We kicked off 2022 with a project to build a shared Theory of Change for the land justice movement. For the first session, facilitators Alice Taherzadeh and Katherine Wall led an engaging and interactive workshop to learn more about Theories of Change, introducing how they are useful for bringing self-awareness, and finding common pathways to change; also giving space to be honest about the power of land systems. The Justice Room at Oxford Real Farming Conference provided the online space to begin this conversation.
What are theories of change?
Agreeing a collective ‘pathway’ or plan for working towards a common goal helps any organisation, network or movement to identify the steps - the tools, resources and strategies - needed to get there. This is effectively a theory of change, which can be the missing piece in collective action, and one of the reasons groups end up exhausted, divided or demotivated by feeling that nothing is changing.
Holding a theory of change between people can unite them; diverse tactics can exist in parallel to one another providing there is a common goal, trust and understanding developed through this process. Putting heads together to plan when people need to put energies into a particular strategy at particular moments helps hold a movement together and be accountable to one another.
When movements win it’s because they have organised effectively together. We often ask ourselves, how did they do that so we can learn from it. But each struggle has its own trajectory and context. For instance, the anti-poll tax campaign defeated the bill through intensely coordinated mass non-payment and civil disobedience across the whole of the UK. Another example showing a different theory of change is an organisation which is part of the UK land movement, the Land Workers Alliance. The LWA is a union of farmers, growers, foresters and land-based workers aiming to create a better food and land-use system. As a membership organisation, they have grown significantly over the last years thanks to an effective theory of change which interweaves grassroots organising, building new relationships and lobbying politicians for favourable policies.
Why a theory of change for land justice?
Collectively millions of us in the UK are struggling because of inequitable access to land: we are alienated from nature, threatened with eviction, struggling to eat because of the cost of rent. The idea to co-develop a theory of change is both a method to take stock of where we are as a collective of people struggling, to bring as many people are affected by this system into caring, shared spaces - e.g. people of colour, people who live nomadic lives, small scale farmers, and housing activists, and to give more possibility to act together and to do that so we make change happen.
This work needs to accommodate the different positions and approaches people take to changing the land system, and understand that due to capacity and resource imbalances, the roles that people can take in the movement varies. Often people's preferred theory of change comes out more in actual concrete situations, in the context of real struggles and campaigns.
One aim therefore of a shared theory of change is to nurture tolerance and understanding of the different perceptions of and contexts in the world, and break assumptions around why people are involved.
What happened, what did we learn?
The session started with a visioning exercise; Alice took us to 2040, where life is different. There, we have access to land, sustainable, fair livelihoods. Whole communities living on the land together. An abundance and diversity of food and plants and kids and grown ups and animals - and a sense of peace to go with this flourishing of life. At this time we have faith in each other and we feel a togetherness even in struggle. This process helped us to focus on where we wanted to end up, why in effect we are struggling at all. We were then asked to imagine how we got there.
Alice and Katherine introduced us to 10 theories adapted from NEON’s theory of change toolkit. We split into self-selecting groups to talk about why we were drawn to particular theories and how they correspond to the activism we are involved in - how it has worked in our experience. Healthy relationships, root causes/justice and grassroots mobilisation were popular, with people also being drawn to institutional and public attitudes, amongst others. Take a peek at the spectrum lines showing how people saw their use to land movements from the slides. We were also encouraged to think about what the theory doesn’t cover, and how it could be supported by other theories - with the openness to develop new theories (variations or combinations of these, or new ones altogether) in this process which correspond to land movements.
“I feel like there are probably ways of making all the ToC's make sense with each other, but it could be about shaping and refining them so they speak to each other.”
This gave us reason to think about which theories worked well together, and which conflicted. E.g. root causes and relationships theory were conceived by some as a pair. Because relationship building is inherently an anti colonial process reversing the colonial aim of breaking up all sorts of relationships. Whilst it was suggested that political elites and reduction of violence could contradict with the justice/root cause theory, and mobilising the grassroots, because political elites still maintain the same power dynamic and undermines the empowerment of people. Not everyone agreed - hence the need for embracing different tactics at different moments in a large and dynamic strategy. People were keen to come up with something relevant and in common:
"Many of these theories could be problematic depending on what prism you view it through. A more urgent question might be which ones we prioritise and what actions we take together in what order.. ie back to strategy!"
Conclusion and what next?
This workshop, because it was held in a space attended mainly by people involved in the alternative food and farming sector, and was for paying attendees, did not include all of those involved in land justice work. The bigger movement is more diverse and disparate, and it’s one we haven’t even got the grasp of yet.
Nevertheless, this workshop sparked renewed interest in thinking both strategically and collaboratively. Our hope is that this work will help build confidence, trust and collective action for our movements - we will become more coordinated, with a embracing and communicative movement; building connections, reflecting, planning, strengthening relationships.
The next plan is to hold several in person gatherings to go deeper into this strategising from people across many different sectors, locations and groups. The questions still to work on to make collaboration more concrete are how to adapt and prioritise shared theories of change, and what we are actually hoping to change. Whilst going through this process together it’ll be important to keep asking who we are as a movement, and who is missing, so that we get who has a share in these plans.
This session was a starting point, and a learning space. What comes next will depend on all of us participating - please sign up for updates by emailing email@example.com.