In the summer of 2013 Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in Missouri made their own dramatic change in governance — shifting from whole-community business meetings to a representational system with seven elected members.
Dancing Rabbit began thinking about change in 2009, when they realized how their growth in membership had altered their social structure. In earlier years everyone ate together in the same place at the same time, giving them frequent daily opportunities to connect and talk informally about community issues. But as their members increased and they created several kitchens and eating co-ops, their social scene offered far less connection. They were no longer the same kind of cohesive group that could informally discuss community issues on a daily basis. As a result, their governance system didn’t work as well: meeting attendance was down, people formerly involved in governance were getting burned out, the smaller number of folks who still attended meetings had more say than anyone else, and some decisions took longer than they once would have. This was partly due to the community’s increasing size, and partly due to simply not knowing each other as well as they once had.
The Village Council System
Dancing Rabbit’s new Village Council consists of seven community members elected by the members for staggered terms of two years each. These seven representatives now make the decisions formerly made by whole-community meetings: creating and dissolving committees and approving committee members; approving and modifying job descriptions for specific community roles and paid staff; approving the group’s annual goals and priorities; approving the budgets for Dancing Rabbit’s two legal entities (an educational nonprofit, and a land trust through which daily community life is organized); making committee-level decisions when requested by a committee; making membership decisions, including revoking membership, when these decisions can’t be resolved by the regular membership process; revising group process methods; clarifying or weighing values on various topics, including covenant changes; and any other responsibilities not already covered by a committee that Council members or Dancing Rabbit’s Agenda Planners think are worthy of Village Council attention.
“It’s refreshing to work with a smaller group that’s been picked to be good decision-makers, and to be able to move forward despite concerns from people not on the Village Council,” says Dancing Rabbit cofounder Tony Sirna. “The community seems to be adapting well to this process, with people accepting that they won’t always get what they want (just like in full-group consensus but without as much time spent on the process).”
Dancing Rabbit has many committees, all of which essentially report to the Village Council. A committee called the Oversight Team provides the executive function of staffing committees and making sure they do their jobs. Committees have the power to propose policies in their area of responsibility, and implement policies.
The power to make decisions, however, depends on which of four “power levels” a committee has. The “propose” level is the power to make a proposal, and every committee and individual member or resident has “propose” power.
Some committees also have “review” power, which means they can send a proposal to the whole community by email. This starts a two-week comment period, during which concerns can be expressed, changes can be made, and everyone has a chance to suggest changes to or buy in to the decision. At the end of two weeks, if there are no unresolved concerns, the committee’s proposal automatically passes.
Other committees have “recall” power. This is almost identical to “review” power, but the committee doesn’t need to wait until the end of the two-week period and can implement a proposal immediately. However, if concerns are expressed in the two-week period, the committee may need to modify the proposal.
“Final decision” power means making and approving a proposal immediately, without a review period. The Village Council has this power for most decisions, as do meetings of the whole community, if such a meeting were to be called. At first it was rare for a committee to have “final decision” power (the Contagious Disease Response Team uses this power to declare a quarantine, for example), but the power to make decisions has become more common as the community delegates more authority to committees.
A committee can also have multiple power levels for different types of decisions. For example, a committee could use “review” power to propose a budget, and after receiving approval could use “final decision” power to approve minor changes in it.
After creating the Village Council, Dancing Rabbit added two more power levels. Committees or individual members be given a “Village Council review” level, in which they send a proposal to the Village Council and the whole community. Everyone is free to comment on it during a two-week period, but the final decision rests with the Village Council.
Similarly, in the “Village Council recall” level a proposal is given a two-week comment period but the Village Council can implement it immediately.
Selecting Village Council Members
While the process for selecting Village Council members doesn’t involve consensus per se, it seems infused with the spirit of Dancing Rabbit’s consensus culture.
Here’s how it works. The names of every community member and resident (who has lived there at least 3 months) are listed alphabetically on a ballot form given to everyone. (Exceptions are the community’s Selection Shepherds, who serve a one-year term to manage Village Council elections.) Each person fills out the ballot form, evaluating each person in terms of how they might serve as a Village Council member. Evaluation choices are:
+2 “I think this person would be good in this role.”
+1 “I feel OK about this person in this role.”
0 “I have no opinion about this person re this role.”
-1 “I don’t think this person would be good in this role.”
The Selection Shepherds tally the points and the 20 people with the highest number of points are eligible to be nominated for the Village Council on a seven-member slate. A slate includes returning Council Members and the three or four new ones.
A whole-community meeting is held in which people present and discuss various possible slates of seven eligible members each, and choose from one to five of what seem like the best slates of nominees. The nominees are considered according to the following criteria: the person knows how to consider what’s best for the community as a whole; understands the community’s mission, sustainability guidelines, and ecological covenants; has the time; is willing to participate in conflict resolution if needed; is a member in good standing (paid up on dues and fees and up-to-date with labor requirements); and preferably has the use of a computer and has had consensus training. And at least some nominees for a slate need good verbal, written, and/or financial skills.
In this meeting, ideas about people for these slates are discussed, combined, and whittled down, and the group ends up with up to five different slates, chosen either by consensus or by a dot-voting system.
At that point everyone in the meeting votes on the slate of nominees they want, using a computer-based instant runoff system. The slate with the most number of votes becomes the new Village Council.
Village Council members use consensus to make decisions, as do the smaller committees. As in many other intentional communities, the basis of Dancing Rabbit’s consensus culture is the belief that people should always have a chance to share their opinions and concerns, and decisions aren’t made until everyone who speaks up is taken into account. And . . . they expect community members to take responsibility for how their own consciousness may affect community decision-making. “Consensus requires us to make decisions that are best for the group as a whole, and being able to distinguish between our personal wants, fears, and agendas and the group‘s good — which is essential to making a positive contribution,” they write in their Process Manual.
As most consensus trainers advise, Dancing Rabbit members believe that blocking should be a rare occurrence if the community is functioning well and its members are in alignment with its values and process. Thus they have a clear blocking policy and a way to test for the legitimacy of a block. For example, someone objecting to a proposal is expected to stand aside, not block, if their objection is based on personal values rather than shared compared values. And conversely, it is expected any block will be based on one or more shared community values, or by the belief that passing the proposal would damage the community.
Dancing Rabbit used consensus in its whole-community meetings, and a block was considered valid if it was based in one of the stated community values and at least three other members could understand (but did not necessarily agree with) why the person felt this way. If someone were to block frequently, the Conflict Resolution Team would help the person and the whole group talk about it, with the possibility of setting up an ad hoc committee to work through the issues.
Now, in their seven-member Village Council, a block is considered valid if one other Village Council member can understand (but not necessarily agree with) the blocking person’s position in relation to shared community values. It is also expected that any Village Council member who blocks has made a reasonable effort to participate in the group’s discussion. It is also expected that other Council Members have been reasonable too, giving the person adequate time to consider and comment on the proposal. (Village Council decisions can also be recalled by 25% of Dancing Rabbit members.)
I’m impressed by how Dancing Rabbit innovated a whole new governance method in response to the social effects of their increased membership. This took foresight and pluck! While I’ve called the new methods of Earthaven and Dancing Rabbit “radical,” Tony Sirna points out that their new method isn’t actually radical (except for using consensus instead of majority-rule voting) because they intend to grow to the size of a town of 500 to 1000, and small towns typically use representative governance with elected Councils.
Ecovillages Shifting to Sociocracy
Sociocracy is a self-governance structure created in The Netherlands in the 1970s, based on the principles of equivalence, transparency, and effectiveness. Its governance structure consists of nested set of circles, one of which focuses on longer-term, more abstract whole-group planning, and smaller, functional circles (like committees), with two people linking every circle and transmitting information between them. Its Consent Decision-Making method is similar in some ways to consensus, and different in other ways. For example, there’s no blocking, and when practiced correctly, no “tyranny of the minority.”
North American communities that switched from consensus decision-making to Sociocratic governance over the last few years include Lost Valley Educational Center and Colombia Ecovillage in Oregon, Hart’s Mill Ecovillage in North Carolina, Baja BioSana Ecovillage in Mexico, and O.U.R. Ecovillage in British Columbia. (And Earthaven now uses Sociocracy’s election process to elect its four annual officers.)
Twin Oak’s 46-Year Planner/Manager System
Twin Oaks, an income-sharing ecovillage in Virginia, has since its founding in 1967 used its unique Planner/Manager system — first conceived by Behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner in his 1948 novel Walden Two.
Twin Oaks’ forty or so Managers, chosen by community members through a written nomination process, make day-to-day decisions for their specific areas — hammock making, tofu making, the garden, the dairy, and so on.
The community’s three Planners, chosen by community members for two-year staggered terms, decide larger community-wide issues. Planners base their decisions on community bylaws and policies, soliciting opinions of community members by their written comments, holding community meetings, putting out surveys, and talking with individual members closely involved in the issue or who have strong feelings about it.
Planners and Managers use majority-rule voting to make decisions, but some committees use consensus, such as the Membership Team. Any community member can appeal a decision made by the Planners, but this happens rarely.
All community members help decide Twin Oaks’ annual money and labor budget. Managers and Planners propose a budget for the year. Each Twin Oaks member can modify the budget through a multi-winner voting method in which they can move money or labor from one line item to another. The Planners take into account everyone’s requested changes to create Twin Oaks’ final budget.
Consensus and Majority-Rule Voting
Other North American ecovillages that use a whole-community business meeting and specialized committees make decisions with consensus — Yarrow Ecovillage in British Colombia, Whole Village in Ontario, Huehuecoytl in Mexico, Port Townsend Ecovillage in Washington State, Emerald Earth and Los Angeles Eco-Village in California, EcoVillage at Ithaca in New York State, and, as noted above, Dancing Rabbit in Missouri.
The two locations of La Cité Écologique in Quebec and New Hampshire, and The Farm in Tennessee, have similar combinations of whole-group meetings and committees, but use majority-rule voting for decisions.
If you’re a governance and decision-making nerd like me, I hope this description of new methods in ecovillages on this continent offers food for thought. (And, I apologize to any North American ecovillages I missed!)
Diana Leafe Christian is author of Creating a Life Together: Practical Tools to Grow Ecovillages and Intentional Communities (published also in French, Spanish, Italian, and Russian) and Finding Community: How to Join an Ecovillage or Intentional Community. She publishes Ecovillages newsletter ( http://EcovillageNews.org ) She contributed chapters to the Gaia Education books Beyond You and Me, and Gaian Economics (Permanent Publications, UK, 2007 and 2011). She is also an EDE trainer and a representative from the eastern US to Ecovillage Network of North America (ENNA). Diana speaks at conferences, does consultations, and leads workshops internationally on starting successful new ecovillages and other kinds of intentional communities, and on Sociocracy, a self-governance and decision-making method. She lives at Earthaven Ecovillage in the US
( http://www.DianaLeafeChristian.org ).