The Democratic Meeting:
A Demonstration at the Home Education Seaside Festival,
Charmouth, England. May, 2000
(a few excerpts from a longer account)

Jerry Mintz
I set up chairs in several concentric circles to get ready for my talk today. I didn't know how many people might be showing up. Lunch was a little late so we didn't start till about 2:30. I told a few kids that we might be doing something with a democratic meeting and talking about things like Pokemon. I spoke to a few other kids who said they would come to the meeting and help me out.

I put the kids in the center circle and we talked a little about the meeting process. Tamsen and Rowen Fortune-Wood, 12 and 13, were very helpful throughout all of the meetings. We immediately got into it by making an agenda. We put four things on it but we only got to two: one was Pokemon; the other was squirt guns. As one of the adults said to me later, he realized he was having a sort of surrealistic experience that he had spent the last hour and a half talking about Pokemon and squirt guns! At its high point the chairs were completely filled and people were standing, so I guess there were more than 250 people there. Somehow or other the word spread through the kid grapevine that something unusual was happening, and that we were discussing serious kid subjects, as more and more children were coming in toward the middle of the meeting. Many of them participated in the discussions.

I talked to them about the process of the meeting system: that we would first make an agenda, have discussion, make proposals, and if they were seconded, a vote on them after more discussion. I explained to them about calling the question, but today I simply discussed something to the point where I thought we had talked about it enough and said I was only going to take a certain number of more hands. I explained to them that the system which had evolved at my school was based on what we had learned from the Iroquois Indians, in which the minority was always respected. Therefore, after a vote was taken, the minority was polled and allowed to explain why they voted against the proposal. At that point anyone could call for more discussion with a revote. On the other hand, if nobody asked for a revote, the proposal was carried.

Originally I was going to try to keep the meeting to just the fishbowl itself in the middle, but we took comments from other people sitting on the outside because everybody wanted to participate. We allowed everyone to vote on the questions.

Of course, this was only supposed to be a DEMONSTRATION of the democratic meeting process, but as usually happens, the meeting took on a life of its own and became quite real after just a few minutes.

One of the first things that came out of the Pokemon discussion was that some of the parents of the younger kids thought they were being ripped off and taken advantage of by the older kids in the trades. One of the proposals that the kids made was that there be a set up a group of kids that would act as arbiters or consultants to help kids who were making Pokemon trades, particularly the younger ones. This was passed and the idea was that the people who were willing to do this would put a little badge or sign on. One parent proposed that children under 8 not be allowed to make these trades without an arbiter. This was voted down. One of the points that was made was that kids need to learn by their own mistakes, and also that it was kind of an ageist idea. One young student said, "You may not like my trade. But if I like my trade, that's what's important to me." All ages of kids were participating in this discussion as well as the adults. The idea of the marketing and exploitation of kids by Pokemon cards was also talked about by the adults. But one of the things that one of the kids pointed out was that it was an ideal mechanism for them to socialize and that they made many friends by approaching them if they had Pokemon cards. A lot of the statements made by various kids like that were greeted with applause.

The second item on the agenda had to do with squirt guns. After a long discussion, it was passed that squirt guns should only be used in one certain area. We polled the minority as part of our process to find out why they voted the way they did. One person said she didn't like that because that's where their tent was. Got quite a big laugh. A mother said that she didn't want her young kids going far away from where they where camped and wanted them to stay in the area where they were. And finally, someone pointed out that there was no tap in that field! So, after that proposal had been passed, and after the minority was heard, a sizable majority reversed themselves and voted it down. This was a great lesson for people in why it's important to honor the minority and listen to them and try to come up with the best proposal. What did pass was that people could only squirt other people who had squirt guns. What didn't pass was you had to ask permission of someone to squirt them and that super-soakers could only shoot other super-soakers. The kids were involved in the discussion right to the end and hardly any of them left the meeting. At one point I asked if they want to have another meeting, to which there was a loud chorus of yesses, with almost all hands raised.

One of the best things as far as I'm concerned was that after the meeting a couple of the kids came up to me who had things that they wanted to put on the agenda for future meetings. Everybody in the discussion said that they'd like to do more meetings like this. A number of other people said they thought they could bring this back to their groups and be able to use this process in their groups. It was clear that this was a very natural thing for these children to participate in and be empowered by the meeting.

...As I wandered around after that, some of the kids from yesterday approached me and mentioned the fact that they wanted to have another meeting today, which we set for 5:00 this afternoon. Through most of the day it rained off and on; the weather was pretty cold and miserable. Roland Meighan showed up and started his presentation at about 1:30. He had a fairly decent audience, about 130 or 140 people. Tristan helped me set up a more permanent version of the ping-pong table. A bunch of kids wanted to play and Tristan wound up beating about 5 or 6 kids in a row - not bad for a kid who hadn't played the game before three days ago. The time for the meeting was approaching and I started to tell a few kids about it. Then I heard from some of the kids that the big issue now was that one of the shopkeepers was not letting some of the kids to even come into the shop and telling other they had to stay outside while one or two of them came in. The reason was that she said there had been some shoplifting. Some of the older girls were outraged that they were being discriminated against in this way. So we talked about putting that on the agenda for the meeting.

There was no sign or announcement about the meeting. I wondered if there would be any people showing up at this meeting. I told a few kids and the word just spread like wildfire. There were well over a hundred and many adults also. The kids were very articulate and outlined the fact that there had, indeed, been some shoplifting - that was established. But a lot of the kids were outraged by the way there were treated and one girl said she was forced to pay for something a second time that she had already bought because she had taken it back into the store with her. I would say that we had 30 or 40 people actively participating in the discussion and it lasted over an hour.

On one side of the room a woman was sitting with her six-year-old son in her lap. Suddenly the six year old raised his hand to speak. His mother seemed shocked and later said, "I didn't know WHAT he was going to say." His name was Alfie. He was really articulate about the situation and as was Ben, his seven-year-old brother, right next to him. Alfie said, "I think that the woman in the store is under a lot of pressure. It is difficult to watch so many people. Maybe we should limit the number in the store to 5 or six. Since there has been some stealing, I think we should go to the shopkeeper and apologize to her." He then made it a proposal! It was discussed, voted on and passed. Alfie's mother later told me that she had asked him to go to "circus skills" at that time, but he told her, "No, I have to go to my meeting!"

Several proposals were made and shot down. One was made and then reversed. That proposal was that if you bought something from the store, you should not take it back in again. It seemed logical, but in the discussion after it was initially passed, one of the kids said, "Well if I want to go back into the store and buy something right away, I shouldn't have to put it down somewhere where someone else could take it. I shouldn't have to go back to my tent and put it away."

There were some more comments like that and it was finally shot down on the second vote, as was a proposal that I made which was that there be some volunteer students to help the shopkeeper keep an eye on things. The only proposals that passed were that 1) we apologize to the shopkeeper for the fact that there had been some stealing and 2) that we somehow communicate to the shopkeeper that the kids felt discriminated against and it wasn't necessarily proper to assume that all kids were going to be shoplifters.

One other student had a proposal about litter and that we need more litter baskets to help keep the site clean. This was quickly passed.

At various times at the meeting, at the end of it, and when I was walking around, some little groups of kids had gotten into shouting, "Jer-ry! Jer-ry!" It was somewhat embarrassing. I guess this is sort of the thing they do on Jerry Springer's show which they apparently had watched here.

After the meeting, a group got together who wanted to go to speak to the woman in the shop, to communicate what the meeting had passed. We were talking about how to present the ideas of the meeting to her when we agreed that we should have the 6 and 7 year old boys be our representatives, that this would perhaps be one of the most disarming thing that we could do. I felt very confident in them. The mother thought it was a great idea. She also told me that Alfie had liked the meeting yesterday so much that he was insistent that they go to the meeting today. And I remember that this 6-year-old had apparently gone out of his way to tell me how much he enjoyed the meeting the day before (he has e mailed me three times since the HES FES).

His mother decided that it was best if he did this on his own without her being there. So he grabbed my hand and the whole group of about 12 or more walked down to the shop, walked in the door, introduced ourselves to the woman who was working there, and I told her that we'd been discussing this problem, and that these two boys were our representatives. They spoke to her in the nicest, kindest way. The six-year-old said that he knew that she was "under a lot of stress, and that it was difficult to watch all these people in the store," that we knew that there had been some stealing and that "we were very sorry that this had happened and we apologize for that." The woman was amazed at this. She just melted. Then some of the other kids talked about their feelings and the girl who had to pay for something twice mentioned that and the woman was chagrined at that. With a little bit more discussion, that was it and we left. The shop manager was heard to say afterwards that he thought that this was just extraordinary; he had never seen anything like it before. Someone said that he is a lay reader in the local church and a very nice guy. After that, the woman treated all the children with great respect, and the problem was solved.

I'm glad I stayed as long as I have here. I thought I might be in and out more. It was great to see the democratic meeting idea brought to a little more depth today.

...The sun finally came out today. When I was on my way to the beach, I stopped by at the store and talked to the woman that we had the meeting with yesterday. She was very cheerful and still excited about what had happened and impressed with those two boys and with our group. Everybody said they noticed a big change in attitude on her part since that meeting, and some didn't realize what had caused that to happen.

Today was my last day at the conference. We got up relatively early and walked around talking to people, making some last connections, and getting some names and addresses and telephone numbers and email addresses. As I walked around, one little boy about 8 years old approached me and said he'd been teased by other kids and they were calling him "fat bastard" and they wouldn't stop. His mother suggested that he bring it up at the meeting so that was put on the agenda. We also put communications on the agenda, how people would stay in touch with each other. And we put on the agenda a report on what happened with the shopkeeper the day before. At 11:00 we had the last meeting for the kids and any adults that wanted to participate. I didn't know if there'd be many kids coming in; by the time we were done there were well over 100 people in the meeting

We only had one microphone. A boy by the name of James had a double job of chairing the meeting and bringing the microphone to everyone who wanted to speak. I coached him a little bit about how to run the meeting and he did fine. I thought it was important to see that the meetings could be chaired by anyone. We gave our report on how things had gone with the shopkeeper and people seemed to feel that she had really changed her attitude after we spoke to her and were satisfied with that process. I didn't see the boy in the room at first, but I told the chairperson to say "Who put this on the agenda?" And the little boy spoke up. He said he was being called names and some discussion went back and forth. I proposed the idea of the "stop rule" and it passed overwhelmingly. The "stop rule," which we used successfully at my school and many other schools have adopted, is that anyone who is being physically or verbally bullied uses the word "stop" to which is added "to wresting" or "to calling me fat bastard." The person must then stop or be brought up by the meeting. It communicates to the other person that you are serious.

JJust before I left I took a quick sauna - it was great. I wish I had been doing it all week. I went around and said goodbye to people, packed my stuff quickly, and a couple of people bought copies of Jenifer's book [ My Life As a Travelling Homeschooler See resources below]. In the end Andy said he thought I really contributed something to the conference that it wouldn't have had and he was happy that I'd been there. Then I got a ride to Axminster and the train.

Detail on the Second Meeting

The first item on the agenda was shoplifting in the Sweet Shop and the fact that the woman in the shop was excluding kids from the shop because of that. The first proposal was that if you buy something, you don't bring it back into the shop. It originally passed 38 to 15, then it was reversed, 21 to 32. The second proposal was that there would only be three children in the shop at a time. That was not passed and when it was changed to five children, that was not passed either. Sixteen were in favor, the rest were opposed. The third proposal was that we offer to volunteer people to help keep an eye out for stealing. Only 14 were in favor, the rest were opposed. The fourth proposal that we should apologize on behalf of the group as someone has stolen from her passed 40 to 12. The fifth proposal that passed was that we make a statement to her that we are unhappy that she has been discriminating against children and that passed 50 to 9. The second item on the agenda was that we put more litter bins out for people and that passed.

What do you think about Jerry's ideas?
Let us know.

For More Info on Democratic Meetings

Arthur Pearl, Tony Knight. May 1999. The Democratic Classroom : Theory to Inform Practice (Understanding Education and Policy) . Hampton Press: Cresskill, NJ. Press.

Videotape: Democratic Meetings. Two-hour tape of demonstrations of various democratic meetings, including one at Summerhill, a meeting of Russian students at the New Schools Festival in the Crimea (translated into English), a demonstration meeting with Long Island homeschoolers, age four to thirteen, a meeting setting up a democratic system for an "at-risk" public hidh school alternative, and a democratic meeting at a public "choice high school." $25.00 plus $3 postage and handling to AERO, 417 Roslyn Rd., Roslyn Heights, NY 11577.

Additional Resources

Jenifer Goldman. My Life As a Travelling Homeschooler. Solomon Press.


Jerry Mintz edits The Education Revolution magazine, hosts a weekly radio program on the Talk America Network, and moderates the AERO (Alternative Education Resource Organization) discussion list. Visit the Education Revolution website for more information on his work.