Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Starting the Future Today

by Miki Kashtan

(I am back from a three-week hiatus. For the time being, I am not writing about the Occupy Movement, though I imagine I will return to this theme.)

In April, 2004, in the last week of her life, my former colleague Julie Greene participated, with my sister Inbal and with me, at one of our intensive residential retreats. We all listened for those few moments when she would wake up and speak to us from wherever she was. More than once, she repeated this one sentence which I still carry: “There is no reason to wait even one minute longer.”
I know very well about waiting, because it’s one of my coping mechanisms I acquired as a child. I learned to endure hardships by knowing they will end, and counting the minutes, or days, or even years at times. I learned to survive having no capacity to change circumstances, and in the process lost some of my sense of power to create change. I still, to this day, continue to wait, though less and less, in all aspects of my life. For a less stressful time in which I can finally shift an inner pattern, or the compatible people with whom I can connect, or the circumstances that will bring more ease into my life, or the perfect opportunity for making a difference. What would it mean to shift that habit completely and bring the future into the present?

When I remember Julie’s words and leave behind my habit of waiting, I sometimes experience a kind of glee, like a child that just discovered a new way to climb on the counter and get the goodies that were previously out of reach. This is a subversive act, because it means embracing my power, releasing the shackles of helplessness, becoming an agent in my life and beyond. It’s a way to move to another story, of living as if the future, previously a dream, is truly here, now.

There are very personal, almost private, moments of new choices in this new possibility. Sometimes it takes the form of choosing to follow the radical practice recently given to me, the practice of wasting time, for fifteen minutes a day. When so much is at stake in the world, when the organization I co-founded is struggling financially, and when my beloved sister is continuing to struggle with ovarian cancer, it’s no small feat to waste time. I rarely manage, maybe once a month, so far. Because I wait to be done, which never happens, and then the day is over and I “forgot” again.

Sometimes living the way I want the future to be means taking enormous risks in relationships, such as revealing myself to people who may not appreciate who I am, what I do, how I think, what my feelings and dreams are, instead of waiting for people to first show me that they can receive me. Or the risk of loving and trusting and opening to another even when they are so different from me that I experience them as foreign. Or speaking with strangers, often, comfortably, as if we truly are fellow humans instead of waiting until some day when polite disconnection is no longer the norm.

Sometimes it means being willing to take material risks. I have committed myself to a maximum wage (about which topic I plan on writing soon), beyond which everything goes to feed the projects about which I am passionate. I am not accumulating any savings, entrusting myself instead to the radical idea that security lies in community and relationships and not in money, knowing full well this may not work out and I may be one day alone and without the resources to care for my well being.

Sometimes it means refusing to accept so many either/or no-win options we are told are all there is, working instead to find new paths. Are directive leadership or no leadership the only two options, as some would have us believe? I continually strive to increase my own power and leadership while at the same time inviting and expecting others to claim theirs. Are so-called free markets and state planning the only two options for creating viable economies? I envision and, in my own small and largely ineffectual way, coax into being a gift economy, based on needs and natural generosity. Can the whole world be structured without coercion? I experiment, on whatever scale I encounter, with basing everything on true willingness. What systems, structures, and relationships can we have in a world without coercion? I can dream and wait for the day, likely long past my death (if we survive, that is), or I can play, experiment, use every grouping, large or small, to see how it all works, to examine how we can truly work together without even a shred of “should” or “have to.”

I know what I could continue to wait for and won’t any more. For the anxiety to go away that we all have about not having our needs met, because so much of the time that is our common experience in the modern world, especially in childhood. Functioning in a group, any group, with or without leadership, can so easily result in losing all our personal skill, and reverting to separation, mistrust, and judgment.
Living the future, now, means recognizing that those of us who’ve had access to transformation, whether through Nonviolent Communication, like me and many who read this blog, or using some other method, are privileged. Choosing not to wait means taking on the joyful responsibility of stewarding the needs of everyone with whom I interact. It means going beyond any notion of fairness to recognize that my training and my skill confer a unique advantage to me in terms of my capacity to work internally with whatever triggers I find and show up for the amazing opportunity almost invariably present of doing the sacred work of creating solutions that address everyone’s needs.

Lastly, on the biggest sphere at which I operate, I can stop waiting for the right person with the right connections to the right other people to be open and receptive to my suggestions. The future will not be significantly different from the present if we all act as if change is not possible or only possible after it’s already happened... I can begin, instead and immediately, to consider everything I do to be the possible seed of change beyond my wildest dreams, and use all the tools available to me within my actual sphere of influence. Creating meaningful relationships with the actual people that interact with me I learn that my sphere of influence is almost always larger than I take note of even if it’s smaller than my wishes. If I bring to bear, with support and community from others, my vision and its application to the specific moment in which I find myself, then I continually take steps towards this vision. A different future is then born, again and again, in each of my small and meaningful acts.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

In the Face of Repression - Notes from OccupyOakland Nov 15th

by Miki Kashtan

Early morning on Monday, November 14th, the Oakland Police once again evacuated the OccupyOakland camp. That was the day I was planning to attend the facilitation committee meeting. Being unsure about whether or not a meeting would take place, and knowing how long it would be before I could attend a meeting again, I decide to take a chance and go.

The plaza is barricaded on all sides, with only employees being allowed to enter. Some restaurants are openly displaying their menus in an empty plaza full of sanitation workers. Who would be buying food when no one can enter, I wonder. Later I see police allowing some people - I imagine only those looking “respectable” - to walk into the plaza to order food out. Something ironic about closing off the entire plaza when one of the reasons for evacuating it was to support local businesses. I ask the policeman how he feels about the whole thing. He shrugs his shoulders and says he’s just doing his job, doesn’t have an opinion. I offer my reflection that it’s tough to be there and do what he does. He says that being a cop is tough, period.

At the 14th and Broadway intersection, which has become identified with the movement, a small crowd has gathered. More police are standing in a line behind the barricades, some of them in riot gear, others more loosely guarding the place. Their faces are generally blank, except when no one is standing in front of them and they talk with each other, rather casually. What is it like on the inside to be each person I see? This question haunts me always, especially on a day like today, when I look at people, the police, and imagine them to be doing things that are difficult for at least some of them to do.

A man who identifies himself as a vet, probably from the Vietnam era, is talking with immense passion to one of the officers. He says something about how he can see that the officer is also a vet, and that he knows that deep in his heart he doesn’t want to be working to protect the 1%. The officer appears heroic in his efforts to remain blank while staring directly at the vet behind massive sunglasses. The media is interviewing a man, maybe in his 50s, who is well dressed and holds a sign saying “Re-occupy Oakland ASAP”. On the other side something about why can’t the city and police be more imaginative. The media ask everyone, apparently, if they believe the movement should be responsible for the cost of removing the camp. A woman walks by screaming at the top of her lungs, occupying some other reality. Someone gives her five dollars, and she quiets down temporarily.

I watch in disbelief as so many workers are cleaning up the plaza. Is anyone really thinking that the occupiers won’t come back? I wonder, again and again, what leads people to keep trying to repress movements, when the evidence is so overwhelming that repression, especially of nonviolent movements, tends to strengthen them. Is it a gesture to assure businesses that the city is doing all it can to support them? I wouldn’t want to be Jean Quan these days.

A woman who’s been with the Occupation since the beginning is arguing with a visitor from Eugene, OR who’s been an activist since the 60s. I listen to them quietly, finding myself on both sides of their argument. She is talking about making sure that the brutal reality of life of the marginalized remains in public display. He’s talking about how attracting homeless people and addicts is preventing the movement from attracting others, and points vaguely at the buildings behind him, the places where people work. He talks about how afraid people are to take a day off from work to attend a strike. She talks about how amazing it is that some people have had food for all this time and are finding themselves again. He talks about how organizing and offering services are not the same. She talks about having a public space to have meetings and organize. He talks about making the movement accessible to all people.

Does the movement have enough resources to keep organizing and provide services at the same time? Can the movement appeal to the many who are still uninvolved, barely aware of what’s happening, while the activities that expose the structural conditions continue? Can the occupiers truly figure out how to handle the intense divisions within the movement while standing up to persistent repression? The woman talks about how the very people who are advocating property destruction, which she opposes, are also the people who help out at the camp, set up services, feed the poor. In the evening I find out that the interfaith people who refused to leave the plaza and got arrested while singing spiritual songs got thanked by unexpected people, healing some of the rift between the “diversity of tactics” contingent and the “strict commitment to nonviolence” contingent.

I think about the ongoing conversation I’m part of about whether it’s even possible to be nonviolent in our culture, where so much ongoing violence is done in our name all the time, whether we know it or not, choose it or not. I want to believe there is still room to make the choice not to add more violence by inflicting it personally. I see how any bit of violence, even minimal property destruction, makes it so much easier to justify the repression. More and more people direct increasing amounts of anger at the occupation. They say it’s destroying the fledgling efforts to revive Oakland’s downtown and maintain local businesses. That Oakland is a city of the 99%, including the local business owners.

I know what the woman is saying. Removing the occupation would only remove the issues from public awareness without solving them. It would just be business as usual again, which has allowed massive and growing numbers of people to suffer daily indignities, poverty, lack of access to resources, and marginalization. In the absence of making it impossible for business as usual to continue, what would otherwise provide the energy for making change? The OccupyWallSt organizers have worked diligently on maintaining relationships with the local businesses. I won’t stop believing there’s a way for things to work for everyone. Maybe the woman and the man can yet hear each other. I point them in this direction by reflecting back to both what I hear from each of them, how they fundamentally want the same thing. Before I leave, I ask them to do the same with each other before responding. They like the idea.

As I arrive home, I am struck by how absent the occupation is in my neighborhood, by how many people’s lives are, still, wholly unaffected. Meanwhile, for some people, something different is happening that is changing their lives. They have seen themselves and others create something that was thought impossible only weeks ago. At least for a while there’s no going back. The man, earlier, even while telling the woman repeatedly that their efforts won’t work, admits to being impressed and surprised that they pulled off the general strike. There is some magic happening, something I don’t understand, something I want to support.

Just down the street from my home I watch a woman I don’t know enter her car, an SUV, and drive off, innocent of knowledge that she is doing the next thing with her uninterrupted daily life while dozens were arrested and hundreds are marching to regain access to the plaza. She and they live in entirely different realities. Later I hear that the occupiers are back at the plaza, and are holding a general assembly with many hundreds of people. I remember my conversation from the morning with a UC Berkeley professor who is worried about more repression on campus. I watch a video showing the police attack the demonstrators on campus a week ago. He is afraid of more. I remind him, and myself, how numbers can reduce the possibility of violence. I ask him to invite the faculty to issue a call to the public to come and protect the students. I think again of the anonymous woman in her SUV. What can any of the occupiers do, what kinds of decisions or actions can they take that will reach her? Can she be woken up to imagine a different world, without rich and poor? What would it take for the occupations to become an unstoppable mass movement?

While writing I get news of the eviction taking place in NY. The repression continues. I watch the live streaming in disbelief. No amount of engaging peacefully with residents and local businesses has protected the people. My heart is both breaking and oddly excited. As I am winding down writing this piece, I am watching the live stream and reading the OccupyWallSt site. I am not surprised to learn that civil disobedience is now being planned. Something comforting, in the midst of the shock about the police, in knowing that this movement is allowing more and more people to realize that “we cannot fix our crises isolated from one another.” A group of people are marching, belying the stereotype of the movement being unemployed white people in their 20s. For this moment, in this action, people are walking together. Young and old, black and white, they are chanting, in part, “we say no to the new Jim Crow.” Separation, the very foundation of what makes our current system possible, is being challenged, and the future, for this moment, feels open again in the midst of the difficulty. In the words, once again, of the anonymous writer of the site: “you can’t evict an idea whose time has come.”

Friday, November 11, 2011

Why Victory Wouldn't Be Enough - Notes about the Occupy Movement, Nov 11th

by Miki Kashtan

Ever since the beginning of the Arab Spring, and especially since the early days of the Occupy movement in the US, I have been following the wave of unrest that’s been sweeping the globe with great interest. I have visited the Oakland Occupation and participated in the general strike on Nov. 2nd. I have been writing about my amazement, my humility, and my concerns for some weeks. On the basis of all I have seen, heard, read, and felt, I continue to nurse some hope that this movement may be the beginning of transcending the legacy of separation and creating new social structures attentive to the needs of humans, other life forms, and the planet.

At the same time, if I imagine for a moment that the Occupy movement succeeds in replacing existing governments with some other form of governance, I am not so confident that the outcome will be what I most long for: a world that truly works for everyone.

I am fearful that the people who are now the 1% would be mistreated, shamed, incarcerated, or even executed. I am fearful that women will still have an equally challenging time having physical safety, full inclusion in decision-making, and the possibility of affecting the ways that decisions are made. I am fearful that racial and ethnic divides will continue to plague us, and that some people will continue to suffer poverty and human indignities. I am fearful that consumption will continue rampant and the march towards depletion of the earth’s resources will go on. I am even fearful that a new 1% will emerge, sooner or later, and what might be gained would be lost.

Prioritizing social transformation without attending to the ways in which all of us have internalized the very systems and habits of heart and mind that we aim to transform runs the risk of re-creating these systems and habits. From my reading of history, such lack of attention to the internal and relational realms has resulted in astonishing amounts of pain and suffering, sometimes for millions of people. On smaller scales, this lack of attention has meant that many social movements are plagued by vicious conflicts, resentment, cynicism, and despair even while doing inspiring and uplifting work.

I have a very strong desire for the Occupy movement to shift this historical pattern. One of the reasons I have such appreciation for Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. is precisely the depth of their understanding about the personal changes that were necessary to make the movement work. Gandhi put it in simple words: “The very first step in nonviolence is that we cultivate in our daily life, as between ourselves, truthfulness, humility, tolerance, loving kindness.” (Golden Treasury, p. 41.) Here are some beginning pointers to what this work might entail.

The Means and the Ends
I have never understood the logic of separating means and ends. If people are willing to use violence in order to bring about peace, how would they suddenly, after victory is achieved, know to shift into peaceful modes of operating? If leaders of some movements operate in an authoritarian manner, how would they suddenly know to step down and participate as equals in creating a society of peers? If men in a national liberation movement ask women to set their needs aside until victory is achieved, how would they suddenly be able to shift priorities upon victory? Although I don’t pretend to know everything that’s ever happened on this planet, I don’t know of any examples of a victory magically creating such changes.

I have much more trust in aligning the means and the ends. If we begin to live now the values we seek to bring about, and if we create, now, the relationships that we want to see everywhere, I have more trust that there will be a natural continuity into the world of our dreams, where everyone’s dignity and needs are valued, including those who have done harm. I like this image much more than the prospect of a victory over some enemy or another.

The Irreducible Significance of Vision
I have already written both about how I see so much of what the encampments signify to be a model, on a small scale, of some aspects of how we could structure our lives, and in that way being a lived vision. I want more than an implicit modeling of the future. I want all of us who sympathize with, support, or participate in the Occupy movement to be able to articulate what we stand for. A movement can not continue indefinitely when all that unites people is what they are against. Again, if suddenly the movement managed to get everyone currently in power to step down, in the absence of a clearly articulated vision, what would be put in place? I am hoping that every single one of us would dedicate energy and time to exploring this question, alone and in conversation with others: what do we truly care about? What is it that we want to create in the world? How would we structure social life to attend to everyone’s needs? How can we address the human needs of those who are currently in power?

Finding Freedom Beyond Rebellion
My experience of being at the general assembly in Oakland, of reading notes from and about such meetings, and of speaking with people who have facilitated general assembly meetings is very mixed. On the one hand I am in awe of the commitment to a democratic process that provides room for everyone to have a voice. On a number of occasions I have been amazed by the depth of considerations that have gone into different proposals and have appreciated greatly how a decision has been made. I have been moved, repeatedly, by many specific choices and policies that have been adopted.

On the other hand I hear facilitators say that they have been traumatized by the process. Some people have expressed fear about what would happen if they said or did some particular thing as a facilitator. Facilitators have been heckled. People who express certain minority positions have been silenced by others without facilitators managing to prevent that. Many people speak without regard for the process or for others’ experience. As an experienced facilitator, I have become used to being able to rely on a group to support the process and my own facilitation. I frankly don’t know how I would handle this level of chaos and insistence on no leadership.

Some months ago I wrote an entire piece about the alternative to submission or rebellion. Re-reading this piece now I see its relevance to this situation. When we rebel, we still operate under the terms of those in power. True autonomy, real freedom, involves making choices from within rather than in reaction to what happens outside of us. I very much hope that some participants in the movement who are on a spree of doing what they want because no one can tell them what to do will find sufficient grounding to know what they really want and find ways of going for it that are proactive and interdependent. Without deep engagement with self, without knowing what we want, without having sufficient calm to interact with others even in the face of differences and challenges, it will be exceedingly difficult to maintain the delicate balance of peace within the encampments. When exhausted people who’ve been at it for weeks at a time need to make decisions that are attentive to everyone and to interact with and even collaborate with people who are on drugs, or some that have sexually assaulted others or display extreme levels of rage, their capacity to choose from within and in line with their values is a vital asset.

Cultivating Empathy
For millennia, and especially in the last several hundred years, we have been raised to see ourselves as fundamentally at odds with each other, fighting for scarce resources in a hostile world. Although many spiritual traditions share a common teaching about the oneness of all life, our economic and social structures pit us against each other. We learn to come together against a common enemy, and know little about how to work side by side towards a shared purpose in the service of everyone. Unless we have consciously worked to transform this deeply ingrained habit, we are likely to polarize every time we experience any kind of conflict or disagreement.

Of all the inner resources that I see needed in these challenging times, none is more easily forgotten than the basic human faculty of empathy. Although people have a voice, no one is necessarily listening. When disagreements arise, separating ways of handling them are common in our society, and clearly appear within the movement as well. Anything ranging from debate to shaming and silencing has been known to happen. What would need to happen to support people in truly listening to each other across differences of tactics, preferences, or opinions?

Beyond the internal relationships within the movement, when it comes to the 1%, the level of us-them thinking is high. OccupyWallSt started with a slogan that tapped into a deep vein of meaning and ignited a rush of support and identification from many who are not necessarily participating. And yet, as time passes, I am more and more concerned about how the 1% are viewed. The level of anger, though I fully understand it given the decades and centuries of suffering, concerns me greatly. The only hope I see for a peaceful future lies in finding ways of embracing the humanity of all people. This is what restorative justice is about, which, on a national scale, can take the form of truth and reconciliation committees. Openness to the humanity of others is essential if we are to make something happen that’s not a repetition of all we know with different players.

Freeing Our Consciousness
Since I learned of Nonviolent Communication, I have been working steadily to free up my consciousness from the traps I have inherited. I relentlessly make the effort to remove from my language words that point to certain ways of thinking such as “should”, “can’t”, “have to”, “I don’t have time”, and all war metaphors. I make deliberate choices that are at odds with the addiction to convenience, an addiction whose pull I recognize within myself. I consciously choose to interact with people I don’t know so as to challenge the notion that anyone is a “stranger.” I reveal in public and even in writing aspects of my experience that are often tremendously vulnerable in part in order to affirm my continuity with others. I continually challenge myself to question anything that appears like accepting others’ deference to me because of the position of partial power in which I find myself. I regularly make a conscious attempt to understand people whose actions are incomprehensible to me to increase my capacity for empathy and my ability to hold needs with care. I walk directly towards emotional discomfort again and again so as to create true freedom in myself to live as I want.

Is this an act of social change? Absolutely not in and of itself. A commitment to inner work without a continued and singular focus on social transformation runs the risk of being adaptive to the ways of the world, as social structures have phenomenal power to persist despite significant personal awareness. I continue to engage in these and dozens of other practices, large and small, because it’s the only way I know to have some trust that another way is possible. Rather than waiting for some miraculous victory to begin to create some mysterious world whose contours I haven’t imagined, I want to know that I have done all I can, truly all I can, to move in the direction of my dreams in each and every moment, internally, and, with others, in the world.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Beyond Consensus or Majority: Notes about Decision-Making in a Leaderless Movement

by Miki Kashtan

On October 18th I participated in the general assembly meeting in OccupyOakland. On October 22nd I posted a piece about that experience, which I named In Search of Dialogue. Even before writing that piece I have been engaging in my mind with the large question of decision-making in this movement. Since I posted this piece, I have received many comments and have read much that others have written, all of which have taken my thinking forward.

I remain deeply humble as I reflect on this movement. I believe even more than before that no one at this point can predict what this movement will bring about. With all the humility, I still want to ask the question: how can a movement maintain its focus and vision, include everyone that wants to be heard and create an efficient collaborative decision-making process?

Is Leadership Necessary?
Some time ago I talked with one of the core organizers in NYC, a young man who has applied himself seriously to the study of Nonviolent Communication. I was struck by the astonishing challenge of continuing to make decisions on the basis of full consensus with everyone present as the number of people participating kept increasing while more and more of the participants were transient members. As I offered him some tips about facilitation and decision-making to address some of these issues, I noticed that he loved the ideas, and yet didn’t see a way to implement them. This was not due to lack of skill on his part, since I could walk him through the processes easily. Rather, it was because he was deeply concerned that anything that looked like active facilitation would be viewed as taking power and leadership, and would thus run counter to the intense ethos of operating in full shared power and in a leaderless manner. Could there be room for leadership within this leaderless movement?

I so loved what Sharif Abdullah wrote about the role of leadership in movements, that I would rather invite you to read his piece than say similar ideas less eloquently. He writes almost daily about the movement, and you can find his writing at In his piece on leadership in the Occupy movement, Sharif makes two significant points. One is that the movement doesn’t have all the conditions necessary for thriving without leadership. The other is that leadership takes many forms. People are reacting to a perception of leadership as control, as someone telling them what to do. Sharif is advocating a form of leadership that he calls “emergent” and is based on encouraging and stimulating others along with several other features. I see the facilitation of collaborative decision-making as an active form of leadership that is fully aligned with Sharif’s vision of emergent, catalyst leadership. I so hope that this kind of leadership will be welcomed in the communities spreading around the globe.

Is Consensus vs. Majority All There Is?
I read a piece today from Michael Albert called Occupy to Self-Manage. He’s been on the road for six weeks, and has talked with people in a number of European countries about their experiences of their occupations. Many of them had been dwindling - although people still show up for specific actions. In response to his questions, people repeatedly shared that the consensus process of the general assemblies was a large component of what interfered with people making the commitment to stay for a long time.

I can completely see the appeal of consensus as compared to majority vote. On the face of it, consensus honors power-sharing and is concerned for everyone in a group. This direct sense of everyone’s participation has got to be a key reason why this process was adopted so widely. Despite its appeal, the process has encountered serious obstacles because of the issues that arise around blocking, because it can take such a long time, and because random people that show up can interfere with reaching decisions. As a result, OccupyOakland, for example, has adopted a modified consensus process based on 90% of non-abstaining votes. Although 90% is a very high proportion, that still leaves open the question of what happens to the minority, and especially if the issues that a minority has with a particular decision are significant for it. Is there truly a way to include everyone, or does inclusion by necessity mean losing the possibility of an efficient decision, or reaching one at all?

Collaborative Decision-Making
I have been working with groups intensively for the last fifteen years, and have been consciously examining the question of decision-making within groups for at least ten of them. Based on my experience and my reflections, I see a clear path to a process that efficiently generates decisions that people can truly accept, without implicit of explicit coercion, and with care and attention to all that’s important to everyone. I have been teaching this process and people have applied it in many settings. I haven’t yet seen it applied in a group larger than 250 people. I am confident that applying it in the Occupy movement as is, without modifications, would run into some similar problems to a consensus process. Either process, to be fully operational, would require learning how to function in smaller groups and still reach decisions that work for everyone. In a manuscript I recently finished and am now editing I include a vision of a possible world and in it I describe a global governance system based on similar principles that could, with some adjustments, apply to the settings of the occupations. For the moment, I only want to discuss some key insights that by themselves could possibly help in certain situations. Beyond that, I can think of few things that would give me more satisfaction than working with some facilitators to adapt the process to the existing conditions at the various encampments.

Positions, Arguments, Human Needs, and How We Shift
Most of us have been trained to assume that the only way that someone’s position would shift, if at all, is through a compelling argument. Most activists that I have worked with and coached have been given extensive training in how to speak about their opinions, and see it as their work, in many instances, to convince others who may have different opinions.
My own experiences of dialogue have led me to a tentative other conclusion: that we shift positions, when we do, when the following happens, not necessarily in this order:

• We are fully heard for what’s important to us, or what our vision or dream is, that have led us to adopt the position we have. This allows us to relax emotionally and be more open to hearing and more curious about others’ positions.
• We come to a place of understanding of what’s important to someone else that is underneath their position, or what their dream is, or what human need is motivating them. Not just intellectual understanding; we actually open our hearts to where someone else is coming from, or are moved by their humanity or the vision they have.
• We trust that on the deepest level what this other person most wants is not at odds with what we want.
• We accept the premise of finding a solution that works for everyone.
• We experience freedom to choose rather than any coercion to adopt a certain position or to shift in some direction towards others. We trust that we are cared about, and so is everyone else.

I have had enough experiences of polarized people coming together to know this is entirely possible, even likely, when enough connection has been achieved through dialogue. It is the foundation of the decision-making process I designed.

Practical Inclusion
I have a deep and abiding interest in inclusion. I know my own desire to be included, to know that I matter, that what’s important to me counts, that I can have a say and affect an outcome. I also know how important it is to me to include others when I am part of a group and even more so when I lead a group.

At the same time I know how exponentially unwieldy discussions can become when the numbers grow. One person speaks, others want to speak, then others want to respond. Meanwhile others sit in amazement as the same points are made over and over again. As Sharif Abdullah said, “Just blurting out whatever you want, whenever you want to, is NOT democracy.” Is there a way out of this nightmare that doesn’t sacrifice the value of inclusion?

I have found that one distinction makes all the difference in the world: the difference between including everyone’s voice and including everyone’s needs. If, as people speak, we are able to capture the true needs for which they speak to their satisfaction of being heard, and if we are indeed committed to including all the needs, there is no reason to hear anyone else articulate a position or opinion that stems from the same need. Once the need has been named, only additional needs can be invited to speak.

I see this confusion between hearing needs, issues, and concerns, and hearing everyone’s voice as a big impairment to group functioning. Reaching decisions, especially in large groups and under stressful conditions, benefits from focus, clarity, and conciseness. That is not a substitute for each person being fully heard as an individual human being, which I see as an irreducible aspect of becoming more empowered, whole human beings. What’s vitally important in my view is to separate those two, so we can have a context for making decisions, and a separate context for hearing people’s stories, pain, concerns, needs, dreams, and everything else about them.

In practical terms, if 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. A facilitator can invite people to only speak for issues that hadn’t yet been named. This, to me, is a key to efficient inclusion: we never need to hear the same thing twice, because it’s not about how many people have the same need. If we commit to shared ownership of all the needs, and working on a proposal that addresses all of them, we can let go of more and more voices.

The Role of Facilitation and Leadership
When I facilitate a process of decision making, I focus on a few key areas:

• I put a tremendous amount of emphasis on creating shared holding of all the needs that are named - before, during, and after creating a proposal.
• I engage people in stretching to be open to including others’ needs. Towards that end I hear everyone’s objections and identify needs in them; and I invite them to the commitment to create an outcome that works for everyone.
• I work diligently to identify for everyone what the underlying needs might be. I write them on one sheet of paper, regardless of positions, so that everyone can see and join the commitment. I always name needs in terms of what someone wants to create, what’s important to them, or what is their dream, rather than in terms of positions, what “should” happen, or what is not working.
• I support people in evaluating proposals relative to needs that have been named, with the aim of reaching a proposal that can address all the needs.
• I guide the process of reaching an actual decision through a series of questions that check people’s willingness at different levels, until a decision is reached that everyone is willing to embrace, even if it’s not their preferred outcome.

I never see it as my job to tell a group what decision to make, though I have often participated in crafting proposals based on needs that had been identified.

Veto, Blocking, and Minorities
I have heard people raise two key issues in regard to the dilemmas of holding minorities within a consensus process. One is the frustration about there being a small group, sometimes even one person, who can block a decision from happening, a frustration that arises from the desire for efficiency, movement, or trust, among others. Conversely, I have heard grave concerns expressed about people being pressured to go along with a decision even when they are in disagreement because of the fear of judgment of them if they chose to block the decision. In this context I have heard people express the hope that majority voting changes these dynamics, even a sense that minorities are respected when they have the opportunity to vote their dissent without thereby blocking the process.

From the vantage point of the process I have created, and especially with the transformative power of dialogue that aims to bring people together, expressing a dissenting view gets depolarized through the finding of shared human needs that everyone subsequently owns. I have both found people willing to express their concerns, as well as others willing to hear them, when a facilitator can maintain a relaxed attitude of trust in the process. In fact, the process of surfacing the concerns, issues, and underlying needs is one of the key building blocks towards a decision that is attentive to more and more needs and is therefore more likely to lead to robust agreements that are kept by everyone, because they know they matter and are part of the whole.

An Invitation
This coming weekend, Nov 5-6, I am offering a 2-day training in group facilitation, including an entire day focused on the decision-making process I mention here. I would be honored and moved to have people from any occupation movement attend this training and engage with me about whether and how these insights can be applied in the complex and ever-changing context of these movements. The training is called “No One Left Behind: Facilitating Efficient and Productive Meetings.” I am not thinking this is the only way to go. I am thinking of it as a way to go. May this movement find all the necessary support to move forward towards the vibrant dream of a world that works for all of us.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Love in the Wake of Violence: Notes from Oakland, October 28th

by Miki Kashtan
“It is not nonviolence if we merely love those that love us. It is nonviolence only when we love those that hate us.” -- Gandhi

I have not been to OccupyOakland since Saturday. For almost two days, no one was there, as police blockaded the area after destroying the camp early Tuesday morning. As of Wednesday night, occupiers broke through the police blockade and reentered the plaza. Along the way police used so called “non-lethal” weapons, one of which critically injured a young man who has since become a symbol for global solidarity for Oakland.

I sat at the computer intending to write an entirely different piece, one that’s been waiting for days now, about leadership and facilitation in the movement. I was simply unable to do so, because my heart is completely consumed with how to hold all that’s happened with love and human understanding. This includes all the people whose actions I find extremely difficult to comprehend. I cannot write about anything else involving this movement I so want to support until I am able to metabolize these events.

It is easy for me to extend love and understanding to the occupiers who braved the police and continued to march towards the plaza in an effort to reclaim it. It is easy to extend love to Scott Olsen. I read about him a little. I looked at his face. He’s a young man who chose to ally with the occupiers after serving two tours in Iraq and then joining Veterans for Peace. No challenge for me. I find it inspiring that someone who was in the army can wake up to move towards peace and transformation. It is easy for me to extend love and understanding to the people from Egypt who are organizing a march specifically in solidarity with Oakland. It is easy because I can identify with them, see them as being like me. I can see their care, and I connect with care easily.

And it’s not all easy. My attention is drawn to some reports suggest that some of the marchers threw rocks or bottles at the police. How can I extend love and understanding to any who may have participated in such actions?

I close my eyes, and I do all I can to imagine that I am the one throwing a bottle at the police. I imagine the rage, the helplessness, the absolute insistence on maintaining my human dignity despite everything, the surge of determination to remain powerful, to make something I believe is right happen. And I try to imagine my arm moving back with a rock in my hand to gain momentum, and then throwing the rock, and the sense of power I get from it, that I am doing something for justice. It’s extremely difficult for me to fully imagine this, an act so counter to my sensibilities, to how I know myself. I am filled with tears as I do it, and am completely connected with the human possibility of this act I would never myself choose.

I poke around, read some more, and encounter a comment on the OccupyWallSt site: “If that is true about ‘some protesters throwing rocks and bottles at the police’, it was EXTREMELY STUPID of those protesters and they should be banned from Occupy Oakland for life. Some of them were no doubt ‘AGENTS PROVOCATEURS’ planted by the CIA. Throwing rocks and bottles is EXACTLY what the 1% hope we will do, so as to justify a police crackdown and the imposition of MARTIAL LAW”.

I can feel in my body the anguish of being called stupid, and I pull myself away from that anguish to focus on the person who did the calling. I know about the power of nonviolence in the face of repression. I have such deep hope that the Occupy movement will deepen into more nonviolence. And so, despite having just understood in full and embraced in my body the people who possibly threw things at the police, I am totally and easily aligned with this person’s deep concern about this action. And yet a part of me recoils from the idea that they should be banned forever. That’s where the challenge lies for me. Why call them stupid, and why the desire to ban them. So I close my eyes again, and then I find the link. I know of the many times I wish that someone disappeared whose actions I find disruptive of some purpose that’s important to me. Through this, I can imagine being this person. I touch the active passion for this movement to work, to be impeccable in giving the police no excuse, so that the sympathy of the world can be maintained.

I am awash with overwhelm. So many more actors and players are involved, not only with Scott Olsen’s injury. I am thinking of the people dealing drugs in some of the encampments. Or the ones whose actions leave women feeling unsafe at night. I know of and have seen people who inhabit different enough realities that their participation in meetings and activities challenges everyone. I branch out and think of the police who attacked the occupiers, and especially those who made the choice to throw one more tear gas grenade at the people who were gathering around Scott Olsen after he had just been injured. Can I ever find room in my heart for all of them? Then there is the Tea Party person who holds the organizers of the Occupy movement responsible for Scott’s injury. And last and by far not least, I think of Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, who issued conflicting messages in response to the actions of the police, including initially commending the chief of police for what she referred to as “a generally peaceful resolution”, and is now facing increasing pressure to resign. There is no blog post that can be long enough to include my efforts to embrace them all.

It takes enormous effort to imagine the human emotional logic that would lead all these people to the actions that they have chosen. I find this effort deeply significant, because I want to live in a world where no one is a throw-away person. I want to create a world that works for all of us, not just those who are easy for me to understand and love. I want everyone to have their humanity honored, to have access to resources, to have food, and shelter, and health, and love. I really want everyone’s needs to matter, these are not just words for me. It’s the only way I know, ultimately, to end the millennia-old cycle of violence, hatred, suffering, and separation in which we live.

In the meantime, I want to extend love to myself for a moment. It’s so demanding to make room inside me for everyone, so, so challenging. Some years ago, when Rabin was assassinated, I called a friend to work my way through the many reactions I had. I do not have God in my life, haven’t believed in a transcendent being in many decades. Nonetheless, among the many feelings I found, the one that surprised me the most was a moment in which I felt something I can only call compassion for God. I understood, in that moment, that God’s job, in that moment and in all moments, is to love everyone fully and equally, all of creation. And that meant loving the assassin. And I felt compassion for the enormity of what it would take. I am a mere mortal, and it’s taking all I have to even imagine it.

In conclusion, I want to be sure I clearly articulate that no amount of love and understanding for everyone is a substitute for action to bring about concrete and material results. The point of this love is to ensure that our actions are free of violence, hatred, and separation. So that we don’t end up where so many revolutions have in the past: recreating the very conditions that the revolution was seeking to change. This means including, ultimately, the 1% in the final outcome just as much as the homeless that are being reached out to in some of the encampments where they have lived for years before the occupations started. Unless we include everyone, some people will eventually become some new 1% and some others will become drug dealers and threats to their fellow humans. I fervently hold on to this love. It’s my insurance policy that success will mean success for all.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Does Nonviolence Work? Notes from OccupyOakland October 24th

by Miki Kashtan

On my third visit to OccupyOakland, I co-led two workshops hosted by Nichola Torbett, founder of Seminary of the Street. In both of them I collaborated with Nichola and with Kazu Haga, an Oakland-based Kingian Nonviolence trainer. The conversations that emerged in these workshops, along with a recent post by Sharif Abdullah about vision implementation, form the basis of what I am writing below.
Effectiveness of Nonviolence vs. Commitment to Nonviolence
Although only one of the people who came to either workshop expressed an active disagreement with a commitment to nonviolence, her presence was sufficient to spark a profound conversation about the topic. Throughout the two workshops we kept coming back to a fundamental distinction between the question about whether nonviolence works and whether or not we are committed to nonviolence as a matter of spiritual or other belief system. Part of what was so poignant about the position of this person who wasn’t fully committed to nonviolence was precisely how much in her heart she was committed, and came to shift her perspective primarily based on an analysis that led her to question the effectiveness of nonviolence. The more I read about nonviolence, the more I discover that movements tend to choose nonviolence because of their belief in its strategic value, not necessarily because of a principled disavowal of the use of violence in certain circumstances. It’s a pragmatic choice, not a values-based choice.

Full commitment to nonviolence on the basis of values, whether spiritual or secular, means maintaining a nonviolent stance even if it doesn’t seem to work, even if the goals never materialize, even if the movement is crushed by force. This is an extremely challenging position to take. I cannot imagine asking this of anyone whose life has been affected by trauma, severe deprivation, pervasive discrimination, police brutality, poverty, or any other kind of structural ongoing violence. Those are the classic conditions that breed violent uprisings, terrorist activity, or, in less extreme situations, anger or even hatred. The level of internal resources necessary for such a commitment to nonviolence, especially in the face of potential or actual repression, cannot easily be available under such conditions, because those conditions erode the human spirit.

Why Nonviolence Works
If there is any chance that nonviolence will be proclaimed as a strategy, especially in Oakland, especially in response to the police, it rests on being able to show that nonviolence works. Thanks to Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, whose work I already quoted last week, we now have information at our disposal that can make this case. Anyone who likes to check things out for themselves can find the information in their book, and much of it summarized in an article.

The basic finding is that of 323 violent and nonviolent movements they analyzed between 1900 and 2006, 53% of the nonviolent ones succeeded as compared to only 26% of the violent ones. What’s even more telling is that when the movements were repressed, the nonviolent movements were 6 times more likely to succeed.

The primary reasons for the success of any movement, whether violent of nonviolent, is popular support and the ability to undermine the sources of support of the existing regime. No matter how repressive any regime is, coercion alone is never enough to maintain the status quo unless the armed forces remain supportive and the population remains fragmented and disengaged. As the case of Egypt demonstrates, when the population rescinds its implicit willingness to go along with the regime, and when the armed forces shift loyalty, even a very established repressive regime crumbles.

If sympathy for the movement and de-legitimation of the regime are essential conditions for success, that provides clear understanding of why nonviolent movements fare better, and especially why their response to repression adds to their relative success. A movement that manages to maintain a nonviolent stance in response to repression is much more likely to achieve both of these conditions. It’s harder for most people to support a regime that cracks down on nonviolent resistors than a regime that appears to be responding to violence initiated by a movement.

Nonviolence and Vision Implementation

Here is where common misperceptions of nonviolence are responsible for much of the negative attitudes towards it. As Kazu demonstrated during our workshop, a world of difference exists between non-violence and nonviolence. The former is what so many people associate with the latter: it’s a negation of violence, and it encompasses within it passivity, a non-response to what is happening. Nonviolence, on the other hand, as conceived by Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., is fierce and loving. It is an active force that stands up for truth, justice, and love. Kazu reminded us that being able to accept repression while fighting for a vision of a different world often requires much more courage than fighting back. Because of the astonishing lack of knowledge of the history, principles, and tactics of active nonviolent resistance, many people aren’t even aware of the heroic measures taken by nonviolent activists throughout the last century. The Danes, for example, were able to save almost all the Danish Jews under Nazi Occupation, a feat unheard of in any other country, because they adopted a nonviolent resistance stance towards their occupation instead of passivity or armed resistance.

This is where Sharif Abdullah’s contribution to our understanding of nonviolence is so critical. His term - vision implementation - describes a core aspect of the active and revolutionary aspect of nonviolence. Visionary nonviolence goes way beyond acts of protest and paves the road to the future by utilizing creative actions that are, in his words, highly illegal and highly moral. Setting up camps on “occupied” areas where aspects of the vision of a possible world are a daily lived reality is definitely a form of vision implementation.

Sharif is also calling the occupy movement to step beyond the internal vision implementation within the camps into acts that take the vision into the wider population and can increase support for the movement at the same time. What he recommends is different from demonstrations and marches. “Protests only go so far: to be effective, it is necessary to show people what the change in society, the change in POWER, looks like.”

Back to the Beauty
When the workshops were over, I went back to the camp, and walked around once again, sitting and listening, talking to some people, and watching what to me is a magical snapshot of possibility. I tried to find the agenda for the general assembly meeting for that night, and couldn’t, so I didn’t stay. I talked with one of the media people, who was responsible for twitter and facebook presence. Her enthusiasm and deep optimism is what I am left with. We both celebrated how far from all white the camp was. Not quite fully representative of the population of Oakland, and at the same time much more so than is usually the case. Two weeks into the occupation, and under order of eviction that some believe is going to lead to a police raid sometime this week, services are solidifying and growing. The number of cities the world over who have their own Occupy movements is growing steadily. Yes, I wasn’t as satisfied with the process used at the general assembly meeting, and I am still mulling over how to integrate the responses to my post. It’s clear to me that I wasn’t fully walking my talk in what I wrote: I didn’t provide sufficient clarity of vision in what I wrote. I am mulling over, still, how to integrate the responses to that post. Until then, here’s where I am in this moment: despite the imperfections, I still have my sense of humility intact, and endless curiosity. My biggest hope is that we will never again see business as usual.

However lengthy this post is, it’s still only part of what I wanted to write about. I’ve yet to address the discussions of the idea of “loving your enemies”, another rich conversation that took place while I was at OccupyOakland. I have also been reading and reflecting on the comments to my post about the GA process and I hope to write something useful in response about the GA process and governance more generally. And in the coming days I anticipate getting there again. Stay tuned for more.

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.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

An Alternative to Demands: Notes from OccupyOakland, October 18th

by Miki KashtanThe OccupyOakland I visited on October 15th was not a protest. You could say that I knew it, because I have read about it before I was there. I still couldn’t understand it fully until I saw what it meant. I suspect the same is true elsewhere, though I will not presume to know. A protest, in some fundamental way, engages with the existing power structures. What I saw, instead, was a parallel existence. This was not a march attempting to make something happen through demands and goals. What I saw was a gathering of people without any urgency, setting up camp, providing free services, engaged in the activities of making life happen, engaged in educating each other, curious to learn, and intent on inclusion. In an earlier post I was expressing some concern about the absence of a vision. What I saw in the park changed my perspective. I was fully humbled. There is absolutely no absence of vision. In fact, what was so compelling for me in being there was seeing a vision being lived out. They are not making demands. Instead, in their own small way, and however imperfectly, they are creating the world in which they want to live. There is free food being served 24/7, there are supplies of all kinds, energy created by people pedaling a bike, and everyone appears to be part of an incessant conversation.

I see an astonishing potential for this form of action that I hadn’t considered previously. It makes for a movement that has no clear end point. There is nothing someone else can do in any immediate way that will give the people gathered at the park in Oakland what they are already creating for themselves. I can’t imagine what would happen, or a set of actions on the part of anyone, that would lead people to say “Now we are done and we can go home to our daily living.” They didn’t seem particularly interested in that form of daily living that has become the norm in this country. It is, in fact, that very form of daily living that this movement seems to me to be challenging.

Is their core method a conscious choice on anyone’s part? Whether or not it is, the result is confusion for many. I was confused enough to not see their vision until I was there. Having been there, I now know why I didn’t see it. The vision is not being articulated, it is only lived, as best the occupiers know how. The action is broad enough, and the articulation is sparse enough that many of us can interpret the actions as manifestations of a vision we have. Indeed, many, including myself, have done so. I can certainly see what is happening as an example and precursor to the vision of a world based on caring for human needs. Some are also urging the movement to follow specific strategies, to articulate certain demands, to go for certain goals.

The lack of clarity about the difference between demands and vision continues. I am still wishing that some vision, or many visions, were articulated even in the absence of demands. I still suspect that many would find it hard to express the positive vision they are trying to live. I imagine that were they to do so, perhaps more people would grasp what they are trying to do and be inspired, because vision tends to attract people. No accident that one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous speeches was about dreaming. That being said, I don’t know what is true. My humility grows daily about this movement.

There is also a way in which talking about “a movement” is misleading. Yes, there is a tremendous amount of thought and care that’s being put into coordination, logistics, and all other aspects of continuing this massive experiment. And yet much of what happens, including actual protest actions that are taking place alongside and within this attempt to step outside the norms of living, happens through people taking spontaneous, autonomous steps.

What is most striking to me of all is how much I don’t know. I don’t know if anyone, anywhere, has the capacity to predict what could happen as a result of this new form of action. This movement has outgrown our capacity to categorize, analyze, and predict. It’s already bigger than anyone’s decision making capacity. No one can tell the people on the street what to do. I feel a slight bit of discomfort, and a whole lot of curiosity and interest in accompanying this surge. In this moment, more than anything, I see this movement as part of a large wakeup call that life is issuing to itself.

The group of people that took possession of the Frank Ogawa Plaza in Oakland are creating a small scale experiment in living without relying on large institutions. Anyone can join, anyone can contribute, anyone can challenge, and anyone can talk. Why would that ever want to stop?

Stay tuned for more Notes from OccupyOakland. Since writing this piece I have been to OccupyOakland once more. I attended a meeting of the newly created Nonviolence Caucus (meets daily as of October 18th, an hour before the General Assembly, by the kids’ play area) and participated in the General Assembly meeting. I plan on posting my impressions of these conversations in the next couple of days.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Beyond the Limits of Empathy

by Miki Kashtan

Can empathy serve as a reliable guide to action? David Brooks, in his recent article “The Limits of Empathy,” suggests that empathy is no guarantee that caring action will take place. Participants in Milgram’s famous 1950s experiments willingly inflicted what they thought were near-lethal electric shocks despite suffering tremendously. Nazi executors early in the war wept while killing Jews. And yet those strong feelings didn’t stop them. Why does this happen?

Empathy, Shame, and Fear
I have been haunted for years by this great puzzle, reading, thinking, and writing about it. Brooks suggests that “People who actually perform pro-social action don’t only feel for those who are suffering, they feel compelled to act by a sense of duty. Their lives are structured by sacred codes.” My investigations lead me to think that “a sense of duty” is part of the problem, not the solution. A sense of duty usually gets instilled in us through fear and shame, leading us to act based on external considerations while doubting our own intuitive heart response. Who of us won’t remember times when despite being moved to do something caring we didn’t because of fear? Jason Marsh, in his response to Brooks, retells the story of Samuel and Pearl Oliner’s research findings about the empathic values on which rescuers - people who saved Jews during the Holocaust - were raised. The Oliners also point out that rescuers tended to be raised with little punishment. When there is no punishment, there is less shame and fear, and more willingness and capacity to honor our empathic inclinations.

Overriding Empathy
I carry with me, with some tenderness and horror, the story of a man I know who, at 7, delightedly told his science teacher that he had captured a special insect. His teacher asked him to put the insect in alcohol and bring it to school. The insect, meanwhile, had other designs. Struggling for its life, it repeatedly attempted to climb out of the alcohol, and succeeded in doing so several times before it was finally drowned. All this time the child was shaking as he struggled to overcome his aversion to inflicting further damage on the insect. In the name of contributing to science and obeying his teacher, he set his feelings aside. As an adult, he said: "I never questioned my actions, only my feelings."

Being from Israel, I wanted to understand this dilemma in the context of the treatment of Palestinians by Israeli Jewish soldiers. Director Ido Sela, in his gripping 1993 documentary Testimonies (a short version of which is available on youtube), interviewed soldiers who shot Palestinians, subjected them to prolonged physical torture, or killed them during the first Intifada. They spoke of the same difficulty. Despite a felt sense of trauma from having inflicted harm on others they continued to do so. The most common reasons that allowed them to ignore, overcome, or numb out their empathic responses to the people they harmed were fear of consequences to them; doing what they were told to do; or believing it was the right thing to do. Only one person described an incident when he likened his own daughter to the children he was facing, and stopped short of harming them.

Writer David Grossman, a Lt. Colonel in the US Army, studied extensively what makes people overcome the natural aversion to killing that was discovered after World War I. In On Killing, he demonstrates repeatedly that US Army training focused on reducing access to empathic response by numbing and desensitizing trainees, thereby increasing the shooting rate from 10-20% in earlier wars to 80 and 90% in later wars. The cost, he warns us, is unprecedented massive trauma to war veterans as well as to the nation that sent them to war.

Trusting Human Nature
If we believe that humans are fundamentally evil and unruly, or at best plain old selfish, a view which still underlies most of the institutions we have in place, we will naturally want to control, shame, and punish our children into being “good” and insist on obedience to a strong code of behavior, thereby prolonging human suffering on this planet. As more and more of us trust our children and our own humanity, we will engage empathically enough with children and adults, allowing all of us to find and act on our own empathy without fear. I long to live to see that day.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Bringing the Salt March to Wall Street

by Miki Kashtan
In a few days the Occupy Wall Street movement arrives in my town, Oakland, and I am thinking a lot about what I want to do. As I reflect on what’s been happening in the last number of weeks, I feel quite uplifted and so, so relieved. For months I was watching with growing discomfort the absence of action in the US while nonviolent resistance was spreading like wildfire to more and more countries. Now, finally, the movement is spreading in this country which I have made my home since 1983. City after city now has its own occupy location, with a similar spirit in many of them. I am quite sure I am not alone in holding tremendous curiosity to see how things will unfold, and some hope that perhaps some shift could result, even a fundamental systemic change.

At the same time, I feel quite a bit of unease. Nonviolence, for me, is far from being simply the absence of overt physical violence. Nonviolence is a positive approach that requires tremendous courage. Nonviolence, if I listen carefully to Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., rests on a deep love of all humans, including the ones the struggle and the resistance are mounted to topple. Nonviolence at its source emerges from clear vision, and is dramatically different from a purely oppositional movement. When Gandhi orchestrated the Salt March, he was at one and the same time violating the law as well as demonstrating with his actions the world he wanted to create. The same was true of the actions of young people during the Civil Rights Movement. A picket line outside segregated restaurants would have been pure protest. Boycotting the restaurants and blocking people from entering them would have been a disruption of business as usual. Actually sitting at the lunch counters, blacks and whites together, was what Sharif Abdullah calls “vision implementation.” Just like the Salt March, these actions were already part of the world being created, the transformation already taking place.

Mobilizing Popular Support through a Compelling Vision

In what I hear about the Occupy Wall Street movement I see a lot of creativity and sophistication in the form of organization, a willingness to keep learning and adapting, including in response to critiques from people of color, and quite a bit of tenacity and resilience. I can’t imagine a movement succeeding without these qualities. I repeat again: I am delighted that this mobilization is happening, and rooting for its success. At the same time, many of the statements I have seen contain “us/them” statements, and I know much more about what organizers and participants don’t want than about what they do want. Where is the loving vision that’s going to win over people? Where are the clear goals that can galvanize mass popular support for the movement?

According to scholars Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, in their recently published Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, which draws on research covering over 300 violent and nonviolent campaigns, the key to a successful nonviolent campaign is the ability “to recruit a robust, diverse, and broad-based membership that can erode the power base of the adversary and maintain resilience in the face of opposition.”

I have some wild hope that there can be a way for the many who gather and those who support them to articulate an inspiring vision. This is not about making demands. The people on the street as well as the organizers have been deliberately shying away from articulating demands (see Richard Eskow’ article on this point for an understanding of why this may be so). However, not having demands doesn’t mean not having a vision. If we don’t want corporate profit to rule the day, what is it that we want instead? I know what it is for me: A call to create structures and systems that put human needs at the center. What can it be for an entire movement that prides itself on self-organizing? How can a vision be articulated within such a movement? Which of us will go and attend the meetings to support that in happening?

Mass popular support will also require finding a way to address the profound divides that continue to cut through US society. I see this possibility as resting on having conversations across many divides - political, racial, and social. The kinds of conversations that have rarely happened; that seek to transcend rather than entrench the polarities; that aim to find the shared human needs and dreams that give rise to such opposing views and experiences. Combining a simple and clear vision with the capacity to engage lovingly with others may be key to the movement’s ability to gain the consistent support of many more people.

Creative Imagination and Nonviolence
A third and last element that I would like to see is the capacity to mount multiple forms of actions beyond the current gatherings. With mass popular support and clear goals, what other steps could be taken that may increase the pressure and begin to undermine the sources of support of the existing institutions that the movement seeks to destabilize? Beyond pure protest, what actions could the movement generate that would demonstrate the vision? What would be the Salt March of this movement?

I want to imagine for a moment what might happen if the vision indeed rests on honoring human needs. If so, what actions could a mass popular movement generate that both disrupt the control of corporations as well as provide for basic human needs? One of the key elements of Gandhi’s campaign is what he called Constructive Program. The centerpiece of his program was spinning, which both materially and symbolically freed Indians from relying on the British Empire for their clothing. A similar approach was taken by the Black Panthers who operated many parallel institutions to the state, a move designed to empower and free people. If freedom from the rule of corporations and basic human needs were the goal of the Occupy Wall Street movement, what could masses of people do that would directly attend to human needs?

Before any specific action is contemplated, I want to emphasize that it’s critical that whatever the action, it has to be taken by a sufficiently large number of people so that they're less vulnerable to possible consequences and repression.

What if masses of people took possession of goods produced by corporations and distributed them to those in need? What if large groups of people appropriated structures and buildings so that homeless people, including those created through the recent ongoing foreclosures, would have a place to live? What if a million people stopped paying taxes and invested that money in sustainable technologies or permaculture? Would such actions be the equivalent of the Salt March or the lunch counters? And what would be today’s equivalent of the spinning? Gandhi insisted that anyone who joined his movement would commit to spinning for 30 minutes a day. What if we all committed to 30 minutes a day of taking action, individually, in groups, and in communities, that would free us from the rule of large institutions in the areas of food, shelter, clothing, health, and education - the most basic of human needs? Can you imagine how much energy a movement could generate if every day masses of people engaged in popular education, grew and made food from scratch, learned again how to make home-based medicines, and supported each other in all these areas? I have more questions than answers, because I am only one person. I hope you join me - in responses to this post, in conversations with others, and in the general assemblies of the various occupations.

Despite immense material benefit for some at the expense of others, I don’t believe that the current social order truly works for anyone. Let us march together towards the radically simple goal that Sharif Abdullah envisioned: a world that works for all.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Musings on Choice and Children

by Miki Kashtan

When I was twelve my family moved from Israel to Mexico for two years. This decision happened immediately following the first year in my young life, and one of the only times in my life overall, that I had a sense of belonging and acceptance in a group of peers. The decision was made by my parents without consulting with any of us: my seventeen-year-old sister, myself, or my younger sister who was then five. More than that: it was made against my vociferous opposition, which was so strong that I was semi-seriously contemplating jumping off the ship and swimming back to Israel.

Not only did my parents have the legal right to take me against my will. That right is enshrined in millennia of social norm. Would I have wanted my parents not to go to Mexico because I didn’t want to go? Not exactly. I would have wanted them to be open to considering not going as a possible outcome once all the needs were on the table. More than anything, I would have wanted them to hear and appreciate the horrible loss I was about to incur, to hear my plight and hold my needs alongside theirs. I would have wanted them to let me know, in full, their needs, their struggles, and their perspective that would lead them to want to go. I would have wanted to be invited into joint holding of all the needs and making the decision together. The experience of having no choice and no say in our lives, endemic and pervasive in almost all children’s lives, many women’s lives, still, around the world, and other groups with little access to resources is acutely painful and traumatic. I wish it on no one, not even people who have done acts of horror against others, and certainly not so many of us on a daily basis.
Giving Children Voice
In reading the above, a friend who is in the process of going back with her family to live in another country was deeply affected and decided to engage in dialogue with her eight-year-old about the decision. Let’s call them Janey and Sam. When she first brought up the topic of going back there, they started to tell her all the things they liked and didn’t like about their experience there. Then she had the following dialogue with Sam:
Janey: After thinking about all of that, would you be willing to go back?
Sam: Do I have a choice?
Janey: If you really didn’t want to go, and since I really do want to go, it might be hard to figure out what to do.
Sam: (after some more conversation): Sure, I'll go.
Janey: (some time later): What if I told you that you and your brother could make the decision about whether we go or not--whatever you say, we'll do. What would you say then?
Sam: I would say yes to going.
Janey: Why?
Sam: Because you're giving me a choice and I don't like to be told what to do.
Children, like the rest of us human beings, want to be able to participate in decisions that affect them. Yes, we tell ourselves that they can’t, they don’t know enough, they can’t be trusted. The very same kinds of arguments that were used in the past to justify denying choice to women, or to blacks, or other groups. Although we are far from full participation of any such group, as I painfully know as a woman, the established norm is one of equal rights under the law. When it comes to children, however, there isn’t even a lip service commitment to equality. Children are still fully “owned” by their parents, and it’s acceptable and customary to restrict their movement, punish them at will, including physically, and make decisions that affect them dramatically without consulting with them first. The only group of humans still held in this way.
This is an extremely tall order. How can any parent in our society, even if they wholeheartedly embrace the full participation of their children, find enough inner capacity to navigate it all and in addition learn how to do it in partnership with children? If we are to create a world in which children experience choice, we would need to restructure life in major ways so that the responsibility doesn’t fall only on the one or two parents to respond to the needs of their children. I think about this a lot, and anticipate coming back to write about this topic more.
Choice and Options

Except in contexts where parents can physically force younger ones to go somewhere, most of the daily experience of life revolves more around attempting to control children’s behavior. Often I hear parents talk about giving or not giving their children choice in certain matters. Just today, for example, at a training I did, I heard one woman talk about her struggle with her 15-year-old who, in her words, “has to be home by 4pm” and who hasn’t been home by 4pm on most days in the last month. This young man was clearly exercising choice every day: the simple choice of whether or not to do what his mother said he “had” to do. It is completely within his power to make the choice not to come home by 4pm, as he has demonstrated repeatedly.
There is nothing anyone can do to take away or give choice to another. Even when physically forced, we still have inner choice in how we respond to a situation. Even when a parent tells a child to go to their room, the child is still choosing whether or not to do so. The power to “make” the child do anything does not exist except when the parent can exercise physical force of some kind.
Do parents have power in relation to their children’s choices? Absolutely! They have the power to restrict their children’s access to resources, and in this way limit their options. They also have another power that is at the heart of why it appears that we can make children, or other people, do what we want: parents have the power to deliver consequences for their children’s actions, backed up by legal and societal norms for doing so. This is no small matter, and every child knows that.
The question I am left with is not whether or not we give children choice. They have it. The question for me is what we can do to support them in making choices that will nourish their lives and their ability to be thoughtful, active, caring participants in life, now and for the rest of their living days. I doubt that having them make choices based on fear of punishment is going to give them the inner strength and clarity of purpose necessary for making wise choices. I have faith in human beings, and I fiercely believe that showing children care and interest in their needs, and presenting clearly what parents need, is a breeding ground of empathic and courageous human beings who can make choices based on their deepest understanding of their own and others’ needs.