Monday 22 October 2012

The Firm

Last week on the Social Reporting Project we looked at the role of the Transition Network within the wider network of people involved with the movement. We  looked at several of its aspects from the movers and shakers to its communications system. Here is mine focussed on the Board:

My name is Charlotte and I am in Transition. Maybe I should rephrase that and say I’m in the Transition movement, or the Transition network (small n). One thing is for sure: I’m in a Transition initiative that is five years old this November.

Originally we were turned down by the Network (cap N) as an official Transition town. We then became one of the few initiatives in the UK to be unleashed, though our projects are small and unfunded and ignored by the local council. We have never been mentioned in the Network’s monthly dispatches. From the outside we would be dismissed as white and middle class by one set of people, and a bunch of hippies by another. Not “fit for purpose” either way.

The truth of the matter is however we are a group of people who would have never met and worked together otherwise. We do ordinary things in extraordinary times. The effects of what we do are subtle and unquantifiable. We sit each month in a circle and discuss our events - bees, recycling, food, films, pig club, green drinks. We are from all classes and ages, upper to lower, 20s to 70s. At our community table the proud and the meek sit down together, pensioned, low-paid, unemployed, house owner, renter, Tory and Marxist, hunter and vegan. We make ourselves at home in each other's compnay. If you asked the group: are you in transition, a movement, or a network? most would smile and shake their heads: we’re in Sustainable Bungay, they would reply.
into the fire
My name is Charlotte and I am in Sustainable Bungay. I start here because in order to write about the Network as a social reporter, I have to begin in my initiative (or one of them). Few in my group know about the Network, use the website, read the books, go to the Conference, or engage in any of the Ingredients or Tools. When I asked if anyone would like to come and hear Rob Hopkins speak about The Transition Companion last November my neighbour turned to me and said:

Who is Rob Hopkins?

When I told Rob Hopkins that he laughed. That's perfect, he said. We were giving him a lift to Norwich station the next day and he was telling us how his house burned down in Ireland and how he had become wary of entangling his family too much in Transition as a result.

I am in Transition the network (small n) because, like Mark and Josiah in my group, I have made it my business to be. I have immersed myself in Transition culture for five years. I have made contact with the people who work for Transition at three Conferences, and know them as comrades, “engaged in actions on the edge of consciousness” as the chair of the Network, Peter Lipman described it. I don’t know Peter, and yet somewhere I do. His commanding attention and presence hover over the movement, like an eagle, that some might mistake for a CEO. But that's not what I recognise in him, or any of the people who have put themselves on the line for the movement.

We know, as many of us in Transition do, but rarely say, what it is like to live in a burned house and have people be wary around what you do. The toughness and beauty and the opportunity it brings. Thanks to this awarenThe Transition Companion and Peak Money. The Network has given the Transition Free Press crew £1000 to help fund the preview issue of the newspaper, I have worked with Ed Mitchell for six months to set up this blog and received expenses to meet all the reporters and to go on line at my house. I am not in the Network but I am in the network. When I imagine the map of Transition I see dots of light in towns and cities around the country, and a circle in the West that is Totnes. I want to open the circle and join those dots up.  My business within the network is as a connector. No one gave me the job, it’s just what I do wherever I go. Just like Josiah and Mark.
ess I have taken part in discussions about
From the air
One of the most damaging effects of specialist culture is that we do not see what goes on behind the scenes. Goods and services are available on-lline. Events and entertainment appear like clockwork. Food arrives at the supermarket, petrol in our tanks. We judge everything by its show, as consumers. We are critical without appreciating the work that goes into creating all these things. Sometimes we don't care to. Once you know the workings of something, you have to take responsbility for your role within it.

This week we are looking at the Network in order that we understand its function better, and to define on our part. We have already focused several of our weeks on its different strands: Transition Training (Naresh Giangrande) Inner Transition (Sophy Banks), REconomy (Fiona Ward), as well as the role of the TN website (Ed Mitchell). Most of the staff and board members have written blogs for us from Steph Bradley on Rank and Privilege to Ruth Ben-Tovim on the role of the arts in Transition. For today’s post, I spoke with three trustees on the Board: Peter Lipman and William Lana, who have been on the board since 2006, originally with Rob and Ben Brangwyn (who have since stepped down) and Sarah Nicholl who joined in 2010 when the Board were looking for people who were deeply immersed in their local initiatives. We had three long intense discussions and though I cannot fit our dialogues within this post, this is a fusion of those conversations.

We wanted as a crew to explore the nature of the organisation in the collaborative spirit of social reporting. Eco-systems and human cultures work when all parts are in touch with each other and in communication. As a communicator I wanted to find the connections between the official Network and the unofficial network, in which it is embedded. Because no matter how you swing it: you don’t get one without the other.
at sea
To look at an organisation you need to look at its structure, and the people who take up the roles within that structure. The Transition Network is a registered charity. It has (paid) staff members and a board, as well as affiliated individuals, such as Filipa Pimentel (national hubs) and Isabel Carlisle (education) and Nick Osborne (group facilitaiton) and the Conference organisers, who work on a freelance basis (both paid and unpaid). The board has eight members all of whom have been selected on the grounds of their skills and experience in areas of economics, diversity, community, systems knowledge, the arts, inner work and employment, among others.

The board meet six times a year. Four regular meetings in three locations (Totnes, Bristol, London) and two “awaydays” in Totnes where they meet with staff over a weekend, generally hosted by Sophy Banks and Naresh Giangrande. These are opportunities to deal with specific issues and to “get their hands dirty”, as Peter described it. The subjects range from diversity to strategy to inner work, and include workshops, constellations and celebrations.

The Network is grant-funded, though a small amount of money comes from the sale of books and films and the trainings. As a consequence a good part of the agenda is around financing and fulfilling their obligations to the funders. Like a ship that has to change course according to the prevailing winds, the Board is also engaged in a continual process of self-examination. Is the Network doing the right thing? It uses the annual conference as a weathervane to find its direction in the rough ocean of the world. In 2009 this was diversity, in 2010 financial collapse, in 2011 social enterprise, in 2012 international expansion.
At present the Board are looking at the structure of the Network and themselves (there is no official term of office or a rotating chair). After two years of negotiation they are bringing a director on board who will keep the ship on course and the crew more coherent. They will also shortly be publishing a long-awaited communications strategy. It is recognised that the exciting cutting edge phase of Transition needs to cede to establishing resilient and flexiible procedures that can withstand the rocky road ahead. More hardy perennials putting down roots, than annual plants throwing out seeds and breaking ground.
On the ground
Many people who criticise the Network see it as an entity like the Government, an abstract "Them" whom we are powerless to communicate with or influence. But of course it’s not: it’s a small group of people configured in a certain way in order to hold a large organisation together and make it work more effectively. The charity structure of board, staff and volunteers could be seen as a bit clunky and stiff and behind-closed-doors for a grassroots movement that is in a constant state of metamorphosis. Most Transitioners would not describe themselves as “volunteers” and unlike most charities which are tapped into the status quo and business-as-usual, none of us really know where we are headed, or whether this "social experiment" will work. What we have in common is a knowledge that this is the best opportunity we have right now of working something out together on a local and national level. Everyone I spoke with shares a sense of urgency and a need to support initiatives more clearly. The Network however is a  small organisation with few resources, and so its scope is limited.

On the ground there is little recognition of this: sometimes there a resentment that some people are getting paid to do things that others have to do for free, that there is a Totnes mafia, a tyranny of structurelessness, that it is too academic, too corporate, not corporate enough, that decisions are being made without consultation, that the "leadership" is enjoying life at the top while the rest of us struggle unrecognised, that the model doesn't work, that no-one gets back to inquiries, that “They” should do this and that for us, should come and sort out this mess my initiative is in! And how come you never told us it would be so hard?
The truth of the matter is that Transition not been done before. This is a creative act and like most creations, has emerged assymetrically and organically from its material – a civilisation in a state of entrophy. It doesn’t fit the known industrial world: it is quirky, intelligent, frustrating, good-hearted, prolific, and not always that efficient. In short, awkwardly human.

At the 2011 conference workshop on Financial Collpase, led by Peter and  Naresh, there was a fevered demand for a workbook about the financial system. How can we talk to people in our communities about money? everyone asked. It was responded to, but with a marked reluctance to behave in a proscribed, top-down manner:
We are not policemen. This is a bottom-up movement we can’t tell people what to do. (PL)
The strong language used at the conference wasn't backed by a willingness in people to do it themselves (WL)
This is a key question: What do we want the Network to do for us that it is not doing? More than books and films, conferences, courses and resources posted on a website? Mostly we want, if we are honest, someone to take the pain away about the houses we see burning all around us and the people we love who look at us askance. We want someone to take the rap and all the responsibility. We like talking, but not necessarily acting. We are consumers and specialists, and Transition forces us to be activitsts and generalists and, more obliquely, to suffer as we shift towards a partnership culture. We have, brothers and sisters all, to do it for ourselves. And once we have figured that out and accepted that it’s just us in the room and the cavalry are not coming, what then? Is this really a client-server relationship we are engaged in, or do we have the beginnings of a different kind of organisation? There is talk of a federation of national hubs, but what about a national hub here as Jay suggested? Who is talking for the initiatives within the network to the Network?

My name is Charlotte and I wouldn’t be telling you my name if I wasn’t in Transition. I am tapped into a network of people that is Sustainable Bungay, and also Transition Norwich, that is the social reporters and their initiatives, that is hundreds of readers and conference-goers and thousands of people I don’t know and yet I know are there. It is a network of small lights that stretches across these islands, and is sparking alight elsewhere across the globe. We hold these pilot lights inside ourselves and in our groups, in our towns and cities, and when we meet up we make a fire. Every month I sit down alongside my fellows, come rain or shine. We share a language, the shape of our meetings, of core group and sub-group, the concepts of gift economy and co-operation. These came from the Network and from its creators. This network turned my life around. It’s turned thousands of people’s lives around. We walk out alone from our meetings, and yet we are connected. These connections are everything. Because a network is the dots and the connections and the people who make them.

This is not a feel-good moment in a workshop. This is for real. Let’s not blow it.

Richard sweeping up after a Sustainable Bungay Give and Take Day observed by Monty; The Happy Mondays kitchen crew at the Mexican Fiesta, September 2012; Josiah and Mark on the bus to the 2012 Transition Conference; Peter Lipman chairs the Peak Money Day; Sarah Nicholl with Transition Belsize in the Transition Companion; William Lana on the Atmos Project; Transition Conference (Mike Grenville)

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