19 Jan 2012

Empowering Communities: The Possibility of Decision Making as a Spiritual Experience

Consensus-decision-making is a process, which through experience, I have developed much faith in.  It's a level of faith which not everyone carries, and indeed some people carry a degree of scepticism, while a few demonstrate a clear aversion to it! The latter, I have found is often due to a misunderstanding about what consensus is (not everything named 'consensus' is 'consensus'!) coupled with an aversion to trying it out with the necessary commitment. 
A workshop I delivered a few days ago on consensus-decision-making at a monthly meeting of the Soteria network Brighton group - a group that I am a part of -  was attended by a range of people that held a variety of opinions about the extent to which consensus can work. Comments at the start revealed this, for instance, something like, "I expect it takes a painfully long time", to "dictatorship is best" to " I think it can have something positive to offer". 

My challenge on this occasion was in a number of ways an uphill one. It seemed that nobody in the group of about fifteen had been through a formal consensus process before - and although I had managed to secure an-hour-and-a-half for the workshop, a realistic time-frame in which to take a group through consensus, is at least half a day. 

My co-facilitator for the first part of the workshop, which consisted of an ultra-fast outline of what consensus is, was fellow Soteria member, Yasmin, who I had taken through a more detailed exploration a week earlier. For the latter four-fifths, I was on my own.

After consensus was introduced by the two of us, I facilitated the group through an experience of the consensus process, with the aim of answering a purposeful question - an exercise in its own right - which the group was to make a decision on. The process went smoothly at times and was a struggle at other times - as would be expected particularly given that it was a first for the group - but the result was in some ways better than expected given the challenges.  

The group came close to reaching consensus - we nailed it down to several statements which would have needed time to prioritise and make minor amendments to. Consensus would have been the next natural step. The result from this angle, was a positive one (although at the time I was a little disappointed we didn't quite get there). 

Although, almost all of the group had also given the process a good shot and no doubt gained something from it, whether they use consensus decision making or not will be a choice the group will soon make for itself. Either way, elements of the exercise point to underlying principles and attitudes that can be used to help equalise power and draw out deeper wisdom in a group, even if the formal process is not taken up.

For myself, with time to reflect, I have pinpointed potential ways of improving the workshop. Allowing more spaciousness and time to explore the issues along with a couple more breaks; A co-facilitator (for a group this size, it's a task to capture all ideas onto a flip chart and being present at the same time); Some small group work; And perhaps inviting those who felt they could commit to the process to attempt the exercise, with others quietly observing, on this first occasion, as a way of gently breaking the ice. 

Consensus does take time. It requires of us patience (sabr) and a commitment to the process. "As along as it takes" was a refreshing comment I heard in a subgroup at Occupy LSX. My own experience is that, when combined with a quality of spaciousness and trust, even though consensus is not for all decisions, it is nonetheless a process that can empower a group beyond any other decision making process I have come across. Indeed, the experience can, I believe, be a spiritual one, as we move out of "I"-ness into something more whole.

In the Islamic tradition, decision making through mutual consultation is given its due importance:

"Far better and more lasting is what God will give to those who believe and trust in their Lord; who shun great sins and gross indecencies…..; conduct their affairs by mutual consultation…" (Qur' an: 42:19)

Within many communities, including Muslim ones, there is effort to be made in developing our capacities to engage more fully, more compassionately, in deciding on things that affect us, together - letting go of the "I", and building real communities. I too have a need to nurture this capacity within myself. I am also aware and grateful, that in our present day context, there are movements and people I can learn from. Indeed we have one another, and within a reality of a Higher Presence. In our present day context thus, whilst we might sense dis-ease, we may through contemplative engagement also discover the remedy. 

© Muzammal Hussain

1 Jan 2012

Public Meeting (Sat 21st Jan: London): Engaged Islam ~ Contemplative Action In Our Changing Times

© Wisdom In Nature

Date: Sat 21st January 2012
Time: 3.15pm to 5.30pm
Venue: 4th Floor, Muslim World League, 46 Goodge Street, London, W1T 4LU (entrance on the corner of Charlotte Street); Nearest Tubes: Goodge Street (Northern Line), Euston Square (Hammersmith & City, Circle & Metropolitan Lines) & Warren Street (Victoria Line).
Streetmap: Click here

Dr Shumaisa Khan, (Food & Ecological Justice Researcher & WIN activist)
Dr Muzammal Hussain, (WIN activist)
Dr Derek Wall, (Green activist, writer and economics)

Photo from Occupy LSX (CC BY-NC-ND)
On the one hand we have corporate domination, economic marginalisation and climate change; on the other, we have spontaneous movements such as 'Occupy', community food growing/permaculture, consensus-decision-making, and a thirst for alternative currencies and economics. In the context of bottom-up, 'non-hierarchical' movements for social change, this public meeting will consider, 'what contribution can be made by Islam and Muslims?' It will include short talks from our speakers, a chance for participants to share their own reflections and experience, and time to hear about volunteering and networking with like minded people in the context of an engaged Islam for our times. 

Snacks will be available. This is a free event, with optional donations. 

Speaker Bios:

Shumaisa Khan is a Representative for Wisdom in Nature (WIN), a process-oriented ecological and social activism group that draws on Islamic principles. She is about to begin a research fellowship at the University of Surrey, having recently completed her doctoral degree from the University of Michigan in environment and natural resources with a concentration in environmental justice. Shumaisa has also worked as a freelance reporter/producer, covering health and human rights issues for WBAI-Peace and Justice Community Radio Station in New York City. Both as an activist and a scholar, she is particularly interested in ways of bringing diverse groups together to work toward greater sustainability and social justice.

Muzammal Hussain is the founder of 'Wisdom In Nature' and has delivered workshops and talks on Islam and ecological activism both in the UK and abroad. He is passionate about engaged spirituality, social organising, and creating meaningful relationships between diverse communities. In the past, he has been a volunteer for the World Development Movement (WDM) Brighton group, and he has also completed a full Permaculture Design Course as part of Earth Activist Training (EAT) in an eco-community in Devon. Muzammal is also a medical doctor, has a background in mind-body healing, and an MA in Environment, Development and Policy, writing his final dissertation on 'Islam and climate change'.

Derek Wall is an economics lecturer and writer. He lives in Berkshire and has three sons. He has been a member of the Green Party since 1980. He was Green Party Principal Speaker from 2006 to 2007. Derek is a founder of the Ecosocialist International and Green Left. He has written a number of books on green politics including the No Nonsense Guide to Green Politics. He works closely with Hugo Blanco the Peruvian green activist who publishes Luca Indigena (Indigenous fight). Derek is currently researching a book on the environmental history of the commons and is a parish councillor in North Ascot.

About WIN: Wisdom In Nature was established in 2004 and is a pioneer of local Islamic ecological activism in the UK . Our original name was the London Islamic Network for the Environment (LINE). We are committed to the transformation of society to live justly in harmony with the diverse natural world, of which we are a part, thus honouring the principle of Oneness (Tawhid).
        Our approach is both practical and contemplative. We use bottom-up processes and consensus-decision-making for much of our work, finding ways of equalising power and ensuring our processes and actions are owned by those directly involved. This deeper democratic approach reflects our commitment to mirroring the world we wish to live in, whilst being established in core Islamic principles. This is also supported by mindfulness of our sources of funding: our day-to-day work being financed by donations from individuals, helping us to be independent of corporate interest and government influence. WIN has a presence in both London & Brighton.

Find out about volunteering for WIN:

Facebook Event: Click here
Tel. 0845 456 3960 (local rate)