Wednesday, October 12, 2011

An Open Letter re: Occupy Detroit

I want to thank Yusef for responding and sharing some time with me last night. Good conversation.

As was noted last night, coming together to break bread, eye to eye, is real; you can’t hide, pretend, be lost in your own stuff or you can, should, and will be called on it. This highlights some of the difficulty in dealing with this Occupy Detroit process here in Detroit in reaching out to those who have organized it until now: it’s difficult to get a response.

Two men talking together is not going to solve the problems inherent in thousands of people attempting to come together to do good work, nor necessarily resolve anything in the moment. But it does create conditions for honest communication and perhaps a deeper understanding, partly arising out of give and take in the moment where intellectual and emotional responses interact immediately and the two modes are melded in time. E-mail and written communications do not allow for this.

Racism/~isms In Context
I do not oppose not using “occupy,” but I take a long, long view on all issues. None of what we do is any longer relevant outside of a very long term view. I do not mean to seem dismissive of the concerns others have on any given issue in any given debate; I very simply see many of the issues that divide us, intentionally or not, as being made irrelevant by larger forces over time. The climate and energy issues are so far advanced that designing a survivable future is now in a critical response phase. We don’t have time to solve food, race, and economic issues as separate issues. We don’t have time to solve them as integrated issues. We only have time to design a different future. The beauty of this is a sustainable future cannot co-exist with racism, classism, ageism or any of the other issues we choose to separate ourselves by. These fault lines are largely irrelevant in the sense that a fisherman on a beach working to repair his net even as a tsunami approaches has chosen to focus on the wrong thing. You deal with the emergency first, survival second because there is no survival if you fail to get through the emergency.

We are in an emergency.

Climate is changing so much faster than many seem to understand, and fewer still understand the implications of that. We will be living in chaos long before we reach any given milestone because it is the extremes that get you. Long before the average temperature is 3C higher than in 1850, ecosystems will be destroyed by the 20 days or more of 100F temperatures of an otherwise livable summer, e.g. Ask Texas. The emergency is already here and mitigating it is a multi-decade process, at best. If the methane deposits in the Arctic have already begun a self-propagating decline, we may have already lost the battle – and there are signs that is the case.

The emergency is already here. The scope of that emergency means it is all hands to the fire hoses and bucket brigades; nothing else is relevant.

Racism is not irrelevant in and of itself. It is relevant to how we got where we are; it is relevant to who we are; it is relevant to our daily lives and our immediate futures. But it is not relevant as a primary tool to address the emergency. We cannot undo racism in time frames that equal surviving the emergency. The same can be said for any other divisive issue. It’s a bit like how our vision works: sometimes to see something most clearly we have to look slightly to the side. Focusing on racism, or economic justice, food justice, or environmental justice, etc., is a focus that makes it more difficult to see the full extent of the emergency.

It is this longer term perspective as to what should be dominating our conversations in order to address the emergency that is behind everything I say and do. It is this I attempted to share with Yusef last night.

The Use of Occupy
As a former teacher of English as a Foreign Language, I can boil teaching language down to one simple observation: context is everything. I viscerally respond to the banishment of words because of a context that is not always applicable. Is it a fight we need to have? If in Detroit the term is so offensive, then I guess it should be changed, but we have tongues, teeth, a larynx and lungs to communicate with. Can the offensiveness of the term not be acknowledged, sensitivity to that be offered, yet still retain the word? Are not the offended under some responsibility to understand the use in context, and choose not to be offended when no offense is offered? Is this sort of conversation not what communication is supposed to allow? Is tolerance not the responsibility of all? Frankly, why should I not be offended if a person takes offense when I have not offered any and forces me to abandon language that is otherwise appropriate?

Our actions are not words. Both sides of any argument about connotation have legitimate stances: The offended consider the user of a given word to be intolerant, the user of a word not meant to give offense finds those offended intolerant. Perhaps the tie goes to the former. I mean only to sketch my intellectual ambivalence to the objection to words. I am frustrated that communication cannot allow us to defuse such emotive booby traps.

But how does one not accede to a people whose ancestors have been enslaved, who are the most affected by the current economic slavery? This is obviously a deeper issue than my distaste for not accepting words in their context or the desire to keep a visual/verbal consistency with all the other “occupy” processes evolving. Perhaps in Detroit the time needed to defuse this particular word bomb is a waste of time. Perhaps this needs to be made clear to the GA of Occupy Detroit. There are alternatives. Unified Detroit in Solidarity with Occupy Wall St., for example.

If the GA ultimately chooses not to change it (though given the process of consensus that is a near impossibility… more on that later), I wonder at what is lost if what is now called Occupy Detroit is not joined by the people I know to be doing elegant and important work in this city. If the naming cannot be resolved, what then? If this nascent “movement” should become a vehicle for global mobilization of the oppressed, and Detroit sits out, what does that mean? What are the implications? I come back to the emergency. A survivable future is a global solution. It is a systemic solution and if any given part of the system does not achieve sustainability, ultimately the entire system fails.

Ultimately, this kind of discussion is keeping us from focusing on the emergency and at some point we will have to prioritize or let the world burn and us along with it.

I am frustrated by the opposition to Occupy Detroit for one very simple reason, that to me is obvious, but what I believe to be obvious is perhaps my own ignorance: The consensus decision-making process, as I understand it, makes the dissenter the most powerful person in the room so long as their dissent is legitimate. It is the decision-making process most likely to address dissent because of the ability to block any action given legitimate grounds. This is why I fail to understand why those of you who would seek to rename or refocus Occupy Detroit choose non-participation and a separate process.  You are abandoning your power in the process.

Using Consensus to Address Your Concerns

It is very important to the success of consensus to understand the process and have training in the use of it. At the GA meeting it was clear many did not understand the process. E.g., anyone could have chose to apply the “block” to insist on a fuller conversation about locations. Nobody did, but there was complaint about the decision being “rammed” through when, in fact, it had not been. Nobody blocked, so it passed. The process functioned as designed. Jeff Debruyn left and criticized later. He failed to understand his power to change what was happening lay in participation, not disengagement.

The GA didn’t fail, those who abandoned the process did. Fail is too strong, really, since it seems it was a lack of knowledge of the process that resulted in non-use of its conventions. In fact, those who organized the GA failed, if anyone did, when they didn’t train the GA attendees sufficiently in process. This supports the critique that Occupy Detroit may be moving too fast. Had they made training their first agenda item and taken time to walk through at least the basics of the process perhaps none would have left feeling the process failed.

I hope the Detroit Facilitation guild will engage and believe steps are being taken to make it so. A link: Consensus Decision-making

* The input and ideas of all participants are gathered and synthesized to arrive at a final decision acceptable to all. Through consensus, we are not only working to achieve better solutions, but also to promote the growth of community and trust.

* With consensus people can and should work through differences and reach a mutually satisfactory position. It is possible for one person's insights or strongly held beliefs to sway the whole group. No ideas are lost, each member's input is valued as part of the solution.

* Consensus does not mean that everyone thinks that the decision made is necessarily the best one possible, or even that they are sure it will work. What it does mean is that in coming to that decision, no one felt that her/his position on the matter was misunderstood or that it wasn't given a proper hearing.

* For consensus to be a positive experience, it is best if the group has 1) common values, 2) some skill in group process and conflict resolution, or a commitment to let these be facilitated, 3) commitment and responsibility to the group by its members and 4) sufficient time for everyone to participate in the process.

* During discussion a proposal for resolution is put forward. It is amended and modified through more discussion, or withdrawn if it seems to be a dead end. During this discussion period it is important to articulate differences clearly. It is the responsibility of those who are having trouble with a proposal to put forth alternative suggestions.

* The fundamental right of consensus is for all people to be able to express themselves in their own words and of their own will. The fundamental responsibility of consensus is to assure others of their right to speak and be heard.

* If a decision has been reached, or is on the verge of being reached that you cannot support, there are several ways to express your objections:
Non-support ("I don't see the need for this, but I'll go along.")

Reservations ('I think this may be a mistake but I can live with it.")

Standing aside ("I personally can't do this, but I won't stop others from doing it. ")

Blocking ("I cannot support this or allow the group to support this. It is immoral." If a final decision violates someone's fundamental moral values they are obligated to block consensus.)

Withdrawing from the group. Obviously, if many people express non-support or reservations or stand aside or leave the group, it may not be a viable decision even if no one directly blocks it. This is what is known as a "lukewarm" consensus and it is just as desirable as a lukewarm beer or a lukewarm bath.

The key to re-naming Occupy Detroit is to be there. By not being there you are choosing the last option above, which is also the least desirable. Their use of “occupy” is not your use. They may not see the need to change it because they may have little or no sense as to whether this is the objection of a few or the objection of many. Those objecting to the name and speaking from outside the process have very little opportunity to affect change within the group. But by being in the group, you become one of those who must be heard. Your objection immediately achieves validity by your mere presence for you are a co-equal leader of the group. If outside, you have little means to effectively shape the group dynamic.

More so, there is a name committee. If you are on that committee and can speak persuasively to your concerns, this issue may be resolved before even taken to the GA as it is likely a clear, preferably unanimous, suggestion from the committee will eventually be adopted by the GA.

A note on the statement by Yusef and Jenny: Declarations and statements are not really how consensus is done. Much as Yusef and I meeting face-to-face made discussion of all this more immediate, more real, more meaningful and more effective, such is life in consensus. Rather than presenting a statement, you sit in proximity, look in people’s eyes and speak sincerely and personally of your concerns. You have to be there.

This is one time when exerting pressure from the outside is the least likely option to succeed.

Occupy Wall St. as a Two-pronged Attack – What About Detroit’s issues?

There is no agenda because everything is on the agenda.

It is vital to building solidarity between those currently critiquing from outside the process and those within the process that those outside understand Occupy Wall St., et al., is intentionally devoid of specific issues. This does not mean it cannot be successful or that it is not valid. It is the means by which all voices may join and be heard. If you set an agenda, those whose concerns are not on that agenda have no reason to participate. The “movement” is about activating and motivating, it is about inclusion, it is about coming together in one circle to address all issues rather than some people’s issues.

When you ask Occupy Wall St., et al., to specify, you are robbing it of its essence and its power. It is a consensus model, not a debate, not an election, not a win/lose. Within the group and within consensus, present your issue, ask that it be addressed, find the means to address it. There is no need to ask for an agenda, your presence puts your issue on the agenda.

There is a committee to address specific actions. Perhaps it is the means to bring specific issues to the fore. Perhaps those meeting Sunday have an opportunity to form a Detroit-specific committee to ensure local issues get supported by the GA. Whatever the means, there is nothing about the structure of Occupy Wall St., et al., that in any way prevents or interferes with addressing location-specific issues. Bring it to the group, ask for support, and you will likely get actions implemented with the support and assistance of people who otherwise would have been ignorant of the issue you raise.

Make your issue everyone’s issue: be there. Thread actions and activities already progressing in Detroit together via this process. In fact, this sort of process is exactly what Detroit has needed. We talk all the time about silos; we see self-serving choices; we compete for dollars, attention and people. I thought the People’s Movement Assembly might bring the silos together, but so far have not seen this materialize. If “Whateverthename Detroit” and the PMA merge into one process, then all other processes merge into that, we potentially have a true Detroit People’s Movement. Directionality doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the various silos become one silo in which the Food Justice Task Force, e.g., becomes a committee within the whole. The same for the Environmental Justice work, Peace Zones for Life… all of it. Bring ALL voices into one process, prioritize together, implement together.

Imagine such a model supplanting the traditional governmental structure of the city! No mayor, no city council, just neighbors talking to neighbors and sub-groups taking on challenges. Imagine each neighborhood being a committee within a city-wide whole? And that committee having sub-committees?

Mmm…mm…mm. Tasty!

I see sustainability breaking out all over!

There are some difficulties in applying consensus large-scale… but will leave that to those more expert than I.

Occupy Wall St., et al., Doesn’t Really Get it, Either

Above I stated the process intentionally has no agenda which means theoretically sustainability is on the agenda. The problem with that is it relegates sustainability to co-equal status with all other issues. Ecosystem services, however are not an issue, they are the source of life. It is vital ecosystem services become the lense through which all other issues must be viewed; they are the litmus test for whether an action is taken or not. If a proposal to address racism is not sustainable, it is not a solution to racism. If a solution to economic inequality is not sustainable (e.g., let’s build all the homeless a  new house), it’s not a solution.

Whatever movement it is that ultimately brings us all together must first and foremost set as it’s primary objective the preservation of the ecosystem. Failure to do so is an existential threat to all biota of the planet. Link: The Law  of the Rights of Mother Earth
Law of the Rights of Mother Earth (Spanish: Ley de Derechos de la Madre Tierra)… "gives the 'Mother Earth' the character of collective subject of public interest, to ensure their rights". The law defines Mother Earth as follows: "the dynamic living system made ​​up of indivisible community of all living systems and living beings, interrelated, interdependent and complementary, which share a common destiny. Mother Earth is considered sacred by the cosmovisions of the indigenous originary campesino nations and peoples."

I argue it is the preservation of the ecosystem that is *the* all-unifying issue. I also argue that no sustainable system can co-exist with any of the ~isms we work to attenuate. Thus, designing sustainably inherently and automatically eliminates all of them. Consensus decision-making acts as a means to attenuate selfishness, divisiveness, self-interest, racism, classism, etc. We simply design them all away, solving all problems simultaneously.

I will explore the mechanics of this in another post.

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