Trust the People and Climate Matters Staffordshire
Early in 2022, TTP was invited to collaborate with Climate Matters Staffordshire, working in partnership with Keele University and Staffordshire County Council. Widespread disaffection and disempowerment was felt by local people regarding political decisions around climate change. This had spurred the partnership to find better ways to inform elected officials in their decision making for achieving net zero carbon. Their research indicated that public dialogue and deliberation would be an improvement on traditional consultation methods and so they looked to TTP to facilitate a People’s Assembly with a local group that they had selected. The feedback from the day was very positive, the learning for the partnership very rich and useful, and we thoroughly enjoyed it. It was such a clear demonstration that facilitated discussion and respectful listening across a diversity of views and interests could result in proposals that all members of the group were happy with.
Notes from a BLM People's Assembly
I describe People Assemblies as transformative experiences. But I was in one last week that went above and beyond.
It was early evening in Hackney Downs, a group of activists, most having met through XR Hackney, nominally calling themselves ’BLM Hackney’ were facilitating a Peoples’ Assembly. They called it a ‘Community Circle’, and it was the second be held in Hackney.
It began with Vishal (for those that don’t know him, a Londoner of Indian heritage that helped start Trust The People) explaining the purpose of the assembly and reminding us of the context. He did an excellent job of including all the core elements of the assembly process (trust, inclusivity, active listening etc) using normal everyday language. He was clearly spoken but didn’t come across overly intellectual and, best of all, he was funny.
When the assembly ended we felt like we’d just surfaced from an hours-long acid trip. The feeling of intense connection, of release and of profound transformation were similar. And there was also a sense that we had survived something difficult and scary and were going to be better off for it.
A young Black man named Immanuel began the roller coaster. He was one of the first speakers to give the input to the assembly -the part which primes the participants before their turn to talk- and he didn’t hold back. He raged and raged against the corrupt, unjust and violent system he’d grown up in and was now watching so many young black people be swallowed by. He called out white complicity and demanded we listen, platform and act to end racism. And then he turned on the organisers. He pointed out how there were barely any young black people in the audience. The audience was maybe 50% white and 50% people of colour. There were perhaps only 10 or 15% black people.
Immanuel’s rage and pain revived deep feelings of shame in me. I felt fragile and called out. It’s of course not the first time I’ve confronted these feelings, and I know them to be self-indulgent and unconstructive. Nonetheless, I felt ashamed for my friends, the organisers, and for myself. I wanted to melt into the floor.
From then on, with every slightly white and middle class aspect of the assembly - over-facilitation or the grounding exercise where we shook out tension by wiggling our hands - I sunk deeper and deeper.
I felt that all my hope in the Peoples’ Assembly process, as a radical tool for bridging social divides and allowing collective action had been naive. I felt the enormity of racism and the gulf between black and white cultures. I lost any sense of imagining how I could help fight it.
I said as much in my break-out group - these are the small groups of 6 or so which we split in to to discuss the question. The group I was in, which had a majority of people of colour, was going to discuss ideas to improve outreach.
Barely even wanting to speak I admitted my nervousness in the check in. To this Kali, a black woman with 12 years experience community organising in Hackney behind her, laughed and said ‘look man you didn’t own slaves’. Which was a much warmer response than what she said to the guy opposite who worked at the Home Office.
Vish took on the facilitator role. And he steered our group through a rebellion from the process (the facilitator would announce each 2 minutes for us to change speaker). We wanted, and felt like we needed, a free flowing discussion.
When it was his turn to speak, Vish explained the predicament he felt: all of his white friends wanted to do the work of anti-racism without making Black people do the labor and yet - like me in that moment - they keep freezing. The fear and guilt kept paralysing.
So Kali offered some practical advice. Desegregate your social group by talking to your neighbours, she said. As the Qu’ran says, we should know 40 neighbours each side of your house. You need to start at home.
Our conversation goes on, we cover some of the fears involved in bridging big societal gulfs and some of the ways we can do it. We get to know each other a little better. And even the Home Office guy talks about how he is trying to change things inside and makes and incredibly powerful case for intersectionality.
When feeding back this discussion to the whole assembly Kali adds a call for us not to pat our selves on the back too much. We’ve only sat around in the park chatting, but it’s a start. What counts is where we go from here, what action we take. Many of the other discussions describe action points we can all be taking, like printing stop and search advice cards and giving them out.
Suddenly there is a tangible shared sense of realistic optimism (pessimism of the intellect and optimism of the will, maybe).
Charlotte, a black woman from another break out group caps it. She said something like, “at first I was cynical but I stayed, and now I realised that I stayed for a reason. This is just the start but these are really important conversations, and I’m happy to see so many white people here, in my break out group all of the white people were deeply acknowledging their privilege and trying to explore ways to use it for good.”
Following her someone else came up to describe how we have been divided from each other, how we are miracles in waiting and how rare it is for us to feel a sense of awe now. He asked ‘when was the last time you felt in awe of someone else?’ someone in the group said ‘right now’.At this point the sun was setting and we were all buzzing.
So what do we learn from all of this? There’s a whole lot in this experience for me about hope, power, and connection. But what stands out for me now is two things. The first is that Peoples’ Assemblies are not going to make difficult issues disappear, or even allow us to easily work through them. In fact, their power is surfacing enormous problems and asking us each to face them together. The second thing is that Peoples’ Assemblies are not strict processes that need to be followed precisely. This democracy work isn’t a science but an art, and PAs are more like a canvas and the wooden frames which hold it tight than like a finished painting.