Category Archives: campaigning

The dramactivists

I met Jo Dorras & Peter Walker in a bunk house on the side of a mountain in New Zealand. In between playing A LOT of cards and nursing our aching limbs, we traded stories and I found out about their amazing work in Vanatu in the South Pacific.

Over 20 years ago they set up a theatre company, wansmolbag. What began with 15 amateur actors has grown into an organisation specialising in development theatre with 100 staff and over 400 volunteers. They use drama to engage audiences on a range of issues from contraception to corruption. One of their biggest hits has been Love Patrol, a TV series centred on a police detective that focuses on HIV/ AIDS. Vanuatu’s first TV serial has been roaring success; it has been broadcast across the region, from Fiji to New Zealand and is now in its fifth series. Jo writes it, Peter directs it. I thought it was only fitting to feature them as a couple!

THIS YEAR’S LESSON: Jo: Never think you know yourself. Circumstances make or unmake the woman. It can be very hard to explain why you did what you did.

Peter: What everybody in their fifties starts to learn: that time speeds up. I remember sitting around with both sets of parents about 15 years ago, before my parents embarked on a dreadful last decade of illness. One night they started discussing their attitude to death and how it wasn’t worth worrying about. My father in-law, Harry, mentioned how time went so fast, chortling as he remembered some old celebrity in the paper saying how it seemed like breakfast came round every fifteen minutes. The good side  — especially if you are privileged enough to enjoy your work, and your partner is doing the same work — is that you savour each opening night, each great rehearsal and  also each weekend bush walk, with the knowledge that the years you will be able to do them are starting to dwindle — although I don’t feel that breakfast is coming round every fifteen minutes (perhaps only every half hour!)

THE BURNING QUESTION: Jo: As poverty is the cause of most of the world’s pain and suffering, can aid — which pays our own personal bills — do anything about it? And what will happen to all the young people at our centre when they are no longer appealing youth we are all meant to worry about, but men and women with nothing?

Peter:  Just how is Vanuatu going to escape the ravages of an ever more venal group of politicians? One would like to believe that in this, an election year, it would be via the ballot box. But, as the theatre group discovered last month when touring with plays pertinent for an election year, the amount of money, saucepans, fencing materials and solar panels being delivered to villages by politicians wanting to hold on to power suggests that we’re stuck with the lot we have and the weekly stories of corruption they bring with them. But here’s hoping… the after-play-discussions bring to the surface a great deal of discontent.

THIS YEAR’S INSPIRATION: Jo: The amazing Gigi, who plays Andy in ‘Love Patrol’. He’s a young gay man and was absolutely thrilled on his return from launching series 4 of LP in Cook Islands, where he was treated like a star and ran workshops with school children, communities and queens (the third sex group there). It’s not always like that for Gigi.

And always writing for the actors and seeing them take what I write and fly with it! Wow!

Peter: Read: Peter Godwin’s The Fear about the 2007 elections in Zimbabwe. We lived in the south east of Zimbabwe for 5 years in the 80s and went back in the mid 90s for a visit. So the wreckage described was perhaps even more poignant for us. The stories both of man’s unbelievable inhumanity to man and also the staggering bravery shown by many in standing up to the torture and general mayhem, just have you gasping on every page. Unavoidably we ran into diehard white farmers when we lived there. I remember 300 km hitchhiking car journeys, when they picked you up (aghast that you should be hitching), and put you straight about how their country really was.  Some of these same people, by their own admission in the book, have made incredible journeys to end up side by side with their black Zimbabwean colleagues.

Seen: The youth group we are currently working with! 26 of them, most of school age, none of them in school…..their absolute delight in the rehearsals. The other night they did a run through of something they’d been working on since the last time I’d seen them. They finished. I said I thought it was good and they clapped and cheered, so pleased were they that I had liked it.

Heard: Stories on the BBC World Service series ‘Witness


The polymath

James Bowthorpe does. Always has done. He does things like set a new world record for cycling round the globe, building a boat out of salvaged wood and sailing it up the Thames, making music videos, designing sets for Florence & the Machine and passionately campaigning for Parkinson’s research. A proper polymath. I saw James last month and returned a mini-disc player he’d lent me 10 years ago, complete with a little wooden holder he’d crafted for it. Reckon that just about sums him up — craft + tech + generosity.

THE LESSON: 2011’s big lesson is, give it a go, you never know. This is not a new strategy for me but the lesson has come through the range of results, some good some bad, and it’s helping me to whittle my pursuits down a bit.

THE QUESTION: I don’t really have one constant burning question that consumes me; in many ways I wish I did. I am looking for that question though – my question is, what’s the question?! Frustrating for everyone.

THE INSPIRATION: Lots of inspiring things happened to me this year, here’s a couple. Lake Tear of the Clouds in upstate New York blew me away, twice, with its understated portent and dignity. I didn’t know a little lake could do that. I was also inspired by the documentary film Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo. Lastly I’m doing some work with a company called Finisterre down in Cornwall – they are an inspirational group of people and no mistake.

The Guantanamo Lawyer

 Tara Murray was furiously typing on her laptop in a Lahore coffee shop when I met her. Fresh off the plane from the US, the Reprieve lawyer was doing the whole, hitting the ground sprinting thing.  From the start,  I was moved by Tara’s calm commitment in the face of what must be one of the most frustrating jobs in international law: representing Guantanamo inmates.

THE LESSON:  I’ve learned so many lessons this year that it’s really quite difficult to choose one.  But something that I’ve received confirmation on this year, something that I think I already believed (albeit abstractly), is that people are intrinsically the same and that if we focused on the things that make us similar rather than fighting about the things that make us different, this world would be a much better place to live in.  Perhaps it sounds naïve and idealistic, but sometimes it’s the simple truths that we have a hard time accepting!

THE QUESTION: What happened to the “Change We Can Believe In” president?  I’m so disappointed in Obama…

THE INSPIRATION: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl…if you haven’t read it, you must read it…though it was written more than a century ago it is still relevant in terms of the lingering tendency of the US government to dehumanize poor people and people of color and view them as expendable or merely commodifiable beings to be exploited for political and financial gain.

The crusading strategist

I first met Daniel Maree in LA. He was working for Participant Media: we talked storytelling and social change over a sunny Sunday brunch. Fast forward a few years to a wintry New York, where we recently caught up over a hot cider and I discovered that his passion for global justice has taken a very personal turn. He’s a man on a mission to free his father, Olympic runner and anti-apartheid activist, Sydney Maree, from prison in South Africa. Daniel is making a documentary, setting up an advocacy campaign and  starting the Second Chapter  (a project to “realize of the ideals of South Africa’s liberation struggle”). Thing is, he’s also got a day job… Head of Social Strategy at McCann.

THE LESSON: A good idea, well-crafted and pursued with passion, doesn’t need a gatekeeper’s stamp of approval to succeed. I learned this after successfully funding my documentary film through kickstarter this year. I spent years developing grant proposals for independent documentary development funds I will not name—(cough) Sundance and Tribeca (cough cough)—only to be turned down for funding. I was devastated. I almost gave up. Instead I decided to try kickstarter. I was able to raise over ten-thousand dollars in less than three weeks. Power to the people!

THE QUESTION: Will I ever make it back to the gym? I haven’t worked out in years, and with the holidays coming up, I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Oy veh. Oh, I’m also curious to see how things will turn out in Egypt (and Occupy Wall Street)

THE INSPIRATION: Watching Dewey Bozella accept the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage at the 2011 ESPYs after having served 26 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Like Muhammad Ali and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, Bozella endured the inequality of systematic power structures and came out on top. He’s a huge inspiration to me and to the campaign to free my father from prison in South Africa. Check out Dewey Bozella’s story here.

The innovation jedi

Tom Farrand is a force of nature. He’s one of the incredible Pipeline Project team who are changing the way the communications industries change the world. I first came across Tom at one of his  Good For Nothing social innovation weekends, but it was on the long train journey west to The Do Lectures that we really got to chat. He was buzzing with his 50/50 project that has taken off like wildfire- 50 projects in 50 days to stop famine in Africa. Also on the conversational table: iron man contests, tarantulas and er, shower gel…

THE LESSON: It’s hard to pick out just one thing as I feel that I learnt more last year than I did in the previous 15 years of my working life. That’s mainly down to us hatching our own social mission called Good for Nothing a year ago and seeing where the energy and community that’s building around it, takes us.  A couple of things stand out – the first is that ‘by doing interesting things, interesting things happen to you’. We’ve deliberately tackled as many different challenges as possible in the shortest space of time and opened everything up to the community on the way. From a 4 hr gig with 50 D&AD students, to creating 50/50, a big global challenge to raise awareness and money for famine aid, to getting purposeful companies doing Good for Nothing, we’ve had a go at lots of stuff. The more we’ve put ourselves out there and tried things, the more new opportunities have opened up. The second big thing we’ve learnt is that ‘a demanding common task builds community’ –  by creating these focused social innovation challenges, and bringing together diverse people to solve them collaboratively, there’s a growing community of like-minded people on a similar mission who are starting to share their skills, time and experience to help each other. This new purposeful energy feels exciting and we hope it could lead to even more good stuff happening over time…

THE QUESTION: The big question that we’re asking ourselves is how to accelerate the pace of change towards a more sustainable way of living in the face of seemingly impossible resource constraints. We’re asking ourselves whether the way in which we work can change for the better to enable this – human energy, collaboration and experimentation, feel like a part of the answer. This is something we’re keen to build on, getting more diverse stakeholders working across siloes to solve the bigger issues in creative ways – with collaboration between business, government, 3rd sector and citizens. Our other burning question is how to build Jedi and rave influences into our new web platform in a meaningful way…..

THE INSPIRATION: The thing I’ve been most inspired by in the last year has been the Masters paper in Sustainability and Responsibility that fellow Jedi Dan Burgess has just finished at Ashridge Business School. It plots his story from being stuck in advertising feeling like there’s nowhere to go, to meeting and starting to work with us, to upping sticks with his young family to live in a treehouse in Costa Rica for a year, to changing the way he lives, works, sees and interacts with the world. The paper is based on the process of action learning which has become central to how we now work as a team. And on route he’s uncovered many amazing bits of wisdom in his reading about how we can be more connected to nature, live more creatively and consciously and learn from natural systems to make collaboration work. There’s an amazing book in the making right there….

The Queen of Campaigning

Rebecca Tarbotton is one of America’s most lethal environmental campaigners. She’s the Executive Director of San Francisco based RAN. The Wall Street Journal calls them the “most savvy environmental agitators in the business”. Treehugger calls them “a pack of jackals”, writing that “its campaigners jump on a target’s back and won’t get off until it submits”.  Whenever we’re in the same city at the same time, Becky and I set the world to rights over cocktails.

THE LESSON: This was my first full year as Executive Director of RAN, and for a good 6 months of the year, I felt as if I never ever had enough information to make good decisions. My predecessor and friend Mike Brune (who now runs the Sierra Club) said to me just as I was taking on the mantle of ED: “Everyone is now going to think you are smarter and funnier than you were before you were ED. Always remember, that you’re not”. I thought he was a little crazy at the time, but it’s been a huge lesson to realize that just by virtue of my position suddenly my opinion matters more (and apparently my jokes are way funnier too!). This was paralyzing for a while, until I realized that people don’t want to tap my expertise, but my thinking and my experience. I call it instinct, others call it strategy or analysis – whatever term you use, it’s not about knowing all the facts all the time, it’s about knowing what questions to ask.

THE QUESTION(S): This is pretty nerdy and in the weeds, but my big question right now is ‘how do we pivot from running great corporate campaigns that truly do affect the way corporations do business to tackling some of the deep systemic flaws in our economic system…without losing any of the sharpness that makes our campaigns so effective?’. RAN is great (I mean really really good) at running corporate campaigns that both pressure and inspire corporations to voluntarily address the environmental and human rights impacts of their business model. For example, we’ve convinced most of the big US banks to phase out financing Mountaintop Removal Mining, we’ve successfully gotten old growth timber off the shelves of the major home improvement stores and have won commitments from most of the major US publishers to demand paper that doesn’t destroy Indonesia’s natural forests. These are big wins, and they all address very real and urgent problems that need to be dealt with immediately. But how do we ensure that all these victories add up to more than the sum of their parts? How do we parlay them into systemic changes that not only fight the fires but also transform the system so that the fires aren’t an inevitability, part of the system design, but only an occasional occurrence (how’s that for a tortured metaphor?).

Another one: how to achieve scale without increasing size? The problems we’re facing (environmental, social) are enormous, but I rebel against the notion that we need to be bigger to be effective change agents. That said, we do need reach and impact and for that we certainly need to be of a scale equal to or bigger than our opponents. if the goal is to have a large scale and if that can be achieved through networks, how do we overcome the silo’s of organizational self-interest to collaborate effectively?

THE INSPIRATION: We gave Naomi Klein (author/activist) an award this year at our annual fundraising event. In her acceptance speech talking about the Occupy movement she said: “We are more popular than we ever imagined”…and she’s right.  The question is, what does it look like to start behaving that way?

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