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Hosting Conversations about Questions that Matter

US Interagency Council on Homelessness Cafes

Hi Everyone,

I had the privilege of co-hosting 1 of 6 half day Cafes on homelessness for state and local agencies in the North East region ( Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire and Rhode Island). Tuesday Ryan Hart speaks to the context for this wonderful work: "The US Interagency Council on Homelessness is beginning to develop a federal strategic plan around
homelessness and is looking to bring the voices of various stakeholders
into that process [using the World Cafe]. This is a new way of working in the strategic
planning process for USICH and comes about due to the efforts of their
new Executive Director, Barb Poppe, who has practiced conversational
leadership here in Columbus for the past several years and seen it’s
results in shifting the community’s ownership and actions around

There will World Cafe conversations in a number of cities between Feb-March 2010 including Boston, New York, Seattle, Dallas and San Francisco.

Lisa Berg and myself co-hosted the first of these Cafes in Boston on 9 February 2010. About 90 people from across the region showed up. Kelvy Bird graced us with her inspiring graphic work. Here are some of my reflections from a hosts perspective. I've organized them by World Cafe principles:

1) Setting the Context:
The design is very tight and well thought through. Jennifer Ho from USICH set the context of hope and action very well. Her commitment and authentic intention shone through. She also set the hosts up very well (Lisa, myself and Kelvy) by saying that we were experienced hosts and really knew what we were doing. I don't know if that made a difference or not, but I do know that some groups who are new to dynamic dialogue processes are able to relax into the process more if some "credibility" assurances are given up front.

2) Creating Hospitable Space
Participants were really tickled and pleasantly surprised by the checkered table cloths, flowers and markers on the table. We missed having music which would have made it even better. We borrowed table cloths and vases from Pegasus communications who graciously lent them to us (LeAnne Grillo who is connected to Pegasus was sitting in the car with Tuesday when we were on the call wondering how to get Cafe table cloths and vases LeAnne said "I know where you can get table cloths! Talk about the beauty of networks!) Lisa Berg donated the flowers she told a florist what the flowers were for and they gave the flowers to her for half price. Lisa also donated talking pieces (beautiful stones) and spoke to how many people without homes live close to the earth. There was hospitable space created physically, as well as in so many people's hearts.

3) Encouraging Everyone's Contribution
John O'Brian, the local state co-ordinator on homelessness knew almost everyone in the room (about 90 people) It's important to note that iwhen he sent out the mass email invitation to 200 people only 12 responded. He then sent 200 personal emails to people and made several calls which led to the strong turn out. John and team were incredibly humble, dedicated and very on top of it.

4) Explore Questions that Matter
One of the key deliverable of these Cafes was to provide local/state stakeholder inputs to the federal workgroups. I do feel that was achieved. A key theme from the Cafe was local/state stakeholders asking federal agencies for more "simplification, integration and collaboration." A dream 'deliverable' I would love to see is to engage state/local stakeholders in a conversation that opened up new possibilities for simplification, integration and collaboration amongst themselves! I am sure this was achieved to some extent just by having state/local stakeholders in one room for half a day. But imagine asking a question like "share a story when you personally experienced collaboration between agencies/organizations that really made a difference to a person or community without a home. What happened? What conditions made that possible? How can we have more of that?" !!!

5) Connect Diverse Perspectives
One of the diverse perspectives arose between those who were pro temporary/transient housing and those who were against it. There was a lot of energy around that topic and I am guessing that this polarity is an indicator of some deeper issue one sub stratum down. It would be interesting to explore what that was (systems thinkers to weigh in here...)

6) Listen Together for Insights
During the check out question "What energized you about the conversation today?" I overhead a number of people say "It's so good to just step back and get a sense of the bigger picture.." and "While we don't agree on everything, it is amazing to realize how much we do agree..." Those two insights alone were golden.

7) Harvest and Share Collective Discoveries
Kelvy did an amazing job harvesting the cafe visually. The regular pop-corn share outs were also very useful including the theming exercise after round 2.

With love, respect and gratitude to all involved in this important work,

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