Training reflections

It’s hard to establish a new three day training course for a national programme with high level visibility and for me, RE:generate Trust did an excellent job in trying circumstances. Everyone acknowledged that the main training room was too small. The fine weather meant that participants were too often sweltering inside or out. The intense interest of the national media placed a spotlight on the whole event. The days were long and the issues complex; the participants were coming with immensely varied experience and knowledge of the programme and content. The professionalism and competence of the RE:generate team – Stephen, Julia, Helen and Nick – was outstanding.

Theory into practiceIMG_0949

Root Solution – Listening Matters (RSLM) has been in development for two decades and Stephen and Julia have been training and supporting people to use it for all that time. Translating a much longer process into a three-day residential asked the facilitators to condense their material and take short cuts that were inevitable. The refrain was oft repeated: ‘if we had more time…’ The depth was lacking but as a result, the pace was quicker. At times, I found myself unsatisfied when what I viewed as crucial issues were either ignored or handled too quickly. But given the pressure of time, this was probably necessary.

On the other hand, I was surprised that an approach that took a direct inspiration from Paulo Friere made little or no use of his educational theory. He argued that what he termed the ‘banking model’ of education – where educators filled empty vessels with their truth – was mere continuing exploitation by the elite and that liberation is found when we become co-creators of knowledge with the poor themselves. Their insights into the nature and extent of their oppression, their grasp on the reality of their situation and their capacity to see how their liberation could be found all lead to emancipatory praxis. Developed into a widely influential training programme Training for Transformation by Anne Hope and Sally Timmel in the early 1980s, Friere’s work has continued to inspire activists and popular educators ever since.

IMG_0978Action and reflection

Before coming on the course, I had imagined a more radical and co-designed approach to the content than we received. I was disappointed that the control was strongly centralised with the RE:generate team throughout and that leadership from participants was not encouraged or supported. The participants proved themselves to have a hugely rich and diverse range of skills and knowledge that could have been at the disposal of the group, had it been called on. The RSLM content was offered as though it was a fully-formed and complete answer to ‘community organising’ rather than one fine example of an indigenous animation programme. There was minimal consideration of how power was actually operating in the room and no opportunities to reflect on the course dynamics.

Paulo Friere was of course a Marxist. His world view was formed from a deep understanding of the historical dialectic that sets the proletariat against the bourgeoisie. The inevitable conflict between the two was fundamental to his key contribution to educational theory, that the poor are best able to find their own liberation. Such a dynamic appreciation of the role of conscientisation in seeking liberty shaped a generation in South American and across the global South. It also informs much British community development today.

The course certainly identified that conflict would be part of the organiser’s lot. But the reality of the conflict of ideology, of deep interest between – as Saul Alinsky termed it – ‘the Haves and the Have-nots’ was never explored. The capacity of these ‘organisers’ to self-organise was also never really tried. The co-production of knowledge between the learner and the teacher seemed to be trumped by a strong need to ‘bank’ the RSLM model with the participants. We left with a clear transfer of knowledge from the teachers to participants and no sense of integrating that new knowledge into our own prior experience.

Haves and Have-notsIMG_0982

As I have written elsewhere in this blog, I find my motivation for community organising from an abiding commitment to realising the potential of those who are currently excluded and marginalised in Southwark’s community. The level of oppression for those on the lowest incomes (or no income at all) is truly unsustainable for our community. We need to challenge the ways in which powerful interests deny ordinary citizens their basic human rights and undermine our much vaunted democracy in the process. We need to engage in a form of collective action that empowers the most vulnerable and disempowers the most oppressive.

The training managed to prepare us to listen attentively to anyone and everyone. It asked us to put aside our background, experience and prior knowledge and to open our minds to a new model of action-reflection. It encouraged us to think about power in the community without addressing our own power or how power was operating in the room. The training gave us a core group of teachers rather than turning in solidarity to each other for mutual learning and shard knowledge.

As I have said above, the training was an exceptionally difficult programme carried out by the facilitators from RE:generate Trust  with skill, attention to detail and real enthusiasm. I hope that it will be possible to reframe it to reflect the focus on justice for those in society most silenced, to allow participants to contribute more to their own learning and to include reflection on the operation of power in the course itself.


Miles Horton and Paulo Friere [Brenda Bell, John Gaventa and John Peters (eds)] (1991) We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change Temple

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

Mike Seal (2008) ‘Saul Alinsky, community organizing and rules for radicals’, the encyclopaedia of informal education. []

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19 Responses to Training reflections

  1. Julia says:

    Mark, many thanks for your valued critique. Here’s some more food for thought. 

    We designed the  3 day experience to equip trainees with an opportunity to deeply understand why reflective purposeful action as well as reflection is crucial. It will change as situations change and we learn from the doing.

    The training aimed to introduce RSLM –  a tested strategy and a method (not a theory)  to connect with (the poorest) people – to prepare trainee organisers to walk the walk with disengaged and voiceless people in communities.  It was, and could only ever be in the time available, a basic introduction to the essential foundations for being an community effective organiser who will be awakening, activating and leading people towards achieving the changes the broad-based community aspires to.  

    The training also aimed to equip prospective and aspirant organisers with essential understanding and  tools to enable them to develop themselves in their new role and on  their unique journeys.

    The training had a framework, of course – and it was facilitated and animated by the RE:generate team to enable everyone there to have an experience of listening, analysing and organising around a common experience. The real learning inevitably comes more from the experience of interactions and behaviours (own and others) than the inputs of the facilitators whose responsibility  and duty is to lead and challenge in this context.

    Theory – Freirian or other – has to be applied in a context. Our model of education will always include inputs from all experience – including that of facilitators and leaders –  and reflection. Inputs can be just that – because there is technical knowledge that is useful – but  this is not the same as banking education. Each input is made relevant to the task ahead and  designed to develop  understanding, skills and critical awareness – including reflection on the power dynamics in the training environment. Everyone has a chance to think on their own, share 1-1 and in small groups and contribute to the whole group. Therefore nobody is excluded or voiceless.

    Facilitators have to hold the framework and take account of 50 individuals and their learning styles and needs – this is a reality of leadership and responsible exercise of power. A good many  trainees at Trafford Hall would not have had an opportunity to reflect and explore their own leadership and authentic potential as an organiser without being able to trust and feel safe enough in the training environment. They would not have had  their voice heard without a framework to enable dialogue and trust building. For example, consider the group dialogue about tweeting and blogging while in training  – this was a response to an idea and issue raised by a trainee – you. Space was made by the team and it was resolved  collectively – and a “fringe” space for further dialogue and learning opportunity was agreed.  
    Perhaps it is useful to think about the whole training community experience – including the evening Q&A session – and reflect on power shift and accountability. Here we saw an individual just take power from the panel without reference to peers, which made people uneasy. We also experienced the impact of rules for accreditation – but that’s another story!

    Regarding banking education and collaborative learning.We modelled as best we could the fundamental values of respect, responsibility and belief in human dignity which underlie true education, rather than an ideological dogma. The training included inputs from our collective experience of animating and organising on the streets and lanes of Britain.  It presented and offered tools to help organisers develop their own understanding of and ability to explore personal and collective responsibility with the public at large – by meeting them where they are and as they are. We aim to help organisers develop an understanding of why and how listening and dialogue can animate citizen action – and the transformative impact it can have if you actually do it. 1-2-1  listening is the nub of organising – and the heart of RSLM. 

    Talking, writing, tweeting has to go alongside walking the walk of the 1-2-1 listening journey.  At the beginning of training in the field, I suggest practising and doing  listening in the field is the only way to develop the essential skills and deepen the insights and empower the voiceless. 

    As you try RSLM – you will find that people are moved to action often because of their life experience and situation. The success of the work in your environment is down to you and your ability to listen and link people who take individual and collective action to transform lives.

    A question for you. Was Freire a Marxist?  Bishop Helder Camara pointed out that if he gave food to the poor he was called a saint, if he asked why the poor had no food he was called a communist. I think humanity over ideology is the essence of Freire – and RE:generate: pragmatism based on core values and ethical principles. Knowing which side of the bridge we stand on and why we do what we do.

    Finally, thanks for the resource references on conversational democracy. Reminded me of  presentations to and conversations with think tanks (including Demos, RSA and NEF)  over the years. It’s good that word about the notion of the effective conversation is spreading! In the end it’s the actions, though, that link people and build solidarity at the grass roots – and there are no short cuts. The RE:generate team still do it  rather more than write about it – which is maybe why we have had impact on the ground and  find ourselves in this programme!  

    • Mark Parker says:

      Thanks for your very full comment, Julia. I appreciate the hard work, commitment, thought and dedication that went into the training. Regenerate Trust ran it well and effectively. My comments were aimed not so much at the form or length of the training as at its values and assumptions. I wrote about the approach of the training rather than about its content and was surprised that it was not aimed to raise the consciousness of the trainees about their own place in our society’s oppression. I entirely agree with you that listening in personal encounter is central to organising and such is the basis of relational power. My problem with the training as we received it was that it assumed that the injustice in our communities was not an immediate, bleeding sore, that the violence against the person that occurs daily in my community can be planned out of existence over time and that the power to do this lay principally with the current elite. I did not feel that the training taught me to be critical of the current social, political or economic structure or in any way prepared me to give others the opportunity to question it in my animation of the community. Your quote from Dom Helder Camera is certainly apposite but my use of the term Marxist was entirely positive. I believe Friere to be both a saint and a Marxist. Reflection – action – input is the critical dialectic of the moment as you say. Let us see what our encounter with the most excluded brings! Again, thanks for engaging with the discussion so strongly!

  2. nick beddow says:

    hi Mark, thanks for your work – it’s very interesting to read about your experiences. Three days training will always put the trainers under pressure but I share your concerns about the contradiction between the message and the process (banking). I am concerned that a programme which analyses power without a deep and challenging analysis of why power is held by current “leaders” and how inequalities block all members of communities from having equitable access to power reveals that Freire’s work hasn’t been fully grasped (more Alinsky than Freire?)

    • Mark Parker says:

      Hi Nick and thanks for commenting. As you may read from my comments to Julia, I feel that the training failed to help participants to either tackle their own position in the strucutures of oppression or prepare us to help others see the elite for its role in society. I was disappointed that a stronger analysis that certainly underlay both Alinsky and Friere’s work was not evident in the training. Coming from an urban environment and schooled in diversity and equalities, I was very surprised when no mention was made of race, gender, class or sexuality as structures that give rise to power and powerlessness. I would have imagined that organising in the UK would have started from a perspective that prioritised the most vulnerable, the most oppressed. RSLM asks the organisers to be blind to the structural injustices in society and to work as though every citizen were equal. It’s not the way I will be organising certainly!

      • nick beddow says:

        I’m so glad to hear this, Mark – I hope other community organisers will share your commitment to exploring and challenging inequalities and social injustice, and be aware of their own power to potentially manipulate rather than facilitate. I am wondering if the failure in the training to explore wider perspectives on power is a reflection of the host organisation’s discomfort with equality, given their own proximity to the elitists who funded them ?

      • Mark Parker says:

        The nice thing is of course that the training has only begun with the three day residential and really kicks off now as we begin to work in our communities. The opportunity to help shape the organisers’ understanding of power, privilege and prejudice in UK society is still there, not only for this first cohort but for those yet to come. However, my experience of those who run local community-based multi-purpoe centres like Cambridge House is that they share my and your passion for tackling injustice at its root. Having worked with many of those who manage Locality today, I can also affirm that Jess and her team are completely committed to challenging the powerful, opening up opportunity for the most excluded and tackle inequality of opportunity and outcome through their programmes. I experience the organiser programme as liberated from government’s shackles and free to explore truly radical options.

      • nick beddow says:

        hi Mark, I’ll look forward to hearing about the evolving work on tackling inequalities and will be intrigued to see how Govt reacts if it becomes the target of radicalised communities

  3. Root Solution Listening Matters and the training is very challenging. It encourages people to work together to explore their histories, skills, assets and attitudes to power. It challenges people’s perceptions and prejudices about communities, the poor and the powerful. It challenges the behaviour of those who make assumptions and instant judgement. In this particular training process some people were clearly uncomfortable – because they where challenged to work with others to explore the links between personal growth, local action and the impact that might have at a wider society level. Some were challenged to move out of their comfort zone and to engage effectively with their peers. Some were encouraged to connect their hearts, hands and heads. All where encouraged to build community together and reflect on their behaviour; and people were supported to explore every type of power from their perspectives – using all the daily newspapers of the day. All explored the positions they take in relation to conflict and the whole three days were rooted in the practice of action and reflection in their own time alone, working in pairs, small groups and large groups. Some were uncomfortable with this because they lost control to the group.
    People then explored RSLM – which is designed specifically to reach the most difficult to reach and support them to engage and to play a role in tackling their concerns and build the community they want and aspire to. It is a real pedagogy of the oppressed, hope and freedom and a work that must continue to challenge the incredible waste of talent and human potential that we have seen in our country in the last 30 years. So many people complain of initiatives to develop communities that left them disempowered and dependant.
    That is why Listening Matters is where it starts which is why I am glad to see the Cambridge House Team are applying it in the spirit of the programme.
    Power shifted dramatically at least twice during this training. I leave readers to think about how and when that happened.
    RSLM training is delivered over a 20 days throughout a 2-3 year period to full time community animators – which is why this programme is described as a foundation.

    • Mark Parker says:

      Thanks for your comment Stephen and its good to hear from you as not only someone who has been directly involved in the formation and development of RSLM but also took the lead in presenting it on the training. I recognise the Trafford Hall traning was a first attempt to condense RSLM into this three-day foundation course and that it was done in trying circumstances. I also paid tribute to the skill and achievement of your team. What I missed during the training however – and which you have eloquently expressed here – was any sense that RSLM was designed to reach the most excluded, to listen to the silenced or to open up access to understanding oppression. Personally I did not get any sense of RSLM as an approach to liberation; indeed there was no mention I can remember of race, class, gender or other structure of oppression in our communities. Your presentation of RSLM and the conversation around it seemed to assume that all citizens were equal and that organising has no focus on challenging inequality or social injustice. RSLM seemed to be socially neutral. If so, I am reflecting my reading of Friere as someone who taught us to learn with the most oppressed and my reading of Alinsky who took sides (and often made them sides) to combat the destruction of human lives he saw around him. I’d have liked to get the way RSLM serves the most excluded.

  4. Dear Mark
    Practitioners of RSLM reach all without prejudice. It does not classify or make assumptions about people. Listening happens in communities essentially with the broadest cross section of people. In the poorest communities great skills are required and one of those skills is that you accept people for who they are and help them to think critically about their situation and move to action. Their struggle is for them to explore and identify.
    The approach to liberation, as fully explored in the training, is about moving people from apathy to action through a listening dialogue and building a powerful network of voters, customers, clients, volunteers, listeners etc. As people act individually and collectively they build power as you will see if you succeed.

    You have had a basic introduction to this practice and now it is time to go and meet the people and listen to them. The best of luck.

  5. Julia says:

    This is foundation “training” in organising practice  – our priority  is practical application  and strategy for change, over exploration of theories. That training focuses  in on the use of the most important  tools an organiser has – the ears, the senses and the imagination. Ears to hear, senses to feel, imagination to envision an alternative.  Relational and personal power to act develops out of an organisers’s ability to relate to and empower others. Who they listen to and why is down to the values, principle and purpose of organising – to shift power in favour of those who are downtrodden, silenced, hopeless. To link those  experiences of  injustice and exploitation to a strategy that will shift the the weight of history and resources towards a more equitable and sustainable future.      Listening dialogue is the key.  The exploration of liberation and pedagogy happens for real  in the dialogue with those who wake or are awoken to their situation and who choose to act to change it. 

    RSLM is absolutely not based on any one theory. It grew out our  experience and action and reflection over the years. It resonates with diverse aspects of psychology, mythology, sociology, ecology,  theology, ideology. Our influences are art, architecture, agriculture, farming, education, corporate management and trading, theatre,  childbirth, disability, mental illness, civil protest, struggle, war, social enterprise, being male, being female, being parents, sons, daughters, bosses,  employees, volunteers,  voters, abstainers,  candidates, leaders and above all –   listeners.   
    Freire’s  inspiration and practice grew out of his insight and life experience – it  evolved into theory that practitioners value and build from.

     In relation to Nick’s pointed comment, Freire was a minister of education in a government – did that make him a puppet or member of an  elite? 

    • nick beddow says:

      hi Julia,

      I wish that every Government on the planet had Paolo Freire as Minister for Education: )
      And whereever any Government was consciously increasing inequalities so that the poorest pay the price for the greed of the fat cats, I expect he would be suggesting that social justice is best served by challenging the power and beneficiaries at the very top of our system

      • Yes Nick that would be wonderful.
        Of course transformation takes time.
        Read the Shambala Warrior..
        Best wishes

      • nick beddow says:

        A new reading group, eh? I’m happy
        I’ve read Chögyam Trungpa – can I suggest David Batchelor’s “Buddhism Without Beliefs” in return ? Or Victor Serge’s “Memoirs of A Revolutionary” ?

  6. Emma Lees says:

    Hi Mark. Lets hope your concerns will be addressed as the training evolves. A complicated programme that I imagine will be tweeked as it progresses.
    But I would also share your concerns on assumption about everyone being equal and not tackling specifics; the danger is that less equality- aware CO fail to recognise the barriers faced by some communities.

  7. Julia says:

    Hi Nick
    Challenge requires engagement, Power shift  requires engagement of many – with shared values, common purpose  and strategy.  Let’s move beyond counting the hairs in Paulos beard (as an alternative to angels on a pin) and find ways to use ALL our experiences to bring about a fairer, more just society. 
    Hi Emma, of course community organisers need to recognise the systemic abd structural barriers and  obstacles people face  – and develop strategies to address these. An organiser is never neutral in relation to abuse of power whether deliberate or through ignorance. A question I ask  myself every day is – how best can I help the mouse liberate itself and its  tail from under the elephants foot? And mice from under the herd! 

    • nick beddow says:

      hi Julia,

      you’re having a go at his beard now (copyright: Vic Reeves)

      How to ensure shared values, not just dominant values? how to tackle the bigotry within the mice world too, so that dominant voices don’t drown out other voices? how to ensure power doesn’t end up with the big mice again (the new boss, the same as the old boss) ?

      ps. remind the mouse that elephants are allegedly afraid of them

  8. Andy gregg says:

    Hi Mark you say: “I had imagined a more radical and co-designed approach to the content than we received. I was disappointed that the control was strongly centralised with the RE:generate team throughout and that leadership from participants was not encouraged or supported.” This was the kind of approach that I worried would be the taken on this kind of programme. On the one hand CD activists need to have a wide palette of approaches and “tricks of the trade”. On the other they have to be prepared at all times to check and challenge their own and other’s presuppositions and fixed positions.
    “There was minimal consideration of how power was actually operating in the room and no opportunities to reflect on the course dynamics”. This worries me even more – we have to start being the change that we are trying to engender – and it sounds like the tutors were not open to this. Sorry to sound sceptical but I suspect that participants will get much more out of it from the “doing” with others rather than from the “training” being done to them by so-called experts!

  9. helen says:

    Hi folks I am listening in and enjoying the challenging ongoing dialogue between everyone. Having had some experience of the organisation I am grateful that these questions are being asked now at this early stage of the process!

    The process can be truly transformative and meaningful but only when all of the above discussions are present in the room and form the basis of dialogue in the “true Freirian sense”.

    Greg Galluzo a veteran of the Alinsky IAF movement, reminds us that Alinksy would have had a problem,dislike and even distrust of “political organising wearing the mask of community organising”.

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