From Hero to Host: A Story of Citizenship in Columbus, Ohio

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Tuesday and Deb Ballam called the first Art of Hosting training at OSU in April 2007. Since then, the Art of Hosting has coursed through Arts and Sciences, Comparative Studies, Political Science, City and Regional Planning, Veterinary Medicine, Dentistry and Social Work; through the University’s Human Resources department, through Service Learning and Student Life, through the President’s Council on Women and the Institute on Women, Gender and Public Policy. And those are just the places Tuesday and Deb know about. They have initiated more than 150 people into the practice, people who then spread it through their own departments and beyond. In fact, Oregon State, Indiana State Bloomington and Iowa State have all visited OSU to check out what’s happening.

This is the third visit to the community of practice for Tom Gregoire, the Dean at the College of Social Work. He attends the community of practice meetings because it gives him an opportunity to exchange stories, share successes and tackle tough questions with fellow hosts. His story is about using his hosting skills to transform the Social Work department’s curriculum, a notoriously combative process. “We did not have much of a history of successful conversations about curriculum—or anything else,” he explains. “I sought a process that could help us think very creatively and collaboratively about curriculum. I also desired greater collegiality within our faculty and between our faculty and the community.” This time around, Tom wanted to engage all stakeholders in the process: faculty, staff, students and local social workers. But he feared that might trigger some egos. “There was a tradition in our faculty, with just a few exceptions, of being relatively isolated from the practice community,” Tom adds. “Generally, our faculty saw the community as out of step with best practice; the community thought our faculty relatively clueless when it came to practice in ‘the real world’; and nobody in particular valued the student’s voice.”

Tom invited Hazel Morrow-Jones and Phil Cass to help him design and host a Curriculum Café for 92 participants to co-create principles for the College of Social Work’s curriculum development. Following the Café, a group of 18 volunteers—comprised of students, staff, practitioners and faculty—distilled the agreements into ten principles that shape every curriculum conversation. “Those principles are beginning to pervade our faculty as a number of us try now to host rather than facilitate our meetings,” Tom says. Today, that Café is fondly recalled as a turning point that’s led to greater community involvement and goodwill throughout the College of Social Work.

Similar stories surface from others at OSU, although outside the community of practice, they’re often talked about in whispers. “We call it stealth hosting,” Deb explains. “The department chairs want to bring it in, but they know they can’t call it ‘World Café’ with their faculty. Faculty can be pretty mean to each other. And they don’t want to be laughed at. You put your reputation on the line when you try something new.” So Tuesday and Deb find other ways of bringing it in, and then trust what emerges. “Particularly  in faculty culture, people are desperate for connection,” Deb adds. “At the end of a program, people will come up to us and say, ‘This is the first time I’ve felt part of something—part of human connection and part of community.” That is what we’re all thirsty for.”

Art of Hosting as an Operating System 

The Art of Hosting might best be described as an operating system, like Windows, Mac OS or Linux. An operating system acts as a host for a variety of computing applications. It enables the computer hardware to communicate and operate with the computer software. It is a way of creating order so that the ever-growing and changing application options can continue to interact and communicate—ideally, without crashing.

In the predominant leadership operating system of command and control, order is created through hierarchy, strong boundaries, centralized resource management and decision-making that rests in the hands of the few. This is Microsoft’s approach to its operating system for Windows. The source code (instructions written in a programming language) is proprietary, visible only to those who have a formal agreement with Microsoft; this allows the corporation to charge expensive licensing fees and maintain control over the system’s boundaries, expressions and uses. By contrast, the Linux operating system is free and open source; its source code can be used, modified and redistributed among a limitless community of software developers who also agree to freely share their work. An open-source operating system is an excellent example of self-organization, in which a worldwide community of developers continuously create new and different applications by working with the same source code.

Like Linux, the Art of Hosting is order without control. Its “source code” is a set of core principles and practices for how to host conversations that matter: setting intention, creating hospitable space, asking powerful questions, surfacing collective intelligence, trusting emergence, finding mates, harvesting learning and moving into wise action. The Art of Hosting invites us to use the same process in different settings—like the Foodbank or OSU—to create different outcomes. This operating system can be used by any group of people who want to discover the wisdom that exists not in any one of us, but in all of us.

The people of Columbus are using this operating system to take on one of the United States’ most intractable and complex problems: healthcare.

Affordable, Sustainable Healthcare For All

The first Columbus Art of Hosting training took place in March 2005. It was by invitation only, a hand-picked group of thirty-six leaders throughout Columbus. Dr. Marc Parnes, an OB-GYN physician who was also President Elect of the Columbus Medical Association at the time, hosted a conversation about the role of community in changing the healthcare system. Together, Phil, Marc and a few other community leaders dreamed up a plan to launch an exploration into affordable and sustainable healthcare. They experimented with a number of processes for engaging the community—physicians, hospital administrators, insurance company CEOs, community organizers, politicians and patients—ultimately creating a series of assemblies where more than one hundred participants showed up each time to identify strategies for advancing healthcare.

And then they discovered they’d been asking the wrong question.

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