Monday, November 28, 2011

Defusing the Powder Keg of Sexual Abuse

I recently received this inquiry from a person in a well-established community wrestling with the explosive issue of sexual abuse:

Our community has recently had an experience of having a sexual assault predator living here who was arrested on charges. We were completely caught off guard in regards to this endemic social issue entering our community. We’ve done lots of healing and brought in a sexual assault prevention educator—all of which has been good. Now we’re at a crossroads, needing to make decisions about how to be responsible gatekeepers and guardians of our community. In other words, what proactive prevention do we put in place? I’m curious if you have had any experience with communities setting agreements for proactive prevention? And what have other communities done to provide a forum for that “uh-oh”/gut feeling that someone isn’t a good fit (could be around this issue or anything, really)?

This is a tough issue, mainly because it brings into play several complex challenges all at the same time:
o A wide range of societal views about what constitutes healthy sexuality
o Widespread disagreement about how much it's advisable (or even acceptable) to openly discuss sexual matters
o The boundary between private matters and group matters
o How the group works with intuition and gut feelings
o The group's responsibility to be a safe environment to raise children
o How to work constructively with strong emotions

It can be overwhelming knowing where to begin and how to proceed.

While I am not a sexual abuse expert, I am a group dynamics expert and I've been involved with a handful of instances where groups have had to handle this hot potato. Here is framing that I've assembled for setting the stage when charges of sexual abuse arise:

1. Sexual misconduct is common. According to statistics from the Eugene OR Police Dept, 30% of all females are sexually assaulted by the age of 13; 25% of all males are sexually assaulted at some point in their life; 45% of all children are sexually assaulted by the age of 18. This means
it is a statistical certainty that in a group of 30 that a significant number of the adult members have personally experienced sexual abuse in some form and that they are looking at current events through that lens.

2. Sexual abuse covers a lot of territory—all the way from a single incidence of inappropriate touch between adults who had a bit too much to drink, to repeated sodomizing of a child. I'm not implying that any abuse is OK, only that the damage and severity can vary widely.

3. It is not possible to create 100% safety from abuse (or 100% safety from anything). No matter how much we desire to minimize risk, we can never eliminate it. Parents and the community must wrestle with what is acceptable risk.

4. It is often difficult to know the full story, or to agree on what actually happened. While it's obviously beneficial to narrow the area of disagreement about the "facts" to the extent possible, the group may need to develop a response without clarity about how bad a particular incident was. On the plus side, it may be possible to agree that the alleged actions are unacceptable, and the group needs to be less naive and more vigilant about watching for potential abuse—even if you cannot reach agreement on whether the alleged actions occurred.

5. Lack of information degrades trust. To the extent that trust has been eroded
and relationships have been damaged—either with individuals or with the group—it's important to open up lines of communication among members.

6. This work is made difficult because of the tension between: a)
the need to share as a prelude to healing; and b) the desire for privacy—both about sexual matters in general (which tend to be outside the scope of the group's business), and about the specifics of an incident (or incidents) that are likely to be embarrassing and possibly humiliating.

It is generally not fruitful to attempt to rebuild trust or to discuss constructive steps until there has been a thorough opportunity to share pain, anger, fear, and other emotional responses to events. As you might imagine, this can be highly volatile and difficult to handle in a way that creates an opening for authentic expression while at the same time protecting people from getting psychically lynched.

8. In the community context there are aspects of creating safety from sexual predation that are private (for example, what parents decide about educating their children regarding abuse), and there are aspects where the community is a clear stakeholder—by virtue of having made an explicit commitment to being a safe place to raise children. Understandably, it can be dicey knowing where to draw the line between private and public, and it's very hard to get motivated to have this conversation without in issue driving it. Unfortunately, once there is an issue, it is much harder to navigate the uncertainties with sure footing and even-handedness.

9. Combining points 1, 3, & 8, this means the group may be discussing the nuances of acceptable risk in an environment where people may feel freshly betrayed, are uncertain of the line between private and public, and where some members are probably seeing the issues through a lens of past abuse that may not have been disclosed and may not have been worked through by the individual. That's about as thermonuclear as it gets.

10. On the matter of how much information about incidents of sexual misconduct is shared, there is a direct clash between two strongly held principles that make it delicate and awkward to know how to proceed: on the one hand sharing information about allegations and evidence as fully as possible would aid individuals in making their own assessment of risk, and honors a deep tradition in our culture that the accused has the right to full access to the evidence upon which the accusation is based; on the other, there is strong agreement among abuse professionals that where there is a question of a minor's safety you should err on the side of protecting the child. Now what?

11. Polarized dynamics do not get better on their own; the group needs to take active steps to turn things around.

12. After the group has worked through the trauma of the alleged events and the aftermath of the revelations, plus reached decisions about how to proceed more wisely in the future, there remains the delicate question of how to tell the story. What constitutes fair notice to prospective members, and how will the community respond to media inquiries? How important is it that group members offer a consistent story? What can and should be done to protect the privacy of affected individuals?

• • •
Getting back to the query that triggered this blog, I offered this advice about how a group might approach the question of examining "uh-oh" feelings that residents might have when they encounter a new person on the property that someone doesn't feel is safe:

Many groups create a standing committee whose job it is to be of assistance if there arises interpersonal tensions between members that the protagonists are unable to resolve directly or informally. Building on this general concept, I advocate creating a special version of this—a committee of 2-3 people whose sole job it would be to assist residents explore uneasy feelings about anything happening on campus. Thus, if someone had an "uh-oh" feeling they could go to this special committee (or any single member of it, if that felt more accessible) and explore it.

The committee's job would to to take every instance of this seriously. They'd listen carefully, and help the observer figure out where the discomfort arouse and what the appropriate response should be. This committee would use guidelines that the community had established ahead of time about the boundaries of safe and appropriate behavior, and would have the authority to discreetly inquire about what was happening if they felt that was warranted.

While the committee would be expected to operate with a high degree of discretion and confidentiality, they would also, in extreme circumstances, have the authority to call in legal authorities if they discovered something sufficiently serious or alarming. (The conditions necessary to invoke this power would need to be spelled out by the community.)

Once the committee was made aware of an uneasy feeling, they'd stay with it until all parties felt it was resolved. This could include (but is not limited to):
o Reaching resolution simply by talking through the initiator's ill feelings.
o Finding an innocent and satisfactory explanation by collecting more information about what was observed.
o Discovering background about the person
who triggered the uneasy feeling (perhaps information about cultural habits) such that their behavior made more sense and was no longer threatening.
o Moderating a conversation between the observer and the trigger person such that both reached an understanding about how the trigger person might change their behavior and the observer would be more accepting.
o Uncovering information about the triggering person (perhaps an undisclosed felony record) such that there might need to be a community-wide conversation about how to respond.

If the committee felt that there was sufficient cause for concern, they could recommend that the community have a meeting to discus the information available and what to do about it, if anything.

For their part, community members would need to agree that if the committee approached a member to discuss what they did or what they observed, that they would be expected to make themselves available for such a conversation. No ducking. (This is not about admitting guilt; it's about committing to a good faith effort to understand and resolve concerns.)

For this to work well, considerable care should be taken to select the right people to fill the committee slots. As individuals, these people will need to be highly trusted, excellent listeners, good communicators, possess good judgment, capable of keeping confidences, and be available. As a collection, these folks will need to deemed accessible to everyone in the community, and able to work well together. While you hope that this committee will not have a lot of work, you'll want them to do it well when there's a knock on the door, or a niggle in someone's belly.

This is my attempt to create a clear pathway for honoring intuitions about discomfort while protecting people from witch hunts; it's a middle way that balances the right to privacy with the responsibility to protect the group; it offers troubled people a sympathetic forum without leaping to conclusions or reaching for a bullhorn.

Sexual abuse is a tough issue, and communities are not exempt from it. The good news is that there are nonetheless tools and sensibilities available in community to handle it compassion and determination.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Consensus as an Unnatural Act

As a process consultant, I get frequent opportunities to share what I consider the essence of consensus—the most popular choice for decision-making in cooperative groups.

While there's a lot to say, I've come to believe that there are three most important introductory points to get across:

a) Groups will not get good results unless they're prepared to create a different culture—one that's oriented toward curiosity rather than combat in the presence of non-trivial differences. Given the way most of us have been conditioned, being curious in the face of someone disagreeing with you is an unnatural act. We are taught to defend, not to break bread with the enemy. Yet combat discourages open disclosure and sharply limits the flow of information. Job #1 is keeping the ideas moving freely.

b) Consensus is the nuanced intersection between relationship and decision-making—if you're not attending to both, you'll not be happy with the results. In the wider culture we're mostly taught to set relationships aside in the pursuit of sound decisions; in cooperative culture however, we value how we reach decisions about as much as what decisions we reach. If you neglect relationships you risk birthing agreements with stillborn energy. If, on the other hand, you attend to relationship and lose focus on problem solving, you may drift into an emotion-laden quagmire with no clear exit. Both forms of imbalance tend to be unsatisfactory.

c) Meetings call for different behavior than informal settings, and participants need to learn both what's appropriate and the discipline to modify their behavior accordingly. I teach groups that the mantra of participants in a consensus meeting is:
What does the group need to hear from me on this topic at this time?

This guidance is so nutrient-dense that I want to parse it into five components:

1. The Group
The context is a group conversation. That means screening possible comments for those that are group-relevant, and having the internal fortitude to discard the rest for another context. The point is that everything that is of sufficient interest—or even potency—for the individual may not be pertinent in the group context. To succeed in this, the participant needs to be clear about the group's purpose and what things are appropriate for plenary consideration.

2. Need
This is an assessment of relative importance. Rather than looking for "What can I think of saying about this topic," participants should be looking for "What is sufficiently germane and potent that the group needs to take it into account." If someone else has already offered the thing you were poised to contribute, you may not need to speak.

To be sure, there's considerable nuance around what the group needs to hear. If you're undecided, it's likely better to speak up and let others help you sort the essential from the elective.

3. From Me
If you say nothing, people may be left to guess how to interpret your silence. It could mean that you have nothing to add, or it could mean:
—You're confused about what the topic is.
—You're distracted by a personal challenge that has nothing to do with the topic.
—You're bored and have been spacing out.
—You're so upset that you're afraid to speak because you might vomit on someone and create a big mess that there's not time to clean up.
—You're still formulating a response and just aren't ready to speak.

Because silence can be so confusing, it's typically better to offer something like, "So-and-so speaks my mind," than to stay mum because you don't think you have anything new to add. Not only does this only take a few seconds, people will not be left to guess where you stand. Choosing to let everyone know that you're fine with what's been said is even more important if you're identified as a key stakeholder, as people will likely be tracking your silence even more closely.

this is all together different than making the same point as someone who spoke before, and then taking just as long or longer to do it, in an effort to find fresh phrases for the same concept. Remember, the point of the meeting is not how good you look; it's how good the group's thinking is.

4. On The Topic
It's not uncommon for a person's brilliancy to be triggered by the topic at hand, yet not be about the topic at hand. If that's the case, can you restrain yourself from insisting on sharing your inspiration? Whenever you indulge that impulse and stray off topic you're not being a good consensus participant.

To be fair, it isn't always easy to tell what the topic is, and therefore you may be unsure whether a proposed comment is in bounds or coloring outside the lines. That's where a good facilitator comes in.

5. At This Time
There's a predictable journey that topics take when traveling through plenary consideration, and different kinds of comments are appropriate at different stages. For example, during the discussion phase you're not looking for potential solutions (you're looking for the factors that a good proposal needs to balance); during the question phase you're not wanting any statements about blocking concerns (at this early stage you're only wanting to make sure that everyone understands the issue, not what positions they'll lay down in front of the bulldozer over).

In my experience it takes your average cooperative group years before these essential consensus elements become so ingrained that the responses surface naturally. The good news is that it's possible.

• • •
Post-Thanksgiving Postscript

For those who read my blog of Nov 16, Granddaughter Down, I'm happy to report that Taivyn is now home and completely free of the C Diff infection that knocked her down. While she still has a ways to go on the road to normalcy (she needs a bland diet and plenty of rest for several weeks), she is expected to make a full recovery and her parents had ample reason for giving thanks yesterday. I also want to express appreciation to all my readers for the outpouring of loving support that my posting generated. I was touched, and I like to think that all that healing energy helped her turn the corner just that much faster.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Loneliness of the Highly Motivated

I get a lot done.

I enjoy taking on responsibility (if it's appropriate to my skills and interests). If the values are right, it's a service opportunity and it gives me considerable satisfaction to be useful and productive (which are not the same thing). While it's not necessarily a slam dunk finding ways to get paid for doing what you believe in, I've even been pretty good at that (for which I thank my entrepreneurial father). Taken all together, I love my life and consider myself blessed. Yet it can also be lonely.

A. Out of Control
People look at what I take on and consider it prima facie evidence of irresponsibility. Projecting themselves into my workload, they figure they'd be overwhelmed, and therefore I must be as well.

I know that's not very sound thinking, but trust me, people do it all the time—there's a significant difference between projecting yourselves into another person's being (experiencing the world through their persona), and projecting yourself into another person's situation (where it's you in their skin). As a facilitation trainer, I encourage students to develop their capacity for the former, which leads to empathy, while discouraging the latter, which leads to judgment.

My personal work: It used to irk me that others didn't do as much as I did. Was I being taken advantage of? Why weren't people applying themselves?

Gradually, I learned the value of focusing on taking care of myself and not others (which, it turned out, no one was interested in my doing anyway). I learned to avoid the trap of martyrdom, where I did more than I felt comfortable with (perhaps to make up for others doing less; perhaps to indulge a compulsion) and then resented the extra work that no one asked me to do. As you probably already know, this doesn't go well—and it's damn hard to engender much sympathy for your anguish if it comes across as a guilt trip.

Going the other way, I ask that people let me work at the levels I enjoy. The deal is that I don't expect others to do what I do, and I expect the same in return. My work is too keep my commitments to what I can handle with equanimity. While I still might have resentment about others not doing their fair share, I work diligently to not have resentment about others not working at my level.

Mind you, this does not mean I never over commit. In fact, I mess up all the time. I belong to the school of thought that it's better to avoid lulls than overwhelm, and my boisterous optimism regularly leads to filling my plate to the point where it's a near certainty that stuff will fall off. However, I'm not focusing here on the perils of optimism; I'm examining the isolation of motivation.

B. An Unwanted Mirror
People are naturally curious and we live in a competitive culture. Often, people will subconsciously and automatically compare their life with whomever they come across. It's uncomfortable, however, when you're stacking yourself up against a highly motivated person. There's strong conditioning to define ourselves in terms of our accomplishments, and when that's in play most people are not going to enjoy comparing theirs with mine.

On a gross level, they may feel challenged by my productivity. On a subtle level, they may chose to leave me alone, or to find fault (so that they can engineer feeling better about the comparison). I'd rather that comparisons weren't happening at all, but that's not in my control.

My personal work: While I like being seen for my contributions, there's a dangerous ego trap lurking below the surface. I work constantly on trying to honor the work of others without keeping score about how much honoring I receive in return.

As a professional facilitator, I've learned to read people quickly and be able to bridge to the essence of their experiences based on a small sampling of data. Sadly, I rarely receive in return that which I am able to give others. Worse, in my instance it's a double whammy: not only are there not that many people such facilitative skills, there aren't that many people who can even imagine what it's like to keep so many balls in the air. I come across more as a circus act.

Come one, come all! In the course of 72 hours watch the amazing man teach a dozen facilitation students, while simultaneously pulling rabbits out of the hat by offering a breakthrough proposal in the last five minutes of one live meeting after another, all the while posting a pithy blog entry, keeping up with email traffic from across the continent, and still finding time to play three games of Settlers with his 14-year-old stepson! (Most people think I'm pretty weird.)

C. Work Over Relationship
This one hurts. For those who prefer a mix that's richer in social time and leaner in work time, I present as a workaholic, as someone who has an atrophied social life. While there's doubt a real and tender thing is happening here if you want more of my time than I make available, the irony is that my work, overwhelmingly, falls into one of three categories: a) helping groups successfully navigate the tensions and confusions of complex and/or volatile issues; b) administrative work for FIC, a nonprofit dedicated to offering up-to-date, accurate information about intentional communities and promoting cooperation; and c) doing what I can in support of my home, Sandhill Farm, an agriculturally based income-sharing group in northeast Missouri, where, for the most part, I try to focus on covering work others don't care for.

As I see it, all of my work is relationship based, so it's tough when I get criticized for neglecting that part of life.

My personal work: My job is to avoid the trap of defensiveness, and be available to hear the pain of those who feel left behind in the choices I make about how I apportion my time and my attention. My work is to establish a sense of my personal relationship with integrity (my moral compass) and then accept with grace that my choices may not look so good when viewed through other people's lenses.

One thing is for sure: I'm a much more attractive friend as someone who's at emotional peace with himself, than as someone who's in emotional pieces. And no one can do that work other than me.

Saturday, November 19, 2011


This morning a couple of friends of mine ended 18 years of marriage in a divorce ceremony, followed by a reception. As you might suspect, they live in an intentional community—I'm not sure where else you'd see that.

One of the most exciting aspects of the culture building work being done by intentional communities is around ritual. I believe modern society is ritual starved, and I'm happy to be part of an effort to create oases in the desert.

For most of us there are only a few moments in our lives that are marked by high ritual: birth, graduation, marriage, death, and perhaps confirmation. in addition, there are more garden variety annual rituals such as birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and perhaps an anniversary. For all of that, I think we could do a lot more to mark the passage of key moments with reflection and intent.

When Ma'ikwe and I got married four years ago, we planted a stake in sacred ground by having a four-day wedding. In addition to marking our commitment, we wanted to make a statement about ritual. Along with conspicuous eating and drinking, it featured a dawn sweat lodge, a scavenger hunt, a raucous roast of the bride and groom, and a roll-your-own ceremony replete with batik silk banners and a best dog dressed in tux. And while it's easier to imagine pumping up the calliope in times of joy, there's also a need for noting passages that are tinged with sadness. In addition to Irish wakes, how about ritual to mark the dissolution of a partnership—highlighting the yin of divorce as the underrepresented complement to the yang of weddings.

I wasn't thinking about the break-up of intimate partnerships when I started Sandhill with my then-partner Ann Shrader back in 1974. Yet one of the ways I've been most proud of what we have been able to accomplish at Sandhill was that we could ease out of intimacy after the birth of our son, Ceilee (in 1981), and neither had to leave the community or stop being an active parent. What a blessing!

Back in 1969—coincidentally the same year Ann and I got together—Dolly Parton had a hit country & western song called D.I.V.O.R.C.E., that plays off modern society's discouragement about discussing sad times openly—which iconically establishes the trend that my separating friends were deliberately bucking today. Here are the lyrics:

Our little boy is four years old

And he’s quite a little man
So we spell out the words
We don’t want him to understand
Like t-o-y, or maybe s-u-r-p-r-i-s-e
But the words we’re hiding from him now
Tears the heart right out of me

Our d-i-v-o-r-c-e becomes final today
Me and little j-o-e will be going away
I love you both and this will be
Pure h-e-double-l for me
Oh, I wish that we could stop this d-i-v-o-r-c-e

Watch him smile
He thinks it’s Christmas
Or his fifth birthday
And he thinks c-u-s-t-o-d-y
Spells fun, or play
I spell out all the hurtin’ words
And I turn my head when I speak
Cause I can’t spell away this hurt
That’s dripping down my cheek

The way through hard times is by going through them, not by tiptoeing around them in the dark, or whistling by the graveyard.

Of course, it takes more than a party. Just like the singer in Dolly's song, my friends have kids and have been agonizing over the question of separating or soldiering on for a long while. Ma'ikwe and I have been spending time sitting with them the last few months, helping them figure out what's best. This couple has been doing brave work, looking into the mirror as well at each other, trying to tease out the lessons interwoven with the pain. They know each other well and still care deeply about one one another, yet it's no longer working to be partners—there proved to be some gulfs that were too large to bridge and they were bone weary of the attempt. It was time to let go.

They are no less committed today to jointly raising their children than they were to each other when they marched down the aisle 18 years ago. Intentional community, at its best, can be a container of compassion and honesty that's large enough to hold that hurt without taking sides or requiring anyone to move away. Wow.

With Ma'ikwe's help, this couple deliberately crafted today's ceremony that openly acknowledged a formal shift in their relationship—turning simultaneously toward the love and the pain, rather than S-P-E-L-L-I-N-G it out, one platitudinous conversation at a time, alternately dipped in acid and treacle.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Granddaughter Down

A week ago Monday I got an email I never wanted to receive: Annie informed me that our granddaughter, Taivyn, was in intensive care battling a raging bacterial infection. The bottom fell out of my stomach. She's only three and a half.

Her small body was invaded by Clostridium difficile (colloquially known as C diff), which attacked her opportunistically following a pediatrician-prescribed course of antibiotics to knock out a respiratory problem. It is now nine days and counting since she was admitted to the hospital's intensive care unit, with no clear end in sight. Now she taking even stronger antibiotics to battle the C diff. This appears to be a clear instance of the cure being far worse than the disease.

As often happens with colitis (inflammation of the colon) she suffers additionally from diarrhea (hourly), stomach cramps, and rectal prolapse. There's nothing fun about it. While there's no immediate threat to life (thank God), it's totally exhausting for Taivyn and nerve wracking for both parents—my son and daughter-in-law, Ceilee and Tosca.

In order to starve out the bad guys, Taivyn is not taking any food orally. Instead, she's receiving both medication and nutrition through a PICC line (peripherally inserted central catheter). Ceilee & Tosca are at the hospital almost continuously, sleeping there every night, and leaving only long enough to shower, eat, change clothes, and visit their four-month-old son, Connor, who's safely at home isolated from his older sister's infection. Their #1 job is to be there for their suffering daughter as she rides
the waves of nausea on her frustratingly slow boat to recovery.

For all of this misery though, it occurs to me that Ceilee & Tosca are actually lucky. While I know that's not what anyone is feeling right now, let me count the ways:

a) Foremost, Taivyn's life does not appear to be at risk and there are excellent long-term prospects for a complete recovery with no lasting effects.
While the infection is debilitating and requires serious attention (how could 9+ days in ICU be anything else?) the prognosis is not dire.

b) Right away, Tosca's immediate family (mother, sister, and grandparents) traveled out from Missouri to rally around her in time of need. It's a terrific boon that they're able to suspend their regularly scheduled lives to take primary responsibility for care of Connor. Plus, it means that the dog (Zeus) will get walked & fed, food won't spoil in the fridge, the mail will get opened, etc. That's a considerable relief.

c) Ceilee & Tosca run their own business (they operate seven Cricket cell phone stores in Las Vegas). With managers in place to handle day-to-day affairs they have the freedom to take all the time off they need on short notice. Few have such flexibility. What's more, they have robust health insurance and the staggering hospital bills will be taken care of. Whew.

Antibiotic Merry-Go-Round
Apparently most of us have C diff bacteria in our gut. Ordinarily, this is something we can ignore, as the normal complement of intestinal flora are robust enough to keep C diff in check. Those natural defenses were breached however when Taivyn took antibiotics for her respiratory infection. That left the gate unguarded and the C diff marauders walked right through, producing the bacterial bloom that's been causing so much mischief.

While Taivyn's intestinal skirmish is highly likely to have an innocuous ending (my fingers and toes are both crossed as I type this), it's hard to not reflect on how this intersects with a disturbing trend among bacteria of all stripes to develop strains that are resistant to antibiotic treatment. The more bacteria see antibiotics, the more chances they have to develop evolutionary strategies to circumvent their effectiveness.

While I don't know any details about how bad the original respiratory illness was, I wonder about Taivyn's risks down the line, now that her body has been flooded with large doses of multiple antibiotics. How much are the bacteria in her young body being given the data they need to develop resistant strains for future battles—perhaps battles where her mortality is more in question? It's scary.

Seeing the Diff—the Roads Not Taken
When a loved one gets sick it immediately grabs your attention, and offers a reality check about what matters. It provided me some perspective on how much of my day-to-day focus is devoted to emotional minutia (For example, I spent a couple hours over the weekend agonizing about how best to approach a person who's feelings I may have hurt with an abrupt piece of feedback delivered Saturday afternoon).

On the one hand, it's unlucky that Taivyn was stricken with diarrhea and a bacterial infection. On the other, it's lucky that it was diagnosed promptly and treated seriously. It's enormously beneficial that Taivyn has loving and attentive parents who can afford high quality health care. On the other hand, perhaps the original application of antibiotics was precipitous (we may never know) and there may be a price to pay later in terms of decreased effectiveness of antibiotics. These things can be hard to weigh, and point out how often we must make decisions—sometimes decisions with large consequences—with only partial information. Sobering.

Grandmother Up
I spoke with Annie by phone last night. She was home in Virginia and I was in Missouri. Ceilee had just asked her to join the troops in Las Vegas, and she was calling to let me know that she was accepting the draft and moving up her planned Dec visit to deploy for Nevada in the next 24 hours, to further bolster the number of family boots available at Ground Zero to battle the infection.

While I won't get out there until the second week of Dec, Annie will still be there then and I'm fervently hoping that it will be a heartfelt, joyous time, with everyone able to celebrate the good health we too often take for granted.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Laboring Pains

One of the key concepts in consensus is "laboring," also sometimes referred to as "threshing." This is when there's a disagreement that doesn't resolve easily. The group (most likely led by the facilitator, though not necessarily) is said to be "laboring" when leading a deeper exploration of the issue and each player's relationship to their position—for the purpose of finding potential bridges that each stakeholder can walk across without feeling like their walking the plank. That is, their core interests are respected in what they're being asked to go along with.

The important point here is distinguishing laboring from pressuring. Leaning into the disagreement is not the same as leaning on the protagonists. Here's a generic protocol for laboring:

1. Establish that the group has a full grasp of each advocate's position—this expressly includes any significant emotional relationship to the issue, as well as a delineation of what's at stake.

2. Lay out clearly the points of commonality among the positions, as well as the points of difference.

3. Cast for pathways that everyone can travel. Essentially this means looking for actions or agreements that each person can live with because the request is workable in relation to what they report matters most.

Hint #1
: When you find something that works well for all, it typically means that no single person is getting everything they want, yet all stakeholders feel their essential interests are being honored.

Hint #2: It can make all the difference setting the right tone for this conversation. Once you get to laboring you should have moved passed advocacy and be only hearing suggestions for how to connect positions—not how one position is superior to another. When laboring is productive it is more creative than combative.

Caution #1: it can be essential that you establish an understanding of what matters to the speaker (to the speaker's satisfaction) before requesting movement from them toward what others want. If a person is not confident that they've been fully heard and understood, the request that they shift in the interest of a balanced response can be heard as a request to sell out—which tends to be met with more than casual resistance. One of the most common ways to trip up is moving forward when you felt you'd fully understood the speaker, yet neglected to ask if they felt you fully grokked them.

Caution #2: Be aware of pacing and beware of proceeding faster than people can let go of attachments to their own positions. People vary widely in how much time they need to be ready to shift, and hurry never helps. If possible, give people an advanced peek of what's coming so that they have time to go through their reactions and come out the other side.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Paralysis of Racism in Social Change Groups

In the last week, I was twice in conversations—with two completely different groups, mind you—about how to navigate tense dynamics where a person with minority race bloodlines encountered resistance to what they were bringing to a predominantly white group, and immediately pulled the race card—charging that the group was responding prejudicially to that person because they weren't white. As both were explicitly committed to nondiscrimination, this development did not calm things down. The people I talked with were in anguish about how to proceed.

From the perspective of the minority person
In this dynamic, that person was simultaneously a minority by race (a constant) and a minority in what they are thinking or how they are behaving (which is specific to that moment). It's not necessarily clear why their idea is not met with enthusiasm.
How can that person discern if a particular moment of resistance is about racism, about an unpopular idea, about an uncomfortable behavior, or all of the above? This is not a simple analysis.

From the perspective of the white majority
Racism is a real and virulent disease. It's hard to know the full extent that it has infected a given culture (and hard to know when you're free of it). What's more, people in privilege are the least likely to be sensitive to the infection. Thus, even when you believe yourself to be consciously clean, there may still be residual doubt.

In the wider culture, we learn to fight (or manipulate) in order to get our way. One of the reasons people become bullies is because this strategy often works. That is, people will often back down rather than fight back. This is even more true in groups committed to cooperation, as it's especially odious to be in locked in a confrontational exchange—one of the very things you are trying to leave behind in choosing cooperation over competition. When you add white guilt into the mix, it's fairly easy to see how effective a charge of racism may be in stalling opposition amidst a group of whites. It's like shooting everyone with a taser.

As someone deeply experienced in having their viewpoints discounted or suppressed (racism is a real thing, folks), some minorities learn to do whatever it takes to that get their viewpoints more seriously considered in a majority context. In the context of resistance, they've learned to push harder. While they know they aren't "being nice"; they've learned that nice doesn't work. Nice can, in fact, be seen as one more form of white oppression (velvet handcuffs).

Given that minorities are used to whites being in denial about racism, resistance to charges of racism is often seen as prima facie evidence that the charge is true—even before anyone has examined the substance of the claim. It gets messy in a blink.

In both of the examples that were given to me (in each instance I was hearing the story from whites, not from a minority person), it appeared that there were ample ways to explain the resistance without relying on racism as an underlying factor. While that doesn't prove that racism wasn't present, neither was it obvious that it was. When my advice was asked about how to proceed, I had several things to offer about how whites might respond:

o If possible, try to acknowledge that for the minority person the dynamic feels like racism—something they've undoubtedly become sensitized to. Even better, try to acknowledge how awful this must feel. Try to connect with them emotionally, even if you don't think you're doing that bad thing. Note: I'm not pretending this is easy (authentically acknowledging someone else's hurt when you feel wrongly accused); yet this can be especially effective at diffusing tension if you can do it.

o If you can manage it without a charge (coming from a place of curiosity rather than defiance), ask the minority person why they thought that racism was occurring (essentially, "What indicates to you that you're being responded to differently by virtue of race?").

o Take time to look for defensiveness about the charge among the whites, and consider the ways in which that might legitimately be an element in the dynamic, even if you don't think it's the whole story.

o Don't be daunted by the racism claim from articulating what you don't like about what the minority person is saying or doing. It ultimately does no one any favors if you pull your punches and analyze statements or actions from minorities less carefully than you would the same things coming from whites (reverse discrimination).

o If things go productively, you can take this further by asking the minority person how whites can disagree with them without triggering claims of racism. You may or may not like the answer, but at least it will be an opening to a more nuanced choreography the next time you're all on the dance floor together.

Monday, November 7, 2011

News from the Front

Ma'ikwe and I had our first foray into the world of on-the-street Occupy dynamics over the weekend, as we were in Ann Arbor for the annual NASCO Institute. We sat in Liberty Plaza for three hours Saturday afternoon (fortunately on a sunny day in the 50s) talking with about eight people at a time. The composition of the audience gradually shifted as people shoehorned the opportunity into the other obligations of their day.

While I have no data on how Occupy Ann Arbor compares with the hundreds of other Occupy groups that have sprung up in inspiration of Occupy Wall Street, I thought I'd share my initial impressions of the group in Ann Arbor—which I suspect is reasonably typical.

o Foreign contigency
I was struck by the fact that the first three people we met were all foreign born: two Israelis and a French woman. Where were the Americans? For that matter, where where the Ann Arborites? They showed up

o Inspired by the process used in Occupy Wall Street
For the most part, Occupy Ann Arbor has simply adopted as whole cloth the process model being used in New York City. That means making decisions by consensus and having a core committee labeled Facilitation which has primary responsibility for running general assemblies (which are the plenaries). It was not our sense that the people we spoke with had any training in consensus or facilitation—they were just doing their best to emulate something that appeared to be working well in New York.

o Loose idea about common values
One of the foundations of consensus is that the group has a clear sense of its common values, or core principles. It is the group's alignment with and commitment to these values that sustains it through tough times. It is the reason that you labor with one another when there's persistent disagreement about tactics and strategies.

In a healthy consensus group, I believe that a majority of plenary time should be devoted to the question of how best to apply the group's common values to the issues at hand. If you are unsure of your common values, this work is much more difficult. Where can can you bridge to if you are unsure of the bedrock that is needed to support the abutments?

To be sure, Occupy Ann Arbor has some sense of these values—there is, for example, a clear commitment to nonviolence and in support of direct democracy—yet there is fuzziness around whether they're tackling racism and class oppression as well as economic inequity.

o Anyone can join at any time
In line with the group's core commitment to direct democracy, the door is always open for people to join. While this is the epitome of inclusivity, it is also highly chaotic. New people do not necessarily understand what the group is about (which task is considerably complicated by the group itself finding it hard to articulate), nor how the group operates. This is a recipe for fractioned and disruptive meetings.

You can see the problem. If you establish standards for what it means to be a member and insist on orientation to the group's process as a condition for having an active voice in the meetings, that could easily be construed as elitist—one of the main things Occupy groups are protesting against!

o No process orientation/training for new members
Uncertain about how to handle this dilemma, there is nothing in place to explain membership or to help people understand how the process works. In consequence, newbies are left to figure it out on their own, through observation, or to just bull their way in and see what happens. (Both are occurring and it's a bumpy ride.)

o Uncertain how to handle loose cannons
When people push their way in (a certain amount of which is inevitable when there is considerable media attention, no barrier to entree, and no orientation) there will be some predictable reaction to both the pushing and the substance of the pusher's agenda (unless it's concordant with what the group is already focusing on). It's damn hard to tell someone that there are inappropriate when you haven't established what appropriate is—either in terms of content or process. In consequence, folks who are willing (and/or habituated) to be loud and pushy get a lot of air time and it can lead to considerable frustration and demoralization.

o No sense of the need to have an understanding about working emotionally
When I asked the group if they had discussed how they would work emotionally, I got blank stares back. Uh oh. All groups that last for any length of time and are attempting serious work in the world are going to have moments when strong feelings are present in meetings. Not having an understanding about how to work with that is very expensive. Not only do people not hear well when they're upset, it's often highly distracting for others who are aware of the upset (and are perhaps afraid that the upset will escalate into destructive and aggressive behavior).

More than that, emotions convey information (differently than thinking does) and are also a source of energy. If left undiscussed, groups often handle emotions poorly, squandering a valuable, if volatile, resource.

If you're going to tackle this, it needs to be done before people are upset, not constructed in the moment of need.

o No sense of how to appropriately limit the scope of what the general assemblies tackle
This can be a problem in two respects. People can dissipate plenary energy by drifting into subjects beyond the scope of the group. This is often what can happen with the loose cannons referenced above, who want to use the occasion of the Occupy assembly as a soap box to discuss their pet issue or to promote their favorite strategy.

In the other direction, if groups are not clear about what aspects of issues need to be handled in meeting of the whole group, they will frequently work at a level of detail that should have been delegated to a committee—thereby inadvertently exhausting precious plenary time. Note that it won't be possible to avoid this trap until and unless you have established solid committees with clear mandates, so that you know when something can appropriately be handed over to them to complete.

o Push back on the Facilitation Committee drafting agendas and running the meetings
It's apparently the norm at Occupy Wall Street for Facilitation to draft the agendas for the general assemblies and to facilitate them. If someone has a problem with any aspect of the meetings, it's a lead pipe cinch that the arrows are going to be directed at Facilitation—they will be viewed as the latest version of Them.

To get out of this box, it's important that the group (not just the Facilitation Committee) establishes boundaries around what kinds of things are appropriate for general assemblies (see my January 25, 2008 blog on Gatekeeping Plenary Agendas for more on this), such that whatever body is trying to decide the best use of plenary time is relaying on group-approved guidelines in making their assessments.

o Issues come to general assemblies in the form of proposals
There is a widespread practice of asking that issues come to plenaries accompanied by a prospective solution. I don't like this for a couple reasons. First, the subgroup that drafts the proposal is going to have to guess what the whole group will think are the factors to take into account. If they get it wrong in any significant way, then much (if not all) of their effort devoted to generating a solution may have been wasted.

Second, if a proposal is introduced at the outset, that tends to skew the conversation, as people not privy to the development of the proposal are scrambling to catch up: they are hearing the problem and a potential solution all at the same time. Often this is tantamount to asking people to swallow food that has been incompletely chewed, leading to indigestion.

If a topic is worthy of whole group consideration, I think it's much smarter to first gather input from the entire group about what the solution needs to address, and then ask a subgroup to generate a proposal. Starting with proposals has too much the feel of backroom, done-deal politics—the very antithesis of the fresh air culture that Occupy stands for.

o Unclear about what authority facilitators have to run meetings
It's important that there be group buy-in with how the facilitators will run meetings. Just to name two common phenomena that can consume a terrific amount of plenary time unproductively if allowed to persist unchecked, it's important that the facilitator have license to interrupt people who are off topic or repeating themselves. If this is not clearly established or is handled unevenly, it can lead to a firestorm where the person being reined in may feel personally picked on. It can get ugly.

o Openness to getting help
While I've mentioned a number of things that leave room for improvement, I also want to recognize that Occupy Ann Arbor accepted Ma'ikwe's and my last-minute offer to help, and people showed up with a great deal of openness and lack of defensiveness. I was impressed. It's always exciting when people are more interested in learning than defending.

o Seeing the process as the most exciting part of the experience
One person who participated in Saturday's consensus workshop related that he'd spent time at Occupy Wall Street. As inspirational as that was, he lives near Ann Arbor and wants to be part of something more local than New York. For him, the aspect of the experience that has been most exhilarating is the attempt to have the protesters work together cooperatively. He gets it that the process holds promise way beyond economic reform, and is eager to see ways to incorporate that more fully in his life.

Now that's a revolution I can get behind. It'll be very interesting to observe how much this grand experimentation of Occupy with consensus translates into the energy and will needed to build a durable, more cooperative culture. This has the potential to change the nature of political discourse in our country. We'll see if it has the legs.

Friday, November 4, 2011

What's in a Name

I've always liked my name. While it's relatively common in the community world for people to try out different names (partly to handle the situation where there are two or more folks in the same group with the same first name), I've never even been tempted.

I like that my name is unusual—to the point where I rarely have to wonder which "Laird" people are referring to when I hear my name. While there were many things that my father tired to pass along to me that I considered dubious gifts, my name is not among them. I have my name simply because my father liked the sound of it, and I think that was reason enough. In fact, I cherish this as one strand of a heavily twisted skein of connection with my father that stands out for being one of the few links that isn't kinked.

While I regularly encounter problems with people mishearing my name (Larry or Leonard are common approximations), it turns out that I've struggled more with my last name. Not because I'm uncomfortable with it, or with my German heritage, but because of the inference of ownership that I'd rather distance myself from. In community culture, people seldom use last names, and for most of my life my first name has been entirely sufficient to direct comments or attention my way.

In the rarefied environment of income-sharing communities, last names are so little employed that it's deemed preferable to use the community association when a secondary marker is needed, rather than a person's legal last name—since so few people would understand the reference. Thus, it's more meaningful to talk about Valerie Oaks than Valerie Renwick if you want someone at East Wind to know which Valerie you are referring to (as people in Missouri are much more likely to know the Valerie who lives at Twin Oaks than they are to know that her last name is Renwick).

Following that inspiration, when I first started writing for publication I adopted the nom de plume of Laird Sandhill. As long as the scope of my activities was focused on the rather small pond of income-sharing communities, that worked fine. However, once I ventured into the much larger pond of all intentional communities (working for the Fellowship for Intentional Community), people started misconstruing the context of my public croaking.

Once I became a regular contributor to Communities magazine, I was reaching a lot of people who didn't know me. When they read that Laird Sandhill lived at Sandhill Farm, they would frequently connect the dots in the wrong sequence, thinking that the community was named after me, rather than the other way around. Uh oh. As someone who doesn't suffer from a lack of self-confidence, that was a problem I didn't need. (I should note here the irony of being a founding member of an egalitarian community with the name Laird, which is a Scottish term for lord of the manor. While I am indeed the Laird of Sandhill; I am not the laird of Sandhill.) Thus, for publication, I switched back to Laird Schaub.

When I had kids, I struggled with what last name to give them. Having made a conscious choice to not marry for the purpose of "legitimizing" my children (isn't that a concept, that somehow children are inappropriate or incomplete if born out of wedlock?), both of my kids have mothers with different last names than mine. What to do? I'm not fond of hyphenated last names (I find them cumbersome and where would that leave my children when they had kids), and neither was I enamored of settling the issue by flipping a coin. In the end we decided on the elegant solution of giving the kids the last name Sandhill, which wasn't patrilineal or matrilineal. (While my father wasn't pleased, I was only doing what he had done—consciously picking a name for my kids that pleased the father.)

What the H
It turns out that Sandhill has an unusual relationship with the letter H. On the one hand, one our specialty food products is tempeh, an Indonesian soy food that is blessed with an ending H, distinguishing it from the city that is home to the Arizona State Sun Devils. On the other, we currently have three people living at Sandhill (out of eight) who have names that are most commonly spelled with H's, which all three have chosen to eschew: Mica, Jon, and Sara. While I'm not sure what that portends, I'm confident that with sufficient tea leaves or chicken gizzards we could divine what the H it all means.

One of the things that reinforces the bond I have with Ma'ikwe and her 14-year-old son Jibran is our mutual love of word play. (This, of course, is in addition the bond we share in having weird names.) Driving into the Chicago area yesterday for an overnight stay with my sister and brother-in-law, Alison & Dan (who live in the western suburb of La Grange, where Al & I grew up), Jibran announced that we would be spending the night in "Schauburbia." Cute.

As I played with that a bit more, it was plain to me that if my parents had settled in the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg (instead of La Grange), that my family would have long ago started referring to it as "Schauburg." Who could resist?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Occupy Opportunity

Ma'ikwe and I are traveling to Ann Arbor MI this weekend, to participate in the annual Institute hosted by the North American Students of Cooperation (NASCO). This will mark the 15th consecutive Institute that I've been part of the teaching faculty, and is one of the highlights on my event calendar. More than 300 students from across the US and Canada will convene at the Michigan Student Union (on the campus of the University of Michigan) for 48 hours of stimulation, education, and camaraderie. This collection represents the cream of student co-ops—those more excited about their first taste of group living than the chance for cheap housing—and gives me an opening to talk with the next generation of cooperators about the amazing possibilities in front of them after graduation.

Turn Back O Man
For many years I was partnered with my dear friend, Ann Shrader. She and I were two of the original four people at Sandhill Farm back in 1974, and we lived together there for 25 years, until she departed for Virginia in 1999. When Annie was a child, she and her siblings misheard (perhaps only partially with innocence) the opening line of the traditional Christian hymn:

Turn back, O man
Forswear thy foolish ways
Old now is earth
And none can count her days

(You may recall this hymn as it enjoyed a significant boost in popularity when featured in the Broadway hit musical Godspell in 1971.) Annie preferred to interpret the first line as "Turn back old man," which was, naturally enough, irresistible fodder for teasing for father, Bud—the nearest available old man, then in his 50s. This was so humorous (to teens, mind you) that "Bud" became
transmogrified (as opposed to transubstantiated) to "Turn Back," and that moniker stuck to the point that it was one of the most common ways she referred to her father ever after. (With stories like this, you can begin to see why people think fate is fickle.)

I told you this story because I'm now that old man (more or less), and the NASCO Institute staff decided this year to make room for new voices among the faculty, and Ma'ikwe and I have been asked to offer only a single workshop: together we'll be giving an Overview of the North American Communities Movement, and how student co-ops fit into the picture. This is down precipitously from a high water mark where Ma'ikwe and I conducted a combined eight workshops, and for the first time ever I won't be offering a single process workshop. We've been turned back, at least temporarily.

However—continuing the theme of fate's fickleness—even as one door closes, another opens. Realizing that we'd have an uncommon amount of time on our hands this coming weekend (only one workshop), Ma'ikwe had the inspiration to see if there was an Occupy Ann Arbor (there was) and then asked them if they'd be interested in some process training (they were!). As our NASCO workshop isn't until Sunday morning, this nicely fills a void in our Saturday afternoon.

Talk in the Park
Now, instead of sitting around drinking coffee at the Institute bookstore (where Community Bookshelf will be set up) waiting for students to drift in for chance conversations, Saturday afternoon we'll be in Liberty Plaza (a quarter-acre downtown park on the corner of Liberty and Division) talking about consensus and the delicacy of functioning cooperatively as a group unified in protest.

I'm glad for the chance to get up close and personal with the folks inspired to be on the streets following Occupy Wall Street, and it'll be fun to attempt to adapt consensus principles to the exigencies of in-the-street protesting (protecting the thoughtful and inclusive deliberation that is the bedrock of consensus while at the same time being able to handle the occasional need for prompt response in the face of rapidly changes circumstances, such as police intervention).

I have no idea what kind of turn out we'll get, and I'm also wondering about the weather
. We're talking November in Michigan, meeting in an outdoor concrete plaza that will be in the shade by 3 pm. Hmm. Ma'ikwe's and my ideas (and rhetoric) had better be warm. Of course, no one promised that changing the culture was going to be a walk in the park. The closest we'll get on Saturday is a talk in the park, but at least we'll have an oar in the water.