How to start your own grassroots activist collective

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How to start your own grassroots collective

Amanda Wilson and Dan Sawyer have both been involved in activism and organizing in the Ottawa area for a long time, and they are members of a small anti-authoritarian group called the Punch Up Collective. In recent years, they have found that many people they talk to want ways to work together with others for social change, but in our disconnected, fragmented, neoliberal age have few options to do so. They believe that one possibility that could work for almost anyone is to get together with a handful of other people with whom you share political values and priorities, and form a collective. Scott Neigh interviews them about collectives in general, about Punch Up in particular, and about their work to support other people in forming collectives of their own.

These days, a lot of us are looking for answers -- The world is in an awful state, and it's hard to know what to do about it. Of course for many people who face the worst aspects of our violent and precarious world, survival itself is a crucial form of resistance, as is helping friends and family and loved ones to survive. Many of us also respond as best we can to the urgent exhortations to click and sign and give that constantly appear on our social media feeds, and go when we can to a protest or demonstration.

But for a lot of us, there is this nagging sense that getting to the root of things will take more than this, and that that more needs to mean working in a sustained and collaborative way with other people. But if we're wary of joining a political party, and if we don't already belong to, say, a union that encourages rank and file engagement or a church with a strong social justice tradition, it's not clear exactly how to go about working with others to change the world.

Moreover, in the experience of Wilson and Sawyer, much of the grassroots activism and organizing that happens in Ottawa – as in many places – primarily involves short-lived issue-based groups, often in the context of broader grassroots networks that are also very fluid and often quite transient. Such groups and networks sometimes do important grassroots work, and at certain moments have contributed to urgently needed victories, but it's also an approach to activism and organizing with some down sides.

The Punch Up Collective formed about four years ago after Sawyer, Wilson, and the two other soon-to-be collective members had some discussions about their shared interest in figuring out a new way of engaging with activism and organizing. They all wanted to be working with a group in a sustained way. They wanted that group to operate in ways oriented towards the long term. And the wanted a way of doing things that offered more scope for being deliberate about things like decision-making, accountability, strategic direction, and just being good to one another in the course of the work. For them, that meant forming a small, closed collective.

Their work so far has largely consisted of a range of activities to support and grow grassroots organizing capacity in the Ottawa community. To that end, they have done things like hold a number of workshops to provide opportunities for peple to build organizing skills. And recently, they launched an elementary but crucial piece of local movement infrastructure, a weekly email newsletter called Radical Events Ottawa, that aims to provide a one-stop resource for people looking to get connected with a broad range of grassroots events, actions, and organizations in the community.

This is the context for their efforts to help people develop the ideas and skills they need to form their own collective – that is, a small group of people working together in deliberate, organized, and non-hierarchical ways on something that they all believe is important. They started by doing lots of reading on the topic, and drew on both that and their own extensive experience in grassroots movements to develop a workshop. They have offered the workshop themselves to people in the Ottawa area. As well, they wrote an article on the topic for the magazine Briarpatch. And they have published the full curriculum for the workshop on their own Tumblr site, in the hopes that other people in other places might take it up and adapt it to their own needs.

Though collectives are not the only organizational form we need in struggles to change the world, the members of Punch Up argue that it is a form that is well suited to our current moment, in which we are increasingly fragmented and isolated from one another but yearning for ways to come together. Not only is forming a collective something most of us could do, it also allows us to tap into that magic of human sociality whereby even just half a dozen people working together can accomplish far more than the same number of people working on their own. Forming collectives will not only help us do more in the present but it is one achievable and important first step towards building powerful movements.

Image: The image modified for use in this post was produced by Wonder woman0731, in accordance with its license.


Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow them on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

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