Chapter 6: How to Organize a START Group
This chapter is for people who are interested in starting a START group and want to know how to actually set one up.
A. Understanding the Value of START
The first step is to become familiar with the basic ideas of START so that you can explain them to other people. This study guide provides a good overview — read it thoroughly.
Also, here is a list of some notable reasons for participating in a START group:
• Practice Citizenship
As citizens of a democracy it is our obligation to understand our society and ensure that it operates well — honestly, fairly, efficiently — and serves the common good. START encourages us to be good citizens and help move our society towards its ideals.
• See the Big Picture
Our individual and local problems are often caused by much larger-scale “macro” forces, such as political, economic, cultural and social structures and institutions. For example, the problem of poverty is connected to class, race, property ownership, inheritance and tax laws, education and healthcare policies, industrialization, and other factors. If we hope to overcome our problems, it is important for us to comprehend how these larger forces affect us. The START process helps us get to the roots.
• Be a Responsible U.S. Citizen
As a military and economic superpower, the United States wields massive influence on the rest of the world, and our culture has permeated the planet. It is important to understand how our country and our culture affect others. As citizens, we have an obligation to help our country promote honesty, justice, and the common good. The START course includes knowledge about the world and our role in it.
• Learn Cooperation Skills
To be effective in bringing about positive change, we must also learn to work cooperatively with other activists in groups of all types and sizes that embody the kind of society we are striving toward. START sessions are structured to encourage equal participation by employing techniques such as shared responsibilities, group-oriented facilitation, small-group discussion, and regular evaluation. This process helps maximize forward progress and minimize authoritarian, dominating, and self-centered tendencies that can be hard on a group.
• Learn Progressive Ways to Learn
START uses many progressive education techniques such as creating a supportive emotional environment for learn-ing, helping people learn by explaining material to others, and testing theories by directly trying them out.
• Learn Change Skills
To be effective in bringing about positive change, we must each feel informed, skilled, and empowered enough to act. A START group engages participants in active learning directed toward immediate action for positive change.
Note that this information — along with a simple description of START — is available on a handout (pdf) you can download, print, and distribute to others.
B. Reaching Out and Bringing People Together
If you are already in a group concerned with changing society in some way — such as a peace, environmental, or religious group, a personal liberation group, or a community action project — try to interest the members of the group in conducting a START course. Stress the ways in which a START course could be relevant and helpful: to give them a broader perspective; to help them decide exactly what they want to do and/or how to go about it; to overcome problems of feeling isolated, ineffective, or insignificant; and/or to help them develop their own analysis of society and their part in it.
If the group is reluctant to commit the time necessary for a START course, you might try building up interest gradually by using some of the process ideas suggested in this study guide in your regular meetings. The democratic group process ideas are easily applied to many situations and can do much to relieve frustration and increase effectiveness. Also, many of the exercises can be helpful in developing and clarifying program ideas while building a “big picture” perspective.
If you are not in such a group, or if your group is too small or not interested, you will have to find enough people yourself. There are numerous ways of doing this:
- Approach people in local groups, such as religious congregations, women’s and men’s support groups, peace groups, environmental groups, and groups concerned with community issues like housing, childcare, education, etc.
- Write to your local newspaper or your congregation or community paper, explaining what a START group is and asking anyone interested to get in touch with you. A local radio station might also be willing to help.
- Leaflet and/or put up posters in community centers, grocery stores, coffee shops, local schools, churches, libraries and other likely places that have bulletin boards.
- Talk to your friends and other people you know: at work, in your neighborhood, those you meet socially, and anyone else you come across who might be interested.
- Set up a demonstration “starter” START to acquaint people with the idea and attract interest (see Section 3.G).
By the time you have tried some or all of these ideas, you are likely to have discovered enough interest to get started. A START group works best with eight to twelve participants, though six or seven is sufficient if people attend regularly. It is usually best to aim for ten to fourteen people at the beginning and expect a few dropouts. If the group is much larger than that you should consider dividing into two groups to give everybody a greater opportunity for participation.
For more ideas on gathering a group, check out Utne Reader’s “The Salon-Keeper’s Companion”:
C. Practical Details
September is perhaps the best time to start a START group since this is when people often make yearlong time commitments. Since people often go away for the summer, the optimal time to recruit people for a September start is either late the previous May or the first week in September. January is another good starting time. Keep in mind that many peace organizations, women’s groups, and religious groups plan their programs six months to a year in advance.
Preparation for the First Meeting
Arrange a time, date, and place for the first meeting. It really helps the sessions to go well if you can meet somewhere congenial, where people can feel relaxed, and with facilities for hot drinks during the break. If possible, it is helpful to have someone who is familiar with the START process in attendance to facilitate the first several meetings and help the group overcome the initial strangeness of the process and/or to break out of bad meeting habits. This person might be someone who has been in a START group before. Though useful, this is not essential, and if no such person is available, just read carefully through this study guide about ideas for the initial meetings of a START course and do it yourself.
Establishing Common Expectations
Everyone should be clear in advance about the commitments involved in conducting a START course: regular attendance for the duration (irregular attendance can be an even more serious problem for group morale than dropping out); extra reading and preparation time between meetings when presenting a report; and shared leadership responsibilities. It is particularly important for everyone to come to the first several meetings since latecomers will find it difficult to become properly integrated into the group.
You should also consider carefully the advantages and drawbacks of different length courses and make a conscious decision about how long yours will last. A START course with fewer sessions, if conscientiously carried out by all participants, can give a fairly clear global and local perspective on current political, environmental, and economic problems and can help you consider engaging in action for change. Obviously, a 24-week START course provides more time to hear more different viewpoints, more time to think through your own perspective, and more time to develop personal trust and loving concern in your group. The additional time and closeness will likely increase your ability to work out a meaningful change program and to consider and begin implementing ways to change your own life.
Organizing a START group takes time, planning, and persistence. You will undoubtedly run into snags, hassles, and frustrations. But don’t be discouraged — a good START course is worth the time and effort. You can do it!