It was apparent that the community meetings often provided a forum for aggression and argument. The meetings were often ill-prepared and participants did not have an overview of the topics discussed. Issues were often presented by one person and then another would chip in and tell a very different story. People would often bring items for the agenda and not follow them up. People would often bring issues in an emotional way and participants would also often react very emotionally. There was a core group of people attending meetings with a few who often dominated the meetings. There was a large group of people almost never attending meetings for various reasons, including fear of aggression both verbal and physical, a feeling of not being listened to or a despair at how the meetings function. I had heard many horror stories of community meetings. I had also heard that the meetings had improved a great deal since the founding years. I heard that about five years ago there was a particular structure to the meetings separating out functions, ie there was a business meeting, a social meeting and a study meeting.
Personally, I was committed to attending the weekly meetings, but was very nervous when I wanted to speak. I often observed an issue being brought and did not understand the background to it or the main point or question. I observed how some people dominated the meeting. I also noticed the chairs were often challenged and visibly nervous. I had experience of different meeting techniques and was surprised at the format of these meetings in terms of the chair having to keep order, lack of decisions being made, lack of consensus and lack of principles of behaviour and communication.
I asked the community meeting mandate holder if I could engage in any way with the management of the community meeting and she suggested I should join the Chair Group, a group of community members who chair the community meeting. They meet up infrequently to discuss chairing. I attended one of their meetings. Here I listened to how they discussed particular community meetings and how they had gone and one of the members was going to withdraw from chairing. There were different philosophies of how to chair, not agreed upon. At this meeting, I proposed to carry out a review of the community meeting, which was agreed on. I informed the community of this review process through the bulletin and invited people to join in designing the review. In the end I worked with two community members: the current community meeting mandate holder and an elder in the community and community life. We designed the sessions together. After each session we reviewed the last and designed with the previous session in mind.
The design process
This design was collaborative involving a small design group with no permaculture background and then widening out to invite all adult members of Hoathly Hill Community to review, renew and cocreate their meeting space. The ethics of people care and fair share featured heavily in that the main aims of the process was to create a safe and participatory space for community members to review the community meeting together.
I used the design principles I developed for community design work based on Holmgren’s design principles.
The main permaculture principles were:
- observe and interact: as in all design work, observation and interaction based on long-term, continuous, careful observation as key, indeed the community life pathway is designed around the first step being a review process for all community members, followed by creating a supportive environment for new initiatives
- catch and store energy: in this case working together in a design group with the current community meeting mandate holder together with an elder of the community to capture their experience and skills in community meeting spaces
- obtain a yield: after observing that the yield of the community meeting was often negative, to explore the kind of yields we would like to have from the community meeting and designing the review process and community meetings with that in mind
- apply self-regulation and accept feedback: by initiating a review process the community meeting mandate had the opportunity to harvest feedback from the community regarding the community meeting; having three phases to the review process and working with the feedback, incorporating it into the design of the next session
- use & value renewable resources & produce no waste: recording and disseminating everyone’s contributions to the review process; using recycled and natural materials in the review sessions, such as recycled flipchart paper and wax crayons
- design from pattern to details: the small group leading the review process met to identify themes in the feedback as well as attempted to draw out a vision for the community meeting space from community members
- integrate rather than segregate: much attention was given to facilitate the participation of all community members, ie in creating a safe space, three different meeting dates, participatory meeting process
- small and slow solutions: the pace was set by the community members and the initial phase of reviewing and visioning slow
- use and value diversity and use edge and value the marginal: the participatory nature of the review process aimed to ensure all community members had a voice and space was given for new ideas
- creatively use and respond to change: in initiating a review process the question of change arose as a possibility, reactions towards the change need to be worked with, how to transition towards a vision also needed designing.
The review sessions
- first review meeting: sharing our observations and analysis of the community
- second review meeting: visioning the community meeting
- third review meeting: moving towards action
New ways of working
After the review process, the action groups met to work on their themes: structure of the meetings, principles of how we work together, childrens’ meetings. I worked in the structure group, while continuing to work with the current mandate holder and chair group. I began chairing community meetings. And when the community meeting mandate holder decided to pass on the mandate after several years, I took over the mandate. This led on to further design projects in the second phase of the community life pathway, such as:
- community meeting mandate group: guidelines for working and learning together
- creating guidelines for chairing/facilitating community meetings
- creating guidelines for different types of meeting, ie review meetings, decision-making meetings
In 2013 I undertook facilitation training as follows:
- Facilitation Training with TalkAction, May
- Effective Collaboration with Nick Osborne and Transition Network, June
- Introduction to Holacracy with Agile Organisation, June
- Action Learning Set Facilitator Training with 3d Coaching, July
What went well?
- working with the current mandate holder and a long-term community member experienced in community processes
- exploring the anthroposophical approach
- support and trust given by community members for the process
- getting a fuller picture of the community
- people coming who don’t normally come to the meetings
- working with different meeting processes: flipchart carousel, small groups, go-rounds, social movement exercises, drawing, open space, action planning
- open and honest process
- forming action groups
- implementing proposals from the review process
- increased ownership of the community meeting and trust building
- emphasis on a safe space to meet
What was challenging?
- negative views about value of the process and/or possibility of change
- negative feedback behind closed doors
- the dynamic in and between the groups of people who come regularly to the meeting and those who don’t
- high-input of energy
- the process of agreeing principles of how we meet (code of behaviour/ground rules)
- maintaining the enthusiasm for the process and proposals in the community
What is the long-term vision?
- to cocreate a meeting space in which all can speak and are heard and we can work efficiently and positively together
What are the next steps?
- to work as a group for the community meeting mandate
- to gain and share facilitiation skills