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Sophy Banks on the risks of going for growth, and other ways to make an impact

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Today we have a post from Sophy Banks, the first of what will become a monthly column.  

"I have to confess I had a bit of a reaction to this month’s theme “Scaling up”. I’ve been unpicking it in a number of conversations with others in Transition, and what follows is an attempt to convey some of this exploration. It includes ideas about the different directions which are needed for a movement like ours to grow, and a look at the dangers and risks of wanting to get bigger.

I’ll say first that there are lots of reasons why it’s great that Transition is successful and grows – obviously that’s why I’ve put my energy and time behind it from the early days. I remember hearing Rob talk about his vision for a community project creating local solutions and thinking “That might just work..” and something which had been kind of asleep in me woke up and did everything I could to help its success. We’ve seen in Totnes that if it’s possible to get to a certain size, for instance when we’ve brought in major pieces of funding, organisations and people who dismissed us before started to take Transition seriously. So as we’ve grown more and more possibilities came into view.

I often say on the Transition Launch training “Transition has a big vision – to create a localised way of living – and needs a lot of people”. In the pathway we’ve discovered in Totnes there are theme groups, projects, central supporting activities, a board of Trustees.. I guess between 100-200 people are actively holding responsibility, attending regular meetings or doing something in projects. It’s a hugely ambitious dream, to do this work with little funding, in the spare time of whoever feels called to take part.

So there are really good reasons for growing, and I’m all in favour of Transition having as much impact as possible. I’m also cautious about putting too much emphasis on scaling up. I think there are traps behind this way of thinking. Particularly if the impetus behind it has the quality of pushing ourselves, and if there is a feeling of anxiety, that if Transition can’t get big enough to impact the huge system we’re part of, things are looking pretty bad. None of these are necessarily there in the desire to grow, but I think it’s worth unpicking some of the unconscious assumptions that can underlie this desire or drive – especially as time passes and the continuation of business as usual means the future (and present) looks ever more challenging.

Tug of warThe first trap that we could fall into is to believe there is only one way to have an impact, and that’s to be the biggest, most active, thing around. Beneath this is an assumption around power – that size is what matters. To push the system to a new path we need to be big enough to affect it, to compete with its size and scale.

With this assumption, influencing the future is a competition where the biggest wins. I recently read a quote by Margaret Wheatley that said the drive to grow in the business world arises because of their fear of uncertainty and their desire to control the world around them. It’s different to the relational way of understanding power which Starhawk describes as “power-with” – power through cooperation, negotiation, committing to solutions that benefit everyone not just those who have most weight.

It feels important to keep remembering that the pathway of growth that was possible in Transition Town Totnes has not emerged in the majority of Transition projects. I’ve talked and worked with many initiatives where, despite following the usual Transition recipe, there has not been enough people involved to start theme groups and lots of separate activities. A common shape is that one dedicated and hardworking group alternate between awareness raising events, workshops, getting funding for new projects, running those projects, taking some time for renewal and reflection, gathering momentum again for more activities and so on. Burnout is a real issue for some people in this situation (as it is in Totnes). To create a push towards scaling up when most of our movement has found this to be impossible can be dangerous, creating a sense of demotivation and even failure among many of us.

There’s another story that can underlie the desire to push ourselves to get bigger -thinking is that Transition is the only game in town. It’s the narrative of the “heroic” journey – and most popular books and films – there is one hero, with one magical arrow or plan that kills the monster, and when the hero acquires that the happy ending is possible. This is a really powerful story that structures our thinking – and is often unconscious. I don’t think our situation is going to play out like that (or that most of us consciously do) – if the system changes it will be through a vast tapestry of actions, movements, individual choices, protests, new organisations, changing the old ones, disasters, wake ups, wrong pathways abandoned, emerging possibilities and other things we cannot even dream yet. It’s messy, fragmented, complex and unpredictable.

An image I have for the shape of this journey is that there’s something like a wave of change moving through time.. some are at the front of the wave, others are further behind. If a Transition project (or any other) tries to push too far ahead of where the groundswell of the people in its community are, it loses touch with them and will meet resistance and opposition. But it also needs to be encouraging, inspiring, challenging, the status quo to keep people moving forward on the wave and to keep the whole wave moving forward. Transition is just one of many, many groups keeping this wave moving – partly by pushing, and partly just being carried – because the truth of our situation is there for all to see, and people are waking up to it all the time. From time to time major incidents like Fukoshima inJapan, hurricanes, floods, or national collapsing, bring a whole new rush of energy forwards into the wave.

On such a journey we need to be really connected – not only to the leading edges of the wave of change in the form of other change agents, but also to other groups, people and issues in our communities. One of the vital ingredients we need to prioritise in these times is building networks and partnerships. I wonder if can be a result of the extraordinary success of Transition, and the relative absence of lots of other movements working at the community level of scale, that it’s possible to fall into the trap of thinking that it’s down to us to bring about the change.

Being a part of a variety of networks as we ride this wave of change is about being connected, reaching out and moving with others. There's another direction that is often left out, that of deepening - which also has something useful to offer to the debate about scaling up.

My thought about deepening comes from Marianne Williams, who spoke in Totnes in 2008 in the early days of Transition. One of her ideas which has really stayed with me is that there are two dimensions to building a movement. The one which most people see is about expanding - growing in size, reaching more people, gaining momentum. It often has the quality of pushing – how can we reach beyond the usual suspects, how can we bring in the early majority? It’s essential and important work. 

The second dimension is vertical, and is about the nature of what the movement seeks to bring into the world. Movements which put out profound truths which speak to universal human issues have the potential to spread widely and last because what they talk about touches everyone. Those which touch the surface of problems, or address short term issues gain less traction and pass. So people like Christ, Buddha, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, who not only could understand profound issues about the human condition but also could articulate solutions which they embodied in the way they lived, created movements that appealed to millions, and have lasted for decades or centuries.

I’m not suggesting that Transition become a spiritual movement. But I think it’s worthwhile spending time exploring the deep truths that Transition can speak to. What is the most profound and way of speaking about the issues we are facing, and what kind of solutions does Transition propose. Are we about relocalising our economy? Are we about the move away from materialism to a focus on human well being? Are we about creating a sense of reconnection, to self, other, society and the natural world? Are we wanting to Transition from a culture of exploitation and competition to one of peace and unity? What are the deepest values that we want to see embedded in our communities?

I would like to encourage the hundreds of leaders, thinkers, do-ers and seekers in our movement to pause from time to time and reflect together on how we understand our true purpose and mission. What is the deepest expression of the Transition vision? How are we living that? What qualities do people see in us when we speak or act? I’m not suggesting that we use this as the basis for our public conversations, but I think it’s helpful to be clear within ourselves. Within any Transition group I doubt all would agree what the deepest vision is, but I hope we can at least have the conversation about what we truly long for.

Reflecting on all these ideas I can see the unifying theme is about how to be with what is – the challenges, frustrations, limitations – and still be as effective as possible. Scaling up our practical activities is one way to increase our effect – and it’s not the only way. Exploring these other dimensions of building a movement and having an impact has helped me to feel more spacious, curious and open to the many different ways we can create success, and to see that the variety of shapes and sizes that we have in Transition is welcome, resilient and powerful. 

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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