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Wanted: Lessons in (Participatory) Democracy

My 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 decision making.

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: eventual disaster.

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?

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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