The purpose of having meetings is to share information with one another about what's going on, to discuss ways to deal with these issues, and to make decisions about how to solve problems. While meetings serve an important function in keeping a group together, never lose sight of the fact that the purpose of an organization is to improve tenants' lives, not to have meetings.
How the meetings are run and how people feel about them will have a significant impact on how people feel about the group. Most of us learn on the job how to facilitate a meeting. What follows are some tips for running a good meeting.
Select a good time and place to meet.
Finding a good place and time to meet is not always easy. For example, if there are a lot of working people, you may need to meet in the evening or on the weekend. Your need for space depends on the size of the group and what's available. Someone's apartment, a common area in your building or development, a nearby church or school, a community center or social club, the restaurant across the street, or a legal services office may all be options. But keep in mind, although the church down the street may appear to be the best place to have the meeting, if you can get the space only at night, some people may not feel comfortable venturing outside alone.
Prepare a flier to announce the meeting.
Make a simple flier to announce the date, time, and place of the meeting and what the meeting is about. The flier should also have the name and phone number of someone to contact in case people have questions. A week before the date of the meeting, slip this flier under everyone's door. The day before the meeting send an email or group text message to all the tenants who have given you their email and cell phones at previous meetings. People are busy and may forget about the meeting. A reminder will increase the number of people who come to the meeting. For more about how to set up a group text, see the section in this chapter called Keeping Tenants Informed
If there are people in the building who speak languages other than English, have the flier translated and make sure there is someone at the meeting who can translate what is being said. Although you may hear things like, "our building has too many immigrants and they don't understand their rights and won't organize," many victories in Massachusetts have come in buildings that are largely immigrant and multi-lingual.
Bring materials to the meeting.
Bring large sheets of paper, dark colored markers, and tape so you have the ability to write things on paper posted up on the wall so everyone can see. If you have handouts about tenants' rights or other information, make sure you have enough copies.
Write out an agenda.
Everyone at the meeting should have a clear idea of the purpose of the meeting and the items to be discussed. Hand out copies of the agenda or write it on a large piece of paper on the wall so everyone can see. Sometimes it helps to assign a specific amount of time to each agenda item to keep the meeting moving. When people understand the purpose and direction of the meeting, things can move more efficiently. See Form 30 for a Sample Meeting Agenda.
Have a sign-in sheet.
At every meeting, have a sheet of paper where people can sign in so you know who attended the meeting. On the sign-in sheet have columns for people to write their name, cell phone numbers and landline number, if they still have one, residential address, and e-mail address, if they have one.
Have someone chair the meeting.
A meeting will flounder unless someone takes responsibility for keeping a group focused. Some groups appoint a chairperson. Others have people volunteer or rotate the chair at each meeting. A good chair allows everyone to speak, makes sure only one person speaks at a time, keeps people on the subject, does not let one person dominate the meeting, prods people to think creatively, keeps the focus positive, and gives people hope that together they can solve problems. A good chair also makes sure that people do not talk about their own problems or attack one another personally.
Quickly review the agenda.
The first thing a chair should do is quickly review the agenda and announce how long the meeting will run so people are clear about what is going to be covered. The chair should also ask whether there are other items that people would like to put on the agenda. If there are many items to cover,
a group may have to prioritize the order in which to discuss them.
Ask someone to take notes or minutes of the meeting.
The chair should ask for a volunteer to take minutes or notes of the meeting. Try to rotate this job. It is important to have a record of decisions and discussions to reflect on and also to give to tenants who were unable to attend the meeting.
The chair should ask people to briefly introduce themselves by stating their name and apartment number. Part of the goal of any meeting is always to get people more familiar with each other and to allow new people to be welcomed into the group.
Briefly explain background at the beginning of each agenda item.
When the chair gets to each agenda item,
it is very helpful, especially for newcomers, if someone briefly summarizes what last happened that relates to this agenda item
to bring everyone up to speed.
Brainstorm to get ideas.
Brainstorming is a good way to quickly
get everyone's thoughts and ideas on a particular topic. When a group of people brainstorm, everyone speaks briefly and without any debate or discussion while someone writes all of these ideas on a blackboard or piece of paper on the wall. The goal is to quickly generate as many ideas as possible. Brainstorming allows for a more productive discussion because people can see that there may be different options worth considering. Before your group brainstorms, someone should explain how brainstorming is supposed to work; then the group chair should try to be vigilant in holding off on any discussion until all the ideas are out.
Establish a place to put ideas.
During a meeting or brainstorming session, ideas come up that may not relate to the issue, but that are good. The chair can keep the group focused and prevent getting sidetracked by introducing the idea of an "idea bin" or "hold that thought" where ideas can be written down and stored until a later time when the group can focus on them. The key to making this work is actually coming back to the ideas and not forgetting about them, so people don't feel that the chair is putting them in a trash bin.
Keep the focus on common problems.
Try not to get caught up in a discussion about one tenant's problem. If one tenant begins to monopolize the meeting, ask if others have had a similar problem. If not, the chair can offer to discuss the individual concern with the tenant after the meeting.
Make decisions when decisions
At some point, discussion needs to stop and the group needs to make a decision. The most common form of decision-making is that someone makes a proposal and people vote on it, with the majority winning. Another way to make a decision is by consensus. In this process, debate continues until all members have reached agreement. This process usually takes longer and works best in small groups.
Divide up tasks.
If the group decides to do something, make sure to divide up tasks. People should be encouraged to take responsibilities, but should never be forced into doing something they do not feel comfortable doing. Ask for volunteers. Make sure that people sign up for a task before the meeting is over. This is an opportunity for people to get involved.
Respect people's time.
Try to start and end meetings on time. People love a chairperson who can do this. The person who is running the meeting should be there early. If the meeting takes too long to get started or begins to run longer than the time allowed, people will get anxious. Stop the meeting and ask people whether they can stay longer or want to continue the discussion at a next meeting. Then schedule another time to meet.
Be clear with the landlord.
Your landlord may hear about a tenant meeting and quietly appear. You should not allow a landlord to attend a tenant meeting, especially if it is your first meeting, because a landlord by her very presence will prevent people from feeling that they can speak freely. If the meeting is in a tenant's apartment, you should ask the landlord to leave. A landlord does not have an absolute right to enter a tenant's apartment. Tell the landlord that you will be in contact with her to set up a time to discuss people's concerns, and escort her out of the room.
A great resource about democratic decision-making processes used by cooperatives and membership organizations that goes beyond the formality of Robert's Rules of Order is:
Welty's Book of Procedures for Meetings, Boards, Committees, and Officers, by Joel David Welty. Copies are available either by going online or by asking at your local bookstore. It is also available at some libraries including the Boston Public Library.