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

The story in Columbus began in 2002, when this new approach to leadership began to take root in Phil Cass, CEO of the Columbus Medical Association and Foundation. Phil attended The Shambhala Institute—Authentic Leadership in Action (ALIA), where he met skilled practitioners of circle and community building from around the world who profoundly changed his whole approach to leadership. They were practicing the Art of Hosting, conversational processes that resolve conflicts, develop strategy, analyze issues and develop action plans. But the Art of Hosting is more than a collection of problem-solving tools. In fact, it’s easier to say what the Art of Hosting is not. It is neither a tool nor a methodology. It is not a strategy, although it serves well in strategic planning. It is not a leadership technique, although it calls upon leaders to fundamentally shift the way they contribute to their organizations and communities. It is, says Tuesday Ryan-Hart, an Art of Hosting practitioner who works closely with Phil in Columbus, “a practice, like yoga or meditation. There are tools in it, for sure—social technologies like circle, Open Space and World Café that surface a group’s collective intelligence through conversation. But there are deeper patterns present in the Art of Hosting that invite us to be authentic, to stay in inquiry, to build community.”

This may sound a bit vague, but its very real outcomes and benefits are visible throughout Columbus and beyond, as people have come together to tackle issues of poverty, healthcare, homelessness, education, public safety and more.

From Finding Food to Ending Poverty

In October 2009, the Mid-Ohio Foodbank relocated to its new headquarters: a 204,763-square foot former mattress outlet that now has the capacity to move 33 million pounds of food per year onto the tables of Central Ohio’s hungry citizens. The Foodbank’s president and CEO, Matt Habash, passionately shows off this new building: its LEED-gold status (the internationally recognized green-building certification system), the repurposed fixtures and recycled carpets, the cold storage layout that makes efficient use of cooler and freezer space, the organic recovery program that sorts leftover produce from grocery stores, the waterless urinals that save 40,000 gallons of water a year each. He points out the proposed site of community gardens and greenhouses on the 14.5-acre property, where starter plants will one day be distributed through food pantries so that people may have their own gardens.

But Matt’s pride and joy is the Community Room, a high-ceilinged, modular meeting space filled with round tables and brightly colored chairs that is perfectly suited, he says, to hosting World Cafés.

Matt was introduced to the World Café in March 2005, when his friend Phil Cass invited him to attend an Art of Hosting training. Co-founded in 1995 by Juanita Brown and David Isaacs, the World Café is a conversational process that links and connects ideas to reveal the collective intelligence in the room. What got Matt’s attention, he says, was the power of intentional conversation. “I spend so much of my time in conversations that do not matter,” he explains. “I just didn’t want to have another useless conversation.”

So in the fall of 2005, he decided to take a leap. “The staff didn’t know what I was doing,” he recalls. “I ordered round tables, four chairs at every table, even checkerboard tablecloths. I put out an invitation to one hundred people; sixty showed up. And then I asked them a question: What does ending hunger mean to you?” Apparently, that was a radical question. “To some food bankers,” Matt continues,“that might mean there’s enough food that the food pantry doesn’t run out. But that doesn’t solve the problem. I wanted to move down the continuum from finding food to ending poverty.”

That first Café spawned new questions that would transform the Mid-Ohio Foodbank’s approach to its mission. They participated in a regional food movement across seven counties exploring how to shift the proportion of food produced locally from one to ten percent. They turned over the design of the on-site food pantry to its stakeholders—nutritionists and clients—who opted for a revolutionary grocery-store-like “Choice Pantry” that gives power back to its clients. They developed new kinds of partnerships with local organizations that reconnect schoolchildren to local food and support urban agriculture and local farmers.

For Matt, these changes point to a profound shift in the Foodbank’s purpose from handing out food to transforming the system that links food, hunger and poverty. To maintain that focus, he has integrated Art of Hosting practices throughout his organization—in fundraising campaigns, at senior staff meetings, with the board. “I don’t hardly talk at board meetings anymore,” he says. “I used to run them—you know, the world according to Matt. Instead, we move to a strategic level of conversation by using Café or sitting in circle.” He points to three stones on his desk with words carved out: Create. Imagine. Hope. “I still struggle with how to introduce talking pieces [a tool that invites only the person holding the piece to speak]—that stuff can look hokey. But when people get engaged in the conversation, the process sells itself. It’s easy to do. What I like about the talking piece is it slows the conversation down. You put the rules on the wall—speak with intention, listen with attention—it changes the dynamic. All of a sudden, you put the Blackberry down and pay attention. You don’t talk over people. You learn to deeply respect other points of view.”

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