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Hi, my name is Jim Macdonald, and I have an odd assortment of interests. In no particular order, I love Yellowstone, I am an anti-authoritarian activist and organizer, and I have a background in philosophy, having taught at the college level. My blog has a lot more links to my writing and my other Web sites. In Jim's Eclectic World, I try to give a holistic view of my many interests. Often, all three passions show themselves interweaving in the very same blog. Anyhow, I think it's a little different. But, that's me. I'm not so much out there, but taken together, I'm a little unusual.

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    Monday, October 22, 2012

    Suggestion for Consensus Organizing

    Tuesday, December 13, 2011
    This arises out of a discussion of the organizing challenges in Occupy Bozeman.  It deals with the question of why numbers dwindle in organizing meetings.  How is it that numbers that can produce meetings often over 30 can dwindle in a relatively short period of time to a group of 15 or less.  The loss of energy can be disheartening and devastating for a group.

    This small essay raises the discussion of a different organizing model, where instead of having a large group of 20 or more get together and reach consensus on every issue, groups start from a model where smaller groups within the larger group have more power and autonomy and can still coordinate together in a larger "general assembly." 

    Groups can diminish for many reasons - infighting, lack of consistency, etc.  However, I think there is another reason that often gets overlooked.

    This is a dynamic I have seen so many times as an organizer. Groups sometimes produce great energy. Then, they have these spectacular meetings, sometimes with large numbers. As the process is consensus or near consensus (I was in a group once that used 80 percent supermajorities), this allows everyone a voice (as it should be.) However, when you have 1 or 2 hours, so many voices, and often many new people unfamiliar with the often complicated meeting process (sometimes coupled with poor facilitation), people get quickly frustrated and disenchanted. They either feel they haven't been heard, or they get frustrated because some people are heard all too much. Consensus in any group can be messy; as numbers grow, the process becomes much more unwieldy. Rather than producing something where everyone is empowered, it actually can produce the opposite. Quieter voices lose out. Less experienced voices lose out. Even more experienced voices can lose out. The decisions made often leave out a frustrated segment that simply grows silent. They don't show up again.

    I once learned in a college sociology class that the maximum number of people that can form a cohesive social group before it inevitably divides is 15 (and often smaller than that.) I don't know if that number is right, but it seems borne out by experience. When the group grows much larger, it becomes disenchanted, or people find different means besides meetings for their empowerment.

    I have never seen a meeting of 30 or more people that was sustainable over time. Individual meetings have worked, but it always seems to come down to a natural social group number.

    This is a huge problem for a movement that wants to empower every voice, needs it to be a mass movement of the 99 percent. It's a huge problem for anyone who believes in consensus.

    The Occupy Movement has often given the most power to its local General Assemblies. That might be a mistaken model because of the reasons I mentioned. When General Assemblies participation grows to more than 15, I'd suggest that it immediately must divide into 2 or more working groups that have their own functional autonomy. When General Assemblies get together then, they should have some kind of spokescouncil function, where each working group empowers someone to speak for the group. Members of the group would still participate and can still block or request a caucus, but it reduces the number of speakers and puts the work at the natural numbers where consensus functions best. It leaves the General Assembly to bascially serve as a coordinating meeting between autonomous groups and for giving its blessing to new groups that might form. It would solve disputes that arise over actions of a working group. It should do nothing more; the real power should be in the consensus of the working groups.

    If we ever find ourselves fortunate to build our meetings up, I'd suggest we ask newcomers to join one of several working groups - of which they'd be free to join or leave. It might be even the job of the internal communications working group to help new people feel at home and help them find a working group. Then, the last part of the meeting - the general assembly - would essentially be a spokescouncil, where the people who can speak for the working group would be empowered to speak (and be reigned in by members of their group.) It would leave time for caucusing that might need to arise.

    This model gives each person a much richer say over consensus and decentralizes the structure so that each voice matters. It also allows for the potential for growth. Each group would be its own functioning collective of sorts that would do its own thing and can use each person's energy to reach out.

    Hopefully, it would make for much happier newcomers so that meetings could be much, much larger and still be okay. If a working group is suddenly more than 15, it should as quickly as possible figure out how to divide into two groups. If groups get too small (no group should be smaller than three), then they should stop working, and people should join the active groups. If necessary movement needs - like outreach - aren't being met, then the existing groups need to pick up the slack.

    I want to put it out there for discussion. I've just seen this too many times over the years, where groups struggle with this, missing the obvious that groups that grow too large alienate people. It's a principle of physics, really. You can't have voice if your voice is too divided over too many people and limited time.
    I'll leave it out there for discussion.



    Sounds great Jim.  Hopefully our numbers will pick back up & we can try to divide!  Glad to have people who have more experience in this sort of thing to help us recognize some of this!  Even in a smaller group, I may not be big on talking.  This movement for me, is helping me find my courage, maybe it will help me find my voice & creativity as well.  :) 

    Looking forward to Wednesday night & seeing everyone!

    Well, that's another thing that movements struggle with ... meetings are not for everyone; a lot more thought has to be given to ways of including the energy of people who simply cannot stomach sitting in meetings or do not best find their voices in them ... that's a hard challenge.  One nice thing about the outdoor meetings was the opportunity for some to spend it talking with the public.  It was an outlet ... coming up with these kinds of useful outlets are great; they are really difficult to implement (I lack a lot of creativity - as I'm someone who functions well in meetings).  In one group, we set aside space for people to draw or doodle or move around during meetings.  It was announced that it was a creative space for people who had trouble sitting still, and so it was a little less distracting.  That had mixed success.

    Anyhow ... a lot to think about ... my only real insight is to say that we need to think hard about how we deal with larger groups of people (and I suspect this has been a problem everywhere to greater and lesser degrees ... some of the methods I suggest arise out of experience in larger cities - where groups sometimes still dwindled to below 15 and would fracture - often bitterly (despite there being a much larger pool of interested people).


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