Friday, October 7, 2011

FIELD REPORT: #OccupyBoston: learning together

FIELD REPORT: By guest blogger Una Spenser:

The other day, I wrote about my early experiences of #OccupyBoston and the potentially disheartening dynamics of the General Assemblies.

Today, I'll share with you how close things came to falling apart completely and how, instead, we made some successful strides.

I wasn't sure if I would even go to Dewey Square, Wednesday. The previous night had not proven to be any more successful than Monday. I felt quite strongly that without some foundational shifts in both the way the General Assemblies were structured and the embracing of the assembly model by the entire community, it was a waste of time and energy. It was like getting everybody to build barn, Amish style, except the barn is on a huge tarp where half the people present are ready to pull the tarp out and bring your framework crashing down.

Early in the day some members of the facilitation team had a flurry of emails. Here's a sampling of the mood:

While the GA was tough, it was the hostility of the crowd that got me panicked.
I also think we should take some time at the beginning of General Assembly to go over the above issue and the crowding issue. After you left at one point I yelled "Get back you are freaking me out!" They immediately did so. But, I think it needs to be addressed.
I personally believe that the issue of sexism is very prevalent in our camp. I have personally spoken with about 10 women who feel really uncomfortable and intimidated during GAs and in general in their interaction with some men. Majority grievances were about men who are active in the camp not new visitors.
I am in complete alignment with these thoughts and feelings. I will NOT facilitate again until issues of gender and the difference of empowering someone to do a job in service of the community versus this idea that someone performing a job is abusing power are worked out.
Those are snippets from four different women in the Facilitation working group. The last comment is from me. I had missed when the crowd had gotten so hostile that a facilitator quit in the middle of the evening. I missed it because there was a contingent in the crowd who actively undermined moving ahead with an agenda item that the entire community had reached consensus upon the night before. When that happened and there was no structure in place, a young man took the microphone and started to read the NY General Assembly's declaration. I think he was pushing for a vote to proclaim official solidarity with that statement. I don't know because, he was reading as some kind of performance art which meant he was gradually raising his voice until he was screaming in anger into the microphone. I felt assaulted and I left. I later learned that the decision to ratify it was tabled.

In response to the challenges in front of us, several people in the working group were suggesting that we needed do more than plan for each evening's GA. We needed to actually document how to conduct a GA and bring that as a proposal to a GA and take it through a consensus process. Of course, we were in a catch-22 since there was no community buy-in to any process. So, how do you get anything done? We felt stymied.

The facilitation working group meets at 5 each day to prepare for the 7pm General Assembly. After some consideration, I decided I would go to the meeting to help establish a group to work on that document. I was not interested in planning for the GA, much less participating.

I arrived at 5:15. There was no meeting. I found one other person from the group and she didn't know where anyone was. A third person approached and we figured we had a meeting going. There were two insurmountable problems: no group representatives had delivered any agenda items and no one was willing to facilitate the GA.

We were on the verge of saying, "Well, there won't be one then." In the spirit of collective thinking we tried to brainstorm solutions. A fourth person joined us and we did just that: brainstormed. At 6pm, one hour before the GA, this is the plan we had:
  • We would begin the GA by explaining what we had planned and asking for a consensus to empower the facilitators to execute that plan. (what we didn't tell the participants was that we were prepared to walk out if they did not reach consensus on empowering the facilitators.)
  • the GA would be abbreviated: only time-sensitive announcements, working through one proposal with the full and proper consensus procedure, then individual stack.
So, we had an agenda and a plan for getting buy-in to allow the facilitators to do their job. However, we still didn't have a proposal to work through and we had no facilitators.

We decided that we needed a proposal which we were fairly certain could get to consensus but, was flawed enough to force some of the process to play out. One of us would go around to all the working groups in search of a proposal.

For facilitation, the man who had eloquently and positively constructed a way to request the consensus up front, agreed to present that piece, but couldn't stay past that due to other obligations. We still needed someone to facilitate the proposal process and the individual stack. Of the three remaining people, one could not do it and another didn't feel he had the skills needed or understanding of the process required. Guess who that left. Me.

I was not going to do it. I felt strongly about that. What ensued was the constructive solution building process again: "what would you need?" I was able to articulate that I needed to have the proper infrastructure in place to make the job manageable. That meant: having at least two Floor Time managers out on the floor, at least two Stack Managers on the floor, a Stack Coordinator on stage, a co-facilitator and a timer. It takes a team of at least 8 people to facilitate a GA. The others agreed to find people to play those roles, while I took some personal space to review the consensus steps and prepare myself. We had 40 minutes. I didn't have high expectations.

It was 40 minutes of absolute chaos. Other members of the facilitation working group arrived on the scenes with all their fears and concerns. I simply told them that there was no time to change the momentum and we had a plan. Thankfully, they all decided to help make it happen.

At 6:50, I still wasn't sure if we would have a GA. In a flurry, people approached telling me that we had a facilitation team. In the very last moments, one of our original meeting group arrived with a proposal from the food team to work through. After a bit of frantic processing, we started the meeting just a few minutes late. Our opening gambit had a moment of great tension for us, as we waited to see if empowering the facilitators and working together as a learning process would get approved.

As the request was being made, the facilitator was describing the system and structure of the meeting, including the hand signals to be used. We knew that one of the participants was quite offended by two of the signals and we had told him that we take the time to address that in the meeting. He was very upset, though, and fearful that we wouldn't, so he was impatient. He had no faith that his concerns would be addressed and no faith that if the pre-existing sign system were used a few more times it wouldn't mean that we were eternally associated with what he found so egregious.

In his fearful, non-trusting state he jumped on stage, grabbed the mic and expressed his concerns with a lot of anger. This generated fear in the audience. Not over his concerns, but over feeling safe that the space and process would be respected, allowing people to feel safe that they as individuals would be respected. If he could jump up because he was upset, who else could? If he could yell, who else could? People couldn't hear his concerns because they were no longer grounded in trust. They needed the safe structure of process in order to open up to what he had to say. So, they could not hear, his concerns were not addressed and he stormed off believing that this community didn't care.

There was a tense silence for a moment. The facilitator then did a brilliant job of addressing what just happened and speaking to how working within a structure prevents those kinds of things. So, would they agree to empower the facilitators to help them work within a structure? We had consent!

We were on.

The GA went far better than any we'd previously had. It had it's flaws and I made my mistakes, but we actually went through a process and reached consensus on not one, but two proposals.

After successfully working through consensus on the planned proposal, a member of th facilitation working group got "on stack" to propose that we address the man's concerns about the hand signs. (Apparently two signs being used are commonly used by a skinhead biker gang. Yikes!) Having just learned together how to state objections, suggest friendly amendments, allow the proposer to adopt or reject those amendments, we worked together to build a solution to this problem. We reached consensus on new hand signs, even though people were upset about the way the original person brought the topic to community.

Had the young man who brought us these concerns had a little faith, he might have had patience and he might have been able to express his concerns less violently and he might have had a very healing and bonding experience. Instead he was gone. I hope he learns that the group took his concerns seriously and addressed them. Perhaps, he will find his way back.

We continued to work our way through "individual stack" - a time when individual can bring proposals, concerns or information to the community. The rest of the GA was uneventful, until the very last moments.

As we were closing, four young men who came up to express their anger about the GA. From what I heard, they didn't feel that the community was doing what was needed. Their concern was that we weren't addressing the bigger issues that compelled everyone here. As with the earlier young man, they displayed a lack of trust and, therefore, impatience. What ensued, though, was different. The remaining participants asked th men to come down into a circle discussion. After a few moments, they all decided to use the protocols that they've learned in the GA to conduct the discussion. I was exhausted and I only stayed long enough to admit that I made mistakes and we're all learning together and to say, "good night." The feeling of that circle was quite lovely. By moving into circle, they were embracing one another. Those who were upset were not rejected or isolated. By embracing them and taking their concerns seriously, they were, in return able to hear other perspectives on their concerns. People were able to ask them to join into the process of building creative solutions together. I saw their body language transform from stiff and aggressive and shielded to relaxed and interactive and open. The larger group had gained a little trust in one another and this process and they found a way to compel these young men into the circle of trust, where we would all keep talking and working together.

Step by step, building a little trust in each moment, the internal tensions - which are usually about people's fear regarding power and feeling powerless, but are really about feeling alone and disconnected - will dissipate.

Speaking of trust, I will now speak to something else that happened during the GA. A potentially violent man accosted me twice during the GA. The second time was quite frightening.

During the first encounter, I immediately sought out help. I was actively facilitating a meeting and was not going to engage. I told him that I would get help. I went to the first familiar face I saw and told the person that I needed help. I said there was an aggressive person in our facilitation space and I couldn't handle it. I told him to gather enough people to surround the man without touching him and to move him along. They did. I saw the man walk down the gravel pathway towards the food tent. A sweet and clearly protective man, to whom I owe a huge debt of gratitude, was sitting by the media tent near the staging area. As I walked back up, he said, "let's have a signal in case something like that happens again." We agreed that I would would raise my hands up in the air. Thank goodness he had suggested this. A few minutes later, the offensive man made a bee line back and rushed me and started yelling in my face. I don't remember his words. I was too struck by the explosive energy of it and I immediately felt physically threatened. I threw up my hands and people were there instantaneously, it seemd. They surrounded him and someon had the presence of mind to pull me away to a safe distance until the he was removed.

In the end, it was explained to me that this man is a homeless alcoholic. He had been sober for a week, while in the camp, and had been doing well. It appears that he had contact with someone outside of the camp who gave him alcohol and his behavior last night was the result. The group of homeless comrades asked if they could let him stay and sleep it off, so that they could talk to him in the morning and let him know that he had to stay dry or he couldn't stay in the camp. One more strike and he's out. I approved that plan, as long as there was this active practice of providing personal security. I hope that things go better for him from now on.

There are a couple of wonderful things about this:

  • I, personally, felt very protected and that is a very, very powerful and healing thing. I have been subjected to violence in my life and this was the first time I ever felt so completely assured that I was not alone and would be taken care of. That's a powerful thing.
  • Most people who attended the GA have no idea that any of this happened. He was loud and explosive and potentially violent and, yet, the method of surrounding him contained all of that energy so that it wasn't allowed to permeate things.
  • Some of the men came to me afterward and said they realized that there needed to be a security group, using this method to protect people from potentially harmful interactions. This is key to community cohesiveness. If they can get enough people to learn to do this automatically, it will go a long way to building the trust needed to tackle difficult challenges together.
In short, Wednesday was a success and the OccupyBoston collective made huge strides together. There is a communal learning about the values of collective thinking and consensus decision-making. Yes, they adopted a proposal which was about the camp operations and not about the bigger societal issues and articulating the mission of the movement. Baby steps. You have to practice a new stroke in in the shallow end before you dive into the deep end.

It was clear, as I was leaving, that people were feeling better about things. Thursday evening's GA went well, in terms of working together. They struggled with a proposal which was inherently challenging: to adopt a first demand or declaration which would begin an official document of OccupyBoston. They haven't coalesced around a mission, yet, so setting out specific demands or declarations will be almost impossible. Still, they worked through it via the process we are learning. (I wasn't there. Our household has a tag team system. I watched in on Livestream.) We are learning together and we will refine our process together and we will get to where we feel cohesive enough to come up with a mission. It will be out of that mission that we will then be able to rally around objectives such as demands and declarations. But, we will do so.

What is happening, live and very publicly at OccupyBoston, is a very magical thing. Pay attention. We are putting on full display, all the challenges of changing the fundamental ways a society approaches things. We've been trained to think that there are particular ways in which things should work. We define democracy as a simple majority vote, for instance. All of these ways of thinking are habits we have to break. It's as though the entire population has to quit smoking simultaneously. Imagine what that might be like. 350 million people in withdrawal. Still, with determination and common cause, we can embrace each other. We can pull those who are fearful into a circle and listen and take on their concerns and ask them to help us build solutions. I see it happening with hundreds of people in Dewey Square. I saw it happening in Liberty Square. It can happen in squares across the country.

We simply have to #OccupyOurHearts and #OccupyOurMinds with patience, compassion and vision.


  1. For an outsider this is pretty difficult to follow. It details process and feelings, both of which are important, but seems to leave the substance out. Why was the crowd aggressive? Frustration? Sexism? I sent this to a few friends who are in Boston. Maybe they'll have some insight. Personally, I think the process is overly convoluted and consensus is undemocratic (if the 1% finds out how it works one of them will just walk in and block at a meeting. Game over). Roberts Rules of Order are much more effective and democratic, but I think people are going to have to struggle and experiment before they are open to this approach as opposed to consensus.

  2. Oh, but you can override blocks - it's not an absolute veto. Check Una's previous report too.