Author: John Tuckey, a volunteer in the communications team for The Centre for Progressive Change. He’s a journalist who’s worked for the BBC and national press, and an editor and trainer in communication for development.
In holding relational meetings to build power, I did something I thought impossible an hour earlier.
In the Centre for Progressive Change’s foundation course Session 5, you’re expected to have a meeting with someone you’ve never met before, in order to find a mutual interest that can help you work together. How on earth can you do that?
I’ve just finished the Centre for Progressive Change’s foundation course in organising for social change, and I’m really enjoying being taken outside of my comfort zone of negative assumptions about certain concepts. These are the need to: build power, understand someone’s self-interest and compromise. For many people who consider themselves progressive, these are things we think we don’t do. What this hard-headed and clear-eyed course teaches is these are exactly the things we need to do to win the change we want to see, and there are plenty of strong examples of the approach’s successes. And it takes trainees through the processes needed to do them.
By the by, something else I’ve realised, is that most of the development of this system of organising has happened in America. Indeed, as I learned from reading her book, The Purpose of Power, Alicia Garza – one of the three co-founders of the Black Lives Matter Movement – is an organiser who follows the principles this course teaches. Endorsement or what?
The first thing the course teaches is that you can’t win change without power, but this is power than comes from below, from getting a lot of people organised. This isn’t what we conventionally think of as power: the power that comes from your heritage and background or social or professional position. In the course, this bottom up power is called ‘relational power,’ (as opposed to the ‘positional power’ that comes from heritage or position.)
What I learned from the session that influenced me the most - the ‘Relational Meetings’ session – is the practicality of how power is systematically built by an organiser having many face to face meetings with individuals within the community they are trying to help. You have to take the course as a whole to fully understand how Organising works, but building power comes from identifying leaders among the community. Again, not positional leaders, but natural, social leaders: people who others respect and listen to. An organiser needs to hold these meetings with individuals who might be leaders, to discover if there is a mutual interest between the campaign the organiser is running and the individual. In the session, I witnessed one relational meeting and took part in two. Before the session, I’d wondered how you ask the questions you need to ask, without appearing intrusive, when your questions have to uncover the other person’s values, their interests to see if there’s a mutual interest you can work with. When I actually tried it, I was amazed at how quickly I could do it.
During the session, I watched one meeting as a demonstration, and then had to do two others. The first was all right, but you’re supposed to ask a lot of ‘why’ questions, but I didn’t. The second went much better.
We quickly established a rapport, because we rapidly identified someone we both know, who we both like and respect very much. This clearly showed shared values. To encourage my partner to talk about her interest, and to establish a reason I could be respected, I talked about some of the work I’ve done in Africa, with an emphasis on my attempts to bring change and to improve social justice. My partner talked about her work in music, but more particularly about the need to campaign against sexual harassment in the business.
In around ten minutes, we had established a relationship based on a discussion of our values, which is clearly a step towards building relational power.
By the end of the whole session, I could clearly see how I could carry out these meetings, the key to building relational power, in the real world.