On Meeting Facilitation and Leadership from Missing Class
4:05PM Feb 4, 2021
working class white
The most frequently suggested process was go rounds, each person taking a turn speaking without any response. Many interviewees suggested group process techniques to solve other problems as well such as conflict resolution. Some advocated a structured sequence of steps in consensus decision making. Several spoke in favor of facilitation training to teach the group's processes.
These strategies seemed to predominate in one movement tradition, seven of the 12 were in global/local cause groups that class background was their biggest commonality. 11 of the 12 came from privileged class backgrounds higher than the overall pool of interviewees and higher than the median for their group.
The dissenters and non cooperatives, were all people who grew up working class or poor.
"I don't happen to believe that these organizational tricks... I come out of the union movement but this writing things on a paper and putting them all up. I don't happen to think that any of that is very useful. I mean people feel like they're doing something but then the process becomes an end to itself. And I don't think it contributes anything of substance, I have a pretty extreme view of this stuff and bridle of being put through the stuff. People who come out of a certain tradition in a sort of nonprofit world in what's called community organizing tend to love that stuff... I feel that the practice, although it tries to present itself it's very democratic and it really strives for everyone to participate, but the reality is if a small number of people develop a very complex agenda and really control what's happening, my view is that in fact that's less democratic than something that's more spontaneous."
I remember my first glimpses outside my counter cultural bubble building an anti nuclear coalition with local working class groups exposed me to coffee and donuts community organizing. Meetings were quick, teasing was rough, and leadership was seen as a good thing if it resulted in stronger action against unjust authorities. I was in culture shock.
I started to see group processes through these activists' eyes: stilted, overstylized, over sensitive to small imperfections and slights, and sometimes just bizarre.
We had a checklist of skills that every activist should acquire. If I were amending that list for today's college educated radicals, I would add the skill of participating in a brisk, leader-run, majority-rule, action-oriented labor or community-organizing meeting, without whining about the process. While I still advocate that facilitators think in advance about how to use a meeting to increase the group's creativity and cohesion, and while I still judge meetings by how many new or marginalized people's ideas are drawn out. I no longer think there's a formula for the right group process to accomplish these goals. In fact, I think that belief in a formula poses a problem for cross-class movement building.
While my research uncovered some examples in which stylized group processes did work to activate new or marginal members, I also found many examples summarized below in which they seem to make things worse.
How stylized silos group processes sometimes backfire.
Rotating facilitation is a popular way of sharing leadership and empowering marginalized members by giving them a turn to be in charge. Of 26 interviewees with an opinion on who should chair meetings, 16 (including every voluntarily downwardly mobile person) favored rotating facilitation only 10 interviewees favored a steady chair. But to rotate facilitation without any training and without any explicit agreements about how facilitators encourage member participation is to leave meetings to weekly chaired. Its effect on inexperienced one shot facilitators like Cass is questionable. It may sometimes work to strengthen their facilitation skills and sense of enfranchisement, though sometimes it fails at this too, but it's disempowering effect on other less active members it's undeniable. Many new and marginalized people didn't speak until someone asked them to, and rarely did anyone ask them except a confident, skilled chair or facilitator.
Newer and less active members had rarely if ever blocked consensus at AAE meetings.
Blocking consensus is a much higher risk action than casting a vote. The final authority granted to any individuals veto makes it harder for any new person except the very boldest to block.
The very process meant to level hierarchies was, in fact, reinforcing them.
One process separate raised caucuses repeatedly reportedly did work to give a stronger voice to members of color.
The anti authoritarian wing of the globalization and anti war movements developed some of the protocols used by AAE specifically for protest planning meetings. Spokes councils or general assemblies before direct action do require different processes than other meetings, because they are often one shot ad hoc meetings. Some have hundreds of participants and sometimes the action, under discussion is less than 24 hours away. Hand signals and speech restrictions (such as that only affinity group representatives can speak) are methods of coping with those special circumstances. Strict consensus with an emphasis on individual veto rights means that the majority cannot make a plan that puts the minority at risk of arrest or injury. But when processes developed for those unusual situations become the norm for regular meetings, as they have in some anarchist and Occupy groups. Their downsides may have unintended negative consequences.
Another reason that some stylized processes backfire is because they interrupt the most common pattern of natural conversation, in which each utterance response to the immediate prior utterance.
Overall, in professional middle class or voluntarily downward mobile majority global/local cause groups, meaning participants tended to be left on their own to formulate their contributions, which stood alone, without a conversational preliminary or a follow up response. Individuals were expected to perform a free standing utterance during go around in small group report backs, and when keeping staff was the means of calling on the next speaker. This requirement is reminiscent of the speech performances that Lareau found to be expected of middle class children who were continuously quizzed by middle class parents and teachers and asked to perform their knowledge. Lareau found working class, adults interactions with children to be very different. Without such demands for solo performance. Thus, processes requiring solo speech performances may seem more comfortable to professional middle class activists and more foreign to some working class activists.
There's a race and gender dimension to this cultural strain, as well.
Working-class African American men with this childhood experience might find solo performance process demands more comfortable than wood working class whites and or women, most of whom have been socialized into more interactive collaborative speech norms.
Those who express discomfort with go arounds for women from working class backgrounds in particular women of color.
The review of empirical studies on the effectiveness of group processes found that those that increased group creativity, such as brainstorming, did have positive effects, but that there were "process losses" when the methods "severely limit the amount of spontaneous interaction that can occur among group members and constrain interaction." Their conclusion is that it's worthwhile to put attention on how group processes can foster creativity and problem solving, but that a group should use sparingly methods that stifle participants responses to one another.
Trustworthy Championing of Member Interests with Protective Leadership: Accomplishment of Natural Involvement.
The notion of leadership was much less problematic for another set of interviewees, mostly from working class range backgrounds.
When these interviewees advocated democratic input, they praised leaders for using their authority strongly to ensure all members had a chance to speak. Listening was closely linked forcefulness not opposed to it.
Working class background activists tended to evaluate leaders by the trustworthiness of their actions, not by how little or how much they talked (except in cases of extreme overtalking). Phrases such as "walk the talk", and "the proof is in the pudding" expressed watchfulness or actions of integrity with avowed values.
A tiny number of labor and community group members criticize the current group's leaders for failing to make all members feel respected, for breaking the rules, or for abusing power, but more common was criticism of a leader of a group they had formerly been involved with.
"Exit, voice, and loyalty" are three possible responses to problems in an organization, and there's a class correlation in who tends to choose which option.
Working class activists are more likely either to quit or to stay loyal and less likely to voice criticisms while still in the group.
The three women must praised strong as strong leaders (Elaine, Dorothea, and Brandy, profiled in chapter one) played much more intimate roles in members lives. They fit Collins's definition of "community othermothers" who use their power not to dominate but to uplift. Their protective acts included taking in a homeless member, leaving a member money lending a member money, attending at a member's childbirth and providing food.
Four admired male leaders socialize with members sometimes going to bars after meeting sometimes buying refreshments or hosting social gatherings in their homes. These four men were also praised for skillfully standing up to authorities on behalf of members as well as for forcefully intervening to prevent domination during a meeting.
All seven of the most praised strong leaders lived in the same working class or poor community as most members, but they had more privileged than the typical member.
Effective organizers of inexperienced working class people such as Owen make go arounds more like natural conversation. In the form of go arounds most prevalent in working class majority labor and community groups marginalized people speak when someone asks them a direct question, and then they get an immediate positive response from one or many people, similar to what they would get in a friendly one on one conversation.
Fred and Dorothea also asked questions of less active individuals during meetings, often customized to that person's knowledge and roles. Without patronizing them with gushing compliments, these leaders affirmed the value of new members knowledge gained from their life experience by asking about things relevant to the group's goals that they would be likely to know.
Asking direct questions seems like a promising empowerment practice with two caveats. First, the most evocative questions are open ended ones with no right answers or no wrong answers.
Second, putting people on the spot with direct questions can backfire there's insufficient trust between the asker and the person asked, or if it seems that only certain marginalized people are being singled out.
Mentoring and Encouragement
Empowerment also happened through intensive one on one relationships of friendship or mentoring.
Monitoring how much each person speaks, attempting to equalize airspace by holding back or by equalization techniques, and requiring the creation of an original solo speech act are concerted cultivation solutions to the problem to little member participation.
Because professional and managerial occupations involves speech as a central work activity, activists from PMC backgrounds may tend to stress participants' amount of speech in meetings as a primary indicator of a central role in the group, as opposed to the amount of work performed, amount of insight knowledge, or closeness of relationships.
While activists from class privileged backgrounds were more likely to be monitoring who was talking up how much taking up how much airspace, working class activists are more likely to be monitoring trustworthiness and dedication to the cause, as expressed, primarily in actions, not words.
Lamont found protectiveness to be one of the primary values of working class white and black American men.
Working class activists tend to have a different relationship to power with less of the ambivalence that many lower professionals feel about using the power conferred conferred by their privilege in the service of social justice. In light of Croteau's finding that hopelessness about having an impact is why working class people don't join social movements evidence of power as a mass on their sides might give a jolt of energy to counteract such hopelessness.
Processes experienced as empowering by activists from professional middle class backgrounds are sometimes uncomfortable for working class people, who may experience mandatory speech requirements as facilitators' attempts to manage them. Well meaning professional middle class people may try to resolve tensions by doing organized team building activities that requires dialects speech, explicit sharing of personal feelings, or tasks reminiscent of school assignments, not realizing that if the people they're trying to activate have felt alienated from school teachers or workplace managers their efforts may make the environment, less comfortable, more emeshed in professional middle class culture.