Alive in Community: Designing and Hosting Transformative Gatherings

For the Exchange, Art of Learning Centering gatherings are an opportunity for our community to build relationships and learn together in ways that are not possible at a distance. Face-to-face, we have been able to establish deep, trusting relationships which increase the likelihood that our long-distance work will be successful. These gatherings have helped us strengthen our identity as a community, share our learning and surface collective intelligence as well as stay connected to one another as we step into meaningful action at home.

In 2005, when the Exchange community was just beginning to form, we gathered in Nova Scotia for a meeting we believed would be about governance and decision-making. Over the course of that weekend, we discovered that the opportunity to simply be together was the most important reason for meeting. Participants longed for practical exchanges of knowledge and skills, supportive networks of solidarity, new ways of sharing resources and making their work more visible. The following year we declared a new purpose for the Art of Learning Centering:

Our purpose is to consciously, deliberately and collectively create a field of shared learning around the art of learning centering, which is the practice of hosting local spaces where people gather to create the conditions for communities to become healthy and resilient.

Many leaders in our Exchange community have been pioneers, somewhat isolated in their own communities and not necessarily connected to people with similar values and outlooks. For many of us, there is almost always a combination of allure and pressure to move on to the next great project, the next horizon. But in order to create new possibilities in our work, we must pause and reflect. These gatherings are an opportunity to stop, see what others are doing and learning and to be witnessed.

Identifying purpose isn’t something you do once and declare complete. Purpose evolves and even dramatically changes over time. In preparing for any gathering, questions of purpose need to be regularly revisited, like tilling a garden to nurture its growth. Here are the questions we return to again and again:

• What is the greatest good that might come from this gathering?

• What pressing opportunities and challenges are present in our community?

• What is most alive in this community right now?

• What’s happening in the larger world?

• What are the common interests of this particular group of people?

• What practices or skills might participants have to offer? What would they like to learn?

This evolving clarity of purpose informs and grounds all other work in the preparation and design of the gathering.

Who Is Invited?

Powerful gatherings create a field of learning long before the participants arrive. The first step is a well-crafted invitation. During the early stages of planning, it is easy to get caught up in the design, logistics and expectations for the event, allowing the quality and nature of invitation to fall by the wayside. The sooner you have a clear idea of who will be there, the easier it is to design and plan a purposeful gathering that will meet participant needs. Invitation is best done through conversation and mutual discernment about who shoud attend and why. We invite at least two people from each initiative or place. Sharing the experience with a colleague from home helps us absorb and retain our learning. This adds richness to the gathering and supports the integration of learning at home.

It is helpful to have a mix of veterans and new participants at gatherings. This creates continuity and invites in new perspectives in addition to building intergenerational bridges. For Art of Learning Centering gatherings, we often welcome a broad community of support, such as board members, funders, family members, partners and friends. This additional layer of cross-fertilization enriches the experience and spreads our learning into other systems.

Where Shall We Gather?

How do we make the best use of place as a means to deepen our inquiry and learning? We notice a difference when we stand in an ancient cathedral or shrine, climb a mountain on a sunny spring day or walk the corridors of a prison. Each place we choose to gather has its own energy, including the hotel conference room. It’s worth considering how this energy influences our experience and which environments will best serve our community.

Wherever we are geographically located, our gatherings are most powerful when they are hosted by our community members, in one of our communities. This is where our work is most real. In our first two years of gathering, we held the Art of Learning Centering at retreat centers—someone else’s place. While these sites were beautiful and offered us a break from our busy lives, our hosts were not members of our community. They were paid staff people who cooked our meals and cleaned up after us. The relationship was essentially a transactional one.

In 2007, the Exchange decided it was time to gather at one of the learning centers in the Exchange. We chose to go to Axladitsa-Avatakia, a new learning center in Greece. This was the first large gathering hosted on the land. We were responsible for planning our meals, buying and preparing our food, collecting water and cleaning our toilets. This entirely changed the nature of the Art of Learning Centering. We were no longer simply talking about building healthy and resilient communities; we were one.

In choosing a place to gather, we’ve learned that it is useful when the hosting place accommodates all participants; when we all stay together, the community feels unified. Seeking out meeting places that break the cycle of “business as usual” helps us slow down, step back and breathe as well as think more clearly. Whenever possible, it’s also worth choosing a place that feels aligned with purpose.

Working with Local Hosts

These gatherings have their greatest potential when there are strong local hosts—when someone invites us to be with them in their community, to learn by their side. Kufunda invited us to come to Zimbabwe for the 2008 Art of Learning Centering gathering. In the early months of the year, as election violence spiraled out of control, it became increasingly clear that it was unwise to continue with our scheduled gathering in May. In the end, we decided not to go. It wasn’t an easy decision. Kufundees had called the community to gather; they wanted us to come and stand with them.

We decided that we would hold the gathering later that year in Southern Africa and we would wait to decide on the specific country. Over the summer, things only worsened in Zimbabwe. Most of us were thinking that the Art of Learning Centering would take place in South Africa and researched potential venues around Johannesburg. But after all of this work, Dorah Lebelo from The GreenHouse Project in Johannesburg said, “The Kufundees want us to come, and we could make contributions to their community. We could make this other place work for us, but it would not be the same: it is not part of who we are.”

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