RUNNING A GROUP

Community Health

Updated 25th July 2020

This page compiles resources 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 visit Julia during her office hours.

Contents

The Importance of Being Welcoming

To do the most good we can, the EA community needs to be happy and healthy. It should foster a stimulating atmosphere, inspire ambition, and support members beyond their EA pursuits. We should all enjoy being part of the community.

“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. 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”.

EA groups should be welcoming and exceptionally considerate, perhaps more so than would typically be required by common-sense morality. On many fronts, EA aligns with utilitarian thought, which new members may find callous and calculating. Warm vibes counter this impression, encouraging people to join, remain involved and collaborate effectively. By reducing our chance of building a bad reputation, we sustain our ability to have positive impacts over the long-term.

For more, Owen-Cotton Barratt’s Awareness/Inclination Model of movements, explains why we should focus more on improving people’s attitude towards EA than increasing their awareness.

Creating Welcoming, Inclusive Groups

We highly recommend using Julia Wise’s excellent guide to create a welcoming group. This top resource discusses many different types of diversity, including psychological and ideological differences, and suggests concrete steps to promote inclusiveness.

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, and more. Even within the community, people care about a plethora of different cause areas, and we benefit from cooperation. Conversely, assuming others share your perspective can lead to pointless arguments and alienation rather than productive debates.

Other resources about this topic are available:

  • The EA Hub guide on “Communicating About EA” suggests ways to introduce EA ideas in a fashion that may be more appealing to people with a diversity of thoughts.
  • 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.

Remember that effective altruists tend to hold less diverse philosophical viewpoints online than in-person. For example, longtermist views are often prevalent on the EA forum. But the 2019 EA Survey indicates a broader range of priorities among EAs overall, as seen in the graph below. Data shown in the charts below can help us keep our differences in mind, as well as our need for inclusiveness.

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 general population.

According to the EA Survey 2019, the community is approximately 70% male, 87% white, and its members are on average 31 years old. 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. We recommend using them to improve diversity in your group.

Readings

Community

Boundaries

Small groups should be open and welcoming to all, but as groups grow, more selective guest lists may improve event outcomes. Consider the purpose of each event and identify the ideal audience. Then advertise carefully to draw in the right people without appearing to exclude others.

Here is more information on choosing a purpose for events. Also, check out our tips on working out who to invite (among other things) in The Art of Gathering.

When holding more serious events for community subgroups, there are a few different ways to advertise to a target audience. Consider sending personal invites, adding sign-up hurdles to weed out less engaged people, and getting explicit about the event’s ideal audience.

Beware of sign-up processes where you might reject event attendees. By being too selective, you risk losing attendees that you’d rather keep.

Selectivity may also create an elitist reputation for your group, which we generally want to avoid. Always be mindful of the tradeoffs you are making. Finally, be aware of subtle boundaries that keep newcomers out. For example, a tightly-knit local community can be great, but newcomers can feel left out. Try actively including 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 Julia Wise and CEA’s Community Health Discussions.

EAs often engage in serious conversations on a wide range of ethical and philosophical issues. It’s excellent, but tensions can form between those who view the discussions as intellectual exercises and those who find the topics intensely personal. Both listeners and active participants in a conversation may be affected.

Careful handling of sensitive topics helps to create a healthy environment. Organisers of groups of any size should read on.

Commonly Discussed Sensitive Topics

It can be challenging to predict which topics will affect people negatively, but here are a few commonly discussed subjects 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 can arise. 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 regarding in-depth details of their suffering in factory farms.
  • 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. Here are some articles on this topic: SJ & EA, Privilege of Earning to Give, An Embarrassment of Riches, The intersection of EA and SJ, Kelsey Piper interview (see section: Effective altruism, existential risk, and social justice).
  • Inclusion and diversity. Issues relating to diversity of faith, race, gender, sexual orientation, and other dimensions may arise. Such topics can be controversial within the EA community, as well as in society as a whole. They are certainly worth talking about, but we recommend being aware that these discussions can sometimes get heated and upset people. Staying in touch with the goals of the conversation can be helpful.

When considering whether to start or continue a conversation on a potentially sensitive topic, it is worth considering whether the benefits of doing so will outweigh the costs. Keep the group’s goals in mind, minimise harm wherever possible, and ensure that conversations are genuinely useful. If people are bringing up hurtful topics in cruel ways without providing gains to the community, it may be better to move on.

For example, a discussion on Peter Singer’s views on infanticide of very disabled newborns could be offputting to members of the group and is unlikely to provide actionable outcomes. Alternatively, it may be worth discussing diversity within the EA movement. Thoughtful conversations may well lead to improving the inclusiveness of your group.

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 discussion norms, particularly the sections on discussion guidelines and choosing topics.

When the situation appears uncomfortable

Sometimes, you can’t prevent a conversation from becoming uncomfortable. It can be challenging to choose between stepping in or letting people handle the situation themselves. You can avoid the tension that comes with calling people out by using indirect interventions. However, if you know the participants well, direct interventions are more explicit and less likely to create social awkwardness.

  • Indirect or Logistical interventions: Switching conversation partners (helpful at dinners where it may be difficult to leave the space physically), inviting others to join you getting snacks or refreshments, or announcing that another conversation is going on.
  • Direct intervention: Open it up - “Hey, this is getting intense, do we need a break?” or, “I notice this topic is getting heavy and I want to give people a chance to think whether they want to be part of it 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 hold strong views about an identity-related topic and started a heated debate.
  • 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, and more.

Guides

What to do when you are involved in a bad situation

As a group organiser, you may experience someone’s inappropriate behaviour towards you. 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. It can also be helpful to raise your concerns with co-organisers or specialists outside your group. Julia Wise and Sky Mayhew from the Community Health team will help you with 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 misbehaved did so towards another member of your group, you might wish to talk to the person in question yourself in your role as “group organiser”. You can explain why their actions were inappropriate in the context of the situation and how they might interfere with the safe, welcoming environment you are trying to create. 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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