Twinkle twinkle little fingers – consensus in action

7th November 2011 by

For the first time recently I’ve taken part in meetings (one small, one very large) where decisions were made by consensus. That’s not to say ‘We turned up and happily it turned out that actually we all agreed, so that was nice and easy’. Rather it means that we were making decisions under a formal ‘consensus decision-making process’ with particular ways of operating and reaching conclusions.

An Occupy LSX general assembly in progress using consensus decision-making

As someone who had only had experience of this through one workshop at a conference, putting it into practice – and using it with others to make important decisions – was a whole new bag for me. So this post is not a 101 in consensus decision-making, because I’m still learning, but more a ‘How it was for me’.

But essentially, the basic principles include having no votes where a decision is decided by majority – any decision made has to have the buy-in of everyone. And that really means everyone. A ‘no’ is in effect a block, or a veto, which sends a message that “I am so unhappy with this proposal that I would feel unable to stay in the organisation/camp/etc if it goes through”, and this can be exercised by even the smallest minority present (though there is an unwritten rule that anyone should limit themselves to one or two of these in a lifetime).

The 'I agree!' twinkling-fingers signal

To try to avoid blocks, however, there is a whole menu of ways to facilitate genuine discussion, listening and negotiation, much of it communicated via hand signals while speakers talk so that the meeting’s general warmth or coolness towards what’s being said can be gauged quickly, or so the type of intervention someone wants to make (clarifying question, direct response, technical point, and so on) can be understood by the facilitator.

That’s not to say it’s a quick process! Even those who are passionate about the value of consensus decision-making admit that it can take frustrating long hours to reach consensus even on simple matters. And a skilled facilitator seems to be really key.

So my first active experience was in an Otesha team meeting recently. We are keen here on using non-hierarchical structures and processes wherever possible, and it’s something we try to pass on also to the people who take part in our Cycle Tours, so it makes sense that we use it ourselves.

My next active experience of consensus decision-making was very different from our small Otesha team meeting. This time I was sat on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral in a very large, diverse crowd, gathered for one of the twice-daily ‘General Assemblies’ of the Occupy London Stock Exchange protest camp. [Anyone, by the way, is allowed to turn up for these open-air meetings and contribute to decisions made about how the camp is run and what its strategy should be.]

This was an extraordinary experience. In a large crowd, the use of hand signals, and the eagle eyes and inclusive instincts of a skilled facilitator, seem even more (or perhaps just differently) important. [Here, there was a microphone (unlike Occupy Wall St which uses a ‘human mic’ technique thanks to a police ban on amplifiers).]

Josie Long addresses Occupy LSX

It was deeply impressive. This time it was held very efficiently and quickly because it was to be followed by a scheduled roster of speakers for a rally (including Otesha’s patron, Josie Long, who was as funny and passionate as ever). But that does not mean that dissent was stifled.

One or two voices objected to a proposal to pay travel expenses for Occupy representatives from other parts of the country to visit London, because it had not been made clear what proportion of the camp’s finances this might swallow up. These voices were heard, and in fact the rippling sea of waggling up-turned fingers showed it was a popular point, so the decision was deferred until better financial information would be brought to a future assembly.

Fascinating was that this all took place open to passers-by, tourists on open-top buses, any Londoner within earshot. And as many of the speakers pointed out, the stereotypes and insults flung at the camp by sections of the media often dissolved for curious visitors when they saw the collective discipline, inclusivity and openness with which decisions are being made in the lee of St Paul’s. Consensus decision-making is at the heart of the Occupy protests, not as a nice add-on but as an integral part of their agendas in itself, as the core of what is an experiment in finding alternative or deeper modes of democracy and organisation. That the protests do not have one hard and fast agenda is criticised by outsiders. But ‘the process’ is the agenda: experimenting in how society can feel its way to alternatives that just might work better than current systems.

So how did I take to it? Well, the positives:

  • It felt good to have a recognised process that values everyone’s views – something that can act against the conscious or unconscious shouting-down, pulling of rank, brandishing of expertise, machismo or bias in favour of extroverts that you might find (and probably have found) in standard meetings.
  • It makes sense to have a process which seeks everyone’s buy-in to a decision, even if for some that means ‘It’s not my favourite option, but I’ll accept it for the good of the group’, because it seems obvious that this stands a better chance of there being good morale, and therefore of loyalty and low turnover of staff (if it’s a ‘staffed’ organisation in question).
  • If people feel they and their concerns really will be listened to and so they really can speak their minds, important information is likely to be brought out and discussed that might otherwise have emerged later in a way that causes problems.

The negatives?

  • I’ve got a nagging feeling that it doesn’t eliminate the various ways in which we human primates will ruthlessly try (consciously or unconsciously) to ensure we get our way, whether by body language or anything else. This is where even a skilled facilitator will have to work hard to be very aware and find ways to circumvent these tendencies.
  • Sometimes I might find I’m not ready to have an opinion on something but am expected to give my view. We might all have different ways of mulling over a subject, and not everyone will deal well with being called upon to think aloud in company in this way and express thoughts that might not yet be fully formed. On the other hand, it can be good for those of us less comfortable in thinking aloud to actually do it, practice it and become comfortable, to ensure we are being active rather than passive.

I’m sure I’ll come across lots more positives and negatives as I get more experience in this way of working.

Occupy LSX at St Paul's. Can this many people really reach consensus?

As one Occupy Wall Street participant has pointed out, the movement has been confounding those who assumed it might be impossible to operate consensus models on this scale. The camps may fail or ‘succeed’, whatever that means. Their methods may be flawed in many ways. What is clear is that for those with direct experience of the camps, whether as a one-time drop-in or a pavement-hardened camper, they have already scored a success of kinds by demonstrating for many for the first time the thrill of finding they are capable of joining with others to participate in experiments in direct democracy. They are often messy, often frustrating, but they prove the falsity of claiming that there is no alternative to current systems.

Craftivist Mission of Love (and Justice)

9th February 2011 by

I was very excited when Sarah Corbett of crafty activist group The Craftivist Collective got in touch to ask if I would help her make a video about their Valentines project, and even more excited when I heard that Joise Long, Otesha’s very own patron, was getting involved…

For the last few years the Craftivist Collective have been attempting to ‘hijack’ valentines day by asking people to “show some love” for their global neighbours, as well as their BFs, GFs, BFFs etc. This year they have teamed up with the cult jewellery designer Tatty Devine and on February 14th will be taking to the streets all over the UK to plant alternative love letters, complete with beautiful handmade keyrings, so that they can be stumbled across and make someone’s day whilst raising awareness about climate change. The idea is that whoever finds the letters will not only have the instant impact and mind stirrings from reading the letter (extract below), but will have a beautiful keyring to keep, which will remind them of the project and hopefully spur other actions and conversations.

To my Valentine,

Every year February 14th comes around and provides us with a beautiful opportunity to show someone we care about them: most of the time we direct that love at just one person. This year I want to encourage you not to limit that extraordinary capacity we have to just one person, but to love the world. In the name of love, brighten up someone’s day and remind them of our global community and inspire them to get stirred up to think about how the poorest people in the world are being affected by climate change, despite having contributed the least to the problem.

The best thing about the project is that anyone can get involved – there are already groups doing the project in London, Leeds, Bristol, Bangor and Newcastle. I really recommend it – even just making one, it’s brilliant hiding the letters and then watching people find them and the intrigued bemusement and fat smiles that ensue, all whilst raising awareness on a day which has become so ridiculously commercialised.

There is a template for the letter and instructions on how to make the keyring on The Craftivist Collective website.

Josie Long & Otesha meet the craftivist collective

30th September 2010 by

Following last months inaugural video with our patron, Josie Long & Otesha meet the craftivist collective, this month we decided to sew our way to social justice.

Josie Long and Otesha met Sarah Corbett from the Craftivist Collective! The Craftivist Collective use the power of craft and art to highlight issues of social injustice, like global poverty, human rights abuses and climate change impacts. So, during October, we’re challenging you to get involved, pick up your needle and thread and make your very own mini protest banner (you can make your own or buy one from the Craftivist Collective website). Remember to send us photos and the best banner wins a bar of fairtrade chocolate.

there is no point to a globalisation that reduces the prices of a child's shoes but costs the father his job...

Josie Long & Otesha meet Climate Camp

2nd September 2010 by

Ta da!! Here is our first foray into film with our patron, comedian Josie Long! Over the next few months, we will be showcasing some of the coolest and best aspects of the social and environmental justice movement here in the UK and relating it back to our daily lives.

This month, we went to Climate Camp in Edinburgh. A thousand activists camping outside RBS headquarters and protesting against their investment in fossil fuels and destructive projects like the tar sands may not seem relevant to a lot of us, but when you think that the bank is 84% owned by the UK taxpayer, it makes you wonder where your money is going.

So this month, we’re not necessarily asking you to siege your local bank branch (although, that of course, is your individual choice). We are asking you to put your money where your ethics are, pester your parents about their pension and above all, be honourable. That’s the title of Josie’s current show (nominated for an Edinburgh Comedy Award!), which is about trying to act in line with your beliefs, saying goodbye to complacency and just being aware that there are people out there fighting for a cleaner, greener, fairer world. Sounds pretty good to us.

You’ll have to excuse some of the poor sound and light quality in the video – it was me, Josie, a flip cam and a bike light running around in the dark! The next one will be more fancy.

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