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How the Community Task Force (CTF) on Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Approaches Decision-Making Without Hierarchies

How the Community Task Force (CTF) on Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging Approaches Decision-Making Without Hierarchies

When MCB’s Community Task Force (CTF) on Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DIB) began meeting last summer, the task force members wanted to reduce the influence of academic hierarchies on their discussions. The CTF is made up of MCB students, staff, faculty, and postdocs representing a diverse range of identities and perspectives, and the group is tasked with working toward a more inclusive MCB.

“For me, it was very important that we didn’t have leadership per se,” says Associate Director for Faculty Services and CTF member Michelle Cicerano. “I wanted it to be very clear that we valued all opinions across the board on the task force.”

With this idea in mind, the CTF established a working group on Governance, tasked with finding a more equitable method for decision-making and producing a set of guidelines for CTF meetings and discussions.

Many of these guidelines stem from a governance model called sociocracy or “dynamic governance.” Sociocracy enables groups to make decisions, while honoring self-determination, consent, and equality. In contrast to democracy, where the majority vote rules even if the minority does not consent, sociocratic groups give each individual in the group a chance to speak and voice objections. Decisions cannot move forward until every person has expressed their thoughts and given consent.

“That’s something I really like about sociocracy—trying to establish a culture of hearing objections and not just trying to get everyone to agree,” says HR Coordinator Jack Rizutko. “We make sure that anyone who sees a potential negative impact to a decision has a chance to voice that and talk it out and figure out how to compromise.”

Navigating a decision-making process where everyone must opt in requires considering a broad range of possibilities. “I’d say the piece that we have glommed onto the most is the concept of not just looking in the narrow band of shared preferences but looking in the overlap of all our members’ range of tolerances when we make decisions,” says Research Assistant Alix Weisman of the Hunter Lab. “So maybe [a proposal that falls within everyone’s shared range of tolerance] is not the way that Alix would do it if she were the only person deciding, but it’s the way that the group of us are comfortable going forward.”

The task force has also adopted the practice of speaking in rounds, where each person present speaks in turn—rather than people speaking when they feel like it and sometimes have to elbow in to make their voices heard.

“We pick an arbitrary order that has nothing to do with anybody’s position—so sometimes it’s alphabetical, sometimes it’s the order in which people joined the meeting,” Weisman explains. “So one of the things it does change is who you might hear first.” Setting an order for speaking in a Zoom call can be tricky, but the CTF members have found reminding everyone who the next two speakers are at the end of each comment to be an effective method.

Speaking in rounds can feel strange to people who are not accustomed to it. Those who speak earlier often make the same points that later speakers were thinking about, which some individuals can find frustrating. “I’m not one of the people who gets irritated by previous comments. I enjoy it, because…sometimes I cannot find the right word,” says postdoc Mustafa Talay of the Dulac Lab, who is in the CTF Governance working group.

Weisman agrees, saying, “For me, it’s really joyful, because that tells me that that’s what someone else is valuing…and to hear it from someone else, maybe I’ll hear it a little bit differently.”

Another sociocratic principle that the CTF has adopted is the idea of nested decision-making groups within larger groups. Each of the CTF’s working groups are made up entirely of volunteers from the CTF. This overlap in membership fosters communication between the smaller working groups and the CTF as a whole.

At the same time, the CTF is nested within a traditional academic department. “A big difference between sociocracy and the way we’re running this task force is that we are within a hierarchical world here,” Cicerano says. “So the ultimate responsibility for decision-making does lie with the executive circle [MCB Chair Sean Eddy and Executive Director Jessica Manning].”

The sociocratic concepts implemented by the CTF aren’t intended to replace any existing departmental structures. Instead, the CTF functions as an advisory group that makes recommendations to the executive circle. Not every strategy suggested by the CTF will be implemented, but both the task force members and the department’s executive leadership agree that the conversation is an important place to start.

“I think the idea of decision-making by consent and intentionally looking for objections is an idea that is useful in any relationship, in any community, at any time,” says Rizutko. “It’s just the incredibly practical and thoughtful work of being a human.”

“The best and worst part of [intentionally looking for objections] is that it is literally how we do science,” Weisman says. “When we talk about an experiment we’re planning, we are looking to break the model. We are looking for someone to tell us the control that we’ve forgotten. We are looking for reasons that we’ll get an ambiguous answer. This is literally how we function when we’re science-making, and yet, suddenly, the second we’re not doing that, we forget all those tools? But because of this practice, this community is primed to shift into what Jack just described. I’m hopeful that is true.”

The CTF’s latest projects include working with Harvard College Institutional Research (HCIR) to launch  the 2021 Climate Survey, which takes just 5 minutes to complete. Invites to take the survey were sent out last week via email and it will be open though April 9.

“We want to get as much participation as possible so we can better understand how our community members experience our department, our labs, and our offices.” says Cicerano. “Everyone’s voice matters, and we will use this data to help inform and focus the efforts of the CTF going forward.”

Members of the CTF have also organized a workshop titled “Building Community: A Collective Exploration of Relationship and Identity,” which will take place on April 8th from 3:00pm to 4:30pm. Participants should register in advance here.Two Equity and Inclusion Fellows from the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) will lead the workshop. The organizers’ hope is that the workshop can be a jumping-off point for conversations about identity and personal narratives and building trust in the MCB community.

Please register in advance.



by Diana Crow