Friday, June 19, 2015

Game changers

The other night I attended an environment event that broke from the tradition I was used to. Instead of hardened old activists with long beards or short white hair, clothed from head to toe by Vinnies and getting together in some backwatery NGO over cups of fairtrade tea, it was held in salubrious, modern,  city offices, where people use the latest laptops, standing desks, and cupboards that double as white-boards. People sported short, hipster beards or flowing locks, fashionable clothes (although the t-shirts did promote causes of one kind or another) and there was beer!

After chit-chatting with some people I know and cruising past the food table, I settled myself into position on a chair that was within arm's reach of the hummous and bread. A confident fella with an appropriately passionate t-shirt, suitably hipster facial hair and a strong speaking voice began proceedings. After updates were given by various other folks who spoke of strategy, engagement and community organising hubs, we broke into pairs. Then, something unexpectedly familiar happened. Everyone was raising their hands and falling silent. Our leader announced that "hands up and we shut up" was the process. I followed suit with a slightly dropped jaw.

You see, the "hands up for silence" thing was familiar to me because it's what we do in Quaker gatherings. The idea for us is that whenever you see somebody with their hand raised, you raise yours and fall silent. It's actually kindof powerful. When everyone's chatting away over a hot cuppa, and somebody raises their hand, it normally only takes about ten seconds for a room of 300 people to fall silent. But then again, we Quakers like silence, right?! But I guess it grated on me that a uniquely Quaker practise had kindof been adopted by a quite different group of people. And, what's more outrageous? They didn't even credit it to us!! Sigh.

It reminds me of the time I introduced a well-loved game to a new group of friends. I explained the rules, ran through the process and before long everyone was enjoying themselves. They liked it so much, in fact, that they played it all the time, even when I wasn't around. I felt pretty pleased about this at first. My game was a success - yay!! But then, I noticed the group occasionally arguing over the rules and "telling" each other how it was supposed to be played. Nobody asked me about the rules anymore. They all had begun to feel such ownership of this game that they had completely forgotten that I was the one to have introduced it. The game, as I knew it, died, and another was born.

I have noticed a number of Quaker "habits", if you like, that have infiltrated activist groups and other faith communities. And, like my game, they have changed along the way. Concensus decision making pops up frequently, in a variety of incarnations. Lots of community building techniques are incredibly similar to those used by Quakers in their nonviolent training workshops. The Quaker "clap", whereby people demonstrate agreement by silently waving their hands in the air has also been "heard" around the traps, or so I am told. And, I even notice politicians talk of "speaking truth to power", which is a phrase originally coined by Quakers.

I suspect many of these habits have found their way into other groups because Quakers have introduced them. After all, Quakers are involved in activist groups, they serve on a disproportionate number of ecumenical committees, and were key players in the establishment of many of the organisations well-known in the human rights sector such as Oxfam, Amnesty, and Greenpeace. I guess I should be glad that the practices and beliefs that I hold so dear are out there being used in a very practical way.

But there's a part of me that feels a sense of discomfort. When the most powerful person at the most powerful NGO in the room talks about "speaking truth to power", or when concensus is almost forced upon people in a business-like manner such as "do we have concensus for this?, good, right, next" or when the silence thing is all about getting people to shut up, I wonder whether these practices being "misused" and whether some integrity has been lost.

So, what's the answer? One option is to run about screaming "you're not doing it right!!", but that wouldn't be very Quakerly, would it? Another option is to more quietly and gradually suggest that we do things differently. But, perhaps the best option is for me to get better at letting go. Maybe these non-Quaker folks have stuff to teach me. Maybe their incarnation of certain practices work for them, and combine even better ways of operating that I haven't yet been exposed to. After all, even though the new version of my game was different, it was still just as much fun to play.


Mark Riboldi said...

Great post!

If you feel 'ownership' of those (most excellent) Quaker traditions, you should definitely let that go, as you might think of being able to 'let go' a lot of things we like to hold on to.

And it definitely sounds like there are some poor power dynamics on show where you were.

Part of it is also not about having good structures, it's about how they are implemented maybe.

I've been in that situation that you describe - the "do we have consenus? Yes? Let's move on." and sometimes the only way to stop it is for someone to challenge the powerful and say 'hold on, no. we don't'.

And then hope someone backs you up! The first person to speak a point of view is often not the first person to have thought it ;)


Aletia Dundas said...

Thanks Mark! I should add a disclaimer that "any resemblance to actual people is purely coincidental"...maybe ;-)