If you open a space, you better set some rules, and keep ’em…

I have seen it so often – a meeting that could (“should”) be about “what can we DO” instead becomes a “the world is so unfair” kinda thing.

Don’t get me wrong, people need to be able to vent, to feel recognised, to have their anger and pain acknowledged. Trouble is, in the absence of functioning groups/movements that might win some actual improvements, these sorts of events can get taken over by grifters, hustlers and just people who are lost and/or lonely. I have seen it often (probably been a misuser of the spaces far more often than my memory allows, too!).

So, if you are opening up a space where it’s likely people are going to talk about how unfair everything is, and to compete for their moment in the sun, then you gotta be prepared, and have some rules that can be enforced and ARE enforced (either by you, a facilitator or set of facilitators). A personal favourite for this – though it is not a Swiss Army knife/panacea – is the “goldfish bowl.”

It all comes down to that ignored or not-even-seen skill of meeting design…

Anyway, here is a brilliant description of dynamic I am talking about, from Gloria Naylors novel “The Women of Brewster Place.” Kiswana is an idealistic middle-class woman who has come to live in a declining tenement building, with the hope of being a “useful person.” She finds out that this is easier to say than to do.

“The Brewster Place Block Association was meeting in Kiswana’s apartment. People were squeezed on the sofa and coffee table and sitting on the floor. Kiswana had hung a red banner across the wall. “Today Brewster – Tomorrow America” but few understood what that meant and even fewer cared. They were there because this girl had said that something could be done about the holes in their walls and the lack of heat that kept their children with congested lungs in the winter.

“Kiswana had given up trying to be heard above the voices that were competing with each other in volume and length of complaints against the landlord. This was the first time in their lives that they had felt someone was taking them seriously. So all of the would-be-if-they-could-be lawyers, politicians and Broadway actors were taking advantage of this rare opportunity to display their talents. It didn’t matter if they often repeated what had been said or if their monologues held no relevance to the issues; each one fought for the space to outshine the other.”

Gloria Naylor, “The Women of Brewster Place” page 138 to 139.

[It is much easier to have sympathy for these people, by the way, than the relatively comfortable ‘activists’ who wanna treat everyone else as ego-fodder]

See also: pity party, ego-fodder, emotacycle etc

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