|Hard Decisions||<– Date –> <– Thread –>|
|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 conviction. 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 offenders. 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.. _______________________________________________ Cohousing-L mailing list Cohousing-L [at] cohousing.org Unsubscribe and other info: http://www.communityforum.net/mailman/listinfo/cohousing-l
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