Reflections on my Travels
So, for much of December, I was travelling too far, too fast to blog. Way back last year when I was finishing up the writing of The Empowerment Manual: A Guide for Collaborative Groups, I had some email discussions with the publishers about how to promote it once it came out. New Society is a small, political publisher, and while they are great to work with, use recycled paper, and support all the right causes, they don’t have money to spend on book tours. “No problem,” I said. “I’ll just schedule a few workshops in some key places—like New York, LA, etc. and that’ll cover the cost of getting there. Plus I’d rather give a talk or a workshop than sit behind a table at a bookstore desperately hoping someone will come buy the book and have me sign it before I spend far more money than I’m making on all the other books around me in the store.”
So, I had quite a schedule already planned for the Fall, and then half the world decided to go Occupy Everything. What could be more perfect timing, given that I’d just written a book on horizontal organizing and collaborative process? Many of my far-flung friends were involved in their local Occupy’s, and soon they were emailing me begging me to come. People who found out I’d be in their cities were asking for trainings, and since I’m now hooked into national networks of trainers, I ended up going to Vancouver, Minneapolis, Boston, New York, then home for a day—just long enough to do a forum on nonviolence/diversity of tactics for Occupy Oakland—and then LA, plus a Winter Solstice ritual in Sebastopol. Even for me, this was rather a hectic pace, but it was hella fun and it gave me a quick overview of the movement, like a series of snapshots.
This last month has been a challenging time for the Occupy movement. The forces of repression have struck hard, and most or all of the major Occupations have been forced out. At the same time, winter and cold weather make outdoor activities a challenge. I’ll never forget the stalwart folks of Occupy Minneapolis, valiantly maintaining a presence in 10 degree weather! My favorite souvenir of the trip—my Occupy MN hat, made of bushy fake fur! Other memories–Occupy Boston the night eviction was threatened. An action at Goldman Sachs with Occupy Wall Street–followed by an impromptu spiral dance at the Winter Garden across the street. A healing ritual at Zucotti Park. Trainings, trainings, trainings–including one heart-filled workshop my last morning in New York for Occupiers now housed in a church on the West Side. Here’s some pics:
But even more than troubles with the cops and city authorities, the biggest challenges the Occupy movement faces seem to be internal. How do we make decisions together? How do we resolve our own conflicts within our groups? Once we’ve said “We are the 99%”, how do we set standards of behavior and say what is okay and what is not? Once we’ve renounced force and coercion, how do we enforce those standards when we do set them?
None of these are easy questions to answer. While many of them are addressed in my book—and thank you, Starhawk! For buckling down last spring, meeting your deadlines and getting it finished on time, otherwise you’d be kicking yourself in the butt right now, and you’re no longer limber enough to do so!—the Occupy movement poses them in a form more stark than I’ve ever encountered before, in four decades of horizontal organizing. Sitting down in the public square to Occupy and protest an unjust system attracted the very people most impacted by the injustice, some of whom are badly wounded in ways that make it very hard to organize and live together. When your own needs are overwhelming, and unfulfilled, its hard to see that other people might also have needs. When you’ve had no voice, and somebody offers you a platform to speak and an audience, it can be hard to step back after your allotted two minutes and let others speak. When you’ve dulled your pain for years with drink or drugs, you can’t easily go cold turkey and stop using. And yet when you’re trying to create a new society in which everyone has a voice and power is shared, you need everyone to be willing and able to share both power and responsibility.
Consensus is a challenging process at best—when most people are untrained, and even the facilitators don’t really understand how the process is supposed to work, and when the participants aren’t even in the same consensus reality. Consensus is also a linear thinking process, designed for synthesizing issues into proposals and then making decisions. It’s a tool, not a group structure nor a way of life. It requires someone with a linear thinking mind to facilitate, who can keep a kind of outline in their head of topics, subtopics, points A B C and D.” When people come to it with the pent-up anger of years of disempowerment, it can simply compound frustration. When the voices in your head compel you to tell the world about the impending arrival of the Space Brothers with the Mysterious Blue Geodes and you theory about how it all relates to the Mayan Calendar, being told you’re off topic just doesn’t cut it.
Consensus is one tool—and used well it can be a powerful and empowering tool. But it’s not the only tool or process we need. There are other ways of coming together that open the heart or encourage participation in different ways. Some of them are discussed in the free download on my website: “The Five-Fold Path of Productive Meetings”. And I hope to do more writing and thinking about this in the days to come.
And now—got to go pack the truck and head up to the ranch to prepare for our upcoming Earth Activist Training! Happy holidays, and a blessed New Year to you all!