We have to face the fact that either all of us are going to die together or we are going to learn to live together, and if we are to live together we have to talk. -Eleanor Roosevelt
On my first day as coach of the Yahoos baseball team in Wolfsburg, Germany, I told the team, a collection of men in their twenties, "All it takes is for one player to tell me they don't want me to continue being coach and I'll quit being coach." I'm not sure what inspired that declaration, although I suspect it had to do with my ambivalence about taking on the responsibility with my very limited German language skills. Certainly I would piss someone off, which would, in turn, get me off the hook for speaking a foreign language in front of an audience of native speakers several times a week.
As it turns out, I did occasionally piss guys off, but it never lead to anyone suggesting I take a hike. Instead it turned into to a ton of talking until our differences were settled. Sometimes it came in the form of formal meetings and sometimes while cooling our heels in the dugout. Sometimes it was friendly chatter and other times it came out in yelling and insults. Email was still just monochromatic green letters reversed out of a dark screen that I used to communicate with my loved ones halfway around the world. And I refused to participate in these discussions over the phone because my German was bad enough that I still relied on reading body language and facial expressions to fully understand people.
Honestly, I hated all that talk. Hated it, hated it, hated it. There were days when I wished that someone would just have the guts to pull the trigger on me, so I could wash my hands of the whole thing. I thought about quitting, but we were winning games and having fun most of the time and I knew I would regret it. When we won our division in my second year as coach, qualifying us to move into the nation's top league, it all seemed like it had been worthwhile, even if the hardest work had taken place off the field.
This was my first real experience with "consensus" as a governing philosophy for a large group of people. It arose in an impromptu fashion and was carried out informally, but whenever there was a big decision to make, or a beef to address, everybody who wanted a say got one, everyone was listened to, and in the end nothing happened unless everyone either agreed or at least agreed to set aside their objections. It was messy, emotional, and one of the most draining processes imaginable. And in large measure it all came directly out of that declaration that any single player had the power to fire me.
We had to either talk or blow the whole thing up.
Our cooperative preschool's bylaws require that we operate on the democratic principles of majority rule, but in practice we function largely on consensus. Over the past 8 years, we've had many long, contentious discussions, but even so, it is very rare for any of our votes to wind up being anything other than unanimous. As annoying as it is sometimes, as aggravating as it can be to delve into what one person considers vital, but sounds to others like minutiae, as teeth-grindingly frustrating as it might be to yet again go over someone's "salient" points, talking works.
Last spring, the Seattle Public Schools announced plans to re-work their start times and many parents of older children were worried that it would interfere with their ability to make it to preschool on time, so we shifted our start time from 9:30 to 9:45. Within a couple months of the start of school this year, however, many parents began to wish to go back to a 9:30 start. It was clear we had the votes to make the change, which would have been "constitutional," but our board decided to go for consensus instead. We'd set aside a chunk of time at our parent meeting to allow everyone to speak. Several parents made their cases for switching back to 9:30. A few told us that they'd built their lives around a 9:45 start time and were struggling to make it on time as it was. Concessions were made, carpools formed, and finally Kimberly agreed to cover the first 10-15 minutes for Leslie on her workdays, and it was done. We had consensus.
We have a couple of significant matters on the horizon at Woodland Park, one exciting and positive, but requiring consensus, and another that threatens our policy of inclusion, something I consider to be at the heart of what makes our school special. I'm not looking forward to it, it's going to be exhausting, but if we're going to live together, we're going to have to get talking.