RUNNING A GROUP

Community Health

Updated 30th June 2020

This page is compiled from resources written by Owen Cotton-Barratt, Julia Wise, CEA Community Health workshop sessions, and suggestions from the CEA groups and community health teams.

If your group is experiencing community health issues, reach out to Julia Wise and Sky Mayhew from CEA’s community health team, or make a time to talk to Julia during her office hours.

Contents

The Importance of Being Welcoming

In order to do the most good we can, the EA community needs to be a happy, healthy community that:

  • fosters a stimulating atmosphere to encourage people to be ambitious and inspired,

  • creates a supportive community, in which we help each other with personal struggles, and people enjoy being a part of.

“Collaborative Spirit” is one of the guiding principles of effective altruism:

“We affirm a commitment to building a friendly, open, and welcoming environment in which many different approaches can flourish, and in which a wide range of perspectives can be evaluated on their merits. In order to encourage cooperation and collaboration between people with widely varying circumstances and ways of thinking, we resolve to treat people of different worldviews, values, backgrounds, and identities kindly and respectfully”.

There are good reasons why EA groups should be welcoming and exceptionally considerate, perhaps more considerate than would normally be required by common sense morality:

  • This encourages people to join, remain involved, and collaborate effectively, therefore allowing the community to do more good.
  • EA and utilitarian ideas are sometimes considered to be callous, cold and calculating.
  • Being exceptionally considerate reduces the chance that the community gets a bad reputation, which would reduce our long term ability to have a positive impact.

These articles by Owen-Cotton Barratt explain these ideas:

Creating Welcoming, Inclusive Groups

This excellent guide by Julia Wise of CEA outlines some of the main considerations on being welcoming, and is the most important resource to read about how to create a welcoming group.

It is also well worth watching Julia’s EAGxAustralia talk from 2019 on building a diverse, welcoming, and healthy community (38 minutes).

The rest of this section covers additional advice not already listed in Julia’s guide and talk above.

Being Welcoming to People With a Diversity of Ideas

People come with widely differing intuitions about things like population ethics, moral frameworks, etc, so don’t just assume someone feels the same way you do. You want to avoid pointless arguments and alienating people when you could be having productive debates.

The EA Hub guide on “Communicating About EA” includes suggestions and tips about how to introduce EA ideas in a way that may be more appealing to people with a diversity of ideas. Julia Wise has suggestions about how to deal with ideological and psychological diversity in her guide on “Making a Welcoming Group”. Ozymandias’ post “Being Welcoming to Conservatives”, offers several recommendations on how to include conservatives from a US context, but many of the recommendations can be adapted to people of other political or ideological backgrounds.

Owen Cotton-Barratt argues for a focus on a cooperation between people who care about differing cause areas.

Remember that it is easy to get the impression that EAs are less diverse in their philosophical viewpoints on the internet than in person. For example, longtermist views are often prevalent on the EA forum, but the 2019 EA Survey indicates a much wider range of priorities among EAs overall, as seen in the graph below.

Source: EA Survey 2019

Additionally, the 2019 EA survey suggests there is significant support for all listed cause areas:

Source: EA Survey 2019

Further, the survey found a wide variety of philosophical dispositions as well. From the 2017 EA Survey, we can see that almost 25% of EAs do not lean towards utilitarianism and a further 25% are not sure about their philosophical orientation.

Source: EA Survey 2017

Demographic Diversity

The effective altruism community has a larger proportion of young people, white people, and males than the population as a whole.

According to the 2019 EA Survey 2019 the average age of EAs is 31 years, is approximately 70% male, and approximately 87% white. This means as a community we have a long way to go to make it possible for people with different perspectives and experiences to make contributions which reflect their full potential.

Here are some resources that will help you learn more about diversity and inclusion issues in the EA community, and may help you work on improving diversity in your own group.

Readings

Community

Boundaries

For small groups, it’s best to stay open and welcoming to all, but as groups grow, organisers might eventually need to run some events with a more selective guest list in order for the events to be more successful. The best strategy is to consider the purpose of each event and the people who would be best-suited to this purpose, before advertising with care to avoid the impression of excluding people.

You’ll find more information about choosing a purpose here, and in these notes on “The Art of Gathering”, which also include tips for working out who to invite.

If you want an event for a subgroup of the community, you can: send personal invites to members; make a public event but with a sign-up to indicate interest and provide a hurdle so that only more engaged people will participate; be explicit about who the event is targeted to.

Be cautious about having applications for events where you reject people - managing these kinds of situations can be difficult. By being too selective, you risk losing people that you don’t want to, and you could endanger the reputation of the group by appearing elitist. Always be cognizant of the tradeoffs you are making.

Finally, be aware of informal boundaries that might keep newcomers out. If your local community is very tight-knit this can be great, but newcomers can perceive these bonds so make sure to actively include them in discussions and events.

Further Reading

For a detailed description of boundaries and their importance see Principle 1 of The Art of Community.

Handling Sensitive Topics

Compiled from CEA’s Community Health Discussions and Julia Wise.

EAs often engage in serious conversations on a wide range of ethical and philosophical issues, which is great, but this can result in tension - while for some people, certain conversations are merely an intellectual exercise, for others, the same conversations can be intensely personal. It is worth remembering that many people may be affected by discussions of sensitive topics, not just the participants in the conversation.

In order to foster a healthy environment, the way sensitive topics are dealt with is particularly important for EA events, and should be considered by local group organisers of any size.

Commonly Discussed Sensitive Topics

It can be difficult to predict which topics will affect people negatively, but here are a few commonly discussed in EA which can raise issues.

  • Ethical Discussions. During discussions of population ethics or other ethical questions, the topics of death, the value of life, child mortality, murder, or suicide are sometimes discussed. Depending on a person’s personal history, they may be sensitive to one or several of these topics. In addition to being troubling for some, ethical thought experiments can be uninteresting or alienating to some group members. Animal ethics can also raise sensitive points, especially around in-depth details of the suffering in factory farming etc.

  • Social Justice. The intersection of social justice and EA can be a point of contention as there is a wide range of opinions within the community about the efficacy and importance of popular social justice movements. Some articles on this topic: SJ & EA, Privilege of Earning to Give, An Embarrassment of Riches, The intersection of EA and SJ

  • Inclusion and diversity. Topics relating to diversity within the EA community, and within society as a whole can often be controversial. Including faith, race, and gender roles in society.

Many discussions that have the potential to be sensitive are also not particularly useful for working out how to effectively improve the world, so in these cases it might be better to move onto another topic.

Establishing a Healthy Environment

Organisers can do many things to help people avoid, leave or de-escalate a sensitive conversation, including setting conversation norms, keeping topics relevant to EA and creating spaces for people to avoid discussions if they wish to.

Some EA communities have created codes of conduct to set expectations early. The doc Notes on Codes of Conduct can help a group get started.

The page “Tips on Running Discussion Groups” has a guide on setting and modelling good discussion norms, particularly the section on setting discussion guidelines and on choosing topics.

When the situation appears uncomfortable

Sometimes, you can’t prevent a conversation from becoming uncomfortable and it can be difficult to choose whether to let someone decide for themselves or to step in on their behalf. An indirect intervention may be preferred because you won’t be calling someone out for making someone else uncomfortable. However, if you know the participants well then a direct intervention might be best, as it will be clearer and less likely to exacerbate any social awkwardness.

  • Indirect or Logistical intervention: You may want to offer to switch conversation partners (especially when at a dinner where it may be difficult to physically leave the space), invite others to join you getting snacks or refreshments, or announce another conversation is going on.

  • Direct intervention: Just open it up - “Hey, this is getting really intense, do we need a break?” or “I notice this topic is getting pretty intense, and I want to give people a chance to think about whether this is a conversation they want to be in right now. Let’s break for snacks and resume in a couple of minutes.”

Scenarios that have caused discomfort in groups:

  • Two people have engaged in deep, philosophical conversation that made others feel uncomfortable.
  • Two group members heatedly debated an identity-related topic they have strong views on.
  • When a religious person offered to answer questions about their faith, questions from the group got more and more pointed, making the religious person uncomfortable.
  • A suffering-focused EA tried to persuade someone that their life is net negative.

Additional resources

Dealing with Issues

This section links to guides covering interpersonal conflicts, lack of inclusiveness, lack of motivation/engagement, mental health issues etc.

Guides

Contents of this guide:

Contents of this guide:

What to do when you are involved in a bad situation

As a group organiser, you may be directly involved in a situation where someone behaves inappropriately towards you or towards another group member. Remember that you are never obligated to confront the person yourself - you can ask another member of the group to talk to the person in question on your behalf. Also, remember that you can not only seek advice from your co-organisers but from the Community Health team: Julia Wise and Sky Mayhew. They are people you can come to with concerns about problems you’ve noticed or experienced in the EA community. The best way to contact them is through email: julia.wise@centreforeffectivealtruism.org or sky@centreforeffectivealtruism.org. You can also contact Julia anonymously.

If the person who behaved inappropriately did so towards another member of your group, you may wish to talk to the person in question yourself, in your role as “group organiser”. You can explain why what the person did was inappropriate in the context of the situation and how it might prevent others from feeling welcome or creating a safe environment. Focus on the general norm that they have broken rather than the specific situation, if possible. You may wish to have a co-organiser or member of the Community Health team present to act as a mediator.


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