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  • Writer's pictureNina Burrowes

The lie I was told about success, scale and activism

Part of my process of putting down the master's tools has been to realise that much of how I've been taught to see the world isn't true. One of the big lies? The one about scale and what it would mean to be a successful activist. In a system that celebrates gluttony. In a world where enough is never enough. BIG is beautiful. Big is successful. And this idealisation of 'bigness' can seep into your activism work. I know it found its way into mine, affecting the way I thought about change and what I thought 'success' might look like.


The master's tools told me to find that magic formula for change and then scale that baby up. Roll that programme out. Create a toolkit so more and more people can follow the predefined masterful plan of engineered change. They told me that if I wanted to think of myself as successful I had better be influencing the people at the top. The big people. Have my work published in the big publications. Be on the big telly. If the noise I was making as an activist was worth anything then it had to be loud. Success was only at scale. Impact only counts if it's big. If it's small, if no one is talking about it, if I'm not influencing whole government departments, then I'm not having an impact. I'm wasting my time and your funding.

These master's tools weren't designed to make me an activist, they were designed to make me an engineer. To control. To have the audacity to believe that I could control. To lack the wisdom to realise control was neither possible nor desirable. The methods I was taught to use made heavy emphasis on removing my subjectivity, my own humanity, from the process. I had to be objective. So objective I was taught to write in the third-person, as if I was never there, which perhaps I wasn't. I was taught to dismiss efforts towards change that didn't use the same methods as me. To treat them with a superior distain. The correct methods demanded bigness. You needed to work with enough participants to achieve statistical power. The bigger your sample, the better your research. The bigger the sample, the more funding you needed - your project could be big even before you started!


Of course the cracks were everywhere. Looking back it felt like a game where intelligent people were incentivised to work without wisdom. But the incentives were there. You only got funded if you bought into the process. You only got published if you bought into the process. And when the methods we were using pointed towards an important truth they were added to the curriculum and called 'The Hawthorne effect' or 'The placebo effect' as if they were explainable anomalies in an otherwise perfect system.

I wasn't taught to celebrate the 'small' and I certainly wan't encouraged to seek it out as a source of power. If I was working on a smaller scale I would talk about how the work was replicable, how the 'intervention' could be used in other areas and with other people as if these things - other places, other communities, other people in other times and other contexts are reliably generic and stood no chance of resisting the masterful change I was engineering. I was taught to seek scale. Getting bigger, lasting longer, being the ubiquitous version of whatever I was doing was what success would look like. I would build the 'national programme', build the toolkit to be used everywhere. Like a mono-culture. A forest of trees planted in orderly lines. I was told that success looks like lots of the same thing everywhere because you've worked out what the 'best' thing is and you've rightly had the chance to distribute it at scale.

I no longer tell myself that story.


It was a story full of ego. It was based on an insecure desire to control that has been my cultural inheritance. It led to work that was far from being the most powerful work I've done as an activist. Now I look back and see it as a story about 'noise'. I was in close relationship with the kind of noise that can be generated in the 'halls of power', but back in the real world I wasn't changing anything.

These days I work differently. I've liberated my ideas of change, my activism work and my feminism from a fixation on scale and the kind of success that can only come with bigness. I stopped listening to 'the master' and started paying close attention to someone else because she has lots to say about being small and what she has to say can help shape our feminist activism.

Mother Nature tells us a very different story about change. A story of diversity. A story of things that naturally stretch towards being the fullest versions of themselves under the right conditions. This growth isn't through clever intervention or engineering, but through the thread of life force that runs through everything. This is a story where big and small are in an intimate relationship, so intimate that both depend on one another to play their part. It's a story where big and small are blurred, the closer you pay attention to the things that are small, the more complexity you realise they are holding. A whole universe can sit on a side of a rock, it just depends where you place your attention.


If you look closely at a rock you'll find a whole universe sitting there

It's a story where seeds are the natural outcome of anything able to be itself. A natural result of a cycle completed. They are planted, not engineered. Tiny seeds landing in the soil through chance, through the wind, through where the animal that ate the fruit then redistributed the seeds in their excrement proving that in this ecosystem even 'waste' is not the end of the story. In this story big comes from small and small can bring down big.

Mother Nature tells us a story in which time is a major character, a story of seasons, of a time when it looks like nothing is happening at all. And yet it is. Here change happens in the dark as well as the light. It happens at our feet and it happens out of sight. It's a story where there is no end-game of 'success' as everything, big and small, comes to an end, and every ending is a new beginning. Breathing in is no more successful than breathing out. Your first breath is no more successful than your last, or the the one you're having right now. In this story to be successful is simply to play your part. To be your thread in this beautiful tapestry. To be fully you.

What does feminist activism look like when it's based on this story? On this way of seeing life and change? What is our activism when we look for the power in the small and hold 'success' in this way?

For me it means that my role as an activist is to participate rather than control. 'The work' is to play my part, to show up, to be me, to make my humanity the bedrock of the work. The place where I start and the place I return to. I see my role with others as one of creating opportunities for them to be fully themselves. To create spaces, experiences, or invitations, that help people lean into their own fullness. To touch the life force that is already threaded into who they already are. No one needs to change. But most people need help getting things out of the way so that natural growth can happen. This is an activism with no 'success' and no end. It's just a moment (perhaps a lifetime) of participating in the most beautiful way I know how to.


I can feel my body calm just writing these words. Is your body calming reading them?


There is no hurry because we're not going anywhere. There's no deadline because this is a process with out beginning or end. Our role is to participate as ourselves whilst we're here. Participate as who we truly are, not as someone else's idea of who we should be. This is us at our most powerful. This is the work that fills me with pride.


If you're looking to reimagine the way you go about your feminist activism what might this kind of activism look like for you? If you're looking for a path my short answer to that question is - do something small and beautiful and then tell the story about it.


Small

The small helps to avoid the engineering. It gives things time and permission to grow naturally. And it comes with humility. On a political level small also manages to avoid the gatekeepers who stand at the doorway to scale. The funders - no matter what shape they come in. If a project needs resources beyond your own means then you open the door to all of the politics that comes with that. All of their demands for you to use the Master's Tools. So I like to self-fund. I will work at a small scale, use the resources I already have, volunteer my time, and by doing so I open myself and the work up to things no funder would grant me access to. Small also helps me hold a good boundary with my internal gatekeepers - if a project is too big, if it's asking too much of me, if it involves too much administration, I find that the stress can open the door to rigid ways of working and thinking. I want to create projects that are fuelled by love, joy, and even play. Keeping it small helps me to work with an open heart.


Part of the smallness for me is also about time. Open-ended projects are a huge commitment. I like time-limited projects. I like to plan the end at the beginning. I like 5 week projects. I like to try things for 8 sessions. If it was fun, if it seemed to be fruitful, I can always do it again. But for me knowing there will be an end helps me to fully participate and it gives space for my natural rhythms - I'm a seasonal beast. I like to do new things in the Spring and the Autumn. I don't tend to get out much in December or January. My brain seems to switch off in August. Small project fit neatly into my natural way of living and working.


If you want to work in a small way questions you could ask yourself include:

  • What can I do with the resources (time, space, skills, relationships) that I already have?

  • What would be the smallest scale I could work at?

  • How could I work with smallness in a way that opens the doors to work that otherwise would not be possible?


Beautiful

It's very difficult for me to say what 'beautiful work' might be for you. For me it has meant finding ways of working that help me be more me, and then others be more themselves. It's work that helps us tap into our fullness. Work that is in harmony with who we already are. Often this is work that is about 'getting things out of the way' rather than creating anything. It's as if beauty naturally happens if we just make space for it. If we liberate things from energies that are trapping or limiting then beauty is what naturally happens.


I use circle practice a lot in my work. I've found it to be beautiful, wise, and in harmony with who we already are. In circle we talk about 'starting with the smallest circle first'. This means start from the smallest centre you have - yourself. Make sure the 'work' you're doing taps into your own humanity on the deepest level. Rather than pretending to eliminate your humanity from the process this type of activism makes your humanity the bedrock of what you're doing because it recognises that your humanity is the most powerful thing you have. For all of us, being fully us is what it means to be in our power. If you're able to do this, if you can make space for the fullness of you, then this is what you're able to take into any work with others. When work with others begins, beautiful work is an invitation and a space for people to feel into their own fullness. I have nothing to say about this, I can't tell you who you fully are, I can just create space and have the privilege of bearing witness to what happens there, much as I bear witness to the forest unfolding throughout the year.

There is a timing to beautiful work. In circle we talk about 'moving at the pace of guidance'. Sometimes (often) that guidance will tell you to slow down, to wait, to trust, to move gently. Sometimes, it tells you to hurry the fuck up. Listening to this guidance accurately is now part of my practice. It feels new, in the past I was always rushing towards scale, chasing an externally set deadline. I wasn't invited to feel into a natural rhythm. But when we work on a scale that allows us to step away from those external pressures we open ourselves to new possibilities - the possibility of changing our pace, of being in step with natural change. Having a 'sense' of timing instead of a deadline.


Tell the story

The stories are the seeds. You don't need to scale your work. Do it. Make it beautiful. Let it find it's natural place in the world, it's natural ending or new beginning. And then tell the story. Let these seeds find the wind. Let them scatter around the place. Let them inspire others in their own work. Let them plant themselves in surprising places. Some of the seeds will land nearby and you'll watch them grow, knowing where they came from. Others will travel so far you may never hear of them, but you can still trust that they have landed, that they have found fertile ground, and that beauty is growing through them.

That you tell the story is essential - the release of the seed is part of the cycle. How you tell the story is probably important. Seeds are little balls of potential energy. What kind of story will honour what you know happened? What kind of story, like ripe fruit, will attract others? What kind of story will taste sweet and be nourishing? What kind of story is more likely to be taken by the wind? What kind of story might stand a better chance of taking root?


In my experience the stories I create that have more of my humanity in them are the ones that offer the most nourishment to others. They are the ones that travel. Inspire. I have written incredibly boring peer-reviewed academic journal articles. I suspect the only people to have read them are me, my co-authors, and the reviewers. I haven't re-read any of them for years, and I have no intention of doing so. They contain no magic. No beauty. I have also created illustrated books, and more recently a storytelling event based on our travels in activism. My heart swells when I pick these up again. Which I do often. I know these seeds honour the work. So tell your stories in ways that honour your work.

So here's an invitation.

Give yourself permission to reimagine your activism work. Find a scale that is small enough for your imagination to run free. Get the external and internal gatekeepers out of your way. Fill your boots with magic. And then please - tell me the story of what you did.


 

Mentioned in this post



The courage to be me an illustrated book on life and compassion after sexual abuse


 

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