How we demanded a more Just, Democratic and Sustainable Economy
On the 28th of March 2015, one thousand people gathered in Central London to discuss some of the most urgent questions facing our generation: what crises do we face? What would a fair and sustainable alternative to those crises look like? What kind of movement will it take to put that alternative in place?
The resulting event, named This Changes Everything UK, was coordinated by an independent group of around twenty activists.
Excited by Naomi Klein’s vision and emboldened by the groundswell of action around ecology and austerity, the 28th of March was about taking the next step – we wanted to try comprehend the links between our multiple crises, sketch a vision for a common solution, and start talking about how we can come together across our movements to activate it.
The unofficial motto for This Changes Everything UK was: “not another conference.” We wanted to make a day that was more innovative, imaginative, participatory and open – without sacrificing efficiency, dynamism and political focus.
Achieving these ideals was and remains a massive challenge. What we pursued is only one possible approach out of many, and we encourage others to experiment with their own ideas for innovative events that can bring our movements together.
These don’t have to be overly ambitious or laborious; events can include book clubs, film screenings, interactive workshops on alternatives, or town-hall meetings of different groups working for climate and social justice. It’s up to you to decipher what’s best within your own local context!
What follows is an overview of how we approached aspects of organising the event – intended as a series of reflections in the hope that it is useful to groups keen to hold events inspired by the This Changes Everything book and film.
We are happy to share more ideas, so if you have any questions, feel free to reach us at: email@example.com
Structure of the Day
This Changes Everything UK was designed for specific purposes. We wanted the day to be both educational and inspirational, and address three themes:
- Crisis: How a single international system causes poverty, environmental destruction, climate change, and war.
- Vision: How we transform the world to achieve peace, equity, equality, democracy, and sustainability.
- Movement: How we build bridges between our campaigns to create a united, grassroots movement for a future that is healthy, fair and sustainable.
Each theme would be dealt with during a portion of the day. Crisis and Vision would be explored in large sessions taking place in a main hall, and Movement would be explored through interactive, break-out workshops. The day would end with a rallying closing session back in the main hall, which would attempt to bring all the conversations together.
Here’s a brief overview what the final schedule looked like:
09:40–10:20: A talk and Q+A with Naomi Klein (via video chat)
11:20–11:40: Access Break
11:40–12:40: Vision — an interactive session
12:40–13:40: Lunch Break
13:40–16:30: Movement Workshops (with a break in between)
16:30–16:50: Access Break
16:50–18:00: Closing session
Two-thirds of the day were made up of plenary sessions, with the remaining third devoted to workshop discussions. In the feedback we received after the event, people expressed preferences for different sections. Some people preferred the sessions that took place in the large hall, whilst others enjoyed the more intimate participatory format of the workshops.
A challenge with a large event like This Changes Everything UK is that participants will come from very different places. Some participants had never been to an activist event before, and others had decades of activism behind them. Whilst it is impossible to design an event tailored immaculately to everyone’s needs, it’s important to be aware of your audience before the day and craft your programme accordingly.
1. Crisis and vision series
For these two sessions, we selected speakers that could illustrate a range of viewpoints to bring breadth to the discussion. The session on Crisis had contributions from Natalie Bennett (leader of the Green Party), John Broderick (climate researcher from the Tyndall Centre), John Hilary (Executive Director of War on Want), Lidy Nacpil (Coordinator of Jubilee South) and Neil Faulkner (academic and historian). In the session on Vision, there were contributions from Kate Pickett (author and epidemiologist), Paul Mason (journalist, author and economics editor for Channel 4 News), Kate Raworth (economist), Ruth London (activist with Fuel Poverty Action), Howard Johns (director of Southern Solar), Nnimmo Bassey (Health of Mother Earth Foundation) and Raoul Martinez (filmmaker and author).
The range of voices meant that the sessions could cover the various aspects of the crises we face and the alternatives we need to fight for, and the contributions of Nnimmo Bassey and Lidy Nacpil lent an important international dimension.
Each speaker was given five-six minutes. The remaining time was allocated for audience participation in the form of questions or comments, and speakers were given one-two minutes to respond to audience members at the end.
2. Movement Workshops
In order to be consistent with our dominant themes of joining up efforts and “breaking down silos”, we decided not to have separate workshop sessions hosted by various organisations. Rather, we decided to break the audience out into different groups, but with each group going on to discuss movement-building. Under this topic, participants would engage with questions such as: How do we build a mass movement capable of ensuring democracy, equality and survival? How can we win? What kind of tactics can bring our movements together?
Each workshop had a facilitator responsible for guiding the discussion and moderating it. We also invited two or three representatives from diverse political organisations (from unions to NGOs to political parties to grassroots community groups) to act as core participants in the conversation – all this meant was they could sit in the room and enrich the conversation.
We wanted the workshops to be more than talking shops. With that in mind, each workshop had a consensus-builder tasked to identify points of consensus or majority agreement. These points, from eleven different workshops, were then communicated to an organiser who tried to synthesise them into a short text that was presented in the closing session.
To prepare the workshops we had a training evening to gather our facilitators and go through the format of the workshop. Most of the selected facilitators were people with experience of leading workshops or audience-driven discussions.
Here is an excerpt from the guide we gave to facilitators:
We want the workshops to achieve three key objectives:
PARTICIPATION – a forum for meaningful discussion which helps build new relationships and can be useful for everyone both within TCE and the wider movement
EDUCATION – a space to learn from the collective experience represented in the room. Encouraging us to reflect about how we can build our strength as a whole movement and help each other
ACTION – a constructive, focused discussion able to produce some degree of consensus not just within but between workshops, sketching the broad strokes for joint action moving forwards (the key questions for this are marked in bold and workshop speakers will speak in response to them.)
For more information, feel free to take a look at the workshop guide we made for facilitators here.
3. Final plenary
The final plenary was more inspirational than informative, meant to be a rallying point for the day. Our speakers were Russell Brand, Francesca Martinez, Mark Serwotka (Secretary-General of the Public and Commercial Services Union), and Asad Rehman (Friends of the Earth). We also took the opportunity to present a summary of the loose consensus that emerged from the different workshops.
This Changes Everything UK was organised by an independent network of twenty activists. All of us came from different organisations (Friends of the Earth, War on Want, Young Greens, Brick Lane Debates, Occupy Democracy, Join the Dots), and had never worked together beforehand.
Once we had set up the organising team, we took all major decisions by a majority vote, settling matters by consensus and compromise wherever possible.
We also had two part-time (who became essentially full-time) organisers that worked on the event in the two months up to the 28th March. It took around three months to organize the event, which was enough time, but it all depends on the scale and ambition of the event you’re planning and on the amount of time you’ll need to fundraise. It may take far less time to organize smaller events.
During the organising process, we found that differences of emphasis could arise, making consensus elusive. We’re still learning on how to best navigate these differences, but here are a few recommendations we feel could be useful for others initiating this process:
Firstly, it was crucial for us to maintain a joint vision, articulated on paper, of what we were trying to accomplish. We all shared a belief that we were going to try to bring movements together, not replace the work that others were doing. We all shared a belief that we wanted to articulate a radical but inclusive perspective on climate and social justice, and work to make this mainstream. We all wanted a large event that would be participatory, diverse, and useful – not just another talking shop frequented by traditional crowds.
Having a diversity of perspectives is an enormous asset, and embodies the kinds of conversations we need to be having.
Ultimately, some people are eager to get involved in intensive direct action, some people are mostly interested in devoting their time to a very specific campaign, some are interested in party politics, others are only just getting to grips with issues. Recognizing everyone’s needs is elementary, particularly when you depend so much on volunteers.
Diversity & Outreach
Right from the genesis of the project there was an impetus amongst the organisers to make sure there would be a different and more representative audience on the day. To ensure this, we emailed particular groups we wanted to see there, offering batches of free tickets. We held a few workshops at schools, and offered interested students free tickets. We also priced tickets progressively [see Tickets and Pricing section below], to make sure that money would not be an obstacle for those wanting to attend.
Nonetheless, there are significant limitations to the diversity yielded by mere outreach and progressive pricing. Genuine diversity is not just about ratios, or different faces at events. It’s about centering the voices and perspectives of marginalized peoples. If we want our movements to be actually representative of our diverse societies, then that diversity has to be embedded into the way we organize. Without that, your approaches, your organizing procedures, and the agenda of your event, will be skewed by the inevitable blindnesses and biases of those at the fore. Not taking this seriously enough and addressing it was arguably the most significant flaw of our process.
Choosing the venue is a crucial part of organising any event, and we settled on Friends House in Euston after a long process of research and discussion. It ended up being the only option that was affordable, centrally located, could accommodate a thousand people, and was close to break-out spaces.
But our final venue choice went against an intention we had started out with: initially, we did not want to use a venue that carried strong associations with political activism. One of the main challenges facing our movements is outreach and inclusion – how do we bring new people in? How do we galvanize people alienated by old-school political activism? How do we reach those outside conventional activist circles? If we need everyone to change everything, how do we start mobilizing everyone?
There are no easy answers to these questions, but rethinking the spaces in which we organize and come together is one way to begin grappling with that challenge. We would like to see concert halls and art venues repurposed and reimagined to host creative political events. With more time and resources, we would wanted to incorporate art and music into the day.
Speakers and “big names”
Many people have asked us how we assembled our line-up, and how we got “big names” like Russell Brand and Naomi Klein to speak at the event.
We got Naomi through contacting her team and Russell Brand through a personal connection of one of the organisers. We were very lucky to get them to speak as they’re swamped with requests and only say yes to a small fraction of the ones they receive!
It’s important to stress that whilst “big names” can be useful in attracting an audience and lending credence to what you’re doing, getting them to come to your event shouldn’t be an overarching objective. Not only are there plenty of exceptional speakers everywhere if you look, but the real value of these events comes from the contributions of participants themselves. Knowing this, we planned the event before we had confirmation of any ‘big names’, and we would have gone ahead without them. Ultimately, the movement we need won’t be built by celebrity status; it’ll be built by all of us.
It may also be useful to think of speaker appeal beyond celebrity. Beyond the instantaneous appeal of a famous figure, people are more interested in enriching conversations or challenging debates. Watching union bosses interact with environmental campaigners, urban planners with artists, frontline community leaders with extraction advocates, carries an appeal irrespective of the “celebrity” of the speakers.
One of the core values we prized for the day was participation. Many of the organisers had negative experiences of top-down conferences and gatherings, where audience members are repeatedly spoken down to, rather than offered a platform to voice their ideas, and we were very keen to break away from this model.
It’s no easy task to make genuine participation work in 1000-strong plenary sessions and we’re still learning what works best. Conventional audience participation, which usually involves allowing people to ask questions with a microphone, presents problems. If you open up participation in a plenary only to those comfortable speaking in front of a thousand people, you tend to get a small handful of people with the necessary confidence.
To mix up the contributions from participants, we encouraged people to tweet in questions and comments or write them down on pieces of paper handed out by stewards. For the workshops, we carefully selected facilitators that had experience moderating interactive, audience-driven discussions.
Despite these endeavours, there is much more we need to do to hone participation at our events. Within the workshops that took place on the day, people with experience and confidence tended to speak up more and dominate discussions, and concerns were raised about the limited length of time given to participants in the large plenary sessions.
Event costs & fundraising
The event cost around £11,000 (US$16,440) – this covered venue hire, tech hire, printing costs for materials, and the wages of part-time organisers. This was a shoe-string budget, and with greater resources, we would have invested in advertising, access and a more suitable venue. A few members of the organising committee loaned money to kick-start the project and put down the venue deposit, and we also received a few grants – the rest we fundraised through ticket sales and donations.
To get a better idea of the costs associated with the event, you can view our accounts and budget here.
Tickets and pricing
We sold tickets both through an online platform (Ticket Tailor), and in physical form at relevant events (the Time to Act Climate demonstration in London for example). We also made a decision to price our tickets in a progressive way would allow for the widest variety of people to afford attending. You could purchase a ticket for free, for £2, for £5, for £10, for £25, and for £50. Around one-fourth of the tickets we ended up selling were actually free.
It’s fundamental for any event to be accessible to all who want to come. We organised a crèche at the event and ensured the venue was wheelchair accessible, but fell short. Most regrettably, whilst we had sign language interpreters interpreting on the day, we relied on a misguided assumption that all people that were hard of hearing could read sign language, something we were duly called out on. We should have booked captioning technology for the event, and hope to do this in the future.
To make the event work on the day we had around forty-five volunteers. The volunteers helped with ticket collection, registration, ushering, stewarding, and social media. Volunteers were reached, or through offers of tickets once the event had been sold-out.
Documentation & live-stream
The long-term legacy of an event is often dependent on the way it is documented. To comprehensively cover the event, we had a social media team (with 4-5 volunteers), a press team, and a team coordinating video/photo coverage.
The social media team did a phenomenal job of covering the day, extracting quotes and pictures from all the sessions, and encouraging participants to use a simple hashtag (#TCEUK). Thanks to the efforts of the team and of participants on the day, #TCEUK even trended nationally!
The press team dealt with external media requests and actively reached out to media organisations that they thought should cover the event. The video/photo team coordinated all external photographers and videographers, getting them to pool their footage so we could all share it and use it for post-event materials. In the weeks following the event, we uploaded footage from the main sessions to Youtube (even getting a clip onto Upworthy!), and also started to work on developing a few short compilations of the day, to give people a feel for the breadth of the discussions that took place.
We were also very fortunate to have a member of Occupy Democracy live-stream the event, allowing for hundreds of people to follow the day from a distance.
Video chat & technical issues
We had three speakers beamed into the main room from abroad (Naomi Klein, Nnimmo Bassey and Lidy Nacpil). Two of our speakers videoing in from abroad didn’t have the best feeds, so we arranged for them to pre-record their contributions or ended up calling them on the day over the phone. We did have back-up plans put in place for each speaker that usually involved playing a short video clip related to their work.
To avoid any technical issues arising on the day, it’s worth having backup plans in place and ensuring that someone with technical expertise is present on the day. There are few things worse for an event than having an audience have to sit through a crackling Skype feed!
Advertising and promotion
To advertise the event, we primarily used paid social media advertising on Facebook, and pamphlets at relevant events. As mentioned earlier [under Diversity & Outreach section above], we also directly reached out via email to particular groups we wanted to see there, offering batches of free tickets. We held a few workshops at schools, and similarly offered interested students free tickets. We also wrote a press release, and reached out to media outlets whose audiences we also wanted to reach.
The Challenge of the Epilogue
The main challenge after any event is harnessing the energy of the day before it begins to wane. How do you avoiding turning the post-event excitement into let-down?
We were eager for actions and activity to emerge from the 28th of March, so we distributed email lists on the day for any participants that wanted to sign up to specific action groups. We listed a few suggested groups but also encouraged people to put forward their own. Afterwards, we collated everyone’s ideas and eventually aggregated them into a range of groups, from Outreach, to Extraction & Energy, to the Corporate City (a group linking struggles against gentrification and against fuel poverty), to Opposing TTIP (The Trans-Atlantic Trade & Investment Partnership. We provisionally designed an online infrastructure to facilitate conversations in wake of the gathering, building Facebook and Loomio groups for all the different action groups.
Nonetheless, while there was some initially encouraging work in some of the action groups, the energy was much lower than many of us expected.
Through feedback we received, it appeared that many people had left the event energized, inspired, but also confused. Many participants had become more aware of the links between diverse issues, but left feeling even more overwhelmed with the scale of transformation required. They found it difficult to translate the abstractions of “movement-building” or “building public support” into concrete actions they felt they could contribute to. They also struggled to navigate or understand what the organisers had intended the outcome of the event to be.
Success in certain forms of activism is often a tricky thing to judge. It can be interpreted through objective indicators (how many people signed up? how many people joined? how many people came? how many people supported? how many people are still involved?) or subjective ones (what did people take away? what did people learn?). Looking at objective indicators, the event did not meet the organizing team’s perhaps unwarranted expectations. Few people are still involved, and the event did not spark to a wave of cross-sectional organising around climate and justice.
But subjectively, there were successes. Seeing union bosses, environmental leaders and economists together sharing platforms and political messages was encouraging and emboldening for many people. In the long-term, the gathering brought together a few people from trade unions, environmental and social justice movements who are now collaborating together on various projects. So we succeeded in some ways, but failed significantly in others.
What could we have done to improve the epilogue?
Many of us in the organising team believed before the event that the working groups would develop organically from the day itself and would require little encouragement. It’s now clearer that post-event activities require a bigger push and guidance from organisers, and much more thinking beforehand about what comes after an event.
Overall, we should have been much better prepared. Without adequate groundwork, fatigue kicks in and key organisers understandably want to take a break. But unless significant hours are put into establishing the infrastructure that follows the event, and maintaining active communication with all attendees, memory of the event dissipates and the initial potential is diluted.
The struggle to build a mass movement around climate and social justice will be an arduous fight, a marathon of long-term organising. Demonstrations, events, concerts, and gatherings are crucial, but the crucial work happens in between, and we should be careful to not lose sight of that.