Movie Club and the Art of Compromise by Hope Wilder

We passed the talking stick around the circle, answering the question, "What do you want to see at Pathfinder?" 

"A TV!" said one kid impulsively.*  "TV, TV, TV!" others chanted.

I wrote it on a sticky note and kept the stick going. 

Our computer room has 3 school owned screens.

Our computer room has 3 school owned screens.

At Pathfinder, we are a self-directed learning center (like unschooling) that uses democratic governance (like a Sudbury school.) Our system, Sociocracy, is a process of governance where you listen to all. The goal is for everyone's needs met, and everyone's voices heard in a dynamic process. It doesn't mean everyone gets what they want though.

Talking to kids and parents alike, there were concerns about the idea of a TV. Yet another screen in our space plus the 3 computers? I thought to myself, “Here’s where the rubber meets the road. Do I really want to trust this process, and trust the kids, or do I intervene to prevent us getting bad PR?”

"There goes our next 10 enrollments," I said to a parent in half-jest. At the same time, I know that my veto power really only extends to safety matters…if I am following our bylaws to the letter, which legally protects the member’s rights to make their own decisions about the space.

It's so easy to go down the road of fear and see the worst happening. I decided to take a leap of faith: and to come down on the side of a truly democratic project. This is where we stand with our values: kids’ choices matter. We would use the process, take the idea seriously, and trust the kids to make a decision together.

Brainstorming a proposal

About a week later, we had a "TV Brainstorming Committee." Passing the talking stick along, people shared their ideas all around using a TV.  People shared what they would want out of any kind of large screen. They shared a desire to watch movies together, or to watch video games on a large screen. One member pointed out that we're really not talking about a TV, as nobody really wanted to see broadcast channels. 

"Where should it be?"

"How about the lounge?"

"It should be a room with a door, how about the Conference room?"

"There needs to be a couch, and we need to be able to turn the sound down." An idea was slowly taking shape. Ideas were tossed around and getting into a more solid form.

Harvesting concerns

Lots of people shared the same concerns I had. "I don't want my friends to watch videos all day, I want them to play with me." "I'm afraid people will fight over what to watch. There needs to be a fair way to decide."

Reuben (our administrator whose office is right next door to the Conference Room) shared that he had concerns about the sound traveling through the wall.

Morning Meeting- announcements, reminders, and asking a question that will be answered in smaller groups (Spawns.)

Morning Meeting- announcements, reminders, and asking a question that will be answered in smaller groups (Spawns.)

We had a proposal all figured out, but then one member piped up, "We don't really know if everyone in Pathfinder even wants a big screen. What if most people want to use this room like it is used now, for playing and toys?”

Taking all the notes down, we went back to the Spawns (our small sub- groups that meet each morning) to get more information. Did enough people even want a TV in the first place?

Modifying the proposal

During this time, we transitioned to having a Member's Circle with two representatives from each Spawn. We announced the proposal on the table- an idea about getting some kind of screen, in the conference room room with the door shut, where Reuben would have power over the volume, etc. We had recently acquired a donated video projector, so this idea was taking very strong reality. 

In Spawn, we did a round about: What do you think of this proposal? Do you have any concerns?

To my complete surprise, at least half of Pathfinder members came down strongly on "no permanent TV."  They didn't want a big screen on all the time, but roughly half of the kids were strongly in favor of being able to watch movies with their friends. Member's circle with representatives from each sub-group came together to make a decision.


"Good enough for now, safe enough to try" is the catchphrase for Sociocracy. Instead of making a long-term decision that will stay on the books forever, the idea is to try out for a limited time the smallest possible version of the proposal. 

"What if we have something like Movie Club, just one movie a week? We can roll out the projector, and put it back when we're done. Movie Club could decide what movie or show to watch, anyone who shows up can join Movie Club if they help make the decision." I proposed that we try Movie Club for one day only to try to meet everyone's needs.

Any objections?

Back at Morning Meeting with everyone there, the proposal was presented. "Movie Club will meet today from 12:30 to 2:00 pm. Anyone who wants to join Movie Club can help pick the movie. The movie must be rated PG or G. To measure success we will ask afterward: was it too loud? Could Reuben do the work he needed? Did everyone turn into mindless TV-watching zombies?" That got a laugh.

The first week of Movie club was a success. Movie Club decided to stream "How To Catch Your Dragon." Only three kids actually stayed for the whole movie, but people were in and out just to catch a few minutes here and there. I finally got to know who the character "Toothless" was (so many Halloween costumes from this movie! ) Reuben actually wasn't bothered by the volume, but the sound of the door opening and closing as people went in and out was annoying, so we modified the door hardware to make it quieter. A week later, the group gave the experience a unanimous “thumbs up” of approval.

Nobody turned into a mindless zombie. Watching the movie gave us a way to be together while being restful after a very full, intense week of socializing. We talked about it together afterward (and during the movie, sometimes to a loud “Ssh!!”) In a word, it was fun.

Watching movies is not the only thing we do! Walking/ biking/ scooting field trip to a museum.

Watching movies is not the only thing we do! Walking/ biking/ scooting field trip to a museum.

When I think about majority-rules democracy, I think about our current political climate. In a winner-takes all situation, the stakes are high. Everyone's emotions get involved, there can be a democratic tug-of-war with a narrow majority getting what it wants while the minority's objections are steamrolled. I'm so glad to have found sociocracy- which is democracy, as it could be- to help with the subtle art of compromise. We lower the stakes until we can find something that nobody objects to. 

Movie Club was good enough for now, and safe enough to try. We took the leap of trust. And I was so impressed by the care and thoughtfulness that these kids showed when we gave them a chance to show what they can do.


Hope Wilder is the founder and director of Pathfinder. Learn more about sociocracy from SociocracyForAll.Org, and the movie School Circles.


* I didn't find out until the whole movie club thing had been decided that the member who originally suggested getting a TV had been making a joke. "I didn't think you guys would take me seriously! "they said. :)