Starting and Sustaining An Objectivist Discussion Group
I've been an attendee or organizer of Objectivist groups for a long time, back before the days of personal computers, email and the Internet. I lived in Boston for 17 years where I attended the Prometheus Forum, the Ford Hall Forum festivities, and events given by various campus clubs. With Howie Katz, I started a group that met weekly in my apartment for several years in the late 80's. Subsequent to that, I met monthly with a group of Objectivist friends at a Chinese restaurant in Acton for dinner and conversation. My husband and I moved to Phoenix, Arizona, in 1994 where I was lacking in Objectivist companionship. I briefly attended an ARI campus group at Arizona State University. I say briefly because at the second meeting, it was suggested that we sign a loyalty oath stating that we would not monetarily support or read any information from the Institute for Objectivist Studies, now TOC, or David Kelley. I left in disgust, thinking, "I should start my own group!" After all, there must be some interest because the ASU campus group had 50 people at the initial meeting, many not students. But, I didn't know how to go about starting a group. As an independent thinker, I knew I wouldn't be sanctioned by ARI and I was not a student so a campus club didn't really interest me. In 1998, I attended the TOC Summer Seminar in Boulder, CO, where I met Bill Perry, Jim Kirk and Shawn Klein. Bill, Jim, Shawn and I started Arizona Objectivists in 1998. This talk describes how we did it, how we have kept the group alive for four and a half years, and what I've learned from the many Objectivist groups in which I have been involved.
So, you think you may want to start an Objectivist discussion group. My first question to you is, " Why?" As Objectivists, I think it appropriate to start by thinking about your objective. There are a handful of reasons I can think of. (1) The purpose could be social; wanting to meet like-minded people, make friends or find a mate. I had this in mind when I started my first group in Boston in the late 80's. My favorite group in this category is the Whiskified Objectionables in the Seattle/Tacoma area. Reading about them on the TOC web site, their activities include "eating, drinking and being merry with occasional discussion of topics of moderate importance. There are monthly gatherings at places where they can engage in unrestrained revelry. This is not a "salon" or other such high-minded forum but rather a group of people who are interested in living by Objectivist values, being in each other's company, enjoying life together, and having a hell of a good time doing it." They sound like a lot of fun and are certainly clear about their objective. (2) The purpose could be intellectual, wanting mentally stimulating conversation. (3) The purpose could be educational, ranging from wanting to learn more about finer points of Objectivist philosophy, to wanting to learn how to apply Objectivism to your life, to wanting a course in Objectivism 101. The Objectivist club of Michigan is a non-profit organization dedicated to educational activities. (4) The purpose could be evangelical or political activism; wanting to actively spread and promote Objectivist ideas in our society. The Manitoba Objectivists Association's purpose is to encourage the spread of Objectivist ideas in Manitoba. (5) The purpose could be a special interest; wanting to pursue a personal interest and share it with other Objectivists. There is one such group listed on the TOC web site called The Twenty First Century Capitalists is a stock investment club whose members are Objectivists.
Some groups combine several objectives. The express purpose of the ARI campus clubs, according to the Campus Club Overview on their web page is to study Objectivism and spread Objectivism. This combines (3) education and (4) evangelism. Socializing is not a basic function. On the other side of the spectrum, Jack Allis of the Santa Barbara group has the goal to connect with and socialize with like-minded people and to discuss topics of interest." Here the focus is much more social and spreading Objectivism is not mentioned. Whatever your purpose, it's good to put some thought into this at the get-go because your objectives will determine what you do at your meetings and who will want to attend. If you want to socialize and have mind-expanding discussion but others want to study Objectivism 101, there will be a conflict that must be resolved. Most importantly, knowing your objective helps to ensure that you gain personal value from the group and motivation to continue. That was a diplomatic way of saying that since your motive is not an altruistic intent to help your fellow Objectivists, you need to be clear on what's in it for you.
Now let's turn our attention to the essentials. What do you absolutely need to start a group? Later we'll talk about the "nice to haves" and optional things you can do, but first let's focus on the bare minimum.
A Leader - First and foremost, you need a leader. People have mentioned to me that their idea in starting a group was to provide a meeting time and place and everything else would happen spontaneously from there. It has been my experience that the completely spontaneous group may go on for a while based solely on socializing, but it usually doesn't last long term. If nothing else, the leader is needed to pick the time and place and do the initial canvassing for members. But beyond that, it is the leader who sets the tone and makes sure the discussion is balanced and polite. Do you need to have the philosophical knowledge of David Kelley? Of course if David Kelley did run a discussion group (such as the Summer Seminar) I'm sure it would be very well attended, but this level of knowledge and expertise is not a requirement. What is required is some level of basic knowledge of Ayn Rand's major novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged and her non-fiction work and a willingness to discuss and know more. The leader needs to be able to speak in public and be enthusiastic about talking to people he or she doesn't know. So, if you are afraid of public speaking or quite shy about speaking to strangers, leading an Objectivist group is probably not for you. Since you're reading this paper, I think it's safe to assume that you're intending to be the leader or have someone in mind.
Time and Place - The second essential is a time and location for your first meeting. Most commonly, Objectivist discussion groups that are not affiliated with a school or university meet once a month. I surveyed the groups listed on the TOC web page. For the groups who listed their meeting frequency, fifteen meet monthly, five meet twice a month and seven meet weekly. It is probably best to begin with once a month and then increase the number of meetings as interest grows and time permits. What's the best time to hold the meeting? The weekend is the most common with five groups holding meetings on Saturday, four on Thursday and three on Friday ranging in start times from 6:30 to 8:30. If you are planning for there to be a social element then a weekend evening such as Friday or Saturday is a good choice so the conversation can continue into the wee hours and you can sleep late the following morning. The location of the meeting may also influence the day selection. If you are planning to meet in someone's home any day of the week is fine as long as it fits with the host's schedule. If you prefer to meet in a restaurant, Thursday is probably a better day because the restaurant will be less rushed and crowded than on a weekend. If you have a large group, a buffet restaurant is a good idea so people can come and go, pay in advance and eat at their own pace.
Something to Discuss - Essential number three is a topic. What do you plan to talk about at your first meeting? Many groups use the first meeting as an introduction and planning session. First the leader or host introduces him or herself and explains why he or she has called people together. Then, the host poses several questions to answer as you go around the room and each person introduces himself or herself. Things such as Name, Profession, How you became interested in Objectivism and what is your goal in attending a group are a good start. Then you can discuss what you would like to do at future meetings. It's a good idea for the leader to have put some advance thought into this question in order to put forth some suggestions. After all, the leader should already know what's in it for him. AZ Objectivists did do the around the room introductions but we talked about future meetings at the end of the first meeting. In between, we also had a topic. Our first meeting was called The Ayn Rand Revival. We wanted to get people's attention in our announcement. Bill Perry gave a brief presentation on mentions of Ayn Rand in the current news.
Group Members - The fourth and last essential is what? What are we missing? Other Objectivists to come to your meeting. How do you find these people? Arizona Objectivists started because the people from Arizona made a point to find each other at the Summer Seminar in Boulder and introduce themselves. While you're here at the conference, talk to the people from your state to see if there is a common interest. I've often wondered if it wouldn't be a good idea to have the first breakfast or lunch with people from the same state sitting together. There were four of us from Arizona attending the seminar that summer. However, since four does not a very large group make, we needed another way to advertise for members. We used the service that TOC provides to send out a mailing to people from TOC's mailing list in our area. Information on how to do this is on the website. We provided the list of area codes and the content of our announcement and TOC did the mailing. That's postal mail. TOC will tell you how many people they have from your list of area codes. The charge is currently $1 per letter, which includes, paper, duplicating, envelope, and postage. The person to contact is Erin Hill. Be sure to ask people to RSVP so you have an idea how many to expect. This is important for planning seating and snacks.
So, you're off to a good start. You've covered the essentials. You've got the leader, the date, time and location for the first meeting, you know what you're going to do at the first meeting and you've had TOC send out a mailing. Now what?
Before the First Meeting
Refreshments — During the time before the meeting, you can also plan how you would like to handle food and drink. I have a drink cart with sodas on the lower level, diet on one side and regular on the other. The upper level holds the cups, ice bucket, wine and wine glasses. As far as snacks, believe it or not, the most popular snack food in the nation is potato chips. I can't remember where I read this but I thought I would do some experimenting with AZ Objectivists. I compared the consumption of potato chips versus Doritos, pretzels (less fat), Fritos, chips and salsa (we're in the southwest), Cheetos, and popcorn, which is a tad messy. Though the sample was small, it appears that Objectivists are not bucking the national trend where salty snacks are concerned. Potato chips are indeed most popular. So, if you want to keep it simple, you can start with a bag of chips, some chocolate chip cookies, sodas (diet and regular) and you're good to go. Small paper plates, plastic cups and napkins are good to have but not essential. Then, if you want something more elaborate, you can make it on occasion or the other group members can bring other things. We sometimes have alcohol but it is not a big focus. The Phoenix Objectivist Network is just the opposite. The host requests that the members bring the drinks, beer, wine and soda, and he provides hors d'oeuvres. For AO, bringing a snack or drink contribution is encouraged but is not a requirement. The only requirement is a thinking mind.
Reservations — If you're planning to meet at a public place rather than a home, before the meeting you will want to be sure to make a reservation or make any necessary arrangements so the establishment is aware that you are hosting a group of people and there is adequate seating.
The Day of the Meeting
Pre-Meeting — If the group is meeting in your home, you may want to tidy up the meeting area and bathroom. However, it's not necessary to go into a "cleaning frenzy", as my husband calls it. Generally Objectivists will not be attending to give your home the white glove treatment but to discuss ideas. Keep it simple. Put the chips in a bowl, cookies on a plate, make or have ice available (then it's good to have cups to put the ice in), and, if the meeting is at night, turn on the outside light. At my Boston group, we had 8 wooden folding chairs that were passed from leader to leader. If you know how many you are expecting, you can set up the requisite number of chairs. If you are meeting in a public place, be sure to get there a bit early so you can greet your guests. You will probably need to be a half-hour early or more because many Objectivists are more than prompt. If you're expecting a lot of people, you may want to have nametags. You can get a package of 100 at an office supply store for a few dollars. Don't forget a pen.
The Meeting — The doorbell rings and the meeting begins. Open the door personally. Smile and introduce yourself. Just the opposite of what you do when the Jehovah's Witnesses come to your door. Chat a bit. This is where I always had difficulty. I was never good at making conversation with people I don't know. I admit even today, my mind sometimes goes blank at this point and I can't think of a thing to say. I suppose there's always the weather, but in Arizona, that would be a five-second conversation. Besides, the weather has never been a big topic for Objectivists. Since I'm conversation challenged, I read the book How to Work a Room by Susan Roane. This provided a lot of tips on how to socialize and what to talk about. You can ask the new member if he had to travel far, if he had any difficulty with the directions. How did you hear about our group? How did you become interested in Objectivism (you'll be helping him to prepare since you're going to ask that later in front of everyone)? Where do you work? You can show him where the snacks and drinks are and ask if he would like a drink. You may want to point out the bathroom for future reference. Then, bring him over to another member, introduce them and mention something the two may have in common. Hopefully, they begin conversing, the doorbell rings again and the process is repeated. As you have probably guessed, while doing research for this talk, I visited the ARI web site to see what they suggest for their campus groups. Even ARI advises that at your first club meeting, you want to "present a benevolent, welcoming attitude." An interesting choice of words I thought. There is no information on the web page on how to do this however.
We usually socialize for 30 to 60 minutes, and then we have announcements, and then the main event. If the main event lasts more than an hour, we have a break before the discussion. There is always a moderator who sets the tone and monitors the discussion. If the discussion strays too far afield, the moderator steers it back with a comment such as "We've gotten at bit off topic in our digression on sports. Let's bring it back to ethics. Would anyone care to comment on …"? No interrupting, personal attacks, or yelling is tolerated. Our goal is not to prove that we are right but rather to discuss ideas with reasoned arguments. The member can then go home and decide for himself what he thinks. As Marsha Enright mentions in her May 1998 Navigator interview, "All participants are treated with civility and respect regardless of their level of knowledge and their agreement with Rand's philosophy". The moderator prepares a few discussion questions on the topic in case conversation hits a lull. And, it is the moderator who signals the end of the meeting and invites people to say to socialize if that is appropriate.
You may also want to take attendance. This is not just the high school math teacher in me coming out. You may want to know how many people attended each meeting so you can give statistics on average attendance. If you keep track of how many people attended what event, you can quantitatively determine what your group prefers doing. Then you can build on that. At AO, we definitely get the best attendance when we have guest speakers. We have more than a feeling about this. We have the attendance numbers.
Post-Meeting — In Boston I lived in an apartment on the third floor. I used to lay in bed at night awake and frustrated because my upstairs neighbor was vacuuming at 10:30 at night. I couldn't imagine why anyone had to be vacuuming at that hour. Then I had the discussion group at my apartment and my context drastically changed! After the meeting there were plates and cups everywhere. Popcorn and cookie crumbs ground into the rug and on the sofa. And there I was at 10:30 at night vacuuming. I can understand perfectly now. This is yet another reason that I don't spend a lot of time cleaning before the meeting because I know I'm going to be vacuuming after. Crumbs happen. You can help yourself a lot if you make sure the members know where the trash receptacle is. In Boston, I used to put it by the door so they could drop their cups and plates in on the way out. Just putting it by the door wasn't enough. My expectations had to be verbalized.
After the meeting, do some follow up contact. I email new attendees, thanking them for attending. You can tell them it was a pleasure meeting them. Don't lie, but hopefully it was. You can say something complimentary about a comment they made or the snack they brought. Most importantly, you can ask them for feedback. What did they think of the meeting? Is there anything they would change? What would they like to discuss? And, of course, if you have had a guest speaker or moderator, write a note thanking that person for their efforts.
OK, you've had your first meeting and it was a success. Where do you go from here? Before you can advertise, you most likely need to name the group. This can prove to be more challenging than it first appears. The easiest name is geographic with the name of the city or state such as Dallas Area Objectivists. You can get fancier and think up a catchy acronym such as FROG (Front Range Objectivist Group) in Denver or SCOPE (Space Coast Objectivism Promoters and Explorers) in Florida. Look at the group names on the TOC web page for ideas. We wanted to call ourselves Valley Objectivists but the ARI group had already taken that name. Drat! After some thought we decided to take the whole state and Arizona Objectivists was born.
In order for your group to remain active, you have to be able to recruit new members. As people move, get married, have children or change interests, you need some new faces just to keep attendance constant. New members also make it more fun and interesting.
The best way to do this that we have found is to establish a web presence. Whether you have your own web site or just use the space provided by TOC, Web sites are a good way to get new members. Objectivists tend to be computer savvy so there is a lot of surfing you want to take advantage of. In your description of the group, you may want to include the group purpose, meeting day, time and location, average number of members, who to contact and if there is any charge. There should be a list of the meetings. TOC, ARI and www.wetheliving.com all provide space for free for you to advertise your group. You may want to take advantage of this even if you have your own web page. Be sure to keep the information up to date. It is frustrating to email the contact and get no reply.
Networking with Other Groups
The next best way to get members is to network with other sympathetic groups. For example, there is a Libertarian conference in Phoenix in October called the Freedom Summit. Arizona Objectivists had a table there last year. The table was nothing elaborate. It had three books Atlas Shrugged, The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand, and Philosophy: Who Needs It. TOC provided literature and Navigators to pass out. We printed fliers and business cards with our information. We got 10 new members. Not all, but many Libertarians are familiar with Ayn Rand and interested in Objectivism. When we have guest speakers from out of town, depending on the topic, we mention it to other groups that our members belong to such as the Economics Discussion Group, the Institute for Justice, the Goldwater Institute, and the university and community college philosophy departments.
Word of Mouth
The third best way to get members is word of mouth. Have members invite their friends and relations, people they work or socialize with. It has been suggested that once a year we have a meeting where each member brings a friend. We have not done this formally and probably won't but for goodness sake, if you meet someone who you think might be interested, mention it. I was driving home from work one day when on the car in the lane next to me I saw the bumper sticker "Who is John Galt?" It was the only time in my life I have wanted to follow a stranger's car. In this situation, I didn't have the time but I probably should have. Post the meeting announcements at work. If you are a programmer, there may be other programmers who are interested. Wear your Ayn Rand T-shirt or your dollar sign necklace when you go shopping. When your neighbor asks why there are so many cars outside you house once a month, tell him about the group and invite him if he expresses interest.
Finally, there are the traditional advertising vehicles such as newspapers, magazines, radio and posters. We haven't used these to a great extent because they have a monetary cost and require more advance planning than we are accustomed to. Additionally, I have not wanted to put an ad in the newspaper inviting everyone in the city to my home. Bill assures me that they won't all come, but it still makes me nervous. I have considered advertising at gun shows and community events but there is a large investment in time and money. If you have a campus club, the campus newspaper and posters are probably a good way to advertise.
Communicating with Members
I've talked about attracting new members. Now let's turn our attention to communicating with our current members. My Boston group used postal mail. Computers and the Internet were not yet in common use. We gave the person in charge of mailing the announcements money for postage, envelopes, and paper. Now, we have email and all contact is done electronically. I've made a promise to the group not to be barraging them with emails. I send out 4 emails a month. Two are initial announcements of our meetings. The other two are reminder emails sent one week or less before the meeting. When I send the email, I send it to AZ Objectivists and BCC (blind copy) the list. That way, people's email addresses remain private. You accomplish the same thing if your web page has a list to which you post announcements. I don't share the email addresses with the group. If a member asks me for an email address, I forward the request. The individuals can then choose to share their addresses or not. For those people who do not have email, I ask for stamped, self-addressed envelopes. I print the announcement and send it. We do not have anyone in this category any more. Email is really the easiest and least time consuming way to communicate. I would not recommend using postal mail or telephone. In fact, I don't have many of the member's telephone numbers.
When composing an email-meeting announcement, I recommend putting the date and the topic of the meeting in the Subject and at the top of the announcement. I don't know about you, but I make my decision on whether I am interested in attending based first on the content of the meeting. The date and time is next considered to verify that I am free. The location of the meeting is of secondary importance. I have seen some club announcements where the directions came first and I had to read down to the middle or end of the announcement to find out what we would be doing at the meeting. I've learned from business that many people do not make it down to the end of the message. As a result, you may lose some members with this kind of announcement. So, if there is something you want people to know or do, put it at the top of the message and be concise. The location, directions and any standard information should come at the bottom. Then members who commonly attend will not have to look at these details. The exception to this is if there is any change in standard procedure such as location or time or money is involved, put it at the top. Be sure to include a phone number for any last minute questions, RSVP's or directions.
We ask members to RSVP so we can be sure to have enough seats and refreshments. In case of a large turnout, we have asked members to bring a chair. Technically, RSVP means to respond yes or no. But, most people seem not to be aware of the technical definition, or of what RSVP means at all. This is OK as we ask only for them to let us know if they plan to attend. We will assume no otherwise. In fact, I don't use the term RSVP in the reminder email. Instead, I write, "If you plan to attend the next meeting and have not yet let us know, please do so by replying to this email." Make it easy for them to RSVP. We always have a few extra chairs because inevitably some members will RSVP at the last minute (the hour before) or just show up. Others who have responded may not show. RSVP is particularly important if food is involved. I have seen some group leaders give up in disgust and frustration because they are having a dinner and members do not let them know in advance if they are coming. Yes, it's rude. But, try not to take this personally. Some people are better at planning than others. Encourage a response but expect you won't always get it.
One of the common dilemmas in running a group is how to select meeting topics.
Speaker — It's our experience that interesting meeting topics are the best way to draw members. By and large, the best-attended meetings are those with a live speaker. When David Kelley spoke in Phoenix, we had an attendance of near 70. Speakers from out of town, which we try to arrange once a year, draw 20-30 people. The reason for increased attendance is in part the additional advertising. For our first speaker, Charles Tomlinson, I wrote a personal, customized email to each person on the list, inviting him or her to support our group and to comment. This is a nice thing to do once a year, to stay in touch with the members and keep a dialog going. Unfortunately, as the group size increases, the time involved to do this becomes prohibitive. In any case, try for speakers. If members of your group attend the TOC Summer Seminar and are thinking of making a proposal to speak, have them give the talk to your group first so you can give them feedback and encouragement in a friendly atmosphere. If one of your members has a talk prepared, encourage them to contact other group leaders. Perhaps that leader has a talk to share and would consider an exchange. They can come to speak to your group and you can go to speak to theirs. Bill Perry has arranged two such exchanges with the Chicago and Denver groups. Usually, the speaker pays for his or her own airfare. They stay in my guest room and we provide food during their stay. Perhaps a group member has frequent flier miles to donate to the speaker or the speaker has family or business in the area and would be traveling to your town anyway. The details can be worked out.
The talk need not be long or elaborate. Some brief remarks and a few interesting questions may be all that's needed to start the conversation. We just got a new laptop, which allows us to show PowerPoint presentations on our TV, but PowerPoint isn't necessary. Some speakers have handouts, others just talk. Some sit. Some stand. We have a rule that the speaker gets first choice on where he/she wants to sit. The speaker can talk off the cuff or read a prepared speech. Since public speaking can be scary, we try to make the situation as comfortable as possible. We have announcements and then one of the members introduces the speaker. Usually, the talk is given without interruption or questions. Then there is a break followed by questions and a discussion. We've found this is the best strategy to keep the talk focused and manage the time, but this is, of course, up to the speaker. If the speaker wants to take questions during the talk that's fine. The guideline for length is an hour or less. We typically have talks on Saturday evening.
Essay — Our next most common meeting topic is an Ayn Rand essay. These meetings are usually held on a weeknight and the discussion is focused on the topic of the essay. We first went through The Virtue of Selfishness. Now we are, as Bill puts it, marching through Philosophy: Who Needs It. We didn't want people to avoid attending because they had not done their "homework" and read the essay, so the leader summarizes the essay and then prepares some discussion questions. We have had very good results with this format. Quite often, members volunteer to do a favorite essay or one they have a particular interest in and then bring in outside historical material to augment. We have had fascinating discussions on chess and Boris Spassky during the essay "An Open Letter to Boris Spassky", about Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller during the essay, "Kant Versus Sullivan", and on B. F. Skinner and psychology from the essay "The Stimulus and The Response" given by a psychology PhD student. Many of the subjects in Rand's essays remain of interest today, 30 years after they were written. This format entails quite a bit of work for the person leading the discussion but no work for the other group members. In a pinch, I have whipped up my remarks the night before the meeting. Most members do read the essay beforehand. The subjects that have been the best attended for us are ethical topics such as "Emergency Ethics" from The Virtue of Selfishness and censorship and pornography from "Censorship: Local and Express". When we started, the founding members were the only ones leading the essays. Now, that people are more comfortable with the group and the format, we have more volunteers. We are not sure what essays to choose next. Since we don't want to focus for a year on just art or economics, we are thinking of picking and choosing essays from various books.
Video Tape — Videotapes are good to use especially when you first start your group. Many people have read Ayn Rand's books but have never seen or heard her. We've viewed The Passion of Ayn Rand, the Mike Wallace interview of Ayn Rand from February 25, 1959, Ayn Rand Interviewed by Tom Snyder and Ayn Rand, Sense of Life. You can make popcorn and gather on a Saturday night for a movie. We also viewed Greed by John Stossel with David Kelley.
Audio Tape — If all else fails and no one has much time to prepare, an audiotape can be used. Purchase tapes at the conference to use with your group. You may be able to contact the speaker and get electronic copies of the slides they used in the presentation. We did this with Stephen Hick's The Counter-Enlightenment tapes. If the hour is not too late, you may be able to call the speaker on a speakerphone for a live Q & A session after the tape.
Trips and Unusual Topics — On occasion we have field trips or unusual discussions. Frank Lloyd Wright's winter workshop Taliesin West is in the Phoenix area so we organized a group of 15 to go on a tour. I'm sure when the Atlas Shrugged movie comes out, we will have a group event on opening night. There may be movies or art exhibits or performances your members would be interested. Some groups go on hikes or to the movies. You don't always have to be discussing something. You can just have a good time.
Tips for Making it Easier
Leading a group is a lot of work. Here are some suggestions to make it easier.
Have a Co-Leader — The most important way to make it easier is to share the load with a co-leader and supporting members. The co-leader is the person who trades off presentation and moderator duties and leads the group when you're away on vacation. If you have a family emergency, you can call your co-leader and have him meet the group at your home. It has worked well for us having a woman and a man as co-leaders because then women are less reluctant to attend, knowing there will be at least one other woman there. I suggested this to a friend in Tucson and he said with exasperation, "I don't know any women and if I did, I'd be dating them not leading a group with them". OK, fair enough. The idea is to spread the workload. One person can manage the email list; the other can hold the meetings or take care of the refreshments. Use your supporting members. These are people who helped you found the group or who attend regularly, similar to the TOC sponsors. Each person can contribute in his unique way. One of our supporting members is working on our web page. Another handles speaker recruitment. When David Kelley came to Phoenix to speak, one found a hotel for the event, another made dinner reservations, several others handled advertising, and all donated money to cover the cost of the event. If people volunteer to help, let them know what that can do to help. Delegate tasks if it is too much for you.
Logistics — How can you make the logistics easier? I'll make a few suggestions. Get yourself some folding chairs and tray tables that can be stashed in a nearby closet. Buy some cookie cans such as the ones sold at Christmas time that contains the cookie assortments. When the cookies are gone, you can use them to serve and store cookies and chips. At the end of the meeting, just put the cover back on and they stay fresh for the next meeting. Have small paper plates and napkins and plastic cups available. For eating utensils, I purchased heavy-duty plastic silverware, which can be washed in the dishwasher and reused. Place the trash and/or recycle receptacles in a conspicuous place so members can use them. Have a refrigerator with an icemaker.
Managing Costs — How to pay for all this? Meeting in a home keeps the costs down. In my poor days of apartment living, I provided paper plates, napkins and cups and popped a bag of popcorn in the microwave. Other members brought snacks to share. Some groups accept donations in a jar by the door. Others collect a yearly fee to cover the cost of refreshments. Others collect dues. If you find you are hosting many costly events, you could possibly incorporate as a non-profit organization so donations would be tax deductible. We have not wanted to deal with tax returns and the paperwork involved so we keep the exchange of money to a minimum. I buy chips, cookies and sodas in bulk at the Costco or Sam's Club.
Resources — Don't reinvent the wheel. Use the resources available to you. Advertise on the TOC website for free. Talk with other group leaders at the conference or by phone or email to find out what works in their groups and what they are talking about. Study the group meeting descriptions on the TOC website. They kindly keep a history of group meetings that you can look through to get ideas. Visit other groups if you are traveling to their city.
Pitfalls to Avoid — What pitfalls should you avoid? There are some big ones.
Excommunication — The biggest pitfall to be avoided is a specialty of ARI, the excommunication. I advise you not to do this, ever. There are people who will attend your group who you don't like or agree with. As long as the conversation is civil and respectful, they should be allowed to stay. However, if the member is insulting to other members or overly disruptive by interrupting or hijacking the discussion, the leader must politely but firmly stop the offensive comments and then speak to the member privately. If behavior does not improve after a warning to two, the member can be removed from the email list. It is not fair to remove a member with no warning nor is it a good idea to criticize him/her to the group in a post to the list and then remove him without giving him a chance to defend him/herself. If they wanted this kind of treatment, they could go to ARI. Remember, we are trying to display a benevolent, tolerant attitude to increase the number of Objectivists in the world. Discuss possible removals with your co-leader and supporting members. In four and a half years of operation, only one occasionally attending member has been removed from our email list after multiple warnings and a unanimous vote of the founding members. This should be done very rarely and only in extreme circumstances because you don't want members constantly worried about being dropped from the list.
Inappropriate tone — The most important aspect of the group is the tone of the meetings. You want the meetings to have a friendly, relaxed atmosphere. It's very easy to slip into an inappropriate tone because people have strong feelings about their ideas. Strive for civil discussion of ideas. There should be no yelling or name-calling. Instead of saying, "You're wrong and here's why." say, "I don't agree and here's why." The objective in our group is to articulate our ideas and listen to other people's ideas so we can further refine our own. We are not trying to convince anyone of the error of his or her ways or prove that we are superior. We had a guest from California comment and compliment us on our meetings. He said, "Thanks for a most enjoyable evening. They're all good people, and nobody seems to be insisting on his views for everyone. That's the part that surprised me. Nobody is afraid to disagree. Nobody even minds if you disagree with him." At a second meeting he attended, he said, "I didn't feel like raising my voice once." How do you keep an appropriate tone? You set a good example and you have a vigilant moderator who politely but firmly stops interruptions and personal attacks. Is AO perfect? Hardly. Is there ever yelling at our meetings? Sometimes. I recall one Solstice Party at the end of the evening where the conversation drifted to support of the government. The member said to my husband that if he supports the US government he must support slavery because the government supported slavery. My husband said no and tried to explain. But the member persisted in calling my husband a slaver several more times. That's when the yelling started. Best not to call the host a slaver.
The Resentful Altruist Martyr — What do I mean by altruist martyr? Objectivists aren't altruists? No, they aren't as long as they remember what's in it for them in leading the group. However, it's easy to lose sight of this in the face of the work and the time it takes. Leaders can be struck with the resentment at doing "all the work". I had this feeling hit one day when my co-leader showed up with no refreshments when we were having a guest speaker. I had to shake myself. Did I ask him to bring anything? No. Maybe the problem is me taking on too much. Don't let feelings of resentment about an unfair portion of the work damage the group. Discuss your feelings with the members to see if you can reallocate tasks. You need to be able to relinquish control and realize that someone else may not do things the way you would do them. You can't have it both ways. A resentful altruist martyr attitude is just not becoming for Objectivists.
Losing the Email List — This sounds like a no-brainer but unfortunately; we have probably all done it. Backup that list. Print out a copy so you can reconstruct it if all else fails. Email it to your co-leader. Your email list is your lifeline. If your computer crashes or you delete your list accidentally, you can't communicate with your members. Do not run the group from your work email either. That dot com has surprise layoffs and you could suddenly find yourself outside the building sans your email list. Some companies may even view such personal use of email as a reason for termination.
We don't always have discussions. Sometimes we have parties. In fact we have parties at least twice a year.
Solstice Party — In December we have a Solstice Party. Some have asked why I don't call it a Christmas party (because we have people of Jewish heritage in our group) or a Holiday party. I prefer to celebrate astronomical events instead of religious holidays. But, whatever you call it, it is a time to get together for a dinner of takeout pizza and the present guessing game. As Marsha Enright described it in an email, "it involves a lot or reasoning — about people — and allows us to get to know each other better. Everyone brings a wrapped present worth about $15 that is supposed to represent something about yourself (but of course be an object someone else might like!) We deposit them secretly in a black bag or box at the door. After dinner we gather together and each take a present from the pile. (It's most fun if even partners and spouses don't know each other's present. One by one we open the presents and the opener, and then all the rest of the guests, tries to reason about who gave it. It can be hilarious — we usually get into accusations of 'It's a man because they used duct tape to wrap it!' — and in later years we have men and women trying to throw each other off by wrapping differently. After the last present has been opened, we go around the room and make our last guesses before the real givers are revealed — and they explain why they gave the CD of Beethoven wrapped in a box of mini-wheats." We follow Marsha's example but we select presents one at a time and allow raiding. It is a lot of fun and hard to pick out the essentials about the present that describe the giver.
Summer Party — In July we have our Summer Party. Many of us have just returned from the Summer Seminar, are too exhausted to prepare a presentation, and are anxious to relate our experiences. We get together for a potluck dinner. It can be a barbecue or sandwiches and the members bring the side dishes, chips and desert. After dinner, we play a Jeopardy type game with quotations from The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged. This year we are using Who is Ayn Rand and Ayn Rand Sense of Life for our questions. The winner gets a gift certificate to The Objectivism Store or an item purchased at the Summer Seminar.
Birthday Parties — Last year we started to celebrate our group's birthday. At the beginning of the November meeting, we had cake and a champagne toast. I have heard of other groups celebrating Ayn Rand's birthday, February 2nd.
Other Holidays — Of course, we celebrate Independence Day at the conference. Our Tuesday meeting in November commonly falls on Election Day. We have begun meeting for dinner on that evening and typically discuss the election. In Boston, we had a terrific Halloween Party. With much whining and complaining, everyone came in costumes. One of the women in the group was taking belly-dancing lessons. She came in full regalia. After a drink or two, she put on a tape and gave us a demonstration. That was the only time I saw the discussion group at a complete loss for words.
Advice for New Leaders
What specific advice would I give to new leaders? This was one of the questions I asked all the leaders listed on the TOC Groups page.
Foremost, read Marsha Enright's interview in the May 1998 Navigator where she explains How to Run an Objectivist Salon. It is available on the TOC website. This excellent, inspiring article describes the fun and personal fulfillment in running a group and encouraged me to make it happen in my area. Her group, The New Intellectual Forum in Chicago began in 1987 and is one of the longest continuously meeting Objectivist discussion groups.
Mitch Troop from the Manitoba Objectivists Association advises, don't give up. Even if only one person comes to your first meeting. Keep at it. Once you get a few members, things really start to happen.
David Axel, leader of the Triangle Objectivists from Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill NC, thinks it is important to appreciate the value of diversity. Not everyone needs to fit the Objectivist stereotype in order to gain from, or contribute to, the value of the group. You want to make Objectivism appealing to more than just the most intellectual of people. A philosophy for living on earth needs to be relevant to other thoughtful people as well. Be patient with and respectful of newcomers even if they do not share your views.
Luke Setzer also stresses being realistic about managing your club. He advises you not to expect much help for at least the first year. Most folks just want to consume a prepared meeting. The good news is that you are free to please yourself and your interests in selecting meeting topics and agendas. Don't put out so much effort that you burn out.
ARI advocates a more structured approach with a president and charter. I can see that this type of organization is useful if your aim is to educate and win converts. It is really a matter of what's in it for you and your personal style. Go to the ARI website and read what they have to say about campus clubs, especially if you are affiliated with a university. They have some very helpful information. I even went so far as to contact the ARI representative in my area and invite him to have a joint meeting. He politely declined and stated that his club is inactive. We'll be here if he changes his mind.
In conclusion, Ayn Rand began the tradition of Objectivist discussion groups with Saturday night philosophical discussions in her home. The group called themselves the Collective. I encourage you to follow in her tradition and start an Objectivist discussion group in your local area. Yes, it takes work, but starting and sustaining the group was not as hard as I thought it might be. You don't have to be a Web master or a professional philosopher. The intellectual and social rewards have been well worth the effort. I've met many interesting and truly nice people who I hope will be lifetime friends. And, it's just a lot of fun. Wouldn't you like to take the Summer Seminar atmosphere home with you? We have a little bit of Galt's Gulch in our Valley of the Sun. You can too.
"How to run an Objectivist Salon" Interview with Marsha F. Enright Navigator, May 1998 Volume 1 Number 9.
The Objectivist Center's Local Clubs Page
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