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Taro Security and Purity Task Force

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The challenge

The legislatively mandated Taro Security and Purity Task Force was asked to assist the state in creating legislation that would protect the future of taro growing in Hawaii while considering economic development, bio-security and bio-prospecting, cultural, land, and water issues.  Task force members would include taro farmers from each island, public sector representatives (from DOA, DLNR and UH), and individuals with a vested interest from the private sector, nonprofits, and community. The task force was given a little over a year to formulate formal legislative recommendations and come up with a report.

When the Legislature pulled out of funding the initiative, it became an unfunded mandate, and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) agreed to underwrite the project. In addition to providing funding, OHA had the responsibility to find, approve, and appoint the membership and manage all logistical issues (travel, housing, food, site visits, and meetings).

The process

The process design required a lot of reflection about who the members were and what might be important to them. There was likely to be a history of animosity between public sector reps and growers who had little affection for the system. Not only would there be a lot of baggage in the room, there also would be other disparities. Professional representatives are compensated for their time, supported by an organization, and have some standing by virtue of their affiliations; but it’s a major sacrifice for a farmer to give up two days away from the lo’i, and many may not be proficient computer users, legislative process savvy, or as adept at writing or scheduling. All of this had to be accounted for in the process design and communication plan.

Standard, indoor meetings would likely result in diminishing participation. The process had to be experiential. At the same time, bureaucrats were not likely to attend if it meant spending all of their time in the field. To meet both needs, the proposed design was for a combination of business and community meetings along with site experiences: a one-day business meeting on Oahu and two-day meetings on the neighbor islands (one day for site visits; the other for a working meeting that was open to community members). Farmers liked the idea of someone coming to their loi or going to someone else’s site and, overall, the group felt empowered that they would be able to influence how meetings would be held.

The objective was to keep as many people as possible at the table, engaged and in alignment when formulating recommendations for the Legislature. At the end of the process, it should feel to everyone that they learned something in exchange for sacrificing their time to participate. Giving farmers exposure to policy reps could be rewarding, as could giving policy people exposure to new hands-on experiences in the field. Going to places neither had experienced before could help to level the playing field and sustain participant interest.

The only way these guys were going to get close to being on the same page was to create these rarified field experiences for the systems people,and for the taro farmers to have access to people in the institutional settings who, under other circumstances, might never hear from them.

Business meetings were held at sites like the Gladys Kamakakuokalani ‘Ainoa Brandt Center for Hawaiian Studies at the University of Hawaii Manoa, an open-air meeting space. While not ideal acoustically, it was appropriate because of its proximity to an urban lo’i and the availability of ample parking and space for overnight accommodations, if needed.

The outcome

Task force members were able to agree on many of the priority issues, and where they were not in complete accord, divergent perspectives were honored and noted in the report. The report was drafted by the group and then edited by a few individuals representing both OHA and the taro farmers. The final report was submitted to OHA and copies were delivered to the Legislature for its review.

Given the group’s constructive momentum, task force members hoped to continue the dialogue even after the final report was delivered. Formal funding did not come through, but some participants continued to interact in other contexts and stay abreast of the issues they had worked on.

The sharing of huli or baby taro shoots brought from one farmer’s lo’i to another is emblematic of the trust and friendship they developed as members of the collaborative process. Relationships were also sustained between farmers and representatives of UH, who had subsequent conversations about the possibility of updating a taro resource publication, collaborating with the university’s tissue cultivation lab, and future research initiatives.

All in all, the process not only delivered the report that was asked for, but also empowered the participants with a better understanding of how to engage with the system and with one another.

Lessons learned

  • Anticipating that there would be heated issues, such as GMO and the patenting of the species of taro, it was critical to clarify at the outset whether addressing the GMO issue was part of the Legislature’s expectations. (It was clarified that it was not required to be part of the group’s assignment.) If this had not been made clear, the topic could have tanked the entire project. What is under consideration is as important to clarify as what is not.
  • Peacemaking isn’t always the goal. Clearing away the detritus — the misunderstandings built up because there’s been no direct interaction — is part of the challenge of helping people see each other as credible and contributing value to the process.
  • If you want people to change the way they work together, you have to change the process and create new types of interaction opportunities. This process was created to allow formal and informal interactions to occur, so that the human side of all stakeholders could surface. There’s value in letting things take their course and having people spend time in close proximity on one another (structured and unstructured) or share in new circumstances or surroundings.
  • What you want to accomplish is to enable people to have experiences similar to those of the people they are trying to affect. The farther apart they are in their understanding of each participant’s needs and interests, the harder this will be.
  • The product is not the only point of the exercise. Even if it’s a modest document in the end, the process itself can have additional positive outcomes if relationships are strengthened. 
  • Know that fixating only on specific outcomes may not work, and it’s okay to have another tier of less concrete outcomes (trust, inclination to consult with one another, collaborating on research design, etc.).
  • The end product may be of little value if there is no commitment to implementation. The belief that change cannot occur can be pervasive. What makes a difference is when people believe they can make a difference and are in accord regarding their preferred outcomes and methods for achieving them.
  • While much about the process is intuitive, it also has to do with being raised in an island culture, where it is important to think about the longer term, the big picture, beyond the consequences of a single transaction. You owe accountability to those who are not in the room (ancestors, descendants) as well to those who commit their time to the endeavor.
  • Process design has no tidy boundaries and there are few clear lines of demarcation; it needs to be revisited at intervals and reassessed throughout the process.
  • The group may benefit from being coached on how to get the most out of interactions with resource people and to think about specific commitments they might want to ask for. Group members don’t always have the inclination, experience, or sense of permission to press for specific commitments. Sometimes they may experience an inability to get beyond venting over past issues.
  • It’s not only the group that should be prepared; so should the speakers. It’s useful for speakers to think about how the task force might relate to them/their agencies. The objective is to exact as much useful information as possible, to create stronger, more serviceable, relationships going forward, and to garner support for the eventual implementation of task force recommendations. Coaching of speakers also prepares them to anticipate disruptive or confrontational behavior from task force members as a means of protecting the group’s potential in the long term.

It’s not my job to change the participant’s views, but it is my job to ensure that the product accurately reflects the collectively determined agreements and outcomes.

Tools and tips

Tip: When participants are deliberately selected because of their diversity, you have to ask yourself, “How can I optimize the way these people work together in order to produce a product worth producing?”

Tip: Consider encouraging participants to begin their sessions with a pule (opening prayer) to set the stage, thank the host, ask permission to be at the site, and remind people to stay focused on the greater purpose of their group.

Tip: If there is a contentious history, anticipate when conflict may occur; plan for early intervention; break the pattern and create a new one. Explore things with parties off-line, outside of the meeting, to better understand what is driving the friction.

Tip: Consider capacity building of the client as an additional desired outcome. Some clients are receptive to a mentoring approach that enlightens them about how collaborative processes can have a different, more lasting effect beyond a specific project product. The facilitator can progressively build awareness by the convener about the benefits of a collaborative process.

Tip: Don’t presume, label, or lecture. Identify issues and talk honestly about what’s happening.  The Hawaiian way often involves telling a story to make a point indirectly as opposed to confronting or challenging someone head on. The meaning of the story may sink in later. Being metaphoric allows people to teach and learn from their own experience.  It encourages parties to ultimately rise to their highest potential when they spare one another the loss of face that comes from direct confrontation.

Tip: Where all task force members may not have the skills or inclination to write the report, it might be better to have them react to drafts prepared by a representative subset of their group.

Tip: Where at first there is dependence on the facilitator, the group ultimately establishes its own natural rhythm and members become independent enough to create their own path as things evolve. Consider building in opportunities for greater self reliance on the part of the group by deemphasizing the leadership role of the facilitator. Be aware, too, that there is such a thing as “over-facilitating.”

Tool: Conducting some background research, including a pre-meeting survey, allows the facilitator to use the findings to propose a process design to the convener and share findings with the group at the start: “Here’s what you said was important, here are some themes, here are things that came up that we may not be able to address in the context of this project…”

Tool: Different parties have different reasons why they may not rise to the level of asking the tough or strategic questions when put in front of resource people. If this occurs, opportunities for future dialogue may be lost. One option is for the facilitator to let the group gain insights to improved strategy through gentle debriefing on how the approach could have been more effective. The facilitator has to make a judgment call on when and whether to get more involved without directing or manipulating. One way to do this is to help prepare group members to identify, in advance, the most promising outcomes to aim for with particular resource persons. Help them consider how to position themselves to achieve those outcomes and look down the line for ways to nurture future partnerships.

Tool: If you really want to make your community a better place, one of the ways is to help people navigate some of the politics above and beyond the explicit task of the group. Help group members become skillful navigators in their own systems. One way to do this is to give them “rear view” and “side view” windows: probe their own experiences; use questions to help people get to their own insights; and help them get the most out of what they already know.

Tool: Ask the group to complete an evaluation about the value and benefits of the process. Survey results allow participants to assess collaborative experiences and provide concrete examples of ways to improve future process design.

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