By Mandy Parry October 2020
11 years ago in 2009, a consultant called a meeting to propose a small affordable housing project based in Bridport, West Dorset, UK. A small number of people attended, including five people who are still members of what later became Bridport Cohousing. The project’s vision is of a neighbourhood that would generate sustainability, community and affordability. The mission is to establish an informal and harmonious cohousing neighbourhood open to all that share its values. The scale of Bridport Cohousing is ambitious and its aims include:
- 53 units of housing, with sizes ranging from one-bedroom flats to family houses
- A high level of social housing provision, 39 of homes will be housing association homes with 26 of those for social rent and 13 for shared ownership through the Help to Buy scheme. The remaining homes are for sale at max 80% shared ownership directly through Bridport Cohousing.
- Strong focus on sustainability, likely to include zero-emissions heating systems, homes with high insulation levels, carpooling, electric bicycles, and limits on private car ownership
- Food growing – residents will grow food for the neighbourhood following permaculture principles
Common House – a central place to meet up, share meals using the large kitchen and dining room, to do laundry, administration
- Workspaces: small office, studio, and therapy space, plus scope to use the large meeting space for workshops and training groups
- Guest accommodation for educational visitors, eco-tourism, and residents’ guests
- Community facilities: the project aims to provide a range of facilities and services for residents and the wider community: such as a car club, playgroup, special interest groups.
Diversity of economic status, age, and ethnicity are important underlying values that underpin these aims. The long history of the project has meant that the project has experienced many changes in direction and is constantly evolving. Right now the project is breaking ground and about to start construction.
Sociocracy was adopted as the system of governance within the first few years of the project’s life. Early on members trained with sociocracy trainer James Priest and Diana Leafe Christian and for years ‘We the People: Consenting to a Deeper Democracy’ was the sociocratic manual for the organisation. It has since been superseded by ‘Many Voices, One Song’ which they consider much more user-friendly. Jerry Koch-Gonzalez actually visited Bridport to deliver sociocracy training in person to about 20 members in 2018. Continuing internal training within the organisation is delivered by the Training Sub Circle, and learning about Sociocracy is a key part of Induction for all new members. Induction training is run in Circles, which mimics the sociocratic meeting structure. Sociocracy Development is in the remit of the Community Circle. Bridport Cohousing also has a number of ‘Sociocracy Advocates’ who are volunteers from the Community Circle to improve the standards of sociocracy being practised and offer continuous feedback and support to members practising sociocracy. Each new member is offered a ‘Buddy’ who can reinforce the importance of Sociocracy and help them to understand it. The community plans to offer more sociocracy training days, where concepts are discussed in detail. All members are encouraged to give Sociocracy a try and to not worry about the jargon – it’s stressed that it is there to give everyone a say, and that it helps decision making by seeking consent rather than consensus. Everyone is encouraged to ask questions and make objections.
Early structures of the group consisted of a Representatives and Professional Advisors [RPA] group, a large unelected member’s circle, together with two sociocratic working circles; ‘Soil’ to concentrate on the site, construction, legal and financial agreements, and ‘Soul; to focus on membership and building the community. Some members felt confused with this ad hoc structure which did not practice sociocracy across the organisation. Over time, the RPA disbanded, Soil and Soul were linked by a new General Circle, with a new Holding [Director’s] Circle off the General Circle. The current structure of Bridport cohousing is now a model of sociocratic structure with delegated decision making carried out in a number of smaller work circles which reflect the large membership of the group (currently about 47 individuals). Each Circle has an ‘Operations Leader’ (OL) and the large number of Circles increase the opportunities for people to get involved and make a real difference. It also means that work is focused more specific areas and more effective and efficient.
Lots of members support sociocracy simply because of its emphasis of giving everyone a voice. Over time members also appreciate that Sociocracy is efficient and effective as a way of moving decisions forward. There are, however, some people who still resist sociocratic processes. In truth, many people did find the selections process in particular counter intuitive, particularly not asking nominees if they want the role until the last round. Overall it seems that members appreciate the equanimity it offers, even if it can be frustrating. Over time, there is a sense that the benefits that sociocracy offers certainly outweigh the criticisms. They see that it reduces factionalism by rotating roles which are regularly reviewed. They appreciate that in seeking solutions to problems that are ‘good enough for now’, sociocracy can end indecision and stasis. Ideas like trying things out for a limited time, or slightly modifying a proposal, are useful ways to break any deadlocks. And even in sociocratic selection processes, people have now learned that the procedure of asking for nominations and reasons for those nominations (rather than simply asking for volunteers), creates the opportunity for valuable feedback that individuals may not otherwise hear, feedback that can sometimes inspire them to get much more involved than if they had simply been asked to express their interest in the first place. Offering feedback creates a much richer dynamic than simple democracy, and can help build constructive and durable relationships. Now selection procedures feature big smiles more often or not as the team emerges.
Bridport Cohousing does face some ongoing challenges with their sociocratic setup. It is felt that the role of the Facilitator has been a difficult one to fill in all Circles. Their position is not an easy one and is fraught with difficulty, whilst potentially wielding a lot of power. On the other hand, skilled Facilitators exhibit ‘unseen competency’ which means their skill level can be taken for granted. There is a huge range of skills in facilitation in the community, but limited money for external training, and limited capacity to offer training within the organization. Sometimes even when training is offered, the people who most need the training are unable to come. Timekeepers are appointed within Circles to help Facilitators keep a track of this aspect of their responsibilities.
As the number of Circles has expanded, there are more OLs, some of whom are not trained in Sociocracy and some who are reluctant to use it. Some OLs prefer to facilitate themselves as they set up the agenda with the secretary and know what needs to be addressed in the meeting. Some OLs are not practicing sociocracy at all. It is hoped that the new role of Sociocracy Advocate will be able to address this.
The organisation is also conscious that it has tended to steer away from regular role reviews as there is a reluctance to give and receive direct feedback. It is felt that training on Nonviolent Communication may help people to be more confident in giving feedback. There are issues of some long-standing members not being as involved as they could – but it is hoped that the new structure and another Vision day – probably long overdue as the current vision is 11 years old, could instill more interest.
Key benefits of sociocracy and the future
Judith Griffies, a longstanding member of Bridport Cohousing, shared her thoughts about how sociocracy had served to uphold key beliefs underpinning the project. She felt that sociocracy had primarily enabled members of Bridport Cohousing to be part of decision making that is fully transparent and open to scrutiny. It had greatly enabled people to develop their skills of governance and allowed more people to get involved. She said: ‘Sociocracy has challenged us to learn new ways of doing things, and of constantly reviewing our processes through feedback and further experimentation. It’s enabled every member to have a voice in the matters that affect them and to have that voice valued. It values all the contributions that members make, however large or small. Talking in rounds really feels like a powerful symbol of inclusive governance because the practice commits people to speaking and people to listening.’ As Judith says: ‘Sociocracy values everyone’s contribution and because of that we feel like we are using our resources – our members – effectively – and this is an important value that underpins our community – sustainably using resources in harmony with our planet and every other aspect of our lives. As we care for each other, we care for our wider community in Bridport and the wider world.’
Judith continues: ‘Seeking objections and taking them on board has helped us become a more resilient organisation – we’ve had so many setbacks, but Sociocracy has helped us to come up with more and more creative solutions. Our emphasis has always been on ‘good enough for now’ and moving forward. We are not waiting for the perfect answer.’ Using Sociocracy has meant that for Bridport Cohousing, the way of making decisions is as important as the decisions themselves. It has empowered the grassroots of the organisation, helped share out power and influence, and therefore helped to develop strong bonds of trust amongst the members.
What is in store for Bridport Cohousing and Sociocracy? ‘We’ll just get better at it!’ laughs Judith. ’Nobody has suggested dropping it. The opposite in fact – using Sociocracy has helped us attract new members.’
An easy, community-friendly way to learn sociocracy with this video-led training for groups.