Case Study: SoLaWi
Solawi Bodensee – a sociocratic agriculture community
Solawi Bodensee is a German association with around 90 members. The purpose of the association is the testing and implementation of ecological, climate-friendly and social land management. Solawi is an ancronym for “Solidarische Landwirtschaft” which is translated as “solidary agriculture” and meaning “sharing the harvest”. It is similar to the US-concept of CSA, Community Supported Agriculture.
The members of the association are cultivating plants on an area of 1 hectare and in a 250-square-meter foil greenhouse to feed 100 people from May to December. In 2018 they were able to harvest vegetables from mid-April to the end of January 2019 through improved storage facilities. The Solawi Bodensee farm is located in the Fichtenburgstrasse 51, 88048 Friedrichshafen-Raderach.
The aim of the case study is to hear from one of the organisation’s leaders how they introduced and developed sociocracy in their Solawi (short for Solidarische Landwirtschaft, meaning: Community Supported Agriculture). We contacted Odette Lassonczyk, a co-founder and the sociocratic leader in the organisation, to conduct a conversation with us.
About Odette, our interviewee
Odette Lassonczyk is one of the founding members of Solawi Bodensee E.V. She is responsible for the introduction and development of sociocratic patterns and methods in the Solawi Bodensee association. She is married and got in contact with sociocracy, ecovillages, and permaculture on her honeymoon with her husband seven years ago. She is a professional psychologist and since then an enthusiast for new ways of working and living.
This interview took place February 28th 2019 in the context of the course Sociocractic Leadership Training (Solt 10) by sociocracyforall.org. The interview took 1:46h so Sibilla Molinari and Oliver Müller, the two Solt10 students, transcribed the sequences that were the most interesting, inspiring and enlightening to them, and then sat down to reflect on the story they wanted to share from it.
We wanted to know how Odette got started with the journey, that is Solawi Bodensee, so we asked her about the encounters she had, that led to starting it and then choose sociocracy as governance for it.
(TIME ON VIDEO 00:19:55)
She brings us seven years back, to her honeymoon in La Palma, telling us how she got curious about a situation, and decided to go explore:
“We found out there [were] two swiss [persons], Barbara and Erich Graf. […] We did a small course with them, and they introduced us to permaculture and ecovillages. They showed us how the earth was before and after permaculture, […] and I was just like: “Oh my god, this is a different world, and we are so old, and we can’t do anything anymore, we can’t become activists!”
Then Barbara said to us: “Well, you see, I’m planting this tree, and maybe I will never eat its fruit, but it doesn’t matter. I’m doing it for the next generations or for seven generations behind me,” and I thought: “[…] I can still do something!”.
They then went on to research, how they could bring the inspirational living of Barbara and Erich into their lives. They found a video on CSA’s (Community-Supported Agriculture, international word, for what they call ‘Solawi – Solidarische Landwirtschaft’ in Germany) and long story short, they did an open house style evening, where a lady who had done her bachelor in CSA’s came to talk, and among the guests, the founding members of Solawi Bodensee were found.
At this point, they now had land and they had gardeners, but no structure. So they did some networking at a big meeting. People from the oldest working Solawi associations were there, workshops and talks about related areas of interest were on the agenda – and there was a workshop on sociocracy.
(TIME ON VIDEO 00:22:30)
That led to the implementation, which ended up being a “learning by doing” process. Introducing sociocracy wasn’t a problem. There were very few founders, and with no objections, they decided to put it in the by-laws. Odette and her husband were the only one who had some theoretical experience with sociocracy, so she was facilitating and teaching the others what she had learned:
“I found a course in sociocracy […], so my husband and I went there and did the first module in sociocracy. We started the Solawi project and at the same time we did the training, so it wasn’t really a sophisticated implementation it was more learning by doing. So while I was learning, I was implementing. We put it into our statutes, that we aim to use sociocracy. We had it really embedded from the beginning, and I used the circle method and consent from the beginning, but we were all learning at the same time so it was a bit of a strange situation. […] What an experiment! The people who are participating are […] not the sort of activist people, most of them are ordinary, more conservative people, but we managed to get the structure going and the voting and the delegates. The structure is still there and people are using it, so it was really really interesting, and I love sociocracy. I don’t want to do anything else anymore because it’s alive, it keeps people involved and I think that’s the future”.
(TIME ON VIDEO 01:21:00)
She later told us, that sharing leadership is important to keep a conflict-free organization, as sociocracy also encourages with its culture for all voices to be heard and (re)elections of roles. She took upon the leader role as she was the only one knowing about sociocracy. She wished to have shared that leadership looking back, but back then, the members contributed with what they had and expertise in leadership and sociocracy was what Odette could bring.
(TIME ON VIDEO 00:30:42)
We went on to talk about a conflict that rose half a year ago, and to get some context, Odette told us about the beginning four years, before the organization ran into conflict.
“So, we were just very active, doing a lot of stuff, trying to get people to join us because we needed to pay wages to the gardeners. We needed to decide […] so many things […]. We did a lot of organizing”.
(TIME ON VIDEO 00:33:44)
They also had to make their circle structure to attract people, and so we asked Odette, to tell us about how they came to evolve the circle structure they have.
“ We thought about what tasks need to be done, what are the domains we need in order to get our organization going. That we did […] in the leading circle, called “Kerngruppe” [core group]. […] From that we started to recruit people for the circles because we knew we needed people for these domains so it was a bit of top-down”
“we had big meetings like “Vollversammlung” [all member meeting], we said; “we have these working groups, [would] anybody […] like to join” – and then people came and joined and they knew from the beginning that they would join a circle. The leaders of the circle grew up with sociocracy so they were responsible to use it also in their subcircle and they’re still doing it.
The autonomy is also living well in the circles:
“They are free to do what they need to do, they are free to decide things within their domains, but because the leader and the delegate are always in the leadership meeting they can always check with the leadership circle if there are any disagreements. So we are all linked with each other, nobody is left out”
Oliver: It turned out later that these circles did not have any formal aim description where new members could consent too. Maybe this would add more stability to the structure.
(TIME ON VIDEO 00:39:47)
There was a lesson learned from creating their circle structure:
“I really regret that I had not built in a circle for conflicts. I did not think about it, it just worked all out so well I was really happy. And I got really surprised by the conflict that happened a few months ago”.
She told us about the conflict – and so the conversation went towards, trying to solve and point out the missing links that could have to do with the conflict, and sat stuck with it still.
One area, was different values on lifestyle, progressive vs. conservative, alternative vs. traditional.
Sibilla: for me to also have the experience with conflicts in my ecovillage organisation and also currently focusing on how to prevent and be proactive on conflicts, this was an area of interest.
I still remember what Kim [ team member from SoLT10 course] said, how it in other forms of governance is easier to, metaphorically, hide behind a mask. Sociocracy demands from you, that you show up with what you are, and what you feel and think. There isn’t much hiding, but you’re also given a space for your voice, which is very powerful.
I could guess that given the lack of hands-on educational experience on sociocracy, it’s hard to fully understand and live it in an organisation, and Odette went to tell us, that nobody spoke up about their frustrations when they occurred.
“I think these people [who were included in the conflict] were not educated enough. They’re not ready for showing up”
Odette says, and confirms Sibilla’s thoughts and own experiences, that her organization has also experienced.
Sibilla: The matter of the fact is that we, as humans, have never had a space where it is encouraged to show up with everything you hold as an individual like sociocracy does, so if there isn’t an explicit focus on how you are allowed to show up in a sociocratic organisation, it’s only natural that you go about the accepted and known ways.
(TIME ON VIDEO 00:47:18)
“We have a supervision next week. We have somebody externally from non-violent communication to help us with it […]. So in the meantime after special coaching myself for conflict resolution I’m visiting a webinar, I’m doing a lot of research on conflict. I want to learn it and I found restorative circles by Dominic Barter. I want to learn that because I think that would be a good method that could be combined with sociocracy because it’s also a circle method. They use it also in Auroville in the ecovillage in India because they discovered that there is the secret layer even with people who share values even with people who are in it together who share a lot of things but still there’s this level of not telling the truth. That’s why they are introducing restorative circles to have a room for people to speak the truth and I find that very interesting. So when I find difficulties in my life I start researching and learning”.
Oliver: In the two organizations I work with sociocracy it was always the case that additional methods and practices were added. I think that’s the great thing about sociocracy: it is so open to connect whatever you have and to make your own out of it. But this is also the challenge: sociocracy only unfolds its full potential once you made it your own.
(TIME ON VIDEO 01:25:25)
Oliver later asked, in relation to hearing about the organisation bringing in an external expertise, what other potential energies could help an organization:
“I think introducing sociocracy would be better with an external adviser. Doing it only internally is far too hard, because it’s too stressful because I was part of the whole project and I was introducing sociocracy, it’s too much I wouldn’t do it like that again okay I would prefer to be an external adviser […]. I mean I learned a lot through it, but […] it’s not state-of-the-art.
(TIME ON VIDEO 01:05:37)
Oliver asked about governance and Odette shared, that their learning [sociocracy] and doing [a sociocratic organisation] at the same time, and just going with the flow, isn’t what she in most cases would recommend. Writing out your governance strategy and policies is crucial:
“I think for continuity it’s good […], to have it written down and to have it clear. Clarity, […] and many people rely on the written word and I think it’s it’s quite powerful to have it written down”
(TIME ON VIDEO 01:37:55)
She had a success story with proof that doing sociocratic governance orderly has a great outcome:
Odette: “We had to build a cisternae and to collect water because we had such a dry summer last year but that we did really orderly with consent and everything – and it’s standing there”.
Oliver: “And was it different, like the contribution and the saying “yes” to that and the overall mood when you did it orderly?”
Odette: “yeah much better, much better”.
Sibilla: Okay then, lesson learnt; follow the procedure of how-to sociocracy. Also, we are too going to collect water in our ecovillage!
Oliver: This is happening all the time and it happens quickly when you are not aware of what you do. The leader really has to put energy in holding the space for the values and needs that underlies sociocratic governance. I now learned not to underestimate that fact of how much energy it takes.
(TIME ON VIDEO 01:09:40)
When asked what her advice is to focus on when starting out with Sociocracy, she said:
“We didn’t take enough time on [reflections]. We were so focused on the doings of the project, that we didn’t take time to self-reflect enough. I think now, I would insist on reflection time”.
(TIME ON VIDEO 01:16:24)
One of the biggest insights we got, came from talking about people’s own values, being clear about vision and expectations. Odette then realised something:
“-but I’m just thinking, anybody can join us. Anybody. I mean, we have no entrance requirements apart from that you pay 50 euros something, so anybody can join. So you have no interview or no nothing and maybe that’s why […]. Normally when you join an organization you have some sort of requirements, don’t you? I mean, if you join a company you have requirements, if you go to an ecovillage you have certain requirements, but in if you start an association, […] anybody can join so you can’t really be sure that there are people joining who share your values”
(TIME ON VIDEO 01:20:56)
The conversation went on to discuss a potential solution, and it seemed to conclude, that new members to the association, subscribers, volunteers – anyone coming out to be a part of the farm association, should in some way consent to the values, that this is how they relate to each other [through sociocratic governance].
“This is a really big insight for me. It’s not clear, when you join the Solawi that you’ve joined a sociocratic club. You join, and you join a vegetable club”.
Oliver: What we did now in one organization I am part of funding is to start writing down our vision, mission, aim statement; this emphasis it is a direct outcome of this interview. We want new members to consent to our vision, mission and aims.
(TIME ON VIDEO 01:29:16)
What fits Solawi Bodensee, as the CSA association they are, are the big meetings they have for everyone and anyone that has to do with them. The people within the circle structure are active members, but around that structure are vegetable subscribers, value sharing people, volunteers and more, that are not as active. These meetings brings everyone together.
“we have big meetings where everybody comes, not everybody but maybe half the people, let’s say 40 people turn up and for those meetings we do “art of hosting”, we do “open space”, or we do “work cafe” things and I think for the big groups it’s much more helpful than just sitting in circles so yeah I think that’s a really good addition to do this big group facilitation stuff.”
“They got into contact with each other so they didn’t just sit at their table with the people they know so they mixed and got talking to other people”.
“The motivation was to do community building and to really get people who are not active in the circles to get to know each other because in our Solawi not everybody is in a circle because just some vegetable members who just pick up the veggies and they don’t have time to contribute”.
“I think for the active people sociocracy is perfect but if you want to involve or have a forum or space for also the passive members just going with the flow is easier so that would be a nice addition I found”
Sibilla: I told Odette, how great an idea, I think this is. It works as networking for the people as well. Community building can never be recommended enough, and I told her that I’ll suggest these evenings, for my organization.
(TIME ON VIDEO 01:11:35)
No matter what, working or not working, there seems to be no regret choosing sociocracy for their non-profit:
“I can tell you, Sociocracy works. We managed in a year to build an organization, that feeds 90 families – that’s amazing. We got enough money and we have a flourishing community. Without sociocracy it would never work, because there would have been four or five people doing all the work – they would burn out. Because we had the circles and we had shared it on a lot of shoulders, through these circles, I think there’s no other way, it would have worked”.
(TIME ON VIDEO 01:42:30)
The legal structure of Solawi Bodensee is still a majority vote association with a board elected by the general assembly. So the sociocratic structure is still in danger, especially when you have conflicting values in different groups. So Odette pointed out that it is important to set up the bylaws neatly and with stability.
“I’ve talked to somebody who worked for an association and he said to me it’s terrible when you have a new board they can change everything. “
“This is really something I’m thinking about. How can we like have the legal frame so this cannot happen when you choose that it’s a sociocratic organization? The sociocracy center Germany they are the first organization in Germany who put it completely in the bylaws. And I think in Austria there’s also more flexibility and I think they in the Austrian center they also have it in their constitution as far as I know. I think that’s really really important because if the board can change and it’s in the Constitution then you can lose everything.
(TIME ON VIDEO 01:46:07)
Sibilla: When I asked her, the question we formulated, about what we can learn, from her experience working with sociocracy for now four years, I loved the answer she gave:
“it’s a wonderful method of sharing responsibility, and it’s the future. […] What I’m experiencing is just, the old wave is trying to get power before the new wave starting to build. I think we’re in this time in our country and in the world. […] We’re a little bit pioneers of change as well we’re trying out things we’re experimenting and I think sociocracy works, I’ve seen it work for four years now. It’s a wonderful method of bringing people together. One lady said to me: “well it’s great I just sit here I don’t have to fight for being listened to, I can wait and I get my turn, it’s wonderful!”, and that’s what I heard again and again. It takes out the fight, it takes out the the power games if people are committed to. [..] If we do it correctly – then the decisions were really solid”.
About Solawi Bodensee E.V.
Find out more under: http://www.solawi-bodensee.de/