Insights about facilitation from the very challenging General Assembly process at Occupy Melbourne. This article will be of interest to facilitators and others learning about group process, as well as people keen to find out about the Occupy movement. These reflections were written two weeks after Occupy Melbourne kicked off in October 2011.
On the 15th October 2011, as part of a global day of action in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Melbourne started at City Square. People gathered, working groups met, workshops were held, information stalls, a library, and a functioning kitchen were set up. Multiple tents went up and estimates of 100 – 150 people camped out. Less than a week later, under the direction of the Lord Mayor, police moved in and ‘evicted’ the occupiers.
Of course, that’s not the end of it. Occupy Melbourne, like similar occupations around the world, continues. The form of the actual ‘occupation’ changes, but a commitment to direct democracy is constant.
Many people are having their first taste of direct democracy and ‘consensus building’ through the General Assembly at Occupy Melbourne. People completely new to facilitation are stepping up to try it out. Experienced facilitators are being challenged by a different process, large groups, and a fair amount of chaos! A lot of learning is going on, in a dynamic and at times very difficult context.
I’ve been a part of the facilitation team at two general assemblies, observed others, attended some facilitation working groups, shared my thoughts on the email list, and recently ran a facilitation training for ten folks involved in Occupy Melbourne. Here are some notes on what I think contributes to effective facilitation at general assembly meetings.
For a gathering to go well we need to be clear on its purpose. The purpose of the Occupy Melbourne General Assembly is to:
- Share information relevant to the functioning of Occupy Melbourne
- Make decisions relevant to the functioning of Occupy Melbourne
- Build the group – bringing together people involved in Occupy Melbourne
The General Assembly is not the only forum to address these purposes. For example:
- Information is shared on the website, Facebook, Twitter, in smaller groups, by word of mouth etc
- Many day-to-day and smaller scale decisions are made at the working group level.
- All sorts of activities are contributing to ‘building the group’ – such as actions, workshops, music, and social networking.
It is significant that the General Assembly is the time when everybody comes together to focus on Occupy Melbourne. This makes the time precious and also pressured. A lot of people want to get a lot out of the General Assembly, and the facilitation team needs to work hard to juggle those demands.
What participants are looking for
However clear the facilitation team may be about the purpose of the General Assembly, individuals rock up with their own expectations and needs. These may include wanting to:
- Find out what’s going on – what’s this all about?
- Get involved – how do I plug into this thing?
- Be heard – hey everyone, listen to my political perspective/pet peeve/emotional expression/confusion/questions… right now!
- Connect, make friends, get to know each other.
- Push a political agenda and gain support for particular campaigns and groups.
- Sabotage or undermine the process for political or personal reasons.
- Feel a part of something big and exciting.
- Introducing the purpose and process of the General Assembly at the beginning of the meeting. What the General Assembly is, and isn’t.
- Providing a range of ways for people to be heard and ask questions at Occupy Melbourne such as talking in pairs or small groups during the Assembly; participating in and running workshops; joining working groups; feeding in to online discussions; addressing people through a speakers corner for ‘soapboxing’.
- Having clear information about Occupy Melbourne available on the website, info desk, as wells as signs, agendas and programmes of activities.
- Involving experienced people as contact points and ‘welcoming committee’ for new people, to explain process and give people background on discussions.
- Setting up shared experiences which aren’t too daunting but break the ice – like chants, songs, jokes, and structured introductory activities.
Building a container
Training for Change, US activist educators, talk about the need to have a strong ‘container’ in order to have a well functioning group where people can take risks and engage in rigorous group work. A container is strengthened by building relationships in the group, providing opportunities for people to show themselves (disclosing at their own pace), and having the safety net of a well structured workshop or meeting.
container: a word for the degree of safety the participants are experiencing. A workshop starts with a weak container – not much safety – so participants are concerned about how others see them and have less attention for learning. The stronger the container, the more participants become authentic and take risks to learn. From the Training for Change glossary.
It would be hard to find a more challenging context for building a group’s container than a General Assembly! So far they’ve been held in City Square, outside the library, from the back of a truck in Lygon St – all with significant background noise, people coming and going, a constantly changing group with different levels of involvement and understanding of the process, rain, acoustic problems with megaphones, time pressures, with police looking on!
Given these challenges, what are some things facilitators and participants can do to build the container at Occupy Melbourne?
- Open with intent. The General Assembly is a particular experience with expectations of a particular kind of participation. Starting clearly, getting people focused, is key. Opening can be ritualised – for example gathering everyone with a song or a chant, making space for Acknowledgement of Country, starting with the description of the purpose and process of the General Assembly.
- Have a clear agenda. Knowing what’s going on, when, helps folks relax and settle in to the meeting. Preferably this should be displayed visually such as on a whiteboard.
- Structure the space. Gather participants in to a defined area, have ‘corridors’ for easy movement, set the facilitation team up where they can be seen well.
- Allow people to get a sense of who else is there. This can be as simple as asking people to raise their hands in response to some questions eg: ‘Raise your hand if this is your first General Assembly’ (very useful information!); ‘Raise your hand if you camped at City Square’; ‘Raise your hand if you were present at the eviction’, etc.
- Encourage people to meet each other. For example while the group is gathering you could invite people to talk with someone they haven’t spoken to before, and share what drew them to be involved in Occupy Melbourne.
- Know the limits of the Assembly. Recognise that the General Assembly is not going to have the container to handle some stuff. Smaller groups with stronger containers may need to hash out the details and handle more conflict.
- Just keep building. Recognise that the container is often built outside the Assembly – through deep and meaningful conversations in the kitchen at 10pm, through ‘a-ha!’ moments in workshops, through buddy relationships forged in the face of police violence.
Sharing the facilitation role
A General Assembly is typically a large gathering with a lot going on. It would be impossible for one individual to hold the whole facilitation role. At General Assemblies the facilitation team is made up of:
- Moderator – the visible facilitator of the Assembly, who welcomes people, leads the group through the agenda, restates proposals after speakers, checks for consensus etc.
- Moderator Support – supports the moderator, shields them from distractions, helps them synthesis proposals and keep the process on track.
- Participants Team – interacts with participants in the Assembly, taking proposals and speakers for and against, and feeding these back to the coordinator.
- Coordinator – the intermediary between the participants’ team and the moderator support person, ordering proposals consistent with the agenda, and selecting speakers for and against proposals.
This splitting of the role means that each person gets to focus on their aspect of the process – but also means that clear communication between roles is essential. Folks making up the facilitation team need to know each other in advance – through participating in the facilitation working group, and talking through the roles together. It helps if people who are stepping in to a role for the first time are able to talk with people who have done it before. Practising through a realistic role-play helps.
There has been some pressure from participants to vary who makes up the facilitation team. This is useful for skillsharing and making different people visible, but it should also be noted that it tends to take some practice to get into the rhythm of each role and the overall process, and having experienced members of the facilitation team is beneficial to the whole Assembly.
Setting the tone and modelling norms
The Moderator, as the most visible member of the facilitation team and constant presence throughout the Assembly, plays an important role in setting the tone for the Assembly. What does this mean?
- A relaxed, calm Moderator communicates to the group that things are ok and on track, when people may be tense or anxious.
- Working towards consensus can be hard work, and some participants will question the process when it doesn’t deliver quick results, or when they have a political opposition to the process itself. It’s the role of the Moderator to communicate a belief in the process and the capacity of the group to navigate it and come up with good decisions. Using humour and providing the occasional pep talk or motivational comment can help the group hang in there.
- If the Moderator swears a lot or talks aggressively participants will see that as permission to do the same. The Moderator through their behaviour and attitude models norms of the General Assembly.
The other members of the facilitation team also need to model the norms of the gathering – sticking to the process, being respectful, staying calm. Inconsistencies between different roles in the team will confuse people, create frustration, and potentially lead people to view the team as biased.
Being present means being focused in the here and now – not thinking too far ahead, and not being side-tracked or knocked off balance by something that happened in the past.
When all around seems to be chaos how do we stay grounded as facilitators?
- Be solid in yourself. Putting yourself out there in front of a large groups requires self-confidence and healthy self-esteem. If you’re feeling brittle it’s probably not the best day to get up in front of everyone with a megaphone.
- Follow a clear Agenda – so you know what’s coming up and you don’t have to figure everything out on the run.
- Remember other people have your back. The Moderator Support role is there for the Moderator to check in with, check their judgement with, and be reassured by. It helps if this person has experience as part of the facilitation team at other Assemblies and knows the process well. As Moderator you should pick someone for the support role who you have good rapport with, and trust.
- Reduce distractions. The broader facilitator team should be shielding the Moderator from direct contact with participants, so you can stay focused. It helps to make this clear in the introduction to process – if you wish to speak, don’t approach me directly, please talk to a member of the participant team.
- Take a moment. If your mind is racing, slow things down so it can catch up. Speak more slowly, add some pauses, if necessary let people know you’re going to take a moment to confer with others in the facilitation team.
- Breathe. Essential! Breathing deeply calms you and stops your voice quavering.
- Keep perspective. Take it seriously – but don’t take it, or yourself, too seriously. In the middle of it all it can feel incredibly crucial, but the future of the world doesn’t hinge on one meeting. If the group can’t get to consensus, then they can’t – maybe they will tomorrow – or maybe the issue just isn’t compelling enough.
- Ground yourself. Starhawk has a guided process for grounding and centring for activists which looks like a good practice for actions – but also preparing to facilitate. ‘Grounding is a technique that can help us stay both alert and relaxed when all hell is breaking loose around us.’
Facilitation and Authority
When we stand up in front of a group of people to facilitate we can push people’s buttons around authority. Before we even open our mouths we can become the magnet for various feelings and projections, reminding people of experiences from their past with authority figures such as parents, teachers, or politicians. The likelihood that you may be viewed negatively increases in a crowd where a large proportion of people have anti-authoritarian politics.
How do we deal with this?
- Don’t take it personally, it’s about the role you’re in.
- Be clear about your role and the process you are facilitating.
- Don’t let it be all about you. You’re there to facilitate a group process, to help the group get done what it needs to get done. Don’t frame things in terms of helping you, pleasing you, or disappointing you.
- Reflect on your own experiences of authority, and how this might show up in your facilitation.
- Be consistent, transparent and accountable to the group.
The process used at Occupy Melbourne has gone through minor revisions since the first General Assembly, and this will continue to happen. The current Assembly process isn’t the only one available to these kinds of large gatherings. One great example which is widespread in nonviolent direct action mobilisations, and has been honed by the climate movement in recent years, is the spokescouncil.
Social movement practices are constantly evolving and responding to the political moment. The Occupy movement was an exciting time for people engaged in building social movements and promoting democratic group process. Future movement peaks will surely yield further innovation.