The Listening Matters training

[Written on Thursday 29 Sept, this is the second of three posts whilst on community organising training]

Today has been the second day of training for the first batch of Locality community organisers. It has provided the main day of content for the programme and answered the questions that many participants have been harbouring since the beginning.

The Origins of RSLM
IMG_0968The day opened with a reflection and a short silence which struck me as semi-religious. Whilst the content was not faith-based, it was a surprise to be asked to think about snowflakes, birds and tipping points! However the majority of the morning was taken up by a detailed explanation of the Root Solutions – Listening Matters(RSLM) approach to organising (For more detail see the Resources below). The lecture was given by Stephen Kearney. He started by pointing out that RSLM is a long-term process that shows tangible results after about two years and comes to maturity by about four. The single training year for which we are preparing is only the start of a significant journey.

Stephen outlined the origins of RSLM in the work of RE:generate Trust since 1985. In trying to build communities across the UK, Stephen and Julia Olsen – who together founded the Trust – repeatedly came up against barriers. Their analysis took them to both financial and political power as the source of those blocks. They also saw that communities were stuck in a culture of blame and did not seem able to take responsibility for their own future. As a result in 1996, they gained the confidence of Eric Adams, then Secretary of the independent Barrow Cadbury Trustand began the journey that led to RSLM.

Paulo FreireWhen Ed Chambers, then IAF Executive Director and Ernesto Cortés, Jr from the Industrial Areas Foundation visited the UK, Stephen, Julia and Eric noticed the different culture around political entrepreneurialism in the UK.  The Citizen Organising Foundation (which much later became Citizens UK), who had invited the IAF leaders across from America argued that 100,000 people needed to be recruited to create change. For Stephen and Julia, this excluded too many places that just did not have that sort of population, such as rural areas, market towns and seaside resorts. They argued for an approach that could work at a smaller scale. As a result, they trained in Training for Transformation, an adaptation of the work of Brazilian Paulo Friere (pictured) for an African context. It was from this rich amalgam of radical thought that Julia and Stephen conceived RSLM as an indigenous approach to UK community animation.

The Process of RSLM
Stephen went on to explain RSLM in detail. He emphasised that it addresses the three realms: the need for personal growth, local action and engaging wider society. RSLM is designed to enable the organiser over time to create trust, respect and relationships with hundreds of people in the community.

The listening process is designed around a structured dialogue between the organiser and the citizen. It starts from those things in the community that the individual values – community assets, social networks, distinctive heritage. It moves on the explore their concerns about the area, what they are worried, angry or sad about. The dialogue moves then to ask about vision or dreams for the community’s future. Having uncovered the person’s motivation and direction, the conversation moves to looking at possible activities or projects that might meet those goals and at what actions might take them forward. A menu of possible actions allows the person the choose the level of involvement they are comfortable with and for the organiser, helps to pick out those who are potential community leaders.

We moved into groups to think about how RSLM can be used to achieve “an intelligent shift in power”. Before lunch, we heard from each of the nine small groups and Julia closed the session with another reflection on the purpose of each element of RSLM.

Power and Conflict
IMG_0942When we returned from lunch, we were asked to choose one newspaper headline or article about power from a selection of today’s papers. We were split into new groups and asked to share our articles and create a collage of them using the three domains of personal growth, local action and wider society. When these had all been completed – in the open air on a brilliantly warm day – we were introduced to each collage and we discussed our ideas about power and how it impacts on residents and citizens.

IMG_0965After a break, we worked together to explore our reaction to conflict. In silence, a single anonymous figure joined the group and was named as Conflict. When it had stopped being challenging to participants, we were asked to take up a considered position in relation to Conflict. Once everyone was satisfied with their location, posture and expression, we were invited in groups to reflect on our experience of the process and to think about how we might handle conflict in our new roles.

Practicing Listening
The last formal session of a long day was focused on giving us a chance to practice the RSLM process with another participant. In pairs, we were asked to use pre-printed RSLM forms to record the dialogue as the listener and on the other hand, to use the experience to assess the skills of the listening organiser. This will be part of our Open College Network assessment for the Practice of Community Organisingaccreditation at Level 2 or Level 3. At the end of a long and busy day, many people were tired and found it hard to concentrate.

Resources

Root Solution Listening Mattersis outlined in this extensive guide from the RE:generate Trust site.

Anne Hope and Sally Timmel (1999) Training for Transformation comes in two parts – an original pack of three books (Book 1-3 – originally 1984) and a single update(Book 4 – 1999) – which have to be purchased separately

Mark Smith (1997, 2002) ‘Paulo Freire and informal education’, the encyclopaedia of informal education. [www.infed.org/thinkers/et-freir.htm] – an excellent article about Friere’s contribution

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3 Responses to The Listening Matters training

  1. Julia Olsen says:

    Thanks Mark for documenting, from your perspective, the first foundations of community organising 3 day training for the first “cohort”. I should clarify and correct the reference to IAF trainers Ed Chambers and Ernie Cortez, however, as it was the Citizen Organising Foundation who brought their expertise to Great Britain. Stephen and I both took part in different COF trainings and kept up a dialogue over a period of time – particularly around the application of the citizen organising model in theUK context. As we explained in the training we were concerned that a focus on cities of 100000 left out large swathes of the country – where people also experienced injustices. I would add that I remember a great conversation with Ernie who particularly, encouraged us to get on and develop our work in our contexts – taking what we needed from the IAF and COF experience. As we were living and working in semi rural and smaller town localities at the time this is what we did!

    • Mark Parker says:

      Thanks Julia. I appreciate the correction and expansion of my point. You may note that I have corrected the text now to reflect your concern. I hope it is closer to the truth of that period now.

  2. Pingback: Redesigning Organiser Training | Southwark Organising

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