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How to build a community: Lesson 2
The Town Hall Meeting Hey! It's not as difficult as it looks!

June 27, 2007

So far so good. My head is still attached to my neck! I expected nothing short of a public hanging, after the last article on naked micro-emperors. Some even sent me emails congratulating me on my candor. Almost all of you however, chimed in and it was, as the famous poet Berra said, "'like déjà vu all over again..."

Here's a few of the responses;

-- "Sadly, what you say is true. I hope Iranians [will] become' a real community similar to the Irish, Italians and Chinese. There will always be politics but having work[ed] in the nonprofit world for the past 15 years, I have never experienced such cut-throat actions in the name of 'community'."

-- "There are lots of these benevolent tyrants' the unity movement must be from the ground up."

-- "We have managed to root here on [an] individual basis. This phase was a success. And, now for next phase' we need to build our community stronger with sustainable structure. As it appears, this is our new frontier to master.'"

-- "The Iranian community doesn't really care about establishing a community outside of Iran. They want to be entertained and that is what these "non-profits" do on Norooz. So, shame on the "tyrants" but more shame on the Iranian community which acts like the herd and plays into their hand."

Wow! So now what?

Hang On, Baba Jan! First some research. As hard as it to believe (these days), the US is still the bastion of democracy. And one thing we Iranians definitely have in common with our American brethren is defiance. So check this out, 300 years ago, the first defiant Americans came up with a concept called "Town Meeting". Not "Town Hall Meeting", that is a Bill Clinton invention. The Town Meeting is in fact a legal form of small community governance, still in use in places like Massachusetts and Vermont. Typically used for enabling small communities to run themselves. Sound at all familiar?

How about a more formal definition?

"A town meeting is a meeting where an entire geographic area is invited to participate in a gathering, often for an administrative purpose. It may be to obtain community suggestions or feedback on public policies." (source; look it up yourself!)

Who would have thunk that the answer to our problem was right here all along!

It is always a good idea to define a problem before solving it. After a couple weeks of research, it seems ours is two-fold: 1) How do you call a community meeting, without being the suspicious one calling the meeting? 2) Then, if you were successful, how would you run the meeting? OK, there's also a third fold, 3) How do you prevent everyone from tearing each other's heads off? I say we go with a really inspiring and opening remarks, and then just hope people behave themselves. I'll nominate Abbas Milani for that job.

Being intelligent Iranians with absolutely no budget, we of course look for an expert who will give us free answers. If we could find such a person who would understand Town Meeting and our unique Iranian character, that would be a bonus. Believe it or not, I found 3! The most qualified Iranian-American for this that I know is Ahsha Safai.

Ahsha has worked over the past 7 years for the City of San Francisco in multiple capacities all centering on community organizing and development. For the first 2 years of SF Mayor Gavin Newsom's administration, he held the position of Deputy Director for the Mayor's Office of Community Development. Before all of that he worked for Governor Dukakis in Massachusetts, as well as a stint in the last of the 2 Clinton White Houses. So let's just say that he has conducted a few community meetings.

And so, I'll call this next bit; "Ask Ahsha":

BB: How does one normally get the community to come out to a meeting?

AS: First you need to define the subject matter and then the universe of who you want to reach. The location must be easily accessed and recognizable. You have to publicize the meeting using all available methods of outreach such as TV, telephone, internet, email, flyers, radio, newspaper. The larger the meeting the more time needed for people to attend. You've also got to factor in how long the meeting will be, so people can allocate more time. You can also contact the existing organizations and groups that already work with this community.

BB: How do we call a community meeting when most Iranians are spread out or don't live in one concentrated area?

AS: We know that a lot of Iranians live in the South Bay and Peninsula, some work in San Francisco, and we have the East Bay and Marin. My suggestion is that you pick a location, somewhere like Stanford University or the mid-Peninsula. These locations have traditionally been more acceptable and accessible. BB: How do we keep order? Or people from talking out of turn?

AS: You have a facilitator who will conduct the meeting. You need to lay the ground rules out in the beginning so the norms of behavior are set. The facilitator will administer and follow these rules. It's not that difficult really, we know that we are going to talk about an issue, that people will raise their hands, and that we will need to be fair and pick one at a time, that we will need to regulate the amount of time, something like 3 minute answers, and above all make sure to respect people, by not making comments out of turn. The facilitator must be respected and objective and guide the meeting, and make sure people abide by the rules.

AS: I don't see this as an exclusively Iranian problem, this is a human problem, and one of the values of being in a society like the US, with so many cultures interacting and able to learn from each other. We are in a new society where we can work on this, and learn from everyone. What it takes is for a society of people to be willing to address this shortcoming to advance themselves, and reach a higher level of civilization. Because it is far easier to go the other way, to moan, complain, and not do anything. It is the least path of resistance, and to do nothing is human nature.

BB: What kinds of governance systems or methodology do you think we need to have?

AS: Governance may be too premature at this point. But you can lay out the goals of the meeting with ground rules. Personally I see this as the first in a series of meetings that will be necessary to eventually reach a discussion and consensus on governance, representation and so on. Maybe we will have to have a meeting in each major region, maybe we will have a quarterly or annual conference, who knows? Whatever way it happens, it has to be done in such a way so that if anyone comes in at the end of a meeting and questions methodology, that you only had one meeting, or you had your agenda set from the beginning, and so on, can be assured of propriety. Maybe the ultimate goal of a first meeting is to simply create a set of norms or patterns of behavior so that people feel as though they helped to shape and define something, and get to the phase of feeling like they achieved community buy in that way. They need to walk away from the meeting feeling that this is something they want to continue to be a part of.

It takes a community, however they are defined as, let's say as people of Iranian descent, to make up the Iranian-American community in the Bay Area. Then a problem needs to be defined, that the community needs to follow certain acceptable models of behavior and partake in civil society. Any event by any community where there is no process or consensus building, tends to fail. Once defined, that from now on we are trying to institute a set of norms that people feel are being adhered to, that is when you start to see real buy in. And a community forms. BB: What are some good benchmarks for a first series of meetings?

AS: The first thing I would recommend is to start with the positive aspects of what the community has been able to accomplish. As a facilitator, wanting to pull positive effects out of the community, you have to go against the inclination to start negative or allow people to start by saying things that are wrong. This will be a good basis to begin the discussions. We can get to the things that we all agree or know are obviously wrong. We need to chart how much positive stuff we have, and how relatively minor negative stuff there is, so it can be seen by everyone as we proceed. The ingenuity of people will come through better this way. What are the positive things about how the community has been running so far? That's the way to start this. BB: How important is tea and shirini?

AS: Critical and essential, any positive community meeting is going to have snacks and enticements, it puts people at ease, especially Iranians with tea, and makes them comfortable. Plus people need to stretch their legs.

One thing that touches again on how this not just an Iranian phenomenon is that there is always going to be people, all it takes is 1 or 2, that have the precise goal to disrupt or de-legitimize the concept of a community meeting. Their behavior also changes when they have an audience. It is incumbent upon the facilitator and the participants who want the meeting to be conducted properly, to enforce the norms and processes of the meeting as outlined at the beginning. People need to agree to stand up and if needed ask the person who is disruptive to leave if they intend to destroy the process.

When these processes begin, you always think you have a good idea of what will happen, where it will go. But in my experience, it almost always goes in an unexpected or different direction, and you need to run the meeting organically so wherever it goes, it gets there!

Wow! Thanks Ahsha! OK, so what have we learned (for free!)? We've learned that the first meeting needs to:

* Advertise itself well, say 90 days in advance
* Pick a central meeting place so even the outer edge Iranians can get to it
* Have an agenda or process with easy to understand and accept rules and proceedings
* Collect and provide feedback

So, now the hard part.

Picking a place and time? Who's going to pay for the place,? All the tea and shirini? Agendas? Proposed discussion topics? Printing them up? Some sort of voting or survey to be tallied? Staff to collect and help out? Collect emails and addresses for follow up discussions and meetings? A way to collect pledges or support?

Nasreddin's Donkey! 90 days to promote it! This is going to cost a lot more than just tea and shirini!

More Questions? Of course. But we've already answered quite a few. And it wasn't as scary as we thought.

So we continue. [See: Lesson One]

Next: "How to Build a Community: Lesson 3: Leveraging the Wealthy and their Foundations!"


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