Hosting Conversations about Questions that Matter
We can only take things in when we’re ready for them. In March of 2009, I started a weekly “Discussion Salon” at Mocha, the small independent coffee house across the street from my office in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. My goal was simply to provide a venue for civil dialog in our community, based on my own frustrations over the limited opportunities to engage in such conversation in the public sphere.
One of the first and most enthusiastic participants—a friend I had just made after joining our local Unitarian Universalist congregation-- immediately loaned me his copy of Margaret Wheatley’s Turning to One Another, insisting that it held great wisdom from which the moderator of a group such as mine might benefit. But with my little discussion group unexpectedly thriving right out of the gate--initial attendance often exceeding twenty people-- I didn’t see the point in messing with a good thing by changing the simple formula I had originally adopted. So the book sat around my bedroom for a couple of months more or less untouched, before I returned it feeling guilty and concerned that I not take advantage a new friendship.
Fast forward to the beginning of February, 2010... My group was still going strong nearly a year after it began, albeit with somewhat diminished numbers. But a frustration had recently been articulated over our tendency to analyze and enumerate the problems we face as a society without offering much in the way of solutions or actions to address them. Like so much of the country, we felt disempowered, and the discussions we were having only seemed to make the feeling worse.
Imagine my delight when I learned on Facebook of a new “Coffee Party Movement” (CPM) that called not only for civil dialog in local coffee houses, but also for some kind of action to “take back our government” and make it a reflection of “the people’s will.” I launched into the fledgling movement with manic energy, networking my way within a few days into contact with Annabel Park, the movement’s more or less accidental “founder” and her inner circle of friends and organizers.
I volunteered to run a meeting at Mocha and also to become “chapter leader” for the state of Connecticut. I also offered my services as a strategist and a writer, and Annabel initially welcomed my assistance. Another thing I immediately did was to talk to my mother in Texas, whom I knew to be friend of Marshal Rosenberg and others specializing in ways to get people with differing views to talk to one another more effectively. One of those others was Tom Atlee, who had been her house guest while visiting Austin, and she suggested I contact him right away.
Tom proved to be remarkably generous with his time, his insights and his connections. Within what seemed like a few hours of my contacting him, Juanita Brown was putting the word out that I needed help and I had additional conversations with Don Proffit and Jim Myracle. It became rather obvious at this point that the co-intelligence community had a tremendous amount to offer the CPM. In addition to asking if there might be someone willing to facilitate a world café at my first meeting on March13th, I began trying to introduce these ideas and the experts who developed them to the CPM organizers.
However, just as I had allowed Wheatley to languish by my bedside, the small group that was “giving birth” to the CPM turned out not to be interested in hearing about innovative ways to facilitate group discussions. Their hands were more than full as they tried to realize their own vision of the Movement. They wanted ground troops and lieutenants, not another member of their war cabinet.
Adding to my frustration was the sense that the CPM organizers’ strategy was problematic in several respects. In particular, I was struck by their desire to grow the movement rapidly, although at the time it already had nearly 100,000 Facebook fans and hundreds of volunteers to lead meetings around the country. Not only did they want to continue growing as fast as possible, but they also said that they wanted the various groups to leap into action more or less immediately. This made no sense to me. I suggested in emails that they move more slowly, focusing first on learning just who we were as a movement and how to talk and listen to one another, then moving gradually through a consensus building process that might allow the movement to speak with a more unified and authoritative voice. And I mentioned that I could put them in contact with some of the best people in the world for facilitating just such a process. But there appeared to be no interest.
My frustrations with Annabel and her organization came to a head one week before the March 13th national kick-off event. I had written a piece (with help from a number of people, including Tom Atlee) entitled “The Declaration of Inspiration for the Coffee Party Movement of the USA,” intended both as a broad appeal to the people of our country and as a personal one to Annabel (the "final" version of this document is attached here for your review/entertainment). In it, I called for us to “seek a common language and a common purpose” and to strive for "unity."
Annabel barely read the early (and admittedly rather rough) draft of the “Declaration” before more or less dismissing my efforts as useless to her. I had hoped to get her attention with the piece and then to make a case, as the CPM began its “national conversation,” for giving a central role to world cafes and other approaches to constructive dialog. Indeed, I even persuaded Jim Myracle to be “standing by” during my call, ready to give Annabel a ten minute “pitch” on the ways in which the co-intelligence community wanted to help the CPM. In the end, however, I was not even able to discuss this offer with her, let alone get her to take consider taking it up. She had her mission to complete and had clearly decided that neither I nor my ideas were going to be a central part of it.
Hurt and frustrated, I regrouped and decided to focus my efforts on my own grass roots work within the movement rather than any attempts to help guide things at the top. To my delight, Jane Gignoux soon volunteered to facilitate a world café at my kick-off meeting. And the excellent PR efforts of Annabel and her team, combined with strong interest from many people in my personal network, resulted in over fifty attendees at the first Mocha Coffee Party meeting on March 13th.
Packed into a space designed to comfortably seat half our number, an excited and enthusiastic crowd launched into a discussion that began with the question “what brings me here today” and then segued into “what do I want this group to undertake” as its first steps?
The written results of our work can be viewed on Flickr here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/48364196@N03/sets/72157623618747930/. And there are pictures here--http://www.flickr.com/photos/48364196@N03/sets/72157623494541367/--
as well as a brief video on YouTube here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vu7UMxppejM.
I’m sure it comes as no surprise to you that the café proved to be a wonderful way to allow this diverse group, mostly strangers to one another, to come together and share a sense of purpose and determination. The end result was messy and chaotic, but it is hard to imagine how a first meeting could have done anything other than provide a forum for people to express their personal frustrations with the current state of our country’s political affairs and their varied desires for change. While a few participants felt discouraged by the lack of decisive conclusions or commitment to specific actions, the majority were energized and enthusiastic. Meanwhile Jane validated those who were uncomfortable with the still inchoate nature of the group, assuring them that their perspective was important and valuable, and urging them not to give up on the process.
Our next meeting is scheduled for this Saturday, March 27th, when groups will once again be gathering around the country. I am also focused on building an online community within the CPM, using a Mocha Coffee Party Facebook page and "Mocha Network" ning.com site as organizing tools to bring together not just our local community of activists but the collective intelligence of all who share our vision. Please feel free to join us!
As we move forward, I expect that we will continue to use the world café format at our meetings whenever we need to tap into and energize the wisdom of the group. A number of us are hoping to bring Jane back (tentatively on April 11th) for a training session on world café facilitation. In addition, I have been sharing our experience with my growing network of fellow travelers within the CPM. It is too early to say what will come of this movement. But it has certainly been an exciting journey for me to date, in no small measure because it finally got me to pay attention to the work of the co-intelligence community.
Indeed, I have truly become inspired by the synergistic potential of co-intelligence and the radically enhanced capability that our society's new social networking tools provide to form and organize groups. As Clay Shirky says in his book, Here Comes Everybody, “revolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new technology, it happens when society adopts new behaviors.” Lord knows we need a revolution badly. For the first time in my life, I am coming to believe that we just might be capable of fostering one.