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The solution that has no name

Cecile Andrews has been engaged with New Dream for many years through her work on consumerism. Her first book, The Circle of Simplicity, focused on the voluntary simplicity movement. A few years later she brought together essays by leaders of the movement in Less Is More.

Now, in her new book Living Room Revolution: A Handbook for Conversation, Community, and the Common Good, Cecile focuses on the need to create a caring, collaborative culture in which people realize that they’re better together. Her latest blog series concrete steps we can take in our own lives towards this goal.


We all want to make a difference and have a good time--that’s the key to happiness. But how? We’re often not sure what to do.

During the 1960s, I discovered something that transformed my life: the Highlander Center, the educational center where Rosa Parks was trained. Highlander was the hidden secret of the civil rights movement, working with people like Martin Luther King and  Eleanor Roosevelt.

Highlander’s  secret? Bring people together to talk and they will find the answers. Bring people together and they will inspire each other to action. The answers lie in the people.

It’s not a totally new idea, of course. For instance, in the nineteenth century Sweden developed something similar, calling their method of change study circles—small groups of people who come together to talk and change their lives.

I call this method of change the “solution that has no name” because there is really no good name for it. It works incredibly well, but the name is so pedestrian: it’s hard to get excited about  something called a study circle. (In particular, no one likes the word study!) “Small group discussions” doesn’t do it either. 

Lately I’ve been thinking of study circles as “discernment circles,” because it’s a method that helps answer essential questions: “What shall we do?” “How do we live?”  “How do we change?” It’s a method that helps us see our direction more clearly, helps us figure out how to make a difference, and have a good time.

I also think of them as “community conversations,” though that also doesn’t capture their significance. Here’s how a study circle works:

3 Reasons

The secret of the circle is that it gives us three things that are vital to our survival and our happiness as individuals as well as a culture: Connection, Reflection, and Action

Connection: One of the biggest predictors of happiness and well being is connection to other people—caring about each other, knowing each other.  But social ties have  been on the decline. Study circles are an effective way to connect.

Reflection: We also need to stop and think!! We’re overwhelmed by manipulation and deception. Commercials, politicians, preachers. As Obama said after one of the mass killings, “We need to take stock as a nation.” Reflection is vital to our survival!

Action: Action  is the antidote to despair. And it’s the ultimate tool for discerning our path. Always try out an idea by acting on it! See what you learn, and come back and connect, reflect, and act some more. Taking action makes your happier.

3 Questions

The circle takes the form of three questions—questions that explore personal experience, the influence of cultural norms, and possibilities for collaboration. You can use this approach for any subject: caring, simplicity, creativity, etc. These days, I use it a lot to explore the idea of community. So, let’s see how it works: 

1. When in you life have you experienced community?
2. What in our culture discourages community?
3. What actions can you take to create community?

Personal stories: In the first question you explore your experience—your feelings and emotions. You tell your story. This is what creates connection with others. Too often, we just discuss and analyze ideas and fail to reveal our true selves. When people tell their stories, their energy lights up the room.

Cultural norms: In the second question, you move to critical thinking and exploring ideas. After telling your own stories about community—maybe about your college dorm, a trip to another country to do service work, or even a daily bus ride—you begin to analyze the cultural barriers to community: things that go beyond the personal. For instance, you might talk about long work hours, competitive work environments, or long commutes. Understanding the problem at this level is crucial because in our individualist culture, we’re always blaming ourselves. We fail to understand the larger forces, so we focus only on personal issues and we fail to change. Cultural analysis is liberating and helps fuel action.

Collaboration: The cycle is complete when we take action. Collaboration begins by brainstorming personal solutions. In particular you generate ideas which involve collaboration and cooperation—ideas like  having a potluck, taking a walk and chatting with your neighbors, or joining a book club. Then, during the week, you try the actions and when you return for the next session, you tell your stories, receiving support and inspiration.

Building community also requires institutional and policy change, so you need to explore long term actions like working for shorter work hours and wealth equality.

3 Methods

There are three key methods: conversation, the circle, and peer-to-peer communication.

Conversation: This is not debate. It’s not discussion. It’s personal conversation in which we share our stories and ourselves. It is personal disclosure that builds community—it’s not about proving you’re right or trying to win. It’s a barn raising, not a battle. So you listen, you nod, you laugh, you support, you affirm, you pay attention. This sounds obvious, but it’s amazing how people turn a conversation into a discussion or debate, avoiding personal contact.

Circle: You can have a good conversation because you’re in a small circle. A circle allows people to be equals. It allows them to look into each others eyes. It allows caring to grow because you can really connect. The circle should not be much larger than 6-8 so everyone gets a chance to talk. This is certainly not what we’ve learned in school. Too much of the time we sit facing straight ahead with a lone lecturer, making no contact with anyone.

Peer to peer: You don’t really need a leader because you just follow the three questions and take turns going around the circle and talking. You’re talking together! There’s usually a coordinator who starts things going, but no discussion leader needed. (You don’t need one in a conversation!)

So, there we have it. An incredible method for personal and social change—even though we don’t know what to call it.

Just remember:

Three Reasons: Connection, Reflection, and Action

Three Questions: telling your story, analyzing our culture, collaborating

Three Methods: Conversation, Circle, Peer to Peer

A circle motivates you and inspires you to change. It makes you happy because you make a difference and have a good time. It’s something everyone can do—no training needed.

We’re better together, so create a circle—call it whatever you want because it’s a solution that has no name.

[Note: If you get a few people together, I’d love to talk with you via Skype. I’m planning on doing a circle on community in my New Dream Santa Cruz Get2gether group this Fall. Click here to learn more about Get2gether.]

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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