One of the things that fascinates me most about Occupy Together is the use of consensus decision making. As a national and international board member of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), I experienced this decision-making process for eight years. And I’m sad to see that the essence of consensus does not seem to have been brought to General Assemblies.
Consensus is about discussing an issue completely, from all sides, and allowing all people involved in the consensus process a chance to speak. It’s about building group beliefs from the ground up – through shared knowledge and empowering the members of your community, you can build towards and reach consensus. There are ways to use a mixed model of decision-making. For example, WILPF makes almost all decisions by consensus, but chooses to vote to elect people to leadership positions. Choosing a human representative is to me the only reason to modify the consensus process. Perpetual blocks show that the group moved too fast from community building to reaching consensus. Of course, in the General Assembly model it could also mean that people new to the public square haven’t been fully integrated into the community before being given a voice in the General Assembly.
I’m writing this because tonight I attended my first Occupy LA General Assembly. I’m not sure how many more I’ll be able to attend in the near future, as I’m getting married next weekend, so I’m a bit wary of giving public suggestions to the group. But I can say clearly and definitively – if you’re facilitating a meeting a call for a vote and then use the symbols of consensus, you have not created consensus. You have created a modified voting system that adds up sparkles to majority rule.
What does consensus look like? It starts by having a clear, realistic agenda. It starts by putting only one or two items on the table for a discussion by a decision-making body during a 1-3 hour period. The process of taking a stack means empowering facilitators to decide when under-represented voices are moved to the top of the stack, rather than allowing five white guys to suck up all the time available for a particular point of discussion. And it means leaving the discussion open until everyone has been able to speak, rather than rushing through “temperature checks” and “voting.”
Real democracy doesn’t just take place in General Assemblies. Using committees to hash out particular issues can be truly empowering, particularly for people of all genders and ethnicities who feel uncomfortable stepping up to speak in front of a large group. Accepting that participatory, consensus-based democracy is extremely slow and more gratifying the pseudo-consensus could be the first step to a real paradigm shift. And if you’re worried that going through this process wont produce “demands” to declare to the media, stop answering the questions posed by the media and instead focus on the message you can fully speak. Tell them why you yourself got involved in the Occupy Together movement. That’s something you can speak about without participating in a single General Assembly.
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