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

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Phil Cass invited Barb to attend an Art of Hosting training in 2005, and it was love at first sight. “When I went to the Art of Hosting, it was deeply familiar,” Barb says. “Folks sitting in circle, everyone having a voice, processes that engaged community. It aligned so closely with my life values. I was struck—oh my gosh, I am returning to something I know!” She was two meetings into Rebuilding Lives, a community-based strategic planning process on homelessness convened by the Community Shelter Board, when she tossed out their conventional approach to facilitation to, as she says, “go whole hog with Art of Hosting.” The community meetings became entirely open processes attended by shelter service providers and funders, by advocacy groups and businesses, by former and current homeless citizens. Participants developed 96 strategies, which they collectively winnowed down to 11 priorities focused on pressing issues like how to coordinate emergency assistance, accelerate re-housing and connect to employment opportunities for Franklin County’s more than 8,000 homeless people. Throughout the process, Barb herself had no vote. This was the community’s plan. They voted on it, they stood behind it, they owned it. And even after she left for DC, they continued moving ahead, unperturbed by the loss of their leader. For as charismatic as Barb may be, she was not the hero of this system working to fight homelessness in Franklin County; she had been its host, and it no longer depended on her for its stability—it had become resilient.

Barb couldn’t have known at the time that this was her trial run for a process she’d repeat at the national level. But hosting in the hospitable environment of Columbus is one thing; running it through government bureaucracy is entirely another. Would this process— at times called “hokey” and “stealth” by its own practitioners—work among federal employees? “The current methods of collaboration weren’t working,” Barb reflects. “If it’s broken, what do you have to lose in trying something new? I had learned to trust the process. Government is made up of people, and if we can tap the passion of people, we can do this.”

Less than two months after she moved to DC, Barb was ready to take World Cafés national. Over a four-week period, more than 750 people in six cities gathered in World Cafés to inform the national strategic plan on homelessness. As in Columbus, they represented the full range of stakeholders, including the homeless themselves, who seldom if ever are included in the conversation about their future. The output of the Cafés was sent to a 60-person decision council that Barb assembled from the 19 federal agencies that needed to approve the plan. She laughs as she describes the reaction to her process by a jaded advocacy worker, who exclaimed, “What do you mean every person had a vote? There was democracy in the federal government?!? Has that ever happened before?”

Barb has bigger plans yet ahead. In June 2010, Tuesday and Phil offered an Art of Hosting training to Barb’s staff to strengthen the hosting skills they’d need to implement the federal strategic plan in communities throughout the United States. “Under the Obama administration, we’re supposed to be breaking down silos, creating open government initiatives,” Barb says. “Our old practices don’t work for that. I’m fascinated to see how the Art of Hosting fits. I’ve been wondering whether we should tell people what we’re doing or just be stealth—this is just how we do things. We’ll see whether it becomes viral, whether people start using it simply because it works. For now, what I know is people tell me they’ve gone to other interagency meetings, and they like ours better.”

As for Columbus, the Art of Hosting has unequivocally gone viral, and become an important influence in how people choose to do their work. Phil and Tuesday constantly stumble across yet another place that is practicing hosting. It’s worked its way into the Chamber of Commerce, into government-convened task forces, into the city of Upper Arlington—where America’s archetypal heroes, the police force and fire department, are experimenting with hosting as a leadership practice.

Columbus, Ohio: Leaders as Hosts, Citizens as Heroes

The citizens of Columbus Ohio are slowly but steadily walking out of a model of heroic leadership that most Americans assume is the only way to lead. “This country’s culture, its basis for understanding itself, is based on rugged individualism,” Phil says. “It’s been what we’ve been proud of, counted on and pointed to as our success over the years. And it’s fundamentally not working anymore. It’s a huge counter-cultural act to do something as simple as dropping a talking piece into the conversation. People like the solutions that come out of a more collective way of operating. I believe hosting taps into a basic human need to be connectedand to be connected in as unconditional a way as possible.”

Leaders who journey from hero to host have looked beyond the negative dynamics of politics and opposition that hierarchy breeds, they’ve ignored the organizational charts and role descriptions that confine people’s potential. Instead, they’ve become curious. Who’s in this organization or community? What do people care about? What skills and capacities might they offer if they were invited into the work as full contributors?

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