My friend Hannah and I used to be part of a large climate movement. Both of our activist and organising backgrounds are in prison abolition and anti-racism work, and it was from this perspective that we had come to the climate space. We understand all systemic issues as connected, but it became clear to us early on that parts of the movement as a whole were not quite joining the dots.
We set up a working group to try and address this from within, but were generally discouraged by those around us in the main hub of the movement. We soon realised that it would be impossible to disseminate this work through the many iterations and moving parts of this unwieldy organisation without dedicated support of those at the core.
Hannah left before I did – I was holding out some hope that things would shift. Instead, the gulf between my views and those in the movement around me just got wider. Then the pandemic hit and the system didn’t just change, it was almost upended. All the things we’ve been consistently told are impossible, like stopping business, travelling and consuming overnight, became law; for the first time, public health briefly took priority over profit.
During the first few weeks of lockdown, Hannah and I realised that we were the only people we knew of in our network of climate activists who seemed to grasp the magnitude and significance of what was happening. We needed community, but given the experience we’d had being part of a large movement and the issues it had thrown up, we decided to form something grassroots, something much smaller. We started reaching out to people we knew who shared similar views to us, who understood systemic issues as interconnected and were also looking for a place to talk about them.
We set up our own activist community with friends in the UK and USA. Over the last four months we’ve held weekly zoom calls to talk abolition, racism, intergenerational trauma, climate crisis, systemic change and everything in between.
Why small communities are important
It can be easy to get lost in a big movement. It may feel overwhelming, you might not quite find your place, or something changes and you suddenly find yourself out of alignment with the movement’s values. In a small, self-built community, everyone has equal say about what it is and how it works. By virtue of its smallness, it’s much easier to work through issues if they come up and make sure everyone’s voice and opinion is heard.
When joining a movement, you’re often signing up to whatever rules have already been established. Creating a community with others means you have agency in shaping how it looks, feels and acts. This can be a driving factor in general wellbeing, happiness and fulfilment, linked to the idea of social prescribing – a holistic, integrated community approach to healthcare.
Self-starter communities are also beautiful opportunities for anyone interested in world-building – radically envisioning the world as you want it to be.
I’d suggest actively seeking out people from a diverse set of experiences and identities and co-create the group, rather than asking people to adhere to a set of rules and values upon which one or two people have hierarchically decided. By creating the community in community, it will naturally blossom and grow (though it can stay as small as the group wants it to be) as people see themselves represented and feel like it’s an inclusive space for them. The same is true for bringing together people from different activist circles and networks: this helps avoid the single-issue viewpoint of some movements that can be isolating to those seeking more intersectional and interconnected activism.
Communities like this also hold substantial power in bringing about change.
They provide space and support for shifts in individual consciousness, something many activists believe is the first step towards systemic change. By experiencing this yourself, you become an agent of that shift for others as well. You also have an instant group of people with whom to organise action, where the basis of the relationships between members is founded on trust and shared vision through the built community.
Tips on how to start your own activist community
Find between one and five friends that you know share similar views and values, even if not on everything
Create a group chat
Set up a regular meeting time that suits everyone
Recognise it won’t suit everyone every time! That’s ok, fluidity and flexibility is key to making it work
If you want to expand the group, ask each member of the group to bring along a trusted friend or activist
Don’t worry about making the group too rigid in structure or size and keep meetings flexible as well. This is about being and talking, not just doing and acting
What you can do in your communities
Discuss: hold space for deep discussion and delve into topics that relate to ongoing issues in the world, thoughts and feelings that arise from being involved in activist and organising work and theoretical deep-dives
Learn: share events, talks, webinars, articles, infographics and any other information that may be helpful and nourishing
Share: what can each member of the group share with others? This might be a healing practice, artistic skill, network, language, practical advice, etc.
Create: start a group project that contributes to the wider movement of systemic change and pull on people’s creative talents – we started a zine!
Fundraise: work as a team to help support grassroots projects that reflect your group’s values – sponsored sporting events, bake sales (when safe), even social media support can be useful
Take action: attend protests, marches and activist events together (if and when Covid-safe)
Network: connect up with other small activist communities to network – and then do all the above together!
How to make the group a safe and inclusive space
Have each member offer a brief introduction at the start of each meeting for the benefit of new members and include pronouns
Co-create ground rules for the group that include a no-tolerance oppression and abuse policy and a process for handling any such incidents with care when they arise. For example, no racist or oppressive language including slurs, generalisations and misgendering. If these happen, begin a gentle process of calling it out and calling the person in, explaining the issue and why it’s oppressive
Provide space for check-ins at the start of meetings where people can share how they’re feeling and anything that might be weighing on them. It’s important to register what people might be bringing into the group from outside, and be caring and supportive to each other. You could ask people to share how their day/week has been, something they’ve enjoyed or found difficult and share a mistake they’ve made and what they’ve learnt from it. It can also sometimes be helpful to run a short grounding meditation, which can be as simple as everyone closing their eyes, breathing deeply, becoming present in that meeting and reflecting on what it means to be there in community
Give each person an opportunity to facilitate the meetings and set the agenda to empower members and reduce natural hierarchies forming or replicating external power dynamics
Get consent before recording calls, taking photos or setting up anything public-facing (like social media accounts) for the group
Regularly check in with the group to make sure everyone is comfortable with the group’s size, dynamic and any new members
Create a conflict process in agreement together to address any issues that may arise
Molly is an activist and organiser for the abolition of the carceral state and the components and systems that support it. She is also a freelance journalist and photographer. You can follow her on Instagram @molly_lipson1 or check out her website.