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Consensus, Principle and the New Generation of Activists
by Charla Chamberlain and Daniel Lerch

Last December's WTO demonstrations in Seattle were a flurry of banners, costumes and tear gas. But underlying it all was a common cause of the people who took to the streets: a demand to be part of a decision-making process that was influencing their lives. The demonstrations were as much about exposing eroding democracy as they were about sea turtles and jobs moving overseas.

Seattle gave our national consciousness its first glimpse of the new generation of activists that have inherited the social change and environmental protection movement of decades past.  For many, this work is steeped in certain principles, like non-violence and inclusion.  Thus many groups working with these principles have chosen to use the consensus model to govern their decision-making, reflecting the respect they demand as legitimate voices in our society. The consensus model requires that every voice be heard and considered throughout the entire decision-making process.

What does is mean to want to create consensus? It means making a commitment to cooperate with the people in your group, knowing and trusting that you can and will create ideas with one another and carry them forth. It means respecting everyone involved by being patient, by actively empowering each individual to participate, and by honoring the consensus process. It means understanding that the conflict of viewpoints is inevitable, and can create an occasion for growth.

Consensus has its roots well before Seattle.  Groups have been practicing and beginning consensus decision-making processes for years, particularly faith-based groups and indigenous and intentional communities.  In 1987 C.T. Butler wrote "On Conflict and Consensus" (published by Food Not Bombs, 1987) as a formal guide to the affinity group and consensus processes that he saw being used by secular organizations in Boston. This model was previously known as "secular consensus," but it is now called "formal consensus."

The most prominent characteristic of consensus is that decisions are only adopted when all participants accept the result of a proposal discussion. As compared to 'majority rule' decision-making, where a minority opinion usually ends up being out-voted and tossed away, the consensus process requires that everybody's concerns be addressed and discussed.

Formal Consensus proceeds through cycles of discussion and question resolution, moderated by a facilitator who keeps the things moving and ensures that all participants are heard from. This model also works with larger groups by using affinity groups and a representative spokescouncil. The basic structure looks like this:

INTRODUCTION

  • Clarify consensus process for all
  • Present proposal
  • Questions to clarify the proposal

DISCUSSION/CLARIFICATION CYCLE

  • Discussion of proposal
  • Identify concerns
  • Attempt to resolve concerns
  • Repeat cycle up to two times if necessary

IF CONSENSUS IS NOT ACHIEVED

  • Facilitator asks if those who disagree will stand aside, or
  • Facilitator declares impasse and proposal is halted, or
  • Send to committee, re-present at next meeting

After all options of resolution have been exhausted, people with remaining unresolved concerns may declare a "stand aside."  This means they will allow the decision to go ahead for the good of the group; their concerns are then listed with the proposal and become a part of it.  It's possible, however, that someone may still be so opposed to a decision that she does not feel right to merely stand aside.  At this point, if an individual feels that principles of the group would be inherently compromised if the decision were to go through, she can halt the entire process by declaring a "block."  More than a veto, a personal block is a very serious move indicating a deep personal break with the group.  After a block, the group must re-evaluate the entire proposal.

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The City Repair Project is a non-profit organization in Portland, Oregon that empowers individuals, neighborhoods and communities to actively participate in the processes that shape and define the places where they live.  Particularly in our work with facilitating neighborhood design workshops, we've seen the importance of coming to a decision in which everyone involved both agrees with and feels ownership.

Within City Repair itself, we work to be as inclusive and mutually respectful as possible.  We've seen the need to repair a lot of dysfunction that many of us have learned from the communicative structures we grew up in (i.e. schools, families) – structures that force us to compete with each other to be heard.  In order to effectively manifest the cultural values we want to live in, we must learn more respectful and trust-based ways of communicating with each other; this may include working out some personal issues before entering into an organization. 

And yet, such group trust and intimacy can often alienate people who are not familiar with progressive communities.  This creates a challenge in many consensus-based organizations:  how do we reach out to those lost within the structure of isolation when the closeness that our trusting relationships with each other creates makes us seem exclusive?  When we work together daily with this in mind, we each become responsible to free ourselves from insecurities that have kept us isolated, and to learn to communicate in ways that help us all grow.

Consensus gives us all an opportunity to expand our ideas of what cooperation can define.  By choosing to trust each other, we can remove the need to feed our own egos, and instead begin nourishing each other and moving to embody the meaning of equality.

Charla Chamberlain and Daniel Lerch are both of the City Repair Project, Portland, Oregon.  The City Repair Project has been implementing place-making projects in Portland since 1997, including the T-Horse, the Teen-Pony, Intersection Repair, Hands Around Portland, and the Earth Day 2000 Celebration in Pioneer Square.  You can learn more about us at www.cityrepair.org  or 503-299-1264.

You can get a copy of "On Conflict and Consensus" (1987) by C.T. Butler from your local progressive bookstore or from Food Not Bombs Publishing (800-569-4054).  It is also distributed free on the Internet at http://boutell.com/~ciel/ocac.html.  The City Repair Project has formatted the Internet version for MS Word; if you'd like a copy, please call us at 503-299-1264.

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