Friday, February 28, 2014

The Difference Btewen Facilitators Deriving and Driving

I view meeting facilitation as more of an art than a science. While it's good to have a sense of how to structure a meeting and a road map for how to work topics, those are guidelines, not imperatives. While there are approaches to this craft that are formulaic (if you have a large enough tool kit you'll be ready for all occasions), I don't buy it. I believe the only crucial elements are the right mind set and a basic tool kit—because a good facilitator will work with what unfolds, rather than work from a script.

One of my favorite process metaphors is of the facilitator as horse rider, in which image the group is the horse. If the group is being productive and the energy is congenial, you hold the reins lightly, letting the horse have its head. If, however, Old Dobbin is balky or obstreperous, with a tendency to stray off course or to jump the hedge, then the rider needs to hold the reins firmly, giving strict instructions.

There are plenty of people out there who facilitate as if their only concern is deciding who gets to speak next. But good facilitation is way more than something that passive. At the same time, neither is it not about being a taskmaster, where you treat meetings as military campaigns designed to conquer pockets of rebellion. You want to be prepared, yet not dictatorial. A good facilitator elicits everyone's input and than sees how disparate viewpoints can be woven into whole cloth.

You want to be deriving the solution from what the participants bring; not driving the solution based on what you think is a good idea. To be sure, the line between these two can be blurry, and the uninitiated can fail to discern the difference. It may be helpful to think of the facilitator as a potter, where the group supplies all of the clay. The facilitator may play a considerable role in helping to shape the clay, but shouldn't be inserting their own clay into the mix unless expressly requested to do so.

One of the trickiest dynamics I have to navigate as a facilitation instructor is when, in the context of a training weekend, I'm called upon to offer consulting advice to clients—by virtue of my being a process resource—which is markedly different than modeling skilled facilitation. While I work hard to be transparent when I switch hats, sometimes I'm too casual about that and observers can get confused about what their seeing, with the unintended consequence that students can be inadvertently inspired try their hand at free-lance consulting—something they've witnessed go over well when I do it—only to have the group push back when they do it. It can be an awkward lesson. The key here is not simply that I'm a professional and they're not (at least not yet), but that I was asked for my opinion and they weren't.

Good facilitation can look like many things. It can be very quiet and hands off—for example, when you have a focused, disciplined group of consensus veterans. At other times, when the group wanders all over the place, when participants are prone to repetition, or when there's considerable volatility in play, the facilitator may have to work hard to keep the group on track and in a constructive zone. The point is that the facilitator needs to be able to match styles and degree of being directive to the needs of that meeting, not with some idealized picture if what facilitators should be.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Relationship of Truth to Relationship

Back in the late '90s a friend of mine (Marni Rachmiel) recommended a book to me, Siting in the Fire, by Arnie Mindell. It was one of those moments that happen perhaps half a dozen times in one's life, when you come across the right book at the right time.

Apropos my career as group facilitator, this book examined the dynamics of conflict, especially from a non-rational perspective (Mindell is a psychotherapist) and through the lens of rank and privilege in multicultural settings. The single most powerful concept in the book, for me, was the importance of focusing on Relationship when working conflict, rather than on Truth (I've chosen to capitalize these terms because Mindell does in his book, to underscore their power as prime directives).

This past Sunday I was hired to spend an afternoon with the congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbia MO to offer my thinking about how to work constructively with conflict, and the interplay of Truth and Relationship figured prominently in my presentation. I had about 40 people in the room, out of a total congregation of around 200.

In his book, Mindell's point was that in a conflicted dynamic there is an overwhelming tendency for protagonists to be focused principally on their Truth, and selling it (or at least exclaiming it) to everyone else—often to the point of losing sight of how the expression of that Truth can come at the expense of Relationship. It's not that people are anti-relationship; it's that their identity or integrity are tied up with their story about what happened and why their actions or positions are reasonable and until that's recognized, it can be damn hard to ask them to care about other people's Truths, or to reflect on how their advocacy for their story (which they perceive as the actual Truth) tends to come across as a steamroller, quashing any story that's different in particulars, or even in emphasis.

I have found this to be a powerful tool in unpacking conflicted dynamics. For one thing, it's important for players to appreciate that there are almost always multiple Truths in play in a conflict, and that it's essential to create room for all of them to be expressed (to the point where the speaker feels understood) as a prelude to problem solving. If the examination devolves into a battle for the Truth, you're in for a long day that's not likely to end productively.

When I'm facilitating conflict, I start be simply aiming to see that everyone gets their story out, which expressly includes naming any strong feelings that accompany it. To be clear, this objective is not necessarily easy, mainly because of conflicting "facts" and emotional volatility (which tends to degrade the concision and cogency of the narrative), but I can usually get there.

At the conclusion of that introductory phase I'll take some time to point out differences and to point out similarities, but I resist the urge to try to sort out what really happened, by assuming that everyone acted with good intentions from their Truth, and that's all we need to grok in order to proceed in good faith to working on the question of where do we go from here.

One of the keys to successfully navigating the introductory storytelling phase is that if a person is incredulous as to why someone said or did a thing, you can be sure that that person doesn't have enough information. What people mostly do in that situation is get incensed and then proceed to assign bad intent to the doer to explain their motivation—which may do a fine job of expressing outrage, but rarely leads to good things. To be clear, I'm not saying that the doer did a wise thing; only that they'll have a story about how they saw things that does not involve evil intent and that it behooves all the players in a conflict to find out what that is (at least if they value Relationship at all).

It's important to point out that I'm not trying to make the case that all truth is relative (in the eye of the beholder) and therefore doesn't matter. Rather, I'm saying that if you want to successfully navigate the fens of conflict that you're far better off relying on Relationship as your lode star, and negotiating Truth. Doing it in the reverse order (insisting on a fight to the death over Truth and then seeing if the Relationship among combatants can survive the battle scars) is very expensive.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Heading Out

Today is the start of a five-week road trip that will include work in three time zones and visits to my kids, grandkids, and granddogs in the fourth. Fortunately—given the tenacity of winter this year—all of my stops are in the southern half of the US. That means I'm packing shorts, even with snow lingering in the ditches. Think of it as an act of faith. Eventually it will get warm again. (I know it's time to leave because I just drained the final drops from my last quart of half-and-half in this morning's coffee.)

While five weeks is a long stretch (I'm leaving just as we started tapping maple trees and will return to forsythia in bloom), it's at the high end of normal. I'll typically have a couple of monster trips like that each year, and this sojourn will encompass many of the things that claim attention in my life:
o  Schmooze for an evening with an enclave of friends and ex-East Winders 
o  Give a workshop (on conflict, to a church congregation)
o  Enjoy two days of retreat and renewal with my wife
o  Visit with an old community friend (who lives in a new location)
o  Have dinner with a long-time acquaintance who has designed and developed a couple of communities
o  Facilitate a community retreat
o  Discuss with an entrepreneurial buddy an idea for a community business
o  Rendezvous with a developer to explore the challenges of building successful community (it's more than just green houses and good design)
o  Spend a few days with an ex-partner and dear friend
o  Conduct a facilitation training weekend
o  Facilitate another community retreat
o  Visit with yet another long-time community friend
o  Spend several days with my daughter and son-in-law
o  Meet with someone trying to put together sustainability demonstration projects internationally
o  Visit with my son and grandchildren (in his new location)
o  Get together with someone interested in helping me market my consulting and teaching
o  Discuss with several people how they can help FIC build its new Green Office
o  Travel overnight on the train seven times

About the only thing missing from this kitchen sink itinerary is a community event—of which I have five lined up for 2014 (so far), just not any on this trip.

The tricky part will be protecting enough time between work assignments to complete my reports from the prior weekend before my RAM gets overwritten by what happens in the succeeding weekend. It can be a tight choreography.

On this trip I get to start in the pulpit (giving a 10-minute promotional homily to the congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbia MO during their Sunday service) and will end by walking the Santa Monica Beach with my grandchilden in southern California. At the front end I'll have special time with Ma'ikwe; in the middle I'll get to work with Ma'ikwe; at the end I get to come home to Ma'ikwe. 

To be sure, I have an unusual life, but it's my life, and I love it.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Crisis in Cooperative Leadership

In the past year I had the opportunity to attend an intentional community retreat where the group started off with half a day of check-ins, going slowly around the circle giving everyone four minutes to share how the last year had been for them. As the group had a population north of 50 (in quantity, not age), there was a lot to absorb.

When listening to close friends, I pretty much already knew what they were going to say, but there was a lot of filling in the blanks when the speaker was someone whose life was not so familiar to me. As an emotional snapshot of the community it provided a valuable once-a-year glimpse of the whole. As might be expected, the gamut was large—everything from outright misery to bubbling over with joy.

But the thing that stood out most for me, as an experienced observer of cooperative group dynamics, was that the people filling leadership roles were overwhelmingly reporting overwhelm. Uh oh.

While this manifested differently for different leaders, there were themes:

—Feeling inadequate in the role
A number of people agreed to take on a leadership position as part of a team and then felt swamped by the volume and intensity of the workload. Recognizing that they weren't pulling their weight, they felt guilt and shame. There was also some deer-in-the-headlights dynamics where the people in over their heads reported a tendency to go stupid in team meetings (which didn't encourage them to do it more).

—Trying to keep too many balls in the air
Some leaders seemed fine with individual roles; there were just too many of them and they were falling behind. While the people in this category mostly knew that they were overfilling their plate at the time they said "yes," they did it anyway because they were asked and felt a strong sense of civic duty. This phenomenon is not so much about a person feeling that they alone can fill a role well, as that someone needs to step forward and their agreeing to it eases pressure on others. (The poignancy in this is that it's an example of caring for the group in a way that undercuts self care—read not sustainable.)

—Accepting roles that are needed but not enjoyable because no one else will do them
While similar to the previous point, in this dynamic the person knows going in that the work will be a slog—not because of an oversubscribed dance card, but because the work itself isn't that appealing. This is taking a hit for the team, generally to avoid: a) hiring outside (both to save money and because of the perception that an inside person will better understand group culture, group politics, and interpersonal nuance); b) asking someone else (who is either less willing or less able) to do it instead; or c) doing without. 

While playing the Little Dutch Boy can be a form of heroism, it can also lead to martyrdom (not to mention dyspepsia).

—Reporting tension because of a personal investment in the way things are done
One of the things that upped the ante in this particular group was the fact that it had been working hard in recent years to figure out a better way to make decisions and had invested a lot of time in a new organizational structure. Not surprisingly, everything didn't run like a gazelle right out of the gate and the architects of the new system reported anxiety about shortcomings after all that investment. Kind of like watching your teenage prodigy double fault on her opening serve at Wimbledon after all those years of tennis lessons.

—Anguishing over the schizophrenia of being in authority over peers
Even when the group is crystal clear that it wants to delegate responsibility to individuals to manage certain functions in service to the group—to the point of hiring them to do the job—that doesn't mean that everyone will relate to this role in the same way. The ambiguity is not so much about unclear job descriptions as it is about some people resisting being overseen (I don't need you looking over my shoulder or asking a bunch of nuisance questions) while others were embracing it fully (Just tell me what to do). In addition to the trickiness of navigating such mixed signals, some managers were additionally reporting that other members were simply not responding to their inquiries—all of which added up to managers feeling exposed and unsupported. Oy vey.

• • •
The most sobering aspect of all this is that the community I'm reporting on is one of the most savvy I know when it comes to group dynamics. Gulp. Obviously, the Communities Movement still got a good distance to go before we can claim to have developed sustainable models of healthy cooperative leadership.

The good news is that it's consistently in our sights. The bad news is that it's not yet consistently in our homes.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Levels of the Conversation

At breakfast today someone asked me how I learned, as a facilitator, to be able to pull out the essence of a conversation. As I reflected on that, I wasn't sure. While I know it's something I can do, and something I can describe in detail (see below), I'm not at all clear how I got there.

I teach facilitation in cooperative groups. While the curriculum covers many things, the day in and day out skill is working conversations productively. (One of the more dramatic and critical skills is dealing effectively and sensitively with emotional meltdowns, yet that’s only a tiny fraction of your time on duty.) If you think of conversations as onions, let me peel back the layers...

First Layer: What was said? 
It is absolutely necessary for the facilitator to hear what people are saying accurately. While this may seem relatively straight forward, it can get complicated. You will undoubtedly encounter individuals whose style, diction, vocabulary, and/or organization of information are such that you will have to work very hard to understand what the hell they’re saying.
What's more, it's not just the words and their literal meaning, there can also be important nuance in the way things have been said and the energy that infuses statements. Being heard accurately entails working with all of these potentials.
Second Layer: How to restate viewpoints concisely? 
While not always needed, the skilled facilitator should be able to offer on demand a Cliff's Notes version of what a speaker said, such that the speaker is satisfied. Do not fail to note the adverb “concisely.” There is a Mark Twain anecdote that applies here: he is reputed to have once apologized to someone he’d written to about the length of his correspondence by saying he was sorry, but he didn’t have time to write it any shorter. Brevity is not just the soul of wit; it is the heart of attention. 
To handle this well you'll need the ability to sort wheat from chaff (distinguishing between wholesome kernels and non-nutritive fluff) and to strip out redundancy in order to reduce contributions to their essence.
Hint: If you want to get good at this, volunteer to take minutes, which requries the same skill—only you do it in writing instead of orally.
Third Layer: Where are we at?
The facilitator should always know where the group is at in the conversation (what has been said collectively, not just individually) and where it is at in the process. The essential skills here are the ability to summarize accurately and plainly, and the ability to track and make transparent the process.
To some extent, this is a traffic cop function, making sure that contributions are cogent, non-repetitive, and in the right sequence. If people are confused about what's happening you should be able to give a clear, courteous explanation on request.
Fourth Layer: How to connect statements one to another?
As a facilitator you need to be able to see the aspects of commonality (especially when others do not) and weave them into a fabric that can, ultimately, sustain agreement. You need to learn to see the links between comments, especially when they are not identical.
This ability is all the more critical because most people have been deeply conditioned in competitive culture and think first in terms of how their views differ from others, rather than how they are linked. Often, the skilled facilitator will be the first one to see the bridges possible between speakers simply because that person is the one who has trained themselves to look for them.
Fifth Layer: What is not being said?
You need to develop the capacity to step back from what is happening and ask if there are any ghosts in the room—obvious questions that are not being asked or spoken to. Invite these unspoken queries or viewpoints to join the party.
Sixth Layer: Where does the group need to work?
This is a complex question that combines “Where is there confusion?” with “Where is there energy to explore for agreement?” It is the facilitator’s job to steer the group productively, which involves both what to look at and how to look at it. Often it is a matter of posing the right questions, and in the right sequence.
Seventh Layer: Where is the conversation headed?
The skilled facilitator will learn to look ahead of the curve and steer the group away from dead ends and unnecessary dangers. Part of this is time management (don’t go where you cannot gracefully stop or return in the time available), part of it is understanding the pitfalls of the selected path (assessing the potential for burying the axles instead of working out of trouble), and part of it is knowing the capacity of the group (not leading the halt and the lame into heavy traffic, where stamina and agility will be needed to make it through safely). When this skill is practiced well, meetings are experienced as easier and lighter because the facilitator has chosen a better path, and heroic extractions are not needed.
Eighth Layer: What agreement is possible?
All along, the facilitator should be thinking about how the weavings of the Fourth Level can produce a durable fabric that will hold an agreement about what to do with the issue at hand. How can the agreement be framed such that everyone can identify with it and support its moving forward? The skilled facilitator has a broad understanding of what “product” and “agreement” can look like. Sometimes it is a policy; sometimes an action; sometimes a process; sometimes an assignment; sometimes a pause.
Ninth Layer: What remains and where will it land?
Often, the group has not tied up a topic with a ribbon and bow. In those times, the facilitator needs to make sure that the next steps are identified and someone or some committee has been identified as the implementers or shepherds of those steps. You need to think holistically about all the pieces that comprise a safe landing and make sure that none are forgotten.
• • •
OK, that was the onion. Now let's circle back to the original question about how to learn to pull out an accurate summary of a complex conversation. It's the combination of Levels Two, Four, and Eight: what was the essence of the contributions, how can that be inclusively and even-handedly summarized, and how can the factors be woven into a durable solution.
—Part of this is experience. Having seen what has worked in similar situations, you get a feel for what can work here. 
—Part of this is doing the personal work needed to get your own ego out of the way, so that you can hear cleanly what everyone says. 
—Part of this is learning to read the energy of the speakers for clues about what matters most, and where there's give. 
—Part of this is trusting the process, which means you'll see the connections between statements as they appear—rather than insisting on trying to suss out the bridges ahead of time. (A skilled facilitator knows how to read the currents in the room, and doesn't try to fight them.)
There's a part of me that was embarrassed that I wasn't able to give a paint-by-numbers answer to the question this morning. (A good teacher should be able to break down how to learn that essential skill.) But then I remembered, facilitation is more of an art form than a skill. It's not so much learning a formula, as learning to be focused and open, trusting that the floor will appear under your feet after you've committed your weight forward.
Yes, it can be scary. But it can also be magic. And it's learnable.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Group Works: Appreciation

This entry continues a series in which I'm exploring concepts encapsulated in a set of 91 cards called Group Works, developed by Tree Bressen, Dave Pollard, and Sue Woehrlin. The deck represents "A Pattern Language for Bringing Life to Meetings and Other Gatherings."

In each blog, I'll examine a single card and what that elicits in me as a professional who works in the field of cooperative group dynamics. My intention in this series is to share what each pattern means to me. I am not suggesting a different ordering or different patterns—I will simply reflect on what the Group Works folks have put together.

The cards have been organized into nine groupings, and I'll tackle them in the order presented in the manual that accompanies the deck:

1. Intention
2. Context
3. Relationship
4. Flow
5. Creativity
6. Perspective
7. Modeling
8. Inquiry & Synthesis
9. Faith

In the Relationship segment there are 10 cards. The second pattern in this segment is labeled Appreciation. Here is the image and text from that card:

Enthusiasm and thankfulness are infectious, deepening trust and connection. Positive energy provides the most generative base for whatever comes next. Look for the good in what's happening and who people are, then work from there.
At first glance this pattern may seem minor. It may come across as a request to be civil, or to play nicely with others. And while that meaning is there, it's also deeper than that. 
A. Appreciation as Social Unguent
Appreciation is a powerful lubricant that reduces friction in relationships, work, and problem solving. When people feel recognized for their contributions—which is not the same as agreed with—they are more at ease, more fluid in how they hear others, and more likely to keep contributing. 
B. Expectations Affect Outcomes
Further, the positivity that is fostered by appreciation makes a demonstrable difference in the likelihood of finding solid solutions to joint issues—because you tend to find what you're looking for. When offerings are not appreciated, contributors get discouraged and less hopeful, undercutting the probability of a happy ending. Fortunately, the reverse is also true.
C. How Compliments Can Be Devalued
That said, appreciation can be overdone. If you start to smear it on every interaction as a matter of course, people will discount your sincerity. Appreciation will lose its potency if offered without discernment or authenticity.  

For most of my adult life it has been my practice to never offer appreciation unless I fully meant what I said. On the one hand, I've been criticized for being too liberal with criticism and too parsimonious with accolades; on the other, I have a solid reputation for the integrity of my appreciations—which I appreciate. 

Taking to heart the aphorism that you can catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar, in recent years I've been gradually altering my style to increase the ratio of honey to vinegar. Now I look for chances to appreciate, even to the point of neglecting to comment on things I don't care for, in order to emphasize those that I do. Mind you, I'm not saying I no longer offer criticisms. Rather, I'm saying I'm much more judicious in their expression, and more free with my compliments—so long as they still reflect my actual views.
D. Appreciations Reinforce We Thinking
Because mainstream Western culture is competitive, we tend to think first in terms of how we are different than others, rather than the ways in which we are the same. When someone makes a suggestion about something, we tend to respond first with how we disagree, rather than how we share their viewpoint. In short, we are conditioned to think in terms of "I" before we think in terms of "we."

Even though a commitment to cooperative culture means purposefully shifting more toward the we end of the spectrum, the tendency to reach first for individuation is deeply ingrained and it takes real work to have one's first comments be joining when the totality of our response is mixed. While I'm wholly in support of doing that work, it's important to understand that it is work.
E. Flower Power?
Finally, I find it amusing that in the image for this card, one person is handing another a red poppy—the flower from which opiates are derived. I'm not sure that's quite the message that was intended. Take this flower, which is given to you in remembrance of me. (Unfortunately, if you eat it, you probably won't remember me.)
At the end of the day, I appreciate the goofiness of life and the salutary effect of not taking oneself too seriously.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Asking for Money

A lot of people are uncomfortable asking for money. I used to be one of them.

Then, back in 1996, we had an experienced fundraiser attend an FIC Board meeting and he enlightened me to the common need for nonprofits to get over it. That began a process that took me a couple years, at the end of which I could look people in the eye and ask them to write a check in support of the Fellowship.

In the world of community, there's a fair amount of uneasiness with money in and of itself. This shows up in a variety of ways:
o  A commitment to sharing (reducing what you need to own)
o  A commitment to voluntary simplicity (making do with less)
o  A tendency to ask for less compensation than our contributions are worth (asking for more shows a lack of spiritual development)
o  Hesitation to share information about what one earns or one's net assets (polite people don't do that)

In short, many communitarians are motivated to get as much distance as possible between themselves and the rootstock of all evil.

Growing up with an entrepreneurial father, I had evidence at an early age about what money could buy, and how that didn't necessarily include happiness. Moving purposefully away from that capitalist model, it took me 25 years as an adult to come to grips with the possibility of embracing my entrepreneurial heritage without selling my soul. It just required the discipline to make sure that how I made money and what I did with it were aligned with my values. 

When it came to development—identifying donors in support of worthy causes—I came to appreciate that value-centered fundraising was not about money so much as it was about relationships, and matching the donor's financial capacity with the beneficiary's energy, time, and reputation to realize a common vision. It turns out that there a good number of people who care about what's happening in the world, and are happy to see some portion of their discretionary dollars being used in support of efforts they don't have time to do themselves. 

The art is in making sure that you're not deciding what to do based on what can be funded, and that you're sensitively matching both the size and the purpose of the request with the funder's interests. Good fundraising is not about charity; it's about a dynamic partnership.

But this won't go over well if you haven't first done personal work around your relationship to money—as squeamishness on your part will change the energy of the exchange. This is a particular challenge in intentional community, where ease with money tends to be viewed with the same jaundiced eye as power mongering, kicking cats, driving an SUV, or living in a McMansion.

The good news is that it can be done—which is a damn good thing given how far we need to go in creating cooperative alternatives in a world that's going to hell in a competitive handbasket. It's not so easy financing one's dreams on downwardly mobile budgets and we need those progressive friends with hearts of gold and gold in the bank to be partnering with us to create a brighter future.

• • •
So what have I been involved in lately that's worthy of financial support? Glad you asked.

My wife, Ma'ikwe, is the director of Ecovillage Education US and we're running an Indiegogo campaign to raise money in support of scholarships and educational materials for this summer's 37-day immersion course. The campaign runs for 10 more days, and we have an anonymous donor who's willing to provide a 10% match (he'll give an additional $10 for every $100 donated). Click here if you're inspired to be one of those folks with a heart of gold.

FIC is just on the verge of completing a massive overhaul of our website. In addition to markedly faster loading and more reliable checkout, we'll be offering a tantalizing array of new digital products, including subscriptions to Communities magazine, all back issues available as downloadable PDFs, and new collections of our best articles, organized by theme. We spent down our cash reserves to finance these improvements; now we need to recoup the money through increased traffic and donations. If you like what we're doing, you can let us know by making an online donation here.

See. That wasn't so hard.

Friday, February 7, 2014

My Roll with Intentional Communities

To paraphrase Art Linkletter, sometimes people write the darndest things. And with homophones, spell check won't help. The other day I received the following email from a new acquaintance:

Extremely happy to make the connection, obviously I am very familiar with FIC and the importance of your roll in the Intentional Community.

My first thought was that this guy finds spelling a challenge. But when I thought about it more, maybe he had it right. After all, living in intentional community is no walk in the park. In fact, there are times when it's more like a long voyage in storm-tossed seas, and the best you can do is to roll with the waves instead of fighting them. 

So maybe the importance of my roll in Intentional Community is simply that after 40 days years in the intentional community wilderness, I'm still rolling—and haven't drown or bumped into anything fatal.

I also wondered about how obvious FIC is. As the Fellowship's main administrator for the past two decades, I run into people almost daily who find the world on intentional community altogether obscure (which is not a particularly flattering reflection on the efficacy of FIC's tireless efforts to promote it and its relevance as an antidote to the mainstream issues of alienation and degradation of security).

That said, I think it's fair to note that for those who are aware of intentional communities, the Fellowship—after 27 years in the field—has been able to establish its credentials as the source of information about communities of all stripes, without advocating for one kind of community over another. As far as FIC is concerned, recruitment and selection of a community home are matters of consenting adults. We provide the information and then let groups and individuals sort it out amongst themselves about whether there's a good fit. It's not our business.

For groups that consider themselves to be intentional communities, we only have five conditions for being listed in our Directory:
a) You don't advocate violent practices
b) You don't interfere with a member's right to freely exit the community
c) You don't misrepresent yourself
d) You don't advertise illegal activities (which, among other things, requires that their listing be in compliance with Fair Housing laws)
e) You respond to inquiries with reasonable promptness and cordiality

Though it doesn't happen often, about once a quarter we get a complaint about a listed community, usually from an unhappy visitor who learned about the community through our Directory. Commonly, they are outraged that we've allowed that group to have a listing, because they found the group's self-description to be grossly out of alignment with reality. What were we thinking?
 Often the complainant is shocked to learn that we do not have a field team ready (with the engine running), available to verify the outrage they are reporting. Or, failing that, we should simply take their word for it and pull the listing.

As administrator, it typically falls to me to handle complaints and I've developed a protocol for this. I begin by pointing out that it's highly likely that the community will have a different view of the situation and that we will only proceed with an inquiry if they are willing to stand by their critical comments in a dialog with the community, nine times out of ten the matter ends there. This does not mean that there was no substance to the complaint; only that we've found it unfruitful to proceed on the basis of an anonymous complaint where we are not authorized to share details of the specific incidents that were the basis for the complaint.

If complainants are not willing to engage in a good faith dialog with the community, it is nearly hopeless for us to try to clear up any misunderstandings, and it's a shame to not have that opportunity to narrow the gap between their stories. 

Fielding reports of unhappiness that are abruptly dropped without resolution is one of the things I've had to learn to roll with in this job (though I doubt that's what my enthusiastic correspondent had in mind).

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Riding on the City of New Orleans

Riding on the City of New Orleans,
Illinois Central Monday morning rail
Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders,
Three conductors and twenty-five sacks of mail.
All along the southbound odyssey
The train pulls out at Kankakee
Rolls along past houses, farms and fields.
Passin' trains that have no names,
Freight yards full of old black men
And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles.

Good morning America how are you?
Don't you know me I'm your native son,
I'm the train they call The City of New Orleans,
I'll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.

Dealin' cards with the old men in the club car.
Penny a point ain't no one keepin' score.
Won't you pass the paper bag that holds the bottle
Feel the wheels rumblin' 'neath the floor.
And the sons of Pullman porters
And the sons of engineers
Ride their father's magic carpets made of steel.
Mothers with their babes asleep,
Are rockin' to the gentle beat
And the rhythm of the rails is all they dream.


Nighttime on The City of New Orleans,
Changing cars in Memphis, Tennessee.
Half way home, we'll be there by morning
Through the Mississippi darkness
Rolling down to the sea.
And all the towns and people seem
To fade into a bad dream
And the steel rails still ain't heard the news.
The conductor sings his song again,
The passengers will please refrain
This train's got the disappearing railroad blues.

Good night, America, how are you?
Don't you know me I'm your native son,
I'm the train they call The City of New Orleans,
I'll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done. 

—Steve Goodman (1971)

Over the weekend I was in Fairhope AL visiting my brother and sister-in-law, Guy & Elaine, whom I hadn’t seen in two years. I arrived Thursday evening and stayed through the Super Bowl (which didn’t turn out to be as good as the hors d’oeuvres, but the company was delightful, and we ate chicken wings and chili while the Seattle defense ate Manning’s offense).

Friday evening we dined at Julwin’s a restaurant in downtown Fairhope that mainly serves breakfast and lunch, but once a month serves a limited menu dinner featuing chef specialties. We had a coven of diners in our party (six couples and me), and we learned ahead of time that two of the regular waitresses flipped a coin to see who got the “fun table.” I think the winner was the one who served us.

Anyway, our party consisted wholly of transplanted Yankees, or snowbirds (many of whom aspire to move down here year round, where the golf never ends). As Guy is seven years my senior, I was the youngster in the group at 64. (It’s not often any more that I’m the pup in a social gathering of 10 or more—unless I’m visiting an out-of-town duplicate bridge club for an afternoon game on a weekday.)

Mostly these good folks were strangers to me, and sure enough, the person who settled next to me was Don, someone I’d never met before. We hadn’t been in our seats for five minutes before he announced he had a trivia question for us: “What was ‘The City of New Orleans’—other than the largest metropolis in the state of Louisiana?”

I’m thinking, this is supposed to be difficult? I piped up, “My ride north Monday morning.”

“OK,” Don said, “I reckon that was too easy: ”Who ran that train before Amtrak?”

What made him think this was getting harder? One of my best friends from college, Tony Blodgett, went to high school with Steve Goodman, for chrissake. How young did I look? “Illinois Central,” I deadpanned. “Wow,” Don shot back, “You really know your trains.” Duh.

One of the highlights of visiting my brother and sister-in-law in retirement is that it was easy finding time for catch-up conversations over the course of our three days together—both all together, and with each separately (while the other was on the golf course). My other two delights visiting the Gulf were: a) above-freezing temperatures at the end of January; and b) Cajun cuisine.

Following Friday night’s dinner at Julwin’s (that was memorable both for witty repartee with Don and for the largest serving of brussels sprouts I’d ever witnessed at a restaurant—I think I was only one to clean my plate), Elaine and I had lunch Saturday at a hole-in-the wall sushi joint in Fairhope. (I know, it’s a stretch to claim Japanese cuisine as traditional Gulf food, but at least it was seafood.) While the salmon skin roll was rather pedestrian, I don’t believe I’ve ever had more exquisite hamachi. It was melt in your mouth good.

Saturday night we went to Wintzell’s, a regional chain of oyster houses that started in Mobile. The Fairhope location is tucked into a tree-lined neighborhood on the south side of town, where mutli-colored lanterns create a festive mood in the parking lot. On their menus they have a quintessentially ‘50s-era black & white photo of the stocky patriarch standing defiantly behind the bar, sporting a buzz cut and chomping away on a big black cigar. Those were the days.

We were there for oysters. Half a dozen on the half shell were priced at $9.99; a dozen were ominously listed as “market price,” which could mean anything. It turned out that last Saturday it meant $12 for a dozen beauties, fat enough to audition for a Lewis Carroll Walrus & Carpenter Revue (why bother to eat oysters anywhere else?), which I've truncated here to focus on the relevant portion of this tale of trickery:

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
      "To talk of many things:
Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—
      Of cabbages—and kings—
And why the sea is boiling hot—
      And whether pigs have wings."

"But wait a bit," the Oysters cried,
      Before we have our chat;
For some of us are out of breath,
      And all of us are fat!"
"No hurry!" said the Carpenter.
      They thanked him much for that.

"A loaf of bread," the Walrus said,
      "Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
      Are very good indeed—
Now if you're ready, Oysters dear,
      We can begin to feed."

"But not on us!" the Oysters cried,
      Turning a little blue.
After such kindness, that would be
      A dismal thing to do!
"The night is fine," the Walrus said.
      "Do you admire the view?"

"It was so kind of you to come!
      And you are very nice!"
The Carpenter said nothing but
      "Cut us another slice:
I wish you were not quite so deaf—
      I've had to ask you twice!"

"It seems a shame," the Walrus said,
      "To play them such a trick,
After we've brought them out so far,
      And made them trot so quick!"
The Carpenter said nothing but
      "The butter's spread too thick!"

"I weep for you," the Walrus said:
      I deeply sympathize."
With sobs and tears he sorted out
      Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
      Before his streaming eyes.

"O Oysters," said the Carpenter,
      "You've had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?"
      But answer came there none—
And this was scarcely odd, because
      They'd eaten every one.

I followed up the raw oysters with a dish of Bienville red fish, a baked filet smothered in a cream sauce with Cajun seasoning and grated parmesan sitting atop dirty rice. I had no room for dessert.

After grazing my way through less regional delights on Super Bowl Sunday, I made the most of a six-hour layover yesterday morning in the Crescent City (between the bus from Mobile and the train to Chicago). I started out with beignets & café au lait at Café Du Monde (where there was a line out into the fog hovering over Decatur St), strolled over to a cigar store where I enjoyed a fresh maduro-wrapped obscuro that had been handrolled on the premises, and still had time to pick up a muffaletta to-go for the train ride. All and all, a lovely morning.

I got everything on my culinary wish list but etouffee.
• • •
The City of New Orleans is an historic train. The reason it was on Don’s mind was because he had been reading a book about the mass migration of African Americans from the South to the North in the first half of the 20th Century. Lured by higher paying industrial jobs and less blatant racial segregation, Blacks depopulated the cotton fields and drained the labor pool needed for the viability of sharecropping. The City of New Orleans was one of the main vehicles by which this population redistribution was accomplished.

While it’s not particularly noteworthy when I get geographically redistributed—after all, I’m on the road half the time—I enjoyed the humid, mild temperatures of LA (which is the tongue-in-cheek way my friend Dan Questenberry, who grew up there, refers to Lower Alabama) as a sharp contrast from the brutally cold winter that makes it an adventure to even check your mailbox in the upper Midwest these days.

I pulled out of New Orleans Union Station at 1:45 pm with temperatures in the 50s, mild enough that I didn’t bother to put on my fleece vest while walking around town. When I arrived at Chicago Union Station this morning, my magic carpet made of steel had returned me to the land of white (by which I mean snow-covered landscapes, not racial homogeneity). Today, that fleece vest will barely be enough.

And there's a winter storm warning out for west central Illinois from 9 am this morning until 6 am tomorrow. On my final leg home, I will be heading directly into the middle of that storm, where they're expecting 5-7 inches of new snow, accompanied by winds gusting up to 20 mph. Oh boy. There may yet be more adventures before I get to bed tonight.

Welcome home, native son.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Fred's Last Song

Last week I received in the mail a freshly printed copy of Fred Lanphear's posthumously published history of Songaia, the cohousing community in Bothell WA that he helped form in 1990. It brought back memories…

—September 1993
I first stepped foot on the Songaia property to attend the FIC's fall organizational meetings, immediately on the heels of our having hosted a six-day Celebration of Community on the campus of The Evergreen State College in Olympia WA. One thousand people had participated in our event and we were basking in the afterglow of that stupendous achievement. I recall sleeping in the barn that visit.

—September 2006
FIC again held fall meetings at the community—this time in conjunction with one of our Art of Community weekends (held on the campus of Bastyr University in nearby Kenmore). Long-time Songaia member Craig Ragland was the event coordinator and this gathering, too, was a big success. That visit I slept in one of the guest rooms below the dining room.

—June 2008
I was at Hummingbird Ranch outside of Mora NM for FIC's spring organizational meetings. One day our entourage was wending its way to the spacious yurt where the plenaries were being held when Fellowship Board member Fred Lanphear lost his balance and fell. 

Fred was in the early stages of suffering the irreversible neural damage associated with ALS. His balance wasn't what it used to be, and the thinner oxygen at 7000+ feet didn't help. Fortunately, Fred wasn't seriously hurt, but it was a graphic foreshadowing of the ever-increasing limitations he would be facing. In that instance, there were plenty of friends at hand to help him get back up and Fred was able participate fully in the meetings.

But that was the last time he was in our circle; 27 months later he was dead. While it was hard to see a compatriot suffer, Fred wanted no part of our pity. He came to the Board meeting because he liked what we were doing and wanted to be actively engaged for as long as he could.

We were inspired by his dedication and positive attitude. He had had a full life and was appreciative of having pre-knowledge about his limited remaining time: it helped him focus his attention of how best to use his final months. I still smile when recalling his commitment to continue singing for as long as he could, and to dance until all he could manage was to shake his body and move his eyebrows in time with the music.

—June 2009
FIC selected Fred as the inaugural recipient of the Kozeny Communitarian Award, honoring his lifetime achievements in building and promoting community. I had the pleasure of personally presenting this to Fred in a ceremony at Songaia, where I read the citation in the presence of the community that he loved, and who loved him in return. 

Fred was in a wheelchair then. While his legs would no longer sustain him, his vibrant spirit was undiminished. It was the last time I saw him.

—January 2014
The book I had in my hand—Songaia: An Unfolding Dream—is the main thing that Fred worked on in his final years.
• • •
The book is an easy read, which I'm sure was exactly what Fred had in mind. It's 189 pages of straight forward narrative interlarded with poignant and heartfelt vignettes from no less than 22 community members. This not only makes the story come alive (placing the reader in the events), it yields a product that's more of an edited collective story than just the-world-according-to-Fred.

While the editing is down home (it's "brussels sprouts" plural; not "brussel sprouts") and there's a fair amount of repetition, it should be read in the same spirit in which it was created: as a labor of love. The power of the book is that it's a success story about how dedicated amateurs succeeded in overcoming whatever obstacles came along to build a highly functioning community with treasured personal bonds that transcend age and income.

To his credit, Fred did not shy away from naming the things that have vexed the community. He let the chips fall where they may.

The things that stood out for me are:

o  How much Songaia has succeeded in manifesting the glue of community through frequent common meals (5x/week), Monday night songfests, and abundant ritual.

o  The lovely balance they've effected between practicality and idealism. They use principles as a guide, not as a straight jacket. They see the sacred in the mundane, yet have a day-to-day willingness to change things to suit new circumstances and a new configuration of who's in the family. They don't let precedent get in the way of good problem solving.

o  Proactive engagement with their neighbors. Residents do not see Songaia as a walled city or as an enclave; the community is a platform for activism, which starts at home.

While I found myself longing for details about some of the solutions they've cooked up over the years, that's quibbling. While my attention flagged during the sections devoted to the sequence of development and construction in the early 90s, the pieces about parenting, relationship, and end of life support are riveting. That is community at its best: helping everyone have a better life by showing up to go through it together.

The final chapter distills some of the lessons they've learned after 20 years:
—Shifting from "Are you getting your fair share?" to "Are you getting your needs met?"
—Discovering the Passion Principle: asking residents to only do work they enjoy in amounts they can sustain, effectively undercutting any incentive to martyr oneself.
—Being intentional about how far to shift one's personal boundaries from the "I" end of the spectrum toward the "we" end.
—Encouraging flexibility, but not to the point that it turns to apathy (or worse, cynicism).
—Embracing a wide range of parenting styles; not expecting there to be a "Songaia" style.
—Appreciating the leverage of different perspectives; not expecting homogeneity.
—Exercising discernment about what's appropriate for plenary.
—Using economies of scale; purchasing in bulk and sharing resources as much as possible.
—Investing in integration of people and ideas (rather than just hoping that it will happen spontaneously).
—Appreciating the value of being willing to engage when things are hard.
—Understanding how all of the above adds up to trust.

In short, this book will never be a success in the bookstalls at airports, but it's a delightful inspiration if you're thinking about starting a community or seriously shopping for one that's genuine and heartfelt. 

One of the joys of being FIC's administrator is both the opportunity to met people such as Fred & Nancy, and then to get to the first peek at their publications. It was a pleasure to have the coals of all those good memories stirred up by reading this book, and I can think of no better way to end this review than by quoting Carol Crow's memory from pages 10-11:

How Songaia Got Its Name
The time was late winter or early spring in 1991 and the place was the Residential Learning Center (RLC) in Bothell. Three youths were part of the RLC at that time, and that evening they had joined the adults living here for the express purpose of creating a new name for this beautiful 11 acres in Canyon Park. The RLC was coming to a close and the new vision was to create a cohousing community.

We gathered in the living room, youths on their bellies on the floor, and we agreed we would not leave until the job was accomplished. We first talked about what characteristics or images we wanted represented in the name. Music, sun, Earth were a few that emerged. Some combinations were in Spanish, as in Casa something. After an hour or so of thinking and stating many possibilities without success, in frustration we went to the kitchen where ice cream sundaes were served to crystallize the spirits.

Clearly, people continued thinking while they ate and upon our return to the living room, we resumed. Soon Bob Lanphear, on staff with the RLC, in a hesitant voice and obviously grasping for the right combination began, "How about Song… song… gaia…SONGAIA!" We each said it a few times, looked at each other and said, "That's IT!"

Within 20 minutes, everyone returned to their rooms, pleased as punch and firm in the realization that Songaia, which can be interpreted as "Song of the Living Earth," was who we were and how we wanted to be known down through the years. Our community had once again pooled its wisdom and crated a symbolic name for a new entity coming into being.

You can order a copy of Fred's book through Songaia, or looking for it soon at Community Bookstore.