by management.
However ‘friendly’ a cop or security guard may seem, anything they overhear you saying will be noted and passed on. They can be very skilled at getting information out of you via ‘friendly’ conversation. The best thing to do is to simply walk away, or say nothing.
Not everyone is who they say they are. Students in Cambridge recently recorded the police asking someone to go to meetings and spy for them! So don’t share risky information unless you have to (as an example: “hey everyone look at the hat I got off a copper at yesterdays protest!” is definitely a bad idea). Action plans should not be shared with anyone who isn’t involved and trusted, nor should people ask or expect to be told about them.
Don’t get paranoid. Taking simple steps to protect your security is worth it – but if they don’t work it isn’t the end of the world. After all it’s better to take some risks rather than never doing anything at all. Court cases can be won and expulsions can be challenged – it just takes a lot of effort which could be used for organising instead!
1.6 Internal Politics
Student groups should be run by the people active in them – not lead by one any person or ‘steering committee’, and not instructed from the outside by a political party. Positions of power regularly get taken up by people who will abuse them for their own gain and there are countless examples of this happening in left-wing groups. They also encourage apathy – if not everyone has an equal say and equal responsibility, not everyone will want to pull their own weight. Finally, positions of power disproportionately get taken up by white men – which leads to misrepresentation and bias. Not being instructed from outside is also a practical principle – the people who know best how to organise students are students themselves. If people who have no stake in your success have a say in your actions, they will be far more likely to make bad judgements.
As well as this, those of us who are marginalised by society often get excluded from resistance groups in the exact same way. Since we are socialised to exclude people, our groups need to make an active effort to be welcoming, to make sure everyone in the group feels involved, to address barriers to people participating, and to empower marginalised people to challenge internal oppression. This is not simple and will require self-education and action, in addition to policies and ideas.
Exactly how to put this into practise is up to you, but the following ideas may help…
Use ‘direct democracy’. Direct democracy is where all decisions are made by the group (eg. by discussing and voting on each issue), rather than simply voting for somebody to make decisions on your behalf.
While decisions should be made by the group, some tasks need to be done by one person or a subgroup. For this, you can use “delegates”, instead of representatives. The main difference between delegates and representatives is that delegates are ‘fully mandated’ and ‘instantly recallable’. ‘Fully mandated’ just means that they are given a clear ‘mandate’ that tells them what they are supposed to do in any situation, rather than them making important decisions on what is best for the group (for example, an occupation might delegate someone to negotiate with university security, mandating them to ask for other people to be allowed access, not to discuss leaving, but giving them some leeway to discuss fire safety). ‘Instantly recallable’ just means that if they stop following their mandate, the group can easily reign them in and replace them straight away, without waiting for any kind of election term to expire.
People who are at risk of being marginalised should have a full voice, and spaces they control where they can discuss any issues that arise. This could be through relationships with external groups (for example, a feminist society on campus), or through internal ones (for example, the Black Power Caucus and other ‘liberation campaigns’ that are part of the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts)
Make sure you run discussions and events about things that affect groups who are normally oppressed, rather than just things that affect all students.
Run self-education sessions, film screenings, discussion groups and reading groups – sharing knowledge is important for preventing a few people from dominating the group. This should include education on how people get marginalised internally and in society.
Make an explicit statement on how you intend to be inclusive, and consider setting up a grievance procedure and safer-spaces policy if your group is large enough for this to be practical. Policies are not enough on their own, but they signal intent and make it clear that the group is open to being challenged and improved.
If you are one of the groups of people that tend to exclude others from society (for example, white people, men, the rich and privileged), you must start with listening to excluded group’s criticisms, and trust that they are being honest and know what they are talking about. Make space for criticism and then listen and make changes, without making excuses or dismissing people. This is critical in building an inclusive group. A culture of inclusivity in turn is critical to building a sincere culture of resistance.
1.7 Public Speaking
At some point or another, someone from your group will need to do some public speaking…
If you are speaking to a big group, make yourself heard. Hold your head up high (talk to the crowd, not the ground!), be loud and clear.
Try to speak slower than normal, even if it feels stupid to start with. You need to talk slower when speaking to a crowd, but nerves make you talk even faster than normal! Speaking slower will help you to stay calm.
Don’t be intimidated by long pauses if you slip up. Pauses are always much longer in your head. In fact, use lots of pauses and spaces between points! Pauses add emphasis, allow you to collect your thoughts, and helps people to listen and internalise what you are saying.
Practise by yourself and in front of friends, to get your confidence up. Time yourself so you know how long your speech will last.
Try not to just read off of paper – it’s hard to read quickly, difficult to sound interesting, and it makes you harder to hear because you end up speaking into your notes instead of the crowd. Instead, have cue cards with your key points written in big letters.
Consider breaking what you are saying down into a series of key points. As you speak you can use your fingers to keep track of each point. Not only does it help you stay on track, but it also helps you to present your ideas more clearly.
Memorize your first and last sentence so you start confidently and don’t trail off at the end.
Write down facts and figures – these are hard to memorize and they are useful for being convincing.
Illustrate your points with examples and analogies, to help people understand. Stories with people in them give the crowd something to connect to, and keep up interest.
Use ‘power lines’ – short sentences you have memorised that sound good and which you can emphasize and repeat.
Remember that perfection is not when you have nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. Apart from examples and stories, don’t waffle! A little known secret is that if you finish more quickly than people expect, most of them will be glad! Being able to go on for ages isn’t a badge of honour or status symbol – it actually makes people like you more if you just get to the point. The reason politicians DON’T do this is that they don’t actually have any real points worth saying!
Use short and simple language. Long technical words are not only hard to hear but confuse and tire people, making you hard to follow
Watch your habits – umming and aring is bad. Try to use ‘thoughtful’ pauses instead. As is strange fidgeting! (I’m sure you can think of some lecturers here!) Unless you are confident, it is best to stand still. Know where your hands are (eg holding cue cards) – don’t let them off on their own! At the same time, focus on your message and avoid being overly self-concious of any ’bad’ habits.
Be respectful, at least to your audience. Not saying ‘Thank you for inviting me to speak’, ‘Thank you for listening’, etc. can come across as cool and informal, BUT can also backfire. If in doubt, be polite and courteous.
Setting up a radical university newsletter can be a great way to grow your group and reach lots of people. There are already guides online for setting up newsletters, for example:
From personal experience, there are a couple of things worth adding. First, running a university newsletter is a lot of hard work. Just getting something out is easy – but putting all the effort in to publicise, format, and distribute it, so that it actually has an impact, not to mention producing it regularly, isn’t so simple! Second, if you want to get staff involved, one thing that has worked well is to time it so that it can be a collective response to a grievance. For example, if the newsletter is going to be released after or before a strike, staff will find it easier to see the point and will be more likely to read and engage.
“There is nothing so practical as good theory” – Kurt Lewin
There have been many good texts written about organisation and small groups, as well as on dealing with some of the problems that can arise. Below is a small selection, if you are interested…
“The Progressive Plantation – Racism Inside White Radical Social Change Groups” by Lorenzo Kom’boa Ervin analyses racism within social change groups and gives advice on fighting it (NOTE – can’t find where to get a copy. It is reproduced in the latest edition of his book “Anarchism and the Black Revolution”, available via http://burningbooksbuffalo.com)
2 Sustaining Resistance
Even when everything else is done brilliantly, the student movement often fails to achieve it’s potential because it isn’t ‘sustainable’. People get tired and drop out, and we fail to keep our momentum going, so great protests and actions end up leading to nothing. If anything this is the most incomplete section of this guide – sustainability could have whole books written about it, and there are many conflicting and competing ideas about it out there. More importantly this is something that most movements do not do well – how to be sustainable is a question that still has not been properly answered.
This all does assume that the organisation you are part of is something that needs to keep going, that needs to sustain itself. A similar problem to sustainability is when groups keep going with no purpose – all action and organisation taking place simply for the sake of surviving. No group or project is an end in itself – if it becomes this, once the reason for it has gone, it needs to be allowed to die! Spending energy on keeping a project going can actually stop anything new growing in its place.
2.1 General points
When starting something new, always ask: “do we have the time, people, energy, and resources for this?”. For long projects this will need to be re-assessed regularly
We only have so many resources, so much time, and so many people. So we need to use all of these as effectively as possible. This needs to be taken into account when we decide on our actions, general direction, even group structure. Don’t just do things because they are ‘right’, but because your actions are also the most effective way to have an impact.
Make an effort to bring in new people – and when they come, make them feel welcome and try to offer some kind of an introduction. Don’t just assume that they know everything about the issues you are working on, or how your group makes decisions. Joining a political group for the first time can be very intimidating because everyone seems to know so much more than you do
Feeling involved is vital for keeping people in a group – if they don’t feel ownership of it then they will drift away
Accept that there will be highs and lows. If you’ve gone from a period where loads was happening to one where everything is a lot quieter, it does not mean you have done something wrong – cycles are natural
Use ‘low’ periods to your advantage. Since there are always going to be times when activity dies down for a bit, don’t stress about trying to keep everything going. Instead, use the time you have to reflect, and run events where your group can socialise and relax together
When you do something, do it WELL. For example, a demonstration needs more than just good publicity and to be good on the day, but also needs good reporting to others, a plan to build momentum from it, space to debrief and learn lessons, involvement and training of newer people in the group, and care afterwards for anyone stressed-out. These things all MULTIPLY the effects of an action
Reflect regularly – especially about what you are trying to achieve. Just reacting to situations is tiring, and giving time to discuss strategy makes people feel involved
Education and discussion of ideas and facts is important – if only a few people have a good grasp of the issues that you are struggling over, the group will not last when they leave, and they will find a disproportionate amount of the work falling to them
Try to balance action and organisation. Action is as important as education and discussions for learning and for bringing in new people. On the other hand you need to make sure you aren’t just doing action. Too much organisation and too much action are both dangerous – the one causes stagnation, the other causes burn-out
Society teaches us not to take initiative ourselves – everything has to be done through the ‘proper channels’ and with general approval. This means that there is a tendency to treat our organisations like a bureaucracy – referring anything we want to do back to meetings, and expecting our organisations to have a ‘position’ on everything. This can sometimes lead to divisions (since we’re never going to agree on absolutely everything), and definitely leads to long meetings – debating things that no-one needs permission to do in the first place. A solution is to make space for autonomous action – sometimes it is better to just do things without linking them to a group you are part of. Accepting that not all action has to take place within our organisations means that they can focus on their real purpose, and hence last longer
Cooperate with other groups when useful. Cooperation for it’s own sake is just a waste of time and resources, but often it’s helpful. Link with groups that have similar politics in your city and at other universities to share resources. It may be that you are working on similar campaigns, so you can share resources and ideas. Also try to work with other groups on campus around issues you agree on. This is really hard to do – you need to both maintain your integrity, and find common ground for action – but it has incredible potential when it works!
2.2 The Personal is Political
Take care of yourself! The whole point of organising is to make our lives better – not worse. Just because we want to make the world better for everyone else as well, does not mean that our own lives aren’t important. So don’t let organising and action get in the way of doing things that you like, and spending time with those that you love
Watch out for “burn-out”. When you’ve been involved in emotionally demanding situations for too long, you can end up entering into a state of “burn-out” where life goes sour, you lose your spark, you stop having fun and you stop being fun to be with. There are some great resources out there already on understanding and dealing with this, for example the “Sustainable Activism and Avoiding Burn-Out” flyer from Activist Trauma Support. From personal experience, the most important advice is to pace yourself and to take a long break RIGHT AWAY if you start to experience this
The previous advice about letting things fails also applies on an individual level. If you are always depended on to do things, NOT doing them may be the only way to get people to realise that there is a problem!
It is best to under-commit – volunteer for less work than you can do. That way, you can help out when emergencies happen or if others can’t do what they have said they will, without over-stretching yourself
If you can’t do something that you have committed to, then say so ASAP. Life is unpredictable, so we should not be ashamed to admit that we are not able to do something! On the other hand, keeping it quiet and just not doing what you have volunteered to do can be really harmful to the group – the sooner you let them know the easier it will be for them to make new plans
Take regular breaks – political work can be addictive!
Set boundaries for yourself and stick to them – sometimes you need to say no to things, however important they are
(disclaimer – none of the advice here should be seen as an alternative to getting support for mental health issues from trained professionals)
2.3 Sharing out the Work
It often happens in a group that a few people end up doing most of the work and taking most of the initiative – for example, calling all of the meetings and producing all of the publicity. This is a complicated situation. On the one hand, those doing all the work feel exploited because they are pulling other people’s weight in addition to their own. On the other hand, everyone else feels like they are at the bottom of an ‘informal hierarchy’, where they are excluded from taking initiative and doing work due to their lack of experience and confidence. If this continues for too long, then the ‘perceived hierarchy’ becomes a real one. Because the active minority always have to take initiative, they have effective control of the organisation. Because the inactive majority do little work, they have less access to information and have less practical understanding of how the group is structured, and so have no power to change it. When this happens it is important to make it visible by raising the issue at meetings and talking about it – but often it turns out that talk is not enough. If you find yourself at the top of one of these ‘informal hierarchies’, the best thing to do is to just stop. It is not good for you to take on a disproportionate share of the work and others have no right to expect that of you. If you are lucky then other people will pick up the slack – sometimes these situations come about because no space was left for other people in the first place. If you are unlucky, then things will start to not get done – which sometimes needs to happen if people are to realise what’s happening. This can actually have the effect of making people feel more involved with the organisation! If you are at the bottom of an informal hierarchy, the important thing to do is to assert yourself – you have as much right to be there as anyone else, and that should be respected! Take active steps to volunteer for tasks, and demand that space be made for others to take on roles in the group. Hopefully this will be enough – most of the time people are more than happy to share out work! If you do meet with resistance, you will have to balance whether it is worth conspiring from within to take back control of the group, or simply leaving to make a better one – both of these options are good, in different situations.
2.4 Collective Burn-Out
“Burn-out” is something that tends to get seen as an individual problem – someone overcomits or cannot handle pressure, so they get worn out and can no longer be effective. However, more often than not, burn-out is a collective problem. When one person gets it and drops out, then more pressure is placed on everyone still involved – if more people then drop out as a result then you can end up with a cycle which ends with everyone burning out the group falling apart. The causes are also often a result of collective practises too – when we try to do more than is actually possible, and when we do not take care of those who are having a hard time,burn-out is inevitable.
Make your group accessible and inclusive – often work gets put on to a few people because those who would have volunteered could not get to meetings or felt sidelined
Talk about mental health as a group. “I’m too tired and stressed” and “I don’t have the energy for that” are things we should be comfortable saying. From experience, it takes a lot of courage to be the first person to say this – but that is often all it takes to get everyone talking!
Keep a pace and level of activity that is tolerable – frantic work around a one-off event or protest is ok, but will need to be followed by some time for recuperation. Relaxed social events are good for this. We cannot give 110% all of the time!
Try to create a good ‘group culture’. New members will not stay if the group is not nice to be in!
“Checking in” often about how we are feeling helps to set a sensible pace and create a good group culture. This is can happen formally in meetings (for example, as a “go-round”), or informally by just remembering to ask people how they’re doing
Try to have some small, clear, achievable goals as a group. With big projects, try splitting them up into some intermediate steps so you get some sense of achievement as you go. Be careful of taking on long projects – these drain energy and are harder to sustain than lots of quick, small campaigns
Celebrate your successes, and show gratitude to people for the work they do
Ensure that people volunteer for things willingly and no-one feels put on the spot
Try to share resources with other student groups, on your campus and others, in order to reduce your workload
Get connected with “Movement Support” organisations, like defendant solidarity groups – some UK-based ones are listed in the appendices. These groups have experience that will be very helpful to you when you need them, and they often need volunteers too
Avoid the temptation to do everything yourself. Too many organisers who think they have an exciting new idea end up reinventing the wheel. Before you start on a project, look around to see if anyone has done something similar and try to work with them first
2.5 Student Specific Issues
It is really hard to maintain momentum in student organising. The structure of student life, of holidays and exams, puts ‘speed bumps’ in the way of our movement. Three of the problems commonly faced will be looked-at here, along with some ideas for dealing with them
The Winter Problem
When big student protests in the UK have happened in the first term (for example, the 2010 protests and occupations against fees), they have not lasted through the winter. Around winter time, people often have exams to study for, and afterwards the pace of work at universities tends to pick up a bit. Just having the few weeks holiday seems to slow momentum too. Another problem is that after the first term, people tend to start thinking about student union elections (if elections are in the second term) – which means that anyone who is helping with an election campaign has far less time to give to organising.
One solution to this problem may be to just “bite the bullet” and accept that more is going to happen in the first term anyway. That means to work most effectively, it is necessary to start planning things in the summer, before term even starts. Having some events planned before the first week is normally a good idea anyway – that’s when lots of freshers will be looking for things to get involved in, and generally the first month of their term is the best time to get them in (less workload!). Another idea might be to lower your sights a bit – try and have a planning meeting before you break up for winter holidays (to make the most of any momentum you have), and plan a few lower-key actions and events for the next term. That way you can keep things happening, even if it’s less than before. However, it is possible to make big things happen in the second term – a good example being occupy Sussex – who held an occupation and national demonstration on their campus in the spring of 2013.
The Summer Problem
During the summer, most students go home to another city or go on holiday, and it’s very difficult to organise anything. This isn’t a bad thing - it’s probably good for us to have some kind of enforced break from organising and studying once a year. However, there is one issue which does deserve a mention. Knowing that the opposition will be away, universities will sometimes try to make controversial decisions quietly over the summer. So by all means have a break, but try to keep some contact with supportive staff and student union officers over the summer, so you aren’t surprised when you get back!
It’s also worth making sure you have one last meeting before everyone starts to leave - which isn’t easy as some courses finish at different times. Decide when this meeting will be before exams even start and publicise it well in advance in case people decide to go home early. You should aim to reflect back on the year (espescially the positive stuff you have achieved), and make some basic plans for the next one (when the first meeting will be, how to plan the freshers’ fair, etc). Make sure you leave some time afterwards for celebrating and socialising too!
The Three-Year Problem
Most students are only at a university for three-four years at a time. This means that, once you have spent years nurturing a group and building connections, it will already be time to leave. It is extremely hard to build a group that gains new members and keeps going with this kind of turn-over. Becoming ‘political’ and getting the confidence to organise is not something that happens overnight. But it is vital that our groups do survive – without any collective memory, we will be doomed to constantly reinvent the wheel and repeat the same mistakes as those who have gone before us. Here are some ideas that might help:
Put lots of energy into new people: run education/discussion sessions, share skills and encourage them to take on roles in the group
Try to welcome ‘apolitical radicals’ as well as people who already have a clear idea of what their politics are. Most students haven’t quite thought things through enough to define themselves as anything, even if they are sympathetic
Involve staff & phd students in your group. These tend to stick around a lot longer than undergraduates and can provide much needed stability
Make contact with former student organisers who still live nearby – they might be able to give advice and contacts
Be disciplined with passing on information and resources – details of contacts, posters that can be re-used, etc will all be useful after you have left!
Consider working on issues that go beyond the 3 year university course, that can involve school students, graduates, etc. That way people will still be able to contribute even after they have left
Lets be honest, meetings are often dull and exhausting – but they are necessary if you want to get things done, and doing meetings well is really important. If they are undemocratic, if people don’t feel involved, or if meetings last forever without anything getting done, then people won’t join. However, welcoming meetings where everyone shares ideas and things get done: those can be inspiring! Sadly, there’s no simple solution that will work in every situation. In a meeting of three people it would be weird to use voting or have a ‘chairperson’, and you’d expect everyone to speak. Compare that to a meeting of 30 – it would make the meeting unbearably long if everyone got a chance to speak to the whole group on every issue, and you would need a formal structure just to make it work. So be flexible, and don’t worry if it takes a while for your group to figure out what works best.
3.1 Holding a Meeting
Use a facilitator (or ‘chair’)
The role of a facilitator is to make sure the meeting runs smoothly. This could mean taking hands when more than one person wants to talk at once, introducing the agenda, etc. How much the facilitator has to do depends on the decision-making structure you want to use – some groups also give the facilitator a more active role of helping the group make decisions, and getting the best possible contribution from everyone there. In this case the facilitator should reflect back to the group about what they’re saying and where their main differences are, point out if a few people are doing all the talking, and encourage people to speak who have been quiet. Since the person who is chairing or facilitating a meeting has influence over it, it’s important that they try to be as neutral as possible – they shouldn’t raise points themselves or respond to other people’s ideas unless it is urgent. If you’re discussing something difficult or controversial, consider bringing in someone from outside to facilitate the meeting and if not, definitely pick someone who is good at diffusing tension and isn’t a big supporter of one side or another. See the contacts in Appendix A for a list of groups who provide training in facilitating meetings.
Have an agenda
Having a list of topics that will get discussed and doing them in turn makes a meeting more focussed
This should be put out in advance so people have a chance to think about things beforehand (it’s hard to make good points on something you’ve only just heard about)
It should be printed out or written up so everyone at the meeting can see it
To maximise people’s involvement, get the agenda out early and ask for contributions to it, making it clear how to get items added
If meetings regularly run over time, try setting a time limit for each item on the agenda
If this is a group that meets regularly, a ‘standing agenda’ can be useful – to makes sure that things like report-backs, etc always happen
Assign action points
When one of your decisions requires an action, this should be delegated to one or more people, and written down in the minutes as an “action point”. The best action points are clear, and have a time scale (eg “Sam will design a poster for our event and send it round for people to look at before our next meeting”). Make sure tasks get shared out fairly – not all the action points should go to just one or two people! Sharing action points can help with this if people aren’t confident enough to take on tasks alone, but there should always be one person to bottom-line a task. Otherwise no-one assigned to it knows whether they should be the one to take initiative and start or not, so it ends up not being done. Finally, each meeting should have a ‘report back’ stage, where the actions points from last time are looked over and the people assigned to them report back.
‘Minutes’ sound bureaucratic and dull, right? Only, when you get home, suddenly you don’t remember what you said you’d do, or what time the next meeting is, or anything that was discussed. And for people who aren’t at the meeting, minutes are their only way of knowing what happened. So, minutes are important! They also help make sure things get done. People will want to remind themselves of what they agreed to do, and minutes mean you can look back at previous meetings to make sure things happened as they were supposed to. As a general rule, short minutes are good minutes. The important things to get down are decisions that got made, and ‘action points’ that people agreed to take on. There’s normally no need to write down everything that got said or every discussion point that got raised, beyond a note saying ‘this thing was discussed’.
This feels a bit like being back in school to start with, but getting people to put their hands up when they want to speak really can encourage less confident people to share their ideas. To make the meeting flow more naturally, some groups let people signal that they should get priority, for example:
‘Direct Points’ (two hands in the air) are quick points that respond to something someone has just said. The facilitator should stop someone if they use this to say more than a few sentences, so it doesn’t just get used to jump the queue
‘Technical Points’ (using hands to make a ‘T’) are urgent points that need to interrupt the meeting – for example if there is a fire, or if it’s time for a break
‘Proposals’ (using hands to make a ‘P’ shape) are used to show that you have a proposal to make. If the facilitator feels that a discussion is going around in circles, they MAY give people with proposals priority, in case they resolve the problem
It’s important that any hand signals you use are explained at the start of the meeting, or it will be very confusing for anyone new! In very small meetings things can be more relaxed – it is usually enough to just speak and only use hands when lots of people have something to say.
Be accessible and inclusive
Make sure that your meetings are inclusive and as free as possible from sexism, racism, homophobia, and all other kinds of oppression. It’s worth pointing out that you are trying to do this whenever you send out a call-out for a meeting, as this will get people thinking about oppression before the meeting starts, and let people who normally get excluded from meetings know that you’re making an effort. If your planning meetings exclude people, then your events and actions probably will too. Oh, and the other obvious but neglected point about including people: if you don’t, then you miss out on all of the extra ideas and energy they could bring!
Be welcoming it is intimidating if you turn up at a group for the first time and you aren’t used to how they run – what they’re talking about, how decisions get made, when to speak, etc. So make sure all of this gets explained briefly at the start of each meeting. Get everyone to introduce themselves if possible. Some groups also give someone the job of welcoming people if they’re late and bringing them up to speed on what’s being discussed.
Have a time limit and breaks – some of us can stay late at meetings and go on for hours without breaks – but others can’t, especially people with family commitments and some disabilities. So plan regular breaks and time limits, and stick to them! If meetings run over a lot, try setting time limits for each agenda item so later items don’t get missed out – and don’t leave the most important stuff till the end!
Pick an accessible place and time – think about how easy it will be to get to your meeting. Is the location easy to find? Is it in an area of town that everyone knows well and feels comfortable in? Places like pubs can intimidate some people, as can places where they are expected to buy food/drinks that are expensive. Do members of your group have childcare commitments that mean they need meetings to be later/earlier? Will people who have to walk home alone feel unsafe if your meeting finishes too late? The average student lifestyle means that evening meetings between Monday and Thursday are normally better attended than meetings at weekends or on a Friday night. Staff often prefer to meet in the early evening right after work. Try to avoid meal times by meeting either very early in the evening or a bit later.
Involve people who cannot attend – How ever hard you try, you will not be able to hold a meeting that everyone will be able to attend – so try to find ways to involve people who cannot make it, too. Get your agenda out early so people can feed their thoughts in through others. Encourage people to email in their ideas and say what they are able to volunteer for.
Support members with children – This is rarer in student groups, but there are student parents out there. If anyone in your group has children, consider taking donations for a childcare fund to help them to attend meetings and events. State publicly that you are willing to do this, so that parents know they will be welcome
Don’t just vote
Voting on issues is far better than letting a minority decide everything, but just going with what the majority wants isn’t always a good idea either – especially in a small group. If possible you should try to reach decisions that most people are happy with, even if that means making compromises. There are a few reasons for this:
In a small group everyone does a lot of work, so keeping everyone involved and onside is really important. If something is decided which someone strongly disagrees with they may leave the group, which would be a real blow to everyone else
When making decisions is just about getting enough people to pick one option rather than another, this creates tension and can make the meeting feel competitive. In big meetings there’s no way to avoid this but in a small group you can often make compromises that everyone is happy with, and just go with the majority as a last resort
Some people find it easier to get to meetings than others. For example, women tend to be expected to care for members of their family, so meetings will often have a majority of men. Just going on a simple majority may mean that men get more say than women
Voting can be abused. Some student groups have been known to exploit ‘majority rule’ by flooding meetings with their members, who then force through the decisions that they want taken. In a group that one of the authors was involved in this got really silly – the SWP flooded one meeting and made a lot of decisions that were completely unacceptable to some people who’d been there from the beginning, who then felt used. So the next meeting was flooded by a different group, who reversed all the decisions of the meeting before it! All this wasted a lot of time and created pointless tension
3.2 Tips for making meetings good
Use rotating roles
Unless your meeting is really small (ie less than 5 people), you’ll want to have people take on some roles to make sure things run smoothly – for example, a ‘facilitator’ and a minute-taker. The danger with having roles in a meeting is that they often end up getting taken on by the same people every time. This isn’t good for the person who ends up with the role as it’s tiring to be doing the same thing over and again. It’s also bad for everyone else – it can mean that the person who takes on the role has power over the group, can leave others feeling less involved, and means that skills don’t get shared (so when the one person who always takes your minutes leaves, no-one else knows how to do it). So, try to account for this by ‘rotating’ the roles regularly. During a long meeting, switch minute-takers so that they get a break. Make sure different people take on roles each time – for example by keeping a list of people who are happy to take them on, and going through it alphabetically. Also try to be aware of which groups of people always end up taking on certain roles – for example, if the facilitator is always a man whereas the minute-taker is always a woman, then you have a problem. New members need to be encouraged to do things like facilitation – for example by starting them off chairing just one part of a meeting. Finally, consider organising a training session for your group on how to chair meetings well – this will encourage more people to do it as well as making your group better.
Don’t just take points
Putting hands up and then saying something on an issue isn’t the only or best way for people to contribute to a meeting. For one thing, it can mean that you get an endless circle of people saying why they agree with something, when everyone is on the same page and nothing really needs to be debated. For another, less confident people often get left out unless space is made for them to speak, or if they’re given another way of contributing. For example:
Hand signals – people can’t speak all at once, but they can make hand signals at the same time, which can make them a useful tool. For example, one hand signal that’s popular is to use ‘wavy hands’ whenever you agree with a point someone is making – so the facilitator can see how popular it is with everyone. It’s really important that these get explained to everyone in the meeting, since a group of people making weird hand signals during a meeting can be very confusing!
‘Go-rounds’ – a ‘go-round’ is where the facilitator of a meeting goes around everyone in turn, and gives them the chance to speak to the whole group on something. For example, if your group is debating where to do an occupation, but the discussion is mainly two people debating with each other, the facilitator might do a ‘go-round’ to get other people’s thoughts on the issue. These make sure that no-one is not given ‘space’ to speak or is left out. It can put people under pressure though – so make sure everyone knows they can pass! It’s also worth speeding people up if they use the opportunity to just talk for ages.
Small groups – Splitting up into smaller groups to discuss an issue, then feeding back to everyone else, can make discussion better – lots of people are scared to speak in big groups, and it just isn’t practical to give everyone a say in a massive meeting
Pairs – As with splitting into smaller groups, it can sometimes help to get people to pair up (eg with the person to their left/right) and talk about the issue together
‘Temperature checks’ – when everyone talks one at a time, there’s no way to get a feel for what the whole group feels about something. So, a facilitator can ask the group to do a ‘temperature check’ on an issue, where holding their hands higher means they agree, low means disagree and middle not sure.
‘Parking space’ – this is where there’s a piece of paper up on a wall, where people can write up things to be discussed later or at the next meeting. Useful when someone has an idea, but something else is getting talked about or they need to leave
Split into smaller groups
Ever been at a meeting where a few people spend ages discussing something you don’t really care about, or aren’t involved in, and it keeps going on and you get more and more bored? Or at a meeting where you really need to discuss something in detail, but only a few people have anything to say about it and everyone else just switches off and looks tired/annoyed? Working groups are the solution! A “working group” takes on a specific task – such as drafting a statement, or planning an event – and meets separately from the rest of the group (eg after a meeting, or on a different day, or whatever). The working group can bring all their ideas back to the main group to be ratified if necessary, but they do most of the nitty-gritty discussion and work. They should be open to anyone in the group if possible, and should be inclusive and democratic. That means it should be clear exactly what it is about, and everyone in the group should be informed about it. Working groups should report back to the main group in meetings (but keep it brief!). Finally, you should always mandate one person to bottom line making sure the working group meets up. More confident people are ok to just make it happen, but many inexperienced people will just leave the organising to ‘someone else’.
Be actively inclusive
Challenging hierarchy and exclusion isn’t simply a list of do-nots that will magically make your group perfect. To be successful, you need to actively work to make your group inclusive. This isn’t a chore – having more people who are more actively involved makes your group more effective and means less work in the long run. Here are some examples of things you can do:
Run training sessions or ‘skill-shares’ on facilitation and other tasks
Educate yourself about challenging hierarchy and oppression in small groups
Make sure people are empowered to stand up for themselves – make it clear that they will be supported in standing up for themselves or forming caucuses’ to discuss issues like racism and sexism together
Have discussion as well as debate
A really democratic meeting needs a balance of three things – decision-making, debate, and discussion. Decisions need to get made, and get made by the people in the group, for anything to get done and for people to be involved. Decisions also need to be talked over and debated – so that everyone gets a chance to convince other people of their opinion on issues. A lot of meetings only have those two – decision-making and debate. The problem with this is that what gets talked about in the first place, i.e. which issues get debated and decided on, can end up being left in the hands of a few people, or even not decided properly at all. For everyone to be involved, and for the group to be effective, it’s important to also have more general discussion about what the aims of the group should be, what issues they can take up in the first place, etc. A meeting that takes initiative in working out how to resist university management will always be more interesting and effective than one that just responds to the issues that come up, or a group that allows it’s strategy to be dictated by a few people.
Not everything can be talked over in meetings. Part of being effective means making it clear what people should just go for without raising it at a meeting first, and working out how to keep any ‘autonomous’ actions accountable. For example it is probably ok for anyone to post to the group facebook page (can always be taken down again if there’s controversy!), but probably not ok for someone to do an interview with the university newspaper without checking in with the group first. Remember that although these things might be clear to more confident people who’ve been in the group a long time, it won’t be clear to anyone who is new. So if you don’t want the group to end up with an ‘inner circle’ of people who do things on their own, formally agreeing what people can do on behalf of the group is a good idea.
Think beyond structure...
Having good processes and practises in your meetings is important for being productive and for challenging hierarchy. The thing is though, structures aren’t the be-all-and-end-all – they don’t solve everything, and there is such a thing as too much structure (aka bureaucracy!). If you’ve been in a group for a while, then what you do on a personal level is also important. Making sure you befriend new members and listen to their opinions is more likely to mean they stay members than anything listed above. No matter how careful you are, decisions and discussions won’t all take place in meetings and within your structures – social relationships happen and we shouldn’t try to stop that! Instead, involve people in your social circle and make an effort to ensure you don’t just rely on conversations with old friends to form your opinions. Watch who you choose to encourage and speak to – is it just white men? If so, then you need to branch out. Oh, and be careful of approaching this like it’s a duty – people can see through that! Conversations with people you disagree with or don’t even like keep you grounded and keep you thinking, as well as benefiting the other person.
3.3 Crash course in facilitating
The purpose of a facilitator is:
to keep the meeting together (make sure people stick to the agenda, keep time, pick who speaks next, etc)
to encourage participation (point out that only a few people have spoken, suggest processes that involve more people such as splitting into smaller groups, etc)
to help the group make decisions and have useful discussion (suggesting go-arounds, reflecting back the mood, etc)
to help challenge oppression (eg people speaking out of turn, prioritising marginalised voices, supporting people calling out oppressive behaviour, etc).
Tips on facilitating:
DO push for proposals, and ask if anyone has suggestions for solving disagreements, rather than letting debates go on and on. DO say if you feel the debate is going in circles!
DON’T abuse your role – you should not make points at all, unless you absolutely have to. If possible, ask someone else to raise them for you. LISTEN if someone says you’re being biased or unfair – facilitators have power, and it’s hard to notice yourself misusing it!
Be assertive – it’s your job to say if someone is doing something bad like speaking out of turn. Everyone else should back you up!
Don’t put people on the spot! Try to give people a ‘get-out-clause’ before asking them to say anything
Let people know you’ve seen that they want to speak, and possibly point out an order (eg “lots of points here! So we’ll take you first, then you, then you, then….”)
You should regularly sum-up where the discussion is, and what the controversies are. This helps to keep everyone focussed and involved. If you get a sense that most people are feeling a certain way, then say so (eg “I get the feeling that everyone agrees on idea X?” or “people seem tired – should we take a break?”). Ask people to show whether they agree or not, by a show of hands or whatever system your group uses. “Reflecting back” like this can be really helpful to the group, because you are removed from the discussion and able to notice things that those in the heat of debate cannot
Push people to object! If someone makes a proposal, ask if anyone disagrees. This stops people spending ages explaining why they agree with something that everyone thinks is a good idea anyway
Make ‘space’ for people to speak. Ask if people have alternative ideas, and check everyone who wants a say has spoken before moving on from an issue.
Tips on helping the facilitator:
The facilitator needs to know that people will back them up if they’re to do their task effectively!
Workshops help give people confidence to do it (see the appendices for organisations who run these)
“co-facilitation” (two people doing it together) gives people experience, and takes some of the pressure off
For a long meeting, switch facilitators part way through so that they get breaks – it’s a tiring job!
DO bring in external facilitators for difficult topics
3.4 On Consensus
Many activist groups use a process called ‘consensus decision-making’ in meetings. There are extensive guides for using it and solving problems commonly faced by small groups on the website ‘Seeds for Change’ – it’s linked to in the resources appendix, and you should check it out! There are a few points that need to be made about the process. First off, it isn’t right for all groups. As a bare minimum, read up on the ‘conditions for consensus’ – if your group doesn’t meet these, the process will not be effective.
Second, it isn’t simple – participants will take a while to get used to it, and ‘facilitators’ need to either have had training or experienced consensus meetings before. Think carefully about whether the time needed to get used to it is worth it. For a group that meets regularly it probably is, but for a one off meeting using the full process may take more time than it is worth. Make sure that any new people have everything explained to them clearly, so it isn’t too confusing.
Finally, even thought the aim of consensus is to make groups more democratic, it can be used in an oppressive way. People who understand the process better will have more influence than those who don’t. Many communities and groups already have their own ways of making decisions, and activists that come in and blindly demand they use consensus are basically practising ‘activist imperialism’ – this is something that does happen and is worth being aware of.
That said, consensus can be a really helpful process for getting everyone in a group involved, and for making good decisions. It has been well thought out and has resources behind it that have been put together over years and years. Also, many critics of consensus don’t really understand it, and are actually criticising examples of consensus being used badly! So read how the process is meant to work rather than just assuming that a group you saw using it was doing it right. And don’t let the warnings above scare you off!
3.5 Online Meetings
There are a number of different services and websites you can use to have online meetings. IRC is something that has been used for international student meetings before, for example. A simple guide created to help people connect to those meetings can be found here – http://ismuk.wordpress.com/resources-2/organising/guide-to-ism-uk-online-meetings/. For a more secure solution, consider “cryptocat”. Both of these need a bit of technical skill to get going – so if you plan on using them it’s worth having a guide to hand for your members to look through. Meetings do need to be structured a little differently when online. One format that worked fine is still online here – http://bit.ly/1IB79zh, and ‘Seeds For Change’ has a (very different) process outlined in the ‘consensus handbook’ (available here: http://www.seedsforchange.org.uk/handbook)
Like any meeting, there are some social guidelines which will make a chat meeting run smoother when people follow them. Some things worth considering are:
Avoid flooding the channel. If you send lots of lines at once, it fills up everyone’s screen and is hard to read. If you’re sending something long, consider using a service like pastebin, and just posting a link to it in the channel.
Affirm people’s proposals. In a face-to-face meeting it’s much easier to gauge the reaction to a proposal than on the internet. Often, when someone makes a suggestion that everyone agrees with, no-one responds, and it’s hard for the facilitator to work out whether that means people agree, disagree, are staying quiet, or are just thinking. Likewise if someone has expressed agreement with a proposal that comes up, say whether or not you do too, as otherwise it is hard to work out whether everyone feels that way, or if they are intimidated from speaking, or something else.
To make things flow quicker, some meetings have used the ‘*’ symbol to signal agreement with a proposal, rather than just typing “I agree!” all the time. If you do this and there’s more than one proposal being talked about, make sure you indicate which proposal you’re agreeing with!
Try and keep to one topic at a time to help the meeting run smoother
Make clear proposals
Make sure that each decision has someone delegated to make sure it happens
Don’t take it personally if someone disagrees with your ideas
Try to be friendly and avoid being aggressive when making points – not only is this less productive, it also scares away less confident people from taking part
Most online meetings are completely open and insecure, so do not discuss illegal activity or share unnecessary information (for example, personal details of activists)