Why We Can’t Make Change Until We Change the System
I was ready to do more than take a knee or carry a cardboard sign. I felt like it was time for me to move beyond protesting and get involved, somehow, in creating change. That was why I joined an ad hoc committee formed by our city council to address police policy. Think global, act local. At last, I felt hope. I felt like maybe I can make a difference that matters. And then I faced reality, and was shocked by how bad it is.
I was not naïve going into this. I fully expected that whatever good policy change our committee was able to craft might be diluted or rejected by the city council in the end, or that the Police Chief might find ways to circumvent them, or that even if enacted, the police union would still allow officers who violate those policies to be exonerated. With that in mind, I stayed focused on the long haul. I wanted to craft strong and demanding policies that could become part of a list of demands to be relentlessly rallied before the city officials until they are adopted. I kept my eye on forming alliances with others on the committee that could grow into lasting coalitions. This committee, to me, was only the beginning.
It looked promising. The city had called on 13 civic organizations representing BIPOC and other marginalized communities. I was there on behalf of a nonprofit that services transgender and gender non-conforming folx. There are 30 members, in all. As we went through brief introductions at the first meeting, I was encouraged. The committee is facilitated by a team of three individuals, including a Black woman who is the Equity & Access Coordinator for the county. She and I conversed at the outset about the challenges of facilitating a group the size of ours over Zoom due to the pandemic. We talked about setting group agreements. We talked about equity over equality and elevating voices that were underprivileged, especially those of women of color. I mentioned the need to give each member enough of a platform to feel seen and recognized at the beginning, even though that would be a big time investment, because it would save time in the long run by deterring potential internal conflicts. I also expressed my opinion that we would need to work in smaller subcommittees in order to be effective.
Thwarted by the System
But then we ran into two great obstacles; public meetings law and Robert’s Rules of Order. The first curtailed our ability to network and converse with each other on the committee. The second is an infuriating silencer that obstructs everything I have come to learn about good problem-solving and decision-making. I’ll start with public records law because that is more straightforward. The law states that we must have a quorum, in our case 16 or more, of members present at each meeting. Each meeting must be posted and publicly broadcast in real time. Since we were airing our meeting over Zoom due to the pandemic, the meetings are live streamed and recorded. But because the live stream and recording do not show the chat box, we cannot use that feature to communicate things like consent with what the active speaker is saying, or to ask clarifying questions. It all has to be voiced to be recorded. Furthermore, since only the Zoom hosts can see non-verbal signs, we cannot use the raised hands nor the Yes/No functions built into Zoom. Instead we have to wait the three to four minutes it takes for the host to read off each of the 30 names, wait for the person to unmute, and get a recorded response with a “yes”, “no”, or “abstain” for every motion we attempt to pass. We have yet to do this without someone in the middle asking for the motion to be restated. I don’t think there is anyone involved who is not finding this irritating, but everyone seems resigned to endure it.
The worst aspect of the way the city is interpreting public records law is that they have instructed all of us not to communicate with each other as a group outside of the public meetings. Email correspondence, file sharing, and social media can all become violations of public records law. If there are 16 or more of us involved, or even if there is not a quorum but we are discussing content that affects decision-making, it all needs to be publicly broadcast. While I can understand the reasoning behind these stipulations, where does that leave us? We are 30 members of very diverse parts of our city, we don’t know each other very well, and many of us have never served on a committee like this before. How are we supposed to work together? We have been reduced, effectively, to responding in the moment. We cannot even use file sharing to look at and consider ideas or share resources except by going through the facilitation team.
The facilitation team has directed us to send all communication to them and they will disperse information to the committee. That would be fine, if it were simply a procedure to go through. But the facilitation team does not simply pass along information. They hold onto it, decide whether or not it is information that should or should not be shared, sometimes rewrite or re-position it, and pack everything into one overwhelming information packet that we receive on Friday night before a Monday meeting. One reason behind this is that all the documentation must also be publicly posted alongside the meeting announcement. It also consolidates things so that committee members do not get bogged down with frequent emails. The danger is in editing out or misconstruing some of our voices, often those that most need to be heard. Also, there is the disabling effect of leaving us inactive and unable to work productively in the two weeks between meetings. I find myself struggling to resist the idea that the facilitation team has an expected outcome for us, and they are guiding the committee to meet their expectations.
Killing the Creativity
Then we come to Robert’s Rules of Order. For those who are not familiar, this is a set of meeting protocols that dates back to before the Civil War. Basically, the facilitator calls on people to speak, one at a time, without interruptions for a given amount of time. In our meetings it is 3 minutes. When someone wants to propose a decision, they make a “motion”. Someone else must second that motion. Then the facilitator calls the vote. The motion, the person who presented it, the person who seconded it and the total numbers of votes: yes, no, and abstain, are all recorded. That’s it in a nutshell.
What is missing from Robert’s Rules of Order is the magic of good problem-solving. There is no room for contained chaos, a free flow of energy, voices, and ideas. I taught engineering design in high schools for ten years. One of the most enjoyable, and innovatively genius, aspects of problem-solving is brainstorming. Brainstorming is meant to be messy. It’s a chance to air everything out and look at it from as many different angles as you can dream up. You start to notice patterns and connections. Someone poses something “crazy” and it piques your interest. Then there is this very important concept called “piling on.” Piling on happens when your idea sparks a new idea in my mind. I share my idea and that, in turn, sparks a new idea for someone else. This phase of problem-solving is divergent and for traditionalists, it goes against every fiber in their “we need to narrow this down” trajectory. But the traditional “narrowing down” linear approach leads to very limited and narrow solutions. Whereas, the creativity and mutual discovery of the brainstorming process culminates in a kind of magical synthesis of ideas and approaches. The team then needs to choose what approach they want to take. It might be evident in a general idea that rises up out of the chaos in a way that is unifying and electrifying, which leads to a much smoother process as you narrow in on the solution. Or you may see two or three different approaches that you either need to choose between as a group, or make a choice to split up and try all of them. Besides being a good way to get fresh and, at times, brilliant ideas, brainstorming also results in better teamwork because everyone was able to contribute fully and feel seen, heard, and involved.
But the public meeting format has no room for that. We can’t even utilize Zoom break-out groups because the public would need to see all of the break-out groups simultaneously. Here is where it becomes de-humanizing to me. There is no place to form ideas in the public meeting. Members are expected to bring ideas, pre-fabricated, and see how they hold up to a vote. I used to function like that, bringing my ideas to the table in a battle for the best articulated argument to slay all others and take the lead. Then I studied feminism. When you value the people and the process, everything changes. It’s no longer a contest to see who has the best idea. It becomes about the whole, all of us together as a group, facing a problem and learning from each other as we go. I don’t want to presume to bring a solution that will address everyone’s needs. I want to hear from others and I want my thoughts to be affected by those stories. I want our collective ideas to become as we meet. What if our government were like that? What if the premise was that no one has the answer going in, but if we all bring our perspectives together and listen to one another, the answer will take form out of the collective whole? I know. It sounds ludicrous given the extreme partisan attacks that happen all the time in our current system. But once you have experienced this kind of collective solution-making even on a small scale; it can make you a believer.
White Supremacy Playbook
Robert’s Rules of Order and the general meeting protocols really do fall right in line with what we know about white supremacist culture. What I mean by this is that we value this methodology and purport that it is the “best” or “most fair” way to conduct a meeting because it validates and maintains the dominant white culture, thereby preserving whiteness as supreme. The protocols and meeting procedures we tend to follow throughout our governmental bodies, from local all the way up to D.C., are so quintessentially mired in these values that we take them for granted. Of course we need to have one person speak at a time uninterrupted, you say. What else would we do? Well, if you think critically about it, you begin to recognize that someone needs to decide who speaks first, who gets to speak more than once (or not), who gets cut off at the end of their 3 minutes, and who gets an extension. The very idea that speaking individually, in turn, is the best way to go implies valuing individualism over collective values. What happens to the input and values from people whose culture teaches them to wait until called upon, or that it is prideful and wrong to claim to be wise and one should speak with great humility, or those who experience the world from their heart more than their mind. No, those who do not meet the criteria of the dominant values are suppressed, devalued, and overridden by the system. This keeps the people in power unchallenged, even as they say they are inviting BIPOC folx and marginalized communities to come and have input.
Borrowing from Tema Okun’s handy guide, we can just go down the list to make the point. The characteristics of white supremacy culture that Okun lists are perfectionism, sense of urgency, defensiveness, quantity over quality, worship of the written word, one right way, paternalism, either/or thinking, power hoarding, fear of open conflict, individualism, progress is bigger/more, presumed objectivity, and the right to comfort. I see all of these characteristics playing out in our ad hoc committee, as well as in the city council, police commission and other such public meetings. The sense of urgency sets us up with unrealistic expectations, taking on way too much in too limited a time and space. This puts me, and likely all of us, in a position to pass motions that are not what we want them to be, but if we don’t pass it, nothing will get done. Also, we tend to rate how well a meeting went by how many motions we got through, valuing that over how well the process went or how thoroughly we were able to address all concerns on the matter. This committee is talking about envisioning new police policy and many on the committee, the facilitation team included, wants to confine our conversations not only to a sanctioned set of reformist reforms, but narrowing those down to only the ones that are completely within the purview of the city. This is portrayed as “right” and “objectively” sensical. However, it is clear to all of us, though no one says it out loud, that the reasons we are having this conversation are racism, corruption, and the people’s demands to defund and disarm police. We cannot be effective if we narrow our vision to the degree that we put on blinders to the big picture. We need to be addressing community safety as a whole and looking at alternatives while we consider policy changes.
My point is that even though only one of the three facilitators is white and the majority of folx making up the committee membership are not white, we all have to conform to an old boy’s mentality and set of values that severely limits what we could be bringing to the table. And this is a really old white boy, we are talking about. I looked it up. Henry Martyn Robert would be 183 years old today. He was a U.S. soldier who was asked to mediate a discussion at the church he attended, and things got out of hand. Embarrassed by his inability to keep things under control, he wrote and published his Pocket Manual of Rules of Order for Deliberative Assemblies This was written at a time when wealthy white men ruled and no one else had a seat at the table. The purpose of it, though presented to be about fairness, is really about control and maintaining order.
Daring to Dream of Difference
I think it’s high time we stop trying to create 21st century change with 19th century models. We have so many alternate models to choose from that have either come to light or evolved over the years. Many indigenous cultures incorporate much more communal and sustainable decision-making models, such as the Iroquois commitment to consider the impact of every decision on the next seven generations. What if we followed the lead of innovative tech companies and moved to a more Agile methodology? The tech industry discovered that moving through phases of production in a linear fashion has a lot of downsides. Instead, they now have inter-departmental groups work together to come up with a plan, then teams split up and work simultaneously on different aspects in short spurts called sprints. They frequently come back together for very short stand up meetings where they simply state what they have accomplished, what they are now working on, and what is in their way. This allows managers from all different departments to stay in tune with each other and better guide their teams. In terms of conflict resolution, what if we stopped having debates or hearings in which people “claim their time” in order to see how scathing a blow they can deal out? What if politicians sat down and dialogued with each other in a way that was more like Jada Pinkett Smith’s Red Table Talk? I mean, I could totally have seen Biden’s top VP picks having a talk like that. Wouldn’t it have been great to watch Stacey Abrams, Susan Rice, and Kamala Harris sit down and casually laugh and sigh and kindheartedly challenge each other for all the country to see? That’s easier to imagine than Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell. It would take time and concerted effort to imbed a new set of values, but it would totally be worth it.
If we want to make a more perfect union, an anti-racist America, with liberty and justice truly for all, we won’t be able to get there without really fundamentally changing the system. Why is that so hard to get behind? The fact that we are so resigned to deal with systems we know to be flawed shows how tightly we are held in the grip of conformity. I will continue to struggle with my city council and rattle the cages. Maybe I can at least make people more aware of the inherent injustices that no one seems to be identifying or addressing. For instance, while writing this, I was awaiting the results of a Doodle poll for the meeting of a subcommittee that I am serving on. When I hadn’t heard confirmation, I checked in and was informed that the meeting is being postponed because the Police Chief couldn’t make it. The Police Chief is not on our subcommittee. He has been invited (by the facilitation team I will point out, no one asked me) as a consulting expert. I don’t mind him being invited and giving us answers to questions we might have, but the fact that they cancelled the meeting because he couldn’t be there speaks volumes about who really has a seat at the table.
It’s high time we hit the reset button on our values. Let’s value the collective good before the individual benefit. Let’s value justice before order. Let’s value lives before profits. Once we claim to hold these values, let’s recognize that the system we have inherited is rooted in individualism, maintaining order, and maximizing profits. Finally, let’s resolve to adopt new systems that better reflect our values. Just because something has been around for a long time does not make it infallible. Just because something is comfortable and we have been conditioned to think of it as fair doesn’t make it so. In fact, it should be clear that the system we currently have has led us to build a society that is plagued by racism, corporate greed, climate disaster, and a bloated and dangerous military/prison industrial complex. How can we expect to change these symptoms using the same rules of order that established them in the first place?