When I first met the man who would become my husband, our values seemed well enough aligned, but our juxtaposed styles and experiences were fireworks in the making. He was more extroverted, with the well-practiced voice and get-to-the-point attitude of a provocative guy not surprisingly from New York. I was more introverted, with the yet-to-be-found voice and accommodating attitude of a nice girl not surprisingly from West Virginia. He asserted that my quiet family of non-imposers wouldn’t ask for a glass of water if we were dying of thirst. I retorted (nicely) that his loud family of quick talkers and interrupters didn’t allow for getting a word in edgewise.

That was twenty years ago, and I’ve learned a lot since. One thing I’ve concluded is that far too many of us (with plenty of common sense and moral integrity, I might add) have been leaving it up to others (including spiritually wounded others) to do all the talking for us. I was living proof.

Despite earning my bachelor’s degree and a subsequent couple of other stamps of approval suggesting my learnedness, I still emerged from my formal education pretty clueless about what it means to be an informed and involved member of society. Sure, my earning potential had increased, but in all the frenzy of career making, Politics and Government unfortunately remained something delivered to me, like pizza—and if I didn’t like it, I couldn’t really send it back, especially when someone else had called it in.

Intentional community, including my marriage, changed all of that. Though it took me nearly four decades of living to finally become conscious of having a voice, I soon discovered that I not only had a voice, but that it could be heard in a group of other voices—some of which were much louder and more aggressive. When my family moved to a Vermont cohousing community in 2008, we joined 23 other households (many from New York) with differing familial, regional, and political influences. Our multi-generational assemblage took on the management of over one hundred acres of common property and infrastructure, a task not unlike that set before us as citizens of larger commonwealths.  The goal was to not only make it all work, but to do so in as civil and cooperative a manner as possible.

As all relationships (be they healthy or unhealthy) require some type of governance structure and decision-making process (be they explicit or implicit) to help keep chaos at bay, the forming members of our fledgling community had already chosen a newer flavor of democracy for determining policy and getting other necessary work done. Sociocracy promised to compensate for both the shortcomings of consensus (tyranny of the minority) and majority rule (tyranny of the majority).

Final Round

In Sociocracy: Democracy As It Might Be, authors John Buck and Sharon Villines quoted educator Kees Boeke: “We are so accustomed to majority rule as a necessary part of democracy that it is difficult to imagine any democratic system working without it. It is true that it is better to count heads than to break them … but the party system has proved very far from providing the ideal democracy.” Alternatively, Sociocracy (or Dynamic Governance) promised to transform decision-making from “a struggle for control” into “a process of puzzle solving.”

Sociocracy relies on three straightforward principles: consent (no objections), circles (committees having specific domains of responsibility), and double linking (two-way representation between general and more specific circles). Circle meetings have a facilitator whose job is to assist through successive rounds of discussion in which every individual has the opportunity to speak. If, after clarification rounds and reaction rounds, it’s obvious an objection to someone else’s blind spot is brewing, it’s up to the facilitator to solicit suggestions on how to tweak the proposal in order to start all over again. The goal is to achieve a final round in which everyone can finally express consent.

Shaping proposals into policy and action items indeed required sufficient numbers of rounds to reach consensual agreements “good enough for now”—ones that would allow the community to still move forward even when movement looked different from ideas initially brought to the table. With regular meetings to attend, I soon realized that civilization came at a cost: the cost of involvement. Unless we took the time to exert the mental, physical, and emotional energy required to participate in the process of governance and decision-making, we merely became slaves to systems that may or may not work in the best interest of our communities and even ourselves.

Montpelier, Vermont

Shaping Legacies

Vermont’s annual town meeting day attested to the fact that modern day Yankees seemed to have inherited some greater inclination toward civic participation. As Samuel Read Hall was quoted in Charles T. Morrissey’s From Vermont: A History: “Vermonters welcome participation in public discourse from anybody who feels impelled to speak [no matter their schooling], and those that speak are not hesitant … Vermonters prize common sense as a virtue … that faculty by which things are seen as they are … [that] implies judgment and discrimination and proper sense of propriety … the exercise of reason, uninfluenced by passion or prejudice.”

Little had I realized that Vermont’s geography and political boundaries had played a role in creating circumstances more conducive to democratic participation than what we enjoyed in the more southern Appalachians. Thanks largely to geologic glacial activity that never made it down south, Vermont was left with mountain river valleys providing adequate space for the development of small villages of around forty square miles—a consolidation of people able to participate in local governance at the town level. In contrast, mountainous areas of Virginia and West Virginia retained narrow hollows presenting more of a challenge for their pockets of people to be involved in county-level government—a county possibly spanning over four hundred square miles.

According to Sara M. Gregg in Managing the Mountains: Land Use Planning, the New Deal, and the Creation of a Federal Landscape in Appalachia, distinct political makeups did indeed influence planning trajectories. In her comparative study on the development within the mountains of Vermont and Virginia, Gregg wrote: “In Vermont, with officials closely linked to their neighbors in small political units, community interests were integrated into the process of governing. Meanwhile, Virginia mountain communities hovered at the fringes of large and diverse counties, so the people living in the upcountry were largely excluded from decisions about local politics.”

I found it at first fascinating and then frightening how factors beyond our wildest imaginations can indirectly shape cultural legacies. I wondered if there was any link between the histories I’d read and the fact that Vermont and West Virginia seemed to always be on opposite ends of those “best” and “worst” lists. I feared West Virginia would continue to lose the future to the unfortunate consequences of power consolidation, greed, and shortsightedness unless we were intentional in helping our young people find their voices and use them in a civilized way.

After all, learning to reach some kind of informed consensus, whether we like it or not, is what’s going to be necessary to achieve any type of planetary sustainability at all. I’m confident that with a bit of creativity, we can marshal our varied resources to rectify problems in the present without ruining prospects for the future.

Unfortunately, it’s time which is still of the essence.

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