by Hélène Lesterlin
I started at Good Work Institute seven weeks ago. It still feels unfamiliar, fresh, there’s still so much to learn and absorb and integrate into my own thinking. But I realize I can’t keep saying, “I just started!” because eventually I won’t be the neophyte anymore. So, as the first Worker Trustee to join the team since GWI hatched into a Worker-Self Directed Nonprofit this summer, I’m taking this moment to reflect on the process of entering this radical type of organization.
What is it like to go from the “real world” to a place that is committed to putting shared leadership into practice from the ground up? GWI is rebuilding the inner workings of its own governance structure using the WSDNP model, while also refining an ambitious vision for a regenerative and equitable future based on Just Transition principles. From my current beginner’s mind perspective, what is it like to encounter all this for the first time?
When I arrived, I was struck by four things, pretty much in this order: 1. the terminology, 2. the onboarding support I was offered, 3. the meeting structures and consent for decision-making, and 4. radical trust as a foundation. Each of these are starting to settle for me, and each represent a facet of what makes this experience, and the WSDNP model, unique and powerful.
Disclosure: I am naturally suspicious of jargon. It is often used to convey expertise without content, and reinforce who is in power, or not, creating barriers to effective communication. At its worst, it can slide into absurdity, obfuscation, propaganda, or even be used to prop up tyranny.
The WSDNP structure as adopted by GWI uses the following terms, some of which are plucked from everyday language but used for very specific purposes: circle, consent, steward, trustee, worker, input, radical trust. At first, I felt wary around this didactic-seeming terminology. I wasn’t quite convinced that we needed these words. Our title policy changed and we all became “Worker Trustees” which sounded opaque to me, and required an explanation each time I said it to anyone outside the organization (“It’s basically co-executive director, but then we have other roles too.”) which seemed inefficient. “Circles” denoted working groups focused on specific areas of work, like “Development”, or program areas, like “Alliance”. It reminded me a bit of sunny startups that rename all functions – like “Chief Grain Officer” for the head of a granola company – which is cute, and unnecessary. In our case, it had a vaguely retro, utilitarian cast.
Well, I’ve come around. Sometimes the use of new language is actually required because the thing it describes is substantively different in approach. We call our working groups “circles” and I have come to see that term as much more fitting to the style of work than I had first understood. We are a small group of people, rotating in and out of different roles, with a smooth, consent-driven passing of torches, turning towards each other to listen and then back out to the world to engage, depending on our needs; it is very much a circular process, a constantly slowly spinning dance. Aja’s description of Circles describes the practice beautifully. Another example: accepting the “stewardship” of a circle is not just to be the leader of it, but it is “the careful and responsible management of something entrusted to one’s care,” to quote the actual definition of the term. And the word “care” is essential here, which brings me to my next point.
I was assigned a two-person support team who went through an extensive and thoughtful learning plan with me at our first meeting. This plan listed internal documents and articles to review, arranged by theme, and it described a phased approach to assuming the responsibilities I had in my areas of work and as a Worker Trustee in terms of governance. It included a robust schedule of meetings in the first three weeks to acquaint me with my co-workers and what they were working on, and to initiate me into the concepts, roles and practices of the various Circles. The plan also gave me a bunch of readings to learn more about the WSDNP and Just Transition frameworks, with visibility into the process of implementation for GWI. Each week, we meet to go over my plan and any questions I have.
Let’s be clear, I’m used to happily charging ahead with little support, gleaning information as I go — I’ve NEVER had a support team before. That first meeting was a jaw-dropping display of care and preparation, and the plan my co-workers created provided a clear roadmap for getting up to speed with the background, history, theory, and training I needed. After a few months the support team will rotate, and I soon will have the profound luxury of having two other co-workers take time out of their week to check in on my progress and ask, “How’s it going? What can we do to help you?” This process is for me a tacit acknowledgement that onboarding is honored as the preparation needed to be able to enter into the work with feet on the ground and a clear, informed view of what lies ahead, much as a wise, patient gardener would honor their plot of land, gently and thoroughly preparing for a variety of interdependent plants to thrive come spring. I am still starry-eyed at the idea of and in experiencing such care. Having this support and time to listen, learn, and absorb the fundamentals is going to provide long-term fuel for my work.
Meetings and Decision-Making
The WSDNP framework springs from a vision and need for shared leadership in nonprofits, and as such, there are extensive policies that translate the concepts of worker-led governance into actionable words, into structures for how we communicate and co-lead effectively. One of the hallmarks, as I’ve experienced it so far, is a strict and codified way to run meetings and make decisions that ensures all participants are engaged, respected, and accountable. Susan has written about the consent model of decision-making that we practice at GWI, and it struck me right away that this was a breakthrough innovation!
Meeting after meeting, as we progressed through a clear agenda, with a wide variety of topics to discuss and decisions to make, we would come to the objection round: the structured discussion would halt, and we would go around the circle, passing from an open item to a committed decision. “I consent..I consent…I consent…I consent…” It was incredibly moving to observe and — it worked! Using consent is an efficient way for us to move as one entity, respecting the fact that we will not always agree. We work together with a shared commitment to the larger goals, with room for deliberation and dissent, trusting each other to be wise, and listening for optimal paths. We can’t filibuster a decision simply because we need consensus. Which brings us to the crux of what we, as a WSDNP, need to function: a team that cultivates and believes in radical trust, awareness and mutual respect.
I want to talk about this experience of observing and entering into a team dedicated to Radical Trust with a metaphor that is a real experience for me. I come from a lifetime of collaborative projects in a variety of work environments. As a choreographer and director, I always worked with dancers, composers, and other collaborators in generative creative processes, weaving together each person’s contribution to make an interdisciplinary performance. As an improvisational dancer and singer, I developed a highly tuned sense of cohesive group dynamics and spontaneous composition. To me, the tightly structured yet autonomous way we approach our work at GWI reminds me of emergent scores.
A score is a structure that defines the “rules” of the improvisation, and scores can be as open or proscriptive as any other method of composition. In my case, I am part of a lineage of dancers that works with emergence. An emergent score is not “do whatever you want and something will emerge,” but rather a way to enter into a compact as a group that says, “I will listen to you, I am aware of you, I will work with what you give me, I will be generous, I will make sure you don’t get whacked in the face, and I might surprise you, or even disappear for a while.” What emerges is based on an acute awareness of the initial conditions in the room, of everybody in that room, and it builds into a cohesive, constantly shifting landscape that is the unfurling of the experience in time.
For me, this phenomenon of emergent improvisation is an apt analogy for what a WSDNP might make possible, if it includes what we call Radical Trust, which Micah and Aja described in this post. For me, it is experienced as a heightened sense of each other, our strengths and weaknesses, our foibles and inspirations, our energy shifts. Just as in the dance studio, the people who show up in the room that day could be different from yesterday because life is real, it can bowl you over, and we are always changing. But through the practice of emergent listening, and trust, we as a group can bring into being a harmonious forward momentum created through a diversity of action. We can manifest a coherent vision in a constantly shifting, messy, moment-by-moment reality.
Holding those two seemingly oppositional states in play – coherence and diversity of action, simultaneously – is the closest I can come to describing what it’s like to enter into this work with this team. And, as with skilled long-term improvising partners, over time we become better able to navigate together, to create together, as we develop awareness, seeing the gifts and limitations we all have as individuals. That requires Radical Trust. There is no other way to access it.
I have always been a proponent of cooperative and collaborative structures and teams: I co-founded CO as a cooperative coworking and community space; I thrived in the flat hierarchy of EMPAC; I instigated collaborative theatrical performance pieces with astonishingly talented partners; and worked for years with an improvisation group that had no leader. But I have never experienced the sensation of shared responsibility and leadership to this extent. Part of that is due to the crystalline internal policies we use, developed by The Sustainable Economies Law Center, which act in concert to support democratic processes, even when the going gets tough or when old habits kick in. Part of it is also due to the exceptionally wise group of people at GWI that have accepted this challenge with me.
It takes time to acclimatize to all this, as we say in the mountaineering community. But here, the air is fresh, we depend on each other, and we are motivated by the long view.