Tag Archives: Community

Arts & Culture Civil Society Education Environment Multi-Stakeholder

Connecting a University and its Community around Earth Day

The University of Massachusetts at Lowell was looking to find ways to collaborate with organizations in the community to plan events around Earth Day. The previous year, a Lowell professor in Political Science, happened to sit next to a local artist/puppeteer at a meeting. Their conversation led to a small collaboration around an Earth Day parade, which is now being taken to a greater scale to create and connect various Earth Day events around the City.

The plan was for UMass Lowell to host an Earth Day Planning Forum inviting a wide range of organizations to share ideas, plans and opportunities for making Lowell Earth Day Celebration 2016 a city-wide, month-long celebration of the arts, nature and sustainability. Madeline Snow and Beth Tener (author here) designed an agenda for the Forum to develop plans for Earth Day activities, while also giving people an experience of participatory meeting techniques. These techniques offer the added benefits of helping people meet and connect with many others in the room and find those with similar interests. In my introductory remarks, I said that the intention of the meeting design was to create a web of connections, similar to mycelium, a web underneath a healthy forest that sprouts mushrooms and exchanges nutrients with trees.

The meeting was held in a beautiful meeting room with large windows overlooking the Merrimac River, as the fall foliage was at its height. There was a great turnout with people from a wide range of organizations such as the City departments, University staff, the National Park Service, a local high school science teacher who runs the environmental club with several of her students, and environmental, health and community non-profits. The day was split into three parts:

People introduced themselves and offered one word to describe Lowell. This served as a colorful way to remind everyone of the place they had in common, experienced from many perspectives.
Lowell words

Small conversations were held in a World Café format around the question: What could Lowell Earth Day 2016 do with and for the Lowell community? People discussed this in groups of four and then the groups mixed, sharing themes from the previous conversation, and generating more ideas. The World Café format is designed to generate lots of those serendipitous connections that spur innovative ideas, like the way the idea for this Earth Day initiative emerged when two people who worked in different places got to talking and came up with a new idea of how to work together. As I listened in on conversations, I could hear new connections being made not only for Earth Day plans but also for how people’s work could connect as well. Many ideas emerged, as well as some common themes, including the vision that Earth Day events would continue to grow each year.

Using Open Space Technology, we asked participants to suggest topics for conversation and assigned spaces for groups to discuss these, encouraging people to join whichever conversation they were drawn to, and move around among them. Instead of the facilitators mapping out every part of the day, this technique opens up the format, trusting the group to identify and generate good timely ideas. Sure enough, some great suggestions emerged that the facilitation team would likely not have come up with, for example:
– Planning activities in each neighborhood. Previous to this, the focus had been on events downtown.

– The river. A group explored what events could be done along the river and how that could be an organizing theme that connected events and organizations.

– Community/marketing/publicity. Another group jumped into conversation about how the mailing lists of all of the organizations could be connected to promote Earth Day events. People recognized that this will enable them to better communicate and connect their organizations’ work and events in an ongoing way.

The feedback from the planning forum was quite positive and an ambitious plan of activities is now underway. Reflecting on the experience, it is a great example of a simple way that a university can use its position as a convener to bring people together and strengthen connections with and within its community. A university can become insular and inward focused, even within its campus, the departments many not talk and share ideas and work. Likewise, within a community, organizations working on similar issues are often not aware of each others work or too busy to make the connections.

The planning forum enabled the many parts of the community with an interest in the environment and the arts to “put the pieces together in new ways” while also experiencing meeting techniques they can use within their own organizations. The meeting design enabled many new connections to be made and the participants now have the opportunity to work together immediately on a creative tangible project with a time line, which will likely strengthen the connections. Within the group, you could sense the desire for Lowell Earth Day Celebration to be an annual event that will grow and expand in each successive year. May it be so!

Education Government & Public Sector Health Home & Family Multi-Stakeholder

The Journey Home: Back to Ourselves and Into Our Community

I’ve heard folks say that a “3 day Art of Hosting does not a practitioner make” and I would add that it’s the start of a practitioners journey. I’ve just completed a 2 day capstone experience with a community of practice through Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services in Baltimore, MD. The hosting team included Fabio Lomelino and Laura Griffin, Community Conversation staff that have helped convene a 10 month learning journey – convening community builders from across the US that do work with refugee and immigrant resettlement services across the country. I’ve never had an opportunity quite like this- how often do we host a 3 day Art of Hosting, provide ongoing learning and connection throughout 10 months and then reconvene to deepen relationships and distill the learning? The stories that surfaced throughout our 2 day gathering were that of personal transformation- transformation from the inside out. People gathered in September thinking they were getting tools to bring back to use in their community and what ended up happening was a collective learning journey of how to integrate this practice into our being- transforming ourselves, our relationships, our organizations, and our communities.

The design for the 2 day was intentional in that we wanted to step into the not knowing of what would emerge – we created our purpose statement:

“Contributing the learning from our experience and deepening our relationships to co-create a vision for sparking and activating transformation within ourselves, our organizations and our communities.”

We gathered in the Fredrick-Douglas Isaac Meyers Maritime Museum, a beautiful open space with wood floors, brick walls, and windows on all sides that face out the eastern seaboard. The site was fitting in more ways than we could even begin to imagine. Our planning calls helped frame our thinking around the questions with past, present, and future. Throughout the museum the art and artifacts were all laid out with a “past, present, future” context.

The quote that helped us think about our work during these two days was:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work- but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

This event was unique in many ways. LIRS is converging on their strategic plan and wanted to hear from the collective wisdom of the group as their plans transitions from Community Conversations out of a separate program and integrate its practices into the work they do as a network host. We started our day with a brief check-in that lead to a teach on the Theory U Levels of Listening. We then went into a Collective Story Harvest with four different storytellers from the Community Conversations group. They shared their story with participants and the Strategic Council members from LIRS. Throughout the story sharing, key pieces surfaced that affirmed what LIRS was looking to continue to explore with their strategic plan.

After lunch, the Strategic Council headed back and the rest of the participants went into a World Café’ where we explored the following questions:
1. Share a story of how you have brought Community Conversations home to your organization and community.
2. What new learning has surfaced for you from engaging with Community Conversations?
3. How do we transition Community Conversation from a project into a practice? From events we organize to how we operate?

We harvested the learning between rounds which helped the collective wisdom to continue to grow and emerge as we deepened our conversations in each round. We revisited the 4 Fold Practice from last September and explored what happens when you integrate the learning from a Community of Practice back into how we host our self. We closed the day with the question, “What is dying to be born?”

The next day participants lead our check-in with a breathing exercise and a conversation around what surfaced with the question we closed the previous day with. We then hosted a teach on the Systems Change Map that deepened our understanding of what Community Conversations was transitioning out of and explored what was beginning to emerge with the relationships in the room.

We broke into smaller groups to explore a conversation around the sustainability and adaptability of our group, together we explored:
1. What is the most important piece of this for you to continue forward with as the capstone comes to a close?
2. What do you need to sustain this?
3. What commitment do you personally make to sustaining this?

Conversations around relationships, local capacity building, connecting to a community of practitioners swirled around the room as we began growing in our learning from our local experiences. We came back to Circle and shared out our personal commitments to the group- making visible what we were responsibly agreeing to carry forward with our passion for this work. Over lunch, we convened in smaller groups to explore the common threads of our commitments and started to sense into a deeper level of connection and practice.

We explored in the afternoon the invitation from the collective to the commons – exploring how story builds a desire to connect- fulfilling a longing for community. Hosting hospitality into who we are as humans, creating welcome and building belonging into our communities. Our check out question for our final day together was “What is quaking in you as you prepare for your journey home?”

What surfaced in our check-out was a deep reminder for all of us… that this journey was a collective remembering of who we are as human beings and how we collectively strengthen our communities through sharing our story, our experience, and our learning along the journey. This was a journey of bringing us home – back into ourselves and our community.