Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Art of Facilitating: Fishing at Deep Water

The art of facilitation is analogous to a set of nested Russian dolls: it's as many-layered as an onion.

Casual observers may not notice that meeting facilitators—especially skilled ones—are doing anything more than managing hand-to-mouth dynamics, such as: 
—Coming up with a clever opening. 
—Making sure everyone has good sight lines to the white board.
—Deciding who's going to speak next.
—Determining when it's time to move to a new topic.
—Otherwise coping with what's unfolding in plain sight. 
But there's a good deal more to it than that. Good facilitators are expected to work at subtle levels, too. Here's a dozen examples of what I mean:

o  Looking ahead of the curve
Projecting where the current conversation is heading and discerning whether they (or the group) will be glad to arrive there. If it looks like a dead end (or worse, a train wreck), it's probably time to tack now, before they hit the shoal water. When executed with aplomb, most group members may not even be aware that there was any danger.

Busting ghosts
Is there a presence that's alive in the room even though the person triggering it isn't there? (perhaps the influence of a dead founder, whose charismatic and powerful persona continues to guide conversations from the grave; maybe it's fear of potential retribution by a bully who is on vacation but is bound to find out if anyone speaks critically of them). First you must sense what's happening; then you must decide what to do about it. Is it better to exorcise (calling the ghost out) or exercise (restraint by not dignifying the threat with the group's collective attention)?

o  Feeling the undertowThough similar to the previous point, this is about an energy that is pervading the conversation, rather than a person. Some may be aware of it; others may not. Is it a fair wind or foul? When the facilitator chooses to surface an unnamed undercurrent, it is not a magic act, or someone playing with planchette; it's just someone paying close attention.

o  Describing the interesting case
In discussing policy proposals it is often illuminating to think of examples that it might apply to, thereby grounding the consideration. However, not all hypotheticals are created equal. It is generally not a good idea to craft agreements designed to cope with rare exceptions. It's better to bring forward a representative example to showcase a proposal's strengths, and/or expose its liabilities. How will things play it in the situations you are most likely to actually face?

o  Sussing out when to be direct Many groups fall into the habit of working indirectly—mainly because they are not confident of handling tension well and are afraid that directness will lead to reactivity. When does cutting to the chase help illuminate the key dynamic; when does it lead to brittleness that inhibits creativity and short circuits compassion? In my experience most people prefer their medicine straight, and don't require a sugar coating—so long as it's not delivered with bitterness, salty language, or a sour attitude.

o  Reading the energetic tea leaves
Skilled facilitators need to be able to work with the energy in the room as well as with the content of the conversation. It is not enough that they can guide the group to an agreement; it needs to be a decision with which there is high resonance. If participants feel run over or bullied into alignment, the implementation is likely to suck (because their hearts will not be in it).

o  Noticing mismatches between content and energy
If you're handling the preceding point well, you'll notice when the conversation is out of alignment with the energy (say, for example, the group is working inexorably toward agreement, yet there are half a dozen folks sitting with crossed arms and scowls on their faces; or perhaps when the conversation is lost in the weeds and everyone's chuckling and having a good time). If the energy does not match the rhetoric, then that becomes the thing to talk about.

o  Knowing when to slow down and when to speed up
In a typical two-hour meeting there may be two or three moments that are pivotal to the outcome; moments when a crucial difference is illuminated and the group can either find a way to thread the needle (and manifest the joy of an inclusive solution), or it can devolve into cantankerous discord with each side bunkering in. It's generally a good idea to slow things down at delicate moments (say when a surprising thin gets said, or when a person gets vulnerable), and to pick up the pace when slogging through portions where there is no new information.

o  Following the energy more closely than the clock
While a good facilitator does their level best to end meetings on time, the prime directive is productive engagement, rather than ending a 20-minute agenda item in exactly 20 minutes. By "productive engagement" I mean progress on the issue and enhanced relationships among members (that is, participants will know each other better as a consequence of the consideration). These dual objectives are far more important than how fast can you find a solution that everyone can live with.

o  Mapping out the engagement
A good facilitator will sit with the draft agenda ahead of time and see into the concerns, teasing out the key questions that are likely to arise. Sometimes it makes a significant difference in what order questions are addressed (perhaps because the outcome of one question is crucial to how a subsequent one will be viewed); sometimes it doesn't. If possible, good facilitators will build the conversation toward a solution just as they'll manage the energy, moving from turbulence to laminar flow.

o  Riding the bucking bronco of fulminating distress
Essentially this translates into not freaking out when someone freaks out. It's being able to function with a clear head and a strong heart in the presence of nontrivial upset. On the one hand the facilitator needs to be fully present—without judgment or side-taking—for anyone who's upset, to help them feel safe and understood. On the other, the facilitator needs to make sure that the topic is neither sideswiped nor dominated by the distress. If, in the process of examining an issue, you manifest tears or anger, you'll get heard; but there's no guarantee that you'll be agreed with. The facilitator needs to be compassionate, yet fiercely neutral.

o  Integrating body and mind; heart and soul
For most groups the default style of meetings entails a great deal of sitting around, where the focus is on rational discourse (and a calloused butt). Unfortunately, that's only one way humans work with information and decide what they want. We also "know" things in our bellies and in our hearts (not just in our heads) and thinking is not everyone's first or best language. A skilled facilitator will offer participants a variety of ways to get at topics, offering multiple on-ramps into the consideration—which translates to opportunities for people to share feelings, intuitions, and body-knowing; not just their "best thinking." A savvy facilitator will not just get ideas in motion; they'll get bodies in motion, too.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Consultant as Plumber

About a year ago I was having my regularly monthly appointment with my oncologist (Homam Alkaied) when he came into the room and momentarily let his guard down. 

As a cancer doctor he sees sick people all day. He took one look at my numbers on the computer screen, smiled, and said, "Thank you. I needed somebody to be doing better today. The hardest part of my job is when I have to tell patients that we're out of options. Sometime the treatments don't work and we reach a point where there's nothing left to try. It's a heavy moment when I have to look someone in the eye and tell them the cancer is going to win. I've had a bad week of that and I really needed you—someone who's responding well to chemotherapy—to pick up my spirits." 

I told him, of course, that I was happy to be that guy.

• • •
I started with that story because there are times for me, as a process consultant, when my role runs parallel to that of Dr Alkaied's: when I have to tell clients the bad news. While in my case it's never literally life and death, it can nonetheless feel emotionally devastating—the death of a dream.

Perhaps half the time I'm hired to work with a group it's because of a crisis that the group has not been able to work through on its own. While the precipitating event may have been external (perhaps a nuisance lawsuit from a neighbor, or an adverse ruling by the county zoning board), when it comes to persistent conflict the heavy lifting always revolves around unresolved interpersonal tensions in the group. (Groups don't dial up the roto-rooter guy unless their interpersonal plumbing is backed up.)

When I'm called into those situations I never start with the assumption that it's too late. Going in, I always start with the idea that the tension can be ameliorated, and that I can guide the group back to health without losing anyone. The reality, however, is that I encounter a wide range of difficulties (the stakes can vary wildly: everything from hangnails to something terminal), and groups don't always call me right away. In the worst cases, I don't get brought in until well after the initial damage has occurred, and anaerobic infection is well advanced. Sometimes everyone can't be saved, and pruning is necessary for the health of the tree.

The Fog of Conflict
While it's tempting to chide groups for being idiots about the delay in asking for help ("Why did you wait so long to call? This could have been dealt with much more easily if I'd been asked in right away."), I've learned over the years to be more sympathetic, for a number of reasons:

o  When you're in it, it's often akin to what Robert McNamara styled "the fog of war." While the former Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson was referring to Vietnam, the principle is apt here as well: in the midst of conflict it's often confusing and difficult to see what's actually happening, much less the way through it. What becomes obvious in retrospect is anything but when events are first unfolding.

o  It further behooves the armchair analyst to keep in mind that living in intentional community is something that almost all members are doing for the first time in their life, which means that prior experience offers little guidance. They are traveling through terra incognita.

o  What's more, people don't come to community anticipating problems, so there is typically a miasma of distaste and shock (it never occurred to us that that could happen here) that enshrouds the uncertainty about how to respond. 
Considered all together, you have all the ingredients for a goat fuck—a lot of frenetic activity, accompanied by maximal messiness, minimal forethought, and more hurt feelings than you ever imagined possible. Yuk!

To be sure, not all crises spiral out of control to this extent. (Whew!) My point, however, is that they can, and it can happen to anyone. Good intentions are by no means a prophylactic against being visited by members masquerading as hormonal goats. Conflict can just do that to people, and groups, I've discovered, are never ready to ask for help until they're ready to ask for help. So I've learned to get over my dismay. Never mind how the group got there; here we are.

Testing for Will
Once I'm on site, I try to have as many one-on-one and one-on-two conversations as I can, the sum of which adds up to a picture of what's happened and where people are today (which may be quite different from where they were when the triggering incident occurred).

As someone who works a lot with cooperative groups in conflict, figuring out how to navigate tensions has become relatively straight forward for me (see Rules of Engagement for my thinking about that). The delicate part is determining what the group has the will to attempt, on the road to healing and righting the ship. Sometimes there's still a lot of fight left among protagonists and they're not ready to look in the mirror (no listening). Sometimes they're exhausted and so demoralized that half the group has one foot out the door (no hope). Sometimes, however, they're tied of squabbling, they're done being defensive, and they're ready to work—this is the ideal.

Commonly enough, I'm asked to be the plumber—the person brought in to unclog the crap that is stopping up the lines of sanitary communication. While it may be obvious to all concerned where the blockage is, it smells bad and no one wants to touch it. Some portion of the time this amounts to my being the one to have a come-to-Jesus meeting for the purpose of laying down reality about what's happening with one or more folks who are central to events and heavily invested in riverfront property in Egypt (living on the banks of denial).

In this line of work it helps that I've been buffeted around quite a bit. My resumé includes:
—40 years of community living experience
30 years of consulting with over 100 cooperative groups
—Having been a community founder
—Having been divorced by my wife
—Having been asked by my community to not return after my divorce
—Surviving a near-death brush with cancer

Having lived through all that I'm pretty much shockproof and fearless. (What bad thing should I be afraid of?) While that doesn't mean I always get it right; it means I'm always going to try and that I have a large capacity to empathize with people in adversity. While I have a lot of scars, instead of making me tougher, I prefer to think I've been tenderized and made more resilient.

Finding the Right Words
A lot of my work revolves around being able to enter the chaos, quickly sort wheat from chaff, and set the table for the right conversations, in the right sequence. Not only do I have to understand the energy, but I need to be able to find the words that accurately convey its spirit. I need to be good in a storm—light on my feet in tossing seas, and calm amidst the howling wind.

What's more, I need to be able to get back up and brush myself off when I get knocked down, which invariably happens some portion of the time. While everyone enjoys clean plumbing, not everyone enjoys meeting the plumber, and it can be downright nauseating looking at what I find in the pipes.

While there can be catharsis and a tremendous release of tension when the things goes well, my work does not end with the first flush of clean water. I linger to assist the group in crafting a way to tell the tale, both to ground the lessons (no need to do that again) and to be able to share the story of adversity that is honest yet forward moving and dignified. In this the plumber's pen needs to be more incisive than his snake.

It's shitty work, but someone has to do it.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Individual and the Group, a Play in Three Acts

One of the interesting ways to think about intentional communities is that it's a purposeful choice to move toward "we" on the I-we spectrum. What I mean is that you can look at how people behave and sort actions into those which are taken with intent to maximize the benefit to the individual, and contrast it with those which are taken with intent to maximize the benefit to the public, or the group.

Where we stand on that spectrum is significant for a handful of reasons.

I. Are We an Island or Not?
First, you can make a good case for there never having been a time in human history where the dominant culture was located more toward the "I" end of that spectrum than we are in mainstream US culture today. It's all about what's best for the individual. Think John Wayne. Think Ayn Rand. The essential concept is that society will do best if individuals focus on their own welfare above all else. If individuals thrive, then the society will necessarily follow.

It hasn't always been that way. Almost four centuries ago, Englishman John Donne penned this well-known poem:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend's
Or of thine own were:
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee. 
                        
 —John Donne (1624)

While those lines are timeless, it's application has since eroded. Consider this contemporary counterpoint:

A winter's day
In a deep and dark
December
I am alone
Gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow
I am a rock
I am an island


I've built walls
A fortress deep and mighty
That none may penetrate
I have no need of friendship, friendship causes pain
It's laughter and it's loving I disdain
I am a rock
I am an island


Don't talk of love
But I've heard the words before
It's sleeping in my memory
I won't disturb the slumber of feelings that have died
If I never loved I never would have cried
I am a rock
I am an island


I have my books
And my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armor
Hiding in my room, safe within my womb
I touch no one and no one touches me
I am a rock
I am an island


And a rock feels no pain
And an island never cries


—Paul Simon (1966)

While there's a question how much Simon was trying to capture the ethos of the times versus how much he was writing cynically (or perhaps he was doing both), it's clear that we've ridden the horse of capitalism right up to the very gates of hell, and we're by no means done with the ride. Republicans have their hands on the reins and we have a President who's gleefully writing executive orders eviscerating a spate of regulations aimed at protecting the public good. Herbert Hoover's philosophy of rugged individualism lives on.

It's my belief that humans, as a species, are hard-wired to be herd animals. We crave each other's company and don't do well in isolation. Thus, it doesn't surprise me that there's a deep hunger for community; for a sense of belonging beyond one's immediate blood family. It's a natural response to the alienation that surfaces in the ill-fitting American dream of a house in the burbs where neighbors barely know one another.

That said, knowing that it's good for us does not mean that we know how to do it—live in close approximation with others without the structure of a caste system or Father-Knows-Best paternalism to maintain social order. We want the freedom of individual choice, and at the same time a solid connection with the herd. It's no minor feat figuring out how to thread that needle.

With rare exceptions, we have not been raised with cooperative skills. Worse, most folks who attempt cooperative living do not go into the experiment understanding why that's important. Commonly, they just get frustrated that it isn't easier. (Why is there this gap between what I intend and what I achieve?)

II. What's Private and What's Public?
The fact the people living in intentional communities have moved more toward the "we" end of the spectrum, does not mean they've moved all the way over. There is still a plethora of decisions that individuals or households make that are not considered group business.

That said, there is nuance around how far the line has been shifted, and it's not likely that everyone will see it the same way. If the group doesn't explore this ahead of time (to be fair, it's hard to gin up enthusiasm for discussing hypothetical awkwardness—why borrow trouble?) those differences are not apt to be illuminated until you're in a situation where they apply. The interesting case is when an individual makes a choice that no one proposes should be handled at the group level, yet that decision has obvious impact on the group. Now what? 

For the most part this is uncharted water. As a backdrop for my thinking about how to proceed, I want to pause to introduce two important concepts:

A. Intentional Communities as Modern Villages
Over 15 years ago I happened upon a copy of Sobonfu Somé's The Spirit of Intimacy, Ancient Teachings in the Ways of Relationships (2000), in which she describes how intimate couples relate to the group in traditional West African villages, which is where she was raised. While the village does not direct villagers in choices of intimacy, there is nonetheless an acknowledged two-way relationship between the couple and the village, where each has a responsibility to aid and sustain the other. This is formally acknowledged in marriage vows, and extends to raising children.

By substituting intentional community for village, it gave me insight into a constructive, proactive role for groups in situations where the whole is significantly impacted to the private actions of individual members. Apparently, in West African villages there is broad recognition that "we're all in this together." In consequence, there's an understanding that if the group is impacted by the choices of individuals then there needs to be an opportunity for the village (as represented by the elders in village culture) to have a say in how things move forward.

This is an important difference from the hands-off approach that is generally taken in mainstream culture. Unless you break a law, individuals are not expected to make themselves available to discuss the wider consequences of private decisions. They can simply say, "It's none of your business" and that's expected to be honored.

B. In Cooperative Culture Groups Get Together to Solve Problems and to Enhance Relationships
In the mainstream, meetings are essentially viewed as a way to share information and ideas, on the road to resolving issues and concerns. However, in cooperative culture (in contrast with competitive culture) how you accomplish things matters as much as what you accomplish. In cooperative culture there are two primary meeting objectives: 1) clearing up confusion, and figuring out how best to respond to emerging issues; and 2) sustaining and improving relationships among members.

These two objectives are not necessarily evenly weighted (though they may be); sometimes one of them is more to the fore, and others times it's the reverse. The significance of this is that it can be a revelation to some that you'd call a meeting expressly to attend to relationships. That is, the meeting may have no decision-making component at all, yet still be potent and appropriate.

With these two concepts in hand, let's return to the question of how to respond to a private decision that has blow back in the group. What's called for, I believe, is a group session designed to clear the air. Once it's established that there are nontrivial reverberations in the group, you have to accept that there is no stopping people from discussing it in pairs and small clusters (think parking lot conversations); the question is whether you also want to have a plenary discussion. As far as I'm concerned you have to. Here's why:

o  Getting on top of gossip and rumors
If you don't create an chance to look at this with everyone in the same room, information will be unevenly shared; some of it is bound to be incomplete, some of it is likely to be distorted, and some may be just plain wrong. It can be a nightmare trying to get all the worms back in the can. You pretty much need a plenary to get everyone on the same page.

o  You cannot repair damage until you know what it is
The biggest danger in these situations is that relationships are strained. To be more precise, when focusing on reactivity, no one's worried about unbridled joy—we're talking about feelings of alienation, such as fear, confusion, disgust, anger, or even outrage.

To address this well requires a certain sequence—one that's most effectively done live (you can't mail it in). Feelings must be fully expressed, they must be acknowledged (to the satisfaction of the speaker), and there must be a heartfelt, connecting response. Note that this does not necessarily require the individual to agree that they've done something wrong, or to offer an apology, though those may be appropriate.

o  Safety in numbers
When voicing negative reactions, many of us find it challenging to do so cleanly and completely (who do you know, after all, who learned this growing up?). While it may not make it easier to hear, sharing in the whole group can often make it easier for people to be courageous about speaking up.

Also, it is typically easier to line up skilled facilitation (either from within the group, or perhaps by bringing in someone from outside) for a plenary, the better to establish and maintain a constructive container for such delicate work. A good facilitator will make it easier for all parties to both speak and be heard.

To get these results, it's imperative that the meeting be set up properly. It is not about judging others, assigning blame, determining objective truth (uncovering what really happened), or making decisions; it's about sharing information, understanding impact, and repairing relationships.

III. Terraforming the Culture of Inclusivity
The stakes here are rather high. Not because that many people will ever live in intentional community, but because communities are research and development centers for sustainable culture. 

In this era of disintegrating civility and the normalization of alienation politics, many of us are near desperation in yearning for a way forward that all can embrace. I can see no hope in relying on additional doses of what got us to this pass, with one side trying to pound their majority down the throats of those who lost the last election. We need a sea change—an approach that builds on what's being learned in the crucible of intentional community living about how to solve problems and attend to relationships at the same time.

This is not about homogenization, making nice, or pretending that everyone thinks the same way. Rather, it's about moving ahead only after all sides have been heard and everyone's on the bus. It's understanding at a visceral level that we've got to start thinking more about "we" and not so much about "I," and what it takes to get there.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Family Time

Over the past weekend, Susan and I spent a whirlwind three days in San Antonio, rendezvousing with siblings, partners, and friends. The photo above was taken Friday, on Hemisfair Plaza, right before we ascended 750 feet in the Tower of the Americas for happy hour. From right to left it's:

Val Bower (Kyle's childhood friend from La Grange IL)
Dutch (Val's partner)
Tracey (my oldest sister)
Norm (Tracey's husband)
Alison (my youngest sister)
Dan (Alison's husband)
Richard (Kyle's husband)
Kyle (my middle sister)
Guy (my brother)
Elaine (Guy's wife)
Susan
me

Here's what some of us looked like 30 minutes later, adjusted for both altitude and attitude:
The Hemisfair Tower was built for the 1968 world's fair, coinciding with San Antonio's 250th birthday. Next year the tower will be 50 and the city will be celebrating its tricentennial. Yeehah! We stayed aloft long enough to see the sun go down before we did.

Each of the three days the mercury climbed into the 80s—a far cry from the 40s by the shores of Lake Superior. In San Antonio spring was sprung. The grass was verdant green, and irises were blooming in Kyle's front yard. (When the shuttle from Minneapolis dropped us off in downtown Duluth Sunday afternoon, we were happy that the temperature was above freezing and most of the snow was gone—never mind any signs of green.) Though Duluth and San Antonio are joined by I-35, they're separated by1400 miles and six agricultural zones. Uffda.

Susan and I were thankful for our down jackets on the van ride to the Minneapolis Airport in the wee hours of Thursday. When we arrived at Kyle's house later that day (around 1 pm), we wasted no time switching to light cotton tops, shorts, and sandals. Ahh!

It was great seeing all of my siblings, catching up on family news, and sharing Susan (and my renewed health) with one and all. In an unusual move, I sent only one lone email during my 68 hours in the Lone Star State (to my stepson, Jibran, on the occasion of his 20th birthday). As this was a mini-vacation, I was determined to give my laptop a mini-time-out. Today I've been been paying for it, digging out my In Box.

But it was worth it.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Health Update #1

As many of you know, I was diagnosed with multiple myeloma (a cancer of the bone marrow) 14 months ago. As I was in pretty bad shape when it was discovered (I had been bed-ridden with excruciating back pain for six weeks before it got bad enough for me to go to the ER seeking relief—looking back, it's obvious that I waited too long, but I'd never been seriously sick before and I'm a stoic guy) it was touch and go for awhile. 

My kidneys were barely functioning at 20 percent of capacity, my skeleton was brittle from calcium leaching, and I had chronic back pain from three collapsed vertebrae. I was a mess. While they wanted to treat my cancer the doctors' immediate issue was saving my kidneys. To better cope with it all, they immediately put me on oxycontin to relieve the pain. Whew!

Today I am doing much better. My kidneys are functioning at near-normal capacity (I barely dodged the bullet of needing dialysis or a kidney transplant), the cancer markers diminished in response to a cocktail of chemotherapy, I underwent a successful autologous stem cell transplant at Mayo Clinic in July, and I've been steadily regaining stamina, appetite, energy, and cognitive function ever since. Best of all, my cancer is in complete remission.

To be clear, my cancer is not defeated; it's dormant. Because the version of multiple myeloma that I have is particularly aggressive—that is, it can ramp up quickly—my oncologist likes to see me once every four weeks and I get a maintenance dose, via intravenous infusion, of Kyprolis (a chemo choice especially developed to combat my cancer and one which I've shown a good tolerance for) on back-to-back days once every fortnight (adjusted for road trips). By checking my blood every two weeks they keep a weather eye on my cancer markers. So far so good.

I'm writing to give everyone a more specific monthly health update. 

1. Four-week Road Trip
One of the blessings of my recovery is that I am strong enough and clear-headed enough to be able to return to my work as a process consultant and teacher. Yippee! I love the work and it's my social change passion (the way I try to make a positive difference in the world). While the work calls for high concentration as well as mental and emotional stamina; it does not particularly call for physical endurance. 

I took baby steps at first, starting last September. Not sure how much I could do and justify my fees I didn't do more than two things back-to-back. As things went well, I have gradually attempted more and more, leading up to a very ambitious road trip: I was on the trail from Feb 23-March 23, during which I worked five jobs and was busy every weekend. 

It was incredibly gratifying to return home road-weary, but not exhausted, and to experience being able to deliver some of my best work on the final weekend of the trip. I was fully back!

While I don't like being away from Susan for that long (and therefore will try to keep future trips to a maximum of three weeks) it was good to know I could do it. And that I can keep plying my craft for the foreseeable future, which is good both for my soul and my pocketbook.

2. Normal Hemoglobin
When I saw Dr Alkaied (my oncologist) yesterday he was looking at the blood tests from Feb 21 (the last time I was in town) and noted with a smile that my hemoglobin was 13.8, which is normal for an adult male. It was the first time I had reached that level in his year of working with me. He quipped, "If you keep this up you'll have to get a new doctor; in my line of work I don't see normal people."

3. Tapering off on Zometa
Once my kidneys started functioning better (late last spring) my doctor started giving me monthly doses of Zometa, a drug designed to recalcify my skeleton. Though I haven't broken anything throughout this adventure (knock on wood), when Alkaied first saw me (in Feb 2016) he wasn't optimistic about my walking again—the leaching of my bones was that bad. Not knowing that I shouldn't, I worked on regaining my strength to the point where I no longer needed a wheelchair and I've been walking for a year now.

In looking over my progress yesterday, Alkaied decided that they could back off on the Zometa to once every three months, as my need was diminishing. Hooray! As I sometimes have a temporary adverse reaction to Zometa (one time it was a severe headache; other times it's been weakness and a loss of appetite) I was happy to hear that.

4. Weaning off of Drugs
After several months of encouraging results, Alkaied announced last month that I could cease taking daily doses of Allipurinol (to protect against gout and kidney stones) and Ranitidine (to protect against heartburn and stomach ulcers), and could switch to OTC vitamin D supplements. Fewer pills and less expenses! But what about pain relief?

I expect to have back pain the rest of my life (centered around the three collapsed vertebrae in the middle of my back). For more than a year now I've been taking oxycontin (an opioid) twice a day, which has done a miraculous job of relieving my pain. Oxycontin is slow acting and lasts for a 12-hour period, hence the twice-a-day regimen. As back-up, I have a supply of Robaxin (a muscle relaxant) and Oxycodone (a fast acting opioid, and a cousin to oxycontin). Because oxycontin has been so efficacious and I have a relatively high pain level, I have rarely used either of my back-ups. Also, I'm leery of opioid addiction (I am not looking for ways to bond with Rush Limbaugh).

So I had a mixed reaction when Alkaied suggested pulling me off of oxycontin last month. On the one hand, I liked the idea of being off of pain medication. On the other, I didn't want to be in pain a lot. In talking it through with me he decided to wait a month, rather than risk my struggling with the switch while on a four-week trip. That made sense to me. 

I ran out of my supply of oxycontin last Sunday, with my appointment with Alkaied set up for Tuesday. Monday night, my first after going all day without pain medication, I had quite a lot of trouble sleeping. Although my back pain was tolerable, it was cumulatively tiring and I lay in bed tossing and turning for six hours before I took two Robaxin and was able to get some sleep the final three hours in bed.

Naturally, I shared that data point with Alkaied the next day. After discussing it with me he decided to try an intermediate step on the road to getting me off opioids all together. For the next month he's given me a prescription for oxycontin in a 10 mg dosage (down from the 20 mg pills I had been on since August). As I won't pick up the new pills until this afternoon (opioids are a controlled substance and there are strict protocols about getting prescriptions filled), I went through another night of tossing and turning until 3 am last night, Ugh. At 4:30 Susan helped me find my supply of oxycodone (in my sleep deprived state I had trouble locating where I'd placed something I had not used in 12 months) and I blissfully enjoyed the last two hours of the night.

It's amazing how much of your bandwidth can be consumed by pain management. Tonight I'll be back on oxycontin (albeit at a lower dose). Hopefully this is just a small blip in an otherwise rosy report.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Resilient Today

Today I want to focus on resilience. In particular, I want to share what the Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC) is doing to help all of us be more resilient in these uncertain times. But first I'm going to tell a story.

When I moved to northeast Missouri with three friends and started Sandhill Farm in 1974, we were a group of 20-somethings with no experience in farming or rural living. When we announced to neighbors that we were committed to growing food organically, they were amused. As far as they were concerned we may as well have been from Mars.

Forty years later, the neighbors aren't laughing. Sandhill Farm is still there and still farming organically. If anything, the topsoil depth and natural fertility of our small farm has gradually increased over the years of our stewardship. While we hold about 75 acres of cleared land all together, we've steadfastly refused to till more than 15-20 acres—the patches that are flat enough. The rest is too steep and has been planted to grass, which keeps the dirt where it is instead of washing downstream in rainstorms, gradually increasing the size of the Mississippi Delta.

Traditionally, farmers in our part of America's breadbasket would go through a three-year rotation of corn, soybeans, wheat, and red clover. This cuts down on the need for artificial fertilizers, manages weeds better, and makes it harder for insects to establish dangerous populations to assault specific crops. But that cycle didn't produce enough income to handle the debt load incurred by purchasing land and large equipment. In consequence, crop rotations today have collapsed to two years: corn followed by soybeans, and then back to corn. Over time, following that program leads to a drop in fertility and the need for ever-increasing inputs (fertilizer, herbicides, and insecticides) to maintain yields. It's a vicious cycle, which invariably leads to a marked decreased in resilience.

By farming organically and relying on traditional crop rotations, our bill for soil amendments has been much lower than our neighbors, and isn't spiraling up as fast (while the price for anhydrous ammonia goes up like gasoline, when you put manure on your fields you're just paying shit). Also, we rely on open-pollinated seed, which we save from year to year. Our neighbors depend on high-yielding hybrids that are not only expensive but must be purchased new every year.

By farming only on a modest scale, we don't need expensive equipment. Our first tractor—an Allis Chalmers WC, built in 1939—was purchased at auction for one bid above scrap: $210. And it still runs today. We also have our own combine. It's a pull-type Allis Chalmers All-crop, built in 1952. We bartered 7.5 hours of labor for it when the owner decided it was taking up too much valuable space in his machine shed.

While our crop yields were significantly lower than our neighbors, the disparity in net income was softened by our being able to command premium prices for organic food. (In 1974 you'd never see an organic or natural food section in a grocery store; today it's hard to find a modern grocery without one.) 

Not stopping there we took advantage of our access to labor (both in terms of able-bodied adult members and the interns we'd attract during the growing season) to figure out ways to sell value-added products instead of raw goods. Thus, instead of marketing soybeans, we'd turn our soybeans into tempeh and sold that. While we grew horseradish root, we only sold prepared horseradish. With that strategy we needed fewer acres to produce the same income. By buying less land we've enjoyed a lower debt load. In fact, Sandhill has no debt. And none of our neighbors think we're from Mars.

• • •
I told you the story of Sandhill's adventures in resiliency because I think it parallels the work being done by the Fellowship for Intentional Community. Over the course of 30 years FIC has had two main missions. The narrow one has been to be the most up-to-date and comprehensive clearinghouse of information about intentional communities, focusing mainly on the US and Canada. Its second, broader mission has been to promote cooperative culture in a world drunk on competition.

Just as Sandhill was ahead of its time in blowing the horn for organic farming and resilient agriculture, FIC has been ahead of the curve in identifying and promoting the lessons of intentional communities as models of social sustainability. For both entities, what came across as exotic and other worldly in their early years has proven to be prescient and apt as the rest of the world has caught up with the near-desperate need to get off the acquisitive hamster wheel of materialism.

Where Are We (and What Are We Doing in This Handcart)?
The emerging threat today is climate change and the global disruption of "normal" life. The melting of polar ice caps threatens coastal inundation. Places that used to have predictable rainfall now experience years of drought followed by massive flooding. Fruit trees are blooming in February instead of May, and there is unprecedented worry about adequate access to safe water.

Terrorist attacks have come in waves of numbing frequency—from a berserker truck driver on a rampage in the German Christmas market, to a solo fanatic driving down pedestrians on the Westminster Bridge in London; from the renowned hijackers of 9/11 who took down the World Trade Centers, to suicide bombers who are sheathed in explosives for the express purpose of detonating themselves in crowds—extremists are exhorting followers to perpetrate brutal acts of violence, without regard to human life, including their own. It is the triumph of nihilism.
On the political front, in the US there is almost a complete breakdown of civil discourse. There is no longer conversation and thoughtful dialog; there is only polemics and near-constant vilification of "other." Though there is only one Earth, if you listen to the nightly news you'd never know there was any awareness of our being on it together, with only a single future that we must share. All you hear today is breast beating for partisan agendas, and no willingness to recognize that others may hold pieces of the truth, just as well as we.
• • •
Over the decades that FIC has been on the scene (since 1987), there has been a progression of "in" terms: from organic to sustainable to local to today's sweetheart: resilient. While the wrapping is new, the core message is not. We still need to figure out how to get along with each other. For all the reasons touched on in the preceding paragraphs that need has never been more urgent than it is today.

Intentional communities are important—but not because it is the lifestyle wave of the future. In Israel there was a time when as much as four percent of the population lived on kibbutzim; it would shock me if the percentage of the US population living in some form of self-identified intentional community ever got within sniffing distance of one percent. Today, for example, there about 100,000 in the US who are living in community. That number would have to expand by more than 30 times to reach one percent.

The importance of intentional communities is the pioneering work that they're undertaking in the crucible of group living. They are doing the heavy lifting to figure out what it takes to live cooperatively; how to share resources equitably; how to solve problems such that everyone's interests have been taken into account without settling for the winners and loser dynamics of majority rule. There has to be a better way, and intentional communities are in the forefront of the experiments that will light the path.

It boils down to figuring out a different way to be in the world; to harnessing the synergy of groups in order to create a better life for all, instead of competing as individual households and nations for limited resources. This is not about homogenization and one size fits all; it's about creating and maintaining quality while at the same time respecting and honoring differences and learning to live graciously while putting resource consumption on a diet.

If this resonates with you, read on.

FIC in Action Today
As someone who worked in the eye of the hurricane for 28 years (I stepped down from a leadership role with FIC at the end of 2015) I can tell you that the Fellowship never lacked for creative ideas about how to use funds. There have always been initiatives to better get the word out; experiments to conduct, evaluate, and chronicle; and collaborations to attempt. We don't just talk about hope. We test it.

For information about FIC's latest effort click here. They are trying to raise $8000 in order to fund four initiatives aimed at exploring the intersection of community and climate change: two books, a national speaking tour, and the latest issue of Communities magazine (released earlier this month). While they have raised more than half of their target (over $4800) there is only one week left until the perks being offering as incentives will be withdrawn. 

Now is the time to act! I'm asking readers and subscribers to consider donating (remember, it's tax deductible), and to ask your friends and acquaintances to do the same.
 
As a special incentive, for every $100 you donate to this campaign (for which you'll also get the satisfaction of having your oar in the water, pulling for a good cause) I will make a matching offer of 30 minutes of my time that can be used for any of the following:
—consulting about intentional communities 
—advising about cooperative group dynamics
—editing proposals or reports

This offer is good only through the end of the month (it expires at midnight March 31) and is in addition to any perks you claim from the FIC site. So long as you make your pledge or donation before April 1, you'll have one year to redeem the offer of my services.
 

Together, we are making a difference.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Reverse Discrimination

This weekend I've been conducting a facilitation training in Bellingham WA—Weekend V of VIII—and the teaching theme was Power and Leadership (each of the eight weekends we focus on a major aspect of what facilitators need to understand and keep in mind when trying to run dynamic and productive meetings).

While exploring the dynamics of privilege, Ma'ikwe (my teaching partner) explained that when people lose their privilege it feels like discrimination. Her essential point was that loss feels like loss, even when it's bringing everyone to even. As I sat with that it occurred to me that it might make a difference if your new position was the result of reverse discrimination… or maybe not.

In groups that work on becoming aware of how privilege skews the distribution of power, it's not unusual to consider adopting practices (at least for a time) where the group purposefully disfavors those segments who have benefited from unearned privilege and a slanted playing field. 

As an example, let's unpack the landmark University of California v. Bakke case in 1978, where the US Supreme Court looked at the affirmative action policy of the UC-Davis medical school to favor non-white applicants for the express purpose of correcting pernicious societal discrimination against non-whites. While the court ultimately struck down the UC-Davis policy for going too far, it provided the basis for supporting affirmative action programs in general, which subsequently became a legal precedent, and the underpinning of affirmative action programs today.

Two things are in play here: 

a) Recognition that there have been longstanding forms of discrimination in the society that are not what we want—I'm talking about race, gender, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, religious affiliation, whether or not you have children—those kinds of things.

b) In the interest of hastening the process of closing the gap between what exists and where we want be with respect to those kinds of discrimination, it is acceptable, at least for a time, to adopt policies that intentionally discriminate against those segments of society that previously enjoyed the benefits of privilege.

The first point was addressed in Civil Rights legislation. It was the second point that the Bakke case pivoted around, and the focus of this essay is to explore whether there is any significant difference between how it feels to undergo a power drop because of a) alone (the loss of privilege), or because of a) and b) combined (loss of privilege plus reverse discrimination). While it's an interesting question in its own right, I am not looking at whether reverse discrimination is a good practice; I am only exploring its impact on those whose power is reduced by it.

My credentials in this regard are various. First I have been working as a consultant to cooperative groups for three decades, and understand that culture profoundly. In addition, I'm someone who has gobs of personal privilege—white, male, older, well-educated, articulate, heterosexual, Protestant—who has chosen to immerse myself in the subculture of intentional community, which is hyper-vigilant about discrimination, to the point where I am often suspect when I enter groups for the first time (How much is this dude aware of his privilege; has he done his work around it?).

Frankly, as someone who has been trying to do his personal work in relation to discrimination, it's an advantage for me to be in a milieu in which I'm more likely to be watched closely—because it so easy for people who benefit from privilege to be blind to its application. In short, I've learned to mistrust relying solely on my own perceptions and good intentions. I figure I'm more or less like other folks: a work in progress. Some things I catch; some things slide by (oops!).

Taking my credentials one step further, I have been subjected to reverse discrimination. Not often, to be sure (no need to cry on my behalf) but I've tasted it. I'm thinking in particular, of gender discrimination in the arcane world of income-sharing secular intentional communities. In that rarefied setting, where I lived for 40 years, the same action that men would be criticized for (labeled overly aggressive) were likely to be celebrated if done by women (labeled constructively assertive). It's a double standard and there have been times when I chafed at being subjected to it.

Apropos this consideration, I viewed the way I was treated as unfair and that pushed a deep button in me. Fortunately it didn't end there, but I passed through that awareness, and it was painful. By degrees I took into account the analysis that led to the choice of reverse discrimination. While I was undecided about whether or not it was an effective strategy (to accelerate the creation of the just and fair culture that the men and women I lived with agreed we wanted), getting to that more sophisticated understanding allowed me to move through my pain. Today I don't recall how long it took me to work through all that—like unpacking Russian dolls—but I recall experiencing outrage along the way. I recall that I didn't enjoy being discriminated against. 

But then who does? And I guess that was part of the point, giving me a visceral taste of what some experience as a steady diet. 

Maybe a person of privilege can get the same taste by simply losing their advantage—going straight to the level playing field. But maybe not. In any event, it took me longer to tease apart the layers of feeling when I was on the receiving end of reverse discrimination, and I've ultimately come to view that experience as both more complicated and more profound.