Alive in Community: Designing and Hosting Transformative Gatherings

Sometimes we think our time is so precious and the cost of gathering is so great that we must fill every minute with purposeful conversation. Conversation is important, but sharing is much more potent when people are able do real work together. By building composting toilets, preparing herbal medicines, planting permaculture gardens, upcycling our waste and engaging in various forms of artistic expression, we learn in many ways. The learning never stops, but sometimes it takes place with fewer words.

Creating a Space for Deeper Connection

Designing sufficient free time into a gathering offers participants the opportunity to deepen relationships. These connections often develop into long-lasting friendships and partnerships, especially when they emerge informally. In these open spaces, we learn about ourselves, cultivate compassion and overcome unconscious prejudices that we often hold about peoplevery different from ourselves. A longtime member of the Berkana Exchange explained why this is so important:

“We have created the conditions where we could extract ourselves from our everyday lives: engaging, learning, getting to know each other better and cultivating friendship. The most important thing for me is the quality of the connections that are formed between people. If this happens in an environment of friendship, it makes it even more powerful and allows you to really get to a deeper level of learning with clarity.”

—Sergio, Mexico

When we make space for activities that invite aliveness—singing, dancing, telling stories, practicing martial arts or sitting in silence together—we invite different qualities of engagement with each other. At Berkana we have learned to include time and space for our hands, hearts, minds and spirits.

All are invited, all are required.

Inviting Conversations that Matter 

We come together in person so that we can genuinely listen to each other. The quality and depth of conversations—in pairs or small groups, or within the community as a whole—all contribute to the community’s vitality. We know that thoughtful design and hosting of larger group processes leads to deeper conversation and learning.

On the fourth day of the Art of Learning Centering in Zimbabwe, participants ventured into Harare for an afternoon with youth, activists, artists and community organizers at a local coffee shop. We huddled in small groups around tables to discuss opportunities and challenges in Zimbabwe during this period of collapse. We used a modified World Café process in which hosts did not impose fixed time limits or insist that people change groups at a particular moment. The conversations that resulted were profound. We moved organically into an evening of celebration through dance and song. One participant described her experience of that afternoon:

“Meeting artists who had been tortured and wondering about how artists work with pain in my country opened up new ways of looking at how people heal. The courage and perseverance of the people we met was inspiring to me… and intense. I have never met anyone who talked about being tortured and it was done in an accessible, gentle way.”

—Vanessa, Canada

Our way of being together at Berkana has largely been influenced by the Art of Hosting, a global community of practitioners using participative change processes and tools to engage groups in meaningful conversation. According to the Art of Hosting, essential principles of meaningful conversations include:

• Focus on powerful questions that matter to your community

• Enter into conversation by listening deeply to each other, beyond words

• Allow all voices to be heard so collective intelligence can surface

• Choose a process that allows everyone to learn about themselves, each other and the purpose for being together

• Do not fear chaos; it is a creative space where the new order can be born

Working with Difference During the Gathering 

Every community is diverse. When we consider how to include the contributions of our many cultures,backgrounds, generations, life experiences and individual ways of being in the world, our gatherings are richer. But creating the condi-tions in which this diversity is truly celebrated and everyone’s gifts are valued isn’t easy.

One challenge we’ve faced with Art of Learning Centering gatherings has been working with difference while creating an environment of deep trust. Assumptions about what’s important to us given our particular cultural perspective may manifest as offense, rather than as acceptance of otherness and willingness to experiment with our own boundaries and discomfort. Here are a few things we’ve noticed in working with the diversity of the Exchange community:

Time. Some cultures value promptness over spontaneity or one-on-one conversations and vice versa. What’s our community’s relationship to time? What agreements will we make about start times, end times and the duration of activities?

Dress. In some places modest dress is part of the cultural or religious tradition. What compromises can we come to as a community about what is appropriate attire for our gathering?

Touch. Certain cultures are very physically affectionate and expressive, whereas in other traditions it is considered taboo for individuals of the opposite sex to have physical contact. How might we adapt our gatherings so that everyone can participate without violating cultural boundaries?

Language. It is likely at multicultural gatherings that some participants will be non-native speakers of the primary language. It may take these folks longer to express themselves. How can we accommodate varying language levels, while cultivating the patience to hear what everyone has to say?

Expression. Some of us gravitate towards verbal forms of expression, while others feel more comfortable with movement, music or writing. We must make space for this diversity of expressive forms, knowing that some people may feel discomfort with any given mode of expression.

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