Alive in Community: Designing and Hosting Transformative Gatherings

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The Berkana Exchange community is rich with hosts. Over the years, we have learned to create the space for each participant to offer his or her skills and ideas. The Indians have brought us hilarious community-building games. The Brazilians delighted us with their circle dances. All of us have something to offer the group—a new way of seeing things, a chance to learn with the body, a process that gets right  to the heart of the matter at hand. The key is finding a healthy balance between inviting in the diversity of hosting skills and maintaining a sense of cohesion within the hosting team.

Designing in Real Time

At Berkana, we’ve always worked with an emergent design process. The most important design work takes place immediately before and during the event. In advance of the gathering, the host team spends significant time identifying community needs and creating a framework for the event. What has worked well for us is laying out the purpose, flow and rhythm of our days beforehand, arriving early to design the first few days, and then meeting daily to reflect on how the design might unfold. Sometimes the design of the gathering requires fine-tuning; other times it needs a major overhaul. This requires hours of inquiry, listening and discussing the minimum, elegant next step for how to best engage the community in the work we hope to do together.

During the gathering in Zimbabwe, our seven-person design team met every morning or evening to talk about what happened that day and make decisions about what we should do next. We began our meetings with silence and then checked in about what was working and what needed more attention. We created a collective sketch for the following day. Often, there were several different ideas for how best to proceed. Our challenge was to hold that tension long enough to allow clarity to emerge.

How Do We Learn Together?

At Berkana, we believe the deepest learning takes place when our whole selves are engaged. Learning happens when we:

• Work side-by-side—weeding, cooking, cleaning, building

• Speak our ideas, dreams, hopes and fears—in circle, in small groups, around the fire, with a friend

• Sit in silence together

• Make art, dance or sing together—expressing joy and sorrow through movement and sound

• Share with each other what we’ve created—films, writing, photographs, art, etc.

• Create and engage in ritual

A robust learning environment emerges from a wildly diverse set of activities, some of which are carefully planned, others which arise out of our respect for one another, friendship and curiosity. Here are testimonies from participants at the Zimbabwe gathering:

“I learned the value of doing things together: making medicines, walking in the bush to look for plants. I was motivated by being appreciated, by having my skills accepted and acknowledged.” —Sophia, Zimbabwe

“I had insights about how isolated we are in North America and in my own life… I don’t live in community, so I have to have a self-contained village in my apartment. I have to have my own pots and pans, kitchen stuff, leisure things, tools, project equipment. I see what community can bring. It made me realize that I can have more community and less need for stuff.” —Dan, Canada

“Cooking with Shammi was really revealing. We just went in there and did what we could with what we had. . . . Every day we had to eat, and every day we had to go and do the same thing over and over again. In the end, I didn’t feel so intimidated by this process. It became the norm, not an emergency or some huge challenge. It’s the idea of working with what you’ve got in a place that faces great scarcity.” —Daniel, Guatemala

These kinds of insights occur when we realize that learning happens everywhere and when we design in time and space for multiple ways of engaging people.

Sharing in the Daily Work

When a community works together, learning is inevitable. When people cook together, trust within the group arises much more quickly than when meals prepared by others appear magically. Our understanding of the importance of working together has evolved over time. We quickly discovered that we wanted to cook for ourselves, but that was just a point of departure. In order to be true to our values and beliefs, we knew that we needed be conscious about where our food came from and where our waste went.

To organize our work, we relied on a “matrix,” a simple chart that listed all the work needed daily for the community to prosper, and people signed up. This self-organizing system is messy. No one is in charge of ensuring work gets done; no one is in charge of an equitable distribution of the difficult tasks. But as a community committed to learning together, we trusted one another to look for what needed doing and step in.

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