Reporting back from the third Oxford Democracy-Builders meeting

On Thursday 30th July, ten people came together to participate in the third meeting of what is provisionally called ‘Oxford Democracy-Builders’. The first meeting was held the night before the UK General Election in early May. It was called ‘What would a real democracy be like and how can we start to build one?’ Over forty people turned up to that. Around 12 people came to the second meeting which was held in mid-June. Here’s a report back from our third meeting.

Report from third ODB meeting, 30th July

In my previous report on our second meeting, I mentioned the ‘Triangle of Task, Process, and Relationship’.

Triangle of task, process, relationship

I argued that when people come together with a shared objective in mind, be that political, commercial, whatever, they tend to focus on the ‘task’, i.e. what they want to achieve, and on planning the ‘process’, i.e. how they are going to achieve it. However, what they tend not to give sufficient consider to is the ‘relationship’ side of their co-operation, i.e. on building strong levels of mutual trust, respect, fellowship necessary for effective teamwork. I too had given the relationship side of this triangle insufficient time. Therefore, I focused in the third meeting on building mutual trust and fellowship among group participants.

Chick pics

After a brief warm-up, I introduced the group to this set of pictures and asked them to split up into two groups to discuss: a) what they saw, b) why they thought this was happening, and c) what relevance this might have to this group and to real life in general.

Chick Pics

What’s amazing about this exercise is that, without fail, every time I do this people see different things. This is no right or wrong answer here, of course, and we had some really interesting, imaginative interpretations. What do you see? Take a few moments to look at the pictures for yourself before reading on if you like…

For me, this is about a chick born with a natural curiosity to learn about and love the world. But then something negative happens and the chick feels frightened and hurt so decides to ‘go back into its shell’. However, of course, once the shell is broken it can’t be fixed again. There’s always that crack, that scar, that fragility. Though there were other interpretations, many group members saw it similarly.

Unfortunately, I think that this is the experience that far too many children and adults have of education and of learning in general, be that through the disciplinary nature of schooling and the workplace or the systematic suffocation of free thinking, curiosity, and creativity.

Tragically, far too many people feel that they have nothing to say, to teach, to share – that they know nothing and feel worthless – and believe that if they came into a learning space again they would only be setting themselves up for a fall. Here, from the amazing Training for Transformation, are the ‘four fears’ that many people have when they are in a new group for the first time:

4 FEARS IN A NEW GROUP

So, the point of the chick pics exercise is, for me, ultimately simple and crucial – its to help us to try to create a space in which everyone feels comfortable and safe, in which everyone feels able to ‘come out of their shell’. This is a vital step towards creating a democratic group in which everyone is able to learn and to teach.

Sharing stories

After the chick pics exercise, I ran an exercise in which we all had to write a brief paragraph on pieces of paper about a time when we felt powerless in our lives. Then we put these pieces of paper in a shuffled pile in the middle of the circle and took turns to read them out anonymously. The idea behind this was to bring the group closer together by allowing people the chance to share something very personal yet somewhat anonymous. It was also intended to create fellowship by experiencing shared vulnerability. Finally, it helped us briefly think about the nature of power and powerlessness. I felt privileged to share this interesting experience. It’s unrealistic to expect it to generate instantaneously a deep bond within the group, but I’m sure it helps to bring people closer.

Open discussion

After the break, instead of the planned exercise, the meeting developed spontaneously into an open discussion. Two group members in particular, quite legitimately and understandably, wanted to know what my ultimate objectives were for this group. At the time, I was quite ineloquent and hesitant, emphasising that this is for the group itself to determine. What is interesting is that there seemed to be a division between those more experienced political campaigners from whom the question of objectives came and those less experienced who seemed more open to the ambiguity of ‘simply trying something new’ as one participant put it.

Now that I have had the time to reflect on this meeting and to remember my own learning, ideas, and experiences that led me to call the first ODB meeting, I have put together a statement of my understanding of and ambitions for this group. You can read this here. I know it’s a bit long, but I hope that everyone involved in or interested in getting involved in this process reads this. It is not set in stone. What this group becomes (or doesn’t become) is up to all participants, but it’s a starting point for clarification and discussion.

In the final twenty minutes of the meeting, we got back into two groups to explore the question ‘When I hear the words ‘economy’ or ‘economics’ I think/feel’. We got some pointed responses as you can see.

responses to 'economy'

Planning ahead

This led us into a discussion about the plan for the next session. We agreed to focus on austerity as political strategy, as policy, and as lived reality. I said that I would put together some materials on this that covered a wide range of political perspectives and arguments which I will stick up here online and we agreed to read up/watch this stuff ahead of the next meeting. We also agreed to start the sessions at 7pm and probably to shorten them to just 90 mins rather than two hours. I will also probably start with an exercise that continues to build trust, respect, and fellowship within the group and helps us develop our skills of listening, participation, and achieving consensus.

So, please do come to the next session. I propose to run two separate sessions early next month both covering austerity in order to enable everyone who wants to come along to do so. Here’s a link to a doodle poll that you can fill in to choose your preferred date. In the next few months, I’ll be working on the website side of things, launching a new site specific to ODB that can facilitate online discussion and will allow group members to begin to shape the process more directly too.

Thanks for reading

Joel

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