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On “Structural Conflict”: An Interview with Diana Leafe Christian

By Alice Henry
“In communities plagued with conflict, of course plain old interpersonal conflict is often going on. But the group is usually also experiencing what I call ‘structural conflict.’  This is where certain important ‘structures’ are missing. This alone can lead to huge conflict in communities.”
          Earthaven member Diana Leafe Christian was telling me about her work as a traveling consultant to communities. Diana is author of two books: Creating a Life Together: Practical Tools to Grow Ecovillages and Intentional Communities and Finding Community: How to Join an Ecovillage or Intentional Community. For many years she edited Communities magazine, and now publishes a free online newsletter, Ecovillages. She travels internationally to talk about ecovillages in conferences and workshops, and to help community groups that call on her for help and advice. In her experience, there are only a few typical problems that come up communities, usually the result of what she calls “structural conflict.” If these important structures are absent, she says, conflict often results.
          Here is the rest of our interview:
Diana: “For example, in some communities not all members know what the group’s agreements are. Or they might not have access to information on recent meeting decisions. Sometimes there are no published minutes, or no minutes available online — the group could be six months behind in posting minutes. Some community members might have this important information and know what’s going on. But not everyone does. This creates a power imbalance. The solution? Even if you have to pay money or labor credits to get your meeting minutes up to date, do it! Make sure this information gets out to everyone!”
           “Another common problem is having no system of labor credit or no way to manage and track the labor system. With no system, only those people who feel moved to volunteer time and energy to the community end up doing everything — and they often get burned out. Sometimes, even when most people want the community to have labor requirements, one or two members object, believing, ‘If it’s really community, people would just want to work!’ Or they object to tracking people’s labor through some kind of labor-tracking sheets, like our ‘Leap Sheets’ here. Those who do want to have labor requirements, and to track it, are often accused of acting like corporations!  But in fact, communities that have labor requirements, and a method to manage and track people’s work hours, tend to have higher morale and lower burn-out.”
          Alice: What else do you see in communities?
Diana: “Well, sometimes a group doesn’t have a clear and unambiguous mission and purpose. If their mission and purpose statement is vague, conflict can arise when people interpret it differently. This shows up with proposals. One person can argue that a proposal is not in line with the community’s mission and purpose, and perhaps block it. But advocates of the proposal are sure it does express the group’s mission and purpose. These disagreements are exacerbated if the group uses pure consensus. In pure consensus everyone must agree for a proposal to pass. What an awful Catch-22! One of the requirements for using consensus in the first place is having a clear, unequivocal mission and purpose!”
          “A related problem for groups that use consensus is too-frequent blocking or blocking to express personal values, rather than the group’s shared, agreed-upon values. Some communities follow the advice of consensus trainer CT Butler and have criteria for what constitutes a principled block. An ecovillage in British Columbia, EcoReality Co-op, and three cohousing communities in the US: Eastern Village, Wild Sage and Silver Sage, all have agreed-upon, written-down criteria for what is a principled block. In addition, they have clearly agreed-on procedures for how their facilitators can test whether or not a block is principled.”
          Alice: Anything else groups can do about this?
Diana: “N Street Cohousing in Davis, California reduces this kind of structural conflict by requiring anyone blocking a proposal to be part of the solution. Someone who blocks has to come up with a new proposal, working in small-group meetings with advocates of the proposal.  If no new proposal is created within their series of meetings, the first proposal is brought back,  and it only needs a 75 percent supermajority vote to pass. N Steet has used this method for 22 years, and there’ve only been only two blocks, with two small-group meetings each, in the whole time. Only four small-group meetings about blocks in 22 years! I like this method because it deters frivolous blocking while still respecting anyone who blocks. It respects the blocking person by giving them many meetings and a relatively long time to convince others that the original proposal was a bad idea and to suggest a better idea. And it respects the advocates of the original proposal too — all they have to do is wait.”
          Alice: Could you say more about “structural conflict”?
Diana: “New-member orientation courses are another way to reduce this. Twin Oaks, Dancing Rabbit, and The Farm all have orientation courses for incoming members. These give new folks much-needed information about the community’s history, purpose, and functioning. I’m so happy Earthaven is doing this too, with such as our consensus training, our new “Land Use/Permaculture” workshop, and our new “Sustainable Economics at Earthaven” presentation.”
          “Another conflict reducer is creating agreements for how people communicate in meetings. Typical communication agreements often include ‘No interrupting’ and ‘No pejorative comments about people in the meeting or their ideas.’ The facilitator reminds the group when a communication agreement is breeched, and participants encourage each other to comply.”
          Alice: It seems like many of your contributions here have been a result of your experience in the wider communities movement, all the places you’ve been. So tell us a little more about your travels.
          Diana: “One of the more exciting trips I’ve taken lately was to the Philippines. In April I taught in the first Global Ecovillage Network-sponsored EDE (Ecovillage Design Education) course there. I’ll be doing it again in August with students from mainland China! I also just got back from speaking at the first-ever communities gathering in Quebec — which I loved. And I basically had the time of my life in 2007 as a speaker at the Japanese Ecovillage Conference in Tokyo. But as much as I like meeting ecovillagers in other countries, I always love coming home to Earthaven.”

Alice Henry is an Earthaven member and water and sanitation expert who serves on Earthaven’s EarthDelver committees. Diana Leafe Christian has formerly served on Membership, Promotions, and Land Use committees.

conference, conflict, Consensus, Diana Leafe Christian, leap, orientation, workshops

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