Maintain participatory democracy in all the activities of the group. This is important because:
- Participatory democracy is a crucial part of our vision of a better society, and we will best achieve that by practicing it now at every opportunity
- The evidence of many study groups, especially when contrasted with standard high school and college learning situations, is that people learn faster and more effectively — and are more likely to move on to applications of their learning — when they are in charge of the learning situation.
Participatory democracy is maintained primarily through procedures that encourage:
- Equal participation in the course
- Equal sharing within the group of the power and information necessary for decision-making
Equal participation is aided by:
- Regular rotation of the role of facilitator and other roles
- An agenda which is visible to everyone, which is reviewed each meeting, and which is open to changes suggested by any participant
Procedures encouraging equal participation include:
- The reports format in which each person has the opportunity to contribute information
- Agenda items like excitement sharing which include everyone
- Agenda items in which the person speaking is not to be interrupted, including report giving, brainstorming, and “think and listen” exercises
- Exercises that raise the consciousness of people who tend to speak too frequently
Create a safe environment for thinking and expressing unconventional perspectives. Procedures that help create a safe environment include:
- Ground rules for behavior agreed to by consensus
- A vibes-watcher who looks out for disrespectful behavior and is committed to intervening
- A facilitator who guides the group toward productive discussion and exploration and away from useless ranting and disrespectful behavior
Build group trust and understanding. If group members come to trust and appreciate each other more and more as the course goes on, then:
- The course will be a more enjoyable experience
- The group will come to mean more to each participant
- More effective learning will occur because people will feel trustful enough of the group to share ideas they are not really sure about
- Participants are more likely to develop social action plans that will really be meaningful and implementable
- The quality of meetings will improve because everyone will really care about giving good reports, being an alert facilitator, timekeeper, etc.
Develop an empowering learning/teaching experience that encourages people’s reliance on and respect for their ability both to think clearly and to successfully tackle problems — rather than concluding that only the “experts” or powerholders know enough or have enough power to act on these issues. This principle breaks down into two more specific ones:
Each group knows best what its own unique needs are. Options are presented for alternative ways to deal with a specific topic, situation, need, etc. Each group should assess its own needs, and then determine how best to meet them in the context of the overall course structure.
Each group needs to do things that build a solid, authentic sense of achievement. Procedures important in producing this sense of achievement include:
- Attention to suggested time limits. If the reports are finished on time, there will be time in the session to relate new information to possibilities for change, and the session will finish on time, creating an ongoing sense of momentum and achievement.
- Sensitivity in judging how much time is worth allotting to completely open-ended discussion. Participants in many study groups have found it frustrating and unproductive to discuss at length points for which documenting information is not at hand. Similarly, it can be very unsatisfying to get off on tangents and not end up where you wanted to be.
- Being careful to allow significant amounts of time for relating information to change. This may seem unimportant if action ideas generated are not acted on immediately, but is, in fact, valuable for three reasons:
o Generating ideas for change activities and reviewing them periodically reminds the group of all the things that could be done. This is an important counter-balance to the depressing nature of much of the information the reports bring to light.
o Group members will often spread these ideas to their family members, friends, and other groups they are involved in. The more people who consider these ideas, the more likely that they will try to carry them out.
o Generating ideas encourages participants to consider actually carrying out one or more of these ideas.
Regularly carry out effective evaluations. This principle is placed at the end of the group process section because in some ways it encompasses all the previous principles. An evaluation that is both frank and honest, and at the same time sensitive and supportive of participants, is a crucial mechanism for sharing everyone’s assessment of how well things are going in all the previous areas and making use of the collective wisdom of the group to make improvements for the future. It is the major opportunity to implement the process of molding the course structure to meet the group’s particular needs, and to strengthen group trust and increase energy by reflecting on things that went well.
Our society provides little support, encouragement, or training for us to serve as active, empowered citizens. We are not taught the skills required to understand social problems — much less to investigate and analyze these problems, research ways to resolve them, formulate possible solutions, or cooperate and struggle with others to choose and implement a good solution. We are not told we have the right to challenge the status quo, to make important decisions, or to control our society. Instead, we are encouraged to “fit in” and “go with the flow” down the path chosen by authorities. We are encouraged to be powerless. Also, the enormity of the changes needed at a broad societal level, and the complexity of interrelated problems, makes it difficult for any single person to feel able to unravel and understand them, much less feel powerful enough to bring about significant change.
Our power over our own lives and our sense of our own worth are diminished in other ways by the political and economic system. A profit-oriented and expansive market economy encourages the creation of artificial needs for goods that distort our values and obstruct our ability to recognize and meet real human needs. Advertising drums home the message that we are not good enough as we are. Our sense of isolation and alienation is fostered by the atmosphere of competition and divisiveness in which no one can be trusted, one person can gain success or privilege only at the expense of another, and a feeling of self-worth is acquired only by having somebody else to look down on.
Although these many reasons to feel isolated and powerless are compelling, the reality is that we are not powerless. The power of nearly any system comes ultimately from people’s willingness to put up with it — to recognize its authority, obey its laws, respect its expertise, and subordinate their own opinions, preferences, and priorities to what they are told are the needs of the larger group. This willingness to relinquish power can be developed and maintained in many ways — by threat of force, by an absence of visible alternatives, by the myth that participation in decision-making presently exists, and by the idea that only the experts can know what to do.
All of these ways of maintaining unfair power, wealth, and privilege are undermined when people begin to discover that they can take charge of their lives — that they can love and be loved for who they are, that they know what they really need, and that they are smart and capable of understanding, making good decisions, taking responsibility, and following through with action. Since our system is not good at meeting real human needs, any loving and rational person naturally strives to bring about positive change and, when empowered, will work to do so. Hence, reclaiming our own power and our own humanity, whenever and wherever we can, and helping others to do the same, is basic to any other change work that we do.
Whether it is in changing our lifestyle, helping a meeting to function democratically, starting a farmers’ market, or organizing a campaign against a big-box store — all are important to make a next step possible. Any step, no matter how small, that helps us develop a mindset to act on situations instead of just reacting to them, significantly increases our ability to participate in and organize efforts to bring about change on a larger scale. Through that sense of empowerment we can begin to relearn and — if necessary — invent the tools for developing the self-reliance and the support that are needed in the struggle to transform society.
• See the Big Picture
Our individual and local problems are often caused by much larger-scale “macro” forces, such as political, economic, cultural and social structures and institutions. For example, the problem of poverty is connected to class, race, property ownership, inheritance and tax laws, education and healthcare policies, industrialization, and other factors. If we hope to overcome our problems, it is important for us to comprehend how these larger forces affect us. The study group process helps us get to the roots.
• Be a Responsible U.S. Citizen
As a military and economic superpower, the United States wields massive influence on the rest of the world, and our culture has permeated the planet. It is important to understand how our country and our culture affect others. As citizens, we have an obligation to help our country promote honesty, justice, and the common good. The study group includes knowledge about the world and our role in it.
• Learn Cooperation Skills
To be effective in bringing about positive change, we must also learn to work cooperatively with other activists in groups of all types and sizes that embody the kind of society we are striving toward. Study group sessions are structured to encourage equal participation by employing techniques such as shared responsibilities, group-oriented facilitation, small-group discussion, and regular evaluation. This process helps maximize forward progress and minimize authoritarian, dominating, and self-centered tendencies that can be hard on a group.
• Learn Progressive Ways to Learn
The study group uses many progressive education techniques such as creating a supportive emotional environment for learning, helping people learn by explaining material to others, and testing theories by directly trying them out.
• Learn Change Skills
To be effective in bringing about positive change, we must each feel informed, skilled, and empowered enough to act. A study group engages participants in active learning directed toward immediate action for positive change.
Study questions should challenge participants to:
- Think about issues from a variety of perspectives
- Compare various sources of information and evaluate their validity and value
- Understand why people holding various perspectives (progressives, liberals, centrists, conservatives, etc.) hold the perspectives they do — the values and assumptions that support their perspectives
- Think of creative solutions to problems
- Consider how society might be different and/or how they might bring about positive change
Learning about group process is important for a group that is having trouble functioning effectively, wants to develop further its members’ skills in group process, or wants to think about how to apply what its members know about groups to other groups of which they are a part. Some common problems are: interrupting; people not listening when others are talking but rather thinking of what they want to say next; no space between comments so that people don’t have time to think and have to compete to get a word in edgewise; unequal participation (some people — often men in this culture — talking a lot and others hardly saying anything); authoritarian facilitation; lethargy; unfocused discussion. Probably every group faces some of these problems at one time or another. What is important is to realize that they do not have to be allowed to continue and that there are things that can be done to deal with them and improve the overall functioning of the group.
Ideas and Tools
- Sometimes the exact problem in a group is not clear and the first task is to identify the problem(s). One possible way to go about this is to:
- Have each person share 1) ways in which they feel good about the group, 2) problems they see, and if possible, 3) suggestions for improvement. List them in three columns on a big sheet of newsprint. Be as specific as possible about where the problems lie.
- Brainstorm additional possible solutions and list them on column 3.
- Examine the possible solutions and decide which ones to implement. Make specific plans for when and how to do it and who will take responsibility. A good general principle to keep in mind in dealing with group process problems — and lots of other problems too — is to build on the positive things about the group. (That’s why in the process described above we suggest that each person start by saying good things.) There are two reasons for this:
- Our society tends to look at things negatively, to be quick to criticize and hesitant to praise, and if we are going to build a more positive society, we need to begin now to recognize, state, and reinforce positive things. We’re not accustomed to looking for these things and stating them, so it may feel awkward at first, but it can rapidly become a natural and joyous way of responding to the world around us.
- It works! A session that is focused on negatives quickly becomes depressing and discouraging, and leaves people feeling helpless about finding solutions. It may also give a false picture of the situation, making it look totally bad when, in reality, there are many positives that can be built on and specific areas that need improvement. Beginning with good things helps to put the problems that exist in their proper perspective within the overall functioning of the group and to build a positive tone where people will feel empowered to find solutions to the problems. (A good discipline in discussion in general might be always to say something positive about an idea before criticizing it.)
- When conflicts arise in the group, approach them as a challenge and an opportunity for growth — “Oh boy, we get to practice our conflict resolution skills and learn to struggle more effectively with people we love.”
- Careful phrasing of the second part (“A way that I would wish for you to grow…”) is particularly important if people are to really hear criticism. It is also helpful to allow some quiet time at the beginning of each self-estimation so that people can think out what they want to say.
Regular, full use of the evaluation process can help in dealing with problems before they become major, and in checking on changes a group has agreed on to see if they are having the desired result.
Here are some more specific suggestions for dealing with some of the above-mentioned problems:
- Listening exercises can help people focus on what has just been said. Before responding to a person, you echo back what you heard that person say; e.g., “I heard you say that…” You do not go on to make your own point until the previous speaker is satisfied that she/he has been accurately heard.
- Unequal participation is often blamed on the people in a group who are quiet when often, in fact, the problem is that a few people are talking so often and long that there is no space for those who are less aggressive or quick thinking. An effective method of raising consciousness about how often people speak is to give everyone an equal number of matches (or whatever) and have people throw one into the center of the room each time they speak. When a person runs out of matches, she/he can no longer talk. If length of talking is a problem, try having people light the match as they start talking. When they can no longer hold it, time is up! Exercises like this seem awkward, and some are not meant to be used on a long-term basis, but they can be very helpful for raising awareness about participation in the group.
- Another method which can be used on many occasions for equalizing participation and eliminating the problem of people thinking of what they want to say next instead of listening is to take a minute or two for everyone to collect their thoughts on the subject, then go around the room, giving each person an equal amount of time to share their thinking. If people really don’t have anything to contribute, they should be given the option of passing. But time and again those who have been defined as not having much to say have valuable contributions to make if they do not have to compete to get a word in edgewise.