When we touched on the Third Concept last month, we spoke frequently of the “Right of Decision,” the right for AA groups and their members to act as delegates rather than servants. Embedded in Concept IV is the “Right of Participation,” which is similar in some ways yet still carries its own meaning and importance within the constructs of AA. If we see the Right of Decision as the right for AA members to choose how they will participate, the Right of Participation may be seen as the basic freedom to choose whether or not they will exercise their right of representation within the General Service Conference.
The above paragraph may be a little wordy, so we’ll put it in simpler terms. Basically, anyone given the opportunity to represent their group or service board at the General Service Conference should also have a right to vote on AA matters. And to some extent, we have this same Right of Participation within our home groups. To state this as an analogy, one might say that the Conference is to service delegates as business meetings are to group members. In this way, Concept IV is essentially a broader take on the Second Tradition.
Granted, the Second Tradition is alive in all of the Twelve Concepts. Not just Concept III as referenced above, but Concept I and Concept II as well. All of these ideas exist for the sake of giving AA groups and their members a say in the program’s governance. In this way, no one group or individual may stake a tyrannical claim over the program and its maintenance. We are all a part of the same group conscience. Below, we will examine how this group conscience is ingrained into Concept IV.
The History of Concept IV
Concept IV, as it is written, states:
“Throughout our Conference structure, we ought to maintain at all responsible levels a traditional ‘Right of Participation,’ taking care that each classification or group of our world servants shall be allowed a voting representation in reasonable proportion to the responsibility that each must discharge.”
Not only is this Right of Participation outlined in Concept IV, but it is actually written into the Conference Charter itself. One of the major tasks of the General Service Conference at which the Conference Charter was written was to determine how AA would continue to operate once co-founders Bill Wilson and Doctor Bob were no longer around to provide their input. In their eyes, the only way for the program to work would be if all members were considered equal.
This is why it was determined that voting privileges would extend to office personnel, despite the notion that the groups hold ultimate authority. In addition to service delegates from the individual AA groups, Concept IV extends the Right of Participation to AA trustees as well as directors and other staff members from the General Service Board. Staff members and directors representing Grapevine, AA’s official magazine, are extended the Right of Participation as well. Nontrustees and paid administrators for these operating organizations are also given a right to participate. None of these participating members is seen as being more or less important than the others.
For those who may be unfamiliar with some of the designations referenced above, nontrustee members are those appointed to the standing committee of the General Service Board by the chairperson, often because they are seen to have experience with the program and its foundations that would be advantageous to the board. Committee secretaries would be among the other staff members referenced. It may sound strange to some that any operating entity within AA would contain outside accounting staff or paid executives, but this is necessary in order to keep the General Service Office afloat. Since these individuals are as necessary to the program as anyone else, the Right of Participation has been extended to them as well. It is important that we ensure any necessary member feels that their participation is not only permitted, but actively desired. Not all of these members will vote on AA matters, but their participation is still freely permitted.
What This Concept Means
The above section should provide a decent outline regarding how Concept IV is enacted within the General Service Conference, but its meaning to the program may still be elusive to some. However, to co-founder Bill Wilson, Concept IV was incredibly meaningful to the principles for which AA stands. He did not wish to see Concept IV diminished, altered, or disregarded in any way. There were some who did not want to extend the Right of Participation to certain members (particularly office personnel and trustees), but Bill’s response was quite straightforward:
“Certainly, our trustees and service workers are not less conscientious, experienced and wise than the delegates.”
Some may believe that the participation of office personnel is a violation of the tenet that ultimate authority should rely in the shared consciousness of the individual groups. But the General Service Office and its contributions to the program should not be overlooked. More importantly, those who wish to have a voice in AA should not back any argument in favor of stripping rights from the program’s members. As Bill said on the matter:
“It is vital to preserve the traditional ‘Right of Participation’ in the face of every tendency to whittle it down.”
Everyone, both inside and outside of AA, has a desire to find their rightful place in the world. Bill saw the program as something that would give recovering alcoholics a chance to find a fellowship in which they felt they truly belonged. Concept IV may seem like it is primarily concerned with enforcing the Second Tradition, but it is about much more than ensuring the lack of an ultimate authority. It is about ensuring that AA members understand how vital they are to the survival of the program. If we are to share equal rights, then it only follows that we should all share equal respect as well.
Not only does Concept IV ensure that we feel accepted within the fellowship, but it also reminds us that our opinions are no more or less valuable than anybody else’s. We have a right to participation, but we are also expected to respect the rights of others as well. The moment we believe that another person’s say has less value than our own is the moment at which we sacrifice all manner of humility. If we wish to work a solid program of recovery, we must accept that our opinion has value, but that it is not always the prevailing view within the whole of the group conscience.
Embracing the Fourth Concept
As noted above, our first task in embracing Concept IV is to accept that we are not the only ones with opinions. Sometimes, it can be easy to let stubbornness get the best of us. In these moments, we have little desire to hear anything which does not conform to our own beliefs. But if we wish to have our opinions heard, we must extend the same privilege to everyone else within our fellowship. Otherwise, the unity espoused by Tradition One becomes utterly meaningless, and our personal programs will suffer as a result of our self-imposed isolation.
Obviously, the best way to take advantage of our Right of Participation would be to become a service delegate for our group or pursue a position in the head office. Then, we would of course have to attend the General Service Conference each year. The great thing about a Right of Participation is that it is not an obligation. That said, those of us seeking greater responsibility in our group should take our commitments to heart and participate in the Conference unless we are absolutely unable to do so. It is vital that we seek means of service work in recovery, and participating in such a major AA event would be a huge step in the right direction.
We should also do our best to invoke Concept IV and the Right of Participation within our home groups. It is important for people to understand that a group’s business meetings are not exclusive events. Any member of the group, no matter how new, should be permitted to attend. If they propose a vote on a pressing issue, the GSR does not have the right to veto their suggestion if it is passed by those present for the meeting. Everyone is equal, from the newest member to the most experienced service representative. If we allow our group to lose sight of this principle, then the group may soon begin losing members as well.
Concept IV is easy to embrace in our lives if we just remember that everyone has equal rights. Whether at the General Service Conference, a business meeting, or simply a conversation between peers, there is no one who should ever feel as if they do not have the right to be heard. This is a right we want for ourselves, and it is a right that we should protect in the name of others.