The Technology of Participation
I remember when classroom technology consisted of blackboards, chalk, pencils and notebooks. Learning meant being able to transfer what the teacher would write with chalk on the blackboard into your notebook with your pencil, whether it happened to pass through your brain or not. My first memories are of blackboards, white chalk, and erasers which you took outside and clapped together to clean them at the end of class. Improvements in this technology were experimented with through the years, such as yellow chalk and green boards. Multi-colored chalk came along later, but was generally reserved for special occasions or projects, or only for the use of skilled teachers. Whiteboards with erasable markers were part of the evolution as well, as were flip charts and magic markers.
These are the tools we had to work with in the early days of facilitating groups for effective decision-making and action. Most group process in the 1960s and 1970s consisted of brainstorming lots of ideas and writing them all down on black or white boards or flip chart paper and then trying to get a group of people to intuitively bring the ideas into some sort of order. Most meetings called together to arrive at a consensus on decisions or actions ended up lost in the massive amount of data they had generated, often running out of time to process the ideas or decide what should be done with them.
It was Linda’s and my years on the staff of the ICA that exposed us to and gave us the tools and training that allowed us to found the FOOD FOR ALL nonprofit and later to start our home-based business Participation Works. When ICA took on the bicentennial Town Meeting ’76 project to conduct five thousand local community meetings across the United States, our staff and volunteers literally had to invent ways to facilitate large and small groups of citizens to articulate a vision for their communities and then determine proposals for action. It was in this crucible of working in communities that the Technology of Participation (ToP) was born and evolved.
We began our business using the same tools we had known all our lives: chalk boards, flip charts, markers, masking tape. Then we added a little creativity, imagination, and trust in the wisdom of regular people. And, the willingness to experiment with group methods enabling people to arrive at consensus and take action for the common good. I guess I would say we used the tools at hand and discovered they could be adapted in creative ways that allowed us to see that there truly is a ‘technology of participation.’ These methods have been refined and re-refined over the last thirty-plus years and are now taught all over the world. They have even been trade-marked as Technology of Participation (ToP).
Probably the most innovative technological invention used by ToP trainers and facilitators is what came to be known as “the sticky wall.” This is a large 3-foot high sheet of rip-stop (sometimes called parachute) fabric mounted on a flat wall and sprayed with 3M spray mount (the same adhesive used on post-it notes). What this material makes possible is that any size piece of paper can be slapped up on it without tape and it ‘sticks.’ Hence the name “sticky wall.” Invariable people who attended one of our sessions for the first time would ask with puzzled looks on their faces: “What is that material and how does it work?” I often told them “it is a magic wall and you are welcome to come up and examine it.” We even found that when a fabric sticky wall was not available, we could pick up cheap plastic table cloths, spray them, and just throw them away after a meeting.