I spoke this piece at a recorded webinar put on by the Foundation for Intentional Community in mid-February. The whole two hour webinar was pretty good. I began speaking my piece at the 45:19 mark. I’ve adapted it a bit for publication in GEO.
I have put 40 years into building and sustaining an urban intentional community of substantial size—the Ganas Community in Staten Island, NY. We began with seven, reached 100 in the 90s, and settled in at around 65 ever since. I have also studied collective action groups out in the regular world, especially worker co-operatives and solidarity economic groups.
So, do I have anything useful to pass on? I think so. At least a couple.
For me there is one lesson that stands out above all others in starting a community or collective action group: the group that starts and sustains the project has to learn how to talk to each other about the problems they have with each other.
Talking with each other about such problems will be the #1 challenge you will have in starting your group, in running your group, and in sustaining your group.
It will be the alpha and omega of your effort.
It is the #1 challenge of all collective action groups. And it is very difficult and never-ending.
It's easy to say what is necessary to make this kind of communication work well. I will summarize that in terms of two things. And I can tell you that here at Ganas the central group is into its 40th year of learning them:
- Learning to want to hear and understand the other, especially when there is a conflict.
- Learning to be willing to disclose what is happening for you and what you want, especially in the context of a difficult problem.
The first one requires setting aside your conviction of how right you are. You will always have that conviction, and it will probably be the major obstacle to all of your learning. In addition, it’s usually a pain in everyone else’s ass.
The second one means to be willing to take the risks involved in moving into your vulnerability. We are all afraid to do that.
Why are these two things so difficult to do, you might ask? (Or, maybe you don’t need to ask.) Since we don’t have 6-12 months to address that question, let me just say this:
All of us start out being in deep conflict between our self-centeredness and our cooperativeness. We are always both. That is the nature of being a human being. In addition, Evolution clearly points out that a small group is the easiest place for self-centered behavior to thrive.
And then there is the blame game. Just think of the mutual blaming that happens when someone feels hurt by another. The impulse to attack and the impulse to defend trigger each other almost instantly. It’s the most effective way to defeat problem-solving.
Or, there is the virtually unsolvable problem of people not doing what they say they are going to do. Or, at least, what I think they should be doing. It is so easy not to see the trouble I made.
Okay. That’s the hard side.
Let me close on two positive notes.
First, there is a very reliable framework for a group to use in dealing with a collective problem—and you will find out that almost all relational problems in a community will have collective impact.
At Ganas we call it Compassionate Inquiry. To solve this kind of a problem you need to know what the problem is. Know that the blame-and-defend game almost always lacks critical information.
Here are two questions to get a Compassionate Inquiry up and running:
- What is happening?
- What is wanted?
The first question seeks for everyone involved to share what they know and find out as much as possible as to what is going on. This can take a long time, much persistence, and lots of compassion. After all, who gets excited about speaking truth to one’s partners, or much less receiving it? Remember the first two things:
Learning to want to hear and understand the other, especially when there is a conflict.
Learning to be willing to disclose what is happening for you and what you want, especially in the context of a difficult problem.
So beware of the blame game. These two questions are designed to help everyone move out of blaming and into wanting to hear and willing to disclose.
When these two questions begin to get everyone focused on a win-win outcome, your group will begin to hum with positive energy. There will be more willingness for YES and less for NO. If this dynamic continues, the discussion will naturally begin to move to the third question:
- What options are there for solving our problem?
When the discussion takes that turn, it will be due to two events: many are now well informed, and cooperation has begun to reign.
My second positive note is a profound appreciation for what you are considering to take on. Collective action is a primary driver of human evolution. Here in the 2020s we are in a constellation of crises that are transforming our world. Our capacity for small group collective action is too under-developed to rise adequately to the occasion. You are on the front lines.
There is something special about small groups. They were the only social environment for almost all of our 2,000,000 year evolutionary history. Like the cells of our bodies, they need to remain the building blocks of modern large-scale societies. That is, your venture isn’t just about your community or group. And collective action groups are not just about their movement. In the words of the great anthropologist Margaret Meade,
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed individuals can change the world. In fact, it's the only thing that ever has.
That’s what your venture will be about.