Last weekend I attended the Symbiosis Congress of Municipal Movements in Detroit. This was the first ever event of its kind in North America in bringing together delegates from groups all around the continent practicing direct democracy and grassroots activism. There were roughly 150 participants at the conference with especially large contingents from Portland, Olympia, Jackson, and Carbondale, IL. There were also several delegates from Montreal and two from Southern Mexico representing indigenous networks there.
The event was held on the campus of Marygrove College in the Northern suburbs of Detroit, an unfortunately recently defunct Catholic college that will soon be used as an elementary school. It was an ideal setting for the Symbiosis Congress, however, and the weather was warm and pleasant through the weekend. Participants started arriving on Wednesday, and there were some introductory sessions scheduled for Wednesday evening and Thursday morning, but the Congress was not officially called to order until Thursday evening in an introductory panel discussion led by some of the organizers who had done the bulk of the work calling the congress together. In this session, the organizers gave an overview of the genesis of the Congress, and laid out the plan for how it would proceed through the weekend. The genesis of the congress was discussions that took place at an ISE gathering in 2017, where it was suggested that the loose network of Social Ecology associated organizations be given institutional form in an formalized network of organizations. Something like the Communalist ‘Assembly of Assemblies’ described by Murray Bookchin and others. The plan for the event would be to utilize parliamentary debate format to work through the pre-submitted proposals that comprised the agenda. The plan was for five working sessions, each of which would be preceded by breakout groups where the details of various proposals could be discussed in smaller groups.
After formally calling to order Thursday evening then, the first working session was friday morning, the 20th of September. After breakfast, participants were asked to attend the breakout group of their choice. There were about a half dozen of them, on topics such as ‘political education’, ‘points of unity’, and ‘racial justice and decolonization’. I chose political education and sat in on a group discussion trying to assess two proposals that had been submitted proposing various ways that the newly forming confederacy could officially orient its political education program. The long and short of it was that there were two proposals that were largely the same, one of which had been offered by a group that was not yet represented in (in that breakout session) by a delegate. As this was the first time that a lot of people were meeting face to face, and as it was something altogether new that we were doing regardless, a good portion of the first breakout session was dedicated to introductions, and to making sense together of what it was we were even supposed to be doing. These things take time though, and we made it through having accomplished something at least.
After the first breakout session Friday morning was the first full working session of the whole assembly. Before work could begin though, according to agreements that must have been made earlier, quorum was required to be recognized so that decisions made in assembly could be “official”. I believe the agreement was that 2/3 of the registered and attending delegates needed to be present for there to be quorum. Delegates in the room were asked to hold up the blue voting cards that they had been given and it was quickly determined that we were safely above the 75 or so delegate threshold calculated necessary. Quorum was recognized, and the assembly was officially called to order.
Note that while there were only 100-ish attendees there officially as delegates of organizations intending to join the confederation, that there were several dozen others, like myself, attending simply as observers, so the total number of attendees was around 150.
After quorum was recognized and the meeting officially called to order, the facilitators took some time to explain the parliamentary procedure that would be used, including the process for being recognized as a speaker. It was explained that there were two microphones at the front of the room, one for meeting content, and one for procedural issues. It was also noted that speakers should be mindful to speak slowly and to include pauses so as to facilitate the simultaneous Spanish translation being done by a team of two. With these preliminaries completed, the first order of business was a rather cursory approval of the agenda, and then the meeting was off and running.
The first session went reasonably well and there was good substantive discussion about how best to articulate the “points of unity” that we could agree would unite us as a confederation. With 100+ people in the room though, any discussion of nuanced sociological and political concepts with no precedent of having been discussed in such a context (as forming the basis of a confederation of Social Ecological Municipalist organizations) i was, predictably, slow going, and by end of even the first morning’s session it began to be expressed that if we continued on the current path that there was a good chance that the congress would conclude without accomplishing what so many people traveled from around the continent to do.
Starting after that first session then, incremental changes were made to the official “in session” meeting format. For instance, starting with the afternoon session that day, working sessions began with a report back form each breakout group, each of which would discuss the same topic simultaneously in small groups. There would also be a 15 minute retrospective added to the end of each working session, and it was stated that there woudl be time for each group in attendance to share about what they were doing in their community as well as what drew them to the Congress. And, starting with that afternoon’s session, there was a sense that we were collectively finding the ability to adapt and evolve, but the process was stil far from ideal, and there was still a sense that the weekend was not going to end up being a success.
The next day was going to be crucial then, as it was going to be the final full day with all attendees gathered, before everyone scattered to the four winds to only possibly comp back after another year. And, to put it bluntly, the two scheduled working sessions on Saturday did not go well. Despite the palpable best intentions of everyone in the room, both the morning and afternoon working sessions were an impenetrable morass of amendments to amendments and process points raised at every turn that frustrated the collective intent to move forward. As the afternoon session was drawing to a close then, it was apparent that the entire congress was facing a crisis, and the organizers suggested there would be a third working session added after dinner. Breakout groups were to re-convene in the main assembly hall (instead of the separate classrooms they had been meeting in) and the format would be entirely different. The group was tired and frustrated, but knew it had to be done, and the prospect of a breakthrough was tantalizing enough to renew our collective spirits.
Dinner was a somewhat solemn affair in the communal cafeteria and after plates were cleaned and many coffee cups refilled, we all made our way, cautious and curious, back to the main assembly hall. Whether impromptu or planned, I’m not sure, but the previous half dozen or so breakout groups condensed into three or four, so that the main assembly hall was re-organized for an hour or so into several large circles of chairs. The group I sat in on was a moderated by a gentleman named David Cobb. He was a very experienced and frankly excellent group facilitator. I don’t know if the method he used has a specific name or lineage, but it seemed scientifically designed to elicit everyone’s feedback in an egalitarian way, and to then blend that into something the group felt it could collectively own. And the upshot of our hour-ish facilitated breakout session was that to the person we felt overwhelmingly positive about all of the fundamentals that we were attending the Congress to agree on, and the despite the frustration of getting bogged down in procedural quagmires that we were all highly motivated to see the Municipalist network be given institutional form and to see it take shape as a force in the world. Just that breakout session was a very positive experience, but as we were about to find out, it was just a foretaste of what was to come.
After the supplementary breakout session was finished, it was announced that the supplementary working session to follow would be physically organized by three concentric circles of chairs in the main assembly hall, and that the facilitation style would be completely new. In the innermost circle were two delegates from each of the smaller breakout groups that had just met, plus two delegates from the People of Color Caucus which had begun meeting informally the day before. In the second innermost circle were other people of color and also official delegates who would like to sit there. The third and outermost circle was for everyone else.
The session began with an invitation from the facilitator to join some grounding and breathing exercises, and then the first official ‘business’ was a report back from the delegates in the innermost circle about what they had agreed on in their respective breakout group or caucus. Predictably, each group delegate reported very similar agreements to those made in my own session. Namely, that we were all essentially in unanimous and enthusiastic support of all the fundamentals that had been brought forth in proposals, and that we were all highly motivated to see these Social Ecological and Municipalist principles codified in an institution that would formally unite many organizations like our ow, and hence enable a great deal of auspicious cooperation. As for the details of the wording and so forth, the consensus that emerged was that these could be entrusted to ad hoc working groups that could iron out the details in the weeks ahead and then bring them back to member orgs to be reviewed and verified.
There was some more discussion after this, the upshot of which was to clarify that the final working session the following morning could be used to clarify the agreements about how these ad hoc working groups would work, but by the time the delegates in the first inner circle had given their reports, it was clear that the spell was broken, and the feeling of catharsis in the room was palpable. Finally, each member in the second and third circles was given a chance to say a few sentences about anything they were feeling, and although this process itself went on for probably another hour, it was a pure delight for all in the room hearing the delight of each other participant.
We ended with a hauntingly beautiful song that the facilitator taught us on the spot, and a party was begun that lasted for many until three in the morning, floated on the almost surreal feeling of camaraderie that had emerged that evening and the feeling of having done something truly beautiful together.
The next morning, I had to leave for the airport about halfway through the final session, but stayed for enough to see that the ecstasy of the previous evening was not a mirage, and that a new cooperative ability really had emerged. And that newfound ability was adeptly turned to the remaining substantive work that had to be done. Namely, the working out of concrete details of how ad hoc working groups would be formed and about what agreement would look like going forward working remotely rather than face to face, but as long as I stayed it seemed we were making our way through it, pleasantly and efficiently, and I can confirm that the work was completed, and that there are committees in the works and deadlines in place for the first working drafts of of our founding documents.
The next few weeks will be very telling then, but what I witnessed in in Detroit over the four days I attended the Symbiosis Congress was exactly what I and I think many other attendees were hoping. That another world is possible, and that the work to bring that about can be done in a way that models its existence and that quite simply, feels amazing.
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