Review: CONSENSUS: A NEW HANDBOOK FOR GRASSROOTS SOCIAL, POLITICAL, AND ENVIRONMENTAL GROUPS
by PETER GELDERLOOS
SEE SHARP PRESS 2006
This 120 page journey will strike a reader of any experience level as a simple approach on how to go about a difficult thing — conducting a group meeting. It describes not just any dreaded meeting but a meeting based on consensus, which the author considers the most fair and democratic.
Years ago, I was excited to dumpster score a hard cover copy of Robert’s Rules of Order from the library. In my naiveté, I ran with it to my local infoshop to show off what gems get passed off as garbage these days. The response I got was less than thrilled: “Oh that — that’s what the enemy uses to keep us down,” I was told. Robert’s Rules of Order, the antithesis of consensus, has its history in the post Gold Rush San Francisco and the particularly raucous and chaotic meetings that would go down then. That little 19th century organizer would go on to institutionalize alienation and public ill from the White House to City Council meetings in the present age.
Gelderloos’ book addresses the power discrepancies we live under, learning these techniques from years of work creating and perfecting consensus. His own experience includes working with Copwatch, Food Not Bombs, anti-war campaigns, prisoner support and prison abolition. He has also authored the book, How Nonviolence Protects the State.
The book opens with Food Not Bombs founder Keith McHenry, where he lays out the non-hierarchical bag. Like the rest of the information that follows, it’s readable and hardly contestable. First, Gelderloos defines terms and delineates the steps in a consensus decision. He then explains the roles such as facilitator and time keeper, and makes suggestions on how to make things run smoothly. Much of the information in the book is suggestive so that readers can adapt the processes to fit their own situations. In addition to meeting minutiae, the author looks at the larger meeting structure, including such murky areas as alternative voting, consensus minus one and a few other show stoppers. A lengthy discussion follows regarding power dynamics and different kinds of group structures. There is also an entire section devoted to teaching the consensus process. The book wraps up with a few sample dialogues of a meeting.
Two examples of the book’s content can be drawn from the second section. The author makes a big point of utilizing “affirming gestures” during a meeting and how there shouldn’t be a complementary gesture for disagreement: “…it can be very intimidating to someone if they start talking and everyone starts shaking their heads or giving a thumbs down — it’s almost as bad as being interrupted . . . if you disagree with a comment, you need to explain to the group why you disagree. There is no comparable negative hand gesture.” At the end of this section the author advocates having space to check feelings of group members because “living in a patriarchal society, we are taught to minimize feelings.” And that “You don’t have to be able to articulate the difference between CNT anarchists and Tolstoyian anarchists to trash an Army recruiting office. Good analysis is necessary for creating an effective strategy, but building cohesive groups and a strong movement requires a great deal of social skills and emotional intelligence Activists lack these skills because we don’t even recognize their importance.”
Much of this information will be old news to your average Slingshot reader but while sitting with this book I was struck by its value even for seasoned activists. For one, it’s healthy for me to review and re-look at the means I’ve been adapting. Do I agree with or think that my house needs a mission statement? Also I realized that this book and others like the Organizer’s Manual from 1970, are good to share with members of projects that I’m working on, lest I just assume we are on the same page. Finally, they can be used as reference, comic relief during an anarchist study group, or ignored by much of the consumer sheep.