This post contains excerpts of a how-to guide to people’s assemblies prepared by individuals involved in the resistance movement in Madrid, and the original is published here at takethesquare.net. We encourage participants in Take the Square WI to review what our counterparts in Madrid have to teach us, so that we can move forward in Wisconsin with the benefit of their experience. In particular, please review the gestures, as we will use those to facilitate our People’s General Assembly.
This text has been prepared by the Commission for Group Dynamics in Assemblies of the Puerta del Sol Protest Camp (Madrid). It is based on different texts and summaries which reached consensus in the internal Assemblies of this Commission (and which will be made available on the official webs of the 15th May Movement) and from the experiences gained in the General Assemblies held in this Protest Camp up until 31st May 2011.
The purpose of this Quick Guide is to facilitate and encourage the development of the different Popular Assemblies which have been created since the beginning of the 15th May Movement.
Open Reflection on Collective Thinking
When faced with a decision, the normal response of two people with differing opinions tends to be confrontational. They each defend their opinions with the aim of convincing their opponent, until their opinion has won or, at most, a compromise has been reached.
The aim of Collective Thinking, on the other hand, is to construct. That is to say, two people with differing ideas work together to build something new. The onus is therefore not on my idea or yours; rather it is the notion that two ideas together will produce something new, something that neither of us had envisaged beforehand. This focus requires of us that we actively listen, rather than merely be preoccupied with preparing our response.
What is a People’s Assembly? It is a participatory decision-making body which works towards consensus. The Assembly looks for the best arguments to take a decision that reflects every opinion – not positions at odds with each other as what happens when votes are taken. It must be pacific, respecting all opinions: prejudice and ideology must left at home. An Assembly should not be centred around an ideological discourse; instead it should deal with practical questions: What do we need? How can we get it? The Assembly is based on free association – if you are not in agreement with what has been decided, you are not obliged to carry it out. Every person is free to do what they wish – the Assembly tries to produce collective intelligence, and shared lines of thought and action. It encourages dialogue and getting to know one another.
What types of Assembly have we used so far? Working Group Assemblies, Commission Assemblies, Local Assemblies (in neighbourhoods, villages and towns), General Assemblies of the Puerta de Sol Protest Camp and General Assemblies of Madrid (Puerta de Sol plus neighbourhoods, villages and towns). These latter (General) Assemblies are the final deliberative or deciding bodies from which the consensuses are decided in order to articulate the different lines of Joint Action for the 15th May Movement in each city.
What is Consensus? It is the way that the assemblies make a final decision over each specific proposal. Consensus is reached when there is no outright opposition in the assembly against the proposal. The following format must be applied to each proposal: 1) What is being proposed? 2) Why is it being proposed? 3) How can we carry out the Proposal if a consensus is reached? To sum up: What? Why? How?
What is Direct Consensus? A Consensus that is directly reached without opinions against it: Proposal > Consensus.
What is Indirect Consensus? A Consensus that is reached after debating different opinions on a proposal which did not reach a Direct Consensus. The following steps are taken to reach an Indirect Consensus: 1) What? Why? How? 2) After the moderator asks ‘Are there any strongly opposed opinions?’, and if there are, a queue for floor time is prepared. The Floor Time Team and Coordinator(s) open the first round of debate. Three arguments for and three arguments against are allowed. After that, the Assembly is asked to show its opinion again through Gestures. If consensus is still not reached when asking if there are opinions against, the Moderator will ask the Assembly to discuss the issue for three to five minutes in small groups where they are sitting. After this small break a second round of interventions consisting of Proposals for Consensus takes place. If a consensus is still not reached after these two rounds, the following takes place: a) If the Proposal comes from a Commission or Working Group, it is returned in order to be reworked, b) If the Proposal comes from an individual, it will be taken to the competent Commission or Working Group so it can reach a consensus on its usefulness and present a reworked version of it in the next Assembly, where it will once again go through the same procedure. And so on until a Real Consensus is reached.
>> THE ROLES AND FUNCTIONS INVOLVED IN A MASS ASSEMBLY:
It is vital to remember to control our gestures and body language so that our own emotions do not confuse matters, and to remember also that a smile is hugely effective in moments of tension or in an apparent dead-end. Haste and tiredness are the enemies of consensus.
LOGISTICS TEAM: A minimum of three people who are responsible for the equipment of an Assembly.
ASSEMBLY PARTICIPANTS: This includes all those people participating in an Assembly, including the Group Dynamics Teams and members of Commissions or Working Groups. Participants are the life blood and the raison d’être of an Assembly. We are all responsible for running and building the Assembly. Our functions are: listening to the different speakers; participating in matters that require debate in rounds of floor time, and making individual proposals or subjective evaluations (having requested the Floor-Time Team to do so) during the Any Other Business round (normally near the end of each Assembly).
FLOOR TIME TEAM: Two to four people (depending on the size of the Assembly) positioned amongst the participants and next to the corridors. Their main task is to note down the names of the participants who want to take a turn. When such a request takes place, they ask the participant:
1) Is your intervention related to what is being discussed? (Remind the participant of the issue being discussed). 2) Is it a direct reply to something that has been said? 3) If so,is it in agreement or disagreement? With this information the floor-time team member determines if the intervention should be passed to the Floor-Time Coordinator(s) or not. If the proposed intervention bears no direct relationship to the issue at hand, the person’s name is noted so that they may be called upon during the Any Other Business round. They will also tell the participant about other debate forums (speakers’ corners, working groups…).
COORDINATOR(S) OF THE FLOOR-TIME TEAM: Two people, in close coordination with the Floor-Time Team, whose task is to organise the requests to take the floor that are forwarded to them by this team before passing them on to the moderator(s).
FACILITATING TEAM: Two or three people who back up the moderator. They are the moderator’s “voice of conscience”. They are the only people in direct contact with the moderators in order to help them maintain their concentration and impartiality.
An important way of helping the Assembly to run smoothly is to incorporate one or two people who intervene when there are silences, over-heated discussions or serious digressions. Their main role is to remind assembly participants of the importance of Collective Thinking, Active Listening and the true meaning of Consensus.
ROTATING TEAM OF MODERATORS: One or more people (who rotate if the Assembly is large or there is a lot of tension). This rotation is decided upon by the whole team of moderators, with the greater good of the assembly in mind. The moderator can ask to be replaced. The moderator should help the Assembly to run smoothly, should bring together the general sense of the Assembly rather than follow a protocol, Ideally, this figure should not need to exist. (everybody should respect everybody) The moderator(s) are responsible for: welcoming the participants to the Assembly;explaining the nature and workings of the Assembly; presenting the group dynamic teams and their functions; moderating positively and conciliating distinct positions without aligning themselves personally with any of these; informing the Assembly of the positions for and against during the process of Indirect Consensus; summarising each intervention during the rounds of debate should it be needed; and repeating the consensus as recorded in the minutes. The moderator also gives voice to gestures made should a speaker not have noticed (it is recommended that assembly participants wait for a speaker to finish their turn in order to express agreement or disagreement so as to avoid swaying the speaker). Furthermore, the moderator is responsible for ensuring an atmosphere propitious to the exchange of ideas and for establishing a positive tone. Should the need arise they might also release tension by reminding participants of the value that any debate adds to the 15th May Movement and by motivating participants in general. The moderator can also be replaced via consensus of the Assembly as a whole. Anything spoken off microphone should be relayed to the Assembly as a whole in order to foment transparency.
MINUTES TEAM: Two people responsible for noting all interventions which do no have a script. In the case of consensus resolutions the minutes team can ask for any resolution to be repeated word by word and subsequently ratified by the Assembly. Normally one team member writes down interventions by hand whilst the other uses a computer in case what has been written needs to be cross-checked. If the members of this team are in direct sunlight, the Logistics Team will assign two people to shade them with parasols. At the end of the Assembly, the minutes taken by this team should be read out to avoid any confusion.
>>GESTURES USED TO EXPRESS COMMON OPINION OF THE ASSEMBLY
The following gestures have been agreed on in order to permit the expression of common opinion during assemblies:
1) APPLAUSE/AGREEMENT: Upraised, open hands moving from side to side.
2) DISAGREEMENT: Arms folded in cross above the head.
3) “THAT HAS ALREADY BEEN SAID”/”GET TO THE POINT”: As if requesting a substitution in sport, revolving upraised hands.
4) “YOUR INTERVENTION IS TAKING UP TOO MUCH TIME”: Crossed arms. Forearms come together and move apart as if they were the hands of a clock so that palms touch above head.
5) “DIFFICULTY HEARING INTERVENTION”: Cupped hands to ears or hand moving up and down as if to indicate, “turn the volume up”.
It is advisable to remind participants of these signs at the beginning of each Assembly. It is also advisable to inform participants that is more useful to display disagreement once the person speaking has finished in order not to condition their intervention, whenever possible.
>>ORAL EXPRESSIONS RECOMMENDED FOR MODERATORS AND SPEAKERS
We use Positive Speech avoiding negative statements which close the door to constructive debate. It is a less aggressive and more conciliatory type of communication. It is useful to open a debate with the points that unite before dealing with the points that separate. Examples:
1) ‘Don’t touch that dog or it will bite you’ could be phrased as ‘Be careful with that dog because it could bite you and neither of us would like that.’
2) ‘If we don’t reach a consensus here all efforts will go to waste’ could be phrased as ‘It’s important we reach a consensus in this point or we could end up losing strength as a group and nobody wants that to happen.’
We use Inclusive Speech which makes no gender distinctions. It is clear that force of habit can be hard to break, but it is convenient that between all of us we mutually remind ourselves to remember this.
**Schematic, practical example of an Assembly Agenda**
1) Welcome and Positive Presentation. The Assembly is the effective celebration of the power of the people.
2) Summary of the consensuses reached in the previous Assembly and all outstanding issues.
3) Presentation of the Group Dynamics Team for the Assembly in question. The roles of each of its members.
4) Explanation of the concept “Assembly”. We do not “vote”, we reach consensus.
5) Explanation of the concept “Consensus” (direct and indirect). Explanation of the process used to reach an indirect consensus.
6) Examples of how the mechanics of the Floor-Time Team and Facilitators during an Assembly.
7) Reminder of the gestures used in an Assembly and suggestions of how to express oneself verbally in concordance with the 15th May Movement style, as approved by the General Assembly.
Reading the Agenda out loud.
9) The turn of the Commissions and Work Groups without specific proposals for the Assembly, only information which does not require consensus. It is advisable that a spokesperson from each Commission or Working Group attends the preparatory meeting for the Assembly in order to help organise the list of issues to be discussed.
10) The turn of the Commissions and Working Groups with specific proposals for the Assembly. If a direct consensus is not reached, the floor is opened to debate. Remember: there should be a maximum of two rounds of debate to defend each position (in groups of three speakers) and/or find a point of agreement. If the debate becomes heated, a period of common reflection can be opened and if after two rounds no consensus is reached the issue can be adjourned to the following Assembly. Opinion > Debate > Resolution or Adjournment.
11) IMPORTANT NOTICES. Citations, general interest information, latest news, etc.
12) ANY OTHER BUSINESS. During this round, there is no opportunity for debate. The information is not to be ratified at this point, rather taken up by the pertinent working group or commission. Important: if it is necessary to cut short this round because of lack of time or tiredness, announce this and tell those who have not had a chance to intervene in this round that the subjects they wanted to mention will have priority in the any-other-business round in the next Assembly.
13) Conclusions and notification of time and place of next Assembly.
14) Message of motivation and reminder of common purpose. Now is the time to use memorable words, which may be in verse, a piece of good news, a highly-charged quotation or a short text, etc.
15) Closure and acknowledgements.
(+ SHORT MOTIVATING MESSAGE. STATEMENT OF PRINCIPLE. ENCOURAGEMENT.)