Alternative Editorial: the Feeling of Rising Up
By Indra Adnan, co-initiator of A/UK
You know what it is, yeah? It’s not even the fact that I’m underrated, or the fact that I’m being slept on. It’s the fact that people don’t think I’m a threat, do you understand? People don’t think that I’m one to be looked out for, one to be watched. And that’s when it becomes a problem, that’s when I have to rise up and become a problem, do you understand?
‘The Intro’, 168: The Mixtape.
Another week, another plate to be spun. At The Alternative UK, these plates are not simply tasks to be completed – or the many people we chase to get a job done. They are also the many perspectives that we have to keep going at any one time, in order to get an adequately complex picture for a full system socio-political change. In order to prevent our common extinction.
Just before I read the quote above, I was thinking of the different calls to action in my life. The call for more women in the public space; the call for more people from outside traditional politics to participate in democracy; the call for all of us to awaken to the environmental catastrophe already underway.
This quote could have come from any one of those camps: describing the shift from being marginalized and feeling indignity, to acknowledging the ignorance and injustice which allows that be so. Then deciding to stand up and rock the boat, however uncomfortable that makes all of us.
Instead the words are from Stormzy, UK’s leading grime artist whose first album Gang Signs and Prayer debuted at No. 1 in the UK album charts in 2017.
Stormzy’s book Rise Up tells the story of what it took for him to rise to first to visibility and then to prominence. Yes, it’s the story of a struggling artist, but it sits within the much bigger picture of the struggles of young, disadvantaged, black men. What makes it so compelling is not his dwelling on powerlessness, but the clarity and persistence behind his strategies for success.
No doubt Stormzy and his followers would object to others identifying so closely with his early frustration. And in many ways, they would be right to. Despite all the efforts of intersectionality- which aims to find the common complaint and calls to action between very disparate groups - we are still very far from a binding narrative that could motivate real political transformation.
One that speaks to our current set of crises foci – planet destruction, gross inequality, mental health epidemics – as the plural result of our common social imbalances. Nor do we have a convincing “common platform”.
As we’ve described in many of our editorials, none of the gatherings we’ve been part of have succeeded in being truly diverse so far. Not for want of intention: everyone can see the need, even if little is done, year after year, to address it. But we still haven’t found a way to talk about ourselves, our frustrations and visions in a way that connects with people outside of our respective bubbles. Whether those are political, religious, cultural or socio-economic bubbles.
While excessive industrialization and the growth economy are seen as problems for the planet, we rarely talk about them as the cause of gender inequality. Or gender equality as the answer to a planet out of kilter.
We often talk about the difficulties of multiculturalism, but we rarely talk about diversity as a remedy for our lack of creativity, or energy in our depressed communities. Only in the arts and sports does this appear - but even there, it’s in a way that is often deliberately obscured (what does anti-colonialism have to say about the Premier League, for example?).
But reading the quote above, we know from the huge array of actors we encounter week by week how common this feeling of frustration with our current socio-political situation is. We also knowthe task to find that common cause is vital. Because when we do, the numbers who can rise together will be game-changing.
Right now, the obstacles to doing so are prodigious. Firstly, while we may agree on the need to address inequality, there are many starting points on this road - different levels of agency arising out of different back-stories. Those with a history of poverty are often described as powerless and subsequently seen as requiring management and leadership from those with more material resources.
But like any other categorised community, they have their own diversity amongst them. Some will find their inner compass and make their way successfully through life; others willbe fully defeated by the current system that instrumentalises them for the growth economy. Implied within that is the diversity of our emotional lives – how we experience our daily realities in very personal, unique ways.
There is no single demographic called ‘the poor’ – or, for that matter, ‘the women’, ‘the Leavers’ or ‘the migrants’. Or, indeed, ‘the youth’. And social media constantly further fragments these categories by giving people the chance to express their own, unique way of being within groups - but also to stand outside them.
We are in an era of universalself-expression, something that is often derided by the media as superficial and selfish. But if we have experienced first-hand the lack of freedom or inability to express the self, then self-expression not something we should lightly reject.
Facilitation Is The New Front-Line
Some people reading this will be dismayed: does that mean that solidarity is impossible? How can people come together if the more they take part in the public sphere, the more they discover the complexity of their relationships – how easy it is to offend others, take them for granted, mistake their needs and wants?
Maybe it’s time for us to radically develop our understanding of emotional needs alongside material needs. But where are the forums to do that? It can’t satisfactorily be done on-line(the emotions that flame across these spaces are often intemperate, reactive and destructive).
At A/UK, our sense is that we can all be driven by a wide variety of passions and interests, while at the same time finding important common cause with the people who live where we live. That town, city or region you wake up in every morning is shaped, in infinitely subtle ways, by the people who share it with you. Their networks of businesses, their shops and resources, their care and security are yours too. Their environment is yours.
And in each of these communities, there is a huge diversity of styles, capabilities and histories that might be prepared to find relationship because of their common place they find themselves in. But it won’t happen easily, without a well-thought out process, led with experience yet owned by the people themselves.
In a New Yorker article on the Swedish ‘Alternative’ Party - named The Initiative but part of the Alternativet network - the journalist noted that facilitators are the front-line activists of our time. We no longer live in an age when just speaking up is enough. Those who want to see change happen must help to give voice to others, in ways that help them find relationship between them.
This is the difference between the breakdown of society – caused by infinite fragmentation - and the social awakening of the people.
If skillfully done, facilitation allows emotions to be expressed in a room full of people, in ways that help them be shared and processed. Surprising connections are made between people that previously considered themselves opposed to each other because of established political or issue-based differences.
These connections can be personal, such as a shared fear of technology, or a love of gardening. Or they can be communal, when people across a room dream of more time in their daily lives to spend freely. Or they canfind a common desire to do something about the destruction of their environment.
When Extinction Rebellion met on Westminster Bridge last week, there was enough ‘listening’ in the space, for the activist and publisher Jamie Kelsey-Fry to initiate circles of discussion, as if it were the early stages of a People’s Assembly. While he borrowed a lot from the Occupy movement’s practices, it was noticeable how much more confident and informed these circles were than ten years ago. Development never stops when social media continues to share and inform.
When The Alternative UK is invited into a community to do a collaboratory, we are responding to the call to help create the conditions for self-organisation to happen.
We look for facilitators from within the community. We design the process with a diversity of key actors – from civil society groups to positive deviants, local people taking new initiatives – and try to source food and drink from local producers. Local artists play their part in unlocking the creativity in the room. It’s always a friendly space that whoever walks into can feel energized by.
These are spaces that distinguish themselves from gatherings where rows of chairs facing a top-table, where people have no opportunity to relate to each other but only listen to the opinions of remote experts. But we also distinguish ourselves from scheduled gatherings in pubs or open spaces, where the loudest voices can harness the emotions of the room and lead people, without pausing for engagement or deliberation.
We design for listening, engagement and concrete actions to be agreed. It’s about stepping up to a new kind of organic citizenship, one which arises out of the yearning of people to be more in control of their lives, by coming together.
Co-creating these spaces, it is not difficult to read Stormzy’s words and identify with them. Not just with the frustration of feeling ‘slept on’ by the centres of power who have no mechanisms for listening to the people, or engaging them. But with the feeling, when people find each other, of the possibility – and the urgency - of rising up.