The Power of Listening


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Background to the event

In February and March of this year the Grassroots Economic Organizing Newsletter (GEO) invited almost 60 worker co-op developers to participate in the online Worker Co-op Development Forum-for 

  §   sharing what they know,

  §   critiquing what they are doing,

  §   identifying best practices, and

  §   generating creative new ideas for developing worker co-operatives.

This four-month conversation led to a special GEO June issue and a one-day conference, which was embedded in the ECWD biennial conference on Friday, July 8th in Baltimore, MD. Over 30 people accepted the invitation, and 20 were able to come and participate in the conference. Along with them came almost 25 observers, who caught wind of what was happening and wanted to participate in some form. The final event became known as Advancing the Development of Worker Co-operatives Conference.

Process as product

After finishing the Monkey Survey GEO sent out to participants in the ADWC conference I realized I had a lot more to share. The story of how it happened and why it succeeded as well as it did tells us a lot about cooperation. Not just about how it works, but how we can develop and expand it. If anything is my top priority it's finding how out how to do that face-to-face, at the level of the worker co-op movement, and with the movements it is integrally connected to.

My story may sound as if I am tooting my horn, and I probably am to some extent. However, what is really worthwhile in this story is not my role in it. Rather, it is the role of listening  and its incredible power.

Even though I am almost 70, I am really a new kid on this particular block. (Since 1980 I have been part of building and running an intentional community in Staten Island, NY., which is a cooperative in its own way.) I got started by connecting with Jessica Gordon-Nembhard's at the 2006 USFWC conference in New York City. She pulled me into the action with a hug. Later I ran into a slew of people from western Mass at the 2007 conference in Asheville. They seemed to be crawling all over every workshop I went to. Mary Hoyer helped me connect directly with VAWC (Valley Alliance for Worker Co-operatives) several months later. I asked them for the opportunity to study what they were doing as worker co-ops and as a regional network. That was very genuine because I had been looking for a way to test out a strategic framework I had developed for alternative politics while I convalesced from a two-year illness. This framework is grounded in the priority of listening over getting heard, and it is a strategy aimed at advancing cooperation and democracy.

What I didn't say at my beginning with VAWC was that I was also intent on getting connected to some form of alternative politics and figured that my first step had to be to find out what was actually going on. I figured that doing a slew of interviews and being a useful volunteer in various ways would be a good way to get to know them and them me. All of this worked out pretty well, and I ended up going to a lot of the regional and national conferences, doing some workshops, joining GEO, etc.

At this point I am going to jump forward to the main story. Last spring I attempted to facilitate a conversation between two folks with very different approaches to developing worker co-ops. Whew! I can still hear the table-saw buzzing. I came away with three things. First, man! there is a whole lot of stuff going on here. Second, if this experience is representative, then this is a problem the movement has to address. Third, if this experience is representative it's going to take some work to get people to listen to each other. I respected each of the two developers, but there were some very strong investments getting in the way of their listening to each other.

So I checked around to find out more, and got bitten by a bug: get the developer folks together so they can talk to each other. I talked to Mary Hoyer and some of the GEO folks, and they encouraged me to draft a proposal for the 2011 ECWD conference. I would have been spared some anxiety, if I knew at the time that they constituted a near majority of ECWD board. Since I am writing this story now, it needn't be said that the board approved. (But, there. I said it anyway.)

Now comes some self-disclosure. I knew the basic shape I wanted the project to take: a series of face-to-face discussions that would enable developers to talk with and listen to each other. I was trusting in two things. First, that there was enough cooperative drive among developers to overcome whatever fears, conflicts, and challenges that could (and hopefully would) arise. Second, that my belief in the power of listening, which is the core of my whole approach to politics, etc., could successfully drive the development of the project from start to finish. Now I am sure all of you know that trust doesn't guarantee anything. All trust can do is to encourage you to do something that seems like a really good thing to do and that seems like a good bet-that is, that there's a good chance it can succeed. After you make the leap you then need hope to manage the anxiety that comes with taking the risk.

My GEO partners were awesome. First, they solved the first big problem I had about doing this project. I knew that I knew very little about the ins and outs of worker co-op development, and the various models, etc. (In fact, if I had to take a school-like test right now on this material, I would be happy with a C grade, maybe even a C-.) In our first in-depth conversation about the project, I discovered the ones who wanted to work on this project were very well informed in these matters, theoretically, legally, and experientially. Great! Now I have people to listen to. I'm not going to be flying blind.

Second, in spite of their being fairly attached to the methods of primarily presenting information to people who come to a workshop, they had to struggle with some anxiety and resistance to me insisting that our job with the embedded conference would be to actively develop and set up a process, and then get out of the way and just listen. We organized a conceptual framework for the whole project, and then set up the online forum in order to get conversation going about what we were thinking so we could sort out what was relevant and what was not. What we were thinking was put out so that we could hear back from the potential participants in order to inform our thinking all along the way. Listening.

Allow me to divert a moment from the story to make a pedantic point (as if this story itself isn't pedantic enough). I can't speak for the GEO team, but for me my intense commitment to democratic participation is not about it being a matter of ?justice.' I see that as a vital by-product. My commitment to it is because informed decision-making works. It works well in an all-around way far better than imposed decision-making. Further, I am convinced that thinking is an interactive phenomenon, not an individual one. However, the mere fact of participating doesn't a democracy make. Quite to the contrary: uninformed participation can make awful messes. Witness the world of mainstream politics, including the Left. Participation has to be informed and cooperative to be meaningful and productive. I am kind of speaking with the passion of an ex-smoker. At 35 I knew there was something seriously wrong with my life because I wasn't able to get the kind of "cooperation" I deserved. At 40 I started thinking, with a lot of help from my friends in my community, that maybe, just maybe I was the problem with my life not working well. Macho Texan. Dogmatic. Master of denial. The whole nine yards. Turn-around was a step-by-step process, and it took a lot more than 12 steps. Now here's that pedantic point: it was all grounded in learning to listen, which involved seeing over and over how I didn't listen. At 58 I had a major breakthrough, and what a joyful difference that has made, in other's lives as well as mine.

Okay, enough testimonial from a true-believer.  Back to the story.

We (Ajowa Ifateyo, Jessica, Jim Johnson, Len Krimerman, and I) planned out our approach to the ADWC project (forum, June issue, and the conference) and the basics of the conference at Jessica's house in DC on January 15. Up until then we had been planning on doing four discussions in which a model would be presented and then a discussion of the model would be discussed by participants. I rode down in a Chinese bus from Staten Island the day before. I was studying the notes on models and core issues as part of getting me up to speed on all the stuff I didn't understand that well. (Remember that I was just beginning to get into ins and outs of developing worker co-ops.) I was also going over them from the perspective of figuring out how to design the conference so people would spend most of the time talking about the stuff they needed to talk about. Somewhere between Philadelphia and Baltimore I realized we were working backwards. If we built all the discussions around the models, we would make it very difficult to get to the core issues. Too much time would be spent discussing models and not about the different problems the models were trying to address. On the other hand, it would be relatively easy to get to the models if the primary focus was on the main issues. (Later Jessica came up with the idea to have short presentations of the models at the very beginning of the discussions. That seems to have worked brilliantly.)

I think I was able to see the mistake we were getting ready to make because I was rather ignorant of basic facts. Knowing you don't know helps to open your ears and mind. My primary concern was for a process that would generate robust exchange of ideas and perspectives. The others were leading the way on the content that needed to be included. Further, I was working to understand that content, so I was, in a sense, ?outside' of it looking in, rather than ?inside' it trying to organize that data. Of course, all of us were doing both, but there was a clear division of labor.

As soon as I began to reconfigure our preliminary plan I realized I was going to come to the meeting and propose that we turn our whole agenda, which we had developed over several weeks of phone meetings which none of us had time for, on its head. It was easy for me to see how someone doing that to me would get me confused and make me very unhappy. And this would happen at 9 in the morning of an all-day meeting. No little anxiety here, I'll tell you. They trusted me a lot on this project, but I would be, I thought, really pushing their limits.

Well, I was wrong, very wrong. I started the meeting off saying I wanted to propose that we turn our whole approach upside down, and asked for 10-15 minutes to explain why and propose a whole new agenda for the meeting. As I said they were awesome. What I was getting back from the beginning was total attention from three people in the room and one calling in on a loudspeaker system. The sheer presence of those four minds and hearts was so palpable as I presented my stuff that I can still feel it. I gave my whole pitch and stopped. There was a pause, then, without any hesitation or stumbling, they took that ball and started running with it, everyone was on the same page. To this day that moment brings tears to my eyes. At that moment I also knew that if any of them had any disagreements they would have come forward with them, and we would have moved together in the same way. Why? Because I knew I was experiencing the awesome power of collective listening. It was a peak moment and it spoke volumes about our capacity to cooperate.

Our conference worked beautifully. You all achieved everything we had hoped for. Yet, we did get down to a level of deep listening where 1) folks were coming forward with their personal truths in the moment, and 2) folks were wanting to really hear and understand the others who were on very different tracks. People spoke honestly and eloquently about where they were coming from and what they thought was important, which was great. But we didn't go beyond that. Packing the whole number in one day was a big factor in this. If this kind of thing is done again, this should be taken into account.

There was one big contribution to our experience together that may not have been noticed. At least I didn't notice it until several days afterwards: the role of the observers. From start to finish I-and I think the GEO team as a whole-thought it was important to make it possible for people who weren't directly involved in developing worker co-ops to be involved in some way, if they really wanted to be there. Over 20 people did, and we did a lot to accommodate them. Ah! There's how I blinded myself. Accommodate. In retrospect I think they played a major role in the conference. Let me repeat that. Major role. I think they-and especially the note-takers-provided a huge and very energetic field of listening. It was as if they wove and wrapped the 20 discussants in a blanket of support and intense interest that made a significant difference. This is another factor that should be kept in mind if another such event is designed.

Thank you all.

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