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Reflection as Radical

A lesson on how we reflect as the movement moves.

Stephanie Wong | 05 May 2021

Bright orange jellyfish in blue water swimming.

Image credit: Oday Hazeem.

We are almost at the finish line of blogs that share lessons of the 2 and half years of working alongside Grapevine Coventry and Warwickshire and the Connecting for Good Movement. This week I am talking about two key themes in organising. The first is reflection, the second is the less spoken about issue of boundaries. I have put them together because it is often at the point of reflecting that boundaries, whether called explicitly that or not, often emerge.

All organising goes through a triad of listening, action and reflection in its relational power building process. Like a stool with three legs, if one is cut off the stool can not stand. Yet reflection can be the work we can only find a sip of time for. We pretend it is not important. The urgency of its necessity can be drowned out by the noise of “strategy” and “action”.

At Grapevine, reflection is woven into all interactions, from the micro 1-to-1 conversations to the macro social actions. This is crucially important because of Grapevine’s “emergent process” to organising. We want to know if organising methods are actually working? Is this really the best way for the people to act? What about if the work needs to pivot? How are people feeling? Are we moving at the speed of trust of the movement?

As a team we are working out what of the traditional methods of organising Grapevine wants to keep, and what needs to adapt or start anew. There’s no “manual” to solve or avert the problems we face. Instead Grapevine are writing their manual as they go and I get to play a small role in its development.

We have a big vision. Being agile and able to adapt is key. This feels even more important right now as we continue to face uncertainty, we are working with what emerges and learning constantly by doing and reflecting.

— Mel Smith

Reflection is a critically important space to discover and uncover “how  we feel about this”, “what we need”, “what is blocking us’’ and “what could be our next move”. The movement of people working to end isolation and build community power evaluates collectively and in large numbers. People get to stand in their agency and tell us what is working, what is not, their irritations and inspirations – to shape the future adaptations of the work.

Everything becomes a learning experience.

— Saul Alinsky

Reflection happens straight after a training, an event, an action when learning and the potential to bond is strongest. It can feel like an easy step to miss after an adrenaline-filled action. But doing it this way means people can teach each other their insights and perspectives and accelerate relationships. It means that the organisers seek ways to organise themselves out of a particular role so that people in the movement can lead it for themselves.

Taking a leap of faith, as Grapevine does, a belief that structures, meaning and impact will emerge – feels uncomfortably uncertain. But isn’t that what organising leadership is about – supporting each other to act in uncertainty? There has never been a time like the present to be developing this necessary craft.

Reflection as a tool for boundary setting

As organisers, reflection also becomes an important space to check in on how we are all doing, discuss what we need as a team, and work through what this work brings up and what we need to do next. The world we seek to create, a city where everyone is connected for good, will be a long and challenging process. So sustainability in this work matters. And this sometimes means tough conversations around our energy, boundaries and accountability.

Love, Community and Power are the pillars of our work. Love is a word that is often ignored and even shunned in organising curriculum. Yet, it continuously shows up in the writings of our organising ancestors. Love to us means not to be forgotten, to be seen in all your dignity and potential. This is the heart of Grapevine and at the heart of Act Build Change. I think it is why all of us who participate in Connecting for Good (and many of us) work so well together. We can not and will not organise without it. It makes our work radical.

Love in action is when we strategize to create cross-disability … spaces. When we refuse to abandon each other.

— Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

For the folks who lead, run, and deliver the work, it can not be done without love and community. We weave our stories and relationships to create webs of support for each other and carefully work with the whole community to co-design solutions together. This is especially important when it comes to boundaries.

An organiser's working schedule is so continuous that time is meaningless… work pursues an organiser into his or her (*their) home, that either he is on the phone or there are people dropping in.

— Saul Alinsky

Saul wasn’t the best to learn from when it came to staying healthy in this work.

The expectation of constant availability, that there are no limits to the causes we work for – is dangerous and pragmatically short sited.

— Stephanie Wong

Organisers reading my rambles will know how difficult boundaries are in our work. A lot of organising is misunderstood because it can only be made known through practice. Organising is essentially an emergent practice.

When you begin as an organiser you don’t realise how little you know about your own job. How each conversation is like a ball of string with an unclear end point. How the stories people share and trust you with, will move you in ways you didn’t expect. The difficulty you will experience around the choices you must make – like where and with whom you spend your time.

— Stephanie Wong

That string never moves in a linear way. It twists and turns and can leave you in tight knots about what to do next. There is so much urgency to act and it can feel paralysing in moments – the sheer enormity of the challenges our communities are facing. This part of the work is emotionally testing.

Boundaries can be challenging at Grapevine. How we grow relationships that allow for caring boundaries is something they and I are learning. So reflection becomes a crucial part of how we care for each other in this process and understand what our boundaries are in this work, what we need and what we need to let go of. Where personal boundaries are shared and modelled. Through reflection, we acknowledge how much energy it took to get to this point and we are building enough networks to share opportunities and labour so others in the movement can rest. It is the moment where we pause on doing and return to feeling which can be a compass to guide our next steps.

5 Lessons on Reflection by Mel Smith of Grapevine

  1. Design reflection as a regular part of your practice, and allow time for it at the end of an action/training/1:1- capture learning at the moment when spirits are high and the sense of collective power is strong
  2. Ensure there are multiple ways to contribute and that everyone is heard
  3. Giving it time but keeping it focused means that during the process learning and understanding is happening – we sometimes have up to 20 people wanting to be part of the reflection
  4. Make the art of reflection part of your training offer 
  5. Reflection allows us to understand the depth and potential future design of the movement

Reflection Questions

  • How can I/we learn from this moment? (Ask this, especially in moments of difficulty)
  • How often do you engage in reflection? Could you create more possibilities for it? 
  • What do you need to stay in this work? Are there new/firmer/clearer boundaries you need to explore? 
  • How often do you ask for help?
  • Have you offered this conversation with the people you work alongside? Have they articulated their boundaries to you? So when that stirring in your belly arises of “Am I asking too much of this person?” they have been given the dignity and trust to answer it for themselves.

This blog was authored by Stephanie Wong and Mel Smith, with support from Clare Wightman, the wisdom of Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha and Saul Alinsky and the work and trust of everyone in the Connecting for Good Movement.

This is the sixth in a series of posts about our work with Grapevine:

  1. How do we connect each other for good?
  2. Building powerful relationships
  3. I heard it on the grapevine
  4. Who is really leading?
  5. A lesson on how to build the institutions we need for the futures we seek
  6. Reflection as radical
  7. Biscuits, cuppas and megaphone actions