Alive in Community: Designing and Hosting Transformative Gatherings

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With Dorah’s wake-up call, we decided to go to Zimbabwe in October 2008. It was the clarity and sincerity of our hosts’ invitation that lay a firm foundation for the gathering’s success. Despite the challenge of planning a gathering in Zimbabwe’s chaos, we ended up having a productive, unforgettable experience. This required courage from everyone, making our commitment to building healthy and resilient communities in the midst of systems collapse even stronger.

Wherever we meet, hosting is always a two-way process: gifts are offered and received. It is wise to have a conversation early on with hosts, owners and community leaders of a potential gathering place to explore what the place has to offer and what value local hosts would like to receive from the gathering (perhaps beyond money for services rendered). How can we leave each other richer than when we arrive?

How Shall We Prepare Ourselves?

We’ve shared a great deal about the gathering itself. Now we’ll address the scaffolding on which gatherings are built.

Managing Logistics

The amount of logistical preparation that needs to be done for a large gathering can be daunting, especially when it involves people from many countries. We’ve found it works best when there is one main logistics coordinator working with a core team, which must include individuals on the ground in the place where the gathering is held. It is helpful if participants themselves shoulder some responsibility, partnering with the core team on visas and flights. Skillful attention paid to logistics is what makes a successful gathering possible. If any of this is unattended, people may get cranky, which means the gathering could start off on the wrong foot. (See Logistics Checklist at the end of article for recommendations on budget, visas, booking travel, sleeping, food and more.)

Forming a Design and Hosting Team

In the early stages of planning, we form a design and hosting team. This group clarifies the gathering’s purpose, creates its architecture and begins defining key themes and processes.

We’ve experimented with many different approaches to design. And we’re certain there’s no single right answer. We’ve brought in hosts from outside and hosted ourselves. We’ve had closed design teams and open ones. After five years, we’ve learned that thoughtful design requires that a community continually inquire into what’s needed now. Our design and hosting teams today are comprised of a “core team”—a well-defined, committed group of individuals—and a “welcoming boundary” that invites input from others.

We check in with the entire community to see who wants to be involved, asking people to step forward who have passion and vision for the gathering, who have some experience of past events or who have meeting design skills. The design team must include a local host. His or her knowledge is essential.

Designing a Powerful Gathering

The design and hosting team is the energetic center of a gathering. This means that direct, clear and 100 percent honest communication is essential. The levels of trust and connectedness within this group lay the groundwork for the rest of the group’s experience. Unresolved tensions and issues between people on the design team inevitably end up affecting other participants, so it’s worth taking the time to talk through any challenging issues that arise before or during the gathering. To create an experience based on deep, trusting relationships, this same spirit of listening and cooperation needs to be present among the core group.

The first task of the design team is to connect with one another and the broader community to explore participants’ hopes and aspirations for the gathering. Design teams for the Art of Learning Centering have used surveys, phone interviews, conference calls and face-to-face meetings in the months beforehand to explore what people would like to contribute and learn together. The design has an overall rhythm and many moving parts. Helpful elements to consider in the design process include:

Length and Pace. Powerful gatherings require spaciousness. Participants rush in from their busy lives, and it takes time to fully arrive. It takes time to meet and greet old and new friends and to begin to hear each other’s stories. Creating an environment of learning that is based on respect, curiosity and friendship—and which embraces diversity—takes days, not hours. For Berkana, this has meant extending our Art of Learning Centering gatherings from three days to ten. We’ve learned not to pack the time too tightly or plan gatherings back-to-back. Breathing room is essential.

Metaphors and Images. Sometimes we work with an overarching metaphor or image for a gathering. These have given gatherings a sense of wholeness and consistency. Often the metaphor connects to the purpose or is relevant to the context of the gathering. In Greece, we used the metaphor of a family reunion: “We gather together the diverse threads of our tribe. Imagine 60 family members creating a meal together, each community offering its unique flavors to create a sumptuous banquet.”

Flow. Connected with metaphor is what we call the flow of the gathering. It is the overall pattern of the design, one that attends to the evolution in energy and focus of the gathering as it unfolds. Naming the flow is a way of creating coherence and providing landmarks for participants. In Greece, our flow went like this:

• Day 1: Greet each other

• Day 2: Prepare the space

• Days 3-4: Bring forth our gifts

• Days 5-7: Share a meal

• Day 8: Digest/reflect

• Days 9–10: Clean up and move on

Establishing a Rhythm to the Days. It’s helpful to create a consistent, daily rhythm throughout the gathering. This adds stability and helps participants feel comfortable working with emergent design. A typical day at an Art of Learning Centering gathering includes: morning practices (such as meditation, walks, martial arts); group sessions that include “check-ins” and “check-outs” as well as dialogues and other learning processes; opportunities for engaging in hands-on work together; reflection time; spacious evenings for music, movies, conversations, campfires and whatever else emerges.

“Hosting” Our Community

What do we mean by ‘host’? Those who invite us to gather in their place are certainly our hosts. But we also consider the people who invite us into conversations, collective work and other activities to be hosts. Others use the term ‘facilitator’ or ‘organizer’. But hosting has an added element of hospitality and friendship. How do we create the conditions for our guests (participants) to feel comfortable engaging with one another in a meaningful way during each session or activity?

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