A couple of Saturdays ago Belfast Feminist Network hosted a face to face meeting. We weren’t quite sure what to call it if we’re honest. Members’ meeting? Away day? At one point the working title was even ‘the AGM’ which, on one level, is ridiculously formal given BFN’s lack of anything resembling formal structure but on another level reflected our genuine desire to have some sort of completely open dialogue where everyone who feels at all invested in BFN could come and have their say in shaping its future.
What it turned out to be in the end was a day of looking back, using this feedback to try and figure out what you want BFN to be, and looking forward.
After a year of organising under a loose structure with a range of sub-groups led by pairs of people passionate about facilitating activities under each theme, we needed to take stock and hear about how that had been working. In terms of the products of this sub-group structure, there was a lot of positive feedback. Events like Vitamin F, Reclaim the Night and Culture Night stood out as highlights as did the more informal social activities like the book club, film and craft nights and the opportunities for direct action and lobbying. People discussed areas that they feel are not currently reaching their full potential like the using the website more and ensuring that we follow up events like Vitamin F in order to maintain the momentum and give new people opportunities to get more involved. While people were very positive about the activities provided by the peer support sub-group and wanted to see more of these relationship building opportunities, some felt that the name could be off-putting. They also pointed to the BFN Facebook group as a source of negativity that could alienate potential members.
What do you want BFN to be?
In recent months the sub-group leaders have begun to feel like a bit of a committee because we meet regularly, plan activities, and make some low level decisions about the life of BFN. However, when faced with some bigger questions about the next steps for BFN we realised that we didn’t all have the same perspective on exactly what we wanted BFN to be. Which led to the conclusion that we shouldn’t really be operating as a committee because no-one delegated that responsibility to us and if we disagree on these bigger questions then the likelihood is, so do the wider membership.
Still with me? Great. The green squiggly line is telling me those last two sentences are terrible so if you need to read them again to get your head round our dilemma that’s totally understandable J
This all meant that we were approaching the meeting extremely hungry for dialogue and opinion (no matter how strong) that would get us to the essence of what people want from a grassroots feminist network like BFN. Should we be formalising now that our numbers are getting bigger? Is it enough for you to decide for yourself if you’re ‘involved’ or not or would people get more from the chance to be a card-carrying member? Should BFN be pushing for more public visibility and trying to drive forward a feminist agenda or does our strength lie in being a behind the scenes point of support for people doing activism in their own ways? Do you want us to set more concrete goals so that you can feel we are achieving something together or does that sound a bit too professionalised?
Rather than attempt to answer all of these with the 15 or so people who made it to that meeting, we started with a question that we hoped would shed light on all of the others – when something works well in BFN, why is that? The discussion took us to two quite different answers, potentially highlighting the main priorities for people who want to be a part of BFN:
- Things work when they are concrete, well-organised, galvanising, mobilising, providing people with a platform to act, reaching out beyond ourselves, raising awareness, changing minds, challenging the dominant voices in society.
- Things work when they provide us with a safe space, a chance to socialise with other feminists as that can be difficult to find, non-intimidating, open to everyone regardless of how much they feel they know or understand about feminism, offering chances to talk and get to know people, building relationships, community and alternative feminist culture.
In the past year BFN has made a point of trying to do more of the first of these than ever before. The positive feedback on these activities suggests that it has been worth it. But the strength of feeling about the need to give more focus to the second has started a conversation about how we might take things forward with a different focus. You could view these as competing priorities. On the other hand, there’s no reason why we can’t organise in a way that cultivates both. We need to hear more from you about how best to do that.
While we did not entirely resolve BFN’s existential angst we have started to get a sense of what BFN means to people and how to steer things in that direction. We also made an open call for ideas for specific activities you’d like BFN to undertake. The summary is below. All of these come with the caveat that the current sub-group structure could continue as a platform for making these happen but is in real need of more volunteers. The events sub-group in particular is currently operating way beyond capacity.
It was suggested that the name of the peer support group could be off putting, one alternative of ‘feminist circle’ was suggested, to reflect that the main aim of peer support is relationship building in a safe space. There was also the suggestion of a ‘topical discussion group’ where people could get together and have a chat about a particular issue, without any real aim except sharing views and learning about others’ perspectives on feminist issues.
It was also suggested that more informal social events, without an agenda as such, would be useful. While the big events were well received, people wanted to hang out with other members and get to know them socially. The reach of events needs to be improved, this could be through better use of communications.
Communications could be improved by having more frequent public Facebook posts, some members at the meeting didn’t know about the public Facebook page or the twitter. The blog should also be more frequent, which should be possible after the website is redeveloped. It was discussed that the blog should be open to people to submit a piece to about a feminist issue that interests them. While work would be reviewed before being published, this would be constructive. Differing views on topics could be blogged about, as BFN is a network of people with differing opinions.
While the Facebook group is the first point of contact for most members, some people felt there was an aggressive and critical environment in the group, and were put off posting for fear of reprisal. There was also some criticism that the focus is not on things that are local, or that we can directly change. However overall the Facebook group was seen as useful as a way of finding out what BFN was up to, and about topical issues.
People were interested in how to get more involved ‘in real life’, with many at the meeting expressing an interest in joining one of the sub groups but weren’t sure about how to get more involved. There will be a sort of recruitment evening in September where people can find out about the sub groups and see if they are interested in helping. This will be followed up by sub group meetings. The event in September will double up as a social event, since that is what people said they really wanted – to have fun with other members J.
In conclusion, this meeting was incredibly important. We are so grateful to everyone who came along, stuck the heat and contributed their energy and honesty. We have to view it as a first step in answering some of the big questions set out above. We also have some practical decisions to make that we didn’t get to answer.
Should we recruit another BFN Coordinator now that Liz Nelson has come to the end of carrying that role way beyond the 6 months she originally signed up for (thank you!)? Should we keep the current sub-group structure and continue to define the leaders’ roles as simply people who facilitate activities? Or should we take steps towards delegating more decision making to this smaller group as the wider membership continues to grow?
One big question that remains complex and unresolved is the journey we are on with the BFN Facebook group. Having discussed at length the relationship between this social media group and the community that BFN is trying to build in the real world, we have made numerous attempts over the last few years to keep the two as aligned as possible. We have more recently had some discussions about the costs and benefits to keeping this Facebook group aligned with BFN, including the possibility of renaming it so that it can continue to evolve as an open space for online feminist discussion without the need for BFN to manage it as a space that is in keeping with our values.
On this and all the other questions, we need your views. Please feel free to start that process in whatever way you want. Comment on this post, email BFN, discuss it on the Facebook group or page. We will also use some online polling tools over the coming weeks to address specific questions so keep an eye out for opportunities to engage that way. At the end of the summer we’ll come back to this discussion and try to summarise the feedback we’ve been receiving.
Thanks again for all that you bring to BFN. In its simplest terms, this network is a beautiful collective of courageous, passionate people who are living feminism every day and those of us in the organising roles are constantly aware of how lucky we are to be able to offer something to help support you.