Archives for August 2014

How to Run an ASK (Activist Skills & Knowledge) Session

Marc Hudson is a climate change activist who worked as a health care professional for 12 years. He is about to commence a PhD on how the coal industry has responded to the threat of climate change. 

In this article, adapted from the one originally published at Ask for the World, Marc runs us through how to structure an ASK session, based on his experience of having done this a number of times. He advises, though, to figure out what works for you and adapt the structure accordingly.

cartoon character for novice  cartoon character for practitioner  cartoon character for expert  cartoon character for ninja

Session Introduction

Thank everyone for coming, and announce:

This is going to be a session about how we find out who in the room has what skills, and how we can find out what skills we DON’T have, but would like to have.  The tools we’ll use are really simple, there is no need for special equipment.  Most of all, if there is anything you like from what we do in the next hour – take it. Steal it. Don’t ask for our permission. Change it, adapt it, do with it as you will.

The assumptions for this session are:

  • you have a group of people who have chosen to come to the workshop or are ‘up for it’ as part of their attendance at a day of workshops/conferences ie. resistance to doing new stuff is minimal
  • you have a big enough room for people to move around in, and flat, not tiered

Exercise 1 – Skills Stocktake

This exercise helps the group discover who has and wants what skills. It should take 10 minutes or less, depending on the size of the group.

As people are mingling and chatting, walk around the room handing out a coloured sheet of A5 paper and a white sheet of paper. You don’t have to explain what they are for – an air of mystery can help!

When everyone has their papers, announce to the group:

Let’s find out some of the skills we have in the room! Write down something you’re good at on the white paper and something you’d LIKE to be good at on the coloured bit of paper. Write in big block letters – other people have to see what you’ve written.

Then we are going to hold the sheets up and walk around seeing if anyone gets a match.

If we do get a match, shout and wave your arms. And swap contact details.

Kit Required

White and coloured paper. Markers. Space.

Facilitator Notes

There will be a little bewilderment/resistance from some people. A positive/confident manner can usually overcomes this.

People will also lurk around the edges – it’s for you to decide whether/how much to cajole folks. Some are crippled by admitting that they are good at something. Or want to be.

One way that fear is managed is people clumping with the first person they meet and getting chatting. Again, it’s for you to decide if/how to (gently!) break that up. A simple ‘Keep circulating, everyone’ may be sufficient.

Additionally, if you have time/it feels right, encourage people to pass on the names of anyone has the skills written on coloured paper to those holding those papers (‘Ooh, you should speak to x, they’re really good at that’).

Collect the bits of paper, and arrange them in white and coloured piles.

Exercise 2 – Minglers 

Minglers is a short exercise of 5-10 minutes, and can be conducted using one or a number of criteria, such as date of birth, height (with the proviso that if you’ve got someone in a wheelchair, make sure they are cool with that), how far participants have travelled to be there etc.

For example, you could use ‘date of birth’ for this exercise. You’d get people to sort themselves in order from those born on 1st January standing at one end of the room, to those born on 31st December at the other. Ask if anyone has the same date of birth, or what is the smallest gap between dates of birth? The idea is to get people interacting with people they don’t know and break up that clumping!

Kit Required


Facilitator Notes

Some people are allergic to this stuff, see it as a waste of time or cheesy corporate icebreaker sort of thing. Keep an eye on what the engagement/resistance levels are.

The people who will be interested are ones who struggle to come up with ice-breakers that aren’t really boring or complicated.

I suggest saying something like:

When you go to meetings you usually see all the people who know each other clumped together and a whole bunch of people who don’t know anyone wandering around. Those don’t-know-anyones are future leaders, future doers. But if they don’t meet anyone at the ‘meeting’, they often don’t come back again. That’s a tragedy for the movement. Things like these ice-breakers can piss off established activists, who think they are pointless because they already know half the people in the room. But they can be brilliant for the people who only know one person, or nobody. You have to ask yourself; as a facilitator, who are you there to serve – the ones who are comfortable, who will be coming back again no matter what, or the new people?

Exercise 3 – Novice Lines

This exercise is to help people know where they are, and where they would like to be in relation to a certain skill.

Clear a space so that everyone can line up, shoulder to shoulder, with enough space for them all to step forward as much as four paces, safely. If you’ve got too many people, some may have to watch the others do it.

Announce to the line:

You’re on what I call ‘the novice line.’ We’re going to find out who in the room has what skills, and we’re going to do it really quickly, and it will be fun. Honest.

Let’s take cooking for example.

If you are a novice cook you can just about boil an egg without burning the water.

Hold up the generic “novice” icon, and put it on the ground one pace ahead.

If you’re a practitioner, it means you can cook for 2 or 3 people, following a recipe book and sweating a little bit.

Hold up the ‘practitioner’ icon, and put it on the ground two paces ahead.

If you’re an expert, you can cook most things without a cook book, for a bunch of people, and there’s a fight for seconds.

Hold up the ‘expert’ icon, and put it on the ground three paces ahead.

If the phone rings and it’s one of your activist friends who says. ‘There are 20 of us. We’ve just done this amazing action – turn on the radio!! We’re arriving in two hours and we’ll be really hungry. Three of us are vegan, two are gluten intolerant and three of us MUST EAT meat. There’s 80 quid hidden in the cookie jar. Can you do it?’

If you say ‘well duh, what else you need doing at the same time?’ then you, my friend, are a ninja.

Hold up the ‘ninja’ icon, and put it on the ground four pace ahead.

Any questions?

Deal with them. The usual one is ‘what if I am not even a novice?’ – answer is ‘stay where you are.’

‘Three things. First this is NOT a judgement – you are under NO obligation to advance your skills. If you are happy as a novice or a practitioner, why should you bust a gut upping your skills, unless you want to?

Second, be honest – don’t boast and don’t be falsely modest. The more truthful you are, the more everyone benefits.

Finally, keep your eyes closed as you choose where you are, so you aren’t affected by other people’s assessments of themselves.

Everyone got it? Right, close your eyes, decide where you are going to move to on cooking, open your eyes, and… go!

There will be a good spread of people. Once everyone has stood where they are going to stand, say the following. 

Remember, the person who is best able to help you is probably NOT the ninja – they have forgotten what it is like not to know something. It’s probably the person who is just a step or two ahead of you.

Optional – you can ask the people who’ve stepped forward furthest how they developed their skills, how they keep them fresh, any advice they would offer to youngsters.  Only do it if you have time, and if the people who’ve stood far forward seem keen to share.

People tend to instantly get what you are doing, so it becomes super-quick after that first one.

Get them back on the novice line and select one of the white paper sheets (at least someone in the room will be counting themselves as an expert or ninja).

Once you’ve done a couple, announce that you are swapping to the coloured sheets.

If there is nobody who steps beyond practitioner you can say:

Right. Let’s not panic just because there’s no-one in this room with that skill. The movement is – I hope – bigger than this room. I want you all to think for a second about anybody who you know who has this skill who can be bribed or blackmailed into helping other people gain that skill. Got someone? Now step forward to where you think they would step forward to…

If there is time and energy in the room, ask for a volunteer to have a go at running a novice line.  I’ve done this a couple of times, it’s gone well, and it’s de-mystified the process, giving people a sense that there’s nothing special to it.

Kit Required

Instruction card (written out)

Big images of the novice to ninja.

Facilitator Notes

Not everyone will have the same hearing. Not everyone will have the same language skills. Not everyone will have the enthusiasm. If people dip out, don’t chase them!
Also, the first time you do it is perhaps a little complicated, but everyone very quickly understands it.

Your doubts – and your enthusiasm – will be contagious.

Exercise 4 – Novice Lines & Skills Matching

This exercise is to use ‘Novice Lines’ to see what skills would be needed to do Action ‘x’ and what skills people have. It should take 15 minutes or so.

Get people into groups of three (up to you if you do it by counting out, geography, interest or let them do it themselves!)

Have them briefly introduce themselves to each other.

Have them think of an ‘action’ (could be letter writing campaign, or a demonstration, or making a website or a report)

Have them make a list of all the skills that are needed to make that happen. Get them to prioritise those skills in a (rough) ranking of essential, needed in most circumstances, nice to have.

Get them to write those down on the left hand side of the self-audit assessment sheet.

Then get them to rate themselves on those skills, all on the same sheet. They will quickly see what skills they have and are lacking.

If there is time for feedback by each of the small groups to the wider group, keep it very tight so that energy stays high.

Our group decided to imagine we were going to do [activity]

The top three skills we felt were needed for that were [list skills needed]

In our group we had [list skills people have]

We didn’t have [list skills the group wanted but didn’t have].

Kit Required


Scrap paper

The ‘self-audit assessment sheet’

novice lines grid from novice to ninja

Facilitator Notes

This only took a few minutes, but was perhaps the most useful bit – people began to see how Activist Skills and Knowledge could be easily and usefully put into practice. If your groups are bigger than three, some people may well be isolated, on the fringes while extroverts compete for the group’s attention.

Specific groups can get ‘lost’ or focus too much, or over-think it. Remind them it’s a simple-ish two-step process. Brainstorm the skills you need, then prioritise.

Exercise 5 – Feedback  (optional)

Use a brief (no more than 10 minutes) feedback session to find out:

What did people like? What didn’t they like?

What would they have liked more time for/less time on?

What suggestions/improvements do they have?

Encourage them to take it and use the bits that work for them.

I always like to have anonymous feedback forms. But it’s also good if you leave the room and encourage people to talk among themselves for five minutes about what was good, what they’d do differently. Then come back in and answer any questions folks have.

Kit Required

Time. Anonymous feedback forms (optional)

Facilitator Notes

By now, everyone will have had enough, and be thinking about their next workshop/a cup of coffee.  Still their insights are crucial, both to the project and to you as a facilitator.

headshot of Marc Hudson

Marc Hudson is a climate change activist who worked as a health care professional for 12 years. He is starting a PhD on how the coal industry has responded to the threat of climate change. He believes that social movements are the species’ only chance, but that those social movements can’t rely on being right(eous) as a strategy.

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