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I've been chronicling my experiences of #OccupyBoston here and here. What these experience have brought to light is that, as the #Occupy movement spreads to hundreds of cities across America, we hear about these gatherings called "General Assemblies" and talk of "consensus". But, what do we really know of these things?

This movement is directly inspired by Arab Spring and the Campanadas in Spain. We watched the people of Egypt gather slowly in Cairo as a disorganized crowd, roundly criticized by international voices for being only elite, educated youth and being leaderless and having no clear goals. Sound familiar?

A turning point in this was the day they unfurled, down the side of a building, a list of demands which clearly spelled out steps for getting from the tyranny of Mubarak's brutal kleptocracy to a more just democratic society. Then workers joined their cause and started striking. Suddenly, the world knew that this was serious.

How did they go from being a leaderless, disorganized "mob" to a galvanized movement with a grand plan? They embraced a system of horizontal democracy known as direct democracy and used Collective Thinking.

From day one, Tahrir Square was really a mini-example of what direct democracy looks like. People took charge of everything – trash, food, security. It was a self-sustaining entity. And in the middle of this, under every tent, on every corner, people were having debates about their demands, the future, how things should go economically and politically. It was fascinating. It was a mirror of what Egypt would look like if it was democratic. And it defied the stereotype perpetuated by the regime and Western media that Arabs are supposedly politically apathetic.

In that system, there is no hierarchy. Anybody can form a Working Group to assess needs and construct possible solutions. Working Groups bring those possible solutions, as proposals, to a General Assembly for the entire community to consider. The process used to consider a proposal is called consensus.

Kleptocracies can grow out of many forms of government. Egypt's was an autocratic government. Here we have a supposedly representative democracy, still, kleptocracy is what is really going on. Any time you see such disparity of income as we have here now, there is kleptocracy in place. If the Collective Thinking system could topple Mubarak, you can see how it is compelling to try it here. Only, we need to learn about what it is we're attempting.

Follow me below the fold and I'll give a primer on collective thinking, general assemblies and the consensus decision-making process.

The Commission for Group Dynamics in Assemblies of the Puerta del Sol Protest Camp (Madrid) defined collective thinking as follows:

To our understanding, Collective Thinking is diametrically opposed to the kind of thinking propounded by the present system. This makes it difficult to assimilate and apply. Time is needed, as it involves a long process. When faced with a decision, the normal response of two people with differing opinions tends to be confrontational. They each defend their opinions with the aim of convincing their opponent, until their opinion has won or, at most, a compromise has been reached.

The aim of Collective Thinking, on the other hand, is to construct. That is to say, two people with differing ideas work together to build something new. The onus is therefore not on my idea or yours; rather it is the notion that two ideas together will produce something new, something that neither of us had envisaged beforehand. This focus requires of us that we actively listen, rather than merely be preoccupied with preparing our response.

Collective Thinking is born when we understand that all opinions, be these opinions our own or others’, need to be considered when generating consensus and that an idea, once it has been constructed indirectly, can transform us.

One way to think of this might be to consider the polls we use here on Daily Kos. Someone puts up choices and we have to choose one. The one with the most votes is the winner. I often struggle with polls and multiple choice tests because the answer I would choose is almost never there. In a collective thinking model, you would never present such a poll. You might present a list of options, but instead of choosing one of them you would work together to combine or amend the list into a singular answer which reflected the concerns and ideas of everyone. You'd get to an answer which everyone could live with and would consent to. It's highly likely that the resulting answer would not look like anything on that original list of choices.

In competitive thinking, we rely on individuals or small organizations to formulate solutions and we either go with them or we reject them and choose another individual's solutions. It's highly likely that neither option is optimal, but we're forced to choose. We then see those who made the winning proposal as leaders and tend to defer to them on many future decisions.

In collective thinking, this would never happen. If someone proposes a solution, it is put in front the collective for consideration and ideas on how to make it even better and assurance that all serious concerns about the proposal are addressed. The resulting solution belongs to everybody and no one is seen as a leader and no one is ever deferred to for future decision-making. Empowerment to execute proposals and fulfill leader-like positions is temporary and in service to the community.

Now we begin to understand the concept of Collective Thinking. Let's look at the forum in which Collective Thinking is played out: the Assembly. The Assembly is a meeting model. Working groups can operate as an assembly. When everyone in a community is gathered it is called a General Assembly or Citizen's Assembly or People's Assembly.

The Campaign for Real Democracy defines a People's Assembly:

(1) Peoples Assemblies make decisions horizontally
(2) Peoples Assemblies are interested to learn about, try out and embody new democratic practices

It really is that simple. An assembly is a decision-making body. The USDayOfRage organization spells out further what an assembly is and is not:

What is a People’s Assembly?
It is a participatory decision-making body which works towards consensus.

The Assembly looks for the best arguments to take a decision that reflects every opinion – not positions at odds with each other as what happens when votes are taken.

An Assembly should not be centred around an ideological discourse; instead it should deal with practical questions:

    What do we need?
    How can we get it?

The Assembly is based on free association – if you are not in agreement with what has been decided, you are not obliged to carry it out. Every person is free to do what they wish – the Assembly tries to produce collective intelligence, and shared lines of thought and action. It encourages dialogue and getting to know one another.

An Assembly is a gathering place where people who have a common purpose can meet on equal footing. It can be for:

  • Information: the participants share information of mutual interest. They do not debate the content of this information.
  • Reflection: to jointly think through a subject, situation or problem. Information must be given, but there is no need to arrive at an immediate decision.
  • Decisions: when the group must reach a joint conclusion or decision about a subject it has been involved in. To reach this, the two previous steps (having information and reflecting on it) must have been taken in order to build a consensus.

In my experience with the occupations, thus far, not understanding what a General Assembly is and is not is the source of a lot of confusion and, therefore, frustration. People are compelled to join this movement because of their disenfranchisement has left them feeling angry and hopeless. They fear for their future. They want to congregate with others in the same boat. The only thing we know here about taking this kind of political stand is to rally together. We're used to congregating and listening to people speak at us and rile us up and inspire us with their ideas. We expect them to lead and take on the problems for us. We confer our collective responsibility for our society onto them.

The problem is, that's how we've been doing it for over 200 years and we're in a state of failure. We need to do something differently. This movement is a protest, indeed, but it is also an offering. It offers an alternative way of addressing our societal needs. That way is direct, participatory democracy where each person is equitable, responsible and fully accountable for the decisions we make about how to govern ourselves. That means getting down to work.

What's brilliant about this system is that it is about coming up with solutions. It's not about complaining. If you have a concern, develop a proposal. Can't do that yourself? Create a working group.

It's not about pontificating. If you have information to share - real, hard information, not opinions - by all means provide information which helps make decisions. Stick with facts. It doesn't matter what your opinion is. We have a problem at hand and we must construct a solution. Provide proposals or amendments, not intangible opinions.

There is no point to political parties in this system. If you have a constructive idea to add to the building of a solution, put it out there. It doesn't matter if it came from some ideological background. Marxist, Communist, Democratic, Socialist, these labels won't mean anything. Either the idea addresses the need at hand or it doesn't. It will be considered and adopted or rejected based on whether it's something everyone can consent to as meeting a need.

Many people are lost when they attend a General Assembly. Over and over, I've seen people complain that "we are talking about real things!" I watched an Anarchists' Caucus form here in Boston. They expressed frustration that there is no debate happening in the General Assembly. But, the General Assembly is not a forum for debate. It's a practical, solution-building forum. So, if you have a proposal, make it. If you have information to share, by all means, get on the stack and share.

What's a 'stack'? Stacks are lists that are kept of who has asked to speak. Stack managers will call people up in order at the appropriate time. At the Boston GA, for instance, we now use a Group Announcement stack, a Group Proposal stack and an Individual Stack. There are mini-stacks kept when someone is speaking. Each person is allowed to speak without interruption. If someone has a clarifying question (very important qualifier, there) or a directly relevant point of information, they make a gesture. A Floor Time Manager will put them on a list to speak when the current speaker is finished. If the Floor Time Manager determines that the question is for purposes of clarification or the point of information is not directly relevant, the person can opt to be put on the individual stack. No one is denied the opportunity to speak.

It should be noted that in NY and in Boston, we use a tool called 'progressive stack'. The stack manager watches to see that a plurality of voices are being heard. If one demographic is being heard too often, the stack manager has the discretion to move someone up the stack who might represent a different demographic. We've most typically seen this be based on gender. More men put themselves on stack to speak than women. We might hear from 5 men in a row and the stack manager would then bump a woman up the stack. As we get to know each other better the progressive stack management will likely get more refined so that more marginalized voices are bumped up the stack more often.

What the General Assembly is not has been a challenging concept to embrace. So, what we've seen emerge is a modified version of the Assembly where the 'individual stack' is more of an open mic at the end of the Assembly. It's fascinating to see how engaged people are during the process of considering a proposal and how many people walk away from the Assembly once the open mic starts. I imagine we will need to split the individual stack into an individual proposal stack and individual sharing stack so that we don't miss out on the collective considering worthy proposals because they've walked away.

In Boston, it's taken a while to settle into a General Assembly structure that the encampment owns and adheres to. Going from the "majority rules", top-down structure of our society and all the feelings of oppression that have resulted have left us fearful and un-trusting. There was a kneejerk reaction to having people "impose" rules and structures. An underlying assumption of authoritarian oppression from a self-made ruling class was prevalent. After several failed assemblies, however, a near-mutiny on the part of the Facilitation Working Group, led to a heartfelt plea to please give it a try, and being a part of making it better if things don't work well. It was a tense moment, as the facilitators were willing to walk away if the participants didn't consent to experimenting with structure. They did, though, and we had our first experience of really working through consensus. People really came to understand that it was an authoritarian imposition, but an assurance of safety for all to speak. We're still tweaking the details, but we're now moving forward with a sense of trust.

Ok, so what exactly is this consensus process? There is no one set of rules for reaching consensus. At the site ConsensusDecisionMaking.org they have this to say:

What is Consensus Decision-Making?

There are many meanings to the word "consensus." And there are many variations in the ways groups use "consensus decision-making." These differences are expressed in the articles and other resurces on this website. The following unifying principles, however, form a common trunk from which different branches grow.

They list and elaborate on the following principles:

  • Inclusive
  • Agreement Seeking
  • Process Oriented
  • Collaborative
  • Relationship Building
  • Whole Group Thinking

At that site, you can find a lot of discussion about the variations which can be employed to reach consensus. The basic steps involved are:

  1. Discussion
  2. Identification of a Proposal
  3. Identification of any unresolved concerns
  4. Collaborative alteration of the proposal
  5. Assessment of support
  6. Finalizing a decision or returning to step 1 or 3

The key to this is giving time for all voices to raise their concerns and for building the proposal so that all members agree they can live with it. You don't leave unaddressed concerns on the table and just plow forward. This is how minority groups are protected.

For #OccupyBoston, we've been working on our consensus process. A couple of us started a working document and there is ongoing discussion regarding the details. Because the 5 basic steps above don't really give you a good sense of what the process might really be like, I'm pasting in the current version of our consensus process, with our ongoing notes:

This is a Facilitator guide for how OccupyBoston is currently conducting the consensus
process. The Facilitation Working Group is preparing a proposal to present to the
General Assembly with all the details for conducting a General Assembly.

What is Consensus
Consensus is a process of nonviolent conflict resolution. The expression of concerns
and conflicting ideas is considered desirable and important. When a group creates an
atmosphere which nurtures and supports disagreement without hostility and fear, it
builds a foundation for stronger, more creative decisions.

Direct Consensus
1. Ask the group or individual to state their/her/his proposal.
2. Ask them/her/him to stand aside while you:
a. ask if there are any clarifying questions,
b. ask if there are any points of information,
c. ask if there are any strong concerns or objections with the following
explanations:
- “Before we share concerns, let's remember that in a consensus process,
when you share a concern, it becomes a group concern. We will all be
responsible for making sure it's addressed before we vote.”
- we will allow some silent time, the more challenging the topic, the longer
silence we will allow to make room for everyone to think and express,
- we are only listing, not addressing or resolving concerns or objections in
this moment, that process will come later (that is what amendments and
the proposer’s consideration of changes are for,)
- ask that concerns & objections be stated with the assumption that the
group will attempt to resolve them,
d. ask if there are any friendly amendments to address the expressed
concerns and objections.
NOTE: during this section (except for part a) there should be no direct
responses. People will feel most safe expressing concerns and objections
if they know that they will not have to immediately hear rebuttals or ideas.
The amendments offered are the response to concerns and objections.
The time where proposers consider amending their proposal is a way
of addressing or resolving concerns and objections. The goal is to keep
it non-confrontational and to focus on building solutions together by
assuming that every input is a brick in a building and the next input is a
brick placed above the foundation all the other bricks already laid.  

3. Give the proposers a moment to consider whether they will address the concerns
and objections by doing any of the following:
a. explain how any concerns or objections are already addressed,
b. withdraw the proposal,
c. amend the proposal based on concerns & objections,
d. adopt any of the suggested amendments, or
e. keep the proposal as is.

4.  Instruct the proposers to restate the proposal (whether changed or not)  
NOTE: this is done, even if there are no changes, to allow a refreshed hearing and
to make space for people consider again whether they concerns, objections or
amendments to offer. Don’t want to move on to asking for consensus until it feels as
though all of this is expressed.

4. Go through steps 2 & 3, again.

5. Repeat steps 2-4 until there are no more objections or amendments.
NOTE: we need to decide how many rounds of this before jumping to the Indirect
Consensus.

6. Ask if there are any blocks and define block.  
NOTE: In all the models Allison has seen, a block can actually override a
consensus. (Defining how this happens is key.)  This is different from a “serious
concern” which might be noted but will not block a consensus. We need to
decide a) if we want to allow blocks (there can be serious disadvantages to
allowing blocks, but people’s fears about marginalized voices being oppressed
can be triggered if there is not a clear understanding of the limits of individual
power over a group) and if so, how they can happen. (Can an individual, if the
group considers the block to be principled, block? Or can someone express their
reason for a block and then must get some percentage of people to support the
block?)  

(from wikipedia: Blocks are generally considered to be an extreme measure,
only used when a member feels a proposal "endanger[s] the organization or its
participants, or violate[s] the mission of the organization" (i.e., a principled
objection) Group determines if block is principled and whether to allow it to block

7. If not blocked, ask “Is this a proposal you can live with?” and get temperature
check
NOTE: Allison is clarifying, with “Is this a proposal you can live with?”, how you
make the ask for consensus, as, before this, we’ve not had a clear wording.
Consensus is supposed to be about getting to a decision that everyone can live
with. It doesn’t mean everyone agrees, it means they consent. It’s important that
we make the distinction between consent (hence, consensus) and agreement.

8. If there is 75% consent, confirm with the participants that all see 75% consent,
then announce that consensus is reached and the proposal is adopted.

9. (If necessary) if there is not consensus, but the proposal is not blocked, you can
move to indirect consensus.

Indirect Consensus - involves mini-presentations and possible break out groups:
1. Ask 3 people who support the proposal and 3 people who oppose it to each
speak for 30 seconds to 2 minutes, alternating the supporters and the opposers.
2. Restate the proposal and ask “can you live with this proposal?” before taking a
temperature check.
3. If consensus is not reached, instruct assembly to break into small discussion
groups for 3 to 5 minutes.
NOTE: there are different kinds of discussion groups. We can decide to use one
or have a menu to choose from based on what the facilitator sees as most fit
4. Call participants back to assembly and . . .
a. ask if there are any clarifying questions,
b. ask if there are any points of information,
c. ask if there are any strong concerns or objections with the following
explanations:
- we will allow some silent time, the more challenging the topic, the longer
silence we will allow to make room for everyone to think and express,
- we are only listing, not addressing or resolving concerns or objections in
this moment, that process will come later,
- ask that concerns & objections be stated with the assumption that the
group will attempt to resolve them
d. ask if there are any friendly amendments.

5. Give the proposers a moment to consider whether they want to:
e. explain how any concerns or objections are already addressed,
f. withdraw the proposal,
g. amend the proposal based on concerns & objections,
h. adopt any of the suggested amendments, or
i. keep their proposal as is.

6. Instruct the proposers to restate the proposal (whether changed or not).  

7. Define block and ask if there are any blocks.  

8. If not blocked, ask “Is this a proposal you can live with?” and get temperature
check

9. if consensus is not reached, you can repeat steps 1-8 or send the proposal back
to a working group. (if it was made by an individual, the individual should be
directed to work with a working group to reform the proposal.)

HAND SIGNALS:
1. I consent, I like, I feel good about this - hands up fingers wiggling upward
2. I’m neutral, I feel so-so - hands flat with fingers wigging forward
3. I don’t consent, I don’t like, I feel badly about this - hands down, fingers wigging
downward
4. Point of Information - point index finger up
5. Point of Process - place tips of index finger together in horizontal line
6. Clarifying Question - put index finger and thumb into ‘c’ shape
7. Friendly Amendment - “peace” sign
8. Move it along, we hear what you’re saying - roll fists around one another
9. Block - crossed arms over head
10.Concerns/Objections????

As you can see just from reading this, consensus takes time. In a society where we go apoplectic if we have to sit behind a car at a traffic light or a web page takes more than 2 seconds to load, we must be aware that are not acculturated to have the patience for this process. We're a "bigger, better, faster" gang. Only our definition of 'better' may be stunted. So, we have to give ourselves room for mistakes and failures. We have to embrace the frustration and tediousness of it. In doing so, we embrace one another. We say, "Yes, I'll take the time to listen." We do so because it is only through listening to everyone that we can build solutions which serve everyone. When everyone is served well, systems are sustainable. People feel connected to the solutions and one another and there is far more contentment than in a system where 51% of the people vote for a solution that 49% of the people disagree with.

As I said earlier, we had some spectacular failures with the General Assembly at #OccupyBoston. We learned from those failures. We stopped, took a step back and asked ourselves, "Do we want to fail? If not, let's keep trying and let's keep learning." There was enough commitment to persevere that we almost as spectacularly went from near demise to very inspiring General Assembly experiences. It's a work in progress. A collective work in progress. One where decisions to solve the problems and concerns we encounter along the way are addressed collaboratively and solutions are decided upon by consensus. It's a lovely atmosphere to work in. It's slow. It can be messy. It can feel tedious. It can feel like you'll never get anywhere. Then, it's amazing how something emerges and the energy is full of creativity and hope and a community gels. When that happens you feel like you have the power to do anything. Maybe even the power to topple a plutocratic kleptocracy and build a governance system of equity and justice.

Originally posted to UnaSpenser on Sat Oct 08, 2011 at 10:14 AM PDT.

Also republished by Occupy Wall Street, Progressive Hippie, DKOMA, and ClassWarfare Newsletter: WallStreet VS Working Class Global Occupy movement.

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