Lessons in (Participatory) Democracy
job requires going to a lot of meetings. Governmental body
meetings, neighborhood association meetings, ad hoc citizen
group meetings, long-established advocacy group meetings.
I’ve also been to plenty of meetings under my own steam—I’ve
served on church boards, been member of various co-ops, led
small advocacy/activist/affinity groups, had weekly house
meetings in my nine-person house in college, and goodness
knows what else.
Meetings, justifiably, are the butt of a lot of jokes, such
as the pithy saying, “To kill time, a committee meeting is
the perfect weapon.”
I have sat through many of the same meetings, roughly speaking,
as whoever came up with that line. I’ve sat through meetings
that were hours longer than they were supposed to be because
one person had to insist upon one point ad nauseum. I have
seen other meetings end on time but without anything having
been accomplished for exactly the same reason. I have grimaced
through hours of completely irrelevant tangents, and on the
other hand winced as relevant context and hard questions were
squashed by a moderator overeager to move things along. I’ve
seen white people and/or men dominate more than one conversation
without anyone taking note.
I’m sure you could add any number of things to my list.
Here’s the problem: Democracy, which most of us in this country
profess to care about, runs on meetings. Yeah, yeah, voting
is important. But real, honest-to-God democracy, the people
really have a say and hold their representatives accountable
democracy, runs from the grassroots up on meetings—people
coming together to argue issues, discuss strategies, solve
problems, and make plans in concert. Democracy is about collective
And democracy is far too important to leave to those people
who can tolerate miserable, long, directionless, badly run
meetings. There are those people, and abandoning the work
of either democracy writ large, or individual democratically
run organizations, to them has the same results as inbreeding:
The good news is that there are people who know how to do
this well, and I’ve been to a lot of really great meetings
as well. I’ve seen the members of the Honest Weight Food Co-op
strike a balance between trusting their staff and asking tough
questions as they reviewed the annual budget. I’ve seen a
roomful of 200 people who hadn’t met before plan a civil disobedience
in a few short hours. I’ve seen artful facilitators guide
a straying speaker back on track and encourage more hesitant
ones to speak up.
Nobody’s perfect, but the main point is, running meetings
is an art and it is possible to do it well. There are
people who have studied how to do it in depth. Some of their
tricks of the trade are really quite impressive, and simple:
In the food co-ops in Oberlin College, for example, when you
agreed with what the speaker was saying, you would make the
sign- language gesture for “yes.” This simple little innovation
saved us countless hours, because without adding any extra
time to a discussion, you could immediately say “Me too” without
getting on the list to speak and rephrasing everything the
previous speaker had said. Widespread agreement with a particular
sentiment could be quickly and dramatically gauged. Did people
still repeat what other people had said? Did the discussion
on whether honey was vegan still drag out far too long? Yes.
But it was far more efficient than the alternative, and thanks
to tricks like that (and a kick-ass training program for board
representatives) a system of a dozen co-ops and over a thousand
students managed to function by consensus and still get food
on the table.
But most people don’t get enough experience working with people
who’ve actually figured out how to make this work. In this
vaunted democracy, our schools are undemocratic, our workplaces
are undemocratic, and our marketplaces are certainly undemocratic.
Where do we learn, let alone practice, the skills of collective
problem solving and decision making?
So here’s my suggestion. We need a return of civics classes
in school—but not just the theoretical, “I’m Just a Bill on
Capitol Hill,” three branches of government, names of past
presidents civics classes. I want practical, hands-on training.
My curriculum would start with practice in listening comprehension
and conflict resolution. Much as people who have a rocky relationship
with their spouse won’t do so well in an open marriage, people
who have trouble working out disagreements with one other
person are going to be hell in a larger group.
Next would be skills for meeting participants—in other words
for concerned citizens. Business consultant Dale Dauten says,
“A meeting moves at the speed of the slowest mind in the room.
(In other words, all but one participant will be bored, all
but one mind underused.)” This may be unnecessarily cruel
(plenty of meetings soar beyond some of their participants
and the good ones can include everyone). It’s not intelligence
that makes a good meeting participant, but practice and interest
in the process. But it does point out that it’s not just the
leaders who make or break a meeting. There isn’t a single
one of us who wouldn’t benefit from some training in determining
what’s on- and off-topic in what contexts, how to make concrete
suggestions either for compromise or action, and how to respond
on the fly to an issue but still be succinct.
Taking meetings out of the hands of wonks also involves teaching
about the different kinds of meeting rules—parliamentary,
Consensus Process, etc.—and the pros and cons of each (consensus
works less well in groups where members change meeting to
meeting, for example).
Finally, everyone should be able to try their hand at meeting
facilitation, from the formal checklist (make an agenda, set
a time limit for each agenda item . . .) to the touchy-feely
process of steering a discussion without dampening it.
Do I hear a motion?