SIAA ‘Changing the system together’ event aimed to create a space for collective advocacy groups from across Scotland to come together and to stimulate and support discussion about independent collective advocacy. The event was open to all SIAA member organisations as well as a number of invited groups. 23 groups were represented, with more than 40 people attending.
Gordon Thomson, SIAA Chair, introduced and chaired the day, which began with a presentation from Linda Sommerville, from the ‘Save Leith Walk’ campaign.
Linda talked about the events which had given rise to the campaign, a proposal by a property developer to demolish a block of existing buildings on Leith Walk, buildings currently occupied by local businesses, some of which are long established family firms, as well as a popular and valued community project. News of the proposal had spread quickly through the local community, however, there was an initial feeling of powerlessness in the face of the very formal structure imposed by council community planning procedures. Despite this and although people were motivated by different things, the fact that they cared brought the local community together.
Collectively they worked out what they wanted for the area and developed their own strategy and objectives on which to mount a campaign of resistance based on alternative proposals to the developer’s plan. The campaign has worked by distributing power, it has no formal structure and no hierarchy for decision making but rather, has been based on people sharing their knowledge and skills, allowing many people to discover ways to learn new skills and develop confidence through their involvement in the campaign. To date the campaign has had success in gaining support from Edinburgh City Council that has refused to grant planning approval for the proposal by the developers. However, everyone is currently awaiting the outcome of an appeal the developers have submitted to the Scottish Government.
Linda’s presentation was followed by a workshop session on the theme of ‘Experiencing Power’, introduced by Anne O’Donnell, from CAPS. Anne explained that it can be useful to see power as being used in terms of,
- Power over – the strong over the weak
- Power to – choose your own actions
- Power with – collective action
- Power within – self-confidence
The two concepts of ‘Agency’, meaning power held by people to choose their own actions and ‘Structure’, represented by power embedded in social, cultural, legal and political systems were also outlined. Workshop participants were asked to use the example of the Leith campaign as a case study and to draw on their own experience to bring to life and make sense of how ‘power’ can be used to further the interests of different groups and to look at what might stand in the way of change.
The morning session was followed by a break for lunch during which participants were able to network and invited to add their personal comments to statements about collective advocacy displayed around the room.
After lunch, the first workshop was again introduced by Anne O’Donnell and focused on the theme of ‘Acting on Power’. Its aim was to enable people to think strategically. Participants were introduced to the ‘Power Cube’ and the concepts of ‘closed’, ‘invited’ and ‘created/claimed’ spaces. Workshop groups were asked to think about examples of when their group had tried to make itself heard, to identify which spaces they had occupied, what could be achieved in those spaces and what to be wary of.
The last workshop of the day challenged each group to work together to produce a poster aimed at recruiting new members to a collective advocacy group. They were told, ‘It doesn’t have to be beautiful’, but that it did need to convey the principle of independence and how the group would make a difference. Each group was then invited to present their finished art in action to the other groups.
Finally, the event wound up with people being given an opportunity to reflect on the day and think about what next. There were positive views expressed its usefulness and, in particular, how important it had been for Scottish advocacy groups to get together. People valued the opportunity to share information about how they are getting on, to reflect on practice, identify common issues, the challenges they were facing and opportunities that might lead to new spaces for collective advocacy to work in. Most importantly, collective advocacy must make a case for itself and not allow itself to be seen as ‘second level advocacy’.
In closing the day, the Chair thanked everyone who had attended and emphasised that SIAA would continue to support networking opportunities for collective advocacy groups across Scotland.