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Moving Beyond Power Plays to Collaboration



This was written by my colleague Kenoli Oleari following a Future Search he co-facilitated with the Novato, CA school system. It provides important insights and guidance on initiating collaborative processes in situations where people are only familiar with competitive, adversarial or controlling modes of relating. This is a particularly useful piece for me, because it addresses the issue of adversarial activism and the struggle to use collaborative approaches where some of the players hold vastly more social power than others. -- Tom


The Future Search in Novato caused me to speculate on the way that long
term experience with the adversarial system -- which governs our engagement
in most public process -- affects our willingness to trust collaborative
models like Future Search (FS). The setting was a school system in Novato,
California that had been racked by community tensions resulting from acts
of racism which had received much scrutiny in the press. We went into this
Future Search with little pre-conference time for planning committee work.
As a result, many participants showed up without any preparation for the
process. They only knew that they were going to be working to respond to
the issue of racism in the schools and community.

Early in the conference, a man expressed concern with the rule of
engagement that indicated we would be identifying areas of conflict, but
not working them. He was concerned that once again this would be a process
that would avoid the important issues. He wanted to "get down to it".
During my original training with Marv [Weisbord] and Sandra [Janoff], I had raised the same
objection when I heard this premise, and over the same issue: racism. I
had been leading diversity workshops at the time and was strongly aware at
the poor representation of racial minorities at the training and wanted to
talk about that right then and there. I struggled with Marv a lot over
this issue during and after the training. So it was interesting to be
confronted by concern over the same structural and social issue. It
triggered my empathy .

As it turned out, this incident was a shadow of things to come; during the
conference, there was a great deal of resistance to the process. At one
point we actually stopped the process and had a talking stick circle which
gave everyone a chance to speak their experience and then we completed the
action planning and completed the conference.

What I noticed is that the resistance came from groups that were used to
feeling disenfranchised -- people that don't traditionally have a "seat at
the table" -- in this case, students and community activists. One of the
principles of community organizing handed down from Saul Alinsky -- one of
the American fathers of community organizing -- is that the powerless can
achieve a voice by making demands that threaten to stop a process if those
demands are not met. This process seeks to affect a shift in power that
would give the previously powerless community voice some clout. The
technique is one that disempowered people seem to understand intuitively.

Traditionally, advocacy groups grow up around this kind of organizing and
see their influence as deriving from some such mechanism These are voices
that would not normally have a seat at the table through wealth, social
standing or political clout. Students, the other voice of resistance at
the conference, also know how seldom they have chance to exercise any

So when asked to give up a positional posture in favor of a more
collaborative relationship, these groups seemed to feel that they were
being asked to give up the very thing that gave them a voice in the issue.
They had found an answer and were going to cling to it for dear life. In
some ways, they needed to be "the" voice that was being heard and not just
"one" voice; their experience with being "one" voice is that their voice is
lost in the crowd.

This experienced helped me understand the critical work that the planning
committee must accomplish to work with these voices until they understand
that the FS process is an attempt to shift the paradigm out of the
adversarial model of power, to see what other kinds of relations the system
may be able to discover if given the chance, at least for the work that is
the focus of the conference. This is a big leap. Bigger than we may

In contrast, in a conversation I had after the conference with a
participant used to having a voice of power in the public world of Novato,
I mentioned the difficulty I saw activists in the conference having with
moving out of the adversarial model. This person replied by expressing the
opinion that there is nothing wrong with the adversarial model, you just
have to have the ducks lined up on your side of the issue.

The holders of power -- those with their ducks lined up -- are going to
respond to the possibility of collaboration in one of two ways. They will
either be oblivious to the benefits: after all, they have the power, why
share it? Or they may see the benefit of adding credibility to important
work by bringing more voices in. It may be easier for them to take this
latter risk, because they are used to believing that they can ultimately
control the situation if it gets out of hand.

In an Alaskan community that I have been visiting which is very polarized
over an environmental/development conflict, the local "powers" agreed to
sponsor and participate in several collaborative efforts to reach consensus
on some current issues and then quietly and effectively forced their allies
to drop participation when the process seemed to be going in a direction
they felt they could not tolerate.

All of these "real life" experiences are going on in the background of our
attempts at collaboration.

Several weeks after this FS, I had the experience of talking with Emily
Axelrod, who has worked a lot with Future Search and with a related process
called the Conference Model that she and her husband Dick have developed.
She mentioned a FS she had done recently -- in a school system -- that
went well until they reached the action planning part. At this point, all
of the advocacy groups were immediately prepared to take on the action
agendas they had come into the FS with. The good work of collaboration
seemed to be breaking down. The solution they took was to step back and,
instead of organizing the action planning around proposed projects,
organize it according to common themes. These groups then moved forward to
find common projects that did not break down into the traditional issues.

It turns out, that we had done the same thing in the Novato Future Search
and the result was a range of ideas for projects that got some of the most
resistant voices excited about working with new partners. In our case the
choice to organize around common themes resulted from our concern that
things could easily break down according to traditional conflicts. It also
resulted in spreading a range of voices into associations they might not
normally choose for action planning.

Kenoli Oleari,

LEAP (Long Range Education, Empowerment and Action Project)