The Illusion of Technique

OST_meetingAn OST Meeting

Community: The Structure of Belonging

By Peter Brock

Berret-Koehler Publishers, Inc (2008)

Book Review – Part II

By focusing on six essential “conversations,”* Brock is extremely prescriptive in his approach to forming groups. He seems to believe this artificial structure is necessary to keep the group from replicating patriarchal patterns in broader society. Based on 33+ years of grassroots organizing, I disagree. Provided they are properly facilitated, I have a lot of confidence in the ability of small groups to evolve spontaneously without replicating what happens in a corporate boardroom. I’m also extremely fed up with liberal academics and their obsession with technique.

In my mind, the artificial structure Brock imposes is counterproductive. Despite claiming to erase artificial distinctions between group leaders and members, he does the exact opposite. He gives group leaders immense power by setting up an expectation they will pose questions and members will answer them. I also see a risk – given the intrusive nature of the questions – that the community group will become a therapy group.

He justifies the need for a “possibility conversation” to prevent groups from focusing on about problems and complaints – which he feels causes them to behave like corporate boards and start setting up visions, goals and targets. Based on 30+ years of organizing of experience, I can guarantee this behavior isn’t automatic – not if there are working class people in the room.

He argues that the “ownership conversation” is designed to keep the group conversation focused inside the room. He maintains too many community groups focus on issues and people outside the room, which he claims are beyond beyond their control.

Again I strongly disagree. Most of the community groups I’ve worked with have (very successfully) focused on external problems, such as blocking the construction of an LNG (liquid national gas) terminal at Port Taranaki and forcing our local council to remove the fluoride from our drinking water. As far as I’m concerned, Brock’s “ownership conversation” is just a new twist on neoconservative ideological propaganda linking “rights” with “responsibilities” and “freedom” with “accountability.” In my view, the only way to win rights and freedom is by fighting for them – all the media hype linking rights and freedom to responsibility and accountability is designed to conceal this reality.

Personally, I much prefer Open Space Technology (OST), an older more established approach to creating self-organized groups. In OST, the facilitator’s role is strictly limited to a type of facilitation in which they “hold a space” for participants to self-organize, rather than managing or directing the conversations.**

I have to give Brock credit for using the “dissent conversation” to circumvent the strong tendency of self-organized groups to punish dissent. Despite some strong reservations about the intrusive nature of some of the questions, I feel the “dissent conversation” is the most valuable aspect of his approach. This has always been one of the main drawback of OST: its tendency to reward consensus and punish dissent.

*Brock’s six conversations include the “invitation” and the possibility, ownership, dissent, commitment and gift conversations. Each of the five conversations is presented as a series of questions.

1. The invitation names the possibility (eg The Possibility of a Safe Cincinnati) which is the reason for convening the group. It deliberately refrains from advocating for a particular issue or viewpoint and tries to bring people into the same room that don’t normally associate together.

2. The possibility conversation asks the following questions

  • What is the crossroads where you find yourself at this stage of your life or work or in the project around which we are assembled?
  • What declaration of possibility can you make that has the power to transform the community and inspire you?

3. The ownership conversation asks:

  • •How valuable an experience (or project or community) do you plan for this to be?
  • How much risk are you willing to take?
  • How much do you plan to participate?
  • To what extent are you invested of the well-being of the whole?
  • What I have I done to contribute to the very thing I complain about or want to change.
  • What is the story about this community or organization that you hear yourself telling the most often?
  • What are the payoffs you receive from holding on to this story?
  • What is your attachment to this story costing you?

4. The dissent conversation asks

  • What doubts and reservations do you have?
  • What is the no or refusal that you keep postponing
  • What have you said yes to that you no longer mean?
  • What resentment do you hold that no one knows about?
  • What forgiveness are you withholding?

5. The commitment conversation asks

  • What promises am I willing to make?
  • What measures have meaning to me?
  • What price am I willing to pay?
  • What is the cost to others for me to keep my commitments or to fail in my commitments?
  • What is the promise I’m willing to make that constitutes a risk or major shift for me?

6. The gift conversation asks:

  • What is the gift you still hold back?
  • What is something about you that no one knows?
  • What gratitude do you hold that has gone unexpressed?
  • What have others in this room done, in this gathering, that has touched you.

**OST is similar to Brock’s approach in that 1) it starts with a broad, open invitation articulating the purpose of the meeting 2) participants sit in a circle and 3) it places heavy emphasis on small group work. However in OST members set the agenda themselves by proposing a bulletin board of issues and moving into small groups to develop these issues through further discussion.

photo credit: Askavusa Open Space Technology (follow link to learn more about OST)

How Communities Awaken


Community: The Structure of Belonging

By Peter Brock

Berret-Koehler Publishers, Inc (2008)

Book Review – Part I

“How Communities Awaken” is the title of a master class I’m taking through a local Maori social services agency. Our main textbook is Peter Brock’s Community: The Structure of Belonging. We meet every two weeks to do small group work around six “conversations” Brock prescribes as essential to transforming fragmented communities.

Peter Brock is one of a growing number of community strategists dedicated to reducing alienation and apathy by getting people more involved in their communities. In Community: the Structure of Belonging, he maintains that 1) our collective loss of power in contemporary society is a direct result of the breakdown of our communities, 2) the only way to regain this power is to restore citizen engagement in community life and 3) most groups and agencies designed to relive “political suffering” (i.e. poverty, inequality, unemployment and the multiple crises involving housing, education transportation, drug abuse, binge drinking, family violence and at-risk youth) fail because they buy into the patriarchal consumer model imposed on us by wider society.

Brock asserts that the consumer society causes most people to see themselves as passive consumers rather than engaged citizens – that this causes them to see their political and community leaders as delivering a product, with their own role limited to critiquing the product. The purpose of this book is to lay out specific strategies to lift us out of our role as passive consumers of government.

While I partially agree with premises two and three, I totally disagree with premise one. I find to hard to ignore substantial evidence that Wall Street Banksters, the Koch brothers, the Walton family (who own WalMart) and other corporate players have colluded to deliberately strip us of this power. Brock makes absolutely no mention of this. In fact, he dismisses activists who complain about “external” causes of powerlessness as playing the “blame game,” which he describes as a “delightful escape from the unbearable burden of being accountable.”*

I‘m also concerned by his glaring omission of the role the corporate public relations industry plays in constantly bombarding us with fearful, competitive, individualistic and pro-consumption messaging (see The Science of Thought Control).

In my view, this constant barrage of propaganda and disinformation – and the pernicious passivity and apathy resulting from it – is the main obstacle we face to organizing against corporate fascism. That being said, I strongly agree with Brock’s view that the only way to overcome this passivity and apathy is by re-engaging in the community groups and activities – both political and non-political – that our parents and grandparents enjoyed.

I haven’t found New Zealand that much different than the US in this regard. Although there are huge advantages to not living in a military empire (see The Sacrifices of Empire), most New Zealanders seem to be trapped in the same cycle of consumption, debt and overwork. Like Americans, they are depressed, anxious, apathetic and disengaged from community life and the political process. Voluntarism has declined steeply, particularly among young people, and a growing number of Kiwis don’t vote.**

*Turnout remains much better here than in the US. In NZ 77% is considered a poor turnout. In the US 60% is considered a good turnout.
** Brock’s equally dismissive of organized protest and “speaking truth to power,” which he belittles as a “complaint session in evening clothes.” He adds, “Any time we act in reaction, even to evil, we are giving power to what we are in reaction to.” I can agree that it’s more effective to focus on building positive institutions than reacting to negative ones. However we are all trained, as part of our indoctrination, to blame ourselves if for our personal, social and financial failures. The only way I know to get people to quit blaming themselves for the misery they experience in corporate society is to demonstrate that their so-called “personal” problems have a social and political cause.
To be continued with a critique of the specific strategies Brock proposes.