Monday, October 17, 2011

Wall Street Redux

After my previous posting (Up Against the Wall Street, Oct 14), I got some push back from readers. Craig Green wrote:

I enjoyed your recent blog reflection on the choice between being a builder-upper or a tear-downer. I'd encourage you to consider Occupy Wall Street to be more of a community building endeavor than your blog suggests. Below is a snip from an article I recently shared with Shannon
[the Virginia community where Craig lives] folks that illuminates a surprising parallel between Shannon meeting process and meetings at Occupy Wall Street!

“You wait till you’re called,” she said. “These rules get abused all the time, but they are important. We start with agenda items, which are proposals or group discussions. Then working group report-backs, so you know what every working group is doing. Then we have general announcements. The agenda items have been brought to the facilitators by the working groups because you need the whole group to pay attention. Like last night, Legal brought up a discussion on bail: ‘Can we agree that the money from the general funds can be allotted if someone needs bail?’ And the group had to come to consensus on that. [It decided yes.] There’s two co-facilitators, a stack keeper, a timekeeper, a vibes-person making sure that people are feeling OK, that people’s voices aren’t getting stomped on, and then if someone’s being really disruptive, the vibes-person deals with them. There’s a note-taker—I end up doing that a lot because I type very, very quickly. We try to keep the facilitation team one man, one woman, or one female-bodied person, one male-bodied person. When you facilitate multiple times it’s rough on your brain. You end up having a lot of criticism thrown your way. You need to keep the facilitators rotating as much as possible. It needs to be a huge, huge priority to have a strong facilitation group.”

Larry Rider wrote:
I think one aspect of the question was about the phenomenon of the self-organizing nature of the movement and the use of facilitation in a large group, not just your personal involvement. Yesterday in Seattle NICA [Larry is president of the Northwest Intentional Community Association] sponsored a Facilitation Training workshop with Tree Bressen. One of the participants was currently in Occupy Seattle, and said there was a need there for experienced facilitators. Do you have any comment on that?

I have three points to make today, this second time around.

First, I'm going to repeat a point I tried to make Friday: I think protest is a valid choice in social change work; it's just not my choice of where to focus energy.

Second, I think it's important that the way you do things be consonant with what you are trying to do. Thus, if you're objecting to a culture that concentrates power in the rich, then it's important that the protesters organize in ways that give everyone a voice, and not just recapitulate the dynamic you're objecting to in the interest of expediency (where protest leaders make all the calls about what to do). From the reports that I've seen, it appears that many of the Occupy groups are making a substantial effort to do just that—which is what Craig & Larry are pointing out. That is, to the protesters' credit, the groups are organizing as temporary communities and making a large effort to operate nonviolently and to pay attention to how they are making decisions. I did not mean for my Friday blog to denigrate this in any way. This is a heartening phenomenon.

Most intentional communities (including mine) make decisions by consensus. I have been a consensus trainer for more than two decades and believe deeply in cooperative decision making. It is not coincidental that much of the pioneering work to adapt consensus from its religious Quaker roots to a secular practice was achieved among antinuclear protest groups in the '70s (see the Clamshell Alliance as an example, or the seminal work of the Philadelphia-based Movement for a New Society). I want to make clear that much important work in community building and understanding cooperative group dynamics has been accomplished among protest groups, and it won't surprise me a bit if further advancement in these areas comes out of the current Occupy efforts.

Third, the energy of protest coalesces around something one is against. When it gels, it's because others agree with your analysis of distress. While I think that protests are sometimes sustained because the protesters come to enjoy and value the experience of working collaboratively with one another, the essence of the protest dynamic is unified energy in opposition. If there weren't a problem, there wouldn't be a protest.

One of the real dangers of protest dynamics is that you can get hooked on the energy of opposing a common enemy. (Think of the bloated military budgets that our government got us to swallow for decades by banging the drums against the evil of the Red Peril: global communism.) I get nervous about bringing people together in opposition because every step you take down that road must be retraced when building solutions—because at the end of the day there are no "thems"; there is only us. If all those faceless enemies are not rehabilitated into real people that you and I can authentically hold within the compassionate circle of humanity, what have we gained? Won't we have simply replaced their monster with ours?

As someone in it for the long haul, I'm interested in what happens after the protesters go home—even if they "win." What, for example, is happening in Egypt right now, after the protesters successfully ousted Mubarek last February? To what extent, if any, have folks there been able to harness that robust protest energy and focus on how to create a more responsive government or a better culture? I don't know. If it's back to business as usual, then it's an opportunity squandered, as another Mubarek will ultimately replace the last one.

Craig & Larry both wrote about the high value placed on skilled facilitators in the Occupy groups. Great. I train facilitators. As much as anything, that's my social change work. If the people I train are inspired to ply their craft among cooperatively-based protest groups, that's fine with me. Good work is only needed everywhere.

Why am I not on the streets facilitating protest groups? Because I haven't been asked. (And, to be fair, because it's not the work I seek.) I learned a long time ago that there's no point in pushing my services on people. The joke in the field of cooperative dynamics is that there's a huge need and limited demand. Since it doesn't make any sense to ram cooperation down people's throats, change work cannot proceed any faster than the invitations. And Occupy Wall Street hasn't called.

Look back at the paragraph that Craig quoted about how the Occupy meetings are being run. It describes in some detail the mechanics of cooperative meetings, but it doesn't describe at all the heavy lifting of skilled facilitation, which is working through strongly held, value-based disagreements in such a way that everyone feels heard and respected in both the process and the final agreement. It's not my sense that there is a surplus of facilitators who can bring that to a meeting—though I'm working as hard as I can to change that.


Tree Bressen said...

Hi Laird,

So far i have helped out at one Occupy Portland "General Assembly" (GA) and participated in two Occupy Eugene GA's. Yesterday i gave a facilitation training for Occupy Eugene which was attended by over 40 people even though it was over a mile from our current site. The whole Occupy movement is very exciting to me on a number of levels, not least of which is the experimentation and learning going on around process. I am on a quick learning curve to adapt what i offer to this setting. It is an exciting time for people who care about process, democracy, and self-governance.

And community. There is amazing stuff happening at many of the Occupy sites--including Eugene's--around creating relationship between street people (or "street families," as some call themselves) and other activists. This is cutting edge culture creation, in my opinion, and regardless of how it all turns out politically, people are having life-changing experiences. Talk about "creating community where you are," well Occupy is doing that quite literally!


Becca Krantz said...

I've also been hearing amazing things about the community and consensus processes at the Occupy protests. Starhawk has been doing some facilitation training at some of them, see her blog at:

I think one of the innovations coming out of this movement is the "human mike" -- at least, I hadn't ever heard of it before. This is where each speaker has each phrase repeated by those who can hear them, to amplify it for others. In addition to addressing the lack of electrical equipment, it seems to have at least two other functions that are VERY useful to group process: helping people feel heard, and helping them keep their remarks brief and to the point.