How to run a meeting when you’re not really there

Online meetings are cheaper (no room bookings, refreshments or itineraries to organise) and participants only have to travel as far as their nearest internet connection. Business, universities and training colleges all seem to have taken up the challenge of virtual training. So why don’t more small NGOs run meetings online? Run webinars for staff training?

Developing staff skills in virtual facilitation is a simple and small way that organisations can commit to dealing with climate change. But the attitude I’ve encountered is that Skype is not only second-best but needs to be avoided at all costs – it’s just easier to not involve people who should be at a meeting than to organise an internet hookup. It’s really, really not that hard to set up a Skype connection, or two, or three. Investing in good virtual facilitation skills is worthwhile in itself, but by (hopefully) building trust and shared experience between staff members working at a distance, it may even make face-to-face meetings, when they do occur, more productive and effective.

So how do you run a meeting when you’re not really there? Some ideas…


A lot of hot air

Recently I watched as an interstate-based climate campaigner arrived at a conference, roller suitcase with airline stickers in tow, rushed into a session on climate skepticism and gave a talk that repeated much of what had been said in the previous session and even by the two speakers who had already spoken on the panel.* So this piece, Hypocrites in the Air, by Kevin Andrews, professor of energy and climate change [sic] at the University of Manchester, seems relevant:

Attending an ‘essential’ conference to save the world from climate change in Venice, Cancun or some other holiday resort, is perfectly do-able by plane. However, the rising emission trends don’t seem to have registered the sterling work we have achieved at such events. Perhaps if we flew to more of them,emissions would really start to come down – we may even spot some flying pigs en route. Instead, junk the plane and get together with a few other UK speakers heading to the same event, cram yourself in a trusty Fiat Panda and set off for Venice. Somewhere around Dartford, what was previously ‘essential’ begins to take on a different hue, and by Dover a whole new meaning has evolved. Essential has become a relative term, dependent on: Can we get there by plane? Are our friends also attending? Is it somewhere nice to visit (or name-drop)? Will we be taxied around? Are we staying in a plush hotel?

This is where the first major saving resides: slow forms of travel fundamentally change our perception of the essential. We consequently travel less (at least in distance), and given that air travel is the most emission-profligate activity per hour (short of Formula 1 and possibly space tourism) the emission-related opportunity costs are knocked into a cocked hat. Of course, as climate change specialists we are exempt from such analysis – our message truly is essential – so we’re the exception that should be able to carry on emitting as before.

Business and pleasure frequently demand flight travel from people living in high-income countries, and I think Andrews is right to question the urgency and legitimacy of that demand. It’s worth noting, though, that Andrews’ solution, train travel in Europe, is possibly the most convenient, safest and comfortable way to travel in the entire world. It’s unlikely that you’d be able to repeat Andrews’ experience on the Trans-Siberian Express of “the most productive period of my academic career” on the 24-hour bus journey from Hanoi to Vientiane. Alternative transport options in other places in the world tend to involve multiple and varying difficulties, including personal safety, especially for women travellers; safety relating to the quality of the vehicle and the roads, the route, and the ability/condition of the driver; comfort, again posing particular problems for people with disabilities and for women, who for reasons relating to culture, religion, safety and/or menstruation generally have fewer toilet options than men and are more likely to be travelling with children; reliability; language; and the availability of viable connections, which, as anyone who’s ever been stranded alone in a bus station in a foreign country in the middle of the night knows, also relates to personal safety, and which, if you have a disability, may be a matter of life and death. When travelling overland, personal appearance may create difficulties, particularly for women, that can sometimes be avoided or reduced when travelling by plane, though the reverse is probably true for those who are frequently subjected to racial profiling or interrogation at airports.

Still, Andrews’ insistence that those involved in climate work put their money and their bums where their mouths are – so to speak – and insist on travelling overland is an important challenge to the normalisation of personal air travel:

A study by Prof Higham and colleague Dr Scott Cohen (University of Surrey) looked at the perceptions and behaviours of travellers from Norway, a country committed to carbon neutrality by 2030, and found a willingness to make behaviour changes to address climate concerns. But even among the community-minded Norse, there was a reluctance or unwillingness to reduce levels of personal air travel, including both short- and long-haul travel. The researchers found ”air travel has become deeply embedded in contemporary affluent Western lifestyles, to the point of intransigence”.

Tim McKilney in the Otago Daily Times, New Zealand

* I’m thinking about my own hypocrisy in this, really.

Strength through solidarity

Kira Cochrane in The Guardian, Nine inspiring lessons the suffragettes can teach feminists today:

There were often major splits in the suffrage movement but there was also enough solidarity to keep the mission afloat. One strong example arose in 1906, when Millicent Garrett Fawcett, the leader of the non-militant side of the movement, wrote to the Times in support of the militants. “I take this opportunity of saying that in my opinion,” she wrote, “far from having injured the movement, they have done more during the last 12 months to bring it within the realms of practical politics than we have been able to accomplish in the same number of years.” It was a generous statement from the woman whose conscientious campaigning, over the course of many years, is often credited with being the essential force in the fight for the vote.

What not to say

“I think it’s very interesting that you only found out about this yesterday. I don’t mean to cast any aspersions on you, but we’ve advertised this pretty widely…”

-The publicity manager of a conference I attended recently

Milgram and Dimow

milgram expJoseph Dimow trained as a machinist after high school and worked in small machine workshops most of his life. He was a member of the Communist Party (for which he was harassed by the FBI, and eventually arrested and convicted under the Smith Act, though an appeal overturned the conviction) and fired from several jobs for union organising. In 1961, he participated in a famous experiment designed to test the limits of authority – and he was among the 35 per cent of participants who refused to continue.

Every time I read a reference to the Milgram experiment – and this is the internet, so it happens a bit – I wonder why more isn’t written about the 35 per cent of participants who stopped the experiment once they saw the “learner” in discomfort. What were their backgrounds? Did they have experiences in common? What gave them the fortitude to disobey orders?

Some years go I stumbled across Dimow’s own account, “Resisting Authority: A Personal Account of the Milgram Obedience Experiments”, which he published in the January 2004 issue of Jewish Currents. Dimow attributes his capacity for resistance to his socialist upbringing, his military service in WWII and his membership of the Communist Party. He closes his essay by expressing his admiration for women and men in the Israeli army who, despite enormous social pressure and lifelong personal ramifications, resist service in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. What a guy. There’s an interview with Dimow in Aging Political Activists: Personal Narratives from the Old Left (1995; ed. D. Shuldiner). The interview doesn’t touch on the Milgram experiment, but Dimow’s autobiography provides a unique example of a principled life built on work, family and activism. No doubt to the publisher’s dismay, you can peek at it through that link.

(While searching for Dimow’s essay, I found the American Psychological Association providing four pieces of simple advice on disobedience:

  • Question the legitimacy of the authority
  • Ask yourself if the order is something you would do of your own accord
  • Resist even small things if they are objectionable– small acquiescences led to bigger ones
  • Resistance is easier with allies)

The Organizing Model and the struggle for union democracy

Woman showing model of kitchen to another woman for kitchen planning.

Electric Institute of Washington. Woman showing model of kitchen to another woman for kitchen planning. Library of Congress #LC-H814- 2241-003-x.

There’s a wonderful moment in the 1981 New Zealand documentary ‘Wildcat: The Struggle for Democracy in the New Zealand Timberworkers’ Union’*, when Willie Wilson, elected leader of the breakaway timberworkers’ union, timberworker and communist, suggests to a labourers’ stopwork meeting that the biggest mistake of their campaign against the corrupt union leadership was limiting their demands to the ousting of particular officials, and dropping the broader demand of union democracy. You can hear part of it in the ‘Wildcat’ trailer available online, but here’s the rest:

“The only strong union organisation you can get is for the rank and file workers to have control of it… When the rank and file on the job take action over grievances that have never ever been alleviated for years and years and years – and you go off the job, it’s called ‘wildcat’. “Wildcat”, the employers scream. The paid officials of unions say, “They’re wildcatters, commie bastards are leading them astray, the fucken Reds are taking over the country, they’re doing this, they’re doing that to workers.” But in my opinion, wildcat is the expression of the rank and file workers of the lack of union democracy. That there is no union democracy at all. So they’ve got to take to the streets or walk off the job to bring it to the notice of their fellow workers and workers in general. And that’s what we did.”

I thought of Wilson’s description of the relationship between wildcat action and union democracy today when a colleague sent me the link to IWW trainer Erik Forman’s potted history of the “organising model”, “The Organizing Model: As American as Apple Pie”. Forman explores its spread and entrenchment in the union movement internationally with, I notice and appreciate, a subtle emphasis on the grammatical – like its definite article (the organising model), and the transition from American to British English (“From Organizing Model to Organising Model”). Forman argues that the union organizing model that was exported from the United States to Australia and Europe creates an alveolate structure of unionism, one without political commitments and incapable of expanding its dimensions to the level of a social movement. It’s worth reading, particularly for Australian unionists:

More than 20 years after the AFL-CIO coined the term “organizing model,” and over a decade since the concept began to spread across the globe in the footsteps of neoliberal capitalism, it is safe to say the model has produced only limited success. While the shift is certainly necessary, it has not been sufficient to revive labor as a social movement.

Everywhere the organizing model has taken root, it has met three pointed critiques. First, the reliance on professional staff often reproduces the problems of the service model, as rank-and-filers remain consumers of unions, rather than producers.

Second, the single-minded focus on signing up new members has too often led to partnership agreements with employers who permit unions to organize in exchange for weak contracts.

Third, the model has obscured deeper questions about labor’s vision and strategy. Even as capitalism destroys the planet and throws more people into misery, unions are looking backward to the structures of the New Deal rather than forward to a new world.

* ‘Wildcat’ (well worth obtaining on DVD through FilmShop) is about the NZ timberworkers’ mobilisations against their union leadership in the late 1970s. The film was made by radical left NZ filmmakers Vanguard Films for the breakaway timberworkers’ union headed by Wilson, the Combined Council of Delegates (CCL).

Learning by speaking up

A12111, 1/1962/14/25

Enquiry counter officer Fred Gough answers questions about Australia’s 10 Pound Assisted Passage Scheme from a London couple anxious to emigrate. Source: Natl. Archives of Australia, A12111, 1/1962/14/25

First, an article from the Boston Globe on the importance of asking questions:

It’s important to avoid the impulse to ask questions merely about the consequences, but to ask instead about the process: how the decision was made, based on what, and with whose input. And that’s true not just in the doctor’s office, but when you’re picking up your car from the mechanic, applying for a job, settling a claim with your insurance company, or talking to your child’s teacher at a parent-teacher conference.

Second, a short video summarising some interesting research on group dynamics and the pressure to conform, suggesting that it’s important to vocalise your dissent even in ‘minority’ groups where you are in broad agreement. Interesting that an opinion repeatedly expressed, even by a single person, tends to lodge in our brains as a valid one — as the climate change deniers bombarding online comments sections (or whoever is paying them, or developed the computer program to write their stupid screeds) figured out long ago.

I suppose being conscious of these dynamics is a first step towards creating groups where dissent or criticism can be voiced without reprisal or fear, but what are the next steps? What is good facilitation? How can a trainer make a space dynamic, interesting and safe? I know there are good answers to these questions around already. So begins a small attempt at cataloguing them.