Leaderless or Leaderful?

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Last week while I was in Toronto, I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon in St. James Park at Occupy Toronto. I found the experience to be very moving and I’ve been thinking about it a lot since.

What struck me first when I entered the park was the lengths to which people have gone to turn the park into an intentional community. One of the deepest values that was apparent immediately is the value of caring for each other and creating a safe and welcoming environment for everyone. The other value that’s clear is the value of volunteering whatever gifts you can bring for the benefit of the whole.

There is a food area where donated food is available free of charge, a free library where books are shared and free classes are taught by volunteers, a medical tent, a logistics tent, a recovery tent (for people in 12 step programs), a safe women’s area, a silent meditation area, a volunteer sign-up area, a town square where general assemblies take place twice a day, a music zone, and an information table for people who are new to the park. While I was there they were looking for volunteers to set up a children’s area. Everything is free and everyone is welcome.

Shortly after I arrived in the park, I discovered why it had been so quiet – participants were returning from a rousing protest march. They brought great energy and enthusiasm to an otherwise quiet space. Here’s a short video capturing some of the energy they brought with them:

The energy wasn’t all positive. Clearly there had been conflict on the march with one group wanting to march through the financial district and the rest of the group prefering to stick with the initial plan. Apparently someone had told the police  that the group that wanted to go to the financial district was planning to incite violence. The people in that group insisted that it wasn’t true. As their voices raised in frustration, a few people stepped out of the crowd to offer them deep listening and a way to reframe their stories so that they could once again offer positive energy to the group.

The true test of a community is how they handle conflict, and though there is much to admire about the intentionality around the Occupy movement, they are not immune to the challenge of having various factions in their midst bringing different viewpoints and differing passions. Gather people with passion into the same space and at some point, you’re bound to experience conflict.

As soon as the marchers returned, the general assembly began in the town square. Young facilitators did their best to manage the energy in the large and passionate group. Using the human microphone (the speaker shouts their words, and then the group shouts them back so that more people can hear), they tried to give voice to all of the concerns and ideas as they arose. To increase people’s opportunity of being heard, they asked us all to break into circle groups to offer our personal ideas of what things should be done in the future. After the circle time, spokespersons from each group brought the offerings back into the larger group. Then, at the end of the meeting, a speaker’s list was formed, inviting anyone who still felt they had something important to say to add their name to the list.

The process wasn’t perfect, and it was clear that the facilitators were learning (and making up) the process as they went along. Those of us who have facilitated large and passionate groups know that it’s challenging to give voice to so many people, especially when there is conflict involved.

I would argue that those imperfections and efforts are what makes the movement beautiful and potentially powerful. No, the movement is not one of perfect clarity (as the critics continue to say). Each person brings a different desire and restlessness to the circle.  But what is remarkable is that so many different voices are coming together to create circles, live in community, and share their questions, passions, ideas, and alternatives for the systems that have begun to enslave rather than serve us.

Whenever something new is emerging, we have to be willing to walk through chaos to get there. We have to have the patience to sit in the ambiguous spaces. We have to let the questions sit heavily on our hearts.

One of the speakers who stood up during the general assembly spoke the words that have resonated the most loudly for me since that afternoon. “People say that we are a leaderless movement,” she said. “I would suggest that instead we see ourselves as a leaderful movement. We must ALL see ourselves as leaders in this new journey we’re on.”

And THAT is the beauty of the Occupy movement. For the community (and movement) to succeed, each person has to step into personal leadership and offer their gifts into the circle. Those who have medical skills have to show up at the medical tent. Those who can teach meditation, have to show up in the meditation area to coach others. Those who are facilitators need to offer their skills to the general assembly. Those who are good at diffusing conflict need to step in and help where they can.

Each person brings his/her passion and ideas and a willingness to listen to the passion and ideas brought by others.

That’s wisdom that goes far beyond the Occupy movement and right into our lives. Whatever your gifts are, show up and offer them for the good of all people. And then listen and receive what others have brought.

YOU are a leader and you need to step into that role in order to serve the people who are waiting to be served. That’s the only way community can work.

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