Voting vs. Quaker decision-making in third grade

This morning I had the honor and the pleasure of speaking to the third grade at the San Francisco Friends School about Quaker decision-making process, as part of their study of government, elections and voting.

It's tricky to find a way to explain both the art and the nitty-gritty of Quaker decision-making in language that is accessible to third-graders and true to my own experience as a Friend.

They’ve already learned the differences between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. Last week they had an election for class mayor and three supervisors. This afternoon will be the first meeting of the board of supervisors. Any laws passed will have to be reviewed by the judicial branch, i.e. the teachers.

A couple of weeks ago they went on a field trip down to City Hall. This week they’ve been researching the city’s website and writing reports/developing webpages about their own questions about government.

And this morning they invited me to come and talk about Quaker spirit-led decision-making as compared to voting. They’ve already had an introduction to Quaker business processes. They’ve held their own business meetings about playground issues and other classroom policies. They were able to tell me that consensus means you have to listen to everybody and talk about it until you come to a decision.

Here’s some of what I said:
Quakers are seeking unity with God’s will, which is in some ways a mystery, but if we use all our brains, all that we know and feel, then we can come closer to finding the Truth, the True Right Answer.

We make decisions as part of a gathered community and we listen to all the voices because each may have part of the Truth.

We have to be open to changing our minds when we hear a new part of the Truth. It's okay to say something you're not sure you agree with if it's something the group needs to think about anyway.

The Clerk is responsible for listening to everyone and then saying back to the gathered community where he/she has heard the unity of the community. Then the community gets to affirm the statement or to say, no, that’s not what we meant.

Then the clerk writes down a Minute that says what we agreed on.

If you really can’t agree with the decision, but you recognize that the community has decided something different, sometimes Friends “stand aside” but the meeting community can move forward.

If you’re absent, the decision still stands as the decision of the community, and you have to accept it, until there’s a new decision of the community.

This is a delicate art, there’s no written set of rules that says what to do in each case. (Although I did show off my tattered book of Faith and Practice and say that we can and do refer back to it sometimes.)

Sometimes we can ask for a few moments of silence for everyone to calm down, cool off, pray for guidance, listen for the Truth, and this can help each of us and especially the clerk to see the unity that exists.

Our body language can help people know that they have been listened to and help the Clerk know if we agree or not.
We talked a little about why don’t Quakers vote. One girl asked if Quakers vote in political elections, and I said yes, most Friends think it’s important to participate in our government, even if we use other decision making processes. I pointed out that
1) the majority is not always right
2) a large disgruntled minority can make carrying out the decision much harder.
Quaker decision making can take longer before coming to a decision, but if everyone feels that they’ve had a chance to be heard and they feel included and committed to the decision, it is much less work afterwards to enforce the decision.

Some of the most animated discussion was about cheating. The kids were clear about the various ways of cheating in a voting situation, including when people’s voting rights have been denied because of race or language. Here are the some of the ways we talked about cheating in a Quaker decision making process:
If you come with your mind made up and not open to changing it.

If you don't speak your part of the Truth.

If you say you agree with somebody just so they will give you candy or skateboards or be your friend.

If the clerk doesn’t really listen to everybody.

If someone bribes the clerk or other people in the community to agree with them. (I pointed out that while I think it is uncommon for anyone to actually offer money to a clerk, it can happen that someone will offer that if the decision goes his way, he will do all the work, and this can function like a bribe.)

If you keep repeating the same thing that other people have said, or talk too long and repeat yourself. (I tried to explain John Woolman’s line about how holding 300 people for one minute against their will is as bad as imprisoning 1 person for five hours, but I fumbled it.)
One of the teachers asked me to talk about how we can move past our own strong feelings to accept the decision of the community, with an example of when I had to do that. I used the real example of our Meeting’s decision a couple of years ago to start a peace and justice center in our meetinghouse. A lot of people thought it was a good idea but I didn’t think that enough people were actually willing to do the work. I stood up and said what I thought, but I could hear that the rest of the Meeting was in unity and I realized that it was my job to try to find a way to work with this decision. I had to give up my position and submit to the will of the Meeting. (We didn’t get further into this in class, but since that time, a couple of new personal leadings to do/run the Peace Center have emerged and the Center is finally functioning on a small scale.)

In the end, I said the three most important things in Quaker decision-making are
  1. to speak your thoughts clearly and briefly,
  2. to listen deeply for what people are trying to say, even if they're not speaking clearly, and
  3. to trust that people have heard what you said.

On the whole, I thought it was a good discussion. At least, I had fun. If I get to do it again, and I hope I will, even next year when my son is not in the third grade, I would try to prepare better examples, more vivid stories of how this works, rather than the dry explanations that I started with.

What would you say if you had this kind of opportunity?

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Blogger Liz Opp said...

Hey, Robin--

You sure this summary of what you said wasn't for adults who attend Meetings for Worship with attention to Business?!? smile

I liked the spin of "cheating" at Business Meeting. That's a new way of looking at it.

I wonder how the kids would have carried out "elections" if they had to search for sense of the meeting to identify that student to serve as class mayor. Just a thought.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

5/03/2007 5:54 PM  
Blogger cubbie said...

i like what you have to say... please give me a skateboard. no, wait, candy. no, wait, a skateboard.

... all silliness aside, i do like it. i am glad when quaker things happen at the quaker school.

5/03/2007 6:00 PM  
Blogger Martin Kelley said...

Sounds like you got pretty deep into it, cool. When I spoke at a semi-Quaker high school last year I was surprised at the direction it took so I can imagine the third-grader class animation when they realized they could talk about the role of cheating. I don't think I ever thought of disruptive business meeting practices as cheating but I guess it is. Interesting indeed!

5/03/2007 6:21 PM  
Blogger Robin M. said...

Liz, if they had to identify a class mayor through a Quaker process, they'd have a nominating committee, etc. Friends know how to do this pretty well, I think.

cubbie, the kids' examples were great. One of the things I should have taken away from my devotion to Tom Chapin is that the images have to be vivid and it helps if they're funny.

Martin, I decided to be brave and just go ahead with what I really think about Quaker decision making. That means talking about God, not too much in this setting, but I can't avoid it either. To me, Quaker process, for worship or business, doesn't really make sense without God. And these are great kids - thoughtful, well-behaved, and well-prepared. As is common in their school, I started by asking for a short time of silence for us all to collect ourselves. It was, as always, the right way to start a Quaker discussion.

One of the things that the teacher said after I finished, while reminding the students about the upcoming board of supervisors' meeting, was that good listening makes the voting process work better too. Which of course is true for almost any decision-making process.

I'm still trying to find out from my son whether it was interesting to the students or not really. He was engaged, at least, and not yet embarrassed to have his mother at school.

5/03/2007 8:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have heard of a decision process that is attributed to Quakers. I'd like to know if it is true. The idea is that you ask the congregation what options they *cannot* live with. That leaving the set of options that everyone would be OK with. Then, you can proceed from there. Is this actually a method that Quakers use in their decision approach?

12/02/2011 3:32 PM  

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