Before we even begin addressing some of the issues facing us in our community and taking action on them, the way we communicate and co-operate is key.
Frome People’s Meeting.
The need for good conversations
The Frome People’s Meeting was created to offer a space for people to come together to share ideas and have conversations with people we may not encounter in our daily lives. In a world where we can often feel powerless and alienated from each other, the idea was that in coming together we make connections and find encouragement and support for actions that we can take in our community and beyond.
There have been two People’s Meetings so far and we are still exploring what we want these meetings to be about and how they can work best for everyone. There is certainly an agreement that real face to face meetings are desirable to build a sense of community and connection. Coming together in physical presence with each other makes possible a more sensitive human interaction than social media can offer.
The meetings have no agenda, simply a loose structure which allows for conversations to happen and for people to gather around shared topics to deepen the discussions. Some come with ‘ideas in my head to flesh out with other people’, others have a question they want to explore and others are interested in listening with curiosity, following the process and seeing what emerges. There is a sense that we are there to find our way together and get a better sense of how we can be engaged in creating the world that we want to see and be part of.
A people’s meeting is a place where our voice is heard, where we can contribute our thoughts, feelings and ideas and feel more empowered to take action. Why should we leave decision making to the politicians when these are decisions that affect us directly? This is about reclaiming politics by and for the people, relearning what it means to be an active citizen and doing this through small groups gathering together as we are. Perhaps it may lead to setting up a Citizens Assembly or a civic group that develops a partnership with the local Council or maybe it’s about taking direct action rather than waiting for those in power to do something.
If a small group of people can be considered a microcosm of society then could the People’s meeting be a place for us to explore how we can live and work together in healthy, collaborative ways? Competition, polarisation of views, a culture of blame and short-term thinking are some of the ways in which our society has become divided within itself and also cut off from a sense of the bigger picture of our impact on the planet. If we are looking to change the system we have inherited then how do make sure we don’t repeat the patterns of the past? As as Einstein said ‘We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them’ so perhaps we need to consider how we can think and converse in new ways.
What are the conditions that need to be in place for communication that leads to real change, real transformation? This was a question we came to explore in the second meeting. First, it was suggested, we need to slow down. Instead of jumping in with the first thought that comes to mind in response to what someone said, we can take time to listen deeply, really understand what they are saying, be curious, ask questions. Instead of searching for solutions, for ways of fixing the problem we can take time to hear the person fully. We can also learn to be more comfortable with not knowing, with not having any answers. One of the practices of Tree Sisters is to stay with this uncertainty and allow for thoughts and ideas to ‘reveal’ themselves. Otto Scharmer talks about four levels of listening and understanding these can make all the difference to our awareness of how we are communicating. It is often the experience of groups who listen well that new and surprising ideas and insights will emerge out of these kinds of conversations.
At the last meeting we paired up and spent 5 minutes each speaking while the other simply listened. What people appreciated about this exercise was that it allowed the speaker to explore their thoughts while also feeling fully heard by the other. Once good listening is happening people feel more at ease with each other and able to participate more fully in the group.
The challenges come when disagreements emerge, as they do. Can we agree that the tensions that arise from different views are of value, even necessary? We need different perspectives, ours is only one part of the picture and if we can take time to understand a different or opposing view then we move away from judgement of right or wrong and may find a whole new way opening up. For example, at our first meeting there were some who wanted the group to be focussing on taking action, making things happen, and others who felt strongly that we needed to get to know each other, to cultivate our relationships before we could do anything together. Both were acknowledged and a space was found for each. There was a recognition that diversity is important in the conversations we are having and should be welcomed – people with different views and from different cultures and backgrounds coming together in community is the way we can create a world that works for all.
So, leading on from this was the question of how we make sure that we are including more of our Frome community and are not having conversations within a bubble? Where are the people who are not part of the conversation and can we find ways to reach across the societal divides? Our challenge here is, again, to listen more deeply to understand the human being behind the social mask.
Before we even begin addressing some of the issues facing us in our community and taking action on them, the way we communicate and co-operate is key. If we can provide open forums for conversations where we first agree how we are going to communicate and collaborate then we can move on to what we are going to do with more clarity and understanding. Through attending to relationships in this way we have more chance of creating wiser actions in the world.
The people’s meeting has covered a range of topics since it started, from developing neighbourhood connections to how we can respond to the Climate crisis. Both the local and the global are within the scope of our conversations. At this particular moment in time, when many of us have been shaken to the core by the recent information about the extent of Climate breakdown, there is a real need for us to come together to explore what this means for our lives and what our best response can be. And we need to create a sense of how things can be different in a reimagined world. Pete gave us a such a vision when he described standing, together with hundreds of ‘conscientious protectors’ from the Extinction Rebellion movement, on Westminster bridge, in the shadow of the Houses of Parliament. Here were the seeds of a new kind of democracy and a new kind of citizen prepared to take back the power and create a civic space where all voices can be heard.
The People’s Meeting offers us a space for the deeper conversations and shared visions that we so need at this time.