Tuesday, July 24, 2012

How to do a community meeting

Community meetings are a big part of life at Pacific Gardens.  For some of you - actually, I expect a lot of you -  this may not seem like such an attractive feature. I'll admit, there are times when I have gone to our meetings and wished I had stayed home and done something more productive like scrubbing the ring of grunge in the bathtub.

But that was when our community was just starting, and we were learning how to do meetings in a more cooperative, egalitarian way.  We tried all kinds of different techniques - taking away the tables, sitting in a circle, using colour-coded cards to indicate whether we were in favour or against a proposal, having the facilitator stand, to name a few.  Some we kept, some we didn't.

There were lengthy pre-meeting meetings for our facilitators (I can hear the groans already!) so they could prepare an agenda that would help make the community meeting run smoothly and finish on time, while allowing enough discussion from the participants to come to a good decision.

As someone who prefers action to process, I occasionally - well, actually, more than occasionally - found this excruciating.  All this effort to decide how we wanted to spiff up our entranceway, or deal with noise in the atrium - arggghh! And we still ran over time, and interrupted each other, and people got angry.

But at a recent community meeting, it all came together for me - even though we did run over time, did interrupt each other, and some of us got angry (including me).  The proposal on the non-existent table was whether or not we would continue having a permaculture course at Pacific Gardens.  It was about the third time it had been brought to the group, with no resolution, and the Garden Committee folks were getting frustrated with all the delays.

When the discussion began, it was all about money.  It was costing us too much in terms of our time and effort, and we weren't getting enough in return from the organizers of the course.  But as the meeting went on, and our extremely skilled facilitator, Kara, summarized what people were saying, it became clear that it wasn't about the money.

It was about our feelings, and interestingly, those on both sides of the issue had the same concern - that they weren't being respected. The chair of the Garden Committee didn't feel we understood why it was so vital to have the permaculture course here. As someone who was passionate about ensuring food security for our community in the future, he believed it was essential to gain the expertise and advice given to us during the permaculture course.

For those feeling reluctant to have the course here again, the issue was having our boundaries and needs respected. There were too many limits on when we could use the dining-hall and kitchen, the guest rooms, and when the children could play in the atrium, too many strangers on the property, and too much work.

In the end, we didn't come to a resolution - but we did come to a greater understanding of who we are, what we want and need, and how to talk about contentious issues in a way that is respectful and caring.

It was all worth it.


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