I’ve been spending a fair amount of times with the folks at Occupy Cafe (OC). OC’s aim is to be a place to support, sustain, and deepen conversations on #Occupy. It does this through the text-based forum conversations online, through weekly-twice weekly well-facilitated small and large group teleconference conversations, and by supporting on-the-ground dialogue initiatives, like last week’s in Portland.
Offline there have been a number of interesting conversations on process.
Below is some thinking by Kenoli Oleari, one of the US’s leading facilitators of large groups.
His words carry a lot of weight for me as his background comes from many years of community organizing stretching back to the 60’s. This experience includes eight (!) years of trying (unsuccessfully) to work in GA’s.
It is my belief that we need to avoid creating hierarchical structures ourselves, structures based on representation. There is excellent evidence that a core reason we are in the pickle we are in within his country is because our representative structure of governance has fallen to the weakness built into it. When the power and right to participate is taken away from the population at large and given to a small group of representatives, the system falls prey to those who have the power to influence and control those representatives. “Radical” democracy needs to find a way to include ALL voices, continually and repeatedly. (The situation we are in, incidentally, was predicted by visionaries among the founders, including Jefferson and Franklin, both citing the representative system as the weak point in the constitution.)
We have new large group technologies that make full participation possible. It is both difficult and not difficult. It is difficult as we have internalized the fear of large groups which drives us to try to control voices that scare us and because we have internalized “representation” as the only way to deal with large groups. This means we have to get past lots of our own issues to imagine possibilities where every voice is included. It is not difficult if we use known principles of large group engagement with which we have a growing pool of experience. Unfortunately, one of the things that also makes this difficult is that even among those working on the cutting edge of process, people have tended to gravitate to one process or another and see that process as offering THE solution. This has served us in some ways, as that focus has helped deepen the understanding of various “defined” processes and allowed us to start to see principles and practices that merge between these approaches. Within all of this, however, there is a deeper understanding of group engagement we need to embrace that allows for a huge diversity of process approaches, of all sizes and in all contexts that we can miss by thinking that this process or that is the solution. It is my experience that the skill for working from these deeper principles is very nascent and not that widespread.
In this, too, I think technology, including the internet is a double edged sword. In some dimensions, it has the capacity to include more voices, in others it excludes some and it greatly limits the possibilities of interaction inherent in face-to-face engagement.
The big trap, always, is our hope for a “magic bullet” that will solve all of our problems.
I’m not sure what all these thoughts mean practically. Among some of us who have lots of experience working with and designing process for large diverse groups, it is easy to want to be able to apply what we know to things we care about like Occupy. On the other hand things have a way of rolling out historically with a life of their own. One thing we can do is to hold to as many deeper values and principles as we can and the one I am suggesting is key here is to avoid falling into the trap of representation and hierarchy. At each juncture think about how we can best include the broadest number of voices at every step and at every stage.
Most of our organizing experience is around issue politics that focus on an issue or wrong we want to address or interest politics that represent the voice of one constituency or another. It is my belief that radical democracy needs to move away from these perspectives and toward a focus on inclusion, on including all voices and trusting in the wisdom that can arise from that rich pool of human experience. Working with large diverse groups takes the hard work of good planning, good planning done by a broad range of voices from among those that will be brought together utilizing real experience with and a people who have a real understanding of the principles and practice of large group engagement. There is no shortcut.
It is my sense is that if movement matures, its process will mature with it, as long as we keep our focus and values in the right place. Just now, I think a critical principle to cling to is inclusion as opposed to exclusion.