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Building Your Campus Group for the Long Haul

Intragroup dynamics and process are key. In the heat of a campaign never, ever forget to take time for your group, and its sustainability. Decision making structures and skill sharing may seem unimportant when the only thing your group's thinking is "BUT WE NEED THIS WAGE REPORT OUT TOMORROW! PRESS IS COMING IN 12 HOURS!" But at these moments, above all, maintain a democratic process, and employ your politics into action. Prioritize voices that are otherwise silenced in our society and involve newer members in everything you do. Campus campaigns routinely fall apart due to shitty process and graduating seniors.

If you graduate and your campaign dwindles, that doesn't mean you were the rock-star activst who held everything together; it means you have failed to pass on information and develop skills in younger activists!

The campaign has to survive after a victory. Because, whatever concessions you win from administrators, somebody needs to be aound to hold them accountable to the promises they've made.

Group process:
» Consensus Decision Making from ACT UP NY
» Consensus advice from Georgetown U Living Wage Coalition
» Group Dynamics: Questions to ask yourself and your group (click to download this LWAC hand-out)

Leadership without Leaders!:
» Leadership Development


Consensus Decision Making
(the following is taken directly from ACT UP NY’s civil disobedience training- found at http://www.actupny.org/documents/CDdocuments/Consensus.html)

 

» What is consensus?

Consensus is a process for group decision-making. It is a method by which an entire group of people can come to an agreement. The input and ideas of all participants are gathered and synthesized to arrive at a final decision acceptable to all. Through consensus, we are not only working to achieve better solutions, but also to promote the growth of community and trust.

» Consensus vs. voting

Voting is a means by which we choose one alternative from several. Consensus, on the other hand, is a process of synthesizing many diverse elements together.

Voting is a win or lose model, in which people are more often concerned with the numbers it takes to "win" than with the issue itself. Voting does not take into account individual feelings or needs. In essence, it is a quantitative, rather than qualitative, method of decision-making.

With consensus people can and should work through differences and reach a mutually satisfactory position. It is possible for one person's insights or strongly held beliefs to sway the whole group. No ideas are lost, each member's input is valued as part of the solution.

A group committed to consensus may utilize other forms of decision making (individual, compromise, majority rules) when appropriate; however, a group that has adopted a consensus model will use that process for any item that brings up a lot of emotions, is something that concerns people's ethics, politics, morals or other areas where there is much investment.

» What does consensus mean?

Consensus does not mean that everyone thinks that the decision made is necessarily the best one possible, or even that they are sure it will work. What it does mean is that in coming to that decision, no one felt that her/his position on the matter was misunderstood or that it wasn't given a proper hearing. Hopefully, everyone will think it is the best decision; this often happens because, when it works, collective intelligence does come up with better solutions than could individuals.

Consensus takes more time and member skill, but uses lots of resources before a decision is made, creates commitment to the decision and often facilitates creative decision. It gives everyone some experience with new processes of interaction and conflict resolution, which is basic but important skill-building. For consensus to be a positive experience, it is best if the group has 1) common values, 2) some skill in group process and conflict resolution, or a commitment to let these be facilitated, 3) commitment and responsibility to the group by its members and 4) sufficient time for everyone to participate in the process.

» Forming the consensus proposals

During discussion a proposal for resolution is put forward. It is amended and modified through more discussion, or withdrawn if it seems to be a dead end. During this discussion period it is important to articulate differences clearly. It is the responsibility of those who are having trouble with a proposal to put forth alternative suggestions.
Folks, especially the facilitator(s) should constantly work towards proposals. Conversation should revolve around the issue or proposal on the table. Otherwise conversations will easily spin in circles and the group won’t make decisions or move ahead. Discussion and due group consideration of a point or issue is important, of course, and be wary of cutting important discussion short for the sake of making a decision. Be conscious of the topic at hand and tangents.

When a proposal seems to be well understood by everyone, and there are no new changes asked for, the facilitator(s) can ask if there are any objections or reservations to it. If there are no objections, there can be a call for consensus. Folks can communicate with “sparkle fingers” or any hand signal your group has decided on. If there are still no objections, then after a moment of silence you have your decision. Once everyone in the group has actively signaled consensus, it really helps to have someone repeat the decision to the group so everyone is clear on what has been decided. It’s important for every individual to actively signal agreement, as reticent or unsure folks may refrain from expressing anything at all, and let the process steamroll them into consensus.

» Difficulties in reaching consensus

If a decision has been reached, or is on the verge of being reached that you cannot support, there are several ways to express your objections:

Non-support - "I don't see the need for this, but I'll go along."

Reservations - "I think this may be a mistake but I can live with it."

Standing aside - "I personally can't do this, but I won't stop others from doing it."

Blocking - "I cannot support this or allow the group to support this. It is immoral." (If a final decision violates someone's fundamental moral values they are obligated to block consensus)

Withdrawing from the group - Obviously, if many people express non-support or reservations or stand aside or leave the group, it may not be a viable decision even if no one directly blocks it. This is what is known as a "lukewarm" consensus and it is just as desirable as a lukewarm beer or a lukewarm bath.

If consensus is blocked and no new consensus can be reached, the group stays with whatever the previous decision was on the subject, or does nothing if that is applicable. Major philosophical or moral questions that will come up with each affinity group will have to be worked through as soon as the group forms.

» Roles in a consensus meeting

There are several roles which, if filled, can help consensus decision making run smoothly. The facilitator(s) aids the group in defining decisions that need to be made, helps them through the stages of reaching an agreement, keeps the meeting moving, focuses discussion to the point-at hand; makes sure everyone has the opportunity to participate, and formulates and tests to see if consensus has been reached. Facilitators help to direct the process of the meeting, not its content. They never make decisions for the group. If a facilitator feels too emotionally involved in an issue or discussion and cannot remain neutral in behavior, if not in attitude, then s/he should ask someone to take over the task of facilitation for that agenda item.

A vibes-watcher is someone besides the facilitator who watches and comments on individual and group feelings and patterns of participation. Vibes-watchers need to be especially tuned in to the sexism of group dynamics. Note takers shouldn't always be folks who identify as women, and proposals shouldn't always be made by dudes.

A recorder can take notes on the meeting, especially of decisions made and means of implementation and a time-keeper keeps things going on schedule so that each agenda item can be covered in the time allotted for it (if discussion runs over the time for an item, the group may or may not decide to contract for more time to finish up).

Even though individuals take on these roles, all participants in a meeting should be aware of and involved in the issues, process, and feelings of the group, and should share their individual expertise in helping the group run smoothly and reach a decision. This is especially true when it comes to finding compromise agreements to seemingly contradictory positions.

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Consensus advice from Georgetown

 

In the Georgetown living wage campaign’s experience, several minor communication tools went a long way for a smooth process.

» "Sparkle fingers" - can be used to signal silent agreement or support for comment or proposal without interrupting a meeting or situation.

» keeping a "stack", or list, of folks who have raised their hands, and in which order, is helpful for folks to keep concentrated on the issue at hand.

» often, for the sake of a productive conversation, someone will need to directly respond to a comment or question. In this case, signal for a “direct response” with whatever hand signal your group may decide is appropriate (we use ‘bull horns’, index finger and thumb, other groups have their own. Be creative!)

Be wary of using ‘direct response’ in order to avoid stack. It happens that folks socialized to dominate conversations will signal direct response at many or most points they wish to talk, thus consciously or unconsciously maintaining dominance of the conversation. Use it only if the discussion is headed in a direction different than your comment on the present subject.

» Note learned the hard way: proposals save the day! It’s the task of the facilitator to move conversations along to decisions through proposals, though others can make proposals as well. Otherwise conversations may needlessly spiral in circles without decisions forever.

Proposals can include major decisions, like “proposal is workers’ breakfast should be moved back to 10 am..”..
A proposal can also be about the process of the group. Example “ I propose we table this discussion for next week and move on the next agenda item..”, or “we should set up a working group for this subject because fewer people are interested and it needs intense working time..”

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Leadership development

 

As a student organizer, you’re dealing with turnover and time. In order for you to build a solid foundation to a successful campaign and post-campaign follow-up (where often the dirty work of making things happen really matters) you have to maintain strong continuity in your student group. If seniors graduate and the campaign dies, you’ve failed. Here are some successfusl tips to build a sustainable, inclusive and powerful group. Several of these tips are taken from the fabulously helpful Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC) Organizing Guide and the Student-Worker Solidarity Organizing Kit.

Build real coalitions and partnerships with other student groups, especially people of color, queer, and women groups. Endorsing, supporting, and taking part in actions organized by other groups is the key to having their support when you need it and building a lasting partnership. Don't bsexpect other groups to support your work if you are not willing to take time out to support theirs.

Maintain a continuity of information. New folks and those who can’t make it to every meeting will not be on top of the history and current state of your campaign. It’s crucial to make everyone feel included and up-to-date on what’s happened before them and where the campaign is going. Folks who have been around longer have skills and experience and should take both seriously! Pass it along!

» Give new folks an “orientation packet” filled with your group’s history, mission, articles about you and relevant to the campaign, “how-to” documents for getting stuff done on campus like making copies, talking to campus press and administrators, make a press release, how to reserve a room and equipment, asking for money from the university or departments, etc. Giving folks binders with their names on them already tells them they’re already appreciated and included.

» Maintain a good archive of the group and its activities so that the people next year will be able to read about what you did. This could be a newsletter, a scrapbook, folder, annual report or website. Include all your past posters, newspaper clippings, pictures, and meeting minutes. This will cultivate a powerful feeling of accomplishment.

» Keep up a current list of faculty and administrative contacts and make sure others have access to these people and relationships. If you have good relationships with faculty members, be sure to introduce younger members of your groups so that the connection doesn’t end when you graduate.

» Don’t keep things in your head! Keep notes of what you do in the community, for the group and on campus to let folks pick up where you leave off when you’re gone.

Help empower newer folks to take on active roles

» Give newer folks opportunities to build their confidence. Include them in meetings with the press, or encourage them to run part of an event or help organize an action. Positions on committees and representation in community groups should be staggered so more experienced folks can show newer members the ropes and maintain continuity in an ongoing process.

» Newer folks should start facilitating meetings as soon as (or before!) they’re ready!!! Engage in constructive praise and criticism after meetings for new and experienced facilitators so the group can appreciate aspects effective facilitation.

» Designate successors a semester in advance and train them. Have them attend key meetings with you so they can get to know people they’ll be working with. Having overlap between old and new people help makes the transition smoother and keeps skills and information from getting lost. For instance, if there are two co-chairs, elect one in November and the other one in April.

» Establish a “buddy system”. Hook older folks up with newer folks to make them feel included and to teach them how you’ve been doing things. Hang out outside meetings. Get coffee. Chill. Time spent outside of a meeting or campaign setting is incredibly helpful in developing a strong group of folks who trust each other.

» Make sure events and non-work activities are free or low cost so that they are accessible to all. Be conscious of others’ work schedules when planning events.

» Don’t make alienating, absolute statements. Saying things like “we did that”, or “community picnics don’t work on this campus” shuts the person down and squelches ideas from newer folks. Ideas from folks not yet embroiled in the campaign may save it.

» Tell stories! Maintain the pride and excitement of previous actions and campaigns!!

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