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Activity 7.1 Where have we been? What have we done? Reconstruction of work done.

By Matt Noyes, adapted from Tecnicas Participativas Para la Educacion Popular, Tomo I, in collaboration with Nadia Marin Molina of the Workplace Project/Centro Pro Derechos Laborales.

Activists involved in an organizing project sometimes lose track of the larger picture of their work, especially if the group is big enough to have a staff and members working on various projects in different roles (staff organizers, activists, members, a steering committee, etc.), or if the group is spread out over different workplaces, locals, regions. Reconstructing work done over a certain period of time, can help the group bring their work together, inform each other of what has been done, and prepare for the next round of planning.

Using index cards and a timeline chart, participants reconstruct the work they have done in the previous time period (e.g. six months or a year).

Materials needed:
Need to prepare a big wall chart -- a timeline of the last [6] months. The timeline is a simple chart with a column for each month and a row for each committee/working group. Need tape, markers, and extra index cards (may need to change or add items).

Before the workshop:
Prepare the timeline and the index cards (as many as needed, say from 15 to 30) with specific accomplishments or statistics written in a phrase or one sentence. For example: "We won a $15,000 settlement from Ajax Cleaners." Write big enough to be seen when it is posted on the wall. One item per card. Do not identify which committee or area of work it belongs to -- that way people will have to sort out what work goes where, one of the points of the activity. (If that's not important, or if you have another objective you can color code the cards to correspond to each committee or area of work.)

The items should be concrete actions taken at specific times by each one of the groups present: the various committees, the board, the staff. There should be several items for each group, but they can be reflective of the actual volume of work of each group. (In other words, as important as it is, the board may not have done a lot during the last 7 months, while one of the committees may have been very busy.)

The items can also include statistics: number of members in March, number in July, number of flyers handed out in May, $ turned over by employers each month, pounds of chicken served at party, etc. (creative, but accurate, statistics are good).

Organizers need to ask each working group in the organization to choose one person to prepare a brief report on their work over the past seven months, highlights, strengths/challenges, potential next steps. The length of the presentation depends on the overall time you have and the amount of content -- if it's longer than fifteen minutes, you need to consider how to effectively share that much info. A lecture may be counterproductive.

Number of people:
Five or more.

Set up:
Participants will post index cards on a big timeline chart on the wall and discuss them. Need table or floor space where small groups can lay out and sort their index cards.

Three hours or so.


  • Motivate the activity ("we are doing this because we wanted everyone to know...") and explain the process so people know what you will be doing and how long it will take. Stress that everyone in the small groups has to participate and speak if the activity is to work.
  • Form small groups of participants that mix different roles (each group should have board members, staff, members, etc.).
  • Shuffle the index cards to mix categories and times. Deal an equal number of cards to each small group, telling them not to show their cards to the other groups.
  • Tell each small group that the goal is to look at the cards as a group, and place them in chronological order, from January to July (or whatever the beginning and end of the time period are). If someone does not know what an item is, they should ask others in their small group. If nobody knows, the group should note the question and ask the whole group later.
  • When they are done, the groups should place their cards on the timeline chart on the wall, each card under the corresponding month.
  • When all groups have their items up, the whole group reviews the finished product. The facilitator asks people what they see, or what they notice, what stands out.
  • Ask people if there are changes they want to make in the order or placement of the cards, or if they have questions about the items. {don't spend too long on this}
  • Then ask the pre-designated reporters from each area of work, or committee, to comment on their work for the past seven months, noting their strengths/weaknesses, and identifying possible next steps.
  • At the end, you may want to do a brief evaluation, using a go-round (where each person speaks for three to five minutes and no-one responds until all are done) on this question: "what did we learn about our work from this activity?"

Watch for:
Document! Write up the results of this activity to give to each of the participants; don't let great content disappear.

Time. Make sure to talk with the groups ahead of time to get a sense of what they have to present so you can plan accordingly.

Reconstruction can be used in a much simpler form and for shorter periods of time. You can ask participants to brainstorm everything they have done over the past time period, then number them if order is important. This can be valuable for a group that has done a lot of work but is so focused on what remains to be done that they undervalue their own accomplishments. This activity can build confidence and provide a way for the group to acknowledge the contributions of members and see weak spots, where more work needs to be done.

When you are self-facilitating (without an outside person in that role) you may want to rotate the facilitation among a few people who know the plan well and are comfortable facilitating, so that facilitators can also participate.

This activity is from a plan for a retreat held by The Workplace Project a community-based immigrant workers center with various players: the board, the staff, the activists, and several different projects and committees. The retreat plan was written to be facilitated by the participants themselves, choosing a facilitator for each part of the retreat. The idea for this activity was to share information about work each part of the workers' center had done over the previous period, to spread understanding of the role and activity of each person in the group, and to assess the progress of the group's work.

In a different context -- a meeting with sanitation workers in Bridgeport, Connecticut with whom I had met once before, I felt that people were overly pessimistic in describing their situation and that they undervalued what they had been doing -- taking collective actions to confront a hostile employer and deal with a do-nothing union leadership.

We had met for the first time about a month before, and this lull probably reflected frustration with continuing abuses and the slowness of change. So, at the start of the meeting, I asked people to brainstorm everything they had done in the past month and then led them in a brief discussion of their work -- what did they see? What had been their strengths? Weaknesses? What obstacles had they overcome? How had they done so much?

They were surprised at how much they had accomplished. The reconstruction cleared the way for a good discussion about the next steps and reinforced their belief that they could make changes happen. My purpose in having them reconstruct their work was not to try to convince them that all was well, but to shake up what seemed to me to be a superficial idea that nothing was changing. If I was wrong, if their pessimism was based on a sober assessment of their situation, the reconstruction would have made that clear.

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