By Julie Shackford-Bradley
Link to video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oi6MrDRy9OQ&t=2s
This week, Stephen Colbert poked some fun at “talking stick” of Senator Susan Collins of Maine, calling it part of a “kindergarten game.” The joke was that the bipartisan group of senators who’d come together to end the government shutdown senators could not even master the rituals of 5-year olds. This was clearly demonstrated when one senator threw the talking stick at another, almost breaking a glass elephant.
So, it is true that some kindergarteners sit in circles and pass a talking stick or a talking piece while they check in at the beginning of the day or to practice articulating their feelings.
But the object being thrown by the Senators was actually something that Maasai elders of Kenya and Tanzania hold and pass around as they deliberate important community matters.
As it happens, the talking piece is also well-known to Native Americans and First Nations people here in North America. A little googling might lead snarky journalists to this amazing piece which explains the role of the feather or sacred object in facilitating inclusive dialog, of democratic community practice. Joan Tavares Avant writes:
Listening and understanding instills respect for those in attendance. As a result, at meetings or ceremonies, no one is left out of the process unless they have no comment. … Oftentimes decisions are made on what we think we heard because more than one person may be speaking, which can lead to a damaged decision. Passing a Talking Stick with everyone stating their name and reason why they have come, sets the circle for a well-intentioned meeting, even if it is for decision-making, brainstorming or conflict resolution.
For those folks who aren’t used to listening, (not just US Senators, but most of us), the key is for facilitators to first say some wise words to honor the traditions of the talking piece and to explain how to use and respect it. As in: Please let the person with the talking piece speak without interruptions. No throwing. Invite people to pass the talking piece as they express their willingness to follow these basic guidelines.
Back in DC, the Maasai talking stick was reportedly replaced with a soft basketball to protect Senator Collins’ office décor. Deliberations eventually led to decisions on how to end the government shutdown. Unfortunately, many progressives and social justice activists weren’t happy with the outcome. Please don’t blame the talking piece-it can only take us so far, then we’re responsible for the rest.
Julie Shackford-Bradley is the Co-Founder and Coordinator of the Restorative Justice Center at UC Berkeley.