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#227  Building Trust, One Conversation at at Time: Cooperation Hull with Gully Bujak

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This podcast exists to open doors, to let the world know some of the many, many things that are happening around the world to bring us closer towards that just, equitable and regenerative future we’d be proud to leave behind. And this week’s guest is someone who lives, works and acts at the cutting edge of possibility.

Gully Bujak is a receptionist-turned-activist from Norwich who was pivotal in organising some of Extinction Rebellion’s most high profile actions. She moved to Yorkshire in 2023 to co-found Cooperation Hull, a movement setting up People’s Assemblies as an alternative to party politics, with a big ambition to help build a society fit for the 21st century and the next seven generations.

Co-operation Hull seems to me to be one of those shining lights in the movement for change. It’s rooted absolutely in the local community of one of the most challenged cities in the UK: unemployment, fuel and food poverty and disengagement with the political system are all huge there. But Gully and those she works with are bringing an intelligent theory of change that rests absolutely on local people being given a say in and power over what happens to them. It’s a genuinely inspiring story and I’m so pleased to be able to share it with you.

In Conversation

Manda: Hey people, welcome to Accidental Gods. To the podcast where we believe that another world is still possible and that if we all work together, there is time to create a future that we would be proud to leave to the generations that come after us. I’m Manda Scott, your guide and fellow traveller on this journey into possibility. And for those of you interested in the Accidental Gods training program, please do remember that there’s another online experiential gathering on Sunday the 7th of April from 4 to 8pm UK time, which will be BST British Summer time by then. This one will focus on facing our fears. So if that sparks a light in you, please do come along. We also recently added another gathering to the calendar for the 28th of July; both of these dates are in 2024. If you’re listening to this later on, there will almost undoubtedly still be gatherings happening whenever you’re listening to this. So go to accidentalgods.life and have a look at the gatherings tab and see if there’s anything that makes your heart sing.

Manda: This podcast, as we know by now, exists to open doors to let the world know some of the many, many things that are happening around the world to bring us closer to that just, equitable and regenerative future that we would be proud to leave behind. This week’s guest is someone who lives, works, and acts at that cutting edge of possibility: Gully Bujak has been an activist since 2018, when, as you’ll hear, she read the IPCC report for that year, followed by an article in The Guardian, and headed down to London for the early days of Extinction Rebellion. At which point her life changed almost overnight. I’ll let her tell her story, but I came to her through an article in The Guardian that was recounting the details of her trial after her 10th arrest. But by this point she and other activists had co-founded Cooperation Hull, based on the model evolved by Cooperation Jackson in the southern US. And it was this that brought me to Gully, because Cooperation Hull seems to me to be one of those shining lights in the movement for change. It’s rooted absolutely in the local community of one of the most challenged cities in the UK; unemployment, food and fuel poverty and disengagement with the political process are all absolutely huge there. But Gully and those she works with are bringing an intelligent theory of change to the communities here, that rests absolutely on local people being given a say in and power over what happens in their own locations and their own lives. It’s a genuinely inspiring story. And Gully is genuinely, highly emotionally and activist literate. It was a real joy to be able to talk to somebody who is so on top of the ideas and the practicalities of how we make the world change. And I’m really grateful to be able to share it with you. One thing I need to say is that I asked if Gully had joined the October rebellion of XR with the iconic Pink Boat, and that was of course the April Rebellion. So I apologise to everybody involved. I did know that, I just scrambled my brain. That apart, this is the kind of conversation that I sincerely hope will spark similar movements, not just in the UK, but all across the world. So people of the podcast, please welcome Gully Bujak of Cooperation hull.

Manda: Gully, welcome to the Accidental Gods podcast. How are you and where are you this slightly wet Monday morning?

Gully: Hi Manda, thanks so much for having me. How am I and where am I? I’m all right. I’m unreasonably nervous I think for this conversation. Where am I? I’m in a cupboard in my house, for the sound proofing effects. 

Manda: Good woman! Well done. Thank you. That’s very welcome. And the key thing is we’re just having a chat and people are listening in, and not very many people. Don’t worry about the number of people. There’s only ever one. It’s just that there’s multiples of one. If you can imagine that there’s just a third person listening in to the conversation, then that’s fine. So I read a really rather inspiring article in The Guardian quite a long time ago now, in which it talked about one Gully Bujak who was involved with Cooperation Hull. And I thought this; this, exactly what you’re doing is what needs to be replicated around the country and around the world. It felt like it’s steps in the right direction. Definitely. So tell us a little bit about Gully and how you came to be someone who was speaking to the Guardian about Cooperation Hull.

Gully: Tell us about Gully. Well, I won’t talk about myself in the third person probably. I’ll try not to. I came to be writing in the Guardian because I broke the windows of HSBC’s bank in Canary Wharf, a long time ago now. 2021, I think it was. But justice is slow. So we had a trial at the end of last year and a jury acquitted us. Surprise verdict! They deliberated for two hours and decided to find us not guilty. And that’s how I ended up in the Guardian. How did I end up breaking the windows is another question, I guess. I joined Extinction Rebellion at the end of 2018, and volunteered with them full time for the next three and a half years, and that led me to do a lot of things. Probably the breaking the windows was the craziest thing, but I did a lot of things in those few years, to try and get the government to act on the climate and ecological emergency. And yeah, one of those things was taking the fight to HSBC, who invested £80 billion into fossil fuels in the five years since.

Manda: 80 billion.

Gully: 80 billion in the five short years after we signed the Paris Agreement. So between the Paris Agreement and us breaking the windows, that’s how much they invested. Obviously they’ve invested a lot more since then. Yeah.

Manda: So can I ask what led you to join XR in the first place? What had been your lead up to that?

 Gully: My lead up, I suppose not particularly conventional. I don’t know if anybody has a conventional back story to that kind of thing, but I guess what I mean is I didn’t have an upbringing that was political or environmental or anything like that, really. Ialways tell people that my introduction to XR was an article in The Guardian. George Monbiot wrote an article about exile doing their first big thing. He was like hyping them up and talking about them using civil disobedience and it’s going to be a new approach to trying get the government to do something. So just before I read that article, I had read the IPCC report in 2018, and the headline that came out of that was 12 Years Left to Save Humanity. And at that time I was living in Norwich with my boyfriend at the time, living a quiet, unassuming life. And, I don’t know, something happened inside me.

Manda: Norwich is quite a green city.

Gully: It is a green city, yeah, but I wasn’t involved in any greening of it. I was a receptionist just getting on with my life. And, yeah, I don’t know. I read about the IPCC report and that was… Am I allowed to swear? Because I do swear quite a lot.

Manda: We’d probably have to bleep it out but go for it.

Gully: No, I’ll try not to. That was just terrifying, obviously to read 12 years left to save humanity.

Manda: Expletive deleted terrifying. Yes.

Gully: Exactly. Many expletives deleted. And then I read about XR quite soon after that, I suppose. So it was like, okay, maybe there is something we can do about it. And I went down to London for the day to check it out, and that was when they blocked five central London bridges.

Manda: This was the October Rebellion, the first one with the pink boat.

Gully: No it wasn’t, it was quite a bit before that. There was no pink boat at this time. Anyway, yeah, I went down for the day and I guess, yeah, it just exploded my brain and what was possible and what people were committing their lives to, and I decided I was going to commit my life to that. I don’t think I put it in such certain words, but I did. That’s what I did. And I moved to London and started working with XR from then.

Manda: And was it the concept or was it the number of people and the idea that there were this many people that we had no idea were out there? Because it seems the bits when I was doing XR, which was the October after the Pink Boat, there was a sense of I had no idea this many people were this committed. Because it takes a lot to go and sit in the ground in front of a row of police. And the narratives that we were being fed were that there were a handful of crazy activists and they were very few, and they were going to go away. And there were huge, huge numbers. And then the opposite narrative was, you know, around the time Nigel Farage was doing his walk from A to B to do with Brexit, I still don’t know what it was. And it was like, oh, this is a huge movement. And the BBC would turn up and there were like three blokes carrying a pint of beer behind Nigel Farage and that was it. And the asymmetry of that, of the reality versus what we were being told, was one of the many things that struck me and made me realise that the current system is actually broken beyond repair. But I’m curious for people listening as to what it was, because it sounds like you had a stable, normal, business as usual life, and that basically you went down to London and and the person who came home was a different person. Is that fair? And can you unpick a little bit for us what the process was inside?

Gully: Yeah, I think it’s fair, although I have a terrible memory so you’d be better off asking somebody who knew me at the time, but that is basically what happened. I don’t think it was the numbers for me, because this was about a year before the rebellion that you’re describing. And so it did somewhat resemble a handful of crazy activists, I suppose, because it wasn’t that many people. It was still impressive numbers; they did block five bridges for a few hours, but it wasn’t like the the April or October rebellions the following year. So I don’t know if it was strength of numbers that impressed me. It was more like, I guess I have a thing about telling the truth and right and wrong has always been kind of a black and white thing in my mind. And yeah, reading the IPCC report and that being in the news for a few hours, you know, a single news cycle and politicians and the media just not not taking the end of the world seriously at all. Then on the streets of London that day, I saw people who were taking it seriously and who not only were telling the truth, which is a really painful, uncomfortable truth; they were willing to make personal sacrifices in order to make a change. So I saw people getting arrested, and I’d never seen that before. I saw people my age giving speeches and being kind of emotional in the street, in public. And all of this was really actually jarring for me. I still don’t think of myself as an activist. Definitely not a hippie. So I was well out of my comfort zone is the point, but I was strongly pulled by the telling the truth and the we’re going to get it done ourselves, because the people in charge are absolutely screwing it up.

Manda: Are just not. Right. And we’ll move on to Cooperation Hull in a minute, but I’m curious to know how your family took it as you became more deeply involved in this, because you didn’t come from an activist or even a political family.

Gully: Yeah, I suspect they were quite bewildered. But I don’t know, I’m a determined person, I have made a couple of big changes in my life kind of suddenly. So..

Manda: So you had form.

Gully: I had form I suppose. They’ve always been really supportive, I think. Worried. You know, I’ve been arrested quite a few times, and obviously I nearly went to prison last year, so my mum has had a hard time of it, I think in lots of ways. But they’re very supportive and they understand. And you know, I think everybody should be doing what I’ve been doing.

Manda: And just before we move on to Cooperation Hull, can you talk us a little bit through the HSBC action and the trial? Because I have never been arrested. I thought I was going to be outside the BBC, and I was massively more scared than I thought I would be. And in the end it didn’t happen. But I was brought up, you know, when I was a kid, the police were your friends. Nice policeman, and it was always a bloke, was the person that you went to if you were having trouble. And even after that, I had a really odd moment of cognitive dissonance when I was walking home that evening in London, to the place I was staying, which was a long way. It was three quarters of an hour walk and I got a bit lost, and I ended up asking a policeman. Actually, he was a guard outside the American embassy, and as I walked up to him I realised he was carrying a machine gun. Oh, I’m about to walk up to an armed police officer, this is not clever. But I was just asking, yeah, I’m lost what’s the way home? And he was completely nice and sent me home and it was fine. And yet several hours previously, the TSG had been lining up, putting their gloves on, and I was completely terrified. And you’ve gone through, obviously, because I only thought I was going to be arrested and in the end the BBC was not arresting people who were on their private land. But you broke a window that’s guaranteed arrest. Can you just talk me through the energetic, emotional, probably spiritual sense of that?

Gully: Yeah. That’s a really interesting question. I mean, I had a very similar experience of the police growing up as you’ve described, which is obviously a result of our privilege and our whiteness and all the rest of it. And so that, I’m sure, is a common confrontation that lots of people in XR in the early days had, because we were unfortunately or whatever, mostly white. So there was I think a lot of personal kind of private conversations that had to be had with ourselves, about the role of the authorities and the role of the police. And I definitely have gone on a journey myself in the way that I view people in those roles, from my first arrest to now. So yeah.

Manda: How many times have you been arrested?

Gully: Ten.

Manda: Dear, goodness, Gully. Right. So the first time is terrifying and by the last time, it’s just something that you do?

Gully: I don’t think it ever becomes… Well, I mean, people have been arrested lots more than me in the wider movement, so I can’t speak for them. But I would guess that it never becomes the norm or particularly easy. I mean, it’s a different experience every time. I would say it’s incredibly empowering to align your actions so clearly with your principles and your understanding of how change happens and your admiration of other movements throughout time who have done similar things. So it has been an empowering experience in lots of ways. And yeah, there is adrenaline also, so it can be quite fun. There’s an awful picture of my first arrest, where I’ve got this big grin on my face, which I don’t think is particularly good PR for Extinction Rebellion. It was also terrifying but it is a huge, energising, powerful thing to be part of a crowd of a thousand people who are all there to do the same thing and are all feeling degrees of terror and spiritual kind of rightness or whatever people are feeling in that moment. So I did end up with a big smile on my face. But some of my arrests have been more difficult and dramatic than others. I don’t like sitting in the cell. When we broke the windows, we didn’t think they were going to let us out. The police tried quite hard to not let us out on bail. So we had to go to court. We waited in the cells and went to court when there was a next court available. So we were in the cells for over 30 hours.

Manda: Is that legal?

Gully: Yeah. So they’re only supposed to keep you for 24 hours, unless they have a cause to not let you out on bail, basically. So then the judge has to decide. And the judge decided in our favour, and we were out on bail for another two years before our court date. But yeah, sorry, I’ve forgotten the thread of what I was supposed to be…

Manda: The thread was how did you feel? But if it’s not a thread you want to follow, because the intention was not to make the podcast about this. I’m just feeling that as then moving into Cooperation Hull, it gives us a foundation. And also we live in a world that’s changing. Rishi Sunak stood up the week before we’re recording this podcast, and sounded like he was really going to close down on any kind of protest. And, you know, the heart of democracy is the right of people to say we don’t agree with what you’re doing in our name; you are doing this in our name. We are paying you, and we do not approve of what you’re doing, we think you’ve got your priorities wrong. And watching all of those rights being eroded really quite fast, I am finding very disturbing and I’m guessing you are too. But maybe it’s time to move on. So tell us a bit about Cooperation Hull and how you became involved. Because you were in the Guardian after the not guilty verdict, if you want to talk about that, because that must have been a very interesting moment. When a jury comes back and goes, no, actually we think not that they didn’t do it, we know they absolutely did it, but we think they did it for the right reasons and therefore they’re not guilty. Do you want to tell us a little bit about how that felt? And then we’ll move on to Cooperation Hull.

Gully: Yeah, of course. I mean, it is all related. I told the jury about Cooperation Hull and I spoke to them about people’s assemblies and what democracy means to me and about politics. One of the main reasons we were able to have a not guilty verdict is because the judge was actually, I hesitate to say fair, but much more fair than other judges and other climate cases have been the majority of the time. The norm now is for people like me on trial to be completely silenced and shut down and not able to talk about the climate crisis or anything really. And that’s why we get guilty verdicts, I think. But in this case, we had a judge who wasn’t experienced in protest cases, so obviously hadn’t been given his marching orders, and we were allowed to speak to the jury quite frankly, and in quite a lot of depth about the crisis. And I did speak to them about what I’m doing with my life, which is based on a fundamental belief that ordinary people are best placed to make decisions about their own lives and about our own futures, and that collectively we have a lot more wisdom than Rishi Sunak, for example, or pretty much anybody in Westminster or in the main parties, I think. And we’ll never know, unless we break the law and track down those jurors to ask them what they were thinking and what swung them and what happened in their two hours of deliberation. But we were each telling our own personal stories, and I was gambling on what I know to be true from my own lived experience and from the polls. And yeah, especially just the last year, speaking to people on the streets of Hull, which tells me that majority of British people are fed up, are not fooled by Westminster anymore, and know that something has to change. And know that they’re not being represented or looked after by those with the most power. So I tried to speak to that basically and I hope some of it resonated with the people on the jury.

Manda: Some of it must have, because you’re not currently languishing in a jail cell. All righty. So let’s leave that behind us. Thank you for that. And let’s move on to Cooperation Hull, which you were doing in the interim between the window event and the trial. Tell us what drew you to that.

Gully: So it’s hard to say what drew me to that. There were a few of us who were involved in Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain, and some of the other surrounding campaigns of that time. Well, basically a few of us went to prison for Insulate Britain. So my partner of the time and some of my closest friends, my housemate, were in the first group of Insulate Britain activists who went to prison. Not for very long, but long enough. And I was at the same time, in parallel, I was kind of burning out, in hindsight I realise from XR, because I’d been going non-stop doing quite intense things for quite a while. And that was a moment for a bit of reflection on how effective our actions were being, and especially in light of coming with greater consequences to us personally.

Manda: As the laws changed and as the government became more hardline.

Gully: And basically, XR had its peak around 2019, in terms of momentum and size and it being a bit ‘mainstream’. And after that it went back into sort of more niche kind of groups of activists. So it was a time of thinking has XR had its place, more or less, had its time? And do we need to do something different? So we stepped back and started having those conversations amongst us. We weren’t the only ones, I know of multiple groups who were having similar conversations, but this was ours. We started to think about what was missing in our view, from XR sort of theory of change, of understanding how system change can happen. What in our experience, because between us we had been part of organising all the rebellions and most of the high profile actions and all various parts of the movement. So we did a lot of evaluation you know, in our experience, what did we do right, and what did we not do very well? And there’s a lot on both sides of that conversation. And we met a few times and then eventually, I guess, we were coalescing around needing to be more embedded in community and needing more complex, holistic understandings of change beyond just this many people getting arrested, this many people going to prison equals government conceding to your demands. And beginning to question what actually would happen if the government conceded to our demands. So a massive if in its own right. And then if it happened, is that the big win? I guess I started to question that as well. Then I came across Cooperation Jackson in the States, who are a group in Mississippi who’ve been going for a number of years now, and they had written a book called Jackson Rising. Go buy it, dear listeners, Jackson Rising. 

Manda: I will put it in the show notes.

Gully: They’ve just released an updated version, actually, which is about twice the size: Jackson Rising Redux. I read that, and I basically pitched it to the rest of the group, and it kind of ticked so many boxes around the direction we thought we needed to be going in. And Cooperation Jackson are so skilled and determined to open source what they’re doing. So that’s what the book is about. It’s like we have this vision, this is our mission, this is what we plan to do about it and this is what we’ve done so far. And this is how it’s worked, and this is how it hasn’t worked so well.

Manda: Can you give us a brief precis of that? Tell us what was their mission and what had they done in edited highlight?

Gully: Yeah, I’ll try to. So their mission is to liberate the black working classes of Mississippi, politically and economically. So they have this huge ambition, but they talk very locally, which is something we’ve tried to adopt. So they talk about Jackson, which is a city in Mississippi, but they talk beyond that. So if they can transform Jackson, they can transform Mississippi, they can transform the Deep South and beyond. So that was their mission and they it came out of something much bigger called the Jackson Kush Plan. And people’s assemblies have been happening in the southern states of America since the civil rights movement, possibly before. But my understanding is that’s sort of like the heritage of that idea, is big public meetings where somebody comes up to the front and says their $0.02, etc.. So it had a history of using that kind of direct democracy in their local communities. And Cooperation Jackson was about trying to pair that direct democracy space of people’s assemblies, with building an alternative economy. So basically they identified needs within the community, for example decent sustainable housing and decent food, locally grown food, etc. and jobs. And then created cooperatives to fill those needs and tried to create kind of circular economies that were locally based and pair that with the people’s assembly. So for example, by the time they’d written that first book, they had control of 40 communally owned properties in Jackson, all in the same kind of area.

Manda: As part of a community land trust, a housing trust.

Gully: Community land trust, yeah, exactly. So they were using community land trusts and workers cooperatives and building a federation of cooperatives is what they called it, to create this kind of alternative economic space, whilst holding the people’s assemblies. And the people’s assemblies were integral, from my understanding, to getting, they’ve elected two mayors in the time that Cooperation Jackson has been active. The second one, Antar Lumumba, elected a few years ago, was elected with over 90% of the vote, and he promised to make Jackson ‘the most radical city on the planet’. And so, yeah, basically we took a lot of inspiration from them and their ideas. Including what they call (and I don’t know if they coined this but this is where I got it from) ‘dual power’. So they’re mostly focussed on building external alternative systems of power via the People’s Assembly’s decision making spaces, but they recognise that the existing structures, like the council or whatever, have resources and experience and they’re not going to go away. So they use this idea of dual power; to work with the system when it’s strategic for them. Which is something that we are looking at doing, whether we engage with council elections and stuff in Hull.

Manda: Okay. So you read the book, you got inspired. What drew you to Hull of all the cities in the UK?

Gully: A few different things drew us to Hull. We managed to have a zoom call with, with Kali Akuno, one of the main driving forces behind Cooperation Jackson. And we understood what they did when they chose Jackson. So they weren’t all from Jackson, they they did a very similar thing to what we’ve done, is they moved to Jackson. They did a sort of analysis of the states based off demographics; economics, politics, movement history. You know, is there a radical history to draw on? Do they have connections there, etc., etc. I guess ours probably would have been slightly different criteria that we were looking for, I’m not sure, but we did a smaller version of that basically where we looked at a few different places, and Hull has the lowest voter turnout in the country.

Manda: Right. So lots of scope for increasing the level of engagement proportionately. If you influence a thousand people, that’s a higher percentage of the turnout than if you influence a thousand people somewhere where the turnout is 70%. Right?

Gully: Yeah. So there’s what people would describe as apathy, political apathy. I guess what drew us here is the question of (A) whether that is actually apathy  and (B) even if it is apathy, if that means you you shouldn’t ignite it, basically. I think it’s not as passive as people would make out. Like they’re just pissed off basically.

Manda: Yeah. And they’re not being represented in any way by the existing governance system. So why would you bother voting?

Gully: Exactly. Why would you bother voting? That’s something I really relate to. So it has the lowest voter turnout in the country, has some of the worst rates of fuel poverty, food deserts and it’s also the second most vulnerable city to flooding in the country.

Manda: Oh, really? What’s the first?

Gully: London. 

Manda: Right. Okay.

Gully: So all these things that sound on the surface like God, Hull must be a terrible place to live and we need to go and save these people. That’s not what it is. It’s like you combine that with what we also knew from our contact here, which is that there’s all this amazing organising going on at the grassroots already. There’s a time bank in Hull already. There was a kind of a co-operative incubator, it doesn’t exist anymore. There’s all sorts of things going on locally at the grassroots.

Manda: There was Hull coin, for a while. It was amazing. It doesn’t exist anymore, but I wanted to talk about that. I’m going to talk to Citizen Coin instead. So there were a lot of really active people doing grassroots things. 

Gully: Also there’s this thing about Hull being kind of on the edge, physically as well as, I guess, psychologically, in the country.

Manda: For people not in the UK, it’s on the East Coast and it’s quite far up the East coast. It’s not edging with Scotland, but it’s not too far off edging with Scotland and it’s edging with the sea.

Gully: Yeah exactly. It’s not that easy to get to. It’s very very flat. So someone that we met here in the early days, who’s been organising here for decades, has this theory about not being able to see beyond Hull because it’s so flat. Not being able to have an actual real sight outside of Hull, contributes to people…

Manda: Right, because you’ve got no high ground to look out from. You’re looking from sea level.

Gully: Yeah. Contributes to this feeling of insularity and maybe not being able to have a positive vision for the future, which I definitely have met a lot of that on the doorstep. But all this combines, I think, to make fertile ground. And I think people here have just generations worth of experience of being let down, and anger from that and wisdom from that.

Manda: And a sense of doing stuff for yourself, then.

Gully: Yeah, doing a sense of doing for yourself. For yourself, and also a sense of itself as a city. So it does have a kind of cultural identity and has a kind of radical history, has a real heritage in the fishing industry that it’s really proud of, remembers that it played a role in sparking the English Civil War. Supposedly the start of the Civil War was Hull closing the gates to King Charles and not letting him in the city. So there’s all this stuff to draw on. One of the main reasons that I haven’t mentioned is that we knew someone here, Adam Hawley, who we had worked with, doing some something called Flatpack democracy. I don’t know if you’ve come across it?

Manda: Yes, we’ve spoken about that. We’ve had an interview with the person who runs Buckfastleigh Council about Flatpack democracy.

Gully: So Adam did an experimental run in Hull last minute, did a bit of door knocking but ran as a candidate a few years ago and we met him through that. And then when we were starting to think about cooperation Jackson and how we might start that in the UK, he was very keen for us to come here.

Manda: He was advocating for Hull. Okay, so you guys got together and went, what’s been happening in Jackson could happen here. Let’s go for it. And you moved to Hull to make it happen. And how long ago was that?

Gully: We moved in April last year. We started working on the idea at the end of the previous year.

Manda: Okay. So you’ve been going almost 12 months. Tell me a little bit about what you’ve been doing and how it’s being received in Hull.

Gully: How it’s been received is interesting, but I’ll come on to that. That’s more interesting. So what we’ve been doing is first and foremost, we’ve been building relationships with local organisers and people around the city. Just trying to listen, basically, we spent the first few months listening, I think, and asking questions and building trust. Cynicism and being sceptical is quite high in Hull, in organisers as well as Joe Public. So we had a lot of work there to do because we’d just come from nowhere and they didn’t know us from Adam. So we did a lot of relationship building first, and then we started to dip our toes into running assemblies. So we decided to focus on assemblies first. We have this broader understanding of society and our theory of change. But the decision was made to focus on people’s assemblies first, because that could be the catalyst for other change. We need to change who gets to make decisions in society and how they make them in order to change everything else. So people’s assemblies was the first order of business, so we started testing those out. We’ve now done ten, I think. Neighbourhood assemblies is what we’re calling them. So people’s Assembly at the neighbourhood level.

Manda: Can you tell us the difference between a people’s assembly and a citizen’s assembly, for people for whom these are new concepts? 

Gully: There’s not much difference, to be honest, but Citizen’s Assembly uses sortition randomly.

Manda: Yeah, it’s a random selection of people, whereas the People’s Assembly are people who volunteered to turn up. So I think in terms of who turns up, that’s quite a major difference.

Gully: Yeah. Yeah it is. It’s self-selecting. I don’t know if an expert would back me up on this on citizens assemblies, I’m no expert, but I guess I’ve internalised the idea that people’s assemblies are more radical. The clue is in the name, I don’t know, it’s about people power. So you don’t need any involvement from government, local or national. You’re just purely self-organising. So we’ve been going postcode by postcode all around the city since we moved here in April, and we’ve done ten of those neighbourhood assemblies posing different questions to different neighbourhoods, really just trying to practice the art of democracy, the art of having a conversation. Listening, not talking over each other, disagreeing, finding points of agreement, being civil and respectful with strangers who live in your neighbourhood. Which for me is is like one of the most important things that we’re doing here, just practising that.

Manda: And how many people turn up to a neighbourhood assembly? And then can you kind of give us a hypothetical one that isn’t one you’ve been to, but like one you’ve been to, and tell us how you help people to find these social skills that otherwise seem to be eroding fast in our culture, if they were ever there before.

Gully: Well, people do have these these social skills. It’s just a reminder, really. I think what we’ve lost is the space for people to gather and practice them and the permission, if you like, to practice them. Most of the time we just talk on social media nowadays, and that just brings out the worst in you. It’s where you go to just say your opinion and not listen to anybody else’s and it’s not where you go for an actual conversation. When you’re face to face, it’s a lot harder. I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, it’s a lot harder to be so self-absorbed and belligerent than it is on Twitter. So I think people do have those skills, we’re just not practising them at the moment.

Manda: And do they appreciate being given the chance to practice them?

Gully: Yes, I think so. The feedback at the end of assemblies is always overwhelmingly positive. The challenge is turning that positive feedback into a next step and a call to action and building on that to make something happen. But the people do have, I think it’s fair to say, people have a really good experience from the assemblies. And we can all feel this thing, you know it’s not just us in our alternative bubbles who think that we’re not talking enough, or that we’re becoming too isolated and that’s a problem. Everybody can feel that.

Manda: So how many people would gather together in one neighbourhood assembly on average?

Gully: It really varies and it’s so hard to know what it hinges on. I think it hinges a lot on the area that we’re in. So we’ve been going quite local postcode by postcode and obviously there’s a big diversity of people in each postcode. But there are trends; so it’s easier to get middle class people with a lot of time on their hands and who haven’t been as let down by the system to come along and participate. And, you know, there’s not so much sort of at stake for a middle class person or a happily retired person or whatever, as there is for a working class single mum.

Manda: Who has no time to turn up to a People’s assembly, neighbourhood assembly.

Gully: So there’s all this different kind of prioritising that has to be done. So the ask and the invitation has to be different and much more persuasive. So anyway, the point is that it’s been easier to get more bums in seats in the more kind of affluent areas of the city. The best one we’ve had, there was about 70 people there. We’ve had two with about 70 people, and one of them is one of the more sort of economically deprived parts of town. But we had done it with a very well respected local organisation called gyroscope, who are incredible. They have about 100 residents in their more or less social housing. So that partnership with a local organisation was crucial to getting people to trust us and listen to us and then we had loads of people in the room and it was amazing and we had really good conversations.

Manda: And then do you find when you’ve gone on to the next one, that those people are engaged enough that they continue the process? Is there an invitation to do that? Or is it a one off event, then you all go back home and we’ll think about something later.

Gully: Well, that’s the challenge. I hope it wouldn’t be a one off event, but it’s hard to get people to engage beyond that. I think people want to, but obviously people have hard lives and people are worried about putting food on the table. And there’s much more things that feel immediate and pressing to people’s lives than coming to a people’s assembly, even if they’ve had a really good experience of it. What we are ‘selling’, if you like, it’s not a very nice word, but what we are we’re selling, what we’re offering is a revolution, really. And it starts with people taking control of their own lives. And it’s quite a complicated, nuanced story to tell. And it’s hard to get over the cynicism that there justifiably is.

Manda: And you have a story to tell about people taking control over their own lives, but you’re asking them ‘what matters to you?’ and let’s discuss it. And have you found that there are commonalities of the we want to discuss this subject across your ten, or is that again divided by other features?

Gully: That’s a good question. I mean, we decided quite early on that we were not going to ask the same question at each assembly because we wanted to get the most broad variety of conversations happening, and practice, not just for the people who are coming, but for ourselves, so that we could find what is the best way of phrasing a question. What is the most engaging way of holding an assembly? How can we become really, really good facilitators so that we can do a really good job of this? etc., etc. So there’s loads of pros to that, but the cons is we don’t have a really clear data set of who thinks what in each part of town. But what I can say is that from our outreach, so on the doorstep and on the high street, to try and get people to the assemblies; in those conversations the same things come up over and over again. Which are: people who are worried about the cost of living crisis, NHS, housing and immigration. Those are the biggest things that come up over and over again.

Manda: And nobody’s mentioning the sixth mass extinction or the climate and ecological emergency? It’s just not there. 

Gully: Not really. It does depend who you speak to, obviously. So when we did a round of outreach, we tried to put in an assembly for students and college age kind of university aged people. It came up a lot more with young people for obvious reasons. Young people talked a lot about climate crisis, employment and AI. So new technology were things they they were worried about and things that they wanted to talk about. But in the general population there’s also a lot of misinformation and climate denial here. I guess before I moved here and I was in my XR bubble, I knew that climate denial was out there…

Manda: But you hadn’t actually met it on the doorstep.

Gully: No. And now you will have a conversation like that every day that you go out and have conversations, there’ll be one person who says it’s not real, or I don’t believe in man made climate change. So it’s more widespread than I think we want to believe.

Manda: Okay. Have you had any success in, I want to say overturning that, and that’s the wrong thing. But having conversations where the person who didn’t believe is open to something else by the time you finish? Or is that not the kind of conversation you want to have?

Gully: Well, the way you phrase that means it is the kind of conversation. Yeah, that careful nuanced thing of being open to something else is the kind of conversation we want to have. We don’t want to have the conversation where we’ve got a list of facts and we’re correcting them and we’re trying to convince them. Obviously, that’s quite an uncomfortable place for a ‘climate activist’ to to live in. But the point is, I think the reason people are enticed by these kind of misinformation and conspiracy theories, there’s a lot of conspiracy theories as well, not to do with the climate. I think the reason people are becoming drawn to those more and more is because we’re not having conversations with each other, and people don’t feel like they’re allowed to really say what they really think. So the only spaces where they can say what they really think are kind of more right wing or more extreme.

Manda: Or in the social media bubbles where everybody says the same thing. And then it becomes more extreme because the loudest voices are the extreme voices. So in the people’s assemblies, has that got any better? The right wing echo chamber effect, has it eased a bit?

Gully: Well, it’s hard to say if at the end of an assembly there’s a massive change from that. Because it’s three hours and we haven’t repeated getting the same people back in a room again to have another conversation. 

 Manda: Is that a plan? Will you consider doing that? 

Gully: Yeah, we want to. It’s just we’ve got so many things that we want to do, so we’ve had to prioritise what we work on for this last year.

Manda: Tell us a bit about where you do want to go. So you’ve had your ten assemblies. How many more are you planning in new postcode areas? And then tell us a bit about your theory of change. I’m guessing it’s an ever evolving theory of change, but how it stands at the moment, accepting it might be different tomorrow. Where are you in an ideal world, where would you go?

Gully: So what we want to do looking ahead, is there’s nine postcodes in the Kingston upon Hull authorities that we’ve focussed on. So we’ve got two more to do and we’re doing them next month and then that will be a bit of a milestone, because we said we were going to do these nine assemblies, in every postcode. Then in May there’s local elections on the 2nd of May, and we are going to be running assemblies outside polling stations on election day. On voting day.

Manda: Are you going to be standing candidates? Flatpack democracy? Is that a thing?

Gully: No, no. We’ve thought about it. We had long conversations about whether to do that. Obviously when there’s a whole citywide people’s assembly up and running, it’s up to them to decide whether they want to run candidates for election. At the moment, our place is to continue to demonstrate what the alternative can be to voting in a two party race. So our hope is that being quite provocative about it, which we haven’t really been so far so this is our chance to get back to our disruptive roots a little bit; holding multiple people’s assemblies right outside polling stations all around the city is a way of being like quite in your face about saying, well most of us don’t vote anyway in this city, and there’s good reason for that. So what we’re going to do differently, right here outside the polling station, is the alternative. And let’s have a go at it and see where it leads.

Manda: Wow. But you’ve got a legal distance where you’re not allowed to do anything political within a certain radius of the polling station.

Gully: Yeah. We looked into that a little bit. I can’t remember what the upshot of that is, other than we’re going to do it. So I think we’ll see.

Manda: But, you know, it’s not a very big radius, so it’ll be fine.

Gully: We won’t be electioneering. We’re not trying to get people to vote for somebody else. We’re just saying…

Manda: Here’s an alternative.

Gully: Yeah, sit down here and have a chat with us. So yeah, hopefully that should be interesting. It will also be sunnier. It’s hard to organise in the winter, it’s really hard to get people out of their houses. So by the time May rolls around we can be having assemblies outside, we can be on the street. We’ve talked about having pop up assemblies. At the moment we have these long lead ins, so we do two weeks of knocking on doors and handing out leaflets, and we hand out about 5000 leaflets for every assembly. But what we want to try is saying there’s an assembly happening later today just down the road in the park: come. And see how that works, because I think often if you catch people sort of spontaneously, they might be more likely to come, especially if it’s a sunny day.

Gully: So that’s on the cards. And we’ve also got, from the HU3 assembly, the one we did with gyroscope, the housing charity. We had experimented with having a practical outcome, so most of them have been kind of lofty let’s just have a conversation about something big. This one we we tried saying, okay, let’s actually decide something that we’re going to do together in this neighbourhood. And the thing that came out of that was this idea for a weekly evening get together for the whole neighbourhood, where there’s going to be food which is cooked by volunteers, from food that would otherwise go to waste. You know, supermarkets throw away tons and tons of food. So we’re going to cook that into a delicious meal that’s a different menu every week. And we’re going to have a live radio show being broadcast from the space where people are eating their dinner. Which is obviously music, but also people from the community coming up and telling their stories on the radio.

Manda: Fantastic.

Gully: So that’s happening. We’re working on that with local people at the moment, and that should be launching at the end of this month. So I think I’m going to put a lot of my attention into that, because it seems like a really amazing space that could be full of potential. So we’re not saying come and have an assembly, we’re saying come and eat some delicious food and have fun. But what could come out of that if it becomes regular I think could be something interesting.

Manda: Yeah. And there’s so much background on that. When I was at Schumacher doing the regenerative economics masters, two of the people who became my closest friends were both Israelis, and they were brought up on a kibbutz. That the kibbutz’s that survived were the ones that ate together once a week, and the ones that fell apart were the ones that didn’t. But that eating together, it’s a huge part of our ancestral heritage. It’s our birthright, and we just don’t do it. It’ll be really interesting to see what arises, and it’s presumably what the people asked for. I’m curious to know, can we dive into what social technologies you use to help facilitate the meeting? So for instance, we’ve been having Thrutopian Writers Association meetings facilitated by someone who’s familiar with Sociocracy. And it’s been really revelatory at how it feels okay to say exactly what we want, because in the end, everyone gets exactly what they want, and it’s held in this container where we’re going to get to ‘safe enough to try, good enough for now’ and then we can move on. We got more done in two meetings than we have in the whole of the previous year. And so what are you using to hold the space of your neighbourhood assemblies? 

Gully: Very, very basic things, to be honest, because at the moment it doesn’t need to be that complex for what we’re doing, just trying to hold those three hours in a way that people get something important out of it. So we just use two hand signals. You put your finger up if you want to make a point and you wave your fingers if you want to agree from British Sign Language. These are things obviously I learned through XR and we just encourage people to use them. Well, it’s a rule basically that you use them, so that people don’t speak over each other. And it’s really, really basic things, but now when I’m in meetings where we don’t use them, it’s so obvious what happens if you don’t use the hand signals. Women speak less, or marginalised voices speak less, or people just speak over each other. So it’s just introducing these tiny things that can upskill people in how to have a conversation with people and disagree with them and still get things done. So we use those two hand signals, we read through some ground rules at the start, and we have them printed out on each table. They’re just basically that we listen, we pay attention to what somebody’s saying and not what we want to say next. Again, the hand signals help with that. That we look for what we have in common, that if we’re having a conflict then we focus on the issue rather than the person, and that we respect the facilitator and the hand signals and the process. So there’s also a facilitator on each table who just takes people in their points in turn in the queue and keeps people accountable to the ground rules. But beyond that, we don’t have much, as you call it, social technologies, to help them run. We trust in people and sometimes they’re a bit messy, but that’s good as well.

Manda: That was my question. But I’m thinking that for a lot of people, even these basic ground rules are revelatory; they give them a chance to speak up when otherwise they wouldn’t have a chance. How many to a table? And then is there an overall gathering wide feedback at the end, or is it kept at the tables?

Gully: Yeah there is. So it depends how many people turn up obviously, but it’s usually about 6 or 7 on a table. More or less depending on the numbers. Plus the facilitator. You invite one person from the group who’s turned up to take notes on each table, and then at the end, you invite them all up to the front and they get on the mic and they say, hi, I’m Anne from wherever, and I’m going to read you the feedback from my table. And they take it in turns like that. And then somebody from our end captures all that, either an audio recording that’s transcribed or just minutes so that it’s all captured at the end.

Manda: Brilliant. I’d like to go back a little bit. You talked about when there’s a citywide citizens assembly, or a citywide assembly i think you said.Not necessarily a citizens, it might be a self-selecting people’s. How close are you to that happening do you think?

Gully: That’s the million dollar question. I don’t know. We always said that it would be spring this year, but just outside my window is looking quite spring like right now, so I don’t think we’re quite ready. What we’ve just said instead is that we’re going to set some trigger points, like things that we have to hit, and then we’ll launch the citywide assembly rather than setting a random date. And those are: numbers of people signing our pledge, which says I’ll support the citywide assembly; amount in donations from local people for the citywide assembly; and numbers of organisations who have signed a piece of paper and pledged and made practical commitments to support the citywide assembly with their resources and people and money and stuff. So at the moment we’re working on building towards those kind of buckets. It will be this year. It has to be this year, I think. I think it will be late summer coming into autumn. As I’ve said, weather plays an important part in our organising, in our strategy. So while we can still do it outside. But it’s really hard to know if and when you’re ready to do that sort of thing. I think it’s always a balancing act between knowing that you are ready and that enough people are going to turn up and then it’s going to have impact, versus trusting that when you do something ambitious and just say we’re going to do it, actually that has some kind of magic consequences of its own as well.

Manda: And trust your own instincts and you’ll know the time when the time is right. I very nearly signed your pledge and then actually, me signing from Shropshire would not actually be that useful, because I can, you know, spiritually and emotionally support your citywide assembly, but actually turning up to Hull and taking part would not be appropriate. We don’t know when the general election in the UK is going to be, but my instinct is they’re going to cling on to power for as long as they possibly can, which means it’s going to be in the winter, which is living hell if you’re out knocking on doors, but it would give time if somebody wanted to stand as an independent within whatever constituency you’re in. That could still be a thing, which might be very interesting. Okay. We’re heading towards the top of the hour. What else would you like to say to people in the UK and worldwide about what you’re doing, about the possibility of replicating this. Is there any other corporation bracket city names in the UK arising or around the world. Anything you’d like to say? 

Gully: Yes. There are things emerging. I mean there’s also things parallel to us who aren’t cooperation communities. There’s the Humanity Project.

Manda: We spoke to them a couple of weeks ago.

Gully: You spoke to them already, yeah. There’s groups in Europe that we’re aware of, but there are especially in the north of England, we have a lot of contacts and communication with people who are thinking about doing something similar. Or already running people’s assemblies and thinking about connecting up with us. So Sheffield being one, Liverpool, Leeds and Glasgow as well. These are all places who are either thinking about it or running people’s assemblies already. Right.

Manda: There’s quite a lot happening in Scotland that I know of.

Gully: Yeah. When we first started out we were cooperation UK. That’s before we chose Hull because our vision was always for this to happen in multiple places. But on contact with reality, you know, a lot of attention needs to go into proving the model in Hull before we can actually have any legitimacy to tell other people to do it. So we’re focusing on that. But we’re putting some energy into open sourcing it, taking our inspiration from Cooperation Jackson. We’re trying to start a podcast actually soon, that will just be about what we’re doing so people can keep up to date with it and other things that we’re trying to keep people in the loop. What I would say to people who are listening, I probably should have thought about this beforehand and had something snappy and motivating. But I guess if you’re not going to do it now, when are you going to do it? I guess I feel like probably a lot of people listening to this podcast are somewhat privileged in economic or time terms, potentially. Definitely Western. Is this this a British listenership?

Manda: Um, 53% UK. But we’re out into I think 129 different countries. So we don’t know, actually, I wouldn’t necessarily guarantee that. But I think what they are is engaged and aware. I don’t imagine there’s many climate deniers listening for very long.

Gully: Yeah, I guess I would just encourage people to take a risk. It’s one thing to know intellectually that the environment is breaking down and that the Atlantic currents is whatever that is doing. 

Manda: On the verge of switching off.

Gully: Exactly. And it’s another thing, obviously, to align your life in response to that. But I would encourage everybody to find ways of doing that. It does take risk and it does take upheaval and not everybody can do it. Not everybody can do it in the same way as I’m doing it, obviously. But everybody can do something. And basically we need to be challenging each other everywhere; on the streets and in our families and over the dinner table in order to build something different. Otherwise it’s never going to happen.

Manda: Okay. That’s a pretty good call to action Gully, thank you so much for coming on to the Accidental Gods podcast.

Gully: Thank you for having me.

Manda: And that’s it for this week. Wasn’t that inspiring? Enormous thanks to Gully and to all of the people who in Cooperation Hull and Cooperation Jackson; for everything that they are doing day after day, tramping the streets, handing out leaflets, holding meetings, exploring the possibility of change and helping local people to find a sense of hope and pride and possibility in their own communities. If you have the time, if you have the means, if you have the space in your life for this, it feels to me that this really could be replicated anywhere across the world and needs to be. I’ve put links in the show notes to Cooperation Hull, Cooperation Jackson, the Jackson Rising Redux book, Guardian article, gyroscope, all of those things. So go and read them, go and explore and then see what you could do. Because the old world is over and the new world will only rise if we are creating the sparks in the ashes of the old. And this is one way to do it. So go for it.

Manda: And that apart, that is it for this week. We will be back next week with another conversation. In the meantime, enormous thanks to Caro C for the music at the Head and Foot. To Alan Knowles of Airtight Studio for the production. To Anne Thomas for the transcripts. To Faith Tilleray for the website, all the work behind the scenes and all the conversations that keep us going. And as ever, an enormous thanks to you for listening, for caring, and I hope for sharing. If you know of anybody else who wants to have real inspiration on theories of change that will absolutely transform our local communities, then please do send them this link. And that’s it for now. See you next week. Thank you and goodbye.

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