Chapter 4: Underlying Principles of START

The START course is constructed upon several important principles. By making these explicit, we hope you will better understand what part the various procedures and techniques play in implementing the guiding principles, and avoid making changes that could leave your group seriously disoriented or damage its morale. With an understanding of these principles, it should be easier to:

Also, while we are pleased that an extremely diverse range of individuals and groups have found some particular dimension of START to be useful (such as the group process suggestions or the study-to-action procedures), we hope that a familiarity with these underlying principles will enable users of the study guide to decide for themselves whether what they are doing is really a START course or whether it is different enough to be better described as something else.

These principles are very much open to change and expansion. The entire START process is always experimental, changing in response to the cumulative experience of thousands of groups. An example of change is the increasingly apparent importance, in a world that seems more and more depressing, of START groups encouraging a positive, hopeful, mutually self-affirming, and trusting attitude among participants.

Here, then, are seventeen principles which, to date, have been important in defining START. Following each principle are the reasons it is considered important and a description of the procedures useful in implementing it.

A. Foundation

1. Combine analysis, vision, and strategy — all oriented toward positive action. This is the essence of START: to work with other people to analyze what is wrong with our society, develop a vision of a better society, and figure out effective strategies for moving from here to there.

B. Group Process

2. Maintain participatory democracy in all the activities of the group. This is important because:

Participatory democracy is maintained primarily through procedures that encourage:

Equal participation is aided by:

Procedures encouraging equal participation include:

3. Create a safe environment for thinking and expressing unconventional perspectives. Procedures that help create a safe environment include:

4. Build group trust and understanding. If group members come to trust and appreciate each other more and more as the course goes on, then:

Procedures which encourage this deepening level of trust include:

5. Develop an empowering learning/teaching experience that encourages people’s reliance on and respect for their ability both to think clearly and to successfully tackle problems — rather than concluding that only the “experts” or powerholders know enough or have enough power to act on these issues. This principle breaks down into two more specific ones:

5.A. Each group knows best what its own unique needs are. Repeatedly, throughout the study guide, options are presented for alternative ways to deal with a specific topic, situation, need, etc. Each group should assess its own needs, and then determine how best to meet them in the context of the overall course structure.

5.B. Each group needs to do things that build a solid, authentic sense of achievement. Procedures important in producing this sense of achievement include:

  • Attention to suggested time limits. If the reports are finished on time, there will be time in the session to relate new information to possibilities for change, and the session will finish on time, creating an ongoing sense of momentum and achievement.
  • Sensitivity in judging how much time is worth allotting to completely open-ended discussion. Participants in many START courses have found it frustrating and unproductive to discuss at length points for which documenting information is not at hand. Similarly, it can be very unsatisfying to get off on tangents and not end up where you wanted to be.
  • Being careful to allow significant amounts of time for relating information to change. This may seem unimportant if action ideas generated are not acted on immediately, but is, in fact, valuable for three reasons:
    • Generating ideas for change activities and reviewing them periodically reminds the group of all the things that could be done. This is an important counter-balance to the depressing nature of much of the information the reports bring to light.
    • Group members will often spread these ideas to their family members, friends, and other groups they are involved in. The more people who consider these ideas, the more likely that they will try to carry them out.
    • Generating ideas encourages participants to consider actually carrying out one or more of these ideas, either during the START course or afterwards.

See Chapter 5 for more discussion about empowerment.

6. Do enjoyable, energizing things to help keep group morale and energy level high. Precisely because START groups have a very serious purpose, participants need energy from many sources:

7. Regularly carry out effective evaluations. This principle is placed at the end of the group process section because in some ways it encompasses all the previous principles. An evaluation that is both frank and honest, and at the same time sensitive and supportive of participants, is a crucial mechanism for sharing everyone’s assessment of how well things are going in all the previous areas and making use of the collective wisdom of the group to make improvements for the future. It is the major opportunity to implement the process of molding the course structure to meet the group’s particular needs, and to strengthen group trust and increase energy by reflecting on things that went well.

C. Readings

8. Include readings that are positive, visionary, and empowering.

9. Include readings that address the roots of problems — ones that raise fundamental questions about what is really necessary to solve problems, and go beyond commonly suggested remedies that leave strong vested interests and staid cultural norms unchallenged. This is important because:

10. Include readings that advocate strategic change efforts that utilize methods consistent with progressive values of honesty, democracy, freedom, liberty, morality, tolerance, compassion, cooperation, rationality, fairness, and nonviolence. This perspective is essential if we truly hope to create a good society.

11. Include readings that reveal that change efforts by ordinary people can be effective and bring about momentous and vital change, exposing the myth that positive change is impossible or can only be carried out by members of the power elite.

12. Include readings that present a variety of perspectives. Most of the readings advocate a progressive perspective. However, to allow a critical examination of a variety of outlooks, clear and understandable alternative perspectives are also included.

13. Include readings that expose the connections between ostensibly different topics since the complexity of life is often obscured by segmentation into narrow categories.

D. Exercises

14. Include exercises that reveal that we are all affected by the problems studied, not altruistic social reformers working on someone else’s problems. When participants in a START group understand this, and look upon their action as the opportunity to improve the quality of their own lives, they have more strength to draw on in the struggle.

15. Include readings and exercises that provide practical change skills such as researching a social problem, developing an alternative vision, developing a strategy for positive change, designing a specific change campaign, empowering oneself, providing support and encouragement to other activists, making personal lifestyle changes, organizing a change group, and facilitating a meeting.

E. Action

16. Reveal that a small group of people can undertake meaningful and successful social action that will move toward resolving an important problem. The best way to learn this lesson is for the participants in a START group to actually engage in a successful activity. Second best is to learn about the successful efforts of other, similar groups through readings about historical campaigns, especially recent efforts by ordinary people.

17. Show the many ways that a small group of people can work for change. Change activists often get stuck in a rut believing there is only one way to bring about significant change. Many readings and exercises are oriented toward presenting a variety of options and developing practical skills for carrying them out.

Next Chapter: 5. Empowerment