Jun 27, 2020

6 min read

How can we be more pirate?

I was at a workshop ran by @samconiff on how local government officers could be more pirate. Why would a serial entrepreneur want to facilitate a workshop with councils? What have pirates got to do with local government?

Sam Coniff, author of “Be More Pirate”, moved from being a youth worker in Brixton to founder of Livity via many other startups before launching his pirate movement. It shows that no matter what sector you’re in, you’re only a step away from something radically different. More importantly, no matter how different the activities he’s done are, he’s kept the visceral urge to constantly need to stand up what he believes in.

That can feel cliched, but how often do we actually stand up and fight for what we believe in? Rather than watch by the sidelines, leave a situation that’s too tricky to tackle, wait until next time to genuinely stand up to the system? He asked a simple but actually difficult question? Will we be ready to do the wrong thing when it ends up becoming the right thing?

I’ve found that the closer I am to being able to experience an inequality, the more likely I am to feel that visceral need to stand up. I’ve found it through working with asylum seekers, where I’ve challenged authorities who are undermining the limited rights they have, persuaded agencies to provide care for people even when it’s not their duty to do so and committed to understand people’s lives to better advocate for them. The further away I am from this, the less connected I feel to an issue, and the less likely I am to not even realise I need to stand up, let alone do something about it.

When have you felt the need to stand up and fight for what you believe in? What did you? What didn’t you? How did that feel? What did you learn?

So that we can help staff across our organisations feel able to stand up in a situation which challenges the organisation’s values, how can we help them consistently act in line with not only their personal values but those of their local area? How can we help them champion these values and own them through acting as a role model for others, but also being prepared to admit when they haven’t acted in line with them? How can we help people take a stand and act on their values even when and perhaps particularly when they’re under pressure to do otherwise? How can we help them to challenge powerful people or groups to act on their stated values and go out on a limb to defend what they believe in?

As Sam Coniff highlights, we need to rebel, we need to reunite, reorganise, redistribute and retell.

1. The powerful or pirates: Who gets to tell the story?

People naturally look for characters they can identify with. They have the power to personalize the story and deepen our connection with a particular issue.

The battle of the story is often the battle over who gets to speak for the characters that are the most sympathetic. But do the people most affected by an issue get to speak for themselves?

When the people affected by an issue are cast as characters by those in power, the fight often becomes a contest to assert who the people really affected are, and which side they are on, none more so than during the London riots — from local businesses through to the rioters themselves.

Sam told the story of how pirates have historically been perceived as evil, when in fact, they were prototyping early versions of radical democracy, be it equal pay, universal suffrage, social insurance, women’s rights, freeing slaves or self-organising teams.

How would we know how to distinguish between people disrupting the world around them for the sake of it and people actually creating more disruptive but also new forms of solidarity? From Extinction Rebellion to Fearless Cities. I helped set up, through European Alternatives, the network of “rebel cities” to help create bridges between grassroots & institutional disruptors.

How should councils respond? How can councils themselves be more pirate? How can they find and support people who may be disruptive but are doing it for the same values the council believes in?

2. Systems change pirate: how can we disrupt power rather than people live’s when we innovate?

One of the definitions of leadership is the ability to use the smallest crisis to achieve the greatest change. Many states have used economic and social crises to accelerate reform — such as the Eastern Europe countries circa 1989. In some cases have used the crisis to deliberately accelerate creative disruption, such as the cities of Tirana, Bogota and Porto Alegre. They all, in very different ways, institutionalised disruption.

In the case of disruption manufactured by institutions or Steve Hilton calling for a period of creative destruction, often associated with populism, many people now want “un retour a la normale”.

But how can we use this crisis to take back the use of disruption, not to disrupt people’s lives but to disrupt the systems that perpetrate inequalities?

Disruption can be managed, supported and nurtured. And anyone, if they want, can become part of it. However, some creators of disruptions are more equal than others — from the supermarket disrupting the local production ecosystem to the rioters disrupting not just the streets, but the relationship between young people and their society.

But we shouldn’t think that disruption is always negative. @artistsmakers set up#riotcleanup to disrupt the attitude of helplessness and desperation of people to the riots towards an attitude of courageousness and solidarity, while @adrianshort started an #anticurfew to reclaim the streets and celebrate Londoners coming together and people from Peckham have turned a Poundland into a post-it art installation to reclaim their love of the neighbourhood they live in.

“When markets fail, or new territories are discovered, pirates always emerge on the horizon” (Be More Pirate)

How can people who have less “power over” others create positive disruption by creating powers “with” others?

3. Militant optimists or disruptive deviants — How can we reframe what’s positive behaviour?

But what about putting a more positive spin on pirates as characters? It is shown that people who display eccentric behaviours defy all the stereotypes assigned to them — they are less likely to need to visit the doctor and are happier.

“Eccentrics tend to be optimistic people with a highly developed, mischievous sense of humour, childlike curiosity and a drive to make the world a better place.”

From the @kindoffensive to Militant Optimists (coined by @davidbarrie), could we apply these eccentric behaviours to community organisers to use creative techniques to bring communities together? In Japan they use manga characters as a way to invest in local identities. We need to go to unpredictable places, rethink our assumptions of what’s right and wrong — is a school climate rebellion bad because people are not learning because they’re out protesting or are they learning because of and through protest?

But we need to be careful to not confuse everything that’s eccentric & quirky with disrupting inequality. Trump, Farage & Johnson are eccentric but are using it as a cover for reinforcing power inequalities, Airbnb and Uber are quirky but are using that as a cover for reinforcing asset inequalities.

What characters would best embody your local area? Who are the pirates in your neighbourhood that could excite & mobilise people around a common cause?

4. From pirate to pirate: how can we retell stories of resistance through new tools?

You would think that a priest and a street artist have got nothing in common… You would hope that a speech about a random winter sixty years ago and the issues we face today have nothing in common…You might want our generation to be looking to our own peers for inspiration rather than an old man that recently died.

And yet everything brings them together. Because of their power of telling the stories people don’t want to hear …and don’t want to remember. Pirates or creative disruptors challenge and compel us out of our self constructed comfort zones in creative ways. By his “uprising of kindness”, the Abbe Pierre disrupted the way people think about the homeless, JonOne’s recall is a way of showing that society still needs challenging to think of people without homes as citizens too. And that as Audrey Lorde said “The master’s tools…will never dismantle the master’s house.”

“Every generation welcomes the pirate from the last” (Be More Pirate”

Which pirate do you identify with the most?