In Search of Dialogue: Notes from OccupyOakland, October 22nd

by Miki Kashtan

After my first visit to OccupyOakland I felt inspired. I was connected to the vision, to a sense of possibility. I was fully open to the unfolding, to seeing what would come. I’ve been very encouraged by the response I’ve been getting to my post about that visit.

Before I posted those notes I had a second visit to OccupyOakland, and my current picture is very different, more nuanced, sober, intrigued, concerned, excited, and even more clear that I don’t know much. I notice how much harder it is to write about those experiences. I find it challenging to express concerns about the movement, and yet I know it’s vital to express truth with love, and I am reaching into the courage to do that.

On October 17th I attended the general assembly meeting at OccupyOakland. I had never been to a large group meeting following consensus rules, and I didn’t know what to expect. So much happened during the evening that I simply cannot speak about all of it, and there is no way to get the feel of it from reading the notes posted on the OccupyOakland site. What’s below is by necessity filtered through my very personal perspective and sensibilities.

One thing that stood out to me is the extraordinary patience of hundreds of people sitting in the small amphitheater outside Oakland City Hall. Most people sat through more than two and half hours of people speaking with more or less discernible relevance, announcements about many activities, committees, requests, offers, opinions, questions.

What was also striking to me, and the main reason for this post, is the absence of anything I would call dialogue. When a proposal was put on the table, what I saw was a lineup of people expressing their opinion about why a letter should or shouldn’t be sent, or about why this or that paragraph would need to be revised or taken out. I saw nothing that resembled what I consider to be the building blocks of collaborative decision-making. The facilitators were mostly occupied with controlling traffic – not a small task in a crowd that contains people using drugs or inhabiting different realities than most, and where almost everyone’s comments extended beyond the time requested. Between this challenge and the overall set of rules, people had the space to speak, and yet there was nothing set up for them to be heard. How would anything emerge in such a context that would allow creative solutions to take place? How could people ever come together on a divided issue?

The proposal on the table was to send a letter in response to the Mayor’s two letters to the assembly, in which the city was making some requests (or demands, as the case may be) to those living and using the space. As the lineup of speakers proceeded, I learned more and more each time about the depth of the issues that this proposal was raising. I also understood more fully that at least some people hold the term “occupy” to mean taking full possession of the territory such that they no longer hold the city as having authority over that area.

For these people, and for some others, responding to the Mayor means accepting the authority of the city to make requests of the campers. I understand this logic deeply: if the idea of a parallel life being formed is serious, then I can see why people would fully question business as usual, and why they would want the rules to be made, freshly, by the group for itself.

For others, responding is a way to make a statement that the group is not about creating chaos and dirt; that there is a sense of responsibility and care for the environment. Some believed that such a statement could make the camp, and the movement, more compelling and appealing, invite others to join.

Again, I can see the logic. Unlike in other places in the world, what I saw wasn’t a cross section of the entire population. I believe it’s still associated in the public eye with a particular subculture, and many are uncomfortable joining even if they fully sympathize with the critique being articulated. So I can see why people would want to appeal to such people by being less different-looking.

With my growing experience in collaborative decision making, I was itching to see a process, something that metabolizes all the opinions, that allows people to see beyond the surface words spoken to the underlying concerns, issues, needs, and dreams in the name of which people speak.

Could there have been a way to move forward that would honor what’s important to both groups? Is it possible that at least some people could have shifted as a result of getting more deeply what was important to others? Or that some people might have been willing to stretch to accept a solution that wasn’t their favorite because they could see why it was important to others? Or could the entire issue of what this “occupation” means have become clearer to everyone, leading to some surprising direction that would have satisfied everyone?

When the lineup of speakers was finished, the proposal was put to a vote. Over 100 people voted for sending a letter to the Mayor and creating a committee to finalize it, and over 40 people voted against it. In the consensus rules that govern the general assembly this means the proposal is now off the table. I am not satisfied with this outcome. Not because I necessarily want the letter to be sent. I abstained during the vote, because I didn’t have a sense of having been enough of a participant in the movement to have integrity about voting, nor did I understand the issues well enough to make a considered opinion.

I am not satisfied with the outcome because it left the people who wanted to send a letter without a way to address what’s important to them. No, I am not suggesting a simple majority vote instead of the 90% existing rule, because then I would have the same question about the minority. I am aching for some way to transcend the either/or paradigm on which such votes rest. We have been raised to believe that the way we can affect the outcome is by making a compelling argument and convincing others of the rightness of our opinion. I am sad as I am winding down this post, because I see this preoccupation with arguments and with who is right as part of the very world the “occupiers” are seeking to transform.

I am longing, instead, for everyone to matter and to have a true voice, so that what’s important to them can be heard and they can truly affect the outcome. I want those working to create change to have access to the plethora of ingenious methods that exist to support groups in converging, in learning together, and in integrating divergent opinions. More than anything, I want so much for the Occupy movement to have this as part of what gets modeled: the possibility of transforming conflict and disagreement into a solution that works for everyone.

Seeing the surge in visits to my blog since I started writing about the “occupation”, I plan to be writing more about it each time I go. My next scheduled visit to the site is today, when I am also part of a training taking place right onsite and hosted by Seminary of the Street (where you can see more information about it). While everything I do is fully infused with NVC, this training is about nonviolence more generally, and I am co-leading with other folks. Hope to see some people there, and I anticipate posting something within the next few days.

19 thoughts on “In Search of Dialogue: Notes from OccupyOakland, October 22nd

  1. Ian Mayes

    You just named one of the things that I have disliked about activist and radical circles for YEARS now, long before the whole Occupy thing got started. I think that the absence of real listening and actual dialogue can contribute greatly to people totally burning out.

  2. sarah proechel

    What you are speaking to here is the fact that this movement is an organic process, evolving and growing, not waiting for a perfect plan. It's a completely valid way to operate.

    I am reminded of the civil rights movement. The general impression one gets from the history books is that Rosa Parks ignited the movement and Dr MLK, Jr. was the one who led it. The truth is that there

  3. Susan L

    There is no cookie-cutter consensus decision-making process; every Occupation decides how it will decide.

    One that I saw that was very different from what you are describing, Miki, had a clearly specified incubation period: A proposal couldn't be passed in the same G.A. in which it was introduced so that small group discussion has an opportunity to happen. Also, the person(s)

  4. Anonymous

    My heart responds to this and to all 3 responses with a hope that rather than focus on criticism and concern for the inevitable flaws in the present state of things developing on the ground, we stay focused on whatever we possibly have to contribute to its positive development.

    There seem to be endless ways springing up to contribute and add leadership to this movement of leaders, so,

  5. Elly van Laar

    Thanks all for your responses, which gives me fruit for thought.

    The last three Fridays I have been teaching Non-Violent Communication classes at Occupy Austin to whomever was interested. I went around the plaza at City Hall to invite attendants to participate. My perception (based on those connections and what the participants shared in class), is that Occupy Austin struggles to

  6. Ron G

    A couple of years ago I listened to an interview of Jim Rough (Wisdom Councils). He described a problem solving/decision making process that struck me as the wave of the future. He described three different basic models of how things have been decided in societies throughout the ages, each being symbolized with a geometric figure. We all know the triangle hierarchy, top down leadership model.

  7. Lisa Rothman

    My questions is: who do we speak to so that we can request that you facilitate the next meeting? Is this something you would be interested in doing?

  8. Bob Niederman

    I have never had the experience of conducting a dialogue in a large group. By a large group, I mean 15 or more. It's true that many leaders thought they were leading a dialogue. But this has not been my experience. Some leaders seem to believe that if they ask, "Would anyone not be willing to do XXX" and nobody in that moment raises their hand, that this is tantamount to some

  9. Rebecca

    Thank you for continuing to write about this. I am so, so disheartened by the Occupy movement here in Dunedin, New Zealand, and I long to see the movement become one of community and coming together rather than polarization and vitriol. I really appreciate your insights. They continue to help me navigate my continuing emotions and beliefs about this movement. Many, many thanks!

  10. Anonymous

    These methods of organizing decision making based on deep and respectful listening seem to be what's needed. There also seem to be many having developed over recent years with similar bents on creating a group in compassion rather than authority/power-over.

    I believe many of them are valid and truly helpful, as these would be.
    What's left to be done is to initiate these

  11. Suzanne Jones

    As I read your post I kept thinking of a talk that Catherine Cadden gave in which she just told some stories about how an NVC approach to the situation resulted in a shift for the people involved. What struck me most about that talk was that Catherine was speaking softly, with a confidence that comes from a lot of experience. It didn't feel like she was selling anything or pressing

  12. carlene robinson

    PLEASE KEEP WRITING ON WHAT YOU ARE SEEING IN THIS MOVEMENT. I need the perspective of someone who I know practices nonviolence, wants to live in it, and continually offers ways for us to see ourselves nonviolently. I won't have this information from someone I trust if you don't offer it. So thank you.

  13. Anonymous

    come on…do you really thing a consensus vote will protect minorities?? this is absurd coming from nonviolent communication: social pressure is much greater in this case than in majority's decisions. in majority votes the minority has the right to express itself without blocking the decision process (and therefore having to confront to the pressure of their peers). what have to be ensured is

  14. Miki Kashtan

    dear anonymous,

    i do so totally understand the issue you are raising. i have seen it happen, and appreciate your pinpointing it like this. what is crystal clear to me after reading your comment is how critical it is to shift out of either/or thinking before we can truly envision that through a decision-making process a workable solutions for everyone can emerge. when needs are heard,

  15. Upgeya

    Hi Miki
    Besides the lack of dialog, the limitations of the Consensus system to enhance connection, evolve strategies and include dissensus in strategies, is becoming apparent. I believe a combination of the following may offer better outcomes:

    1) Dynamic governance (sociocracy);
    2) NVC-type awareness emphasizing connection at the need-level;
    3) A sense-of-the-meeting

  16. Tree Bressen

    Thanks Miki for putting all this out. There is so much in this comment thread that i could respond to, and i will confine myself to replying to this one part from the original post.

    You wrote:

    “[I]f I stand in line to speak at a decision-making meeting, and what’s truly important to me has been named already, even if in different words and through a different opinion, then

  17. Susan L

    PANCHO IS FREE!!! Thank you, Miki, for using my Comment as the teaser for your blog. I'm telling myself that it made a difference.

    We collected more than 8000 signatures on the petition to Barbara Lee to intercede with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities on Pancho's behalf, and we flooded the Sheriff's office, the D.A.'s office, and the offices of the


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