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
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:
- Clarify consensus process for all
- Present proposal
- Questions to clarify the proposal
- 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.
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
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.