My Story: Peer-to-Peer Community (Part One)

My Story: Peer-to-Peer Community (Part One)
By Wade Lee Hudson

My first organizing was on sandlot softball fields. Boys would show up and two “captains” took turns selecting teammates, assigned positions, and set the batting order. Two of the better players, which usually included me, served as captain, but anyone could do it, and many often did. There were no arguments about this decision. Each captain was dispensable. The players weren’t dependent on a leader. Little did I realize that this simple, horizontal, self-regulating, self-perpetuating, peer-to-peer structure would become a community organizing model for the rest of my life — though, alas, I followed it imperfectly.

My second project was the high school chess club, which I initiated. After advertising, some fifteen students joined and met weekly. At the first meeting, we randomly determined each student’s initial position on a vertical ladder. Players moved up and down the ladder as they won or lost. Another peer-to-peer structure, this one within a larger, democratic hierarchy: the school administration.

During high school, as is common, I participated in a clique. Mine was a group of five boys who read and discussed iconoclastic literature such as H.L. Mencken and Bertrand Russell and frequently gathered at night to smoke pipes and play poker. That informal structure also nurtured a rewarding sense of peer-to-peer community. As Bob Dylan sings, “I wish, I wish, I wish in vain / That we could sit simply in that room again.”

When I entered the University of California, Berkeley in 1962, I joined a student co-op as a boarder. There were about 100 members, half of whom lived in the building. We served three meals a day, organized educational events, and threw occasional parties. The overall association of several student co-ops, which included more than a thousand student members, was directed by a Board of Directors directed, and a Central Kitchen delivered hot meals for dinner, but my whole time there I hardly noticed the operations of the Board. 

Each co-op was autonomous. The members of each house ran their own affairs. Each semester we elected a Council, a President, other officers, a House Manager, a Workshift Manager and other positions. Our responsibilities included levying fines for infractions like missing a work shift. Before I graduated, I served in most of the major positions. Overall, this structure facilitated a remarkable, fun-filled, democratic community grounded in natural human support. It too was another self-governing, self-perpetuating, peer-to-peer structure within a larger hierarchy. 

Toward the end of my freshman year, I heard James Baldwin, the great African-American author, speak on campus. His appearance, including his exhortation that white people support black people for the sake of their own salvation, affected me profoundly. I then read all of his books. The next year joined the local affiliate of the Congress of Racial Equality, Campus CORE, another peer-to-peer community that operated in a democratic manner, and became immersed in the civil rights movement. 

Bay Area CORE initiated demonstrations to persuade Lucky Stores, a grocery chain, to hire more persons of color. Campus CORE targeted the Berkeley store and soon decided to launch a “shop-in.” We’d go through the store, fill up our shopping carts, go to the register, and check out, only to “discover” we had no money, which hurt their sales. The organization’s regional leadership objected to this tactic, but, largely autonomous, we persisted and contributed to the settlement that the leaders soon negotiated. Rooted in Campus CORE’s peer-to-peer structure, the whole experience provided me with a great sense of community, as did the Auto Row and Sheraton Palace demonstrations demanding fair employment later that semester. 

During those years, my thinking was influenced by numerous factors. Martin Luther King, Jr’s vision of a “beloved community.” The New Left’s affirmation of a “democratic society.” Stokely Carmichael’s criticism of the welfare state for promoting paternalistic dependency. Albert Camus’ The Rebel, which rejected abstract ideologies that betray the initial humanistic rejection of injustice and proceed to justify any means to achieve power. And Sheldon Wolin, John Schaar, Norman Jacobson and their fellow professors who developed the “Berkeley School” of political theory, with which I became familiar after being selected to participate in a small, inter-disciplinary American Studies seminar during my sophomore year. These authors developed a non-Marxist critique of capitalism and democracy, advocated participatory democracy, affirmed spontaneous popular uprisings, and challenged bureaucracies, elitism, and the reliance on professional managers.

That summer, back home in Dallas, I joined a (successful) civil rights demonstration against the Piccadilly Cafeteria, which had been refusing to serve blacks. We also collected can goods for the Mississippi Freedom Summer voter registration drive. These demonstrations were based on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Six Principles of Nonviolence:

  • Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people. 

  • Nonviolence seeks to win friendship and understanding. 

  • Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice not people. 

  • Nonviolence holds that suffering can educate and transform. 

  • Nonviolence chooses love instead of hate. 

  • Nonviolence believes that the universe is on the side of justice.

Moreover, Dr. King’s nonviolent campaigns were based on Six Principles of Nonviolence:

  • Information gathering 

  • Education 

  • Personal commitment 

  • Discussion/negotiation

  • Direct action

  • Reconciliation

These principles called for constant self-examination to check and reaffirm faith in nonviolence and “eliminate hidden motives,” and a desire to find “reasoned compromise” while focused on a winnable demand. The actions I joined in 1964 were grounded in this philosophy, which I embraced.

In August, however, my respect for Dr. King (unfortunately) diminished. Given the racist exclusion of blacks from the Mississippi Democratic Party, Mississippi civil rights activists conducted their own elections for delegates to the 1964 Democratic National Convention. At the convention, those delegates demanded the Convention recognize them as the official delegation. Party and civil rights leaders negotiated a token compromise that gave two activists at-large seats and pledged that no future Democratic convention would accept delegates chosen by discriminatory elections. Dr. King accepted this compromise. But the local activists furiously rejected it. I agree with them and their criticism of Dr. King. This bitter battle contributed to a growing split among activists about accepting compromises and the overall tone of the movement, which led to the development of Black Power and the Black Panther Party, which I supported. (Many Southern white delegates left the convention anyway and four years later the Mississippi delegation was all-Black.)

The only other white person on the Piccadilly Cafeteria picket line in the summer of 1964 was Richard Koogle, who invited me to the Single Adults Group at Northaven Methodist Church, which was led by Rev. William “Bill” Holmes. I had rejected Christian fundamentalism and its literal interpretation of the Bible, but was open to new ideas, so I accepted his invitation. About twenty people participated in the meeting. The members were discussing: What is our meaning? Why are we together? What do we really want to do? I frequently asked myself those questions, but had never seen a group of people tackle them together, peer-to-peer. The meeting amazed me. 

Several weeks later, back in Berkeley, I found myself in a dilemma. Due to my civil rights activism, my father had reduced his minimal financial support and my landlady had forced me to find another place to live, far from campus. I was working long hours in a difficult job. And I was trying to be a full-time student while being a civil rights activist. So one day, on an impulse, I called my mother and asked if I could come home. She said yes. 

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I believe a major, largely unconscious, reason I made that decision was so I could go back and participate in the remarkable community I had witnessed at the Northaven Single Adults Group. Upon my return to Dallas, the group had decided to produce a play, After the Fall, by Arthur Miller, which addresses serious intellectual issues. A member of the Dallas Theater Center company served as director. I arrived in time to get a bit part and became deeply involved in the production, which involved building an elaborate set in the sanctuary. The whole experience provided a great sense of peer-to-peer community, again within the framework of a hierarchical organization, aided by the top-down element of a professional director.  

For employment, I got a job as a psychiatric orderly at Woodlawn Hospital. The director was a professor at the Dallas medical school, William Robert “Bob” Beavers, who became well-known nationally as a pioneer in family therapy, which is based in systems theory and sees personal issues more as social patterns than individual problems. Beavers was particularly interested in how families manufacture “scapegoats” as a way to avoid fundamental issues. This focus on scapegoating has persisted as a strong interest of mine.

Woodlawn Hospital was a “therapeutic community” based on mileu therapy, which aims to:

  • distribute power as evenly as possible so patients can make decisions for themselves and have a voice in group decisions;

  • encourage autonomy: think for yourself, do things on your own;

  • cultivate respect toward patients and among patients;

  • build mutual trust between staff and patients;

  • pay more attention to the needs of the patient than to the needs of the institution;

  • provide a safe, secure, homelike environment, and;

  • acknowledge human rights.

I found my work at Woodlawn, which encouraged peer support, to be very rewarding. Helping others in this way further opened my heart.

After completing After the Fall, the Single Adults group decided to discuss a provocative book, The Noise of Solemn Assemblies: Christian Commitment and the Religious Establishment in America by Peter Berger — a searing criticism of institutionalized religion's political role, its bureaucracy, and its subservience to the dominant social system. I found it refreshing that a Christian community would criticize the institutional Church in this way. This peer-based study group deepened my sense of community.

After completing our study of this book, we decided to undertake another theatrical production. This time, the first act consisted of a mild dose of “total theater” with actors suddenly standing up in the audience and reciting a poem or other passage. The second act was Edward Albee’s The American Dream. I played the American Dream. All in all, another great experience of community. That summer I joined a semi-amateur company that performed in local institutions, and the experience was totally different, filled with ego trips and competition.

That spring the Church convened a series of weekly “Community Dialogues” that it advertised to the general public. Prior to the catered dinner, the minister gave a brief talk on the early Christian church. I think that’s where I first heard of the “priesthood of all believers” and that early Christians shared all their possessions. After dinner, a church member presented a work of art, such as a painting or poem, and interpreted it. Then we formed small discussion groups facilitated by church members to discuss the week’s reading. 

The first set of readings presented an Existentialist analysis of the human condition and its limits, such as death. The next set presented an affirmation: Nevertheless, we can accept and embrace life with joy. Following these discussions, the minister presented his take on the reading. 

At some point, while these sessions were being conducted, during a Sunday morning sermon, the minister said, “If we accept the Creation, we accept the Creator.” That formulation rang a bell with me and resolved my dilemma about the fundamentalists’ notion of “God.” 

These Community Dialogues fit less into the “simple, horizontal, self-regulating, self-perpetuating, peer-to-peer organizing mechanism” discussed above. Still, the major role played by church members and the spirit of the events contributed to considerable peer learning and a sense of peer-based community.

During that year in Dallas, I read about Esalen Institute, mailed a request for information, and received their brochure and a massage manual. Located in California on the Big Sur coast, Esalen became the fountainhead of the “human potential movement,” with lectures and workshops led by prominent humanistic authors such as Alan Watts and Abraham Maslow and experiential massage, meditation, sensory awareness, Gestalt Therapy, and encounter group workshops. When the Single Adults group learned of an Esalen-inspired workshop to be held in Austin, we drove down to participate. It proved to be a great experience. I particularly enjoyed exchanging foot massages, which was reminiscent of Jesus washing feet.

That summer I decided to return to Berkeley in the fall and become a clinical psychologist. Back in Berkeley, I participated in some Esalen workshops held in the Bay Area workshops, but my most powerful experience in the field of psychology was a psychodrama class in the School of Criminology led by Richard Korn, who at the time was training Mimi Silbert, future head of Delancey Street, a renowned self-help residential education center for ex-convicts, ex-addicts, and ex-prostitutes. The class encouraged the free expression of strong emotions and nurtured peer learning within the psychodrama group structure (which is at the heart of the Delancy Street model).

That experience further opened up my heart, as did the use of marijuana and psychedelics, which on occasion induced religious experiences of feeling at one with the Universe, or the life force, especially when backpacking in the High Sierras.

[to be continued]