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Trial by Travel

Laird's Blog -

I'm in Duluth MN for a week, visiting my partner Susan Anderson. For a while Tuesday—from midnight to 7 am—it wasn't clear that I was going to make.

Much as we'd like them to be, everyone knows that travel plans and travel reality are not always the same thing, and I got a solid reminder of how easily those two can get out of alignment with each other.

To get to Duluth from Chapel Hill NC is not a straight forward endeavor, especially if you, like me,  eschew air travel and don't own a car. It entailed four separate legs of train travel, and ended with a van ride via a shuttle service linking The Twin Cities and Duluth. Here's the way it was supposed to work:

train #79 (The Carolinian) from Durham NC to Greensboro NC
  (eight-hour layover)
train #20 (The Crescent) from Greensboro to Washington DC
  (six-hour layover)
train #29 (The Capitol Limited) from Washington to Chicago IL
  (five-hour layover)
train #7 (The Empire Builder) from Chicago to St Paul MN
  (two-hour layover)
van #810 from the State Capitol to downtown Duluth

This added up to 58 hours of "en route," including the need to stay up in Greensboro to catch the Crescent at 3:44 am, and a 2:45 am arrival in Duluth. So this itinerary, even under optimal conditions, did not involve a lot of sleep until after I'd arrived on the shores of Gitchi Gummi.

As it happened, all four train legs offered checked bag service, so I availed myself of that in Durham, handing over my somewhat heavy suitcase (laden with presents for Duluth), checking it all the way through to St Paul, saving myself having to wheel it around on my three intermediate stops. Before making that choice, I carefully took into account that I had generous layovers in Greensboro, DC, and Chicago, which meant that there would be ample time to effect the appropriate transfers. At least that was the theory.

Things started to go off the rails (so to speak) when The Empire Builder's departure from Chicago was delayed by 50 minutes due to a mechanical problem with the equipment. That meant I'd lost half the time available for me to navigate the distance from the train depot to the van rendezvous point (at the intersection of Cedar St and Martin Luther King Blvd, within sight of the state capitol building). Fortunately, whatever the mechanical problem was, they dealt with it sufficiently that the train lost no additional time chugging north and west, and we pulled into St Paul the same 50 minutes late we were out of Chicago.

Then the wheels fell off my plans. I had a narrow window in which to collect my bag, walk to the nearby light rail station, and make my way to a stop within a long uphill block of the van pick-up location. Unfortunately, my bag and I did not reunite in St Paul. Everyone else happily collected their luggage and departed, and there I was at 11:30 pm with an empty carousel and a station agent, getting nervous about making my connection to Duluth.

I took a deep breath, gave the agent my baggage claim, my train tickets, my local phone number, and my address in Duluth. He dutifully filled out the form and I bolted out the door in search of the light rail stop, one block away.

I was able to catch the 11:47 pm headed for Robert St (only three stops from the train depot), anxious about arriving in time for my scheduled van collection at 12:05 am. I got there, out of breath, at 11:57 pm. Whew! I enjoyed a few minutes while buoyed by the thought that it was all going to work out in the end (after my wayward luggage caught up with me), but it turned out I was not yet done with misadventuring. The van never showed up. 

Here I was at a deserted intersection in downtown St Paul after midnight. After waiting in vain for an hour, I had to face the music: the van wasn't coming. I carefully checked my confirmation, and, yup, I was in the right place at the right time, and on the right day. What happened? 

Amazingly, I was able to catch an open wifi signal from the street, and was thus able to tell Susan to stand down on collecting me at 2:45 am in downtown Duluth, and to send a message to the van service apprising them of an unhappy customer stranded in downtown St Paul—and would they please collect me at 7:05 am, when their next scheduled trip was due to swing by Capitol Hill.

Then I took the light rail back to Union Depot, where I there was a pay phone (although I had charged my track phone battery right before the trip started, the phone was dead on the streets of St Paul) and I'd be in a warm building. The temperatures had dropped into the 60s and I couldn't put on more clothing because my suitcase was wandering the rails somewhere between NC and MN.

Luckily, the train station remains open until 2 am, and I arrived there at 1:40 am. That gave me enough time to call the van service. Though there was no one in the office in the middle of the night, their system gave me two options: a) leave a message that would be listened to when their office opened at 6:45 am; or b) be transferred to an emergency number where an on-call staffer would be awakened—though be advised that I might be assessed a $10 charge for waking them up. I figured my situation justified option b) but no one answered and I was shunted back to option a). Sigh.

So, after doing all that I could to let the van folks know that I was rattling around loose in St Paul and really wanted to be collected at 7:05 am, I could do no better than wait for morning. I left a detailed email for Susan laying all this out, asking her to call the shuttle office right when it opened—as there wasn't much time between 6:45 am and my hoped for rescue at 7:05 am.

Then I took the light rail back to Capitol Hill, arriving about 2:40 am and began my all-night vigil as the temperatures slowly descended into the 50s. It was a long night. As there was a slight breeze out of the north, I relocated to a nearby parking garage that had a low retaining wall that I could hunker down below and that helped conserve heat. Still, it was not warm enough to nod off, and the minutes crawled by very slowly.

Susan had emailed me, "Oh no! Are you laughing or crying?" It was hard to not feel sorry for myself, but I also knew it wasn't going to do any good. So I went through about 10 minutes of woe is me, and then concentrated on staying warm until dawn.

At a little after 5 am, cars started coming into the parking lot, as the early bird government workers arrived in preparation for a normal Tuesday. Noticing the guy huddled against the retaining wall, it wasn't long before a had a visit from the Capitol Police, many of whom had already noticed me earlier in the night waiting to no effect at the intersection of Cedar and MLK.

While I didn't know what to expect when I was hailed, it was only fair to appreciate that they didn't either. While they had questions, they were not rude or aggressive and at least my story hung together (the shuttle did make regular stops at the intersection I was waiting at, and I had been there for five hours). When I walked through all the things I had done to try to reach the van people, they duplicated my efforts and were satisfied that there wasn't anything more I could do until the office opened at 6:45 am.

Although there's no way to be certain, I suspect that the police were somewhat skeptical about my story. Although my possessing a laptop helped, my not having a suitcase didn't, and they must have been wondering whether the potential problem I represented (they don't want homeless people lurking around the Capitol) would go away at 7:05 am or not. 

Fortunately, after reaching my nadir when the police introduced themselves to me at around 5:30 am ("Excuse me, can we help you?"), they were willing to give me the benefit of the doubt, and it was definitely mood elevating to see the sky gradually lightening in the east. Construction workers punched at 6 am to restart their renovation of the capitol, and the stream of incoming vehicles to the parking lot surged. I had made it through the night! I was shivering slightly by then but, happily, the shuttle appeared on time and I gratefully sank into a seat in a warm van. Even better, the driver was appropriately apologetic, and assured me that the dispatcher back in Duluth would "make it right."

From there on, everything improved. Susan met the van mid-morning and there was a lovely warm bed at the end of my extended play Tuesday. While Susan was shocked that my hands were still cold when she collected me after two-and-a-half hours in the van, I was able to successfully re-fire my boiler sitting on her living room couch sipping hot coffee, such that I was warm again by the time her work shift ended at 1 pm.

In retrospect I had a couple more reasonable options available to me after I was stood up by the van—either of which may have occurred to me if the weather had been more inclement: 1) taking the light rail all the way out to the airport, which would have been open all night and offered shelter at a pleasant temperature; or 2) simply hailing a taxi from the train depot and having them take me to a nearby hotel, with the expectation that I'd have the van service reimburse me for the cost. 

My stubbornness in finding the least expensive solution cost me a miserable night, but the van service accepted responsibility for not collecting me and refunded the cost of my round-trip fare. Plus, Amtrak eventually found my suitcase in DC (don't ask) and it's now on the floor beside me as I type, having just been delivered by FedEx—arriving in Duluth a mere two days after I did.
All in all, this was not an auspicious start to my monster road trip—but, you know, it could have been worse.

Music: Acoustic Harmony People at Bellingham Cohousing - The Bellingham Herald

Cohousing News from Google -

The Bellingham Herald

Music: Acoustic Harmony People at Bellingham Cohousing
The Bellingham Herald
17, at Bellingham Cohousing, 2614 Donovan Ave. They have been singing together since 2013. Their original songs include “Premature Nostalgia,” “It's Your Fault,” and “Voice Recognition.” Tickets are $15 at the door. If you call 360-935-2614 to reserve ...

Bored with Consensus

Laird's Blog -

I was recently selected to join a nonprofit board and attended my first meeting via teleconference. Although the bylaws stiplated that decisions would be made by consensus (I'd done my reading), the meeting was full of calls for votes, motions, and seconds. Uh oh. Had I wandered into the wrong meeting? Unfortunately, I hadn't.

I tolerated the ghost of Roberts Rules for about 30 minutes until I couldn't stand it any more and spoke up. There was a certain amount of awkwardness and mea culpas until I realized that none of the 10 or so people on the call had a clue how consensus worked.

In fact, one board member grew impatient with my digression, because "how we function" wasn't on the agenda. Oh boy. Of course it wasn't on the agenda: no one else was aware that there was a problem. I wondered briefly if that was that why I had been asked to be on the board, but then I realized that they wouldn't have been looking for something that they didn't know was missing. In any event, now they have me, and it looks like board training in consensus is in our future (or it better be).

It's interesting to me that this board has been around for decades and the decision to operate by consensus goes back to the beginning. Even though the people who put that in place are long gone, how did practice drift so far from intent? There must have been a lot of meetings where people who knew better simply let consensus slide. How else could the board arrive at the state where no one understood what it meant (it's not as if all the board member were band new)? 

Who knows, maybe they were bored with explaining it. Or perhaps they relied on that old broken-down standby: passing along group culture by osmosis. ("Just watch; you'll figure it out.")

While there are other choices in decision-making and group process that could be made—including majority rule and Roberts Rules of Order—I like that the bylaws stipulate consensus. However, as someone who has been using it for 40 years and teaching it for 28, I think that consensus will not be a happy choice unless it's accompanied by some basic commitments, all of which appear to be absent in the leaky boat I just boarded.

1.  Train people in its use
In addition to the obvious—training new people—it's likely not a bad idea for the veterans as well (think of it as continuing education). Among the key points to be covered is making sure that everyone groks the fundamental concept that you need to be making a shift from competitive culture to cooperative culture (if you want consensus to thrive), and that culture change is not easy. People need to be drilled in this at the outset, not in mid-struggle.

2.  Define the process
As there is not a single definition of consensus, you will need to make clear how you'll practice it. This includes what constitutes the legitimate grounds for a block and the process by which you'll test for legitimacy. Does one block stop a proposal, or will there be provisions for a super-majority override? How will delegation work? How will meetings be run (do you default to the board president or the executive director doing double duty as convener—bad idea—or do you choose a neutral facilitator)?

3.  Set standards for minutes
I was appalled that the board minutes were nothing more than a list of topics and decisions. There was no sense of the discussion., which meant that they were practically worthless for two of the main reasons that minutes exist:

a) To provide a collective memory of how the decisions were reached. This is important when someone comes along later and wants to revisit a topic. In my book, that should only be allowed if something significant has changed (otherwise why re-plow old ground?) But you can't make that assessment if there's no record of what was taken into account.

b) Good minutes allow the people who missed the meeting to catch up. That includes current members who were sick, on vacation, or had a schedule conflict, as well as future board members trying to inform themselves on the background of issues. It's trivial knowing that the topic was last discussed in July, 2011, if the minutes don't tell you what was said.

4. Work with energy as well as content
In a previous call with the executive director and board president to orient new board members, I had suggested that the board spend time sorting out its mission and priorities (before making decisions on budget proposals). When this was supported it led to the idea of a board retreat which would include strategic planning. When someone (not me) suggested that we hire an outside facilitator for that, I was all in favor. However, when I made a point of selecting a facilitator who has skill in working with energy, not just content, there was a long pause. I'm not sure anyone had a clue what I was talking about.

When cooperative groups make the commitment to work at a deep level (which many do not) and embrace the heart of consensus, this absolutely brings you into the territory of energy. Thus, it's not enough to know someone's position or viewpoints on an issue; you need to know what it means to them and why it matters. You need to know how it touches their heart or soul—because that's where the magic happens. 

If you are simply trying to find the middle ground between positions, you're looking for compromise (kissing your sister). If, however, you're trying to find a solution that honors the core interests of everyone, that weaves together their central values and enthusiasm, then we're talking about a family reunion where everyone is out on the dance floor.

There are professional facilitators who are quite adept at working content, yet essentially tone deaf when it comes to hearing energy. I know because I've met a number of them, and it's painful to watch them struggle in community groups where their mainstream expertise is not enough.

It will be interesting to see what skills our outside facilitator brings to our board retreat. I don't expect to be bored.

Belfast, once home to chicken processing plants, undergoes a green renaissance - Press Herald

Cohousing News from Google -

Press Herald

Belfast, once home to chicken processing plants, undergoes a green renaissance
Press Herald
McKim had a vision for it. Her family roots are in Denmark, the country where the concept of cohousing originated (community living with shared common areas). Why not try cohousing in Belfast? Gibson, whose company GO Logic, is based in Belfast but ...

On the Road Again…

Laird's Blog -

The life I love is meeting with my friends
And I can't wait to get on the road again
On the road again
Workin' stuff that I've never seen
Helpin' folks that I may never see again,

I can't wait to get on the road again.

—with apologies to Willie Nelson

In two days I start a 54-day road trip. It may be the longest trip I've ever taken. And I may only be home long enough to change underwear, shower, and to conduct a consulting gig in Durham before I'm back out for another 27 days. Ai-yi-yi!

Here's what my next three months will look like, give or take a day here or there that is still not firmly nailed down:

Aug 15-17           on the choo choo
Aug 18-24           Duluth MN (visiting Susan Anderson)
Aug 25                on the choo choo
Aug 26-Sept 1     Rutledge MO (visiting Sandhill & cleaning up the old FIC trailer)
Sept 2                 Louisville KY (visiting Ella Peregrine)
Sept 3                 Afton VA (visiting friends at Shannon Farm)
Sept 4-8              Louisa VA (Twin Oaks Communities Conference & FIC Oversight meetings)
Sept 9                 on the choo choo
Sept 10-13          Berlin MA (New England facilitation training at Mosaic Commons)
Sept 14-16          on the choo choo
Sept 17-21          San Antonio (visiting my sister and brother-in-law, Kyle & Richard Contreras)
Sept 22               on the choo choo
Sept 23               Rutledge MO (Sandhill)
Sept 24-27          Yellow Springs OH (Tools for Transition Conference hosted by the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions)
Sept 28               on the choo choo
Sept 29               Fort Collins CO (presenting the 2015 Kozeny Communitarian Award to Bob Mann)
Sept 30-Oct 3      Colorado Springs CO (working with Casa Verde Commons)
Oct 4-5                Denver CO (visiting Britta Blodgett)
Oct 6                   Boulder CO (FIC fundraising event at Boulder Creek Commons)
Oct 7-8                on the choo choo
Oct 9-11              home! (working with Durham Central Park)
Oct 13-16            on the choo choo
Oct 17-18            Seattle WA (FIC fundraising event at Songaia)
Oct 19                 on the choo choo
Oct 20                 Sacramento CA (FIC fundraising event at Southside Park Cohousing)
Oct 22                 Berkeley CA (FIC fundraising event at Parker St House)
Oct 24-25            on the choo choo
Oct 26                 Rutledge MO (Sandhill Farm)
Oct 27                 Kansas City MO (FIC fundraising event at Hearthaven)
Oct 28-Nov 1       Ann Arbor MI (NASCO Institute)
Nov 2                  Rutledge MO (Sandhill Farm)
Nov 3                  on the choo choo
Nov 4-8               Union Bridge MD (fall FIC organizational meetings at Liberty Village)
Nov 9                  home!

Though it may be hard to grasp from that itinerary, my workload is tapering off… after the end of the year, when I hand over the FIC reins to the triumvirate of Christopher Kindig (Business Manager), Aurora DeMarco (Development Director), and Sky Blue (Executive Director). Until that happens I'm busier than ever.

In looking over that list (assuming you don't fall asleep before you get to the end), it's instructive to notice that I'm doing some of everything that my life normally entails—just more of it:

o  Visiting friends and loved ones
o  Attending FIC meetings
o  Fundraising for FIC
o  Participating at community events
o  Conducting facilitation training
o  Consulting with cooperative groups
o  Spending 18 nights on the train

I figure this year may be my best chance ever to achieve Select Plus status with Amtrak, for which you need to earn 10,000 Tier Qualifying Points by riding enough in a given calendar year. I've achieved Select status (which only takes 5,000 points) multiple times, but this year I'm going for the gold. The two biggest benefits of this exalted status are: a) unlimited access to first class lounges at all depots that have one (think free bag storage, snacks, and comfortable chairs during layovers, which is a big deal); and b) a 50% bonus on all Amtrak travel during the year that I have that status (which accelerates how fast I earn points needed for travel upgrades). Since I'm going to be doing all this travel anyway, there may as well be some kind of payoff for gathering no moss. I'll keep you posted on how it goes.
While Amtrak is working steadily toward the day when all trains will have internet connectivity via satellite links, they're not there yet. They have it on their short-haul trains, but not on the overnighters. This matters because my work (and my play) hinges on accessibility to the internet and thus there will be predictable delays in when people can reach me as I chug between stops overnight.

Since my responses are seldom so time critical that they can't wait for me to alight somewhere with a wifi signal, I can generally make this work—it just means that I have to be able to follow the bouncing ball (by which I mean type accurately on a train rambling along at speeds up to 80 mph). It's an art form.

I'll also be on the seasonal rotisserie for an entire quarter turn. When I head out people will be thinking about roasting in the late summer sunshine and still able to select roasting ears from roadside stands. By the time I'm done, people will be thinking about roasting chestnuts and able to select roasting turkeys for Thanksgiving.

The craziest part of this all is that I moved to North Carolina to explore community with my close friends, Joe Cole & María Stawksy (I rent the third floor of their house in Chapel Hill). While all three of us were in the house together my first two weeks, I then left for a two-week trip that included work in Cambridge, followed by a wonderful first visit to Duluth, to begin dancing with my new partner, Susan Anderson.

By the time I got home, María had departed for her biennial trip to the motherland (Argentina), that will last until Aug 18. As you'll notice above, I begin my fall odyssey three days before she returns. That means we'll likely not spend more than one day together between Jun 25 and Nov 9—a run of 137 days, stretching to the point of incredulity what it means to be "living together." Maybe someday we'll find out.

Meanwhile, I have Willie Nelson to keep me company.

North Bay Cohousing

New listings on ic.org -

Website: http://cohousing-solutions.com/communities/frogs-leap-cohousing/ City: Cotati State: California Zip: 94931 Contact Email: northbaycohousing@gmail.org Content Phone: 4158272073 Contant Name: John

North Bay Cohousing

New listings on ic.org -

Website: http://cohousing-solutions.com/communities/frogs-leap-cohousing/ City: Cotati State: California Zip: 94931 Contact Email: northbaycohousing@gmail.org Content Phone: 4158272073 Contant Name: John


New listings on ic.org -

Website: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/2046156874/renaissance-the-project-the-fair-the-tv-series City: Salem State: Oregon Zip: Contact Email: Mikerjc@yahoo.com Content Phone: Contant Name:


New listings on ic.org -

Website: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/2046156874/renaissance-the-project-the-fair-the-tv-series City: Salem State: Oregon Zip: Contact Email: Mikerjc@yahoo.com Content Phone: Contant Name:

The Anatomy of a Misunderstanding

Laird's Blog -

I recently had an email exchange with my partner, Susan, where a throwaway line by me accidentally took on meaning I didn't intend and we were off to the races. While we were able to catch it and correct the misunderstanding all within 12 hours, that doesn't mean it wasn't dangerous.

Because misunderstandings are a dime a dozen, I think it's worthwhile to break down how this recent one happened as a cautionary tale, with the idea that the better we understand miscommunication, the better we can minimize or defuse the danger. While all of the factors that I examine below are not necessary ingredients (you can have a misunderstanding with only one being present) they are all usual suspects.

o  The risk of being cute
This is one I'm particularly susceptible to, as I find word play irresistible and I can lose sight of how I'm obscuring meaning in an effort to be clever. 

In this instance, Susan and I were working out some complicated logistics related to a future rendezvous and my "witticism" was to suggest that we may even have time to see the person we were building the rendezvous around. I thought I was lampooning our careful planning, and she thought I was hinting at not being that interested in spending time with others.

As we haven't been together long enough to have patterns to guide us, Susan was concerned about how I might respond to her splitting attention between the host and me, and was thus sensitive to clues about which way the wind was blowing. I was just merrily blowing hot air, oblivious to the concern.

o  The lack of cues in email
With electronic communication (or for that matter, snail mail) we have a tendency to fill in the gaps as if we're having a live, face-to-face conversation. So, if all we have to go on is words, then we tend to fill in the blanks with our imagination, hypothesizing about tone, pacing, and emphasis.

Susan was concerned that I was being snarky (which is in my repertoire), using sarcasm in place of stating a direct preference. While I don't want that to be the way I communicate, the truth is I sometimes do and it wasn't out of line for her to be alert to the possibility.

The important thing here is to understand that we're guessing. If we had the aid of facial expressions, body language, and auditory input we'd know pretty quickly when our projections were off base. Lacking those corroborating clues, we're throwing darts in the dark.

This was a contributing factor because Susan didn't have any way to read my face when she read my email.

o  The dark side of projection
It's relatively common to anticipate what someone's reaction or viewpoint will be to an unfolding situation. It could be simply straight line projection from the way the person reacted the last time something similar occurred, or it may be an educated guess extrapolated from other data. That said, there are many ways this can go off the rails. 

There may be some crucial differences about this situation that causes the person to have a completely different response. Or perhaps the person has done some work on their reactivity and no longer responds the same way. While there's still utility in imagining likely responses, the trick is understanding that those are estimates, not manifest destiny.

Further complicating the matter, you may not be conscious of how your fears or anxieties may undergird your projection and it may have nothing at all to do with the person being projected upon.

While I think it's probably hopeless asking people to stop projecting, you can learn to remember to check it out—because it's only a projection.

o  The importance of surfacing the reaction
Last, it's important to realize the value of sharing the reaction, so that both parties can be singing from the same hymnal. It wasn't going to be as easy (or even possible) for me to work with Susan's reaction unless she shared it with me.

I'm not saying this is always simple to do. For example, the person being projected upon may get huffy about the other person thinking that would be their reaction, or they may get defensive that they were interpreted that way.

In this instance, Susan's sharing her concerns right away was crucial to our being able to back up to where things had gotten wonky and correct the misunderstanding. It turned out that I fully expected that we'd emphasize time with our host and wasn't worried at all about Susan and I enjoying the leftovers. (Whew!)

Of course, it might have been more difficult than that. Susan's projection might have been right, or I might have been outraged that she feared I'd be a problem (I'm not saying that would have been smart, but men do all kinds of stupid things). So you can have sympathy for people who hesitate to voice their reactions, because history has taught them that doesn't always go well. Still, I think you have to do it, for the sake of the relationship. 

Every time you have a reaction and don't share it, you're driving a wedge between you and someone you care about. If left unexamined long enough, projections become reality—and the other person may not even know what pigeonhole they've been assigned to.

I like to think of misunderstandings as weeds in the garden of your relationship. Their occurrence is inevitable, but they aren't that difficult to control if you're regularly cultivating the garden. Left unattended however, the weeds can take over and ruin the garden. If you want a bountiful garden, learn to be a gardener.

Making the Write Choice

Laird's Blog -

As a writer, not everyone enjoys what I have to say—especially if it's about them. 

While I try to make a point of complimenting people when they say or do something worth celebrating, I am also willing to examine choices that I don't think so favorably about (or when others don't think so favorably about mine). Mostly, if I write something that I think will land critically, then I try to do so without attribution. The biggest dilemma comes when the topic is compelling and the person's identity is crucial to my setting context for the story. Now what? This can be a difficult choice.

I can get in trouble for a variety of reasons:

1. I've inaccurately portrayed what someone said or did, or didn't set the context correctly, making them look worse than was the case.

2. They disagree with my perspective and are dismayed that I've broadcast it to the general public, where they may feel it is much more difficult to clean up, or to get their alternate viewpoint(s) across.

3. They may not want the light shined on their actions or words, perhaps because they fear it will reflect poorly on them.

When is it better that I not write—even if I think the subject is important?

I recently had a friend labor with me about this, arguing that I was, at least occasionally, being irresponsible choosing to tell my side of a story because it would make it that much harder for others described in the story to get alternate views in play—not because I was trying to slander them, but because I wasn't acting with sufficient sensitivity to the power I had. Here is dialog between us:

I'm not sure you have ever understood the violation that people feel when you use their stories for your purposes. I know you think it is innocent and even flattering at times and sometimes it lands that way. But at other times it feels like you are taking the person's right to frame their own story away in how you do it.

I do not agree that my telling a story in which I’m involved means that other players in the story have thereby lost their right to a different story, or had their rights delimited.

You are a well-educated, articulate, white, middle-class man with a voice of considerable authority who is prolific in using that voice. Whether you like it or not, your version of the story is going to have more weight than almost anyone else's.

And therefore I shouldn’t write?

Sometimes, yes. If what you are choosing to do with your voice is serving to reinforce all that privilege and is hurting the people you are writing about who don't have a level playing field with you, then yes it is appropriate to recalibrate what you feel like you have the right to do. This isn't a simple thing to sort out, and it isn't going to always be the same answer. But having some awareness of how automatically deferred to your voice will be because of all of that is a good thing to do. If you are going to keep writing using the same lenses you have used, then I think that goes hand in hand with having to deal with people's upset and also the fact that you will lose audience over this kind of thing. It also, obviously, means a loss of some trust with people you care about. 
• • •The screens I use in deciding what to write about are relatively simple: a) topics that interest me (often because of their complexity in the context of cooperative groups), and b) topics that have touched me deeply. (Sometimes I also write about reminiscences or oddities, but I don't think those pieces are where the trouble lies.)

While I never write with intent to hurt others, neither do I duck issues solely because people have been hurt—as they are often the most compelling stories and illuminate poignant issues worth exploring. What I have to say is always my opinion. While I sometimes try to imagine what differing perspectives might be, those are just guesses. I don't own the Truth, but I do own my perspective and it's hard to accept that the world would be better off if I didn't write about what I'm experiencing or observing because someone may not like it or feel hurt by it.

That said, it's demonstrably true that sometimes people are upset with what I say. While I don't enjoy that, I am willing to accept that that's a price I'll pay for my candor and my willingness to wade into the swamp of complex human dynamics. It would unquestionably be safer to not write, but I wasn't wired that way at the factory. To be sure, I don't write about everything that comes my way. There are many experiences that are too volatile or too private (either for me or others), or ones where I don't feel I know enough to say something intelligent or insightful. 

That said, it is intentionally part of my social change work to attempt to widen the field of acceptable public discourse—because I have seen so much damage result from topics being hidden and unexamined. Do I always make the right call about where that line is? Absolutely not, but I'm fearless about giving it my best shot.

In many ways, this tension parallels my experience as a professional facilitator and cooperative group consultant. Not everyone likes what I do or where I focus the group's attention. But I haven't been hired to be liked; I've been hired to fairly examine complicated impacted dynamics and to try to pull the group out of the mud.

No doubt I sometimes make mistakes in my assessments, or make poor choices in how to engage certain people. And some people are loath to have their shit examined in group and therefore resent me for holding up the lantern. But I'm always going to try, because I always think I can make it better. Fortunately, I succeed a lot of the time—but not 100% of the time.

Similarly, some people don't like what I say in my writing, and I reckon my friend is right to point out that my approach probably costs me some readership, and maybe even some friendships. I'm sad about that, and think it's good advice for me to try to be more sensitive to how my writing may land badly—yet I'll still write, even if what I say is occasionally wrong.

Consensus Revisited

Laird's Blog -

I was recently given a link to a thoughtful piece that appeared in the Berkeley Journal of Sociology entitled "The Theology of Consensus" by L.A. Kauffman. The article is well researched on the history of consensus as practiced by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and then adapted for secular use by anti-nuclear activists in the '70s, but I have some problems with the analysis.
In this blog I'm going to quote extensively from the article, but have left out chunks that are either repetitive or not particularly germane to the author's critique of consensus.
I agreed with the author's history, but then she went substantially off the rails (in my view) when criticizing it as a decision-making process.
In practice, the process [consensus] often worked well in small-group settings, including within the affinity groups that often formed the building blocks for large [protest] actions. At the scale of a significant mobilization, though, the process was fraught with difficulty from the start. At the 1977 Seabrook blockade, where consensus was first employed in a large-scale action setting, the spokescouncil spent nearly all the time before being ordered to leave the site bogged down in lengthy discussions of minor issues. A similar dynamic played out in Occupy Wall Street almost a quarter century later, where the general assembly proved ill-equipped to address the day-to-day needs of the encampment. Though On Conflict and Consensus [by CT Butler and Amy Rothstein, 1987] assured organizers that “Formal Consensus is not inherently time-consuming,” experience suggested otherwise. The process favored those with the most time, as meetings tended to drag out for hours; in theory, consensus might include everyone in all deliberations, but in practice, the process greatly favored those who could devote limitless time to the movement — and made full participation difficult for those with ordinary life commitments outside of their activism.

For all of the care that Kauffman took in researching consensus' roots, she does not appear to have exercised equal care in understanding what needs to be in place for consensus to work well. 

While I tend to agree that it gets increasingly unwieldy to hear from everyone when the size of the group gets above 75, and that you probably need some form of representative consensus to make it work well with larger numbers, the vast majority of settings in which consensus is employed is with smaller groups The groups that Kauffman describes above made some fundamental errors:

o  The people who showed up at Seabrook or Occupy Wall Street were not screened for values alignment; they were given rights without any assessment of their ability to understand or use them well. Further, there was minimal training in understanding the process. Taken all together that's a recipe for a train wreck.

o As far as I'm concerned, savvy consensus groups discuss what kinds of issues should be decided in plenary (meetings of the whole) and then get disciplined about not talking about things that are beyond the scope of the group (world peace) or beneath the scope of the group (what color to paint placards). The latter should be delegated. Lacking an understanding about that, you get the experience described, where the group is susceptible to getting bogged down in minutia.

So I agree that there were problems with how consensus was practiced at Seabrook and Occupy, yet I don't think that justifies trashing consensus. Instead, you could learn how to use the tool better.

Movement after movement found, moreover, that the process tended to give great attention and weight to the concerns of a few dissenters. In the purest form of consensus, a block by one or two individuals could bring the whole group to a screeching halt. Sometimes, that forced groups to reckon with important issues that the majority might otherwise ignore, which could indeed be powerful and transformative. But it also consistently empowered cranks, malcontents, and even provocateurs to lay claim to a group’s attention and gum up the works, even when groups adopted modifications to strict consensus that allowed super-majorities to override blocks.

While I understand anecdotally that provocateurs have been a real phenomenon in some protest actions, in the world I work in—intentional communities and other cooperative groups, where consensus is by far the most popular form of decision making—I've never met a provocateur in my 28 years as a process consultant. To be sure, I've met jerks, bullies, and people who couldn't listen for shit, but never someone hired to monkey wrench. So let's set that possibility aside as extremely remote, and drill down on the "cranks and malcontents."

Here are the consensus basics that Kauffman has slid past in making this point:

o  Groups need to define the basis for legitimate blocks, as well as the process by which potential blocks will be tested for legitimacy. The rule I advocate is that the proposal would violate a reasonable interpretation of a core value of the group, would contradict existing policy, or would otherwise be seriously detrimental to the well-being of the group (perhaps because it is too risky on a legal basis, or too questionable on moral grounds). Note: It is essential that groups don't put this work off until they need to apply it.

o  For consensus to work there needs to be a basic understanding among members that rights and responsibilities are joined at the hip. Thus, the right for a crank or malcontent to be heard is dependent on both: a) that the concern is linked to a group value (as distinct from a personal preference); and b) that after they have been heard, the group can expect them to turn around and extend that same courtesy to the viewpoints of those with whom they disagree. Those who simply bang their own drum until they get their way are abusing the process and need to be called on it.

The fact that some groups tolerate bad behavior does not mean that the process is flawed.

[Consensus] is also a process that is ill-equipped to deal with disagreements that arise from competing interests rather than simple differences of opinion. The rosy idea embedded in the process that unity and agreement can always be found if a group is willing to discuss and modify a proposal sufficiently is magical thinking, divorced from the real-world rough-and-tumble of political negotiation.
As a group dynamics consultant I work with consensus (in one form or another) all the time and I consistently get breakthrough results with it, so I'm wondering what meetings the author has been observing. That said, it's essential that the group understands and is willing to work with its core values in resolving differences. You have to take the time to hear how concerns are related to core values and then build solutions that honor those concerns. It's not about pounding your shoe on a table until you get your way; it's about first making your impassioned pitch for whatever group value(s) is(are) paramount for you—along with everyone—and then putting the soapbox away to collectively find the most elegant bridge that balances the concerns.
While I'll freely admit that there can be an art to holding the container in which the magic can happen; this process is based on developing and nurturing a culture that is fundamentally different from the one in which party and pressure politics operates as we know it in America. You have to be prepared to invest in culture change to get good results (which is a high bar), yet it's possible and it's badly needed.
Groups hold on to ingrained practices in part because they help reinforce their sense of identity. The complex liturgy of consensus process — from the specialized language and roles (“facilitators,” “vibes watchers,” “progressive stack,” and more) to the elaborate hand signals (“up-twinkles,” “down-twinkles,” and the like) — has functioned as much to signal and consolidate a sense of belonging to a certain tradition as it has to move decisions forward.
I agree with Kauffman insofar as groups do have a tendency to reinforce their uniqueness through over-use of jargon and arcane rules of engagement. That said, the basic principles of consensus are not that hard to lay out or teach (though accessing them in the heat of the moment can be deceptively elusive) and you don't need a lot of techniques so much as the right mindset.
Because consensus process was marked from the start not just by its religious origins but also by its cultural ones, that tradition has been imbued with whiteness. The Clamshell Alliance was, after all, an overwhelmingly white organization, bringing together white residents of the New Hampshire seacoast with white Quakers and an array of mostly white radicals from Boston and beyond for action in a white rural region.
Few of the groups that would adopt consensus in the decades to come would be quite as starkly monochromatic as the Clam, and the use of the process is hardly sufficient to explain the reasons for racial divisions within activist communities. But time and again, activists of color found the use of consensus in majority-white direct action circles to be alienating and off-putting, and white activists’ reverent insistence on the necessity and superiority of the process has exacerbated difficulties in multiracial collaboration and alliance-building.
Kauffman is right to point out that groups using consensus tend to be white, and that's true of the intentional communities movement as well. They also tend to be well-educated. That said, I think the biggest challenge is around how a group acknowledges or works with non-rational input. The default in our mainstream culture—which tends to be recapitulated without reflection in most consensus groups—is that meetings are a setting where participants are expected to work exclusively with rational input (and if you have a feeling, please translate it into a digestible thought before expressing it).
In my experience this is often what's off-putting to people of color (in addition to endless meetings because groups are ill-disciplined when it comes to what they talk about and how they manage input, per the points I made above). If the group discusses and develops an openness to working with people's emotions and passion, this can be turned around. While this often requires facilitators who can work with energy as well as content, these are learnable skills (I know because I teach them).
During the campus anti-apartheid movement of the mid-1980s, for instance, the use of consensus drove a major wedge at UC-Berkeley between the mostly white Campaign Against Apartheid and United People of Color, a multiracial student group. UPC organizer Patricia Vattuone explained at the time, “We felt it was undemocratic to have these long meetings—four hours, eight hours—when, I have things to do, other students are not only active in their own organizations, but can’t spend hours and hours and hours on Sproul, and that was the only way you could have input or provide leadership.” UPC proposed shifting to a representative decision-making method—but CAA, believing consensus to be intrinsically better and more radical, refused.
Two decades later, similar though less acute tensions arose when white activists streamed to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina to participate in the Common Ground relief effort “with a preconceived notion that collectives use consensus as the decision-making process,” according to participants Sue Hilderbrand, Scott Crow, and Lisa Fithian. Local black activists preferred a different course of action, in which “the group defines itself and establishes the decision-making process collectively,” particularly since “the consensus process brought in by white activists confused many community members, who were often unfamiliar with the ‘rules’ of participation.”
These are sad stories in that they describe activists who were more intent on the process than building a connection to the people they wanted to support or create an alliance with. In consensus, the first order of business is demonstrating that you've fully heard the other person and can show—to their satisfaction— that you understand what their position means to them. It's not clear that either of those things happened in the above stories. Yuck.
The irony here, of course, is that activists have adopted consensus as part of a larger aspiration to prefigure the world they hope to create — presumably not one as racially bounded as the practice of consensus process has been. There’s long been a deep yearning at the heart of that prefigurative project for a kind of community and connection otherwise missing from many movement participants’ lives. 
I think this is a valid point. We are largely a rootless culture and we crave connection and belonging with our own kind.
The prime appeal of consensus process for 40 years has been its promise to be more profoundly democratic than other methods. This promise has been repeated again and again like dogma. But let’s face it: the real-world evidence is shaky at best. Perhaps the reason why it has endured so long in activist circles despite its evident practical shortcomings has something to do with the theological character it carried over from Quaker religious practice, the way it addresses a deep desire for transcendent group unity and “higher truth.”
I think this misses the point. Consensus has endured, I believe, because it, more than any other decision-making process, is consonant with a desirable shift to cooperative culture. We don't need a more democratic culture nearly so much as we need a more cooperative one. And if you can make the shift to being more curious than combative, to seeing the power of coming into a meeting with an open mind (rather than prepared to do battle with whoever disagrees with you), then consensus can bloom.
If the forty-year persistence of consensus has been a matter of faith, surely the time has now come for apostasy. Piety and habit are bad reasons to keep using a process whose benefits are more notional than real. Outside of small-group settings, consensus process is unwieldy, off-putting, tiresome, and ineffective. Many inclusive, accountable alternative methods are available for making decisions democratically. If we want to change the world, let’s pick ones that work.

First, let's pick a culture that works.


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