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

The results, he says, are giving the Mid-Ohio Foodbank a leading role in the transformation of Central Ohio’s food system. But what’s most important to notice is that Matt is just one of many leaders throughout Columbus who are laying out checkered tablecloths and welcoming the whole community to create new solutions to their most intractable problems.

Stealth Hosting at Ohio State 

More than 55,000 students spread across 1,762 acres. Twelve thousand courses offered in 457 buildings. Income of $4.45 billion. Ohio State is an empire of learning, the largest university in the country (until Fall 2009, when Arizona State scraped ahead by enrolling 38 more students). It is a place where rankings matter: OSU boasts top 25 in U.S. News & World Report’s 2010 ratings of the nation’s best public universities; faculty are lauded for the number of Nobel Prizes, Guggenheims and Fulbrights they’re awarded.

Here is academia in its fullest expression. On the one hand, revered as a source of ingenuity, critical thinking and the transmission of wisdom across the generations. On the other, criticized as the land of the lone wolf where collaboration can compromise your need for academic freedom, where there is a rigid hierarchy of presidents and provosts, deans and chairs, associate professors and assistants, those who have tenure and those who don’t.

This is the world Tuesday Ryan-Hart walked into when she took a job in 2006 at the Women’s Place, whose purpose is to make institutional change on campus for women faculty and staff. Herreaction was immediate distrust. “I knew it was absolutely not where I belonged from maybe the second or third day,” she explains. “I’m all about leveling hierarchies, getting people to be together better. I’ve been a relatively successful person, so it’s not like the hierarchy keeps me down—except where as a woman of color, I’ve experienced sexism and racism. But I inherently believe in equality and egalitarianism. Sometimes, preservation of hierarchy can be cloaked in talk of academic freedom. It works for those who have made it to the top of the hierarchy—they have a lot of investment in keeping the system going. But it doesn’t work for those at the bottom.”

She likely would not have stayed had it not been for her boss, Deb Ballam, a self-proclaimed rabble-rouser who was up for the task of disrupting the status quo. When Phil Cass invited Deb to attend an Art of Hosting training in November 2006, she sent Tuesday in her place. Neither woman was remotely aware of what this one act of saying yes would unleash on campus.

Just northeast of the football stadium, The Knowlton School of Architecture is a straight-backed, sharp-shouldered sentinel of concrete, marble and stone. The 165,000-square-foot facility is a paean to planning, a place where students study precision and technology, a structure that breathes order and discipline.

Which is why it might be a little disconcerting to stumble across 26 folks sitting in a circle of chairs around a centerpiece made of a green cloth, a black stone, tingshas (Tibetan cymbals) and a toy walking man made out of green foam. Taped to the walls are simple drawings on flip chart paper of a butterfly and a bumblebee, a page that reads “Law of Two Feet” and another with a yin-yang drawing labeled “Passions/Responsibility.” Another page explains the principles of Open Space Technology, a process that invites participants to self-organize to create their own agenda rather than follow the facilitator’s design. So much for planning.

The chime of the tingshas reverberates through the room. A tall, silver-haired woman in a white turtleneck sweater introduces herself. “Good morning and welcome,” she says. “I’m Hazel Morrow-Jones, a Professor and Associate Dean in City and Regional Planning. Our purpose for today is to connect people’s practice experiences, to connect with mates [a code word in the Art of Hosting community for fellowship] and share our learnings, and to strengthen our understanding of the deeper patterns of the Art of Hosting.” She points to another flip chart page that outlines the flow of the day and then reminds people of some of their shared values and beliefs: “Listen with attention, speak with intention and take care of the well being of the group,” she says. “Offer what you can; ask for what you need. Listen for what’s happening in the middle that nobody brought into the room, but maybe we can all take out.”1

These 26 people are members of the Art of Hosting Community of Practice, a group of practitioners from all over Franklin County who spend half a day together every quarter to strengthen their clarity, courage and commitment as hosts. There are people here from healthcare and food systems, from municipal government and the Board of Regents, from youth work and homeless shelters. But mostly, there are people here from OSU.

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