“It’s hard to be a prankster activist and suffer all of the defeats, without having a sense of humor and camaraderie about it. When people ask me what I do, I tell them I’m failing to save the Republic.”—Andrew Boyd
Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution, by Andrew Boyd / New York NY
“it’s hard to be a prankster activist and suffer all of the defeats, without having a sense of humor and camaraderie about it. when people ask me what i do, i tell them i’m failing to save the republic.”—andrew boyd
What is the link between collaboration and activism?
This: “The people united will never be defeated!” What an annoying and cliché slogan, but there is a profound truth to it. Collaboration is a necessity of activism. It’s like the famous “Organize!” fish poster: first the big fish chases the little fish; then all of the little fish gather together and chase the big fish. We have very little power when we’re all atomized as our individual selves, but a movement has power in numbers, focus, and unity. Teamwork is the only way to have a countervailing strength against entrenched interests with the realistic expectation to get anything done. As they say, there’s only two currencies in politics: organized money and organized people. So people have to know how to organize. Mass is a fundamental principle of organizing. However, mass consensus doesn’t mean everyone has to be in total lockstep. It’s a constant search: how do you have diversity and unity? How do you find enough points of agreement in order to move forward together, while acknowledging disagreement on some things, but still have the ability to collaborate effectively? You have to find ways of effective collaboration and coordination.
This Ain’t the Sistine Chapel Art Bus
courtesy of beautiful trouble
Why produce another version of the book as a portable toolkit?
There are a lot of activist organizing manuals; but this is less about “how-to make” in a nuts and bolts way, and more about “how-to-think” in a design way. It’s a place for art, collaboration, and activism to overlap. It’s not a toolkit for groups wanting to learn about traditional lobbying or traditional campaign materials. It is more about formalizing the creative intellectual machinery from a historical and theoretical angle. Beautiful Trouble provides the conceptual machinery for activist groups to make good design decisions. A toolkit seemed like an appropriate metaphor because it’s a fairly mutable thing: you can put tools in, take tools out; some tools are needed together, etc. Activist groups can grab the idea that they want, when they need it, or even just thumb through for inspiration.
The reality is, you don’t learn this stuff and then go apply. It’s more of an integrated process than that. For the record, it’s a little strange being the subject of academic interest. Nothing should be solely for research sake. Beautiful Trouble is for practitioners, and I would hate for the book to become merely a cultural practice divorced from reality. For example, a 13-year-old who comes across this book could develop revolutionary enthusiasm. It could be a gateway into deeper engagement. Part of our goal is to encourage a more reflective practice. It’s not just, “Hey, let’s do some cool shit together!” But rather, “Why are we doing this cool shit? How do we organize that?” Effective activism puts pressure on the people with official power, and enthuses the people rallying together.
courtesy of beautiful trouble
What motivated people to help you write this book? What was your process?
The mission of the project required collaboration, in that it was harvesting and curating from a broader wisdom. People were already primed to think collaboratively. That’s how we’ve worked on other projects in the past, though collaboratively writing a book was new for most of us. Having been in this business a long time, I’ve formed a lot of relationships with people interested in the same ideas as me. They were willing to give me the benefit of the doubt. We had a lot of camaraderie in the core network of people. People had followed me into battle before, and it had been worthwhile then, so why not this time, too? Serious practitioners were intellectually intrigued by the process, because it forced them to interrogate their own practice, challenging them to make their implicit wisdom explicit, so other people could learn from them.
It’s a lot easier to write a 500 page book if you pull together 70 people to work with you. And it’s a lot easier to market a book if you have 70 people with traction in the field who are invested in it. It’s also more difficult because you have to herd all of these sneaky cats. It’s difficult wrangling content from artists and activists because you have to keep badgering them and fix their sometimes hastily written prose. There’s the practical side of it, which is everyone is extremely busy doing their own activist work and this makes it tricky when trying to complete a book. This was especially true in 2011, the year of Occupy and Tahir Square.
To get people to collaborate, you have to build things out from the center and scaffold it up. It started with me writing a one-page proposal and inviting my closest collaborators. Dave Oswald Mitchell (co-editor), Philip Smith (web guru), and I started off with the expectation of 150 chapters, although we didn’t know what any of those 150 chapters were going to be. We didn’t start out with a list, because we wanted to create a community around the book. We came up with the name and some visuals, so that we had a package to send to people. Then the floodgates flew open.
Direct Action and Power Shift
courtesy of beautiful trouble
We gathered and wrote online using Google Docs. It was this mass, collaborative, rats’ nest of a writing frenzy. We uploaded templates for different types of content. The architecture of the book afforded collaboration because of its very modular nature. In many ways, anyone could start anywhere and build out from there. The book came into focus as more and more people participated. We had lists and templates for people to modify and use. It was important that we had a system to invite them into, with a model of what we were looking for.
You want people to help you put skin on the bones. That’s a critical point. You have to work out the vision before you invite like-minded people who you know are going to be on the same page as you. Then you work out a concept just enough so that when you invite the wider participant group, it will catch fire on its own. As word-of-mouth kicks in, you want people to know what they’re being invited into. You don’t invite people in and say, “Hey, let’s figure this out together.” Rather, you invite people into something that’s resolved enough for them to decide whether to participate or not.
Ethical Spectacle: Boston Flower Power
courtesy of beautiful trouble
We used a collaborative gathering technique called Book Sprints. This is generally used for writing technical manuals, where a team of people meet up for a weekend to write a book. It can also work with programmers writing an open source programming language. We did not write our text on a weekend Book Sprint, but we did use this process to help kick things up a notch. Book Sprints help build community via face-to-face interaction. They drive enthusiasm and increase discipline. We forced everyone together for a weekend and applied peer pressure. We even had a bullhorn and hectored people to write. Philip put together a real-time bar graph that tracked how many words people had written. There was a fake and friendly collaborative competition going on. We also had people joining remotely via Skype, which wasn’t all that productive, but there was a momentum that we created. Because we didn’t pay contributors, and because they had a lot of other things going on in their lives, it was a way to rally people and make it more real.
Beyond that, Beautiful Trouble really was a cool fucking project. I’m good at generating enthusiasm. Getting people to collaborate is like being a good salesman. Co-writing a book is a lot of work, but reminding everyone that it’s going to be really cool and fun is necessary. You keep selling it as a bigger thing than it actually is. Then, as people join in, it actually becomes as big as you were pretending it was.
Part of the incentive to collaborate is respect and trust between the people involved. Some people never had their name in print. Others wanted to have their name alongside established names. Even though we were published by a commercial press, we negotiated it under a Creative Commons license. We arranged for individual authors to retain the copyright to their own writing. This gave them the chance to write material that they wanted to write anyway, but nobody else would own it. That was ethically important because it was a collaborative effort, and we wanted to respect democratic authorship and individuals’ intellectual property, while allowing the work as a whole to be shared widely.