Monday, July 24, 2006

Change, Growth & Consensus Process

I've been working at consensus process decision-making since my days in the SF Women's Studies Collective back in the 1970s. A few years later when Reclaiming Collective was formed, I found myself working with people with as strong a commitment to the process, except that experience and writings about it had proliferated in the meantime. When my then-coven, Holy Terrors, first joined the Covenant of the Goddess, its members were also committed to consensus process. So it's clear that this is my preferred method of collaboration.

Now that things -- Reclaiming (no longer a collective, per se), CoG and other groups -- have expanded, I'm wondering how effective consensus process can be. Can we still operate that way? It will be a challenge for the recently birthed BIRCH (Broader Intra-Reclaiming Council of Hubs). BIRCH folks have the advantage of having had good training and consistent experience with the process. It seems that in CoG in particular some matters, such as the annual choosing of National Board officers, have devolved into voting. I don't like it. It fosters a competitive spirit that threatens to erode the trust and solitarity so carefully and lovingly nourished over a period of many years. Is there a better, more satisfying way to accomplish these necessary organizational business matters? I keep hoping there is.

I’ve thought about this a lot over the last year or two. I’m not sure I have any answers. I do know, however, that I was tremendously favorably impressed by how well folks at the Dandelion Gathering in May used consensus process so effectively.

On the plane to Starwood — a Really Fabulous experiment in temporary counter-culture community, BTW (more about Starwood anon) — I read a book called Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, by Malcolm Gladwell. I was inspired to read it based on an interview with him I found on the Charlie Rose show while channel-surfing late one night.

On the strength of Blink, I plan to read his earlier book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Although TTP is not about consensus process, I'm hoping that Gladwell's thinking will inform and inspire me to feel better about the future of consensus on a larger scale.


Anonymous said...

An old organizer friend of mine who lives on one of those intentional communities back East told me recently that among the kibbutzim of Israel, where they've used consensus process for many years, 250 people is considered about the maximum size for a group to use consensus effectively. Any larger than that and it is too decentralized to hold together, and a better structure would be representative democracy or some such. I think about that a lot, because it seems the groups we are talking about here, Reclaiming and COG, have hit that point and are suffering from the dispersal effect he was talking about.

I too love consensus, but I love anything when it works. When it doesn't work, I hate it and think we should try something else--or at the very least admit it isn't working and look realistically at the reasons why. The problem is that most consensus-based groups have an ideological stake in working by consensus, because it's part of this "new paradigm" thinking--you know, we will change the world one bloody meeting at a time, and we're all powerful and can all feel good about whatever we decide.

When consensus isn't working, it's usually because of power issues--who has it, who wants it, who thinks she has it but doesn't, who doesn't want it but has it anyway. But to admit this--to be realistic about the causes of the group's struggle--would mean relinquishing the idealism that is at the core of the commitment to consensus. We're not all powerful in the same ways. We don't all have good judgment or make good decisions, and some of us will fight tooth and nail against those who can. What then?

Cat C-B (and/or Peter B) said...

At the risk of sounding like I'm proselytizing (I'm not!) I wonder if the Quaker process of seeking unity--NOT the same as consensus, though Pagans often mistake them--might offer a way out. Paganism, after all, is a religious movement, and may be able to make use of religious approaches that a secular institution could not. Friends do make decisions by this means in very large groups--though I have, as yet, so little personal experience of it that I'm unsure how effective it is. It is certainly VERY slow and cumbersome, but may be healthier for a spiritual community for all of that.

Mind you, it's not perfect. Quakers have schismed in the past, and may again. And I'm not sure regular Pagan practices lend themselves to nurturing a sense of spiritual community the same way Quaker ones do. In fact, I suspect the very notion of seeking spiritual "unity" on a question would cause many Pagans I know to break out in hives.

Still. It's an intriguing notion. So-called "worship sharing" translates well to Pagan contexts. Is there more that could be useful?

Again, PLEASE don't mistake my speculation for proselytizing. I'm far from sure of anything, here... just thinking aloud.

Broomstick Chronicles said...

What a treat to check in here and find that you lovely ladies have been around! Thanks for your sharing your thoughts on this stuff.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with both Anne and Cat - I love consensus, but I love anything when it works, and "Unity" may indeed be a better model than "Consensus", especially when that consensus is something that feels like it has been forced by lack of valid options, or is used as a weapon (as it has been in COG's past).
Ultimately, any decision making process will have it's pros and cons, and ultimately, any such process will work part of the time.