Alive in Community: Designing and Hosting Transformative Gatherings

We have had to acknowledge and accommodate these differences, at times agreeing to disagree, at times allowing our opinion to be radically changed. We’ve all worked at being flexible and understanding with each other, but people may still feel offended or excluded. For instance, during our Mexico gathering, we translated many sessions into Spanish. The following year, group activities were hosted primarily in English, leaving participants for whom English is a second language struggling to express themselves. We are constantly learning how best to invite in the broadest participation, inclusion and gifts of our members.

Another very real challenge is how to address economic disparity and the financial limitations of attendees. Not all members of our community can easily finance their participation in a multi-day gathering. What is a fair financial arrangement for people? How do we decide who gets support and how much? What unspoken expectations and obligations might recipients of subsidies feel? We try to deal with financing in an open, transparent way. We’ve also learned that when participants pay a portion of the costs for their participation, they take on more responsibility for their own experience. Therefore, we ask participants to “pay what you can and a little bit more.”

“Harvesting” Our Learning

Harvesting is the practice of making our learning visible. During Art of Learning Centering gatherings, this means creating images and written records that become part of the community memory. At one Art of Learning Centering, we invited a skilled graphic recorder to create images of the essence of each group session. As we matured as a community, we turned to our own group for harvesting rather than bringing someone in from the outside. We’ve experimented with mind-mapping, journaling, photo essays, audio and video recordings, poetry, interviews and more. Often, we’ll invite teams to take harvesting responsibility for a particular day. We encourage people to use their own unique approach.

After the gathering, we share our harvesting with our broader community and beyond. This means working with all of the information we have collected and distilling it into knowledge and eventually wisdom. Given everyone’s busy lives, it takes determination and clarity to create meaningful artifacts in a timely way. We’ve learned that the key to good harvesting is planning ahead. In order to harvest thoughtfully, we ask:

• What are the processes or structures we want to use to capture our learning during and after the gathering?

• What purpose might the harvest from this gathering serve?

• Beyond our own community, who might benefit from what we learn?

Through gathering together, we give and receive many gifts. It is vital that these gifts be made visible and named so that we can remember why we come together in the first place.

Taking the Learning Home

When participants leave each other after a gathering, how do we know that the experience was transformative or valuable? What we know is that every time the Exchange community has come together for the Art of Learning Centering, all of us left knowing we were not alone; we realized we were part of an expanding web of individuals and groups everywhere building healthy and resilient communities. We always part ways with a deeper understanding of ourselves, our work and each other.

Participants in these gatherings have returned home to engage in groundbreaking experiments, expand the reach of their work or reengage in old projects with renewed energy and enthusiasm. After the 2008 Art of Learning Centering, greywater collection started up in Montreal; a community currency program was revitalized in Zimbabwe; organic farming programs expanded in India. In addition to being exciting developments in and of themselves, these are the indicators that let us know we have hosted a gathering which strengthened community, engendered trust, inspired collective insight and created new possibilities for social change.

Our Invitation

Over the course of the past five years the Berkana community has witnessed, time and again, the transformative power of these kinds of gatherings. We’ve learned that coming together in this way is actually essential for the health and vitality of our relationships. We know that every time we meet face-to-face, it strengthens our sense of belonging, sparks creativity and learning and creates conditions for success in our individual and collective work. Berkana continues to experiment and learn in this field of powerful encounters that strengthen communities and transform participants. Exchange members and others are in conversation about our next gathering in Brazil. The community is now shifting into a more self-organized form and so Art of Learning Centering gatherings will likely change some as we try out innovative ideas, involve new people and engage more and more with local hosts. No matter how the experience evolves over time, when we reflect back we realize that Berkana has developed a broad knowledge base and many skills in the design and hosting of successful gatherings. If we build the structures for future gatherings on this strong foundation, we know these experiences will continue to be meaningful for everyone involved.

We are also aware that manyothers working to create healthy and resilient communities throughout the world have had similar experiences organizing and participating in transformative gatherings. We invite you to join us in this experiment, test out the ideas we have offered in this article and share with us what you are learning.

Logistics Checklist

A brilliantly designed and hosted gathering can fall apart if the community’s basic needs are not well attended to, or if people can’t find their way there. Here is a list of practicalities that are essential for success.

✔ Budget. Early on, set a clear budget for food, supplies, lodging and other hard costs related to the gathering. Created in partnership with local hosts, the budget may also include improving facilities or procuring equipment to support your gathering. We’ve found that it is important to keep the finances visible to all involved in creating the gathering.

✔ Visas. This has been the Achilles’ heel of every gathering we have held. As soon as you’ve set the date and location, begin working on visas right away.

✔ Booking Travel. The price of airline tickets can vary as much as 300 percent, and restrictions on changes can increase the cost enormously. Sometimes participants find inexpensive tickets from local sources; other times those prices are still too high. Work with participants to gather multiple ticket prices and then make the most economical decision.

✔ Food. When gathering in a place where meals are included, food is not a huge issue (although you’ll likely need to accommodate dietary and health restrictions). Most of the time, our community has preferred to cook for itself. We plan menus for as many meals as possible beforehand and invite participants to bring unique ingredients from home. Having a person accountable for meal planning, even if that role rotates, is essential.

✔ Sleeping. What are the minimal lodging requirements for your community to be comfortable and fully present during a gathering? Are people willing to camp? How essential is it for the community to stay together overnight? At times when our group has overflowed the number of beds available on site, we’ve used inexpensive accommodations at nearby inns or hotels. It’s worked. But transportation and the loss of evening time together risk creating a sense of division in the community.

✔ All the rest. Meeting spaces, meeting supplies. Knowing where medical care is available, local transport. Long before the gathering, we consider each and every logistical aspect of our time together so we’re ready to deal with what comes up. The key is establishing a point person (or two) who is responsible for all of these logistical matters, making sure people have the information they need, and creating clear processes to support our work of being and learning together.

Aerin Dunford is a writer, artist, urban farmer and yoga instructor who has been involved with the work of The Berkana Institute since 2005. From 2006 to 2008 she was a co-steward of the trans-local learning community, the Berkana Exchange. She is currently the Sharing Our Learning Director at Berkana. Aerin has a master’s degree in Organizational Management with a focus on leadership and change from SIT Graduate Institute. She lives in Oaxaca de Juárez, Mexico.

Bob Stilger has spent a lifetime working with people in communities to create meaningful change. In 1974, Bob co-founded Northwest Regional Facilitators and served as its Executive Director for 25 years. NRF was one of the early community development corporations in the U.S. A former co-President of The Berkana Institute, Bob has a PhD in Learning and Change in Human Systems from the California Institute of Integral Studies and works in many parts of the world to help people build healthy and resilient communities. His personal website is

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