The Mt. Toby Method: How to stir up a ton of ideas and enthusiasm for climate action in your monthly meeting

From YAFCWG member Anna Barnett, member of Portland, ME Friends Meeting. Now attending Multnomah.

Last fall I had the pleasure of sitting with a group of Quakers talking about how to take action on climate change — without hand-wringing, guilt, draining diatribes or an existential who-have-Quakers-become crisis. Ideas flew and the room crackled with creativity and life as Friends brainstormed the next steps their Meeting could take toward active witness.

The gathering was the “11:40 Hour” at Mt. Toby Monthly Meeting, and I believe one secret to the energy in that room was a cunning structure and take-no-prisoners facilitation. A few weeks later, YAFCWG tried the “Mt. Toby Method” at one of our own meetings, with similarly rich results. And it’s an easy format to reproduce, with a little planning.

Some background: 11:40 Hour is an event held every few months at Mt. Toby, with the whole monthly meeting invited. It’s organized by a small committee of Friends with a concern for climate change, who meet monthly. By the standards of cat-herding Quakers, they run quite a tight ship — 11:40 Hour is named for the time it starts, and everyone who attends can be sure they’ll be free to head home at 12:40pm and no later.

Peter Blood, who helped run the meeting, told me that previously they’d held more open-ended discussions, but the mood tended to be low and when it came to solutions, Friends mostly focused on individual actions — as in “Well, I recycle,” or “People could do a lot by insulating their houses better.”

Yes. I know this story. I spent the spring traveling around the country and taking the opportunity to talk to people about the way they think the wind is blowing, in global terms. When I asked one friend whether he feels he can be involved in changing things for the better, he said, “Well, I guess I should be driving less. But what a pain.” To many, probably most people, this is what climate action means. And it is a pain, because you have to change your habits and you have to do it alone.

So for this meeting, the 11:40 Hour crew chose to focus exclusively on collective action — things their Meeting could do as a community, not as a set of more or less virtuous individuals. And they used a very structured format to focus people on the collective and the positive.

The Mt. Toby Agenda

(<60 min total)

3-5 min – Silence

10 min – Inspirational reading

In this case, a member of the climate committee read a piece about the spiritual roots of climate witness in Friends’ testimonies.

5 min – Group brainstorm: What has our meeting already done?

“We’re not starting from zero,” encouraged the organizers. This was a fast-paced shout-it-out brainstorm to remind the group that they are already a meeting who care about climate change and take action. The whole list got written on a flip chart.

12-15 min – Presentations on possible “shovel-ready” actions.

Four Friends each had 3 minutes to present a project or campaign that was ripe for support from the Meeting. Every project had already been organized, planned or researched, so there were clear next steps if the meeting wanted to get on board. The options at the Mt. Toby meeting included joining Interfaith Power & Light, working on 350.org’s fossil fuel divestment campaign, and creating a certification standard for green Quaker meetings.

10 min – Brainstorm other ideas for collective action by the meeting

Another fast-paced brainstorm. Here the facilitators needed to coach Friends to skip the background and rationale for their idea, and just offer an action — in a few words, so it could be written on the flipchart.

10 min – Final brainstorm: “What would it take for you, personally to be involved in supporting the meeting’s witness on climate change?”

Ahahahaha. This is such a good question. Not just “What should we do?” but “What do you need in order to be able to help us do it?” Such a good question that it was tough to get answers at first — it didn’t seem to come naturally to many Friends to talk in personal terms about their needs and what might be holding them back. Again, coaching from the facilitators was important to direct attention back to the specific question.

 

Tips on using this method

Based on my own experience and input from Peter…

  • Be formal about it. This is a brilliant structure, and Friends will follow it better if you are obviously taking it seriously. Use a timer for each section. Don’t let presenters go over time. And write down every suggestion.
  • Set a speedy pace. The great thing about the Mt. Toby meeting was how energetic it was from the very start. The secret to this is not talking fast, but quick and efficient transitions between the different sections. In the brainstorms, encourage Friends to let the ideas flow quickly.
  • Interrupt. This isn’t worship sharing (though I also love worship sharing). Have a facilitator who’s prepared to cut off rants and redirect Friends to the task at hand. Here are some examples of interruption techniques used at the Mt Toby meeting:
    • “Thank you, that is a very good point. (look away) Anyone else?”
    • “This is not the time to discuss; it’s the time to brainstorm (look away).”
    • Hold up your hand — “let’s not move into discussion right now…”

Good luck, and enjoy!

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