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!


Talking Piece takes charge!

Our group of 14 Community Organisers from around the UK converged to investigate how, within just 2 days of planning; could we stage a UK wide Meet Up for 200 plus people, in just 11 weeks’ time?
Almost all of the participants are fledgling Art of Hosting practitioners with less than 9 months experience, so as such; we had a collective understanding of the processes but a crushing timescale to contend with.
Our Talking Piece took charge, the humorous looking and handmade farcical face started the event with an uplifting and spontaneous waft of laughter, but the story behind the Talking Piece drew our group together, reconnecting them and seemingly created a group better than the sum of all of its individual parts.
The only plausible solution or practice to investigate our question had to be Open Space Technology.
Incredibly the answer to our question was actually hidden in plain sight; we discovered that by apportioning the work and tasks that we had only 11 weeks to complete into three groups of responsibility we had a methodology to make the meet up event possible
You may not be surprised to learn that our groups were Guardians of the Space, Masters of Ceremonies and Training.
This helped us make speedy progress and allowed the participant to really take shared ownership of the on-going work and shared responsibility.

Education Health

‘Stressing’ Academic Success – Campus conversations focused on student mental health

The forum provided a way for campus community stakeholders to address our grand challenge: To create an university environment where students, faculty and staff can thrive and reach their full academic potential. Nearly 200 University of Minnesota leaders, faculty, staff and students representing academic and administrative units and student organizations participated in this all-day forum. The number of bold ideas, strategies and action plans generated to address stress, mental health and foster success was remarkable.

The Provost’s Committee on Student Mental Health organized this day to:
• provide a participative forum for all stakeholders to engage in the strategic conversation;
• strengthen campus-wide relationships; and
• generate strategies to foster and support true mental health and advance student success.

Attendees had multiple opportunities to connect with others in meaningful conversations. In
the morning World Cafe conversations, we focused our collective attention on the issues, connected ideas to find deeper insights, and generated bold ideas that create forward movement and action. In the afternoon ProAction Cafe, we focused in on the strategies and some of those bold ideas and generated action plans for supporting true mental health and advancing student success.

Arts & Culture Business Civil Society Environment Multi-Stakeholder

Stories of Change & Collaboration in China

In modern China, the dominant stories are of individual achievement and the pursuit of material and economic success. Against this backdrop, some Chinese young people are asking if there is another way, if there could be a different story of collaboration and sustainability. A group of these young people have been asking for new ways of working together, asking whether it would be possible to host an Art of Hosting training in China.

The Chaordic Stepping Stones which is providing a framework for thinking about what wants to emerge begins with discerning need. Is there a perceived need for more collaboration and for training to support this way of working? The Core Group chose to examine this question by hosting a collective harvest of stories of collaboration and positive change.

With only about 3 weeks of preparation, the Collective Story Harvest was hosted on Saturday afternoon. Six stories ranging from organization of an arts and culture event to an environmental student organization to rural environmental protection were shared with nearly 40 participants. The event began with a welcome from Xiaojing Fei, the Caller of the event. This was followed by a nonverbal experience of collaboration through “the ropes game”. The Collective Story Harvest process was then described by the Hosting Team of Xiaojing, Narayan Silva and myself. Each of the six conversations were hosted by aspiring young hosts with lots of enthusiasm and a few hours of basic training in hosting conversations. Three of the stories were told in English and three were in Chinese.

Participants listened to the stories through seven arcs:
– pivotal moments,
– relationships,
– overcoming barriers,
– leadership,
– innovations,
– common ground, and
– questions.
Following the stories and the sharing of perceptions and insights, the group self organized (including caring for members who did not speak the same language) and explored the implications of the learnings from these stories for collaboration.

A rich harvest ensued with learnings that were shared back to the large group including:
– the importance of self awareness and emotional intelligence,
– need to work with rural community members,
– paying attention to relationships and communication,
– genuineness and passion, and
– a belief that there can be a “different way” of working.

The energy was positive and many people expressed their appreciation for a different kind of conversation and the hope that this would be the beginning of new collaborations. Given the conversations afterward and the networking taking place, there is every reason to think that many seeds of collaboration have been planted.

This event has also provided many lessons for the hosting team and the core team. The level of logistical challenges was not fully appreciated prior to this event and no one fully understood how much time and effort it takes to host in two languages when everything needs to be translated. Within this one very busy day, many people got to experience for the first time what hosting of conversations really means and what more can become possible from meaningful conversation.

Many seeds of collaboration, friendship and conversation have been planted in this fertile Chinese soil with the hope of abundant future harvests.

Civil Society Government & Public Sector Multi-Stakeholder

Meditations on Surfing Democracy II

Leading with the question “How can we surf the wave of participative democracy?”, our intention was to open and facilitate a process for learning, reflection and exchange. The surfing metaphor emerged in response to the physical stance of one of the facilitators – like standing on a surfboard on a mighty wave.

Initiated by the Büro für Zukunftsfragen (Office for future-related issues) in Vorarlberg/Austria, the European Institute for Public Participation and the Staatsministerium Baden-Württemberg (State Ministry of Baden-Wuerttemberg, Germany) the Surfing Democracy II conference brought together facilitators, public administrators, civil society actors, foundations, researchers, and politicians committed to public participation and participative democracy.


Bold Leadership to Recharge Rural Ontario

Ontario’s rural and agricultural organizations and communities are under pressure – we are all trying to do more with less to address increasingly complex challenges. This pressure also brings with it an opportunity for real change, and real change calls for a new kind of leadership. At the 2012 Leading Edge Summit we gathered together to explore this bold leadership for recharging our communities – how to move beyond our familiar ways of leading and working together to energize and mobilize participation through the Art of Hosting.


Hosting a Leadership Development Cohort: We’re Not In Kansas Anymore

Upon completing The Art of Hosting Conversations That Matter (hereafter referred to as “Art of Hosting”) training, I was excited to apply what I experienced to my work with leadership development. The use of powerful questions and slowing down to allow for deep reflection seemed well-suited to helping people further their leadership journey. In a leadership development cohort where relationship-building is so critical, I saw great potential for using Art of Hosting methodologies and core principles with their ties to participatory and collaborative leadership.

Home & Family

Engaged Individual and Community Healing and Grieving Posted on July 30, 2013

This story is a little different and quite personal. It is the story of how I hosted myself, my spouse Marcy, and our family, friends, and community during Marcy’s brain injury, her amazing two-week recovery, followed by a second brain injury that led to her passing.

Business Civil Society Government & Public Sector Health Home & Family

Beyond Presentations and Panels: Public Engagement Through Meaningful Conversation

This story describes the impact intentionality around developing a hosting team, the invitation that is offered, constructing powerful questions and creatively sharing what emerges can have in fostering an authentic public engagement effort as a University partner.

Civil Society Health Home & Family Multi-Stakeholder

What can we start today to leverage assets, build connections and together create a a healthier community?

The Invitation- The community members of St Peter, MN were invited to participate in dinner and an opportunity to have conversations about health and wellness for their community. An intentionally broad, inclusive invitation went out with the help of the members of the planning committee and individuals identified as having connections with new members of the community.

The Core Hosting Team included, David Newell of The Center for Servant Leadership at Gustavus Adolphus, Ronda Redmond and Katie Boone from Sowelu Institute, Krystal Hill of B.O.L.D. and Dawn Ellison of Influencing Healthcare, LLC.

Sponsors and Supporters included Blandin Foundation, Clarity Facilitation, Bush Foundation, St Peter Community Center, Mankato Clinic Foundation and the St Peter Food Coop.

After a delicious and healthy dinner catered by the St Peter Coop, the evening began with a brief framing of issues surrounding health and wellness including a discussion of social determinants of health and the increasing percentage of Minnesotan’s family budget that is healthcare. A video was shown that included St Peter Community members discussing the importance of community connections to the health and wellbeing of individuals in the community.

The first opportunity for conversation was through a world cafe’ using the questions:
What is at the core of good health and wellness?
What are some amazing possibilities we can explore in St Peter that will improve health and well being for all?

100% of people answering the evaluation found the World Cafe’ conversations valuable and 40% rated them as extremely valuable. Ideas generated in these conversations led to more conversations in the following Open Space conversations.

The Umbrella Question for the Open Space was:
“What can we start today to leverage assets, build connections and together create a healthier St Peter?”

Callers brought forth the following topics:
Access to Healthy Foods for All.
Slowing Life Down to have Time for Barbecues.
Family Involvement.
Pedestrian Safety.
Protecting Wild Places.
How can we Host Authenticity in our community?
How to Create a Truly Inclusive Community?

Those participants who found these topics of interest, joined in the conversations and shared contact information.

100% of survey participants who attended the Open Space found it valuable and 42% found it extremely valuable.

“Many exciting topics. Good to be fluid and move to different groups. I felt I connected with people on the topics of their interest, as well as the topic I suggested.”

When asked about further involvement in innovation around health and wellbeing in St Peter; 82% of respondents expressed interest in more conversations exploring opportunities, 55% had specific causes they wanted to champion, 82% are interested in having a larger community conversation, 70% are interested in learning more about theories behind creating inclusive sustainable changes in communities, and 55% want to champion St Peter moving towards an Accountable Health Community by being a local organizer of future conversations leading to sustainable changes.

What’s Next?

There is a clear interest in gathering more community members together to have a larger conversation about health and wellbeing. Individuals listed next steps to which they are committed on the survey. These included:

Personal Exercise and group activities
Connect University of MN resources with community
Improve walking safety
More conversations about health and well being
Build connections in the community
Park and exercise equipment on north side of town

You might be interested in this short video by David Gillette sponsored by TPT and BushFoundation. It is excellent!