… on Spokes Council …

… bi-coastal collaboration …

I was asked by my friend and comrade, the incredible Hilary Moore, who collaborates with Occupy Oakland, the Ruckus Society, Movement Generation, and wrote a pamphlet everyone should read titled, Organizing Cools The Planet, to write up some thoughts and observations regarding the implementation of a “spokes council” meeting format within Occupy Wall Street. Hilary said that Occupy Oakland is considering one and looking to harness feedback from those who currently use the model before diving into their own.

(brief side note, Hilary’s course at the ISE Intensive, Aligning with Frontline Communities has totally impacted and shifted the way I am seeing myself within the Occupy Movement and I look forward to writing about that soon.)

A spokes council, unlike a general assembly which allows for and encourages individual voices, utilizes a series of filters to limit the amount of voices in any conversation. At the meeting, each working group (or caucus) is given one spoke (person who speaks on its behalf). Each group confers, discusses, reaches consensus if necessary, and then empowers the spoke to deliver the message of the group. 

More info about the original proposal that created the OWS Operational Spokes Council as well as some background on the model itself can be read here.

Over Christmas I was able to share many of these thoughts with Occupy Minneapolis who are also considering adopting a spokes council for operational decisions. What follows is what I shared with Hilary. I look forward to hearing how the discussion with Occupy Oakland went and hope that they find spokes fruitful. I believe in the model as a meeting format, but I have concerns as well.

… thoughts on Spokes Council …

In my opinion the most effective OWS Operational Spokes Council was held Wednesday November 16, 2011. About 42 hours after Liberty Square was raided we no longer had an encampment for the Spokes Council to facilitate the operations of, yet we met anyway. We were in still in shock – in crisis mode – confused about the movement and our occupation, and how to move forward. The facilitators asked each Working Group to answer three questions and to present those answers to the Council.

     1. What are your immediate needs?

     2. What do you have to offer?

     3. Where do you see the movement going from here?

Each answer was written on huge sheets of paper on the wall so everyone could see. Now with lists of needs and offers out in the open, we could clearly see where there was overlap, and where holes existed. Communication, technology, and basic needs were areas of overlap in both categories.

The lasting legacy of the Operational Spokes Council thus far is the creation of Clusters ­– a cooperation of Working Groups. Two examples that came out of this meeting are Safety Cluster (Medical, Mediation, Non-Violent Communication, Safer Spaces, De-Escalation) and Communications Cluster (TechOps, Info, Media, PR, Press). 

Spokes Council has allowed us to get working groups in one place to begin to coordinate, to align resources and skills through face-to-face interactions. Something we have tried to do, and haven’t always had the time to do, is make space for Working Group Report Backs and Announcements, which can be a time for groups to express concerns or needs and then at the end of a meeting leave at least 15 minutes, if not more, of un-facilitated time for groups or individuals to connect and talk about issues or questions that were raised and connect with those who can be resources or partners. 

… back in time …

If I could go back in time and have the process by which Spokes was created altered drastically, rather than immediately granting authority to pass proposals and allocate funding, I would have Spokes be a coordination only body. Use it as a way to cull ideas, provide education, development and discussion, to establish support and buy-in for proposals that are shaped and work-shopped in this space but that eventually go before the General Assembly for consensus. This way, a lot of the work has already been done. Many of the questions, concerns and amendments are already addressed by the large amount of people developing it in Spokes, as well as by the clusters or individual working groups outside of the actual Spokes Council meeting. That way, by the time it comes to the General Assembly, it has the endorsement of all the groups that created it, and the Operational Spokes Council. 

Then perhaps after a period of time, once Spokes Council has earned the respect of the community, and trust in the work that its producing, if the GA feels its review of proposals created in Spokes is redundant, the GA can grant the power to allocate funds or pass proposals directly to Spokes.

Ideally this eliminates the misconception that Spokes and GA are competing for resources or power – that they aren’t in fact two sides of the same coin. They complement each other. They make each other stronger. Spokes crafts a proposal, does the leg work, establishes buy-in, and saves time in the GA by bringing well-honed operational proposals for approval; allowing for the General Assembly to focus on big picture discussions, movement wide decisions, etc and not getting bogged down in logistical or budgetary operations.

… foresight …

The worst thing about the OWS Operational Spokes Council was the admission process. Basically every Working Group or Caucus had to present themselves to the Council and explain why they felt they met the criteria for an operational group (as opposed to a movement group) or a caucus. We then went through a consensus process to admit them. Some groups got through very quickly without any pushback. Several, however, were incredibly contentious. This process was taking weeks, and had it not been for the raid that occurred as we were in the middle of it, was very much on track to destroy the community. Keeping the discussions objective proved an impossible task.

My advice would be to provide a seat at the table for every group that wants to be a part of the council while outlining in advance clear guidelines for participation and removal. We have been trying to reach consensus upon a set of Community Agreements that participants of Spokes Council must abide by and in a sense its almost too late.

… definitions …

A general note as well would be to clearly define the exact parameters under which the Spokes Council is to function. What is its intent, and what types of decisions does it make? This cannot be defined in vague terms. It must be explicit. Because of its design, inherently a filtering of voices for efficiency and culling of consensus up a ladder so to speak, a Spokes Council is not ideal for opinion based conversations, or topics where its ideal to have individual speakers be able to voice their concerns directly.

Discussions about ideals, values, visions are not suited for a spokes council. At least not the OWS Operational Spokes Council. The General Assembly or an open-space format are more appropriate places.

… onward …

Thats what I wrote to Hilary. I hope its helpful and that Occupy Oakland can learn from some of our missteps. I love that Occupations across the country, and the world, are learning from each other.

This Movement is growing so rapidly in part because of the wealth of information we are able to quickly share.

We all learn and grow and evolve based on each other’s successes as much as our failures.

And if we continue to do that – to not be deterred by missteps, not be discouraged by failures, to share our knowledge, to not reinvent the wheel – well then another world really is possible.