Section 2.B: Preparing for a START Course

Convening a Group

To recruit participants, talk with your friends, neighbors, work colleagues, congregation, or fellow members of organizations to which you belong. Give them a copy of the “Introduction to START” leaflet and pass along the START web address. Because this is a time of terrorism, war, and economic difficulties, it is likely that many people will already recognize how important it is to learn about the world’s workings and to act as responsible citizens.

For more ideas about bringing a group together and organizing a START course, please see Chapter 6.

Group Size and Composition

Generally, we have found the optimal size for a START group is about 10. With 10 participants, there are enough people to take on assignments without anyone being overly burdened. Furthermore, there is likely to be enough diversity to have good discussions. A group with fewer than 8 members places a much larger burden on each participant and can be challenging — especially if some people drop out over time. At the other end of the size range, it is very difficult to have a discussion in a large group. If there are more than 17 people who want to join the group, it is usually best to split into two completely independent groups.

Participants do not necessarily need to know each other beforehand. But the group usually works best if participants share some common interests or have some organizational connection.

Note that the START course is geared toward adults. Many high school students are also mature enough to engage with the concepts and ideas presented, but younger people typically are not.

Requirements of Participants

For a START group to work well, participants must make a sincere commitment to the process and to the other members of the group. In particular, each participant should agree to:

Despite people’s best intentions, other events in their lives may intrude, preventing them from fulfilling all of these commitments. Still, for the process to be educational and satisfying, members of the group should make a sincere effort, doing their best to make the group work well.

Strong personal bonds between members can help them make this commitment to each other. And if the course seems important (“With this information, we can have a big impact on the world”), feels productive, and stays interesting, challenging, inspiring, and fun, then members of the group will have a strong incentive to commit fully.

Needed Resources

The following material resources are needed for a START course:

Introductory Leaflets

Each participant should have a copy of the “Introduction to START” leaflet so that she/he can be familiar with the suggested process.

Web Access

Each participant should have access to a computer with connection to the Internet so she/he can read/view the materials on the START website. Before choosing an assignment that has audio or video recordings, a participant should be sure her/his computer has the necessary software to play the recording and a fast enough connection for timely download.

A Meeting Place

A good meeting place:

  • Is easy to find and travel to
  • Is large enough to accommodate everyone easily
  • Has enough chairs for everyone (unless the group has people who are willing and able to sit on the floor)
  • Has moveable chairs that can be arranged in a rough circle so everyone can see each other
  • Is private and quiet, so participants can speak freely and not be distracted
  • Has a large easel (or a chair and a piece of fiberboard set up as an easel), blackboard, or a blank wall (free of pictures, light switches, and other obstructions) where the group can record notes on large pieces of paper (“wall charts”)

Your own living room is often the best gathering place. Meeting rooms at a library, church, or labor hall may also be suitable. Restaurants, bars, and social clubs are usually too noisy or distracting. If you meet at participants’ homes, you may want to rotate to a different home for each session so that no one person is burdened by hosting the group repeatedly.

Recording Materials

These consist simply of large (i.e., 24” x 36” or larger) pieces of paper that can be used for wall charts and large crayons or felt marking pens (non-toxic water-based pens that do not soak through the paper are best). Wall charts play a central role for recording the decisions and thoughts of the group — brainstormed questions and ideas, lists of change goals and projects, important facts or issues raised in reports, and the tentative agenda for the next week.

Typically, these sheets are hung on a wall during each session with masking tape, are added to during each session, and serve as a memory bank for the group. Although a blackboard is more ecological and the group might want to use one at times, wall chart sheets have the big advantage of permanence. Typically, all the used wall chart sheets are kept throughout the course so they can be referred to later.

Wall chart paper can be scavenged from a friendly print shop or bought in newsprint pads from office or art supply shops. A START course usually needs less than 60 sheets. It is also sometimes possible to buy the almost-depleted rolls of paper from newspaper printers (rolls that still contain hundreds of feet of paper).

If the group has access to a computer and computer projector and has experience with these tools, it is possible to use these for recording instead of paper. This saves paper and has the advantage that all the notes can be emailed to each person at the end of the meeting. However, it may be difficult to draw boxes, lines, arrows, and other graphics to visually show the connections between items.

The First Meeting

For the first meeting, the convener should arrange a meeting place, pick a time to meet, and ask prospective participants to attend. Be sure to bring wall chart paper and marking pens. If any of the participants are parents, offer to help arrange childcare.

At least at the first meeting, it is usually good to provide food and drinks to establish an inviting and homey atmosphere. As each person arrives, you should greet them enthusiastically and introduce them to others, mentioning something about each person so they all have topics about which they can begin to chat and inquire more about one another.

Next Section: 2.C. Democratic Group Process