“We will not, we will not… we will not do fluffy ‘values’ talk”

The members of GRIPP reflect on their November 2023 residential, and the “We Will Not” process they used to spark conversation.

Written by members of GRIPP.

On hearing this news on the grapevine (from someone who didn’t know that our facilitators had been part of the organisation’s formative years), efforts had to be made to hold back some tears. “We argued with so many funders about that!… we gave back money because of that… how could that have got lost?… how did that get betrayed!?!” And then finally the realisation…“Because we never wrote it down”.

On a grey, wet day, in a beige room, back in November 2023 – 15 people were found marching about – shouting! Shouting objections about how they are often made to work. 

Not necessarily the usual behaviour of guests at a rather nice conference centre in Bolton, but this was Day Two of a GRIPP residential – bringing together activists to reconnect, welcome new members, reflect on our work and plan for 2024. A mixed bunch from across the UK – many of our attendees brought direct experience of living in poverty, and all were Human Rights activists with years, if not decades, of experience fighting for recognition and change. Many of us in the room had worked together for nearly 5 years trying not to build an organisation, but instead a real, human, and powerful community of people.

So what better way to feel powerful than to shout? To raise our voices. To protest. It is why we were all there, essentially. 

But for what might have seemed like a classic ‘visioning and planning’ residential from the outside – to start with such negative framing was a conscious choice. After all they chanted “We will not be moved” they didn’t say “we are going to sit here all day”!

It comes back to haunt you

The reason for this different starting point came from the experience of our two lead facilitators. Many years prior, they had been involved in the early days of a grassroots project and movement – radical youth work for some, activism and campaigning for others. There were many strong values practised in this organisation: “Always greet people with a hug and an offer of a cup of tea”, “Every meeting is open to all”, and “We never take funding dependent on postcodes”. Fast forward nearly 20 years, and this project is closing down, for reasons we don’t know, but the project’s one remaining piece of work was handed over to another organisation with some funding attached to it – and that funding demanded participant’s postcodes. 

On hearing this news on the grapevine (from someone who didn’t know that our facilitators had been part of the organisation’s formative years), efforts had to be made to hold back some tears. “We argued with so many funders about that!…we gave back money because of that…how could that have got lost?…how did that get betrayed!?!” And then finally the realisation…“Because we never wrote it down”.

On designing this GRIPP residential, the potential was there to do another session on organisational values… but how many times have we all been in that conversation – Respect, Empowerment, Inclusiveness, Equality – just to find the working culture and decisions of the organisation are constantly violating those proclaimed values? Determined not to make the same mistake again… and again, and again… our facilitators spun it on its head and tried a different approach. 

What we did 

Prior to the residential, GRIPP’s principles and beliefs had been long established. Building on from these principles and beliefs, we started the day with that classic Away Day step of creating our Visions for GRIPP moving forward. To do this we got everyone on their feet for a bit of a shout! Asking members to tap into those moments of frustration, those times when boundaries have been violated, voices quashed and when values meant so little – we asked “What will GRIPP not do?

The shouts started to come “We will not be ignored”, “We will not be a tick box”—these voices shouting for recognition, authentic recognition. But the shouts went further: “We will not perform” – the refusal to repeat that all too familiar experience of rolling out the lived experience stories, the victim narratives, the poverty porn. And growing from this: “We will not give without taking”, “We will not ‘work’ for free” – knowing full well that so many of us have sat on panels for the cost of a travelcard (and a sandwich if lucky) whilst the academic or policy maker sat alongside us has charged a fee of hundreds of pounds. 

Some statements spoke to how we value each other, how GRIPP prioritises the well-being of all in our spaces. We will not start a meeting without a check in” or We will not have an event without food – and not just biscuits”. They seem simple statements but, when time and cash are limited, they are often the first things to slide. Funders need to recognise how these simple acts and material provisions are foundational to a community’s culture and survival and they need to fund us accordingly.

And of course, the relationship with funders brought passions and objections. We will not take “blood money” and We will not accept funding with strings attached”. These are statements we know that many in our fellow activists circles have expressed, but the strength in objecting to these power dynamics also gave rise to “We do not need to be grateful” – no Dickens-esque “please sir, can we have some more sir”1 from our GRIPP members.

And mindful of those power dynamics around us, “We will not take someone else’s agenda”,  “We will not be silenced by government and big entities”, whilst also recognising GRIPP’s potential to do harm to others too. We will not bully or be bulliedorWe will not be shouted down or shout others down”.

Keeping it real in our work

Some of our red lines became immediately relevant that afternoon as we started to dream and plan our work for 2024. For example, when thinking about campaign actions and sharing the stories of lived experience, the statements “We will not go anywhere alone” and “We will not leave someone unsupported” led to very practical measures we need to put into place every time we, for example, join an external event or speak at a workshop.

For the newly forming core group of GRIPP, the challenge laid before them of “We will not centralise within GRIPP”, forcing this small group to think about how knowledge, resource and power are constantly circulated so that this governance-type space doesn’t become exclusive or inaccessible. 

And for all of us, in this very mixed collection of people and organisations, “We will not replicate hierarchies within GRIPP” presents challenges both internally and when considering how we interact with external forces.

Going forward, this internal manifesto of how we will act within and as GRIPP becomes a measure to hold ourselves accountable to – these are a set of ‘behaviours’ to keep and refer back to. We already plan to revisit this document in a future Partnership meeting in the coming months and, in time, may use one statement at the start of each meeting as a reflection point to constantly keep these alive, knowing this must be a constant process: We will not stop holding each other to account”.

And as GRIPP grapples with how it develops (and maybe formalises in time), some of these demands we lay upon ourselves feel almost contradictory: “We will not take the easy answer or the easy way”, but “We do not want to be a talking shop”. How do we do both whilst honouring our assertion that “We will not get bogged down and lose energy”? This remains to be seen.

We are conscious of this tricky balance, and know that some of these things will be realised over time. We believe it is important that GRIPP evolves, like all bottom-up movements.  It will need to constantly disorganise and re-organise itself. New members will come in and its essential that they take ownership of the work. But hopefully, by getting these written down “We will not compromise our values”, we will avoid the tragic betrayal of our founding beliefs in years to come – and, even if that does happen, maybe we will simply return to We will not abandon people when we make a mistake”!

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  1. Charles Dickens, famous English author wrote the novel Oliver Twist in the 1830s about poverty in London. One of the most famous moments in the story is when young Oliver, starving whilst living in a workhouse, finishes his tiny portion of porridge and pleads for a tiny bit more from the well-fed Master. His plea is unsuccessful. ↩︎