Decisions at White Hawk are made by consensus. Consensus is a cooperative, democratic decision-making process. All members of White Hawk are encouraged to work together to make the best possible decision for the group based on community-wide values and the White Hawk vision statement. Consensus is based on the belief that each person has some part of the truth and no one has all of it.
In On Conflict and Consensus (an excellent book on consensus, well worth reading if you are interested in a deeper understanding of it), the authors note that consensus is built on a foundation of trust, respect, patience, unity of purpose, cooperation, commitment to the group, active participation, and more. By accepting upon ourselves the responsibility of operating our community on consensus, we don’t claim that we are already perfect community members in possession of these skills and traits but we agree to work towards them as ideals.
We agree to identify when we have faltered, individually and as a community, on the path towards respecting, empowering and supporting each other in the radical way necessary to decide by consensus and to remain committed to the process and to improving ourselves.
Putting it into Practice
In October of 2016, we passed a new set of guidelines, called ‘Reaching Consensus in Community’, outlining many important elements of how we make decisions at White Hawk. Below is a simplified summary of how it works.
White Hawk members have a monthly meeting that is open to the public, where we discuss proposals and other business. We need quorum to hold these meetings, which is more than 50% of member households. We also have an Annual Meeting, where we discuss our annual budget, present the annual report, and choose new members for the few positions that are necessary for the functioning of our community (three directors, treasurer, and a secretary). There is also a system of holding special meetings and urgent business for dealing with time sensitive issues that come up in between meetings.
Proposals & Decisions
There are many ways that White Hawk might reach a decision, but here is the ideal, typical path:
First, a member or group of members brings an idea to the appropriate committee. For example, a member wants to to use an acre of community land to raise goats would go to Earth Stewardship Committee to discuss the idea. Working with that committee, a written proposal would be crafted, following an existing template. The proposal works out the pros and cons, how much land, who is responsible for costs, etc., hopefully addressing most of the concerns that might arise from the community in advance.
To be discussed and (hopefully) approved at the next monthly meeting, the proposal has to be sent out on the community email listserv seven days before the meeting, to give everyone time to consider it. The proposal will be put onto the agenda for the meeting and the member(s) who wrote it will present it. The meeting facilitator will move everyone through the steps of consensus (see below) – this process allows time for questions, feedback, concerns, and resolving concerns.
For our community, consensus is defined as the resolution of all ‘principled concerns’, that is, concerns based on agreed-upon community values (i.e. from our Mission Statement) and/or previous decisions. Members can and should raise personal concerns and the community should work to resolve those, but that is not a requirement for consensus. If all principled concerns are resolved, the proposal passes and enters the seven day reflection period, which gives all members (including those not present at the meeting), seven additional days to consider the proposal and raise (potentially new) principled concerns. Assuming no new concerns are raised, the proposal becomes a decision on the eighth day after the meeting.
If principled concerns could not be resolved within the time allotted on the agenda, or if new principled concerns are raised during the Reflection Period, the proposal does not pass. This is not a failure, but it just means it wasn’t ready yet. The presenters and the member(s) who raised unresolved concern(s) must meet and work together to modify the proposal before the next meeting. This process may sound arduous but discussing our shared values and exciting projects for the land can be really fun; additionally, if it takes time to find a solution, that might be because we are 10+ families (and counting!) living together and sharing land. It is worth taking the time to make sure our actions are in line with our shared values and that we are doing our best to maintain balance and joy in community.
Using the Land Without Group Process
The Nitty Gritty
If you really want to get into it, here are some of the finer details of our process:
- Minor Decisions
The process described above is for ‘Major Decisions’, but we also have ‘Minor Decisions’ and ‘Urgent Decisions’. Minor Decisions don’t require a written proposal or seven days advance notice, they can be made on the spot during a meeting. Here are some questions we would ask to determine whether an issue is Major or Minor:
- Is the issue large or complex (i.e. could it impact a number of different areas – budget, land-use, infrastructure, etc.)?
- Are there competing voices or values? And do the competing voices/values each relate equally to White Hawk’s values and vision?
- Is there a clear and unambiguous sense of agreement?
- What are the possible implications of the decision? Are there likely to be impacts to future members? Budgetary implications for the Annual Budget and/or future budgets and household contributions?
If the issue is complex, there are competing voices, far-reaching implications or no clear sense of agreement, then the decision is a Major Decision; if there is disagreement about the above questions, then the decision is a Major Decision.
- Urgent Decisions
When time sensitive issues arise and a decision must be made quickly in order to avoid significant harm to White Hawk, the issue can be declared Urgent Business by one of White Hawk’s three directors. An example of this would be the need to spend money quickly in order to bring our community into alignment with a new zoning ordinance. To resolve Urgent Business, a Special Meeting may be called on short notice to gather members to attempt to reach a decision; another option is to expedite a decision over email – however this should be used infrequently, as reaching consensus over email is a major challenge. Urgent Decisions require no written proposal, no advance notice and have no reflection period. In the rare case that consensus cannot be reached within the time available, the community may instead reach decision by Supermajority of those present in the meeting (3/4 of member households) – this is one of the few instances when decisions are not made by consensus and we make every effort to avoid the need for it.
- Consensus Process
As White Hawk has grown in size, we’ve opted to implement a more formal consensus process; an informal discussion works well in very small groups but becomes inefficient (at best) in medium to large groups.Here are the steps to our consensus process:
- Present the Proposal – presenters give an overview of the proposal, although members had seven days to review before the meeting.
- Clarifying Questions – Going around the circle, each member can ask questions which aim to bring out more information on the proposal and the presenters can answer. This is not the time (yet) for opinions or back-and-forths around the circle.
- Provide Feedback – Going around the circle again, each member has a limited amount of time to provide their feedback in the form of questions, opinions, thoughts, etc. There is no back-and-forth or response from presenters. Someone is keeping a written list (i.e. on a white board) of unique concerns raised, without noting member names.
- Concerns & Principled Concerns – The facilitator makes sure that all concerns have been noted and then proceeds to discuss each concern one-by-one. At this point, the community takes ownership over both the concerns and finding solutions – not just the member who raised the concern, nor the presenters. The facilitator will seek to draw out whether the concern is based on a community value or a personal preference, as this is important. The facilitator is tasked with helping the community through this part of the process – summarizing progress so far, inviting new voices, balancing speaking time, etc.
- Calling for Consensus – In theory, the group only gets to step 5 if all principled concerns have already been resolved, but it is important for the facilitator to ask the group “Are there any outstanding concerns?” If there are none, the proposal passes. If there are, the group can continue discussing or decide to send the proposal back to a committee to work with the concerned members in a smaller group.
- Next Steps – Optionally, discuss what steps are required to put the decision into action. Assign tasks to individuals or committees, with deadlines.
- Stand Asides
A member may choose to stand aside when they don’t feel like they know enough about a topic or haven’t engaged enough with the discussion to truly weigh in. For example, if they have been out of the area traveling and haven’t been able to commit to preparing for the meeting. A member should never be pressured to stand aside, nor should someone stand aside begrudgingly. Standing aside is a form of consent and does not exempt a member from the decision in any way.
A block is essentially a principled concern that has not be resolved, which means the proposal cannot pass. One of the more radical parts of consensus is that a single person can ‘block’, which means each voice is very powerful; on the other hand, our community does not allow a block to be a ‘personal concern’, so it must be tied to a community value or decision. Furthermore, if/when a member does block a decision, they are committing to convene a meeting with the presenters within 7 days of the meeting to resolve their principled concern. If they don’t reach out to set up the meeting within seven days, their block is lifted and the proposal passes.