The concept of Regional Forums (or Mini-Conferences, as they were then called) was attributed to "Dr. Jack" Norris, Chairman of the General Service Board, when he presented it to the 1975 General Service Conference. Although the idea was first discussed by the Long Range Planning Committee of the Board several years previously, this was only background for Dr. Jack's experience in late 1974 (described in more detail on pages XX-XX), when he visited San Francisco -with Trustee Bob M. and G.S.O. staff member Mary Ellen U. - to attend an alcoholism conference. While they were there, George D., the Delegate asked them to appear before a large meeting of disgruntled service people. After they spoke briefly about what was going on at G.S.O. and then answered questions for more than an hour, the rather hostile atmosphere turned warm and friendly. On the way back east on the plane, Dr. Jack thought, "Wouldn't it be good if this kind of communication could take place in all the areas?"
Dr. Jack bounced the idea off of Bob H., general manager of G.S.O., who was immediately enthusiastic. It just happened that Bob H. had been increasingly concerned about the gap that existed between the Delegates' Conference experience and the level of understanding by their constituencies back home. So Bob called George D. and asked if he would write a letter summarizing the results of the service meeting from his viewpoint. Bob then sent copies of the letter to all Delegates. He also asked the Trustees' Conference Committee to put the item on the agenda of the 1975 General Service Conference. The stage was set.
In his presentation, Dr. Jack reminded the Conference that for 25 years Delegates from all over the U.S. and Canada had been coming to New York to listen to Board reports, to consider Board actions, and to advise the trustees. He said the Board felt it was time to reverse the direction; that is, to come out to interested members, region by region, to listen to their ideas, to answer their questions, and to talk to them face-to-face. He suggested a series of get-togethers attended by Service personnel from each region—plus six to ten people representing the General Service Board. Such people would include two to four trustees (Regional, General Service and At-Large) and two to four staff members (G.S.O. and Grapevine) plus a non-trustee director or two. The get-togethers would run from Friday evening until noon Sunday. The Board would pay the expenses of its personnel, but all other attendees would be at their own or area expense. Agendas, format and ground rules were to be worked out between G.S.O., the Regional Trustee and the Delegates in the region.
He reassured those present that the proposed Regional meetings would in no sense affect the annual General Service Conference itself; they would be for sharing, for airing feelings, voicing opinions and making suggestions --but they would make no decisions. Finally, he also proposed that the Regional meetings be tried on an experimental basis and be discontinued if they proved impractical or for any reason failed to achieve their purpose, which was:
- To provide better communication between the Board and grassroots A.A.
- To provide the Board with an opportunity to "take the pulse of A.A." personally.
- To demonstrate to A.A.'s everywhere that the only purpose or interest of the General Service
Board is to carry the message of recovery to alcoholics everywhere.
The Conference, after discussion, voted overwhelmingly and enthusiastically to go ahead on a trial basis and review the experience at the 1976 Conference. The only dissenters came from California and Oklahoma.
As it turned out, the points in Dr. Jack's original presentation were so sound they were followed in over 40 Regional Forums (through 1985) with only minor changes. After the Conference, staff work on the Regional gatherings was assigned to Cora Louise B., in addition to her other duties. She recalls that she and Dave C. (Southeast Regional Trustee) were both scheduled to attend an area assembly in Memphis, Tennessee. "Dave talked to them about this mini-conference idea," she remembers, "and got them to vote whether they wanted it or not, and they did, and wanted it right away. A little later, on another trip, I met Dave in Atlanta, and we went with Clarence R. to find a hotel where we could meet and the first available date was the first weekend in December, so we booked it. Then Dave C. and I went back to the hotel where I was staying and tried to work out some sort of format." It came out approximately as follows:
Friday night, 7:30 to 10:00
Welcome & opening remarks by Chairman of General Service Board.
Ten-minute talks by trustees, directors and staff members on their functions and assignments.
Presentation by general manager of G.S.O. giving facts, figures and financial data.
Saturday, 9:00 to 12:00
Brief talks by area Delegates on subjects of local concern.
Workshops on such topics as Group Problems, Duties of the GSR, Public Information, CPC, Institutional work, Literature, etc.
Saturday, 1:30 to 5:00
Presentation and discussion, if desired. More workshop sessions.
Ask it-Basket questions and general sharing from the floor.
Questions and general sharing session, chaired by general service office manager.
Showing of service films and filmstrips.
Sunday, 9:00 to noon
Final session to answer questions, or sharing session.
Talks by oldtimers—past trustees or past delegates.
Evaluation of the meeting and suggestions for improvement.
Closing remarks by Chairman of General Service Board.
The general chairman for the weekend was the Regional Trustee where the meeting was held. Coffee breaks were provided at appropriate intervals. There were no A.A. recovery talks, no social events, no scheduled meals or banquets. Attendees were free to make their own meal arrangements. There was no registration fee, although all attendees were urged to register in order to receive a mimeographed report of the weekend. No basket was passed for contributions. The proceedings were to be taped for record purposes, underwritten by the Board. The entire agenda was as informal and loose as possible.
Back in New York, Cora Louise checked the general format and agenda with Bob H. and Dr. Jack, who had relatively few changes to suggest. The General Service Board, meeting in Denver immediately following the International Convention in July, 1975, approved the time and place for the first experimental mini-conference. Among those who went to Atlanta to represent the Board and office were, appropriately, Dr. Jack, Bob H., Cora Louise, Dave C., Margaret C (Trustee-at-large, U.S.) and George C. (General Service Trustee), among others. It was also decided to bring a nonalcoholic recording secretary from G.S.0., Madeline Whitlock. Curiosity and interest in, the mini-conference concept prompted others to attend as observers: "F.P." R., delegate from western Missouri; Stan W., from California, Pacific Regional Trustee; and Mike R., from Oklahoma, Southwest Regional Trustee - the latter two from states whose delegates had voted against the idea. Mike, who was newly elected, recalls, "The first time I heard about it was from the then delegate, Clark McC., when he made his Conference report back in Oklahoma. Apparently he had discussed the idea with the oldtimers and the campaign was already on to say no to the proposal, but nobody had discussed it with me. I heard at my first Board meeting in Denver that this experimental mini-¬conference was to be held in the Southeast Region with Dave C. as chairman, and that anybody on the Board was free to come. Things were so negative on it in Oklahoma, which was the only side of it I was getting, I thought, 'I'd better go to Atlanta.' And so I did."
The first mini-conference, or Forum, was unlike any that followed, and it has been recalled and retold over and over. Mike R.: "I was surprised at the hostility, but at the same time I felt it was good to know about it. And it was a wonderful opportunity to let the people talk out their hostilities - which the people running the meeting did beautifully. I thought when the weekend was over there was much accord - whereas at the beginning there wasn't much." Cora Louise recalls, "There were three fellows from South Florida - Chico C., Mike C., and one whose name I think was Chauncey who were loaded for us. This Chauncey got up first and he went at us like a machine gun, mowing us down. Although I don't think he was involved in service, he was angry that we called this 'Conference-approved literature' when nobody ever asked his opinion about it. All three of them went to town on us. The whole weekend long they gave us a workout about the cost of the Big Book, and Bob H. had to call back to New York and find out how much the string and the wrapping tape and everything about it cost. That kind of thing. They found out something, though—that they couldn't intimidate us and that we were willing to go to any lengths to answer their questions openly and not take offense.
"I was standing there at the podium calling on people—and like everyone up there, I had known delegates to be hostile before, but this was a barrage. This guy started this stuff and kept going, so I'm thinking, 'How am I going to answer it?' I said, 'If you'll be quiet minute, well try to answer your question. But he wouldn' t stop. And when he sat down, another got up and they kept at it and at it. That was Saturday morning. By Sunday noon, Honey, those people became my best friends! There was real hostility in the beginning, and it completely turned around by the end. It was remarkable! One of those three South Florida fellows came up after it was over and told me he was going to recommend that his area double its contribution to the General Service Office!"
One person who was profoundly affected by the mini-conference was Joe P., a transplanted Yankee from Massachusetts who had live in Atlanta since 1953. (See Chap. 5) Although sober for 26 years he had never been involved in service. After attending the Atlanta meeting, he asked Bob H., "What do you have to do to be a CSR?" He went on to become not only a GSR but in rapid succession a district committeeman, a delegate and finally regional trustee.
The following March, Mike R. attended a Southwest Region Delegates & Trustees get-together timed to precede the General Service Conference. "As F. P. and I had been to Atlanta, they asked us to tell what we found. We hadn't talked to each other about it, but I got up and told them I thought it was a useful tool to air differences of opinion in addition to the objective of bringing G.S.O. to the Fellowship and getting to know them and communicating with them. I told them if they asked me if I liked what I saw and approved of it, I would have to say 'yes'. Now, this was in direct opposition to the ex-delegates and others in my own area, and I thought they wouldn't speak to me. But then 'F. P.' stood up and told them he liked it, too. So at the Conference in April, Clark was the only one opposing it as I recall." Mike concludes, "I have now made Forums in Atlanta, Amarillo, Chicago, Albuquerque, Kansas City, Denver and Dallas have not missed any in my region yet. And they always accomplish what was originally stated."
Also in March, 1976, a second experimental mini-conference was held for the West Central Region, in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It turned out to be almost as memorable for its congeniality and love as its predecessor had been for its initial abrasiveness and mood of confrontation. "I'll never forget a little hippie girl who spoke up there," chuckles Cora Louise. "She was wearing the fringed jacket, the jeans, the boots, the complete outfit, and I thought sure she would give us some flack about drug addicts or chemical dependency. Instead, she lectured everybody about the importance of the Traditions and sticking to the basics of the program! She was beautiful!"
Jim C., from Nebraska, West Central Regional Trustee, was chairman. Dr. Jack Norris again attended as Chairman of the Board of Trustees, and Bob P., general manager of G.S.O., took Bob H.'s place. This was to establish a precedent for all future Regional Forums - i.e., the presence of the Chairman and the general manager—as those in attendance clearly expected it. The staff team. All other Board participants were invited to attend on a rotating basis within their categories.
The second mini-conference was memorable for another reason as well. Cora Louise tells why: "When we arrived Friday night in Sioux Falls, the snow was hip deep. A lot of the New York people were hours late getting there. The blizzard just got worse on Saturday; the whole state was snowed in. We thought nobody would come, but we had as many people as at the first one."
The notification procedure was for an initial letter to go out from Dr. Jack to everyone involved in the service structure in the region, explaining the purpose of the meeting and describing its format. This was followed by a letter from the regional trustee, adding his own invitation. Cora Louise worked out arrangements with the local host committee and issued "loving invitations" to the current delegates and others regarding their part in the program. Following Conference approval—involving a change of name to Regional Forums, to avoid confusion with the Conference itself - these procedures continued to be followed.
In the planning stage, it was determined that four Forums per year would be the maximum number in which G.S.O. could take part without undue disruption of its operation, and that these should be spaced throughout the year to avoid the General Service Conference and quarterly Board meeting weekends. Beyond these constraints, however, as much latitude as possible was given to the regions to make their own decisions as to time, place, program, etc. As there were eight regions in the US./Canada, each region would be entitled to host a Forum every two years. The sequence among the regions was on a "first come, first served" basis the first time 'round, and was simply followed generally thereafter. The regional lunches which were already scheduled for one day during the annual General Service Conference proved convenient for delegates and trustees to decide when and where their region's next Forum would be held.
Board responsibility for Forums was given to the Trustees' International Convention Committee, which changed its name to the International Convention/Regional Forums Committee. After the first round of Forums was completed, the committee recognized that some regions contained areas that were too remote or isolated to permit a significant number of service people to attend their Forums. For example, at the Pacific Regional Forum in Sacramento, California, in 1978, only two service people from Alaska were registered. Consequently, in 1979 the Alaska area committee invited the Board to send a limited number of representatives to the Alaska assembly which would then become a kind of "mini-Forum." The Board agreed, and a deal was worked out in which the Alaska area and the Board shared the additional expense equally since it was a combined event.
The same rationale brought about "mini-Forums" (or Special Forums, as they came to be called, more accurately) in other locations. The West Central Region held its first four Forums ('76, '79, '81 and '83) in Sioux Falls, S.D., a journey of several hundred miles for service people in Montana and Wyoming. So, in 1981, a Special Forum was held in Billings, Montana, attended by over 150 grateful and excited people. Two years later, St. Johns, Newfoundland—the farthest Eastern point in North America—hosted a Special Forum. Although only 70 people were able to attend, it was judged eminently worthwhile by the Trustees' Committee because it stimulated more service activity in this remote and sparsely populated part of Canada—and hence better helped the still-suffering alcoholics there. Over 300 enthusiastic people attended the Special Forum in. Honolulu, Hawaii, the following year. For most of them, it was their first opportunity to experience a comprehensive service meeting of this size, and certainly their first chance to meet and share a weekend with trustees and staff from the New York G.S.O. In 1985, the Trustees' Committee was planning a Special Forum in English and Spanish for Puerto Rico.
Some program changes evolved over the years. The time allotted on Sunday morning the first two years to feed-back or evaluation of the worth of the Forums became a "love-in", in the words of one staff member; and the need for it had disappeared. So it was quietly dropped to accommodate a continuation of the Askit-Basket or other sharing from the attendees. Also on Sunday morning, the talks by past trustees were supplemented, when there was opportunity, by reminiscences by other oldtimers of how it was in the early days. On Saturdays, the number of workshops was expanded to the maximum as they proved a favorite part of the Forum.
Dr. Jack Norris attended all Forums from 1975 until his retirement in April 1978. In. his opening and closing remarks, he spoke of the need for communication and for trust, and he recalled the giants of the early days of A.A. whom he had known; and he usually closed with the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi with interpolations as it applies to alcoholics. From 1978 until 1982, Dr. Milton Maxwell shared his own early involvement with A.A. and spoke of its unique ability to survive thanks to its singleness of purpose, its devotion to spiritual principles and its adherence to the Traditions. Gordon Patrick, Chairman of the General Service Board from 1982 until the present (1985), brought his own brand of enthusiasm and in his closing remarks reviewed and highlighted the moments and the words from the preceding two days that had been most meaningful to him.
Similarly, the remarks of the general managers of G.S.O. differed according to their individual styles. Bob H. and Bob P. (who was present at 34 of the 38 Forums held during his term at G.S.O.) liked to dazzle the attendees with figures showing the astounding growth of A.A. and of G.S.O. functions (number of - groups, number of Big Books, other books and pamphlets distributed; sales in dollars; group contributions; G.S.O. budget etc.) over the previous decade. John B., quieter and less flamboyant, explained A.A.'s finances by presenting informative charts on its publishing operations, group services and reserve fund plus trends in costs and income.
Except for these variations, the Forum weekends followed the same pattern and the same content for ten years—because the audience was largely different each time, due to rotation. In each region every two years there was a new crop of delegates, area committeemen, district committee persons and. GSR's. Typically, from 70 percent to 80 percent of those attending were at their first Regional Forum! And this continues to be true.
Following Cora Louise B., staff members who served on the Regional Forums assignment for two years each included, in sequence, Susan D., Vinnie McC., Lyla B., Helen T., and Curtis M. After Madeline Whitlock had been recording secretary at the first four Forums, she was replaced by Dorothy McGinity from 1977 through '79. Lynda Ernst then took over for seven years. Since she was the one person providing continuity throughout this period, she acquired a wide acquaintanceship among A.A.'s in all the regions.
Also, as a nonalcoholic who nevertheless was close to the Fellowship, her observations are revealing. "The Saturday night general sharing session is the first chance for people to come up to the floor mikes and express their thoughts. I'm always touched when they get up with their knees shaking, crying—actually crying—because they are so happy to be there and to be SOBER. A lot of them have never been to a meeting bigger than their local group, so the Regional Forum is overwhelming—to feel that much love around them in the room. Almost always you'd see somebody there only a few days sober, somebody struggling so hard, absorbing the spirit of the meeting even though they don't comprehend..."
From her experience, Lynda believes the Forums generate enthusiasm for service and help groups solve problems through the sharing they receive. "The local GSR's are tremendously excited at meeting particularly the G.S.O. staff members from New York. Maybe they were intimidated by the idea of a 'headquarters' person, and it blows their minds to realize that the office people are not there to make rules but only to share experience. They can't believe the staff members are just A.A.'s like themselves. Any feeling of 'them' versus 'us' disappears." The workshops are especially helpful, she feels, because they give people who are too shy or nervous to get up to a mike an opportunity to really participate and to speak their mind.
Curtis M.'s dominant impression at his first Forum was the realization of the love of the General Service Office shown by the A. A. members, stemming from the esteem they had for Bill W "The effect of the Forums," he says, "is to clear up misunderstandings which new service people may have about, the New York office. We explain that the A.A. groups are at the top of A.A.'s organization chart and G.S.O. is at the bottom—so our actions follow their suggestions. Not the other way around, as is normal in the corporate world. This opens up communications, and the outcome is that members mistrust is replaced with trust."
Films and filmstrips were used at most Forums as communications tools. The G.S.O. filmstrip was always shown, and others have included "Circles of Love and Service" and "Bill Discusses the Twelve Traditions." The Western Canada Regional Forum in 1979 was the first audience to see the final version of "Alcoholics Anonymous - An Inside View."
Great Britain was the first overseas A.A. structure to adopt the regional forum idea in 1980, and others followed. Al-Anon began having its own regional forums at about the same time.
In recent years competition has developed among areas or cities for holding the next Regional Forum. As a result, the Trustees' Committee has had to limit booking Forums to two years in advance (i.e., to one Forum in advance). Beyond that, they felt, would obligate delegates and other area committee persons as yet not elected, to a decision already made. The Trustees' Committee has also suggested (based on adverse experience) that Forums not be scheduled on holiday weekends or Superbowl, etc., weekends; nor at harvest time in agricultural areas.
When nonalcoholic Class A Trustees (other than the Board Chairmen) were able to attend Regional Forums, it proved to be an exceptionally significant experience both for them and for the Fellowship. Michael Alexander was deeply impressed at the gratitude expressed to him for his service to A.A. by virtually everyone he met; and they, in turn, were deeply impressed with his wisdom and articulateness. At a West Central Regional Forum, Dr. Kenneth Williams delivered a spontaneous and emotional talk on the tragic consequences of A.A.'s irresponsibly "playing doctor" by advising newcomers to throw away prescribed medicines - a talk which eventually became a Grapevine article and was a factor in the decision to write the pamphlet "The A.A. Member—Medications and Other Drugs." Joan Jackson, Jim Estelle and Robert Morse are other Class A's who have benefited from Forum experience and have left lasting impressions behind.
Similarly, attendance at Forums has given key nonalcoholic employees at G.S.O. a valuable first-hand exposure to the Fellowship as well as making their own contributions to the program. Some who had the experience were Dennis Manders, Ed Cordon and Charles Columbia.
In 1984, a special meeting of interested trustees and G.S.O administrative and staff people was held "to reappraise and re-examine Regional Forums in the light of eight years, experience." According to some, the meeting was motivated, in part, by a dark suspicion by one trustee that the G.S.O. staff was exceeding its authority in deciding who would be invited to the Forums as they came around. This matter was quickly dealt with early in the meeting since the invitations were issued in rotation, and the meeting proved a valuable occasion for taking the inventory of the Forums concept.
An important recommendation coming out of the meeting—and adopted as a Conference recommendation the following year—was that Forum sites should be rotated within a region, both in the interests of fairness and also to reduce requests for Special Forums. (As mentioned earlier, the West Central Region had, up to this time, held four Forums in Sioux Falls, S.D., and had resisted changing the site. They held their 1985 Forum in Sheridan, Wyoming.) The special meeting noted that 70 percent to 80 percent of the attendees are at their first Forum and reaffirmed the value of the meeting in stimulating service in areas where it has been lagging. It was also recommended that experiments be made toward making the Forums even less formal in format; for example, on Friday night, to avoid the intimidating appearance of eight or ten visiting Board and staff people sitting in a row on the dais, they might be called up individually from the audience to be introduced and make their talks.
Over the years, Regional Forums have been a sounding board for the discussion of vital issues facing the Fellowship—and for the sharing of experience in dealing with these issues. Among the issues have been: Court referrals. Influx of patients from treatment centers. Problems with prison authorities. Rotation. Self-support. And the all- time favorite, singleness of purpose; i.e., how to handle pure drug addicts coming to A.A. meetings, and the dually-addicted who insist on talking about drugs. Although Forums make no decisions, their function as a sounding board has been of immense value.