Saturday, October 22, 2011

In Search of Dialogue: Notes from OccupyOakland, October 22nd

by Miki Kashtan

After my first visit to OccupyOakland I felt inspired. I was connected to the vision, to a sense of possibility. I was fully open to the unfolding, to seeing what would come. I’ve been very encouraged by the response I’ve been getting to my post about that visit.

Before I posted those notes I had a second visit to OccupyOakland, and my current picture is very different, more nuanced, sober, intrigued, concerned, excited, and even more clear that I don’t know much. I notice how much harder it is to write about those experiences. I find it challenging to express concerns about the movement, and yet I know it’s vital to express truth with love, and I am reaching into the courage to do that.

On October 17th I attended the general assembly meeting at OccupyOakland. I had never been to a large group meeting following consensus rules, and I didn’t know what to expect. So much happened during the evening that I simply cannot speak about all of it, and there is no way to get the feel of it from reading the notes posted on the OccupyOakland site. What’s below is by necessity filtered through my very personal perspective and sensibilities.

One thing that stood out to me is the extraordinary patience of hundreds of people sitting in the small amphitheater outside Oakland City Hall. Most people sat through more than two and half hours of people speaking with more or less discernible relevance, announcements about many activities, committees, requests, offers, opinions, questions.

What was also striking to me, and the main reason for this post, is the absence of anything I would call dialogue. When a proposal was put on the table, what I saw was a lineup of people expressing their opinion about why a letter should or shouldn’t be sent, or about why this or that paragraph would need to be revised or taken out. I saw nothing that resembled what I consider to be the building blocks of collaborative decision-making. The facilitators were mostly occupied with controlling traffic - not a small task in a crowd that contains people using drugs or inhabiting different realities than most, and where almost everyone’s comments extended beyond the time requested. Between this challenge and the overall set of rules, people had the space to speak, and yet there was nothing set up for them to be heard. How would anything emerge in such a context that would allow creative solutions to take place? How could people ever come together on a divided issue?

The proposal on the table was to send a letter in response to the Mayor’s two letters to the assembly, in which the city was making some requests (or demands, as the case may be) to those living and using the space. As the lineup of speakers proceeded, I learned more and more each time about the depth of the issues that this proposal was raising. I also understood more fully that at least some people hold the term “occupy” to mean taking full possession of the territory such that they no longer hold the city as having authority over that area.

For these people, and for some others, responding to the Mayor means accepting the authority of the city to make requests of the campers. I understand this logic deeply: if the idea of a parallel life being formed is serious, then I can see why people would fully question business as usual, and why they would want the rules to be made, freshly, by the group for itself.

For others, responding is a way to make a statement that the group is not about creating chaos and dirt; that there is a sense of responsibility and care for the environment. Some believed that such a statement could make the camp, and the movement, more compelling and appealing, invite others to join.

Again, I can see the logic. Unlike in other places in the world, what I saw wasn’t a cross section of the entire population. I believe it’s still associated in the public eye with a particular subculture, and many are uncomfortable joining even if they fully sympathize with the critique being articulated. So I can see why people would want to appeal to such people by being less different-looking.

With my growing experience in collaborative decision making, I was itching to see a process, something that metabolizes all the opinions, that allows people to see beyond the surface words spoken to the underlying concerns, issues, needs, and dreams in the name of which people speak.

Could there have been a way to move forward that would honor what’s important to both groups? Is it possible that at least some people could have shifted as a result of getting more deeply what was important to others? Or that some people might have been willing to stretch to accept a solution that wasn’t their favorite because they could see why it was important to others? Or could the entire issue of what this “occupation” means have become clearer to everyone, leading to some surprising direction that would have satisfied everyone?

When the lineup of speakers was finished, the proposal was put to a vote. Over 100 people voted for sending a letter to the Mayor and creating a committee to finalize it, and over 40 people voted against it. In the consensus rules that govern the general assembly this means the proposal is now off the table. I am not satisfied with this outcome. Not because I necessarily want the letter to be sent. I abstained during the vote, because I didn’t have a sense of having been enough of a participant in the movement to have integrity about voting, nor did I understand the issues well enough to make a considered opinion.

I am not satisfied with the outcome because it left the people who wanted to send a letter without a way to address what’s important to them. No, I am not suggesting a simple majority vote instead of the 90% existing rule, because then I would have the same question about the minority. I am aching for some way to transcend the either/or paradigm on which such votes rest. We have been raised to believe that the way we can affect the outcome is by making a compelling argument and convincing others of the rightness of our opinion. I am sad as I am winding down this post, because I see this preoccupation with arguments and with who is right as part of the very world the “occupiers” are seeking to transform.

I am longing, instead, for everyone to matter and to have a true voice, so that what’s important to them can be heard and they can truly affect the outcome. I want those working to create change to have access to the plethora of ingenious methods that exist to support groups in converging, in learning together, and in integrating divergent opinions. More than anything, I want so much for the Occupy movement to have this as part of what gets modeled: the possibility of transforming conflict and disagreement into a solution that works for everyone.

Seeing the surge in visits to my blog since I started writing about the “occupation”, I plan to be writing more about it each time I go. My next scheduled visit to the site is today, when I am also part of a training taking place right onsite and hosted by Seminary of the Street (where you can see more information about it). While everything I do is fully infused with NVC, this training is about nonviolence more generally, and I am co-leading with other folks. Hope to see some people there, and I anticipate posting something within the next few days.


  1. You just named one of the things that I have disliked about activist and radical circles for YEARS now, long before the whole Occupy thing got started. I think that the absence of real listening and actual dialogue can contribute greatly to people totally burning out.

  2. What you are speaking to here is the fact that this movement is an organic process, evolving and growing, not waiting for a perfect plan. It's a completely valid way to operate.

    I am reminded of the civil rights movement. The general impression one gets from the history books is that Rosa Parks ignited the movement and Dr MLK, Jr. was the one who led it. The truth is that there was a tremendous amount of planning and organizing going on behind the scenes before the media knew anything at all. SNCC sent trainers from the north to teach workshops in non-violent action in south and the bus boycott was completely planned and organized before Rosa Parks did her deed. They were just waiting for the moment the galvanize. And MLK was actually chosen as a figure head for the movement. He wasn't sure he wanted to do it at first but obviously accepted the call. The point is that it wasn't totally spontaneous. It was strategic. It just didn't look that way.

    Miki, if you are feeling dissatisfied with the process I am sure that there are plenty of others that feel the same way but do not know what else to do. We, as products of our culture don't have the skills and experience to do things differently even if we know we don't like it the way it is. What is required here is leadership and training in a better way. I imagine that you are trying to figure out how to bring what you know to the table to be used and if so, I bless your efforts... may they be in alignment with the highest good bear fruit.

  3. There is no cookie-cutter consensus decision-making process; every Occupation decides how it will decide.

    One that I saw that was very different from what you are describing, Miki, had a clearly specified incubation period: A proposal couldn't be passed in the same G.A. in which it was introduced so that small group discussion has an opportunity to happen. Also, the person(s) bringing the proposal had to be willing to bear the responsibility to harvest objections and concerns and modify the proposal until the requisite 90% is reached. To "defeat" a proposal is a waste of the careful thought and energy that went into gathering the data, discussing the issue, creating and modifying the proposal, etc., and is tantamount to saying that no decision was needed on that issue after all.

    I resonate with what Sarah said about putting *something* in place that works "well enough for now," with the trust that it can be modified in response to feedback. However, the G.A. is not the place to question the process. There's generally a facilitation committee that grapples with the issue you are raising.

  4. My heart responds to this and to all 3 responses with a hope that rather than focus on criticism and concern for the inevitable flaws in the present state of things developing on the ground, we stay focused on whatever we possibly have to contribute to its positive development.

    There seem to be endless ways springing up to contribute and add leadership to this movement of leaders, so, rather than focus on what's missing, I long to see everyone simply offering what they can wholeheartedly.

    The sound of criticism feels like a barrier to growth, in the light of the state of despair most of the world has been falling into. Please just go forward with your ideas of how to improve these situations rather than publicize the faults and weaknesses that are fully understandable in this dynamic situation.

    Thank you Sara and Susan for pointing out the immense amount of positively miraculous workings behind what we see on the ground or hear as reports. These are the roots of it all and need to be fostered , nurtured, cherished and continued.


  5. Thanks all for your responses, which gives me fruit for thought.

    The last three Fridays I have been teaching Non-Violent Communication classes at Occupy Austin to whomever was interested. I went around the plaza at City Hall to invite attendants to participate. My perception (based on those connections and what the participants shared in class), is that Occupy Austin struggles to share public space.
    For example, the first week I was there, everyone was invited to smoke their cigarettes in a designated area to protect health for everyone, and everyone complied. This last week the response to such requests was: this is a public space, I am allowed to smoke outside, it is not your authority to tell me what to do here. The same seemed to be true for drugs, alcohol, verbal aggression. Last week the public area seemed to be occupied by those who usually are not heard, those who live on the fringes of society. They seem to set off more mainstream participants, thus having a bigger impact on decisions being made. My question is: how can a movement maintain its focus and vision, include everyone that wants to be heard and create an efficient collaborative decision making process?

  6. A couple of years ago I listened to an interview of Jim Rough (Wisdom Councils). He described a problem solving/decision making process that struck me as the wave of the future. He described three different basic models of how things have been decided in societies throughout the ages, each being symbolized with a geometric figure. We all know the triangle hierarchy, top down leadership model. Then there is the model taken up in our country, the rectangle, representative opposing sides fighting for their interests. The model that I will offer here, as I remember it, is the circle, drawing on the innate wisdom of members who set aside representing their limited self-interest in search of finding creative solutions to real problems with consideration for the interests of all concerned.

    Briefly, twelve people are selected at random from among those willing to participate in the “wisdom circle (council).” There is also present a facilitator of the conversation that enables participants to speak freely from their hearts and minds without being totally skilled communicators. The first chore is to identify the problem to be solved, which as things proceed could require changing. The facilitated conversation proceeds with suggested ideas for solving the problem and feedback to these suggestions. This happens until their is unanimity (consensus) among the twelve. In the case of the Occupy folks, the process can be observed by anyone else.

    I truly believe that real wisdom is to be found in one and all when we can set aside our limited ways of thinking and feeling. This process is, to my mind, more manageable than having a crowd of a hundred folks mostly listening and speaking for their own interests (selfish or not). Is this method is more cooperation, less competition. More creativity and discovery and less fighting. There less either/or thinking, more both/and thinking.

  7. Bob Wentworth, a fellow trainer with the Center for Nonviolent Communication, did some teaching at the Occupy DC movement:

  8. My questions is: who do we speak to so that we can request that you facilitate the next meeting? Is this something you would be interested in doing?

  9. I have never had the experience of conducting a dialogue in a large group. By a large group, I mean 15 or more. It's true that many leaders thought they were leading a dialogue. But this has not been my experience. Some leaders seem to believe that if they ask, "Would anyone not be willing to do XXX" and nobody in that moment raises their hand, that this is tantamount to some sense that people have been heard and their needs recognized. This has not been my experience. Dialogue requires space, time, and a calm spirit. People need to be given a chance to tune into themselves. Dialogue is a deep process. For me, this requires some quiet and inner peace- and some time for interaction. I am struck that Gandhi acted based on his spiritual connection as well as his political knowledge. How does this apply here? I would suggest small group interaction led by facilitators who know how to encourage all voices to be heard, who know how to facilitate dialogue, and can help participants articulate their needs. By small group I mean 10 or less. The most important part of a group like this is not the outcome. Rather it is learning how to listen and learn how to speak so that others can listen. This skill they will use in the next step.

    After about an hour each group of 10 splits up and joins another group of 10. They use the same process of listening and speaking. After one hour this group breaks up and joins another group. Between each group, there is a half hour break. During this time, participants are asked to break into pairs. They can practice listening to what is most important to the other person and practice articulating what that is. Then they change positions so that A plays B- this is the best way to discover what it's like to be the other person and to discover their needs. If the entire group were to practice this exercise for a few hours, several things would happen:

    1. There would be a dramatic increase in a sense of community
    2. People could start to hone in to what is most important for members of the community
    3. People could articulate what this group really cares about and what they want.

    I believe that this could be done in a weekend.

  10. Thank you for continuing to write about this. I am so, so disheartened by the Occupy movement here in Dunedin, New Zealand, and I long to see the movement become one of community and coming together rather than polarization and vitriol. I really appreciate your insights. They continue to help me navigate my continuing emotions and beliefs about this movement. Many, many thanks!

  11. These methods of organizing decision making based on deep and respectful listening seem to be what's needed. There also seem to be many having developed over recent years with similar bents on creating a group in compassion rather than authority/power-over.

    I believe many of them are valid and truly helpful, as these would be.
    What's left to be done is to initiate these groups however possible and start practice.

    In this new reality so much more is up to us than before. It is scary and challenging, but probably the best of possibilities.

    Many small groups seem like the way to go, in my eyes. Then they can coordinate groups and come to general decisions and proposals.

    The challenge of our time. Perhaps the challenge of all times.
    I hope each one of us keeps listening this openly and speaking from this level of authenticity and caring. It in itself is valuable.


  12. Lisa,

    Miki would need to speak with the General Assembly Facilitation Committee in order to arrange to facilitate the next meeting. Here is their contact information:

    And they meet in-person everyday at 12:00 pm on the plaza next to Oscar Grant Park (formally Frank Ogawa Park).

    - Ian

  13. Miki,
    As I read your post I kept thinking of a talk that Catherine Cadden gave in which she just told some stories about how an NVC approach to the situation resulted in a shift for the people involved. What struck me most about that talk was that Catherine was speaking softly, with a confidence that comes from a lot of experience. It didn't feel like she was selling anything or pressing an issue. I bring this up because I was thinking it would really be nice if people who have these kinds of experiences with NVC could be some of the speakers at these GAs. I was so moved when I heard her stories, so common to us who use NVC daily, but almost like miracles to others who have not yet engaged with NVC. My personal experience has been that when people hear about seemingly miraculous shifts, they realize there is a different way of going about communication and relationship.

  14. PLEASE KEEP WRITING ON WHAT YOU ARE SEEING IN THIS MOVEMENT. I need the perspective of someone who I know practices nonviolence, wants to live in it, and continually offers ways for us to see ourselves nonviolently. I won't have this information from someone I trust if you don't offer it. So thank you.

  15. come you really thing a consensus vote will protect minorities?? this is absurd coming from nonviolent communication: social pressure is much greater in this case than in majority's decisions. in majority votes the minority has the right to express itself without blocking the decision process (and therefore having to confront to the pressure of their peers). what have to be ensured is that institutional mechanisms for the proctetion minorities exist and work properly! the needs of the minority are to be HEARD, not to be the ones who decide!

  16. dear anonymous,

    i do so totally understand the issue you are raising. i have seen it happen, and appreciate your pinpointing it like this. what is crystal clear to me after reading your comment is how critical it is to shift out of either/or thinking before we can truly envision that through a decision-making process a workable solutions for everyone can emerge. when needs are heard, truly heard, hearts and minds shift. if you stay tuned and continue reading, i hope my next post will be precisely about this, and i thank you for providing me with the entry point into it.


  17. Hi Miki
    Besides the lack of dialog, the limitations of the Consensus system to enhance connection, evolve strategies and include dissensus in strategies, is becoming apparent. I believe a combination of the following may offer better outcomes:

    1) Dynamic governance (sociocracy);
    2) NVC-type awareness emphasizing connection at the need-level;
    3) A sense-of-the-meeting (Quaker process) understanding of group resonance through deep listening and allowing strategies to find us.

    I sense that education in these is desperately needed to help what wants to emerge in the Occupy movement, and I am taking steps to provide this in the Portland, OR area.

  18. Thanks Miki for putting all this out. There is so much in this comment thread that i could respond to, and i will confine myself to replying to this one part from the original post.

    You wrote:

    “[I]f I stand in line to speak at a decision-making meeting, and what’s truly important to me has been named already, even if in different words and through a different opinion, then I can sit down knowing that my need is already included, especially if I trust that some other context exists for me to be fully heard as a human being.”

    That’s one of the keys to the unique challenge of facilitating at Occupy. Many of the participants really do not feel heard in their lives, thus they bring that need to this table, with vigor! So it is hard for them to listen well.

    “I am not satisfied with the outcome because it left the people who wanted to send a letter without a way to address what’s important to them.”

    Another way to think about this is pointed to by Occupy Portland’s “Open Consensus Philosophy,” see here: In that way of looking at things, one possible successful outcome of the process you witnessed would be for each of the 100 people who wanted to send the letter to realize, “Hey, there are 99 other people here who want to send a letter too,” and then to go ahead with organizing and doing so–being careful to name themselves as only one subgroup within the movement and clearly stating that they were not authorized to take action on behalf of or in the voice of the whole. In other words, the GAs become one of the containers where people who share some agreement can find each other and act from that agreement, and they aren’t only about the entire group coming to unity.



  19. PANCHO IS FREE!!! Thank you, Miki, for using my Comment as the teaser for your blog. I'm telling myself that it made a difference.

    We collected more than 8000 signatures on the petition to Barbara Lee to intercede with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities on Pancho's behalf, and we flooded the Sheriff's office, the D.A.'s office, and the offices of the relevant Members of Congress with phone calls. We activated the global Restorative Circle community, so there was a truly global outcry of love and support.


    This is really up close and personal for me; my grandparents were immigrants, and I've been working on immigrants rights issues implicitly all my life and actively for almost ten years. So I won't be at the Safer Spaces meeting tonight because I'm going to Casa de Paz to welcome Pancho home and continue to participate in our work in the RJ arena in that troubled community.