Hard Decisions
From: Sharon Villines (sharonsharonvillines.com)
Date: Sat, 13 Jul 2002 21:25:02 -0600 (MDT)
One of the events that convinced me that I had joined the right cohousing
group occurred at the point when we had an expiring option on land and
almost enough households to get a construction loan. We had to close a deal
very soon or lose the whole project. Property values in our neighborhood had
risen close to 25% and if we lost the option on our land, we would no longer
have been able to afford it. And it was the last suitable property in an
urban area. 

The hard decision was precipitated by some new households discovering that
one of the early and very active members of the group had been convicted and
served four years in prison for the sexual abuse of a child. The membership
team had been very careful to inform prospective members of this fact as
soon as they showed serious interest in joining, but in the long process of
prospects coming and going, the group becoming larger and more complex,
teams changing, and movement toward dealing with design issues, this
informing process was forgotten.

Some of the households that had not been informed were extremely concerned
about living in such close proximity to an alleged offender. Some had young
children and others had been subjected to sexual abuse themselves. Other
members who had been informed but had not really considered the issue very
seriously now had second thoughts.

The alleged offender maintained his innocence and pointed out that he had
not been obligated to tell the group about the conviction. He  had only done
this to be as open as possible.

Some households were still concerned that they would not be able to trust
their children to run free in the community or feel comfortable watching him
play with children.  The group was already having difficulty attracting
families because the area schools were so poor. With a convicted sex
offender in residence, this might become impossible. His presence could
prevent the community from forming at all.

Others felt the alleged offender had been open and honest and that the
allegations were likely to have been fabricated or at worst exaggerated.
They did not want to see the person they had come to value excluded from the
group for something that had happened years ago and may have been a false

Adding to this, the alleged offender made it clear that he felt he had been
unjustly accused and convicted, and he intended to write articles and
publish a book about his experience. In addition to attracting unwanted
attention, many felt the resultant publicity would lead to this community
and all cohousing communities being labeled as harbors for child sex

Even apart from time pressures, no one in the group knew how to approach
this conflict much less to resolve it, so they hired an outside facilitator.
She met with everyone in groups and privately if they wished, then she
designed a process for resolving the conflict. Everyone agreed to abide by
the process. It involved opportunities for all parties, including the
alleged offender, to express their concerns and ask questions in situations
that were carefully controlled to avoid emotional outbursts or accusations.
Small group meetings were held at members homes on several evenings to allow
everyone to discuss their concerns with each other. Members were encouraged
to talk through all their concerns and examine their feelings.

That process of careful listening is still considered by many to have been a
pivotal point in community development. One member said, "Many people
agonized over this decision and felt it was the most difficult one they had
ever faced in their lives. It raised issues of fairness, forgiveness,
tolerance, and trust and prompted discussion about whether or not cohousing
communities could be places where everyone could be welcome. It also led to
discussions about whether we are our brother's keeper and should look out
for each other -- keeping an eye on the kids to protect them, and keeping an
eye on him to help him monitor himself."

The process called for a final meeting in which there would be a consensus
decision on whether the alleged offender would be asked to leave or asked to
stay. Either way, at the end of the meeting, it was probable that someone
would be leaving and a process for saying goodbye was planned. It was
possible that if the alleged offender was excluded, other households would
leave in support of him. If he stayed some households would leave and others
would still be uncomfortable. It would be more difficult to attract new
households and the sensitive process of informing and working through
feelings would have to continue.

A week before that final meeting, the alleged offender again had a chance
present his story and answer questions. During this session, on close
questioning, it was revealed that he had been accused in an earlier instance
with a different child and had settled out of court. For some members this
"forgetting" about the previously undisclosed incident and the fact of two
unrelated incidents were the determining factors for deciding that they
would be more comfortable if he were to leave. For others his defensive
attitude and unapologetic demeanor was of most concern. After his
presentation, most members, if not all, had privately decided that it would
be best if he could be asked to leave.

A few days before the final meeting planned to reach group consensus, a
member who had a good relationship with him met with him privately and
explained what she thought the outcome of the meeting would be. The group
would not to ask him to leave. They didn't feel they had the personal or
legal right to do that, but that some would leave themselves. Others would
be not be comfortable though they would not leave. After this discussion, he
voluntarily withdrew.

In the final meeting, though the group did not have to go through a
decision-making process, the facilitator, opened with a time
for everyone to look inward.  Then the alleged offender had a chance to say
his "last words" to the whole group, and anyone who wished could say theirs
to him. He then left, and the facilitator gave the group time for extended
time to express what they were proud of in the process and what we were
sorry for in the process.  "It was deeply moving and cathartic for everyone
there.  At the end of the process, my sense is that everyone including ___
felt heard on a deep level. Speaking for myself, I felt forgiven for my own
errors (forgetting to inform newcomers of ____ background), and I felt heard
with respect to my painful and divided feelings on the issue. This meeting
was crucial for closure."

Some have questioned whether the group really made a decision or whether the
alleged offender had made it for them, in effect saving them from having to
make a decision at all. But this may actually be one of the best examples of
consensus decision-making.

Everyone concerned participated in a formally designed and accepted
decision-making process, listening and questioning, until the most workable
course of action available to them at the time became clear. That this
happened outside a group meeting doesn't make it less of a decision, or less
of a consensus. In fact, it may represent a truer consensus than if everyone
had been together, under time pressures to make a decision so everyone could
go home.

One member said, "For me what was powerful and instructive about this was
the open-heartedness that people brought to this whole passage in the life
of our community.  I will never forget sitting in that large circle later,
talking with one another about what we were sorry about in the whole process
and what we were proud of and the soul searching way in which people spoke
with one another -- the painful honesty spoken as gently as people could and
the connections it forged."

As a result, no other families left the group and the group was not left
divided by rancorous feelings. The alleged offender stayed on the email list
for over a year, participated minimally in discussions, and kept some
personal friends in the group..

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