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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?"
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.
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.
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:
provide better communication between the Board and grassroots
provide the Board with an opportunity to "take the pulse
of A.A." personally.
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
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
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:
night, 7:30 to 10:00
Welcome & opening remarks by Chairman of General Service
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.
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,
1:30 to 5:00
Presentation and discussion, if desired. More workshop
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.
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.
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."
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.
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!"
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.
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."
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!"
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
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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..."
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
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."
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.