Lessons from activism #1

Here are some lessons from activism which have been sent in by some of our members.  It would be good to read these and think through them before our next soup seminar on Thursday 23rd July.  They have been made anonymous for the safety and security of our members.

The stories will be updated as more are sent in.

  • My perspective is from being around activism from a young age – my parents were both activists in London from the late sixties through to the noughties. We had meetings at our home regularly – so much so that we used to play games as kids where we would hand out agendas and take minutes, print pamphlets etc. My impression of those days is that decision making was very hierarchical – the ‘troops’ were expected to vote for things occasionally and the rest of the time follow the party line. Heavily influenced by Soviet style communism and such like. Nowadays the scene in activist circles is much more progressive, there is a genuine commitment to non-hierarchical decision making and involvement of those traditionally sidelined. It’s easy to be disheartened that the revolution isn’t happening this week – and overlook the real progress that’s been made. Now it’s standard practice to have a safe space policy, to actively seek to include all voices, to watch out for power dynamics and work to try to flatten them. It’s not the answer to everything, but it does maximise the power of the group and ensure that it doesn’t become self-serving but carries on focusing on the real issues of the members.

 

  • I think I had two things to say when we went round the circle. The first was about what little I’ve learnt from being involved with pragmatic mutual aid organisations. Active groups that are horizontally-organised, autonomous, and have a shared understanding of a goal they seek to work towards have been profoundly successful in allowing people to identify, parse, and articulate their own needs. If groups create spaces where individuals feel free and empowered to subsequently find ways to meet those needs, then those spaces draw others, and also retain people who seek to empower others as they themselves were empowered; this has beneficial consequences for group sustainability. There are risks in this approach: that groups may be amorphous, may be coerced by particularly charismatic figures, or may allow people to pursue needs that contradict each other. But there are benefits too: creating a notional space where people are free to seek out shared co-operative strategies for meeting needs (educational, I guess, in the context you’re talking about) that cannot be met in the choking miasma of late capitalism’s socioeconomic clusterfuck is a strategy of redemption and about reclaiming a sense of human idealism. The second thing I said when we went round the circle was the importance of challenging Capital’s lie about “it’s always been this way, and it always has to be this way”. Educational Hegemony wants you to think that its way of doing this is the only way of doing things: this is one of the many ways it seeks to brook no alternatives, to allow no space even for other ways of learning to be conceived. But in Sheffield (as is the case in several industrial cities) there is a strong heritage of working class autodidacticism, in Friendly Societies, Free Schools, Mechanics Institutes, continuing right through to the later c.20th when despite the Conservative’s best efforts to gut the Ad Ed system, there still survived the proud traditions of WEAs and Continuing Education (both within and without the walls of the academe). If you seek other ways of learning, of other means of knowledge creation and dissemination beyond the horrorshow of the contemporary neoliberal HE sweatshop, there are other traditions to draw from that expose the claim that ‘this kind of learning is the only learning there can be’ as yet another dirty great fib.

Soup Seminars #3 – Building an alternative

BPP free breakfast

The Free University of Sheffield is pleased to announce its third soup seminar at Union St!

We’ll be having our third ever soup seminar on Thursday, July 23rd at 6.30pm. In the soup seminars we come together to cook and eat food, and discuss how we can act to change society’s problems. We are creating a community of thinkers and activists to come together and work out constructive solutions to the problems we face today. (All food is vegan).

We have set out three principles of the soup seminars: (1) education must serve the needs of society, not the interests of the individual; (2) we cannot leave it up to academics or ‘experts’ to come up with ways to solve our problems – we are all experts; and (3) if we are going to change anything, we must study and act together.

If you want to be added to the mailing list for the soup seminars, please email freeunisheff[at]gmail.com with your name and email address.

A major theme of last week’s discussion was creating an alternative: activism should not just be about resisting something, or making demands of those in positions of authority, it should also be about trying to build alternative structures. One example that was given was the Black Panther Party: they did not merely resist white supremacy, they also built support networks and provided for their black communities, such as through their Free Breakfast for School Children Programme.

It was a really productive discussion, and it would be good to carry on the discussion in our third soup seminar. In a book called “Deschooling Society”, Ivan Illich proposes that we need to create alternative education systems which are decentralised and try to promote interaction, collaboration, creativity and fun. The Wikipedia page (click here) is a good starting point to give some ideas of what an alternative education system might look like. The ideas fit with our discussion of taking responsibility for ourselves and creating alternatives, and might be a good talking point for next week.  Click here for the PDF of Deschooling Society.

Other good things to read about would be the crèche that Plan C ran at the recent anti-austerity demonstration in London (for the article click here) and, of course, the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast for School Children Programme (for an article on this click here). If you have suggestions for other articles, please send an article in to us! We’ll send it back out to the email list so everyone can read it in time for the next meeting. You can either email us at freeunisheff[at]gmail.com or message our Facebook page.

Perhaps some good questions to think about for next week would be:
– What sort of support programmes are needed today, in our own communities?
– What makes these support programmes so important? For example, are they important simply because they provide support (a bit like a charity), or are they important because the support they provide is clearly political? Or are there other reasons?
– How could we begin to build our own alternatives, and our own support systems?

Another important theme in the discussion last week was how important it is to focus on the day-to-day. We discussed how a lot of activism focuses on spectacular actions like marches through London, but often miss out the importance of trying to change how we interact on a day-to-day basis. This was linked into the discussion of building an alternative. In order to create an alternative, we need to know how it would work day in, day out! If you want to suggest articles for people to read on this subject, then please send them in!

If you have any questions, please email us or contact our Facebook page.

Soup Seminars #2 – Successful Activism

maagdenhuis black and white

 

The Free University of Sheffield is pleased to announce its second soup seminar at Union St!

We’ll be having our second ever soup seminar on Thursday, July 9th at 6.30pm. In the last seminar we agreed that we’d like to discuss stories of successful activism from elsewhere, and discuss why they were successful. It would be great if some people could send in some newspaper-length articles that they think would give us some food for thought about how to organise successful movements. Just email them in to freeunisheff[at]gmail.com and we’ll send them back out to the rest of the group.

In the soup seminars we come together to cook and eat food, and discuss how we can act to change society’s problems. We are creating a community of thinkers and activists to come together and work out constructive solutions to the problems we face today. (All food is vegan).

We have set out three principles of the soup seminars: (1) education must serve the needs of society, not the interests of the individual; (2) we cannot leave it up to academics or ‘experts’ to come up with ways to solve our problems – we are all experts; and (3) if we are going to change anything, we must study and act together.

We will be discussing short film called Street Politics 101 about the Québec student movement, and two articles by George Blaustein about the recent “New University of Amsterdam” movement: ‘Letter from Amsterdam’ and ‘On Horseshit’.  The discussion won’t be just about these, however – they’re just there to give us ideas and inspiration.  If you have any other suggestions, please email us at freeunisheff[at]gmail.com.

If you want to be added to the mailing list for the soup seminars, please email freeunisheff[at]gmail.com with your name and email address.

If you want to get involved in the organising of the soup seminars, including sorting out ingredients, cooking, designing leaflets, and publicity stuff – then just email us or message the Facebook page!

To find Union St follow this link.

_______________________________________________

**Here’s a summary of our last soup seminar, sent out to the mailing list**

Hi everyone,

To those that came to the soup seminar on Thursday – thank you for coming! I really hope you enjoyed it and plan to come again. To those that couldn’t make it – don’t worry! We’ll keep you in the loop about what’s happening each seminar.

Here’s a quick summary of what we discussed:

We started by chatting about why we came to the soup seminar, and what we hoped to get out of it, as well as discussing the issues we’re interested in tackling. There was loads of overlap, but also lots of differences in our interests, which is great. Here’s a few of them: class systems; welcoming refugees; forms of protest and direct action that go beyond marches; inequality; communes; setting up projects similar to the soup seminars in other communities; alternative ways of learning; ownership (of knowledge, of institutions, etc.); and the idea that institutions are places of struggle, where we can make change.

We then discussed the problems that we saw in the modern university, in particular the question of how we challenge those in power and how we can actually change our universities (or if we even do want to change them). Discussion soon turned to the question of students, and the question of why students don’t seem to be doing more. We then broadened it out and discussed how we could empower people to become activists or community organisers themselves. This seemed to be a really important point of discussion, and lots of great points were raised: the idea that we need spaces where people can meet together regularly and safely, preferably spaces which people feel ownership over; making political connections with people by sharing food, such as the soup seminars or the Real Junk Food Project; hosting a sort of ‘radical societies fair’ for activists to meet others and form connections; encouraging housing co-operatives to be started; rent control activism; linking up students to activists in the public service sector and the NHS. Basically, we discussed a lot.

The fundamental point which people seemed to agree on was that we don’t need to be telling people what to do or what to think. Instead, we need to facilitate conversations and spaces where people can come together and come up with their own solutions – and as organisers we should be making this happen. Stuff like teaching people how to occupy a building, or create a contact list, or write a press release, or pointing people in the direction of political theory which might help develop their ideas, and so on.

So, here’s what we’ll be doing in two weeks:

We’ll be having the second soup seminar on Thursday, July 2nd at 6pm [please note that this has now changed to Thursday, July 9th at 6.30pm]. We agreed that we’d like to discuss stories of successful activism from elsewhere, and discuss why they were successful. It would be great if some people could send in some newspaper-length articles that they think would give us some food for thought about how to organise successful movements. Just send them into this email, and I’ll email them back out to everyone.

I’ve got some of my own suggestions here, and for people who want to read something longer and more theoretical, I’d recommend chapter 17, ‘The Pedagogy of Excess’, written by Mike Neary and Andy Hagyard in the PDF which I’ve attached [see here]. They discuss the student protests of May, 1968 in Paris. Don’t feel pressured to read this though – it involves a lot of heavy-going theory about the relationship between teaching and research in universities, which isn’t totally relevant to what we’ll be discussing.

My first suggestion is a great short film called Street Politics 101 about the Québec student movement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4zO9d4ODtP4

Second, I’d recommend these two articles by George Blaustein about the recent “New University of Amsterdam” movement: ‘Letter from Amsterdam’ and ‘On Horseshit’. They don’t give a particularly in-depth analysis of what happened in Amsterdam, but they’re a pretty enjoyable read and give a good overview of what happened. I’m not totally sure if this is mentioned in the articles, but the New University of Amsterdam managed to force the resignation of their university executive board, and have won a massive governance review which might result in their university becoming much more democratic, and might stop the cuts to jobs. We’ve got to wait and see how successful they are, however.

Finally, if anyone wants to get involved in the organising of the soup seminars, including sorting out ingredients, cooking, designing leaflets, and publicity stuff – then just reply to this email and let me know!

See you all in two weeks!