By Drew Lautemann, Esq.
Consensus Organizing (CO) is a model of community organizing that emphasizes finding areas of mutual self-interest between a diverse set of internal and external stakeholders. Organizers work with various community residents, businesses, organizations, and groups to identify issues of common concern, and they then link the community to outside resource holders whose self-interests can be met by addressing those issues. The goal is to create relationships that benefit both the community and external partners.
Organizers have successfully used the CO model throughout the United States for over 30 years. However, in 2012 Consensus Organizing Center at SDSU came up with the idea to train a group of students in CO and work in rural Costa Rica to develop a new community project. This would be the first time CO was applied south of the U.S./Mexico border. Some aspects of the model applied slightly differently in this new context, and a few of these differences are the focus of this post.
In CO you do not want to make yourself too available. A Consensus Organizer only wants to work with committed people. The organizer generally should not work harder than the local residents. If a resident misses a meeting or doesn’t follow through with his or her tasks, the organizer moves on and looks for someone else who is committed. This creates scarcity in the organizer’s work, and thus value.
In Costa Rica, however, we needed to be a little more lenient. Culturally, being late is the norm (Costa Ricans – called “Ticos” – jokingly told us, “Relax. You’re on Tico Time now!”), and it doesn’t always mean a lack of interest or commitment. In this context, it is important to schedule meetings with the expectation that people may arrive 10 or 15 minutes late. It is also prudent to allow for long meetings, as it takes many residents time to open up and feel comfortable talking with “outsiders.” Once you’ve built some trust, though, many will become talkative and very welcoming.
Break Down Stereotypes
Breaking down stereotypes is often a key component in CO, but it usually refers to the stereotypes people have about the community and its residents. However, in Costa Rica we needed to break down the stereotypes the residents had about Americans. Costa Rica gets a lot of tourists, and some Costa Ricans believe tourists are primarily interested in drinking, clubbing, and surfing. Therefore, for the community to see value in working with us, we needed to be perceived as different. We did this by living and shopping in the local community, taking public transportation, and attending public events. Eventually, the community began to recognize us as not typical tourists, which led to conversations about our work, invitations to dinner, and interest in the project.
In CO, you need to form relationships with a wide variety of people, groups, and organizations. Diversity brings a variety of strengths, connections, and resources, while a non-diverse group is limited in these areas. In large cities it is relatively easy to find diverse individuals and groups, but in our rural Costa Rican town it was more difficult. There simply aren’t many stakeholders. The bright side is that most groups that do exist have strong connections to the community and wanted to participate, but the project needed a more diverse set of partners.
This required us to expand our geographic focus. In addition to looking for interested partners in our small town, we reached out to businesses and other groups in the larger town nearby (external resources). Some residents told us that people in the large town wouldn’t want to participate, but we discovered the opposite. We found a large resort looking to improve its image with the local communities, a restaurant owned by an SDSU alumnus, and a small, new hotel looking to bring attention to its grand opening. These businesses saw benefit to themselves in the project, and expanding the geographic focus allowed us to overcome the dearth of stakeholders in our small town.
The above are only a few of the lessons learned about practicing CO in rural Costa Rica. Every new location brings new challenges, but the basic principles of the model remain intact. Remaining focused but flexible is the key to developing a successful project. For more information about the Costa Rican Organizing Project or Consensus Organizing, contact Drew Lautemann at email@example.com.
Drew Lautemann, Esq., is a lecturer at the School of Social Work and works at the Consensus Organizing Center. He teaches courses in Civic Engagement and Community Organizing.