Earthsong was developed from the beginning by the cooperative group of prospective residents, who worked together to create the legal structures required, design the buildings in collaboration with the architect, and fund the construction. Residents now manage the ongoing maintenance and development of the neighbourhood. Such an undertaking has required robust agreements about how we work together.
We have been committed to consensus decision-making from the start, and also aware that, in order to move forward at the pace required of a substantial housing development, we needed a clear decision-making structure. A key element of this was developing our membership structure which defined who was included in the decision-making.
The central decision-making group is the Full Group of all (full and associate) members of Earthsong Eco-Neighbourhood. We currently have meetings of the Full Group once a month in the common house, and all decisions of importance are brought to this meeting for discussion and decision-making by the full group.
We also have several Focus Groups which meet weekly, fortnightly or monthly, depending on the urgency of the issues and workload of the group. The purpose of the Focus Groups is to research and collate information, discuss issues and formulate proposals to the Full Group, and to carry out tasks once agreement has been reached.
The range of focus groups has changed over time with the needs and stage of the project. During the development and construction phase, groups such as the Design Group and the Construction Team were focused on decisions around construction, Legal and Finance were key areas of concern, and Membership and Promotions were busy enlisting new members to buy the houses. Now that construction is complete, focus groups are organized around the ongoing management of common facilities such as the common house, water systems and gardens, and resident issues such as community life and education. Our current structure evolved in 2007 and is illustrated in the "Brainstormygramme".
The groups have some delegated authority to make decisions on minor issues or those within a previously agreed framework. However any decision considered of importance to the whole group is brought as a proposal to the Full Group meeting, and discussed at the monthly meeting.
All meetings, both Focus Group and Full Group, begin with a round of 'checking in' on a personal level. This is an important part of community life, and builds friendships and trust. We make better decisions in the business part of the meeting when we understand and feel more connected to each other as people.
At every Full Group meeting, a beautiful centerpiece with a candle and seasonal flowers and leaves is created by one of our members, an act of love and care that reminds us of the wider and deeper context of our meeting.
Meetings broadly follow the Meeting Procedure, adapted as required for the size and complexity of the meeting. Our Communication Agreements and Decision-making process are fundamental to how we conduct meetings. All Focus Group meetings and Full Group meetings are recorded in detailed minutes which are circulated to all members, keeping everyone up to date with discussions and decisions made in all Earthsong meetings.
Consensus is the most inclusive form of decision making. However it is sometimes misunderstood? and can become tyranny by the dissenter! As we see it all participants have the right to be heard, but not to veto. The dissenting voice must either ask for time to make a better case or else step aside and agree not to impede implementation.
We use a powerful but simple system using coloured cards for facilitating discussion and making decisions. It is used successfully by many cohousing groups world-wide, and we have added some refinements of our own. The coloured cards method used at Earthsong allowed a group of ordinary people to create a major innovative housing development. Who says consensus doesn't work!!
Every member has a set of six coloured cards which are used in meetings in two different ways:
Each person wishing to speak raises the appropriate card at any time during the discussion. The facilitator calls on people to speak according to the following priority:
Black I have an interpersonal difficulty that is preventing my full participation
Red I have a process observation, eg. the discussion is off the subject
Orange I wish to acknowledge someone or something
Yellow I have a question, or need clarification
Green I can provide clarification
Blue I have a comment or opinion
Black cards have first priority, and the holder is asked to state their difficulty and how they would like the matter dealt with. The group then decides whether this should be processed within the meeting or between the individuals concerned.
The red card has the next priority, and is used to point out a process issue such as a breach of procedure, discussion going off-topic or over-time, or to make a group observation. Next, people holding up orange cards are called upon to deliver their acknowledgment/s.
After a question has been asked using a yellow card, people raise green cards to provide clarification. Only after all questions have been answered does the facilitator call on those holding blue cards to state their comments and opinions.
DECISION MAKING MODE
When the group is ready to make a decision following a period of discussion, each person chooses a card to indicate their level of support for the proposal as follows:
Green I agree with the proposal at hand
Blue I am neutral or basically for it, with some slight reservation
Yellow I have a question to be answered before I can make a decision
Orange I have a serious reservation, but I am not willing to block consensus
Red I am blocking this proposal and I am willing to help find a collective solution
If orange or red cards are raised, those people get to voice their concerns if they have not already done so. At this point the current proposal may be amended to address concerns. A second show of cards then follows. On the second carding a proposal is passed unless red cards are still being raised.
If consensus is not reached, the proposal is sent back to the appropriate focus group for more work. If consensus is still not reached at a subsequent meeting, and the proposal is considered both important and urgent, the decision can be made by a 75% majority vote of people eligible to take part in the decision making. We have only gone to a vote twice in the 15 year history of this project, both at crucial times during development when the consequences of having the decision stopped or delayed would have been serious. Our commitment is to working issues through to reach consensus if at all possible, but the voting backstop means that progress can't be stopped by a veto of one or two people.
We have found the coloured card system to be extremely useful in encouraging every member in the room to participate in discussion and decision making. Dominant personalities find it harder to push their ideas through at the expense of less vocal members, and softer-spoken members find it easier to voice their concerns. The shades of meaning in the decision-making mode allows members to voice reservations while still allowing the proposal to proceed.
Another important element of this system is that full minutes record discussion points and all decisions, and are circulated to all members after the meeting. Any member absent from a meeting may request to revisit a decision made at that meeting, at the next meeting only. Otherwise decisions may only be reopened with the prior agreement of 50% of members. This provision honours a member's right to have a say in issues they feel strongly about even when they were not able to be present at that meeting, but avoids the situation where decisions could be continually reopened unless it is clear that there is broad support to have another look at a particular issue.
Ongoing management of shared facilities does require time and effort to understand each other and reach agreement, and as with any group of people there are occasional interpersonal challenges that have to be worked through. While these can be uncomfortable and time-consuming, it is part of learning to interact and respect each other. It is challenging learning to work together and make decisions for the common good, and hugely valuable in learning to rebuild interdependence in our individualistic world. The processes we have developed for working together over our 15 year history have been fundamental to the success of our development and continue to enrich our ongoing community life.