Pittsfield Listens is an organization in Pittsfield, New Hampshire, that works to build community, inform on civic issues, solve problems through community conversations, and to award individuals, groups and organizations who make positive impacts on Pittsfield, New Hampshire. Their focus is on community schools, bringing people from multiple perspectives and backgrounds together for positive change, roundtable discussions, nurturing leaders, promoting diversity and equity in race, class and gender, and embracing creativity.
The mission of Pittsfield Listens is to encourage the power of youth, parent, family, and community voices on issues and policies that directly affect their education and their life, with a specific focus on engaging those who have historically been underrepresented. They support emerging youth and adult leaders through education, training, and participatory leadership development so that students succeed in the Pittsfield schools and beyond.
Pittsfield Listens was formed as an organization in 2011 in response to a need to improve poor learning outcomes and to increase high school graduation and college attendance rates. In December 2010, the Pittsfield School District was the only New Hampshire community to receive competitive a one-year planning grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation to support the transformation of the middle high school from a traditional school to a student-centered learning environment. The School District recognized that Pittsfield Schools, particularly the Middle High School, needed to improve learning outcomes for all students, increase graduation and college attendance rates, and create a student-centered learning environment that is motivating, engaging, and responsive to the individual needs of each student.
An important component of the planning process was to involve as many Pittsfield residents as possible in assessing the current state of the schools and creating concrete recommendations for improvement over the next several years. To meet this goal, the School District contracted with the
Pittsfield Youth Workshop (PYW) to design a process for engaging town residents in focused conversations about the schools and community. In turn, PYW partnered with New Hampshire Listens to create Pittsfield Listens to lead civic engagement efforts with Pittsfield community members.
It was formed as the result of a one-year planning grant to the Pittsfield School District of New Hampshire from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation to support transformation of the Pittsfield, New Hampshire middle high school from a traditional school to a student-centered learning environment.
Pittsfield Listens led a series of small group facilitated discussions with Pittsfield parents, students, and other community members, the results of which became part of the Pittsfield School Districts long-term plan for change. The plan was submitted to the Nellie Mae Education Foundation to apply for the District-Level Systems Change grant, to support student-centered education for all Pittsfield students. In 2012, The Pittsfield School District was awarded this prestigious grant. A Lead Community Partner grant was also awarded to Pittsfield Listens.
Since then, Pittsfield Listens has grown with a few staff members leading their youth and parent/family organizing efforts. Pittsfield Listens encourages the power of youth, parent, family, and community voice on issues and policies that directly affect their education and their life, with a specific focus on engaging those who have historically been underrepresented.
Molly Messenger was hired as the executive director of Pittsfield Listens and she is the subject of this interview. Pittsfield Listens has been in the process of implementing Sociocracy (for which they prefer the name Dynamic Governance) since its inception.
What made you decide to use Dynamic Governance (Sociocracy) as a mode of governance?
“Prior to joining the staff I was introduced to Dynamic Governance through the organization GALA (Global Awareness Local Action) and, because it seemed to fit so well with our goal of participatory engagement with the community and sharing of power, I sought to implement it with our leadership committee of 5 people. Though I still had a lot to learn about it I was willing to learn and so were they and so I started reading about it and trying to govern by it.”
“Sharing in decision making is part of our work with youth and adult leaders, as well as creating and supporting systems in the community to also share in decision making. So, incorporating a style of governance that turned this practice more deeply into our internal practices was appealing to us.”
“Initially the group was not all in. I had described this governance format as a top circle, a general circle and working circles, and they couldn’t get their heads around where all the people to populate these circles would come from. But I helped them see how we could include more people, like the youth and parents of the school. We were able to develop our own board or top circle, general circle, and member-led committees or circles to include our youth organizing group, Pittsfield Youth Voice in it Together (PYViiT), our parent/family organizing group, the Family and Community Engagement Committee (FACE), the Futures Team that is working to build a three year sustainability and growth plan for Pittsfield Listens, and a civic engagement group. Initially we were subject to the board of our fiscal sponsor and community partner, the Pittsfield Youth Workshop [PYW] but now operate independently. We are currently also developing our support circle.”
“Each of our circles are double-linked. That is, each member led committee or circle has two representatives sitting on the General Circle, and the General circle has a representative to our Board, and then as the Executive Director I am on the General Circe and our staff leaders of each committee or circle are also on the general circle as well as on those member led committees or circles. In addition, we have cross representation on our Board with two community partners, and are working on having representation or a link on the student governance circle as well.”
“Our board meets quarterly and the steering committee (general circle) meets in between those times. Staff meets every week and are part of the support circle. The board develops our broad stroke goals for the committees or circles. Pittsfield Listens board members have the responsibility to set policy parameters for the organization. They plan for the future of Pittsfield Listens, select the Director (whom they can always delegate to a select or subgroup or circle), and they make changes and expansions of the Aims of Pittsfield Listens and of Pittsfield Listens as an organizational entity. The Steering Committee (general circle) sets the program of work within policy parameters. Member led committees or circles make all decisions for carrying out the aims of the circle, within the specified budget, policy and staff time allocation.”
Issues with Dynamic Governance
What resistance did you experience to this form of governance?
“In the beginning there was a kind of resistance stated in the form of that question, “How are we going to populate all these circles,” and we met that by increasing our learning about Dynamic Governance and training, specifically as it relates to including circle members who are part of the community.”
“When we only had our steering committee and the policy was developed that circles would be double-linked with representatives and governance would be by consent, the application of that left some people feeling out of power as representatives from the Pittsfield Youth Workshop [PYW], our previous governing board, were no longer able to be on the General Circle unless they were on a member led committee. Some PYW board members felt this was not as clear when they passed the policy, and while it made sense to them, it was still challenging. We maintain good partnerships with those individuals, but the change in power structure certainly made us all examine what it felt like when we truly share power- and it’s not always easy.” We have not resolved that yet but maintain relationship with those who feel out of power even though they are no longer around the table.”
What aspects of Dynamic Governance are going well right now?
“Performance reviews. Through our adoption and practice of Dynamic Governance, we have also shifted the way we do annual reviews to being performance based reviews in the sociocratic practice. In that practice performance reviews are done in the circles with self-evaluation and circle evaluation being made in a sociocratic or Dynamic Governance meeting. We have done this for the past few years for my position. I love this practice, and find it to be an asset/strength based approach and open honest communication. For each position reviewed we have a couple of key partners who work closely with the individual to help make that review. It is not just me reviewing each position.”
“Good Enough Decisions. We’ve also found that embracing the participatory process helps shape our own sense of decision making, especially employing the concept of “good enough” decisions. We don’t spend years figuring out the perfect decision. Because of this we are able to take more risks and can take on decisions with a couple of ways to measure their outcome and a timeline to evaluate them, and then adjust from there. In my experience with organizations, there is a hesitancy to make a decision in fear that it won’t work long term, or that they need to know a lot more to make a proper decision. Making a decision with what we know now is all we can do, and then building it in a way that we can re-evaluate and make adjustments helps to keep us progressing.”
“Work Sharing. And I think using Dynamic Governance is lending and building a healthier more sustainable organization, where work is shared. We are more efficient using this governance model and can get a lot more done without having to have everyone around every table of decision-making. We’ve spread out with the right people to the right tables.
“I’ve seen this particularly in our budget process. Previously, it was my responsibility to craft and operate with a budget. We are moving towards having committees craft budget proposals, bring them to the Steering Committee (general circle), and then bring the broad strokes of those budgets to the board. I am hopeful that this process will not only increase folks’ skills in this participatory style of budgeting, but also create more ownership of the budget collectively and also in the fundraising and development for our budget. And this way we will also build a budget that truly reflects our needs to carry out this work well.”
“Transparency. Our information sharing/transparency is also doing well, though we have a few kinks to iron out. We share our minutes and important announcements on Google Drive and everyone in the organization has access to that. We’re working on getting this to those with less tech ability.”
How has Dynamic Governance impacted conflict resolution in your organization?
“I believe it has helped considerably. The most helpful aspect of Dynamic Governance in this realm has been clarifying each circle’s domain, what their authority is, what decisions they get to make. To know that some decisions are not in our domain helps decrease conflict.”
What have you found useful in deepening your Dynamic Governance practices?
“For the past three years we have had one-on-one coaching with Jerry Koch-Gonzalez as well as a couple in-person trainings that he as done with our leadership. We have also utilized the Sociocracy For All (SoFA) webinars to great benefit. Much of our training ends up being on the job, practicing it day to day.”
If you could go back in time, what would you have done differently?
“Going forward I want to spend more on training new staff as they come on board. They will have the benefit of seeing Dynamic Governance lived out in front of them but there is also a need for some formal and in-depth training.”
If there is one thing you have learned from Dynamic Governance that you would share with the world, what would it be?
“All of it, but especially how to share decision making and power.”