For lesbian activists and grassroots organizers fighting the Christian Right.
Running Core Group Meetings
General Meeting Structure and Process
Welcoming New People
Because an initiative campaign entails intense work within a tight time frame, you will probably have to hold meetings more often than you would if you were organizing on an ongoing basis. But having too many meetings can easily backfire-when you're sitting in a room talking, you're not out doing the organizing. Having meetings late at night when everyone is totally exhausted most likely won't be productive either, and can create or exacerbate all sorts of tension. Considering all the other pressures your group will be facing, you won't want to add meeting stress. Try to create a schedule of meetings which facilitate accomplishing work without decimating your ranks.
The way you run your meetings can make the difference between keeping people in your group or causing them to leave, and between getting things done or spinning your wheels. Meetings of your core group should be efficient and even enjoyable. They shouldn't be a chore.
Keep in mind that many people don't like meetings. It's a good idea to keep them short. Providing snacks and drinks also makes them more bearable. If a meeting absolutely must or unpredictably does go on forever, you should consider building in some break times. Get up, stretch, do some yoga, flirt, tell loud jokes about the Christian Coalition, drink water. Refresh yourselves however you can then come back and finish the work.
You'll need to figure out what style of meeting works best for your group. Be willing to evaluate how things are going every once in a while and don't be afraid to try new approaches if things aren't working out. For example, sometimes people think that having everyone go around the room with the chance to speak is a good way for everyone to participate. However this assumes that the issue is one which requires discussion, when in fact it may be an issue which requires no discussion because everyone agrees. A rigid standard of going around the room for every issue would, in this case, make a meeting longer than necessary, and not too interesting. You could ask, first, if the question posed is one which people want to discuss. Or ask: is there anyone who needs to say something about the issue? Another option is to take a "straw poll" (a non-binding preliminary show-of-hands) to make sure you catch the input of people who might want to discuss something but aren't comfortable saying so. Flexibility in structure is the key to running a meeting productively and efficiently. But too much flexibility-or a total lack of structure-can leave things out of control. You will need to continually seek the best balance for your group.
In large groups meetings, we usually choose two people to facilitate; in smaller meetings, including most of our LACROP meetings, we designate only one. Even small meetings need someone to facilitate so discussions don't meander into free form conversations that don't accomplish specific work.
Facilitation is a skill that is easily taught and learned.
In New York we have held facilitator trainings outside of regular Avengers
meetings, but in Idaho we ran trainings from time to time within the Palouse
Avengers meetings. Facilitators are responsible for the meeting working
smoothly. But that is hard work, and they need the support of the group
in order to do a good job. When discussions get heated, people have a tendency
to take their tensions out on the facilitator. Avoid this at all costs.
Otherwise, only the thickest-skinned facilitator will continue to take
the task on, no one else will learn how to do it, and no one will ever
want to even try. At the end of one or several meetings you might want
to evaluate the facilitation or meeting structure so the facilitator's
job is improved. Offer constructive criticism and make sure to tell people
when they've done a good job so that hard tasks don't feel thankless.
At the beginning of the meeting everyone adds items to the facilitator's list for the agenda. The facilitator then orders the topics. The order we usually use is:
The main theme, obviously, is actions. We do not debate theoretical points, because this is time-consuming and can create false divisions before something concrete is even on the table. We might debate concrete strategies as they come up around concrete actions. This does not mean we hate theory-we just discuss it concretely in our meetings and abstractly outside our regular meeting times. Without some prioritization, meetings would last all night and all day because in the midst of a campaign, talking and planning is never complete. Prioritize based on deadlines or on the importance of a discussion to your strategy and tactics. We put announcements last, and outside groups' announcements, if there are any, after our own.
Make sure you make new people feel welcome. It's hard to come into a group that's already going, where everyone knows one another, and conversations are based on intimate knowledge of obscure and accumulated details which everyone assumes are self-evident. When there are new people at the meeting, everyone should introduce themselves. It's a nice idea to have a "hostess" so that an established member of the group makes sure to spend some time with newcomers after their first meeting, or call them during the week just to check in. The facilitator can help new members by making sure that people presenting ideas explain the issues and their history, and refer to things by their full names rather than the lengthy acronyms that make the died-in-the-wool organizer's heart beat fast ("members of INWGPA will attend the NWCAMH conference next week at U of I"). If you take the trouble to explain information, people can see that their understanding and input are valued no matter how long they've been with your group, and they'll be more likely to stay involved.
The facilitator's job is to keep the discussion running smoothly and efficiently, which means keeping speakers focused on the actions at hand and restraining speakers who are repeating themselves or other people. It's easy, especially when you're with a group of friends and people you work with a lot, to get away from the designated subject. The facilitator needs to keep everyone on track and, when a proposal is made, needs to make sure that that proposal is clear to the entire group before it can be decided upon.
Discussions can be clarified by dividing them into parts. When there is a proposal:
It's sometimes helpful to end a meeting by having everyone go around the room and repeat her name, then say what she's taken responsibility for doing before the next meeting. This is not to guilt trip anyone, but to summarize exactly what's going to happen and to remind each other that the main purpose of your meetings is to plan actions. It helps people see that everyone's input is valued and even expected, so that new members don't think that a core clique of people do all the work. It will also help people get into the habit of seeing that even a small task is a task, and individual's work will be acknowledged. It will also reveal if someone has taken on too much. If this is the case, the facilitator might ask her if she wants some help, or if anyone might take on some of her tasks or responsibilities so she won't be overwhelmed.
Before you conclude, decide on the next week's facilitator. If people come up with specific agenda items before the next meeting they can let her know early, so she will be better equipped to organize that meeting.
Finally, if you're all going out after a meeting, remember to invite the new members.
These points may make it sound as if meetings always run
smoothly and there are never any problems. Don't be fooled! This is not
true, as our experiences have shown. But there are ways to keep conflict
from getting out of control.
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