Starting a Green Socialist Reading/Discussion Group
Goals and Audience for this Document
This document is designed to help a member of the Green Socialist Organizing Project (GSOP) create a new reading and discussion group.
Why do this? Murray Bookchin, who founded social ecology, a theory that strongly influenced early Green Socialist thought, strongly advocated the discussion and study group as the first step of any revolutionary movement. A group of individuals meets to expand their knowledge of radical thought and form a radical intellectual community; through the give and take of discussion, can eventually form ideas for next steps in organizing and political activity. According to Bookchin, study groups help create solidarity and a shared language — with a shared coherent vision — for building a mass, organizing, political movement!
Plan an Organizing Meeting
Before starting a discussion group, you’ll want to hold a first organizing meeting to invite new folks, discuss what the goals and objectives of the group might be, and decide the path forward. Ultimately your group should do whatever makes sense to reach your own goals, but the following can help you determine exactly what those are:
- Pick The Readings. You can use one of GSOP’s recommended reading lists, or create your own. In your organizing meeting, ask members if there is a specific topic they’d like to start with or work toward. If the group is made up of primarily new members, you might want to start with an introductory reading list before moving on to more specific topics. If you need help, let us know!
- Day/Time. Pick a time to meet. Ideally this should be the same day/time each week to make it easier for members to plan around and put on the calendar. Decide how often you want to meet; once or twice a month on the same day is a good schedule. Be sure to allow about 1.5 to 2 hours for a good, unrushed discussion.
- Location. Decide if you want to meet online or in-person. While online can be more convenient, face-to-face discussions often flow better and allow deeper conversation. If you decide to meet in person, try to ensure your meeting location is easily accessible by all members — a central location, on a public transit route, and a building that is wheelchair accessible. Libraries are often good locations.
- Begin a Mailing List. You can either manually track this, or have folks sign up on an online form. You can create a free newsletter / mailing list with several websites such as Action Network. You might also want to start a discussion forum, such as a Facebook Group, for members to track readings and ask and answer questions.
- GSOP Support. You can contact the GSOP Education Working Group for assistance with things like setting up a mailing list, getting ZOOM sessions scheduled for meetings, and getting your Reading Group on the GSOP Reading Group page.
When you start your group, your initial reading(s) will likely be chosen by the initial organizers. Later, you may wish to have the group democratically decide on readings or lists. Generally it is best to have the next reading decided by the meeting before it, so it can be announced.
Things to consider when choosing your readings:
- Especially with initial readings and with introductory groups, be sure to consider the length of the readings. The working class often has limited time to commit and most of the left is already overstretched.
- Try to make sure that readings are as accessible as possible.
- Try to supply free or affordable access to readings to group members.
- Try to supply audiobook versions of readings when possible.
Voting on Readings
Often reading group members will vote on what the next reading or reading list will be. There are many different timelines that could be used for deciding on a reading. We think that it is important that you know the next reading at the time of the reading before it so that you can tell members at the end of the meeting what is coming up next and can use the information in promotions.
Before Each Session
Some tasks you’ll want to be do before each session:
- Send An Agenda. At least a week before you meet, send out an agenda to your mailing list that identifies the readings and topic for the next meeting. (See below for a sample agenda). Give a reminder of the day, time, location and how to attend.
- A Reading Guide. Not required, but you may want to include a short reading guide, depending what you’re reading and discussing. This might be a short list of terms or historical notes to help folks understand the reading. However, you might be reading something totally new — including even to you! — and so it’s perfectly ok to skip this.
- Publicity. Use social media to remind folks to attend, or potentially invite new members. Send reminder emails to your group members.
Assuming you’ve reserved a two hour meeting time, you’ll likely want something like this. Let’s say you reserved 7pm-9pm as your discussion time:
6:45pm — organizer should arrive and set up
7:00pm — welcome folks in, introduce yourself quick, pass around a sign in sheet, but wait for stragglers to arrive and get ready
7:10pm — get started, reintroduce yourself, remind folks to sign in, start with introductions and/or ice-breakers. Usually helps to ask folks to keep their intros short, like just: name, pronouns, neighborhood they’re from.
7:20pm — facilitator should introduce the reading and provide a short review/summary of the reading
7:30-8:30pm — encourage open discussion, using a stack to manage comments. If a reading guide is available, the facilitator may use that to ask specific questions to keep the conversation focused
8:30pm — begin wrapping up conversation, final thoughts
8:45pm — determine the next reading, verify the date/time/location of next meeting
9:00pm — adjourn (but you may want to invite folks to continue discussion or just hang out over snacks/drinks/etc at another location)
Try to stick to the schedule — be aware of time constraints folks may have, and respect their time. If discussion is going well but time is up, invite folks to meet up afterward informally, and/or ask if there’s interest in continuing the discussion at the next meeting.
Running the Session
Now you have folks together! First, roughly follow the agenda given above, using the tips below:
- Select a Facilitator. It’s good to have someone help guide the discussion. This person should have read the text, but doesn’t need to be an expert. It’s mostly about managing the conversation to ensure no one is speaking over one another, etc. Have the group decide on a facilitator before starting the agenda.
- Select a Timekeeper. Optional, but you might also select someone to be a timekeeper to keep track of how long folks have been talking (to give a chance to everyone), and to alert the group as the session time runs out. This can help the group stick to the agenda, and can be tough for a facilitator to do on top of facilitating the speaker stack, etc.
- Try an Ice Breaker Question. To get better quality discussion, folks should be comfortable with each other. Use ice-breakers so folks get to know each other and to start off discussion.
- Having A Survey And Sign Up Sheet. Invite folks to fill out a brief survey — did they enjoy the discussion? What did they enjoy most? What might they want to change? Have a sign up sheet available for new folks to sign up for the mailing list if they’re not already.
Using a Stack in the Discussion Session
One way to facilitate a group discussion is to use a method known as stacking in order to give everyone time to speak and encourage feedback and diversity of opinion. Different ways to do it, but a simple way is as follows:
- After the presentation concludes, facilitator can “open up the floor” for questions, comments, or debate. Participants place themselves on stack by raising a hand or announcing “[your name], stack”, so the facilitator is aware they would like to speak.
- Facilitator keeps track of the stack (list) of people who wish to speak. Can write this list down and cross names off as they speak.
- Facilitator designates the next few speakers from the top of the stack, letting them know the order. “Person A is first, Person B is second, then Person C is third” for example.
- Each person agrees to speak in turn, one after another. Participants agree to allow each person to speak uninterrupted. A time limit may be set if necessary by the facilitator.
- Facilitator will regularly pause before the next speakers are recognized to ask if anyone else would like to be on stack. Do not interrupt speakers, instead wait for the next call for stacking.
- A “progressive” stack may be used to bump participants to the top of the stack if they have not yet spoken at all during this event, or come from an under-represented group, or some other rule the group decides on at the beginning of the session. The purpose of such a rule is to encourage diversity of opinions and viewpoints during discussion, and prevent one or two people from monopolizing a conversation by repeatedly stacking themselves and taking up all the time. Facilitator should ensure any such rule is observed and applied fairly in keeping with this purpose.
Add emails from the signup sheet to your mailing list. If you have social media, add new people as friends and add them to your social media group or network.
Preparing for the Next Meeting
Between reading groups you’ll need to prepare for and promote the next one. Here’s a good schedule to keep to:
- Three weeks before the next reading group send out an email reminding people of the date, time, and location and asking for nominations for the theme and possible articles to read. You should do this over email and on social media, as some people use one and not the other, and it doesn’t hurt to remind twice those people who use both.
- Two weeks out you should send another reminder with date, time, and location; hold a vote if there were more than 3 articles or competing themes nominated; and create and invite people to a facebook event.
- One week before the reading group you should send out an email and post on social media info on the date, time, and location as well as the actual readings you’ll be discussing.
- Day before or day of the reading group, you should send out a final message over email and through social media reminding people of date, time, location, and readings.
Build a Diverse Group
It’s important for groups to reflect the diversity of the Green Socialist movement we are building. As you organize your group, seek out co-organizers and facilitators of all ages, ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations.
Make sure you are reading essays written by a diverse set of writers and that the topics you choose to read address everyone’s interests.
Welcoming New People
We want to make sure reading groups are welcoming places for new people. An easy way to go about this is to identify someone who says this is their first meeting (or just someone you don’t recognize) and after the discussion spend 5-10 minutes talking to them. If you’re going to a meet informally after the meeting, make sure to invite them along. Good questions to ask are what they do, if they’re involved in any organizing projects, why they joined the reading group, what they’re hoping to get out of it, how they felt the discussion went, etc. Then ask them if they’re planning to come back next time and mention that you hope to see them there. If possible connect with them on social media afterwards too. Then a week or so before the next meeting send them a short message mentioning that you hope to see them again.
Suggested Ground Rules
A lot of our groups like to start each meeting by reading aloud some simple ground rules for a friendly discussion. These work to remind people what’s expected of them, and also give you a precedent to refer back to in case one person is talking a lot. A basic set of ground rules that the Berlin Jacobin reading group uses looks like this:
- Listen actively to what others are saying
- Respect the people chosen to facilitate the discussion
- Share the air/be conscious of airtime – let other people who haven’t spoken contribute before you speak a second or third time. As this is a progressive space, if many people want to respond at a certain point, women and people of color may be brought to the front of the stack (speaking list), as with people who are new or who haven’t spoken in the group yet.
- Don’t make assumptions about people’s motives and ask clarifying questions if someone says something that you find confusing
- Try to understand the arguments being made in an article first before listing what is missing – and keep in mind that a single article can’t say everything.
Links to Reading Lists
The following are lists suggested by GSOP as potential starting places for your new group. Feel free to modify the lists as you wish, or even create your own; let us know how it goes! Feedback will help us update these lists and the general advice for future groups.
Ways to Run a Reading/Discussion Group
How you run your group is decided by those involved in your group. However, you or the group may ask how do we go about doing this? If you do not know what is currently out there, this is a fair question, so here are some ways you can run your sessions.
Leftist Unity Study Group
The Leftist Unity Study Group has run their sessions by selecting someone who will cover a portion of the text they are reading. The facilitator provides an overview and offers a commentary on the section. It is then opened up to the participants regarding any questions they may have or provide their analysis. A group member also writes notes during the session. The purpose of this is for anyone who wants to see what they missed during their absence, along with being a living document when the text is brought back to study.
Quad Cities Radical Study Group
This study group chooses a facilitator that wants to present on a topic that is near to them. Material is provided for anyone that wants to participate that is a part of the Discord group. The materials for the subject are usually short articles, zines, videos, or excerpts of text. The facilitator gives their presentation while mixing in a discussion. While the goal is to share knowledge among the participants, it is just half of it. The other part is showing how the ideas that are presented can be turned into action.
Madison Free School
The Madison Free School in Wisconsin offers more of a free-flowing experience. The group decides on a subject to talk about. The group does a round-robin session where participants discuss various points on a topic, leading to a conversation on developing projects on what is being discussed.
Thank you to everyone in GSOP that contributed to this document. The Reading Group Organizing Guide from the r/Communalists subreddit was also helpful while preparing this document, in particular the sample agenda.
For questions, assistance, or to get your Reading Group listed on our Reading Group Calendar contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
WATCH THE WORKSHOPS
Workshop 1: Overview
Workshop 2: Sample Discussion