autonomous futures

Forest: social centres article
February 25, 2008, 9:02 pm
Filed under: articles

What is the Forest? Where did it come from?

The story of the Forest began about eight years ago when a group of friends, bored and unimpressed with Edinburgh’s overpriced, commercialised entertainment and cultural options, decided to do it themselves. Basically, they wanted a cool place to meet and socialise when none existed. The idea was to pitch in some money, find a one month lease and create a space to show films, play and listen to music, make and look at art, discuss things, dance, learn skills – anything that anyone wanted to make happen. A vegetarian café would pay the rent. All of this was to happen alongside the manic chaos that is Edinburgh during Festival time. Perhaps most importantly: all of the events would be free to see and free to put on. Much to the group’s surprise, other people came along and wanted to help. Even more to their surprise, the experiment was a success. Soon they set out to do it again.

Since then the Forest has moved buildings twice, published books and put out a record, thrown street parties, hosted more than a hundred exhibitions, built a darkroom, offered workshops from Arabic to crocheting, transformed from organising as a closed group to a committee to a working group system, battled exploding toilets, grown a garden, nourished a free shop, given out grants, built a practice studio, started a swap library, made friends, battled the bureaucracy, hired out free bikes and too much more to remember. People have come, gone and sometimes they even return. Thousands of people have participated, volunteered, created and enjoyed the Forest as an alternative to the grim entertainment prospects and corporate art and culture scene elsewhere in the city.

The Forest excites and inspires people. So many times I have been told “I just can’t believe this place exists!” At its best, it provides an example of how things could be; of how to do things differently. I hope that it encourages people to take control over their own lives: to develop ideas, to create, to talk, to act. It is a community hub and a place to hang out, free from the pressure to buy and consume, right in the middle of the city. Our space stands in stark contrast to our neighbours: chain pubs, up scale hotels and multi-million pound retail-housing developments. Whilst privatisation and corporate hijinks rage on, we have carved out our own autonomous space and a different way of doing things.

What follows are a few of my personal reflections. It is not the official Forest narrative and you’d likely get quite a different interpretation depending on which collective member or user of the space you ask. Actually, you’d probably get a different story from me depending on whether I’ve been taking care of the rubbish and recycling (again), or whether I’ve just attended an amazing new exhibition opening in the gallery. Regardless, this article is an account of some of Forest’s challenges and successes. Hopefully it contains a few tips to pass onto others collectively organising spaces, as well.

Community Arts and Events Space? Alternative café? Social Centre?

Early last year I attended the gathering of the UK Social Centres Network in Bradford. It was a good weekend and great to meet other people in the network, but I was surprised to find Forest had been taken off the Network’s map. Reading the mailing list later on, I realised just how much debate existed about the inclusion of spaces which are not explicitly anti-capitalist.

The Social Centre Network’s information and publicity tends to emphasise self-management, autonomy and independence in describing what makes it different from state and NGO sponsored community spaces. In this regard, the Forest fits well. We are fiercely independent and entirely self-financed. A few projects have received grant funding, but never the space itself.  Money for rent, equipment and projects comes from food and drink sales in the cafe. Each day there is one paid kitchen manager and up to eight volunteers making this happen (more on the contentious pay issue later). Of course, we are also not-for-profit.

We strive to be as participatory and non-hierarchical as possible, whilst still managing to keep the space alive and thriving. We make decisions by consensus and we use a working group model. Five working groups organise the various aspects of Forest. A sixth group made up of members of the other five makes decisions on budgeting and issues that affect the entire collective. Anyone who has been involved in one of the five open working groups for at least three months has the opportunity to become part of this final closed working group.

The group isn’t meant to be a glamorous cabal, but more like spokes coming together from various aspects to make decisions that reflect the space as a whole. The group is made up of about 20-25 people right now. Also, it’s worth pointing out that there are some decisions and issues that benefit from being dealt with in a more closed environment. We don’t want building security (or insecurity) being discussed in an open forum with minutes posted on the website. At the Forest people know where these decisions are being made, by whom, and how to get involved. So far, this method is the best balance we’ve found between openness and keeping up with the more tedious, and sometimes sensitive, bits of administration that need to get done.

But there is also an argument that only spaces which explicitly state their opposition to capitalism have a place in this network. While other groups might provide similar services and resources, the network is about facilitating communication and links between radical, anti-capitalist social centres. I have some sympathy with this line of thought, but I also believe it is unnecessarily limiting.

For example, I cannot imagine the collective at the Forest coming together to publicly admonish capitalism any time soon. In part, this is because the Forest began in order to create an arts space and a community space. Generally, this involves quite a radical political outlook, and many radical projects and events have taken place in the space, but political activism per se is not the raison d’etre. So I can put on a Zapatista solidarity night by marking it down in the events book, and we’ll give out small grants for things like CIRCA training, but I can’t assume that everyone involved will agree with anarchist or anti-capitalist principles.

In many ways, this is one of the Forest’s greatest strengths. The diversity of happenings means a huge diversity of people using the space. Breaking out of the activist (or artist!) ghetto is not so much of a problem here. People may be drawn in by the gallery or free internet, but they can leave with a working group schedule and some trousers from the free shop. Volunteers in the café range from school kids, to asylum seekers; travellers to retirees. For many, the Forest is their first engagement with a self-managed, autonomous space. I believe that without its diversity, many would never venture to check it out in the first place. I like to think that some of them look at things in a different way once they’ve experienced it.

Paid staff

When the Forest first opened no one got paid. However, the kitchen (aka the rent paying machine) heavily relied on one individual to continue its proper functioning. This was only sustainable as long as he was on the dole, and being on the dole was not sustainable for him. So, very early on the collective had to decide whether or not it was acceptable to pay staff. I wasn’t involved, but I’m told it was a time consuming and difficult decision. In the end, there was agreement that it was better to pay someone to help coordinate the tasks which were absolutely vital to paying the rent and keeping the project afloat, rather than to not have a project at all. Over the years, the discussion has cropped up every so often, and this is usually the principle referred back to.

It’s probably important to point out that the Forest relies primarily on food and drink sales, rather than booze, to pay the rent. Sometimes we have managed to get a temporary alcohol license for August, but otherwise it’s a fairly cheap café that keeps us running the rest of the year.

Also, the space has quite ambitious opening hours. For as long as I’ve been involved we’ve been open seven days/week, from around 10am-11pm. On occasion we have to close early because there’s no one around to be responsible for locking up, but we almost always keep the hours regular.

Then there’s the huge amount of volunteer turnover. With upwards of eight volunteers staffing the café in any day there is always someone new to show around. Often english isn’t their first language and they’ve never used an espresso machine or made hummus. Without some sort of consistency it’s a recipe for utter chaos.

The responsibility and time commitment involved in making the kitchen work requires a paid role. We all have rent to pay, mouths to feed, etc. It’s unrealistic to expect anyone to sacrifice the amount of time necessary to make it happen for free. So, we have a paid ‘kitchen manager’ in the building from 10am-7pm each day. From 7pm an experienced volunteer takes over to make sure doors get locked and everything is sorted at the end of the night.

Of course, there is then the slippery slope to deal with. To keep things together we also need accounts and year end done – and now payroll! At times we have offered some compensation for this job. What about the fire alarms? We’ll get shut down without them. How about grant applications or cleaning? When does it cease to be a volunteer organised, self-managed project? As we get bigger, there are more jobs that seem to be like the kitchen manager role, further blurring the lines.

Personally, I’ve been very resistant to the idea of more people getting paid (creating hierarchies, losing volunteer initiative, selling out…), but I’m beginning to give it real consideration. Negotiating what is and isn’t a paid job is difficult, but that doesn’t mean the only solution is to pay no one. Consistency has been crucial to keeping the Forest going over the years and paying someone enables them to give their full attention to the project longer term. It would be great if everyone had the freedom to commit as much time as they’d like to the Forest, without the business of food and shelter getting in the way. Until there is a mutual-aid based solution to this wider problem, some form of compromise is necessary. In the meantime, we’re still trying to figure out what the best answer is for us.

The Future

Over the years the Forest has evolved from a small shop front venue organised by a few friends, to a sprawling multi-purpose space with participants from most parts of the world. Along with new opportunities, this growth has created many new questions. One of the biggest is probably whether or not the Forest would be best served by downsizing.

The project thrives on new crazy ideas and constant creative output. This inspires people to get involved and stay involved. It prevents things from getting stale. However, a bigger building means more administration and management, and less time to implement our ideas and dreams. Most of us did not get involved simply to become service providers for others. Then again, limited space means we might not be able to house all the resources we’d like. Do we sacrifice the darkroom or practice studio or the meeting space?

This is even more relevant now that it looks like we will soon be moving buildings again. What do we want in a new space? Where do we go next? Thinking about another move can be both scary and exciting. It’s hard not to get sentimental about a place we’ve devoted so much and time and energy to building, but the process of coming together to prepare a new building can also be an inspiration and catalyst. After all, change is the opposite of death.


A+ for activism
February 23, 2008, 9:15 pm
Filed under: reflective log

Getting graded for activism is very strange. Suddenly I’m thinking about my particular contribution to any given task, rather than just getting things done. Should I take on some responsibility for the kids space too? How do I quantify the time spent preparing a facilitation workshop that someone else will be facilitating? It is great to have the opportunity to devote time to all of this, but it’s also making me surprisingly uncomfortable.

themes and values
February 14, 2008, 8:44 pm
Filed under: reflective log

I keep working away on Climate Camp stuff for this portfolio, but I haven’t really been giving much thought to how it actually relates to the values and themes discussed in the assessment. Of course the Climate Camp’s aims are very much related to the course themes: sustainable living, education, direct action and movement building. But how does this relate to organising and promoting one of the gatherings?

I think the whole reason we decided to take on this gathering is an exercise in movement building. We’ve been working really hard the past couple of years to build capacity in Scotland, particularly Edinburgh, and this is a way to extend that. We’re planning an information event on the Friday evening and I am hoping to get the Climate Camp photo exhibit to put up at the Forest beforehand. Getting What Better Time? printed regularly fits into this too.

In terms of education, I think a lot of us will be getting a crash course in large group facilitation at the gathering. The workshop I’m organising is an attempt to skill up in advance. Agenda and facilitation planning on this scale will also be something relatively new for most of us.

There’s a big idea to do some sort of action on the Monday after the gathering, but somehow I doubt this will come to fruition. If anything, there’s a good possibility action taken by our affinity groups will wane in the lead up to the gathering. Where are we going to fit in organising stuff for Fossil Fools Day?

I hope it is fairly obvious how all of this promotes values like cooperation, solidarity, self-management, autonomy and DIY culture. What attracted me to the Climate Camp in the first place was a gathering in Leeds last year. I’d never seen such thoughtful, well organised facilitation and consensus decision making in a large group. It was inspiring – not tedious and painful at all! Hopefully someone will come out of the meeting in Glasgow with a similar feeling.

Climate Camp and Scottish Climate Action
February 8, 2008, 1:28 pm
Filed under: implementation, reflective log

I talked to Paul on Tuesday and confirmed that I’ll be doing Climate Camp organising as my output for Autonomous Futures. I was a bit concerned with what constituted enough work and how open ended it might become. But, 150 hours goes quickly, especially with a two day gathering, meetings, etc. I don’t think there will be any problem with having enough to do.

We had a Scottish Climate Activists meeting on Wednesday night in Stirling. I let the group know about my coursework and made sure everyone was happy with me going ahead. I was slightly concerned that one person taking on so much of the organising might not be good for group dynamics, but everyone seems happy about it.

It was agreed that I should go ahead with trying to organise a facilitation workshop leading up to gathering. I’m also thinking about an afternoon of mock facilitation after the workshop where we can give each other suggestions and ideas.

I’m going to be taking on food buying for the weekend as well as helping with venues for meetings and entertainment. Agenda setting and facilitation will come after the Nottingham gathering. A kids space is being planned and we also want to have an info night/film screening on the Friday before the gathering.

We’re hoping the gathering will be a good opportunity to get new Scottish people involved in the process. Usually the gatherings (and the camp!) are so far away that it is difficult for people to come along. Also, last summer’s barrio was very Edinburgh centric, so we’re hoping a Glasgow meeting will draw them into the process, as well more people from up north.

Fossil Fools Day is on the backburner until the next meeting in two weeks.

There is a new newsletter being put out by the group called What Better Time? Issue Two is at the printers and we’re working on getting a distribution list together. I haven’t been involved up to this point, but I’m planning on putting something together for Issue three. We’re aiming for the first week of March to have it printed and distributed. The aim is to make it monthly after that.

Minutes from February 6th climate activist meeting
February 7, 2008, 10:23 pm
Filed under: implementation

– Next meeting will be Thursday 21st February in Edinburgh: 5.30pm at Jon/Sam/Tom’s flat, 7 Melville
– After that: meetings will happen every 2 weeks on Thursdays at 6.30pm. The meetings will rotate between Glasgow Edinburgh and Stirling
– This can be changed if it conflicts for too many people not at the meeting (we were eight people for
whom it worked)


Shout Outs

Saving Iceland/EF Gatherings
– Saving Iceland and Earth First gatherings in Nottingham on 23/24 February — get in touch with
Katie immediately if you’d like to go to the Saving Iceland gathering (they need to know numbers)

Faslane Peace Camp Benefit
– Monday February 11th at the 13th Note in Glasgow


What Better Time Than Now
– Check out the website! A monthly newsletter on Scottish climate happenings and issues
– Sam has been doing most of layout and writing up to this point, but would like more people involved
– January issue at printers
– Aiming for first week of March to have next issue printed, and consistenly monthly after that
– Decided that Scottish Climate Action meetings (these meetings!) are a good forum for discussing the
newsletter, but nitty gritty editing will be done on a separate list – email to be added
– Distribution: It is being printed in Glasgow. Need to get about half sent over to Edinburgh. Shannon to ask Lucy if she can bring them with her when she comes. Beth to pick them up and get them to Lucy(not sure about this?)
– Sam will make list of places to distribute and put on list so people can add to it. Shannon volunteered
to post stuff.
– We will pay for posting the first issue out of pocket, but will need to fundraise costs after that.


Scottish Climate Action as coursework
– Shannon is taking a Masters and would like to use Scottish Climate Action stuff as part of her work.
Doesn’t involve any research, just making stuff happen.
– Everyone is cool with this. Keep her in line if she’s taking over!!


Update from Leeds Climate Camp Gathering
– We had an update. Minutes from the meeting will be posted to the list soon. Look out for them! Next meeting is in Nottingham on the 1st/2nd of March. Scotland will be hosting the gathering on April


Climate Camp National Gathering Scotland

– Need to confirm as soon as possible for travellers
– We would like it to be Glasgow to help expand the network there. Last year neighbourhood was Edinburgh dominant.

– The Phoenix Centre in Glasgow is provisionally booked
– Mel to find out if we can sleep there and if it is accessible. If so, we will confirm.
– If not, we must have a venue by next meeting at the latest. Beth to look at Pierce in Glasgow, Shannon to look at the Drill Hall in Edinburgh.

– Shannon wants to organise facilitation training workshops before the event to get us skilled up and
confident to take things on at the gathering, etc.
– She will get in touch with Dan who is already organising something
– We will be able to get help from people in other areas, but it will be a good opportunity for us to
gain experience

– We have a confident kitchen crew from the camp ready to coordinate meals – need a coordinator or two for four meals plus breakfasts, will decide slots closer
to date
– Shannon will deal with food ordering (contacts at Green City, Grow Wild and others)
– ask Mel to ask the Phoenix about kitchen equipment available there (how many big puts, how much cutlery, etc) — also: does Mel want to continue being the venue contact, or would she like to pass this on?
– get list of equipment needed to Sam and ask Trident Ploughshares to lend what we need

Kids Space
– It’s happening and it will be great! Lots of enthusiasm to make this a really kid friendly gathering
– Must keep this in mind for sleeping arrangements too: a separate room/space for early to bed and a
quiet event in the evening for families and those who don’t want to go out drinking.

– Far and wide to get new people involved!
– We want to do a Friday night film/info event on the 4th of April to welcome new people and give them some background on Climate Camp before the gathering
– Beth to find someone to contact venues like CCA
– Other publicity will be dealt with closer to date

– We want this separate from our meeting/sleeping
– Katie to look into spaces to run our own bar/party (so we can raise money from bar takings)
– Shannon and Sam will help looking at venues
– Sam willing to do the bar later on
– Start looking at venues like the 13th Note in case we can’t get a space to organise a bar party
– Abi wants to dj! We have band contacts but will decide on entertainment once we know what kind of
venue we’ll be using

– We have £300 from finance to get started
– We are trying to get food on credit
– We may ask for donations/contribution on the door if there are extra costs
– We would like to use the Saturday night entertainment as an opportunity to raise funds
– Shannon will talk to finance to see if we need to pay the £300 back
– Where will money for publicity come?
– Budgets will be sorted closer to date, but we have enough to get started
– Shannon talked to Garry and he expects to have remaining money owed in the next couple weeks.

Welcome Desk
– We will need one. Someone greeting new people, letting them now how everything works, taking travel pool contributions and giving out meal tickets, etc. We should be able to get help from other people, but need to cover at least the first morning of the gathering ourselves and Sunday morning too. Can you help with this?

– It’s cool if people want to plan an excursion the day after the gathering. Encourage people to stay an
extra day and go for a nice walk?

That’s all!