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Facilitation, collaboration, and webcams: A story about Principles of Authentic Participation

This is the story about the facilitation of the Principles of Authentic Participation.

This post does not describe what the Principles are (click that link to learn more about them). This post describes the story behind the Principles, and how our Sustain Working Group worked together over three months of virtual facilitation during the COVID–19 crisis to build these Principles.


This blog post is a story, or perhaps open source lore. So, here is the abridged summary:

  1. The Sticky Idea: How did a discussion topic at a one-day open source sustainability conference evolve into a three-month extended collaboration?
  2. Facilitation, Roosevelt-style: The people are here. How do you facilitate a conversation with no scope and few bounds?
  3. Is there a next chapter to this story?: The Working Group is winding down. What happens to the Principles next?

If you are hooked, read on.

The Sticky Idea

How does a discussion topic at a one-day conference evolve into an inter-organizational, international collaboration that spans three months?

When the accountability and transparency discussion groups formed at Sustain Summit 2020, none of us knew what would come after the event. Not to mention, there were several different sustainability topics explored at the Summit.

So, the conversation about corporate accountability was about the same as every other conversation during that morning: someone was motivated enough to step up and say, “I’ll do it – I’ll facilitate this conversation!”

Open Source Accountability Goals

Duane O’Brien volunteered to lead facilitation on defining goals for open source accountability. Duane proposed four goals to iterate on in the Summit break-out groups:

  1. Set and publish a goal for open source contribution relative to value capture
  2. Adhere to principles of authentic participation
  3. Publish documentation of open source policies, processes, and project governance
  4. Well defined reporting process that is publicly available

The morning discussions broadly focused on these goals. After the ice was broken and conversation was flowing, themes and patterns emerged in the stories we shared with each other. Later that day, Allen Gunn asked me if I would lead an afternoon discussion session. The second goal, these principles of authentic participation, were personally interesting to me, and the morning group was engaged too. So I said, “Yes, I’ll do it!” Even though I did not really have any idea what I was going to do yet.

Facilitation of Authentic Participation discussion

After lunch, I gathered folks for the discussion group to discuss what authentic participation means. If we could propose a basic set of principles that we agree on, could this be a useful tool for the pain points of stories shared in the morning session?

The afternoon discussion was insightful, but lacked firm conclusions. We had great ideas and lots of stories, but nothing to tie them together. I collected email addresses of folks who wanted to continue engaging on the Principles of Authentic Participation. However, I wasn’t sure what the next step would be at the time.

At the Summit, I committed to facilitation of a public Discourse forum discussion, but some attendees voiced that Discourse was not accessible for them. To compromise without exhausting myself across too many platforms, I promised to host a few online discussions for folks to gather and talk about these things again later.

The embers were hot on this discussion at the Sustain Summit. But it was still just embers. How do we get these embers to “spark” into something bigger? Enter the Fireside Chats.

Facilitation, Roosevelt-style

So, skip ahead a couple weeks. I was ready to push the conversation forward. The time was right for the first follow-up email to the discussion group participants. As promised, I opened a Discourse discussion that summarized our notes from the conference and asked open-ended questions. Later on, I announced the first of four Fireside Chats. The Fireside Chats became the primary vehicle of collaboration for the working group.

Text-based communications are my preference. But video?? I would have to swallow my introverted shyness if I was going to lead this. I never facilitated an online discussion group before. There were also not many public examples to learn from either. The style I took to the Fireside Chats was mostly my own. I relied on my past experience of facilitating open source project meetings and development to drive these Fireside Chats. And I borrowed a little inspiration from former American president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats during the 1930s/1940s.

For the first Fireside Chat on 2020 February 28th, I had no idea what I was doing. I prepared a loose agenda, but I left it broad so people could bring their own interests and passions into the conversation. I figured doing this would allow people to bring their own needs, desires, and wants to the conversation. It was unrealistic to expect a collaboration driven by my own motivations.

A successful collaboration requires all participants to have an opportunity to satisfy their own personal motivations for showing up in the first place. So, my approach centered our collaborative work on the group and not just myself, to avoid a high initial interest that dwindles down over time.

How did facilitation start?

The first Fireside Chat was exploratory. It was our first time talking about the Principles since the Sustain Summit. We caught back up on where we left off, detailed what we wanted to get out of this collaboration, and began scoping out what we thought we could accomplish together.

Although the first chat was mostly unstructured, it was essential to to identify themes and ideas that led to more focused, structured discussions for the next three Fireside Chats. The Discourse thread was also useful as an accessory for the Fireside Chats. I published notes from each Fireside Chat on the Discourse thread, and there was some asynchronous discussion between Fireside Chats.

Beyond the first Fireside Chat, the agendas became easier for me to write and the feedback became more focused. Fortunately, most of this work happened in public on the Discourse thread. So, if you are curious for more details on how the final three Fireside Chats went, take a look at the discussion thread.

Is there a next chapter to this story?

For now, the Principles of Authentic Participation Working Group is going dormant. We met our original goal of drafting some basic principles.

So, now what happens? So, let’s try to predict the future! (That can’t be that hard, right?)

My hope is that the Principles of Authentic Participation leads to more story-telling about what it means to authentically contribute to open source, whether you are an individual or an organization. To help curate the stories, I created a template to encourage folks to share them with us. The template provides question that makes it easy for a maintainer to copy and paste the story into our published Principles of Authentic Participation website.

Whether this hope comes true or not, we will see. But the Principles have a life of their own now. It doesn’t mean the Working Group will never meet again, or that we won’t revisit these ideas over time. But these Principles are now the “property” of the community to continue building. I will continue to participate where I can to curate stories about the Principles.

Closing thoughts

My hope in sharing this story is to help other facilitators and activists in the open source world approach digital-only organizing. Digital facilitation and organization is a skill we are all learning, for better or worse, in a COVID-19 world. But it isn’t a new skill. Lots of folks have been doing this for a long time, especially in the digital-first world of open source.

So, I hope this paints a picture of how we pulled off the Principles of Authentic Participation and how others can take what we did and improve on our processes.

It is possible to work collaboratively with new people on digital initiatives across different backgrounds and sectors. Remote facilitation is someone being brave enough to step up and lead, even if they have no idea what they are doing. After all… isn’t that what many other white American men like me do anyways? So can you.

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