Widening Participation – Free Open Workshops

STRATEGY: Free Open Workshops

During the 6th EPT meeting in Friland (Denmark) we had a work session on the topic of widening participation, exploring strategies to reach different target groups in permaculture education.

Below is a summary of the work done under the strategy “Free open workshops”.

Our guiding questions were:

  • How well does this strategy work?
  • What can be improved?
  • Which target groups you reach with this strategy?

Lucie presented a strategy that she has put into practice recently, a series of weekly open free group work sessions. These sessions took place in the following context: a suburban lot with a house and a garden, hosted by a voluntary permaculture mentor. The participants weren’t asked to commit to attending a specific number of times; a few members attended all of the sessions while others decided to attend a few or just one. The sessions started with some theoretical chat followed by practical work. The theoretical part was scheduled ahead of time, so participants knew the topic of each day. The participants together with the mentor decided on some voluntary practical work involving permaculture applications and this took the shape of projects (for example, one of them was building a rocket stove).

The strategy worked pretty well, a core group of permaculture enthusiasts was formed and most participants made at least some degree of progress from being skeptical about permaculture to becoming enthusiastic about it.

The target groups reached with this strategy were: permaculture skeptics, busy people who are unable to commit to regular attendance, people who cant afford a course.

The presentation of this strategy was followed by a discussion about possible improvement to the strategy, other target groups that could be reached, and other applications of the strategy.

As for other potential target groups, we identified: people in an employment situation in constant flux, or in precarious, rapidly changing situations, who are therefore unable to commit to long term/continued activities; people willing to engage in community activities; people already engaged in searching for sustainable practices; people looking for alternative lifestyles.

Other ideas added during the discussion:

  • it is useful to actually have something done (practical results + doing things together) because it helps to solidify the interest and take away barriers of mystification / misunderstandings about permaculture.
  • it is important to address the issue of “what’s in it for me?”. Participants who are not familiar with permaculture will ask themselves this question so it is good to have it in mind. Sometimes it can be more successful to advertise the activity around a question (“how can we save water and money?”), a common challenge (for example, finding low-carbon solutions for long-term resilience), identified common needs and/or common goals (for example a better life and ways to meet basic needs). In summary, finding a common denominator for fostering cohesion. It is really about finding and using new vocabulary, more transparent than the term permaculture, that can bring more different people to the activities.
  • There is also a lot of potential in linking these activities with exchange networks, alternative currencies networks, time banks, etc. In some countries, where the economic situation is harder, many people are joining these networks in an attempt to meet their needs without money, or with less dependence money, and a lot of community-building is happening already. In some cases it also offers the opportunity for people to “get something out of it” and see their contribution acknowledged (example from Spain: days of collective garden work paid in alternative social currency). Moreover, these activities often spark future cooperation.
  • Using meetup
  • This kind of open activities often lead to the creation of a core group. From there, succesion follows. Dragon Dreaming is also considered as a useful launching method, with the dreaming circle exercise as a good way of starting a series of sessions having the participants’ dreams, goals, expectations, etc. included from the beginning.
  • It is also possible to make it rotating hosts/mentors instead of just one, for example on a neighbourhood level, community level, and some networks already established.
  • Another possibility: (regular) free intro to PC workshops/open workshops, etc., associated with discounts for later PDCs, specialized courses, etc.
  • Weekly/monthly… potluck to bring people together around the activities.
  • Combine with music, party, shared food, joint work, ideas for it to “compete” with mainstream activities. Example from Spain: Group work session + DJs and dinner. The host needed to clear up a big area with old polytunnels for making new beds, the participants got paid for their work in local currency, the DJs and food made it into a party, so the work was done and everybody got something out of it. It was fun, and a following session was agreed spontaneously by the group.
  • Finding ways of meeting the needs of hosts and participants.
  • Similar idea, Peter Cow’s Greece tour (free talks, workshops combined with paid PDC)
  • There was only some talk about the concept “free”, which we understand as “free acess / free exchange / free of money”, not in the sense of “gratis”, which usually leads to the activities offered not being properly valued, and a lack of commitment. All parties give and receive something and for some people it can also be a contact point with alternative economies.
  • Opportunity for cross-pollination between micro-cultures