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Hosting Conversations about Questions that Matter

The Coffee Party Movement, which came into being via Facebook at the beginning of this year, held a national convention in Louisville, KY, from September 24-26. The convention offered a mix of speakers (I found Frances Moore Lappe to be particularly inpsirational) and more participatory sessions, including a “mock constitutional convention moderated by Harvard Prof. Lawrence Lessig and GOP political strategist Mark McKinnon, as well as a transpartisan dialogue hosted
by Joseph McCormick.


I was honored to host a world café conversation as a plenary session on the morning of the final day, in which approximately seventy people participated.  The subject was “Next Steps for the Coffee Party,” which, as a fairly new and somewhat decentralized organization, is still finding its way in many respects.  The conversation also provided the group with an opportunity to share and synthesize information from the numerous and diverse presentations of the previous two days.  While I had originally felt that a WC might work better at the start of an event like this,
I found that it was also an excellent means of bringing together both the many ideas we had been entertaining and the group itself as a more cohesive and connected entity. 



The café was streamed live using the U-Stream platform, and is now archived for anyone who would like to view it.  With a bit more staff, budget and planning, we might have been able to invite people to participate via a MaestroConference call as well, but such high-tech offerings will have to wait for next year.  That said, the AV team was able to harvest posts from the U-Stream chat window and include them in our sticky-wall. 


I asked three questions drawn from the list of “questions for all seasons” in The World Café handbook.  1) What things that you heard over the first two days of the convention
had deep meaning for you, surprised or challenged you?  2) If the Coffee Party Movement’s success was completely guaranteed, which bold actions might we take?  And 3) What needs our immediate attention in the Movement as we go forward?



Before the group harvest, we created a sticky wall with 2-3 post-its per person.  We then filled a butcher paper banner with about thirty statements and questions harvested in a full
group discussion.  The participants then received three dot stickers each and voted for the items that resonated the most for them.  We reviewed the results, looked for broader themes, and added five more statements representing idea that were “missing” from the original list.



Finally, I asked everyone to consider writing and signing a post-it with a commitment they were willing to make on behalf of the movement going forward.  I made it clear that “nothing
at this time” was perfectly acceptable, using language from Peter Block to assure people that only by allowing for refusal can we make our honor our commitments as true and noble gifts. 



The sticky wall and commitment statements are still being compiled, but I will post them here once they become available.  I have attached a spreadsheet containing the main harvest from the banner, along with the voting tallies.  It is grouped into five themes that represent my subjective assessment of the results as I reflected on them during the compilation process: moving “beyond civil discourse” (into action), outreach to grow the movement, striving for unity across the political divides we face as a country, the structure of the movement, and the desire to advocate for policy
reforms addressing to reduce the corrupting influence of money in politics (e.g. the Fair Elections Now Act).



The WC was extremely well-received, and was for many participants their first experience with the process.  As might be expected with a movement that is still figuring out “what it wants to be when it grows up,” there were many more questions than answers, and no single theme or idea that could be said to dominate the conversation.  Nevertheless,the energy and sense of community and commitment that emerged was palpable. 



This is now the second face to face WC I have hosted, along with more than a dozen using MaestroConference.  There is no doubt that being physically gathered adds a number of
dimensions that are very hard to replicate over the phone.  I particularly love the “music” that the group’s collective voices make when everyone is fully engaged in intense conversation.  The sense of vital energy directed to something “that matters” is palpable.  At the same time, I remain very enthusiastic about the potential for large WCs to be hosted online.  With the current ability
to gather up to 2500 people onto a single call via MaestroConference, there is incredible potential here for expanding the use of the WC process.  The idea of adding an internet-based component to a face-to-face WC also strikes me as something that has great appeal.



It will be interesting to see if the success of this conversation leads to further WCs within the Coffee Party, especially on the phone using MaestroConference as we had done in the spring and summer.  For a geographically diverse group such as this, that technology holds great promise. 
Indeed, in between the last report I posted for this series and the convention, I hosted a series of three phone-based WCs that were promoted by the national leadership as part of a summit on Money in Politics, so there appeared to be momentum building for making the WC a basic tool for the movement.  That lapsed over the summer for a number of reasons. 



It will be interesting to see what happens with the Coffee Party going forward.  At the convention, the movement confirmed the centrality of civil discourse as a core process and also the idea of reaching across traditional political divides and countering the divisiveness that characterizes so much of our politics today.  As such, WC continues to strike me as a perfect tool for the movement, just as it did back in March when Tom Atlee connected me with Juanita Brown, leading to Jane Gignoux hosting a WC at the first face to face Coffee Party meeting I organized.  A lot of the initial energy and publicity the movement generated has leaked out since then, but the core group that remains is determined to forge ahead.  A key challenge will be the ability forge a sense of national connectedness between the various groups scattered around the country.  The convention was certainly a valuable step in this direction.

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Hi Ben...
Wow....what a wonderful report! And what you are "seeding" there is very important for our overall national conversation and the possibility of recapturing civil discourse as part of our democracy. Thank you for the wonderful work you are doing.
Warmly,
Juanita
Thanks so much for the support, Juanita. It's been a fascinating journey so far, and the World Cafe process and community have been central for me during this time.

As far as recapturing "civil discourse," the theme of "unity" has been part of the Coffee Party's discourse since the movement began, and was prominently recognized during the WC I hosted, as evidenced by these statements from the Harvest:


How to create safe space for non-activists to become activists?
Tell everyone the CP listens
Learn that different voices can join together in collective action when and where possible
Harness the enrgy from unity and translate to moving forward
Unity is power
Purpose: trust and ownership in government for all


Addressing the corrupting influence of money in politics was the policy concern that emerged as a central part of the CPM mission as well. And there does seem to be reason to believe that this issue is one that can bring people together from across the political spectrum. If we can be successful there, we would both address the root of much of what ails our body politic and also demonstrate the possibility of talking, listening and working together.

Regards,
Ben

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