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Can networks join up land activism?

Isabella Coin

Power to Change’s Peer Networks programme is now in full swing. As we learn more and more about how to run sustainable, effective networks, we’re beginning to apply this knowledge to various aspects of our work with land. First, we look at how diverging identities, values and purposes affect networks of land activists.

As part of Power to Change’s Peer Networks programme, we are working with our friends at the Social Change Agency to run several face-to-face and online meetings for the Community of Practice (CoP) – a group of network leaders in the community business sector. Our first session focused on network identity, purpose and values.

 

Diverse identities and values within the same network

Groups within a network can have very different identities and values. As CoP members highlighted, it’s often difficult to balance diversity of opinion with building active and resilient networks. People join networks for different reasons, so it is common for clusters of members with similar values and opinions to form within the network. It can then be very hard to reconcile these ‘clusters’ and drive joint action and engagement.

This doesn’t only happen in the community business sector. Through Land for What? we saw first hand that the field of land activism holds a wide range of actors. The conference in November brought together groups and individuals with an interest in housing, the environment, food growing, community energy and more. To complicate matters, there are multiple approaches even within these sub-fields of land-related activism.

For example, movements fighting for food systems change might either be firmly opposed to the use of technology, whilst others may advocate for it as a key part of sustainable food production. Similarly, housing activists are often divided between focusing on protecting current public land and housing, and prioritising access to land independent of the public and private sectors.

Network culture: a way of working together?

June Holley, author of The Network Weaver Handbook, traces these zero-sum conflicts back to traditional views on identity and values. She says “people’s values and identity have traditionally been linked to groups that they are part of: church, clubs, business, social class, political party, or racial or ethnic group”. We tend to treat people from within “our” group with values of collaboration, sharing and trust. For members of other groups, on the other hand, we can reserve mistrust, suspicion and uncooperativeness.

What Holley suggests is changing our mindsets to embrace a network culture. She suggests, “instead of putting people in boxes or categories” we should try and “find out about their skills and interests, and find ways to work with them where our interests overlap”.

Can network culture strengthen land activism?

This all seems well and good, but how does it work in practice? And could network culture be the ‘glue’ that makes land activism a more coherent and powerful movement?

We could say this is already happening through movements and networks such as Land for What?, and the People’s Food Policy. At the conference in November, groups involved in struggles for fairer housing and better food systems came together to discuss areas of collaboration.

While food growing and housing can pose competing demands on land, it emerged that collaborations on concrete projects are already happening: Community Food Growers Network and Radical Housing Network ensured green spaces and affordable housing were included in their respective manifestoes, and they organised a joint demonstration. During the session, the room was buzzing with energy as attendees explored ways of collaborating, such as incorporating access to green and food growing spaces in all new housing.

CFGN and RHN organised a demonstration to oppose MIPIM, the world's biggest property fair in London.

Creating an ecology of land activists

This is just one example of the ways network culture could help land activists leverage the power that lies in their diversity. Graham Jones had a similar idea when he wrote about creating an “ecology of organisations” for the left:

Taken alone, all of these strategies have failed. But all of them have also had their successes. An alternative is to combine their strengths and weaknesses into a coherent meta-strategy, aiming to unify the left around a common strategic framework whilst maintaining the autonomy of groups within it. This is not simply a vague ‘diversity of tactics’, but an analysis of how those different tactics and broader strategies can feed into one another. - Graham Jones, Shock doctrine of the left: a strategy for building socialist counterpower

The exact same point could apply to land activism. Campaigns for affordable housing, environmental protection and fairer food and energy are complementary to each other. Whilst at first sight they may seem to ask for different things, ultimately the ‘glue’ that can unite them is that they are asking for land to be used for the common good. We’re looking forward to seeing and supporting more and more collaborations between land-based causes!

We acknowledge that working together in a non-hierarchical network is not as easy as it may seem. Stay tuned as our next Community of Practice meeting will focus on network leadership, power and decision-making.

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