The ‘soft’ side of activism: giving ourselves an advantage…

When I was working in social policy and employment, I would frequently be told or read that what ‘disadvantaged’ individuals need is more social capital and soft skills – sometimes soft skills fit under the umbrella of social capital. The point being made was that the right people connections and the ability to connect confidently and effectively with people, e.g. in a job interview, are as important as formal qualifications to succeeding in the world of work. Lately, I’ve been thinking about social capital and soft skills, but in a new light. The questions I’m currently playing with are: What kind of social capital and soft skills most nurture inspired (in spirit) social change activism? Are we giving enough attention to developing these resources in ourselves and our communities/movements?

When I was working in the arena of workplace equality and I kept coming back the questions of ‘What are we trying to do here?’ and ‘What do we think is the most effective path the follow?” Where I was going with these questions is to try and understand: Were we – social policy people – trying to change the nature of the game or were we wanting to ensure that everyone had a fair shot at the game? Were we wanting to advise on how to support people to play the game better?

This question is totally not unique to workplace equality matters. I grappled with this question back when I was working to tackle racism using international human rights standards. Our work cut across the range of arenas – criminal justice, immigration, education etc. I was an American working in London with people who self-identified as Black-British. Some of the people I worked with looked at the US civil rights movement in awe – and I wasn’t quite sure what direction they were taking from it. This was in the mid-nineties. I distinctly remember a period when I became seriously concerned. I wondered – are some of my colleagues fighting to ensure Black people can attain as much wealth and White people – can play capitalism to their advantage equally? Because if so, that’s not my gig.

At the time, I wasn’t necessarily thinking ‘Oh, we must dismantle capitalist infrastructures’ but I was thinking ‘Surely, the struggle is to liberate all people from poverty and from injustices that shorten and destroy lives and leave people in basic survival mode. Surely the struggle is not about ensuring that Black people (using this word in the old political sense) can have big houses and big cars, too.’ Nearly two decades later, I’ve got a much broader and more developed take on liberation and what it means.. I’ve also left the social policy world to focus my energies on working with how we (social activists) develop human relations – who we are as individuals, collectives, communities.

Which brings me back to social capital and soft skills. Liberation, for me, is about freedom from the constraints, illusions and destructive behavior patterns that arise when we become driven by ego and social, economic and political conventions and systems rooted in fear, insecurity, greed and shame. What kind of social capital and soft skills do we – as activists – need to open ourselves up and bring about such freedom?  

I think – though we might not use the jargon of ‘social capital and soft skills’ – we are increasingly exploring this terrain. Compassion, vulnerability and empathy, for example, are starting to become hot topics in many activist circles. People are increasingly feeling an itch with regards to the ‘soft’ side of activism. Recently, I was coaching an activist who is organizing a training day for her organization’s leading members around the country. Let’s call her Sophia. Sophia has gone around and asked people what they thought they needed in terms of training and development. She kept hearing answers like ‘How do we do power-mapping? Or how do we develop a media strategy?’

She was frustrated by these answers. Because her spirit and gut have been directing her towards wanting to support others to open up their activism to be more creative and collaborative – and less about towing a ‘party’ line and trying to persuade others of ‘what needs to be done.’. She told me how she recently organized a meeting where she tried to dismantle the usual format. Instead of a plenary she had discussion circles – to give everyone a chance to contribute and share. To spark lively, thought provoking discussion among equals rather than question/answer between the experts up there and the listeners on the floor. To focus attention on exchange and opening up of ideas, rather than on persuasion.

However, as she moved about the room, she could tell that in those circles people were trying to bring people to their point of view and/or to simply to assert their position. People were not really listening to each other – they were plotting what they felt needed to be said to hold their own ground. People weren’t asking questions, they were asserting what they felt they already knew. People weren’t allowing themselves to be challenged, they were only seeking to challenge others. People weren’t allowing their thoughts to be provoked, stirred, shaken, they were wanting to walk a straight line with no detours. With this experience in mind and given the answers participants for the training and development were giving, she asked me ‘What can I do to get different outcomes, to take people in a different direction?’

This isn’t the place to go through the specific options we generated together for designing the event. No. What I want to focus on is the conclusion Sophia and I both agreed on: the training and development session could be an opportunity to hold a space for activists to work on who they are in human relationships. An aim of the session could be to offer up a space for developing all those practices which you really only learn through interaction with other people and greater self-awareness. A starting question for designing the event became “What skills can these activists develop to strengthen the types of relationships they are creating in their work – so that they grow relationships which have strong foundations for creativity, agility, collaboration, contribution and individual/shared responsibility?”

Sophia’s instinctive answer: we need to develop our skills in active listening, questioning, self-reflection, empathy and reframing.

These skills, we agreed, fall into the category of ‘soft skills’ – not the hard, methodical stuff of power mapping. Arguably, ‘soft skills’, in any event, have a role to play in strengthening how we work with some of the more ‘hard’ skills – people who are able to listen, see and connect with open minds are more likely to understand the nuances and subtleties of situations. Consequently, they are more likely to work with the ‘hard tools’ more accurately and creatively.

As for social capital – the ‘who you know’ factor. Well, I’m thinking that the way we need to work with social capital takes us in the direction of ‘how you know.” That is, what kind of relationships from the get-go are we forming with ourselves, each other, and people in the wider space? What invitation (as Margaret Wheatley might ask) do we extend to others when we are out and about and doing our thing?

A dimension of this idea is well-illustrated by Peter Bregman in his piece on How to Attend A Conference as Yourself.

Looks to me like social capital and soft skills aren’t just for the so-called ‘disadvantaged.’ Or maybe we need to start questioning how it is that in one way or another any one of us can be considered ‘disadvantaged’ in terms of achieving success in getting where we to go. Is a matter or perspective, isn’t it? One determined by your direction of travel and where you think you are trying to get to…

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2 Responses to The ‘soft’ side of activism: giving ourselves an advantage…

  1. will cass says:

    Hi Veena, really enjoyed this post. Thank you. I wanted to touch on your definition of social capital. Although I wholeheartdely agree that we should move to a position where sucess is based on what you know not who you know. However, I think it makes only a shalow reading of cultural capital. Bourdieu talks of cultural capital and in particualr the notion of habitus.Habitus is a set of socially learned behaviour which a particular social group (class) uses to deifne and consolidate its position in the social structure. Habitus can include acquired schemata, sensibilities, dispositions and taste and is often associated to the middle classes (at least Bourdieu does). For anyone to move forward professionaly etc they must embody the values of the strata they wish to move into – well what we need to do it to redefine/reappropriate the habitus – rather than a practice of exclusion which often give value to political social capital we must make active listening, questioning, self-reflection, empathy and reframing practices of a new habitus of politicla inclusion. I think Sophia might be onto something:-).

  2. Hey Veena.Also really enjoyed this.Links into to something I’ve thought about quite a bit recently, and at various times in recent years.I Tweeted it the other day as: "In my experience, the stuff organisations are willing to pay for, is rarely the stuff they really need…"I’ve found an interesting niche in the kind of social media ‘training’ I do, because it is seen as a ‘hard skill’ that orgs can justify paying for and spending time on, but once we get into it, it never takes long for the core of the session to quickly become: ‘how do we let go of control?’, ‘what would it look like if we trusted each other more?’, ‘what if we stopped trying to ‘lead’ our campaign in the online space, and instead started to just ‘be a part of it?’…I’m not sure if it’s not totally honest of me, as I am pretty confident when I do social media stuff these days, that the bulk of the work is not going to focus heavily on social media, but instead the ‘soft’ stuff that makes social media actually work… but it starts the conversations… some of which definitely tie into the themes you’ve been talking about here…Not sure if there are other ‘stealth’ modes of getting people started with something ‘hard’, ‘practical’ or ‘measurable’, but might be one way of starting to help people think about the deeper questions that practical organisational life tends to keep them/us from addressing?Thanks for this!Liam

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