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.

1 comment:

Becca Krantz said...

Thanks for the report, Laird, and for doing the work!