Monday, 14 November 2011

On The Art And Practice Of Utopian Meeting Structure (A Cautionary Tale)

Once upon a time, I took a course at the University of Utah called "Neighborhood Democracy" - for all I know, now Professor-City-Councilman Luke Garrott, who used to be plain old Professor Luke Garrott, is still teaching it. As far as political science courses are concerned, it still stands as one of the best I've ever taken - Dr. Garrott was and is a fantastic professor, and it wasn't until relatively recently that I fully realized why I got so much out of his classes.

I should have caught on sooner. When, for example, we were assigned Jane Mansbridge's Beyond Adversary Democracy, a book that is about the art and practice of that most Utopian of meeting structures - the non-adversarial small-d democratic model (also known, for those who are into the whole brevity thing, as "unitary democracy"). Mansbridge is excerpted in an informative and succinct fashion here.

The trick to which I should have wised up sooner was Dr. Garrott's expert use of techniques of unitary democracy - none particularly original, but all of which I would recognize in one form or another later - within the classroom itself.

My first experience with radical participatory meeting structures was infuriating.

I was bound and determined that I would never go back to that class again. I'd dipped my toe into Luke's inviting communitarian lagoon, but this was ridiculous. I did the reading, I raised my hand, I had contributions to make to the class. This was how it was in a lot of my classes - I was (and remain) an arrogant, impatient little $h!t. Waiting for Luke to call on every... freaking... class... mate... no matter how ill-prepared or poorly worded their contributions were... did he think I was insane? Was he insane?

It was only over time that I grew to appreciate the method to his madness - and the key word there is "grew."

Radical participatory democracy in the classroom forced me to grow as a person. I learned to keep my trap shut, to practice active listening. If I found myself tuning out of someone's remarks, I forced myself to listen harder. In slow stages, I became much more tolerant of meeting fatigue; "Neighborhood Democracy" is a service learning course, so I not only had to practice these new and exhausting models in class but in meetings outside of classroom hours as well. I attended roughly one thousand community council meetings, over three or four different council districts. I got so involved in the neighborhood politics and real-life issues of Salt Lake City's West Side that I made it my more-than-full-time job, completing a year's term of service with Americorps.

These early meetings were my gateway drug - it wasn't until I started participating in and (more importantly) observing General Assemblies at #OccupySLC that I found the rush I was looking for, however.

And unfortunately this is where my tale takes a turn for the sad and cautionary.

None of the meeting structures I participated in before #OSLC were truly radical in their approach to democracy, despite what I thought at the time. Simple inclusiveness was a huge step and a learning experience for me, but classes, council meetings and nonprofit organizations were still hierarchical. In each case the 'leader' was the professor, chairperson, or director(s). There was a clearly defined role for each person, some of which were "above" other roles. All participants were encouraged to speak their minds rarely and mostly listen but at the end of the day the leader controlled the agenda and "moved things along" toward a strictly action-oriented goal.

#OSLC was and is another kettle of fish entirely. Authentically leaderless, it can take three hours to accomplish a seemingly simple task like pick five subcommittees or requisition a budget. At the same time, the group is capable of writing an extremely excellent press release from an aesthetic or tactical point of view in less than an hour - reaching complete consensus.

I have not found the magic cipher to crack the #Occupy movement's meeting code yet. The structure is deceptively simple and off-puttingly inclusive. Everyone speaks, everyone gets a chance to wreck the entire voyage - yet somehow, things get done, and more importantly, minds get changed in the process.

Be honest with yourself - when was the last time you attended a meeting where someone changed his or her mind, let alone one where you did?

If I seem zealous about #Occupy's meeting structures, as easily mockable as I've acknowledged that they are, it's because they seem (so far) very difficult to replicate outside of the #Occupy Movement's specific time and place.

As a counter-example - a cautionary caveat to my praise of radical unitary democracy - I offer a meeting I attended tonight.

It was with an ostensibly "liberal" organization (I am swiftly learning that "liberal" and "radical" are rarely, if ever, the same thing). This organization uses the same cosmetic techniques that #OSLC does - ridiculous little "sparkle" hand gestures to indicate approval or disapproval, "stacking" speakers with a sort of affirmative action in place to promote women speakers and speakers of color, &c.

Despite this, to call this group "leaderless" would be a grave insult to the #OccupySLC that I have experienced. It would, in fact, be a disgraceful, awful comparison.

The organization whose meeting I sat in on tonight is completely personality driven, and has been since its inception. The entire discourse over the course of two and a half hours was dominated by three, maybe four speakers, all female, all longstanding "Core" members.

The few dissenting opinions that wriggled free of their domination of the conversation were swiftly and thoroughly strangled to death "because of time constraints" while the members of the aforementioned Politburo were allowed to drone on interminably whenever one of them wanted to make her opinion known. Tension ran high, but I didn't feel like it was the creative, productive tension of an #Occupy General Assembly - it felt stifling and dread-inducing. Near the end of the meeting, the facilitator announced that if anyone had questions about #OccupySLC they should ask so-and-so, or such-and-them...or Charles! I reacted poorly, but in my defense it was because for a second I had a vision of the same "Core" hijacking my beautiful, weird, rare and special #Occupy. It was a dumb and selfish reaction.

For constructive criticism's sake, here are a few of the most key organizational lessons that I feel the bad meeting's group could - and should - learn from #Occupy.

First: 'Stand up and stand back.' If you find yourself - even as facilitator - talking too much, you're talking too damned much. Wait to make a point until you have a good one to make. Then wait some more. Then make your point. You have now contributed, and you should wait a little while before you pitch back in.

Second: identify quieter voices and amplify them. If you notice someone - and you will - who isn't participating, it may be by choice, but more likely something about the meeting is putting them off their proverbial feed. Ask politely - or pass a note to the facilitator to ask - if that person would like to throw something into the mix.

Lastly: rotate, rotate, rotate. Some people are born facilitators or speakers, while others are natural wallflowers. The only way to keep a "natural" hierarchy from developing is to make sure that the same faces don't keep showing up in positions of authority. Keeping a free-flowing mix of people in different jobs will force you to grow and learn, which is Wheaties for the soul (screw chicken soup).

Radically democratic meetings are hard work, I won't lie. Letting the conditioning we've all received since childhood take over is easy - people will naturally fall into "followers" and "leaders." I've learned, though, that something vital is lost in that process: and process, by my reckoning, can influence results more than you might think.


  1. WOW! I know that is not the highly educated response you were probably hoping for, but that is what I have for you. I haven't had a chance to make it to any of the Occupy Library meetings. I went to several GA meetings when Occupy was in the park... but am quite aware of open forum at Occupy and respect it.

  2. Nice piece, Charles. I will note just for the record that there's still a bit of a gap between the ideal you discuss and reality even at OSLC. Some personalities have risen as defacto leaders even if we are loathe to use such labels. I also note that new people who come and wish to make a contribution are sometimes stifled on procedural grounds. Sadly, there seems to be a bit of an ageist undercurrent to that with older outside contributors getting the short end of the (talking) stick. Also, people who are perceived as powerful individuals in general society (like current or former politicians) seem to be overly monitored to hold back their contribution to the group. I also continue to believe that the 90/10 rule is counterproductive in some cases. Some issues should require a simple majority for whether or not an item gets on the agenda. How can a strange, novel concept or proposal possibly be voted on intelligently and effectively in advance until it has been discussed, for example. Expecting 90% to want to discuss something weird on the front end is not realistic. Agenda it with 50%+1 and then require a higher threshold to pass it. In fact, action items might be categorized by type with a tiered passage threshold. Jim Catano

  3. Jim - those are valid observations about #OSLC from someone that I can tell has actually gone to GAs and the like, so right out of the gate good for you :-)

    I agree that the 90/10 rule can be cumbersome, and I have noticed the same ageism (unfortunately). I have my own gripes about #OSLC, and I've often found that the best way to deal with them is to show up at #OSLC meetings and try to enact change. I have a conservative friend who harps on me about #Occupy "wanting to destroy capitalism" -- my response to him is how I feel about meetings structures at #OSLC as well. "We're trying something new, and some parts will work, and some won't."