Small Groups and the Personal Story: Voluntary Simplicity Conference

by John S. James

On February 12, 2000, I attended half of the one-day Bay Area Voluntary Simplicity Conference, in Santa Clara, California, in the heart of Silicon Valley--my introduction to this movement. Fortunately I arrived an hour early, as the 450-seat auditorium was sold out shortly after that time. It was a friendly, welcoming meeting (and no problem at all getting permission to leave Communication Practices flyers on a literature table). The excellent speakers combined humor, perspective, and appropriate, never-boring statistics--a model for how to present information effectively even if you are restricted to the talking-head format. For more on the simplicity movement, see references below.

For me the most important information concerned organizing small groups. The voluntary simplicity movement uses "simplicity circles," based on a "study circle" format which developed in Sweden. Speaker Cecile Andrews, author of The Circle of Simplicity, clearly distinguished study circles from some "dysfunctional" book study groups, where people are trying to talk about someone else's ideas, and the atmosphere often becomes competitive and draining.

The study circle, she explained, is built around the personal story. For example, if the subject is community, people might respond to the question, "When in your life have you experienced community?" And to develop a critical sense, the discussion could also address a question like, "What is going on in our society that is undermining community?"

For more information about simplicity groups and study circles, see Cecile Andrews, The Circle of Simplicity, HarperPerennial, 1997, paperback $12, especially pages 205-241. That section includes detailed instructions and prepared agendas for the first ten sessions of a simplicity circle.

The Simplicity Movement

My central impression from the meeting is that the heart of the simplicity movement is to understand what your life is about--and then live accordingly. Near the beginning of the conference a speaker illustrated this point by noting that if you decide that what you want to do is to adopt many children, you will very likely need a large house and large car; appropriate (not necessarily small) is the goal. The problem is the prevailing out-of-control consumerism which threatens the quality of our personal lives, the quality and workability of the world's societies, and the Earth itself.

Some members of the audience had trouble finding the movement's center, and were distressed by the conflicts that can arise between frugality and other values--when the cheapest goods are made in sweat shops, for example. The prevailing view among those who addressed this conflict was to balance or subordinate frugality--to buy from local businesses instead of chains, for instance, even when it costs more.

Some of the information sources most admired in the group are:

Another Personal-Story Example: The 20-Year Life of a San Francisco "Growth Group"

The format of organizing a group around the personal story has also been remarkably successful in a San Francisco meeting call the "growth group," or sometimes "Gestaltorama." This group has survived on its own for 20 years without any financing or formal organization. The original one continues today, with usually six to eight people at the monthly meeting.

The format is to give each person an agreed amount of time (usually about 10 minutes, depending on how many people show up that evening and how much time is available--a timer is set when each person starts), to talk about what has happened in their life since the previous meeting a month ago. Other group members can join the discussion, but the focus remains on the person whose turn it is. Everyone gets a turn, of course, and almost never does anyone "pass." There is social time before and after the go-around, but no other prepared agenda for these meetings.

This format gives everyone a chance to talk about their own life (but only what they choose to talk about), in a group of friends. Equally important, each gets to hear what is happening with all the others. These conversations are considerably deeper than most everyday talk, yet they are not threatening.

Something is working right when a group stays together voluntarily for 20 years, with no single leader, and no external structure or incentives.

Credits: This group was founded by Jud Presmont and Jim Morse, of the Kerista movement.

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