Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Signs of the Times

I was recently working with a community that had been wandering in the wilderness of group process for seven years in search of a consensus policy under which members could post yard signs (think political campaigns) on the strip of community land that fronted their access highway.

Essentially, it was a three-cornered argument:

A. Freedom of Speech
As is the case in most intentional communities, the members of this group often have definite opinions about the political questions of the day, and clear preferences about candidates. Some fraction of those folks want to be loud and proud about their views, and there is no more noticeable platform on which to do so than right along the frontage road.

People in this camp believe that all members—who own the property jointly—should be allowed to express their views with signage (within the bounds of size, length of time posted, and noninflammatory language) as a First Amendment right.

This comes from the position that home can be a base of operation for nonviolent social activism.

B. Aesthetics
Many think signs are ugly, and it's an affront to their sensibilities to have political candidates and catch phrases be the first thing they encounter when they arrive home—instead of trees and flowers. Ugh. Aren't there enough assaults on our consciousness in this modern electronic world (where even the President is prone to posting provocative tweets before we can get to out first cup of coffee) without having it invade our nest?

This comes from the position that home can be sanctuary, for safety and renewal. People in this position yearn for a place where our bruised psyches can be salved by unadulterated contact with the natural environment.

C. Misinformation & Confrontation
There is unease among some that signs imply monolithic support in favor of the espoused candidate or position, when that's almost never the case. Thus, if you disagree with the sign (or even are neutral about it) it can be uncomfortable feeling that everyone driving by the sign may think the sign represents your position.

In this way signs lack nuance and people's individual viewpoints are at risk of being lost whenever a (pardon the expression) trumped up neighbor posts a sign. Yuck.

There is also a second question here: what constitutes effective social change? While some willingly embrace vigorous political discourse, others find it crude and confrontational—especially when reduced to shibboleths and slogans. Instead of stimulating thoughtful conversation there is concern that signs merely feed the contemporary tendency toward knee-jerk sorting that fuels us/them dynamics—which we pretty well know doesn't work.

• • •
Taken all together, it's not hard to see why it was difficult to craft a policy that embraced all positions. All three concerns have a foundational quality, such that movement toward A was seen as undercutting positions B and C, and vice versa. No matter what was proposed it tended to cut close to the bone for someone, and thus no proposal garnered everyone's support. Stalemate.

Recasting the Net
Then the group did a clever thing. After years of banging their collective heads against the wall of rights (which turned into an inconclusive tug-of-war), they empaneled a task force to tackle it fresh, selecting committee members not strongly identified with any particular position.

The committee then did a number of noteworthy things:

1) To be sure of their footing, they conducted a detailed survey of member views about signs.

2) In the interest of increasing the task force's gravitas, they purposefully recruited two additional members: one known to be pro-sign and one known to be anti-sign—both of whom were also known to be able to put the group's best interests ahead of their own.

3) Digesting the perennial loggerheads that resulted from focusing on rights, they hit upon the idea of turning around the conversation by focusing on responsibilities.

4) In putting forward their proposal there were three key components:

—They did not come to the plenary until they had a proposal that the full committee was behind; that is, there was no minority dissent on the task force.

—They advocated for creating a standing Sign Advisory Committee (SAC) whose job it would be to review all proposals for signs to be posted on community property, to help surface and resolve any concerns. The SAC could not impose solutions (they could only advise) yet they would be in place to promote dialog and help find soft landings.

—They asked for a trial period of one year, to test their theory that if the community approached this issue with an attitude of responsibility, that members would rise to the challenge of being responsible (rather than sink to the temptation of insisting upon rights), and no one would feel run over or sold out. Because of the one-year sunset clause, the community will review the agreement in 12 months, and the agreement will expire at that time unless the plenary explicitly acts to continue it.

Best of all, it worked! Instead of settling for the least common denominator, the community was inspired to stretch to live up to its higher aspirations. Much more satisfying.

I'm writing about this because it was inspiring to witness. The group did not pretend that there were not differences (in fact, the main points I outlined above were all reiterated in the survey results and the committee did not flinch from acknowledging them when introducing the proposal).

Now, for the first time, any member can propose a sign and that proposal cannot be blocked. However, every proposer is expected to listen to any and all concerns and to make a good faith effort to resolve them either directly with the person who raised them, or with the assistance of the SAC.

It's delightful to observe cooperative culture emerge from the fray with a creative answer. I see it as a sign.

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