Alive in Community: Designing and Hosting Transformative Gatherings

By Aerin Dunford and Bob Stilger, 2011

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We stand in a wide circle amidst thatched buildings. To the west is a preschool built from compacted earth, to the south a circular open-air meeting space, to the east the composting toilets, and to the north permaculture gardens and an herbal lab. In the distance tower the ancient, mammoth rocks that distinguish this place. This is Kufunda Learning Village in Ruwa, Zimbabwe. The 60 people from 11 countries standing here tonight have come together for the Art of Learning Centering, the annual gathering of the Berkana Exchange community.

Our circle marks the beginning of an evening of ceremony and celebration that brings this year’s 10-day gathering to a close. In the dim evening light, I look around at my community: Asif and Noureen, the newlywed activists working with youth in Balochistan, Pakistan; Patricia, the soon-to-be mother and social entrepreneur from Brazil; Sahra, the community organizer from Cape Town who started a collective of fisherwomen; Mukesh, an organic farmer from India who produces bio-gas with cow dung; Sophia, the soft-spoken healer who grows and processes medicinal plants at Kufunda to treat herself and others infected with HIV.

We have many differences. Over the last 10 days, we have connected deeply with one another in an environment of friendship. The gifts and offerings from the diversity of the community have been welcomed and woven into our time together. There are no plenary sessions, no keynote speakers, no experts here. Our days have been filled with tears and laughter, many more questions than answers. We have had time to be silent and reflect, and we have lived as a community by cooking, gardening, cleaning and building together. This evening, it is the fire of gratitude that burns at the center of our circle.

What is the Art of Learning Centering?

The Berkana Exchange began hosting the Art of Learning Centering in 2005, when 20 of us first came together in Canada for three days. Since then it has grown in length and size to the 60-person, 10-day gathering that happened in Zimbabwe in October 2008. Along the way, we’ve gained some insights about what it takes to host powerful gatherings that can strengthen a community’s relationships, resilience and capacity to act. In this article, we share what we’ve learned about how to design and host transformative gatherings.

The Berkana Exchange formed in 2004. Today it is an ecosystem of learning centers, grassroots-based initiatives, individuals, regional learning groups and movements all working to create healthy and resilient communities at home. Within the Exchange, people from all over the world—Brazil, Canada, Greece, India, Israel, Mexico, Pakistan, South Africa, Turkey, the United States and Zimbabwe—share their ideas, dreams, skills and practices with others working from similar values, principles and beliefs. The Art of Learning Centering is the annual gathering of the Exchange. Participants learn about one another’s local work, share experiences and stories and engage in the challenge of learning in a culturally diverse context. After being together, participants return to their communities feeling inspired and rejuvenated, ready to continue their work.

Art of Learning Centering annual gatherings have become the heartbeat of the Exchange, where our community has come to see itself more clearly, where lifelong friendships and partnerships have formed and where collaborative projects are envisioned, planned and realized. Face-to-face with a community we trust, we share our truths, successes, fears and uncertainties. We leave knowing more about who we are and the journey we are on, taking with us greater strength and clarity around our individual and collective work.

These gatherings are powerful personally and collectively. In what follows, we explore how to intentionally design and host face-to-face gatherings that profoundly transform the quality of our experience and identity as a community. We will consider such questions as:

• What helps move us from having a memorable time together to having a transformative experience?

• What conditions invite cooperation, creativity and synergy into a gathering?

• How can we make the most of our precious time together?

• What justifies the time, expense and carbon footprint of our gathering?

It is both deeply rewarding and incredibly challenging to design and host meetings that engender trust, weave individual and cultural differences into collective insight, support people in developing their own sense of identity and create new possibilities. If, like us, you seek to catalyze change in your community of practice, in social networks or in distributed organizations, we offer our learning to you.

Why Gather in Person?

The first questions we ask when we begin planning a gathering are: What is the purpose? Why are we calling people together? Clarity of purpose is the fertile soil in which gatherings are grounded. It gives us a point of reference to return to if and when the process of designing or coordinating the experience ever becomes confusing or unclear.

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