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We can work it out

“So, do you teach people to cook?” asked the journalist from Delicious magazine.

“Not exactly." I said. “It’s more of an absorption thing, working as a crew and learning on the job.” She had come to interview Sustainable Bungay about Happy Mondays and the Community Kitchen for an article about community food projects alongside the Dunbar Bakery and Norwich FarmShare.

people baking at sunriseSo I tried to explain how it is in Transition that a lot of the learning and teaching we do is not that formal. As we sat by Nick’s fire with tea and hot cross buns, we talked about skill-share and seed-swaps, plant walks and bee talks, Trade Schools and Green Drinks, it struck me that there was a time when I didn’t know about any of this knowledge-sharing, workshop-giving world either. I didn’t know what a facilitator was, or a go-round, or people who said it is not in my remit, or wave their hands in the air and bring lunch to share. There was a time when checking in had to do with the hotel, rather than a circle of strangers in some dusty church hall.

It struck me too that there were two types of class in Transition. One that took the shape of courses and trainings, where you paid money to sit in a room and an expert led you through your paces, often with power point presentations and organised exercises done in small groups. These structured professional events often had organisations behind them and came with workbooks and DVDs attached. The others were more amateur pop-up and hands-on affairs, which could happen anywhere, down at the local library, or at a Tent University in the middle of a city. Usually set up by individuals who were passionate about their subject, quirky, rough in style, but with some very useful hints and insights, that sometimes led to animated conversations afterwards.

The Workshop as method exists in both these configurations, and it is the subject of this week on the Social Reporting Project. We’ll be looking at how effective these sessions can be, how they are a core part of Transition culture and what kind of form they take in different initiatives. This is mine.

Not in my Skill Set

tin village workshopAt Tin Village everyone gives workshops.These are short slots, maybe an hour long. Sometimes they are talk-based head and heart sessions (on politics or ecological campaigning); sometimes skills-based hands sessions (on massage or straw bale building). You talk about your subject and you do some exercises. No one books, no one pays. Your participants move in an out at will. The band is playing outside and there is always somewhere else to go. Holding people’s attention is, as you find out, a key skill you have to learn fast.

When we were setting up the Social Reporting Project in 2011, Ed Mitchell and I gave some workshops on community blogging and reportage: one at the Sunrise Festival and another at the Transition Conference in Liverpool. Even though ostensibly you go to workshops to learn something, mostly you go to mix with other people, to experience a different social set-up, to hear a new narrative, to confirm your reality, and above all to enjoy yourself quasi-seriously.

We’re social and inquisitive creatures, so we like hanging out with people without being interrogated in a cocktail party, let’s-put-you-in-a-pigeon-hole way: where do you come from, what do you do, where do you live etc. We like doing stuff together: digging gardens, bottling jam, walking around woods, dancing together, without feeling entangled in other people’s fields, or obliged. We like that pop-up, play-at-stuff community networky thing. Now you see me, now you don’t.

However a lack of proper engagement can have its drawbacks when you are trying to share real and valuable skills: we are used to behaving like consumers and being entertained. You can't escape that fact at a festival where everyone has come for a good time. We’d hoped to inspire everyone at our Grassroots Media workshop to report on the events there and then. However I learned quickly that no-one wants to work at a festival and that the permaculture garden tours, pizza making and natural housekeeping products tend to do a brisker trade. So the following year in 2012 I wised up. I found that people like a bit of an entertaining talk and one or two practical exercises they can take away, or think about later. So in the spirt of skill share, here they are:

workshop pictureFIVE MINUTE INTERVIEW (Social Reporting workshop, Sunrise Festival/Liverpool conference 2011) Interviewing people forms the backbone of great journalism. This is a very useful speaking exercise because it allows you to voice out loud and treasure an enterprise you care about and also make it clear for others to grasp (essential reporting/teaching technique). You are being paid full attention to by the interviewer, which is a rare commodity in this world. The interviewer at the same time, has to listen and be interested in what you are saying. Also a rare commodity. Both these acts ground the enterprise in the collective memory of place and time.

Method: Everyone turns to the person next to them in the circle, so the group is in pairs. You take turns in the role of the interviewer and the interviewee. The interviewer asks the question: can you tell me about your most successful project? The interviewer asks further questions if necessary, but most of all listens and pays full attention to what is being said. When the time is up (five minutes), you swap places. Finally you go round the circle and everyone feeds back what they have heard about their partner’s project. At Liverpool we extended this exercise to on-the-spot video interviews, which formed part of the media hub reporting.

transition camp bannerSPEED PAPER (Grassroots Media/Transition Free Press workshop, Sunrise Festival 2012) This was a workshop I gave with Venus, activist and poet from Occupy London, about citizen journalism and reporting from direct experience. People who come to comms workshops are often already involved in writing or campaigning in some way, so tend to be articulate about their skills. What we don’t always know is how to pool resources and work co-operatively together to produce something that is exciting and coherent. Speed paper is working quickly with a group to establish key areas of experience, knowledge or passion. And then practicing how to pull stories together and think like an editor. As this is a creative exercise, it has a lot of chaotic elements in it. That’s part of the fun.

Method: go round the circle and ask: if you were on a newspaper what kind of editor or reporter would you be and what key story do you feel should go in our next edition? Give everyone three or four minutes to talk about this. On a large sheet of paper draw out a rough flat plan (squares that signify the pages of a paper) for as many pages as there are subjects. Get everyone to decide which category they are in: news, opinions or features and group together. If people choose the same subject, they can work on the same story, or choose different ones. Start mapping the paper and deciding what stories go where. Open this out as far as you feel there is time and energy, encouraging discussion about stories, ethics, commissioning other people, ideas for photographs etc.

One person, preferably the facilitator, should act as ‘editor-in-chief’ here and write the stories down. They should also be in charge of The Deadline (that’s the time in which this exercise takes place). Allow 5-10 minutes at the end for people to feed back on their experiences and to ask questions.

IDEAL HOME EXHBITION (Gathering Together day, East Bergholt 2013). This was a workshop I gave as part of a day focussing on co-operative living and intentional communities in East Anglia. Essentially it was about starting up a group, and thinking about ways to establish working and collaborating together in harmony. I have shared houses and am now involved in setting up a coop with Transition Free Press, but have no formal experience in this area. However I have worked collaboratively all my life in the media and on creative projects, so I applied those principles to house-coops and they seemed to work just fine. People really got into those lists! The key thing in workshops is to grab people’s imagination and engagement. Even though you might not learn something academically, you have learned it in a hands-on, people-friendly way and that counts in ways we can’t always see. A lot of the discussion during the day was couched in airy, abstract terms – possibility, compassion, empathy etc – so the purpose behind this exercise was to ground people’s contributions and get a sense of what we held in common.

workshop picture

Method: Imagine all the people in the group are about to share a house together. Ask for four ‘editors’ in the house to head up four main categories. These of course could be fluid but the ones I chose that day were: People Skills (those we have and lack); Practical Skills (those we have and those we lack); Stuff and Resources (those we bring with us and leave behind); Dealing with Social Pressures (that work for and against co-operation).

Give the editors four sheets of large paper and a bunch of pens. Ask everyone else to visit each of their departments and help them build a list of what we have between us in the house and what we need/ need to let go of. As the facilitator go round and discuss the contents of the lists with everyone. Afterwards (about 30 minutes) ask the editors to feedback what they have on their list and share to the group.

I made up all these exercises in response to the events and places and people present, usually just as I arrived. That’s my nature. I don’t do prep. I sometimes think about a blog days before I write it and then when I put my hands on the keyboard, it’s a completely different piece than the one I imagined. Talks and workshops are like that too. I like work on my feet and have a bit of an edge to the proceedings. Creativity needs uncertainty and throwing everything into play; its best structures come out of chaos. It doesn’t do well with control. These exercises are all based on real experience because, for me, experience is the gold we share with and receive from others. I don’t want to sit round sharing feel-good feelings, or shout out words like hope and surprise into a room. I want to learn how to bottle tomatoes for real, chop wood, dig a trench, listen to a story and run a newspaper. On that Gathering together day a group of 22 people shared over 35 practical skills between them. That’s why I prefer the second workshop approach. When the storm hits, we don't want to be milling around a room and playing games. We want to be all hands on deck and to know the ropes.

Master Transitioners

At the beginning of Transition Norwich everyone wanted to give a workshop. You couldn’t go to a Heart and Soul meeting without someone announcing they had come to help us with a session (special prices for you Transitioners of course). Eco-psychology workshops, non-violent communication teach-ins, Joanna Macy sessions with wannabe shamans. To be honest it got on my nerves. Couldn’t we just get down to the business of doing Transition and finding out who we were first? We did run some sessions ourselves: on clowning, for example, and authentic movement, where the group offered their own skills and practice. These were mostly about sharing stuff with each other, and we were happy to pay small sums to cover expenses.

workshop pictureMeanwhile the grander and more expensive workshops from outside the city got whole weekends to themselves and a lot of fanfare. Dragon Dreaming! Be the Change! Roll up, roll up. What happened at these sessions? Was anyone outrageously successful? Did anyone change afterwards? None of us found out, as unlike our humbler experiments, the workshops were never reported on in our community blogs. What I did notice was the distinction held between theory and practice. Attending a Transition Training, for example, was considered more important than the experiential knowledge of an initiative. A weekend course carried more weight than two years of challenges, meetings and setting up projects. Looking back almost five years later however, you notice it’s the humbler, practical stuff that has lasted and kept the people together.

We live in a world where mental abstraction is held to be more important that what happens on the ground. But real stuff and experience is what truly matters, what we need to learn right now, and there are a host of people out there with real skills who are happy to share them. We need in Transition to invite each other in and make each other welcome, whatever our ‘mastery’ is. Comms and media workshops were never really about writing My Perfect Blog. They were about paying attention and listening, reporting what was happening in the real world, making our experience valuable and beautiiful, collaborating with each other when all the world is pulling us apart, so we no longer stay stuck in our silos and control towers, silent, tractable and afraid.

workshop pictureThe grassroots media teachings were all about letting our voices be heard, so a different future could happen from the one commonly broadcast in the mainstream media. The workshops were part of the blueprint for future publications. So a bunch of people could manifest the Social Reporting Project, and Transition Free Press. Gotta manifest stuff for real on this earth, gotta get creating if you want to make a future worth living in. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Images: Pizzamaking workshop, Sunrise Festival, 2011; no-dig garden workshop, Sunrise Festival, 2011; workshop on financial instability with Naresh Giangrande and Peter Lipman, Liverpool conference, 2011; talk about medicine plants at Transition Camp, 2011; Transition Free Press open space, Battersea conference, 2012; quick prep before a Plants for Life workshop, Bungay Library, 2012; Transition Talk Training at Colchester, 2010.

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