Didsbury community assembly, September 2023
January 19, 2024 by Extinction Rebellion
How it all started
Many XR Manchester local groups have been involved with the Dirty Water campaign along the River Mersey, the main river in South Manchester. During the campaign, the groups found that there was a lot of positive public response to it, and also that the issues surrounding the health of the river were rather complicated. They decided to partner with a couple of local environmental and civil society groups, including People Planet Place Didsbury, the Friends of Fletcher Moss and Didsbury Civic Society to put on an event together about the river.
The initial idea was to hold an event with the standard speakers/audience format, but one of the rebels who had taken part in community assemblies before and always wanted to organise one, proposed that they run it as a community assembly instead. The reaction from the other groups involved was very positive and so they started organising it, drawing on existing links with the local community which helped in many ways, including in finding a venue.
A local church with a centrally located and very suitable building gave them the use of the venue for free. They set up an Eventbrite with maximum 100 places, never imagining that they would get that number. A local designer did the graphics for an A5 leaflet and they printed 200. They distributed the leaflet mainly to people making use of the river: walkers, runnings, dog walkers along the river banks and so on. The Eventbrite link and information about it was also circulated by the different groups involved.
On the day
Explaining the hand signals for the breakout groups at the community assembly in Didsbury.
Before the community assembly started, the organisers had worked together to form a question the participants were going to discuss. The question of the community assembly was:
‘How might we improve the health of our river Mersey?’
The organisers felt that formulating the question in this way would help people feel more empowered, which turned out to be largely the case, as people were overall very engaged. The assembly was attended by around 100 people and they ran it for two hours (note: they ran it in the evening of a week day from 7 – 9 pm, not a weekend as other community assemblies have done).
After a brief introduction, they held the input stage of the assembly. The participants had the opportunity to listen to a diverse range of perspectives on the health of the river. There were six speakers, representatives from a variety of organisations including: United Utilities (the water company); the Mersey River Trust; a presentation based on data from the UK Government’s Environment Agency on the state of the river (EA were invited but didn’t attend). There were also presentations from a local activist on sewage in the river, a testimony of a local resident exposed to flood risk, and the testimony of a local resident who has run a canoeing business on the river for 20 years.
The input phase of a community assembly is when speakers who are either experts on the subject, have something to do with the issue (like have a business interest in it, for example, like the United Utilities water company), and also people who are affected by the issue.
After the presentations the assembly moved to the deliberation stage. The group was split into in small groups of eight people, each with a designated facilitator. The facilitators had previous facilitation experience either from running meetings in their local XR group or they had been prepped especially for the community assembly. Each group also appointed a notetaker who was tasked with noting down everyone’s contribution and was responsible for feeding back the group’s top three priorities to the whole assembly.
During the deliberation phase, the assembly is split up into smaller groups, with a facilitator each to ensure the conversation goes smoothly. This is where people can express their views and come up with solutions together.
Overall, the room was buzzing, people were engaged, and the dialogues were inclusive, thanks to the facilitators. However, the organisers noticed that there were a few groups that struggled. These were the groups that included so called ‘stakeholders’- meaning people who have a some sort of direct involvement with the issue of water pollution. For example, the representative of the water company United Utilities as well as the local councillors who had come to participate, caused polarisation within the group. The deliberation in those groups began to resemble a debate between two sides, which is not the intention of the process. More on this below.
After the deliberation phase the assembly moved on to the integration phase. This meant that the smaller groups all came together to share their main findings with the wider group. The organisers had asked each group to report back on three main recommendations from their deliberations. Unfortunately, due to the size of the assembly and the limited time they had available to them, they had to move quite quickly through each group’s findings.
During the integration phase, the smaller groups come back together into one big assembly and share their thoughts and recommendations with the wider group. Recommendations get written down and voted on.
The recommendations ranged from political and structural ideas, such as bringing water companies back into public ownership and rewilding riverbanks and flood plains, to small scale ideas that can be implemented by community groups and charities.
After the assembly
The main aim of the community assembly was to generate ideas that can be the basis for future discussion and action within the community. After the assembly the organisers compiled all the recommendations and groups’ notes into a document which was emailed out to everyone who requested it, giving a sense of what themes came up most. They also emailed it to local councillors, the United Utilities, the Environment Agency and Mersey River Trust.
Overall, the community assembly felt like very positive and collaborative moment for the community, and hopefully will be the basis for future action. Many of the participants, some of whom are not usually politically active, remarked that they felt empowered.
On reflection the organisers of the Didsbury community assembly felt they should have set a clearer pathway for those who wanted to take the ideas they had come up with during the assembly forward. The organisers had not intended to be the ones taking the results further, however, for those who did want to take action after the assembly it would have been useful to give a clear plan of how to do so. Many of the recommendations that came out of the assembly can be achievable at the local level, and it would have been good to be able to harness that enthusiasm and energy from the assembly and point people in the right direction.
For the local XR groups, this was a chance to cultivate relationships in the community, and to build new ones. The community assembly provided a great opportunity to work together with a variety of groups and organisations, engage people who might otherwise never engage with local issues and politics, and address the needs of different local communities.
Community assemblies showcase deliberative democracy and work towards a future in which deliberative processes are at the core of our society at every level.
Do you think your local group would like to set up a community assembly to tackle issues in your area? Find out how to organise your community assembly on the Rebel Toolkit.
Join the Community Assembly Telegram Group to connect with others setting up assemblies and exchange experiences.
Do you think there should be deliberative democracy on all levels, not just locally? We agree! Find out how we believe community assemblies will help us get a UK-wide Citizens’ Assembly on Climate and Ecological Justice with the Community Assemblies Escalation Plan!