Monday, October 29, 2007

On reaching consensus

First, thanks to Commissioner Randy Leonard for responding to my post about the Interstate Avenue renaming issue and about the mayor’s self-described “irrelevancy.”

I’ve written a response in which I urge Leonard and his colleagues (including the mayor) to look at the larger issue behind renaming the street. To do so might get the City Council (and other interested parties) back to a point where they could find consensus.

His response to that is that all parties, sadly, seem deadlocked.

Which takes me back to consensus, where I left off yesterday….

In the piles of books donated for our Dec. 9 Hillsdale Book Sale, I came across a well used workbook put out by Pace e Bene Franciscan Non-violence Center. I shared a couple of César Chavez quotations in yesterday’s post. I hope Commissioner Leonard and the other members of the council are familiar with them. Indeed, I hope everyone becomes familiar with them. I confess I wasn’t until I browsed through the workbook.

The workbook also has a concise section on “The Consensus Process” which I also recommend to the council and to anyone else involved in group decision making.

As a Quaker, I well versed in reaching consensus (or, as Friends say, a “sense of the Meeting”) because that is the way Quakers conduct all their business. I also have used the techniques of consensus in chairing various neighborhood committees, and I have made “believers” of friends and neighbors who have been part of the process.

Consensus is a powerful tool.

I find it interesting, and frankly ironic, that an institution within the hierarchical Catholic Church would advocate consensus. But then the Franciscans have always marched to their own drummer. Dare I say, “Thank God!”?)

But there’s more. How to explain that one of the best books written about Quaker consensus-making is “Beyond Majority Rule” by Michael J. Sheeran, a Jesuit scholar? Actually, Sheeran traces the connection between the Catholic Church and consensus to the notion of “Communal Discernment” among early Christians. For more, read this excellent book.

Now, back to the Franciscan workbook on non-violence and its brief section on consensus. City Council members (and others) make note!

The workbook neglects to talk about who should be at the table in the first place. The answer is all (and I do mean ALL) stakeholders. In the case of the street renaming proposal, the gathering should include commercial property owners on Interstate Avenue, leaders of the Hispanic community, City Council members and any others who have a serious, legitimate interest.

The goal is to find agreement, if possible. But there are other important benefits. To quote from the workbook, “Through consensus, we are not only working to achieve better solutions, but also to promote the growth of community and trust. It is also a process which invests everyone in the outcome and in the responsibility to carry it out.”

The workbook presents four brief sections that apply to the naming controversy.

“Voting (as opposed to consensus decision-making) is a win or lose model in which people are more concerned with the numbers it takes to win than with the issue itself. Voting does not take into account individual feelings or needs.”

“With consensus …no ideas are lost; each member’s input is valued as part of the solution.”

“(Consensus) means that the final decision doesn’t violate someone’s fundamental moral values, for if it did, they would be obliged to block consensus….”

“…when (consensus) works, collective intelligence does come up with better solutions than could individuals.”

I’d add one more Quakerly aspect. Periods of silent reflection (whether for minutes or days) bring wisdom and dignity to the process. Time is NOT, and must not be, of the essence. (And time may be needed in the present stalemate as it is described by Leonard.)

In my experience, all of the above are true. If the City Council members would employ the techniques of consensus, I believe they (and the entire city) would benefit from these truths.

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