Student group aims to connect PSU

    Food Not Bombs founder and political activist C.T. Butler spoke Friday night at Portland State about the importance of consensus in community discussion.

    The idea of consensus originated with the Quakers, who as a community made decisions through group discussion rather than voting on an issue, said Katheryn Sutter, a professor in the conflict resolution program who introduced Butler.

    ”I believe conflict is a natural part of the human condition,” Butler said. “We are not going to create a place without conflict. Conflict is not the problem. It’s how we resolve it that’s the problem.” 

Butler spoke of his five-year hiatus from activism and his return to the study of consensus earlier this year. He said that group decision making often yields unsatisfactory results, because voting is a majority rule decision in which the minority remains unhappy.

    In 1987, Butler co-authored On Conflict and Consensus, a book on the advantages of consensus. He also co-founded Food not Bombs, a group that uses discarded food to cook vegetarian meals at protests and other events, in 1980. Food Not Bombs served rescue workers in post-9/11 New York, and the victims in such disasters as the Asian tsunami of 2005 and Hurricane Katrina.

    Though both voting and consensus are democratic, Butler said, they are not equal. Voting is competitive, hierarchical, and exclusive. Consensus, on the other hand, is cooperative, egalitarian, and inclusive.

    ”Consensus is not who gets the most votes but what is the best decision for everyone.” In most cases, he said, consensus does not take any longer than voting. The key is maintaining structure.

    ”If we’re going to use alternative values and alternative structures, you need to include a component that holds people self-accountable.”

    Butler was brought to PSU by the Community Development Student Group, whose goal is to connect PSU students with the larger community.

    The idea of consensus is presented in community development classes. It is important in communities, where decisions have widespread effects.

    ”In community building, it’s really important,” said Brad Niles, co-chair of the group. “It’s a way of having a lot of different voices at the table.”

    Community development is about the connections that exist in society – urban and rural, housing and jobs, businesses and residents. It emphasizes the building of social capital. Niles defined social capital as empowering citizens to be engaged in the process of their community.

    The group, though mainly made up of students in the community development program, work with PSU and the outside community to connect students with internships and other opportunities.

    ”College students are really excited about getting involved,” says Allison Adcox, co-chair of the group. “There’s an energy students bring to the project that’s really needed.” In exchange for that energy, the students get valuable experience for their resume.

    Many of the students who major in community development end up working for nonprofits, or government agencies. That’s changing, said Adcox, as more and more businesses in the private sector see the advantages of community partnerships.