Episode #57 Trust The People: radical inclusivity and the future of democracy
How would our world feel if our local, regional and national politics really listened to all the people, really brought together diverse views, and knew how to listen deeply to whatever was said? How would we be if our politics brought out the best in all of us, and worked for the living planet? We talk to Trust The People, a new movement to bring this about – globally.
Trust The People is a movement of community builders open to everyone sharing deliberative democratic tools to support local communities dealing with global crises. In this episode, Mags Mulowska, an activist with TTP, explores how our current system is broken, and the ways we can change it so that everyone has choice and a voice, so that everyone’s voice is heard and communities build around a sense of place and of purpose. She describes the courses run by TTP and some of the ways they have led to flourishing outcomes in diverse local communities. And we discuss the May local elections in the UK and how people can join a movement of independent candidates dedicated to bringing radical inclusivity, deep listening and trust to the local process.
Trust the People
Isabel Hardman: Why we Get the Wrong Politicians
Manda: Mags Malowska, welcome to the Accidental Gods podcast. Thank you for agreeing to be with us on this really wet, rather strange morning. As we record the US isn’t actually in the middle of a civil war, but it looks like it might still be teetering on the edge of war, which is quite scary. Where are you based? I don’t know. Are you somewhere nice and warm and sunny?
Mags: Nice and warm and sunny, just outside of London.
Manda: So I know it’s completely lockdown. How is lockdown for you this third time round?
Mags: You know, I have a better experience than a lot of people. I live in a van most of the time. So, yeah, I can be free and isolating and not endangering anyone, but still getting out and about. So I’m very fortunate.
Manda: That’s fantastic, well done that woman. I love the idea of living in a van. It sounds very romantic and I bet it isn’t as romantic as it sounds. So you can tell us about that. So we’re here to talk about Trust the People, and the ways that political activism can change the world, and the ways that politics is part of everything. So before we leap into all of the detail of that, tell us a little bit about Mags, and who you are, and how you became part of Trust the People.
Mags: Oh, well, when it’s been a bit of a journey, I suppose. I’m a social worker for children and families by background. And I’ve always been really passionate about social issues and family life, and children being raised well. And then I took a year off my job about 18 months ago to volunteer full time for Extinction Rebellion, because I was getting increasingly concerned about the lack of action on the climate crisis. And, you know, you just look around at society, and I was thinking like, why is nobody doing anything? So my job was kept open for me and I spent 12 months volunteering and, you know, I helped start an Extinction Rebellion local group in my neighbourhood. But then in the December before last, I stumbled across the Community Democracy team in Extinction Rebellion. And I took one look at this proposal that someone had written for how, you know, democratic tools and reform might be put in place from the grassroots upwards. And I was completely smitten. That was it for me.
Manda: What was it about that? What really struck you was that you weren’t finding elsewhere within XR?
Mags: Ah, well, that it was for everybody. You didn’t have to be part of an XR local group to want change. You, you know, if you were anyone from anywhere with any issue in your neighbourhood that that was something that could be better, that should be better now that you and your community deserve to be better, then here was a set of tools and resources for making that that change happen.
Manda: Perfect. I interrupted. Take us back to your timeline. You found this, and you thought, this is where I want to be. And then?
Mags: Well, it was quite sweet in the early days. You know, we we sort of worked together, putting out these these workshops, and a few people would come along, and we’d have great conversations about how we might engage our communities. And we were trying different things to kind of help the initiative grow. I think at that point it was called Here Comes Everyone, and then, of course, Covid hit. So when Covid hit, when we had this explosion of communities coming together, like a mutual aid network, they sprung up all over the UK and beyond. Now, all of these people stepping into the vacuum left by government to make sure that everyone was taken care of. You know, this was where we thought, okay, now Community Democracy’s time has come like, how can we support this outpouring of incredible energy and care and ensure that it lasts beyond the pandemic? And then carry on shaping proper change to all of the crises we face, you know, not just making sure that everyone has food and medication.
Manda: So when did you change to Trust the People?
Mags: You know, that’s a really good question. And I wish I had a more precise answer for it. I remember how I felt when I first heard it. And because Trust the People, I mean, it sounds like exactly what it is. And it’s a really great branding. And once when someone came up with it, and we knew that was the right fit for us, because that’s what it’s all about. We need to look to our neighbourhoods and communities and trust the people that we find there in order to make the change that we need. And this is a real departure from how sort of individualised we are at the moment. It’s kind of like a real culture change that we’re trying to to achieve.
Manda: Yes. And so having gone from being relatively small groups and particularly XR groups to then this concept that it’s it is for everybody doing everything and then Covid happening, how did you begin to connect with people on a wider scale in the midst of Covid?
Mags: Well, we developed our pitch kind of around Covid, you know, we were we were presenting to people talking about how amazing all of this work that’s been done is and how to nurture it and to keep it growing, how it can tackle, you know, lots of the different problems that we’re facing. And then one of the team had a really bright idea, which was to run the workshops and all of our content. We had so much content, and to do it as as a course… that was a seismic shift in the history of Trust the People.
Manda: And there is a huge amount of content. Its extraordinary. I’m really impressed. So what happened? You then began to get very many more people engaging because they didn’t have to drive to London to do it?
Mags: Well, it was always online. That’s kind of the beauty of a lot of Extinction Rebellion people and all the projects have sprung off of it. We work in that sort of networks of people all over the country and beyond, so we were quite used to Zoom when that became the way of things for everybody else.
Manda: Right. OK, but it sounds like the seismic shift then. What was it that made it? If you were already working on Zoom, you’re already working online, you were already working remotely. What made the difference?
Mags: There was something about it being a course that meant we sold it, and we promoted it, and we presented it everywhere. Within Extinction Rebellion, across the local group network. And then we were blown away by how many people came. You know, we had just under 100 coming to all of the workshops. And then the feedback that we were getting from the workshops was phenomenal. You know, something really special was happening in those places. And and here’s one of the great things about it. You know, we never planned this, but the sense of community that grows across the length of the course… you know, I remember in the last running of it, going into a breakout room with a couple of people, and them saying and then them greeting each other really warmly. And I said, well, how do you know each other? And they said, oh, we met last week and another breakout room.
Manda: Yes. And from all of the other work, because like everybody else, when Covid hit, our Zoom experience increased orders of magnitude. And I have been in many, many Zoom conferences where people are asking, how we can create a sense of community with Zoom online. And you have done it without stopping to ask yourselves how you were doing it. It has emerged out of the work that you were doing, which is really interesting, because even though like a month ago, early December, I was part of a group asking how can we create a community online? And you guys are doing it. So a little while ago, you said, what we really want to look at is how amazing all of this work has been. And so I’d like to begin to unpick what is the work that has created the structures that you’re teaching in your course that are enabling community to happen effortlessly, and are inspiring people then to be able to go out and work in their local communities? What’s the skeleton, the substance of what’s in there, the work that’s been done?
Mags: That’s a really good question. I think it’s kind of the spirit and the ethos that runs through how we are delivering everything. So when we check out at the end of workshops, we’ll put some music on and people will have a dance on the way out, like the dancing. You know, you don’t have to join and it’s not mandatory. But really you know, we leave people on a high when they finish the workshop. They’ve been entertained, they’ve connected with different people in small groups in the breakout rooms. Then there’s been sort of sharing when everyone comes back together and then we all get to hear what’s been shared. And there’s a lot of visioning and dreaming that takes place as as well. And this is really key. So in one of the introductory workshops we talk about, take a moment to stop and dream. What would your ideal community look like? Like, let’s say that humanity has come together to start addressing some of the multiple crises that we face. And it’s a year’s time, and you’re walking down the street. What do you notice that tells you that that’s the case? Like, what does it look like? Like what can you hear? What can you smell? So we’ll give people a few moments to really hold that in mind. And then further on in the workshop, and this is probably one of my highlights in the course, we ask people to finish the sentence. By the end of this course, I will have… and we get people to type into the Chat, and then everyone presses Enter at the same time. I’m watching the chat populating with like a hundred or so of these people’s dreams for their communities is just really incredible.
Manda: And totally inspiring for everybody who’s present. That’s really clever. And also then whatever my idea is, I then have 99 other ideas from super engaged people that I can go, yes, I could do that and that and that. And then I got an exponential increase in my concepts of what’s possible.
Mags: Exactly. Yes. As well as that that dreaming, I think a really key part of the puzzle that comes with it is you dream, and then you think about what am I going to do to make this a reality? And if you wanted to think like, what is the essence of Trust the People? It’s the dreaming linked with the practical, and it’s the tools and support that goes with it. You know, you can try and make these things that you’re dreaming happen.
Manda: And a lot of the dreaming, I imagine, I’d like in a bit to look at what people do dream. But at the moment when we’re staying in the realms of a concept that a lot of it is about ways of connecting with local people who may not yet be connected. I think Covid did give us an extraordinary amount of social cohesion. But over the year we’ve watched that breakdown again; in ways it seems as if it has been deliberately broken down. But that’s probably a different podcast. So you’re offering tools and structures and strategies really to help people connect. And I think that seems to me just before we started, we were talking about a book called Why We Get the Wrong Politicians by Isabel Hardman, which I will link in the show notes, because I think it’s essential reading for anyone who’s interested in why our current structure is so broken. And part of it is, that by the time somebody gets to be an MP, they have been at a very, very deep psychological, energetic, emotional level, trained not to have empathy, and that everything is a zero sum game, and everything is a war, and it’s a very frantic war, and you only survive if you win. And you win by trashing the opposition. And then you put 650 people who’ve been through that process in a small room together and we’re surprised at the result. But we’re not really. But that anybody ever thought that could work is the surprising thing. And so what it seems to me what you are doing that is transformational, and gives us a potential for something completely different, is providing tools of emotional literacy so that we can go out into our local communities and talk to people in ways that are not tribal and are not designed to trigger tribal responses. Is that fair? Is that a reasonable assessment?
Mags: Absolutely, yes.
Manda: So can you tell us more about what those tools actually are?
Mags: Yes. So and a key part of it is the People’s Assembly model, which is maybe a fancy way of describing a process whereby a group of people can come together and make a decision on something. So it’s a structured and facilitated space. The people will hear some information about a topic, whatever the issue is, and then they’ll get into small groups and think together on what they just heard, perhaps generate solutions and share ideas. And then the key points will be shared amongst the whole group, so that everyone can benefit from the collective wisdom of the crowd, and maybe working groups were formed to tackle certain things or whatever it might be. They’re a really multipurpose tool. And they’re used in radical democratic movements all over the world. And to have them in the UK, in every sort of town and city in our country is the Trust the People dream.
Manda: And so talk to me a little bit about the facilitation. So from my own perspective, there was a space in our local parish council, and I didn’t step back fast enough basically when we were being asked to volunteer. So I ended up being the person who volunteered from our local group that had got together to persuade the Parish Council to declare climate an ecological emergency. And then we had formed a bigger group because the Parish Council was persuaded to declare, much against its instincts, and then didn’t know what that meant and what to do. So we had a group. I stood for that group. I went along to various interviews. Two of other people stood. I didn’t get the position. But I’m also, I have to say, really, really pleased because I didn’t know how to hold conversations with.. I’m going to sound incredibly judgemental, but I do have a tendency to compartmentalise. I live in a village where basically, as far as I can tell, the vast majority are retired MI5 officers. There was a safe house. This isn’t exactly true, but it feels like… There was a safe house nearby. I know there is a village near here that is this, and I don’t think it is our village. But there was a safe house. They all went and retired there. They all sat reading the Telegraph and playing bowls in the evening, and they all voted for Brexit, and are very happy with the current government. And they’re all… we lowered the average age by many decades, and I’m not young, just by being here. So I don’t know how to talk. I don’t even know how to initiate a conversation that where I feel that we’re both being heard, because every attempt of mine is interpreted, I think, as being overly touchy feely. And that’s even just saying, hello, I’m not I’m really not going, OK, let’s centre, ground and shield and begin to share our vulnerabilities. Trust me, I’m not going to do that in our Parish Council. But I can go. OK, I need to know how you feel about this. And the shutters come down, and there’s terror in everybody’s eyes, because I’ve said the word ‘feel’ and I haven’t, I genuinely don’t know what to do. So it’s really, really lucky that I didn’t get that position. But if we’re going to be able to bring Trust the People to every parish, town and city in the Land, that level of conversing across what feels like a cultural chasm has to happen. And I believe that Trust the People has the tools to do that. I’m really interested to know what those tools are and how you teach people, because I’m guessing in a People’s Assembly, you’ve got a self-selecting group wanted to be there. And that’s a really good start. So how do we move within the People’s Assembly? What are the tools to help people? Because we might be discussing, I don’t know, let’s say we’re discussing the building of a new junction in the local town, and that’s something for which everybody has very strong opinions. But there may be very strong opinions on either side of a ‘Yes we do’ or ‘No we don’t’ boundary, and we still have to find ways of crossing that. So talk to me about the facilitation, how it works, what it does.
Mags: So the facilitation. You have to create a safe and inclusive and welcoming space so that, you know, people know that everybody is welcome, but not all behaviours are welcome. When you introduce the session and you set the scene, you need to sort of like carve out that shared understanding of what it is. It’s not an opportunity for people to have soapboxes or pontificating or anything like that. It kind of rests on sort of three pillars. So there’s radical inclusivity, which is the point about welcoming every part of everyone. And then there’s really listening to people. The active listening is so crucial. And we advise people to, when someone else is talking, to really stop and listen to what they’re saying, rather than do that human thing that we all do, which is, you know, mentally thinking about what we’re going to say next. And then there’s trust. So trust the process, you know, trust the facilitators, and trust each other. You know, often in Assemblies, people are doing and relating something that they maybe haven’t done before, or maybe don’t feel too comfortable. And, you know, for instance, using hand signals is a really valuable way of kind of assessing where a crowd is at, and communicating without interrupting each other. But hand signals, you know, raising your index finger to show that you want to speak can be quite difficult for some people. You know, we’re not we’re not used to it. And we’re creatures of habit, aren’t we? So that’s fair enough.
Manda: But does it get better? Do the people who find it hard to begin with, are they finding it easier after a period of time?
Mags: Yes, very much so. I mean, I remember my own journey with with hand signals when I first joined XR, it certainly felt very strange to be so waving your fingers around to signify agreement. But over time you get used to that. And it’s such a useful tool when you can just look at a crowd and know that a point that’s been made resonates with a lot of people there. You can see it visually in the moment.
Manda: So for people who aren’t familiar with this, we’re going to have to describe this, because it’s it’s a kind of a visual way of clapping that doesn’t disrupt what somebody’s saying by clapping over the top of them.
Mags: Yeah, jazz hands.
Manda: Yeah, exactly, jazz hands. And it just means ‘I agree’. And again, we did this at Schumacher and you’re right, the first few days I just thought this is seriously strange. But by the end of the first week, it’s become part of who we are. And you’re right, it’s really valuable feedback. So just for interest for people for whom this is a completely novel concept we have: raise a finger for ‘I would like to speak’ we have jazz hands for ‘Yes, I agree’. A couple of other hand signals?
Mags: So there’s ‘Round u’p where you draw a kind of circle with both of your hands. And that one’s quite a tricky one, because it means you’re asking the person who’s speaking to finish what they’re saying. And it’s quite difficult to use that one. And it can be difficult to be on the receiving end of it, too. But it’s meant with kindness and it relates to the idea about radical inclusivity. If we’re going to hear from everybody, then it means that no one can take up too much space. And the people who are less likely to volunteer to speak first, they’re often the ones who have the most valuable points to say. So we need to make sure that we get to those people and hear from them, too.
Manda: Yes. Yes. Because there are always in any group, the ones whose tendency is to talk for the entire allotted length of time. Do you find also that that becomes less necessary as we’re going through because people recognise and are able to create more time-limited internal boundaries?
Mags: Yes, I think as people understand sort of what the space is that’s being created, they kind of… not police each other, but there’s like a group understanding in space that to take up too much space isn’t OK and you need to be mindful of the other people there.
Manda: And we always had a kind of making an L with your finger and thumb at right angles. But that was mainly, I think, because we were always in classes with a lot of people for whom English was not their first language, and so it was a ‘I didn’t understand the word you just used’. Is that something that comes up?
Mags: We have a C for clarification.
Manda: OK, yeah, so ‘I just need you to expand on that point a little bit more’. Excellent. And so those are working even in Zoom? Or do you create on Zoom, have a thumbs up, and the clap, and the reactions that exist in Zoom, do you use those? Or do you use actual hand signals still?
Mags: We use hand signals when we’re in the breakout rooms. So when people are in smaller groups and they can see all of the faces on the screen, your hand signals work well. But when we’re in the main group like 90 or so people, then we don’t see them.
Manda: I have noticed recently, I don’t know whether I just updated late, or whether I clicked something in my kind of occasional rambles through the back end, but I seem to have a lot more signals available to me now than I did this time last year on Zoom. So that’s also quite fun.
Mags: Yes, Zoom’s moving with the times. There’s even an option on it now where you can, if you’ve got the latest version, you can move between breakout rooms as well, depending on going on.
Manda: And oh, I need to update, that would be incredibly useful. So we have the three pillars. We have radical inclusivity, we have active listening, and we have trust the process. I am thinking of our parish council, I genuinely think none of them listened to this podcast – if you do, please come and talk to me, because it would be really interesting. I think even the word radical inclusivity would be quite threatening. But let’s leave that aside, because there are some things that we would just have to work with person to person. In facilitating these, both in person and online, having set those as your three pillars and having hand signals. How else do you help people work towards a space where they are able to use those? So I suppose I’m thinking that what we’re doing is teaching people emotional intelligence in real time. And I’m wondering how that works as a process.
Mags: Well, we begin each session with, well, we don’t call it a check in, but that’s what it is, where we get people into breakout rooms, and so they can introduce each other, and they can share what their hopes are for the session, or something that they’ve been thinking about that day. Doesn’t matter what it is, but you can be strategic with what you ask them to think about. If you would like to help orient everybody, that’s kind of having a common goal. So ‘hopes for this session’ is always a really nice question. And it means as well that everyone’s everyone’s had a chance to sort of talk and get into the room and voice and be heard before the main event happens. So people feel like they’ve had their moment. And some people come to these things, they’re really wanting to talk and share a lot, and then having a smaller check-in kind of means that take the wind out of their sails a little bit, which can be can be useful when there’s a lot of people there.
Manda: And helps them to focus then on the things that you you want them to do. So tell me a little bit more about what the course is, what it is, what it does, what it hopes to do and what it has done. Let’s start with what is it and what does it do?
Mags: So it’s a it’s a community organising course. It runs for six weeks. It’s free. It’s online, it’s rolling. And it aims to support people with the tools of community organising so that they can support their neighbourhoods to get together and make changes for the common good, really. And it starts off with an introductory week where we run sessions on visioning, and encouraging people to think about what their dreams are for their neighbourhoods. And then the weeks after that, a rule about how are you going to make that happen. So we go from doing the inner work of thinking about, you know, your own identity and any biases you might have, and how these might colour any interactions that you’re part of. So going outwards a step, thinking about, okay, well, how do we work well in groups, how can we be compassionate with each other, and effective? And, you know, this is an important one because, you know, lots of groups of people trying to make change that, you know, that there’s a there’s a history of these groups coming undone over conflict and things. So we think that this module, the group work is is really key. And then thirdly, we have How to engage your community. Now, this is really important because we’re building up to looking at how to run a community assembly, people’s assembly, and that’s a self-selecting space. So you really need to have done the work of trying to engage with all different kinds of people. You know, look at your spaces that you’re creating and think who is missing from here? Like, where are they and what can I do to engage with them more? And then a key part of that is thinking really locally is as well. You know, the people in your immediate vicinity, we saw that with the coronavirus volunteer networks around the time of Covid, you know, people were relying on their immediate neighbours. And that’s often a relationship in our culture, that in some places there’s a strong sense of neighbourliness, but in many there really isn’t. So, you know, we need to look at that. And then finally, you know, after the community assemblies module, we have the community organising where we kind of bring all these things together and think about, OK, what next?
Manda: Brilliant, because the community organising, I’m guessing, feels quite daunting at the start. And by the time you get there, I imagine everybody is raring to go, knows what they’re going to do, has the tools to do it and just wants to get out there and make it happen.
Mags: Yes. Well, I think we’ve taken a bit of an unusual tack with the community organising module. Imagination is a really key part of it. So I’m sure that some people turn up thinking they’re going to get like a list of how to start an energy cooperative, or a community allotment, and we start off by getting everyone to remove one of their shoes and getting into pairs and coming up with an alternative purpose for that item of footwear. So it might be like a spaghetti holder or goodness knows. And I’m sure these people are there going, why am I here talking nonsense about my shoe, to someone I’ve never even met? I want to learn this. But then that’s the point. We want we want people to be ready with their imaginations and a sense of the unexpected and the connexion that they’ve drawn, because that’s what underpins all community organising. We send out all of the practical resources in the follow up email. People can take that and read it in their own time. But the spirit and the connexion that has to underlie any of those projects, if they’re going to come off the ground, that’s something more intangible, which is why we lead people a bit of a merry dance in our final workshop.
Manda: Yes. So I would consider that shamanic, which just means it works, I suppose, and very energetic, and breaking people’s internal boundaries, or at least loosening them so that they’re thinking outside of their own boxes, which feels really important. I don’t know how much of this is predicated on Rob Hopkins work of From What is to What If, but I’m sure his book must be must be somewhere in the mix. And that concept that our current way of being is a disimagination machine, and that anything that we can do to expand our creativity and expand our imaginations, and start thinking way beyond the limitations. So we come thinking that we’re going to build an allotment group, as you said, and maybe we go away thinking that what we’re going to do is create something completely different, that our local area has never thought of. Has that happened much? I’m guessing that’s the aim. Is that happening in real time as we speak?
Mags: I guess people are doing all kinds of different things. And one thing Trust the People needs to get better is, you know, finding out what is happening out there. I mean, we’ve had graduates from the course do a lot of work with Black Lives Matter, the community circle that took place in London. And, you know, looking at different things the community could do, like finding a shared space from which to organise. Then we’ve had, you know, people have used assemblies in schools. There was some incredible words shared by some teachers at one school where it was used, where they, these teachers were blown away by the students who had stood up and shared in the assembly space, students who had had a lot of personal issues and were like the last people to come forward and speak. There’s something quite special about real democracy when it happens. People love it, and people are surprised by how much they enjoy it. Like, you know, the few assemblies that I’ve attended have had that bit of magic. And, you know, you listen to all of the things that people come up with as they’re talking, and they’re really great ideas, like people are full of great ideas, and people love connecting with each other. And that shouldn’t be so groundbreaking. It’s really tragic that it is. You know, just last week I was on a course and, you know, somebody there was talking about how, you know, what if we didn’t have hierarchy, you know, what else would we have? It would just be chaos. And I felt really sad listening to that, thinking, you know, this myth of individuality, is just believed by so many people, isn’t it.
Manda: Yes, but but it’s breaking down. People are at least asking. And and I have been listening and talking to other people. We talked to Mark Lakeman back in the autumn, who created the city repair project. And, you know, they started off with one intersection that they gradually took over and then painted to make it a park, and just stopped all the traffic. And they talked to the local police. It was really for me, it’s one of the most inspiring concepts of what can happen. They’ve got Ed, the local nearly seven foot tall, big police guy, and he got to know that he came past every Monday there would be a pop up little shop that was technically illegal, but, hey, it doesn’t matter, where you get a cup of coffee and a doughnut, and a couple of nice girls sit and talk to him about their concert for freedom and inclusivity and horizontality. And we don’t have anywhere to go. How about this intersection where a public park can look all these city ordinances that are asking for reductions in crime, and more community and stuff? We would be doing that. And he brought his friends. So at the point when traffic department called, you know, said you cannot possibly turn an intersection into a park. Ed had already said, Traffic will call the police, and we’ll be there. And the police turned up and you know what? We think they’re filling all these city ordinances. And actually this is really fine. So you’re just going to have to get used to it. And went away again. And there are now 700 intersections that have been turned into parks in Portland.
Mags: That’s incredible.
Manda: From that one example of radical inclusivity, trusting the process, and giving everybody space to understand that they have agency. And talking to each other about what we want.
Mags: And connecting with the police as well, you know, no them and us. Forget that!
Manda: No, exactly. It’s radical inclusivity, means we talk to the police. It means they’re people, too. And we talk to our local politicians, because we might think they’re on the other side of a huge cultural divide. But they are people, too. And it seems to me exactly as you said, it is tragic, really tragic, that this feels alien. But the fact that it’s happening, the doors are opening, and I think it’s the kind of thing that once people have a taste of how to do it, then – the R factor. We know from Covid that once the R factor rises over one, you have exponential spread. Whether it’s a virus or an idea, it doesn’t take many people talking to their friends going, this was absolutely amazing. And here are the tools, and here’s how we do it for, you know, the entire country to get it. Exponential growth can work in our favour also. Sorry, I’m ranting on your podcast.
Mags: No, that’s fine. It’s really interesting. And that’s exactly what Trust the People, you know, is trying to to do. We want to connect our network of people who attend the course, you know, have all these hopes and dreams so that, you know, a great idea that one of them comes up with in one part of the country can travel hundreds of miles away, and then do the same magic there. You know, these things need to grow off of each other, exactly like you said.
Manda: And across the world. So that was my next question: you said you had graduates of the early courses. Because did I misunderstand? You said it was rolling, but I got the impression that there was a new one coming up in February, so that there are specific… so it’s not that you just join and follow through. You join and you have a cohort that you go through with together.
Manda: OK, so in a minute you can tell us all about that. But there have been there was those April and October last year. Am I right?
Mags: No, it was July. The first one started July, and October
Manda: All right. I’m thinking XR. So you have two lots of people who’ve gone through. Have you had feedback? And are you able have you created online communities where they can still stay in touch with each other?
Manda: A bit. We have different systems in place. So we’ve got a thing called the Hive Support Network, where we’ll put community organisers into small groups of like eight or nine, and they can get together over Zoom every couple of weeks, and then share the highs and lows of their journey. And we offer the facilitated first session, just so that we can help them get to know each other, and help them work out what they want from their hive. And how are they going to stay in touch and how often will they meet? They know, and again, this is a testament to the sense of community that grows within Trust the People. The people who have facilitated the sessions have ended up just staying on, and that was never planned. But, you know, these connexions and relationships are made and then you just…
Manda: And you want to see where it’s going. I would think that if you really managed to facilitate in a way that works, you’ve made heart connexions with these people. You don’t just walk out and go, you guys have a good time. Tell me about it next year. I’m glad that it happens. I’m also imagining it would be harder to get people to volunteer to be facilitators if you said, oh, and by the way, you’re going to be here forever.
Mags: We don’t tell them that bit!
Manda: Exactly. But the word will get out. So do we have any ideas of things that are happening, though, as a result?
Mags: Well, in my neighbourhood, we used Community Assemblies to rally the support around the Greenbelt Campaign at the council, already determined to sell off greenbelt to developers. I think there are a handful of… the single Green councillor in the local council is really tearing his hair out. So we held these open assemblies, weren’t sure that anybody would come. We tried it, I think it was the last Sunday of August was our first one, and lots of people came, and they really enjoyed it. You know, we had prepared a presentation about the things that we could do to stop the sell off of our land. And then out of it came three different working groups looking at creating a fact sheet to dispel the myths coming out of the council about Greenbelt Land, and a media working group to look at how we can make the campaign grow. And then actually, you know, people within the council would kind of fed back to us that we had really rattled them. And our councillors saying, you know, this is citizens doing stuff. You know, we need to be seen to respond to this.
Manda: Not ‘We need to do it because it’s right’. Just that we need to be seen to be, OK, it works.
Mags: Whatever route that the councillors take, as long as they end up doing the right thing. And then they ended up changing the housing figures. They brought them down an awful lot, which meant there was less pressure on development. So, you know, that’s kind of on the backburner right now. We’re waiting to see what development plans come come next. But that was it, yeah, a successful account of just applying pressure to the structures that exist. And we invited all of the counsellors to come along to the first assembly. I think two or three of them did. But the leader of the council sent me a bit of a shirty email, do you really think you should be having it on a Sunday? And it was like, you know, you’ve got citizens who are organising to help you so all work together. And that just goes to show the problems with the structures that we have.
Manda: Yes. And the people. Yes, it is the structures and then people get crushed into them. So we have elections coming up in May. And I know that Flatpack Democracy, which is … are you in any way linked to Flatpack Democracy or is it a separate structure?
Mags: Yes, we are linked to Flatpack. We worked closely together and so Flatpack and us, and another initiative which I have to tell you about, climate emergency centres, the three of us run module five on community organising together.
Manda: Ok, so hang on. But tell us a little bit, because listeners may not even know what Flatpack is. So tell us about that, and then tell us about the other, and then we can talk about the May elections, and what people can do. So tell us a bit about Flatpack.
Mags: So Flatpack is a term to describe how a group of citizens can come together and take over the local council like a wave of party politics. So it’s different from running as an independent candidate, because you’re in a team of other independent candidates, all agreeing to do what the community want. And you’ll have like a shared way of working. Normally, the kinds of things are about really listening to each other, and a real move away from that oppositional politics that, you know, things are so blighted by. And there’s thousands of councils all over the country that are up for election in May. And quite a sad thing is that, you know, so few people vote in these elections. Generally, fewer people run. Fewer people pay attention to what the local council is doing. And actually, as a local council, you can borrow money, you can take over buildings, you can do all kinds of things. But you know, you just need to be connected to the community that you’re serving, if those things are to do any good. And Flatpack is really trying to plug that gap and make sure that our councils are run by residents who are the experts on their own neighbourhoods.
Manda: And as I understand it, it began in Frome and a group of people, I think they were the local Transition Town network, but they had very different political views. But they agreed in advance how they were going to solve issues. And they told people that that was what united them, was the structure of solving things. And first time around, I think the local council had 17 seats, and they got 10. So they just had a majority. And by four years later, when they came up for election again, they swept the board. And Frome now, I think, as I understand it, is run for the people of Frome, not for the egos and pockets of the people on the council, which shouldn’t sound radical, but really, really is. So, and then Buckfastleigh, we’re going to talk to somebody from there later on. Do we have any idea how many people might be going to stand in the May elections under the Flatpack model?
Mags: We don’t actually. Like the aim is as many as possible. And, you know, they’re out there doing sort of talks and promoting it as much as possible. But how much of this is trickled down into people on the ground going do you know what? Let’s do it! We’re not sure yet.
Manda: But there is support. If somebody’s listening decides that what they want to do is to bring together a group of people to stand in the May elections. Would they come to Trust the People for the training or would they go to Flatpack?
Mags: Come to Trust the People for the training, and also approach Flatpack for support. They’ve got and they’re looking at mentoring so that counsellors who have done it can… they’re running Zoom sessions for people to come along and find out more about what the campaign took. And that is something that Peter McFadzean, who pioneered Flatpack in Frome said recently, was that he thinks, you know, all councillors everywhere, whether you’re Flatpack or not, you know, come and trust the people, you know, like learn how to engage your community. You know, it should be mandatory.
Manda: I’m not certain. And I’m sure this is my judgement, and I’m failing totally on radical inclusivity, but I haven’t met that many counsellors who actually wanted to know what their local community thought. And we have a few round here. We’ve got a local Lib Dem who definitely does. But the rest, I think they’re quite invested in not knowing. But maybe we can change that. Because I did, I stood, back four years ago, and I was actually down in Schumacher at the time doing a Masters, so I only agreed to stand as a paper candidate, because there were several seats in our local council where the Tories were elected unopposed every time. If one person had voted, the Tory councillor would have got in because there was nobody standing against them. So and I said, that’s unacceptable. And they said, OK, so you’re standing. Well, good to be here. I said, it does matter. It does matter. You’re still standing. And we got about a third of the vote, which was astonishing because genuinely nobody did anything. It was literally a paper candidacy. But even so, I found it, there was an extraordinary amount of legal hoops to jump through, and and quite unpleasant sounding kind of repercussions if you didn’t fill the paperwork in right, and that kind of thing, that I kind of thought somebody else needs to do this, because I’m very, very bad at filling in paperwork. My eye just glances down the page and I think, no, I don’t care about any of this, and i sign the bottom line, I don’t know what I’m signing. Is there help with that kind of logistical stuff?
Mags: Sounds like we need to get the Flatpack! You know, I mean we say that the paperwork is an absolute nightmare and it’s almost deliberately, well it feels like it could even be deliberately so.
Manda: Yes. I guess if you’re standing for one of the big parties, they do it for you and they have people whose job it is to do that, to presumably know exactly what box. And otherwise, I think it is deliberately obscure, or just the people who design it are so embedded in the system that they don’t understand exactly how daunting it is, which strikes me as unlikely. OK, so we will talk to Flatpack. But in the meantime, if people feel that they want to stand and it strikes me that standing as one independent would be interesting. But what you really want is a group of people standing in a number of seats so that you would have a coherent voice on the council together. You probably want five or six people in your average sized county council at least, don’t you, to get together to make a group. And that group, then if we came, I found five other people and we came together, we could come through the Trust the People course together and learn as a group, share all our notes, and then be ready for May.
Mags: Absolutely. Yeah. But again, you know, getting to know your neighbourhood, totally then the lives of amazing people, you know, we could connect people who have done the Trust the People course with you where you are. And that’s what we’re looking at next, for graduates of both courses, and the next one, and anyone who’s thinking about running Flatpack-wise to have each other’s contact details, or so that they’ve they’ve got a whole team of people they can do to do this work with.
Manda: And there would be time if somebody came on your February course, which presumably runs, when does it start in February?
Mags: The last week.
Manda: OK, so it runs through to the first week of April. There would just be time, if you’re very smart and very quick, to run at least one People’s Assembly so that people got to know who you were before the elections in May.
Manda: Super. OK, I think that’s a plan. You said there was another part. There was Trust the People and Flatpack. And there was one other thing that you said, we’re all linked together. An arm of XR?
Mags: You know, again, this is something else independent. This is the Climate Emergency Centres Initiative, which is a scheme whereby you can repurpose an unused building in your neighbourhood for community benefit, and it’s free. Well, self funding, you know, if it’s a commercial property and it’s paying and then when it’s paying business rents and it’s empty, you can agree a meanwhile lease with the owner, whereby they’ll let you have it and use it for your purposes, which means that they aren’t then liable for the business rates, and then you can negotiate them giving you a chunk of the money so that you’ve got something to sort of put into your projects. So it’s quite a nifty little arrangement. And we’re seeing groups all over all over England now starting up, which is exciting.
Manda: And are these groups that are then going to be able to tell the local councils what it meant when they declared Climate and Ecological Emergency, because we seem to see a lot of those springing up.
Manda: Right. Right. Good. And then they’re talking to each other, because that has been knocking our heads off brick walls here is like, four or five little local towns, all declared Climate and Ecological Emergency. And then they each set up a little sub-group to work out what that means. We’re going guys, we are reinventing the same wheel. We definitely need to be talking to each other, because this is not wise. So these centres – brilliant. So we can link to that in the show notes as well.
Mags: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. We have information on how to start it. And in fact, next week we’ve got a meeting between the Flatpack team, the Climate Emergency Centre team, and Trust the People are going to put our heads together and probably use the People’s Assembly format to think about how we might help our projects even more.
Manda: Magic. I’d love to be a fly on that wall.
Mags: Come. You’re very welcome.
Manda: OK, yeah. Yeah. If I get time, I will. So as we’re heading towards the end of the time, I would really like to invite you to take the imaginal journey that you invite the people who come on your course, because you must have done it before. But I would like to hear what you say. Let’s say it’s a year from now. Actually, no, let’s say it’s five years from now. Or you could do both if you want. And you are walking the length and breadth of Britain, not just your local area, if this has gone as well as it can possibly go, how does it look and how does it feel?
Mags: It’s quiet, apart from there’s more birds singing, there’s less cars, there’s people growing food, and sharing the job of growing and cooking, and eating the food. I mean, you know, when I get asked this question, I often often say, you know, I think of a wedding. I think of people from all different ages, all having a good time and, you know, dancing and eating and just going about the business of life, like together as a collective, and having a really good time doing it. You know, there’s an amazing quote by former Czech president and dissident Vaclav Havel? He said ‘we won because we loved life more’. And that’s it, you know, that’s that’s telling a better story of connectedness and enjoying life and, you know, building the change. And, you know, people don’t love having loads of cars on the street. You know, why aren’t we all coming together and going, no, the kids should be playing there, the vegetables should be playing there!
Manda: Dancing carrots! Yeah. And and if we knew I spoke to somebody a few podcasts ago who’s a climate scientist, who pointed out that the WHO has produced papers pointing out that the health benefits of us all weaning off fossil fuels tomorrow, there’s money saved in terms of not funding people’s ill health, would more than pay for the transition to a fossil free future. The WHO knows this, not some flakey left wing think tank that’s trying to influence the government. That’s the WHO.
Mags: Wow, that’s incredible. And that that reminds me actually, one of the statistics that came out of Frome when they flatpacked their council, when they came up, lots of volunteer networks and civic organisations like sort of came together and worked with local health services as well, so that when people had had problems, they could go and do some voluntary work or engage with a community group. They noticed a 22 percent reduction in A&E attendance.
Manda: 22 percent. Wow. Gotta hope somebody is writing that up. That’s amazing. And then this wedding, just for my interest, because it’s one of my things. I’m guessing that by now we have a Universal Basic Income because that’s what gives people the space and the time to be dancing and eating and growing. Does that feature in your your thinking?
Mags: Totally. You know, I’ve been I’ve been really privileged. You know, I’ve managed to take a year off work to do all of this stuff because, you know, I’ve saved up and I didn’t have any sort of dependents to worry about. But this shouldn’t be something that someone with, you know, no children or responsibilities can spend time doing. It should be for everybody wants to.
Manda: Yeah. Finding out what really matters and then doing it. It sounds glorious. Thank you. So is there anything that I haven’t asked or that you wanted to talk about or that you think people would enjoy hearing about?
Mags: I think there’s one thing I’d like to leave your listeners with, you know, so our next course is starting again in a few weeks. And if you’re someone who’s, you know, scared and worried about the state of the world and shares the belief that it could be so much better and, you know, you want to enjoy yourself, come along on the next Trust the People course. And if you have any ideas for things that we could put in the workshops, we’d love to hear from. You know, if you’re doing work in your neighbourhood and you and you want more people to know about it, like, please do get get in touch. Let’s share these stories and yeah, change the world.
Mags: Yes. Because together we can change the world. That’s a fantastic way to end. And we will put links in the show notes on the website so that people can find you anywhere to go. So Mags Mulowska, thank you so much for being part of the Accidental Gods podcast.
Mags: Thank you, Manda
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