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Reflections on the Transition Network Conference 2012

A report from the fringes

The Sunday of the Transition Network Conference 2012 turned out to be a weird old day for me. While the other 99% of the participants were creating the transition town of the future with cardboard, chalk and inspiration, I found myself wandering the empty corridors of Battersea Arts Centre, bewildered by my lack of enthusiasm for this "group process".

We were told on Saturday to be prepared for some “time travel” on Sunday, but that was about all the info we were given, it was terribly secret. Not until the doors to the big hall opened on Sunday morning did we have any idea that we were going to be asked to construct Transition Anywhere, a fictional future town, displaying all our collective hopes and ideas, our ambitions and dreams come true. Four hours to build Utopia with mountains of cardboard, stacks of newspapers, parcel tape, blackboards and chalks.

In no time at all, what was happening in the main hall looked nothing like a conference, but more like a giant kids' playscheme, complete with over-active, sugared up kids. It was totally buzzing, people were planning, talking, creating at a frenetic pace. Smiling faces, bright eyed enthusiasm, intense discussions all around me. Intricate webs of chalked up peoples' stories wove the past into the future revealing old pains and new found hopes. Fantastic structures rose up, businesses and projects got started, gardens were planted and the High Street sprouted trees. Even a fire circle complete with drummers sparked up on the outskirts of the cardboard town.

Although I marvelled at the inventiveness and creativity filling every nook and cranny of the old hall, I increasingly felt isolated from all the activity around me. Maybe it was the cardboard, or the droning, ominous music. Maybe it was the slow, deeply earnest and serious voice in which the instructions were delivered or the unquestioning willingness of the masses to follow them. Maybe it was the psychedelic, steampunk beauty of BAC's main hall and massive organ pipes adding an epic quality to the proceedings. Maybe it was just me.

I think I gave it a good shot, stuck with it for nearly an hour or so. But when I found myself in a group having discussed for the last ten minutes what the exact wording should be of the first answer on our “charter” questionnaire, I felt myself slipping into my own private dystopia like the character Berenger in Eugene Ionesco's play “Rhinoceros”. The smiles became horrible smeared grimaces, the bright eyes staring and hollow and the echoing cacophony of noise unbearable.

I muttered some excuse to the rest of my group ( “Eh....gotta go blog...sorry..”) , backed swiftly out of the magnificent hall of madness and as I burst through the doors back into 2012, I experienced a wave of actual, physical relief. As I looked around the octagonal room, I spotted somebody who looked as confused and upset as I felt. He too, “didn't get it”. I tried several more times to walk back into the hall, contemplated about building a hermit's hut in a corner but never lasted long enough to execute it. Later that day, when my homegroup reconvened, another owned up to “Not being into it that much, but having just gone along with it because everybody else did.” That made me wonder how many others had found themselves in that position?

It is incredibly hard to step away from the united, happy clappy crowd and find yourself alone, very alone. Too sit with your discomfort and totally own it. Not to try and blame and make others responsible for your pain. It is much easier to go along with the group and ignore or belittle your feelings. It's how we mostly are brought up; not to be a party pooper. But I can't do it. I remember my days as a 15-16 year old in the Communist Youth Cafe “The 1000 Apples” in Antwerp, sitting around a table with some really old, heavily bearded geezers from the Communist Party. We youngsters listened in awe as they told their stories from their time in “La Quinta Brigada” during the Spanish Civil War. They were heroes to us. I will never forget how one of them, my friend Jan, said to me whilst rhythmically tapping my forehead with his index finger: “Always (tap), always (tap) think for (tap) yourself (tap,tap)!

So I go through life in a questioning sort of way, taking nothing at face value or for granted, feeling grateful each time something turns out to be what you'd hoped or were told it would be. I'm always a little wary of “mass movements” and “group cultures”. Too many people are happy to surrender the effort of thinking to actual or perceived leaders, prefer not to acknowledge niggling feelings of wrongness, in order to be part of the group. Of course the group then needs to be seen as totally wonderful and criticism as unhelpful and negative or the dream is punctured. How many times in our lives have we all not spoken up when we disagreed with what went on, because everybody else agreed and we didn't want to cause discord?

In Transition there is room for all. We carry inclusiveness high in our set of ideals. Criticism is merely seen as feedback; it is acknowledged and often responded to by changing how things are done. Or at least this is what we should aim for. It isn't easy to accept negative feedback and respond to it in a way that makes it easy for those who have a different view to give voice to that view. It's like you saying to a new mother: “Wow, your baby is really ugly!” and the mother responding with: “Yes, but he's really sweet and I'm sure he'll grow into that big nose.” I think it is more likely that the mother will be cross with you, give you a quick assessment of your own aesthetic shortcomings and walk off. As transition activists, we need to practice receiving and giving negative feedback graciously; praise is nice, but criticism shows you where your growing edges are. This was not an easy piece to write, but I feel quietly confident that it will be received as a personal reflection and not as an all out criticism of the day. As I said, the overwhelming majority of participants loved the exercise; so it was definitely a success, but let us show we mean business when we talk about inclusivity and maybe put on one or two other workshops as well on the second day next year, just in case there are some who'd rather not do “group process”?

Ann Owen

http://www.transitionnetwork.org/stories/ann-owen/2012-09/report-fringes