the need for self awareness

Compass recently published this article by Liam Barrington-Bush.

He raises some interesting points although kind of mixes actual radicals with more moderate progressive types in order to make his point.

The essential thrust of the article is two fold – the first I agree with wholeheartedly, it is absolutely correct to say that organisations that work for social change are reflective of wider society and still far too dominated by straight white males often from a middle class degree educated background. I would add that this is the case even in local community groups, certainly in London for instance, and it’s certainly the case on the radical left and the Labour party.

Things are slightly better in the trade union movement than other areas although not by much.

The second key point in Liam’s article is a bit less helpful – step back in favour of new people, he demands of charity executives and NGO and union managers. Give up your jobs in favour of others who are more representative of the people you are supposed to be working for.

Fair enough. There is nothing wrong with making really radical demands in order to highlight that something needs to be done – in the same way New Labour used to get “mad” Frankie Field to float radical welfare reform ideas in order to make their eventual reforms seem a bit more humane.

In reality though the article does not really offer any strategy for genuinely building more representative organisations. Simply pointing to how anarchists (of course a hugely successful social movement!) do things is not an answer.

I think to some extent unions and organisations like Citizens UK actually show the way – certainly in UNISON we encourage self organisation by members around specific shared identities which has clearly provided a space for women, black members, LGBT members, and disabled members as well as young members to bring about changes to the way we work and develop themselves as leaders not just within identity silos but within the wider union.

Just as important though is the organising approach. The entire concept of organising is about empowerment, about working with people to develop their potential as leaders  within the workplace or community. Supporting people to find their own voices so they can articulate their own self identified needs and desires.

In over 16 years of involvment in social movements union and community organising approaches are the only methods I have seen that can effectively address the issues that Liam is talking about.

This is very much in line with the leader in every chair approach Liam refers to in his article. But it hasn’t come about because of nice middle class striaght white men have voluntarily stepped back, but because the very people it benefits fought for it and indeed were often the innovators of it in the first place (community organising in the States).

Having said all that – Anarchists in the Boardroom (  ) is well worth a read for anyone who works in a big social movement organisation. It contains a lot of tips for speeding up the process of change.



  1. Thanks Mat.

    Appreciate the thoughts!

    Yes – I definitely put this out there to be challenging. But I’m also not alone in doing so. There is a growing range of voices – particularly from less-represented communities, who are making similar points. (e.g. – My worry emerges when it is primarily those who have benefited from privilege that end up arguing that in spite of all the ways people like you and I may benefit from a system, that our own particular roles are justified, in spite of the wider analysis of the problem.

    There are two levels this worries me at: 1) the cognitive dissonance between what we openly highlight as a problem, and what we do about that, and 2) the subconscious reinforcement of the old ‘white saviour’ narrative – that ‘we are in these positions of power and it is our responsibility to free the less fortunate of the world’ complex…

    I fundamentally believe that the people most affected must be at the forefront of their own liberation, and that the structures we’ve (as in, primarily white men of privilege) built up, make it infinitely harder for others to take on that leadership. I wouldn’t say the ‘get out of the way’ approach is an absolute, 100% of the time answer, but it is an important one to have in the mix. We’ve had several decades of progressive-but-privileged leaders talking about making space for others, but it is still a tiny number of exceptions when this has actually manifested as a chance in who runs an institution, and who gets what jobs.

    Too often the conversation about representation in decision making circles is either not had, or had in a superficial enough way to avoid change happening, consciously or subconsciously. And the result is that many, many institutions that continue to not have their supporters’/ members’/ communities’ interests in their decision making processes.

    My slightly-less-ambitious idea of challenge would be this: if you are in a position of privilege in your job, how often do you *actively* challenge colleagues or partners on subtle forms of discrimination when you see them taking place, like a man talking about a woman you work with, in private, about her looks or her choice of clothes, rather than her skills, her work, her abilities? Or passing someone over for a job because of their accent or the kind of English they speak (even if the job involves interacting w/ posh folks who are more discriminatory themselves)?

    …And those are more obvious examples. How often are we even aware when a range of these things are happening? I work a lot around the areas of prejudice and privilege and still am semi-regularly reminded or made aware of subtle forms of discrimination that would never cross my mind, because I’ve never had to experience them. A tone of voice, a look, a way of holding a meeting… all of these things can be loaded with subtext. Which simply means I will always be less sensitive to the need to challenge a range of behaviours than someone who has experienced the costs of those behaviours themselves. I can get better at it, through conversation, listening, self-awareness, etc, but the learning curve, to get my head around a lifetime of experiences that someone less-traditionally privileged than I am would bring into a role, is immense.

    Also – I’d like to think I pointed to a pretty significant range of how other, non-institutional groups organise; from the tech world, to indigenous communities… anarchists were simply one of my examples of alternative approaches.

    I agree that community organising is a powerful model, though it can definitely be done in a more or less top-down way. Alinsky has been criticised for placing too much emphasis on the role of outside organiser, with some arguing that this approach still mimics elements of a service user/provider model…

    Anyway – I’m sure we’ll be able to pick this up again!

    Good challenge!


    PS – the link to my site is to a blog I wrote a couple of years ago, which ended-up becoming my book title… here’s the link to the book:


  2. Fair enough – I do appreciate where you are coming from and am very sympathetic to some of the intersectionalist points. Especially being a male organiser for a 78% women union.

    However I do think that we are moving in the right direction, and that part of that is that many of our activists and organisers do for want of a better phrase check their privilige from time to time.


%d bloggers like this: