Wednesday, June 26th, 2013
Quaking, shaking, trembling. This is what I remember my body doing during the three day Art of Participatory Leadership and Social Change gathering in September, 2011 in New York City. I kept staring down fear.
What happens when you sense a need for a shift, a change, a new course, even when you’re in the process of charting a new course with people you respect and admire?
The gathering was hosted by Chris Corrigan, Kelly McGowan, and Tuesday Ryan-Hart. During the second day, Tuesday described a middle stream of practice she yearned for, one that spanned the worlds of social activism and hosting meaningful conversations, yet unnamed. If participatory processes involve collective creation, while oftentimes not recognizing and facing the inequalities within a group and social activism involves collective transformation, while excluding those who don’t share our worldview, then the middle path, which we together named as Revelation, strives for a deeper truth, one where people operate from a place of Grace, where we stay in community with people who may have different ways of accessing different kinds of power, where people can show up in their multiplicity and fullness.
I describe this to provide context for what happened next, to describe how a new moment was born from the margins of a new practice (Art of Social Change) being born from the margins of a more established practice (Art of Hosting).
Something else was going on in New York City at the same time as the gathering. Occupy Wall Street. At the end of September, 2011, Occupy Wall Street was only about 10 days old and had received very little media attention.
One of our gathering’s participants (I’ll call him Mario) spent quite a bit of his free time when we were not at the gathering interacting with people at Occupy Wall Street. Rita Fierro and I listened to Mario describe his impression of Occupy Wall Street, and it began to dawn on all three of us that the historic moments of the birthing of a new practice that lies between and within social activism and hosting and a new form of social protest were occurring at the same time. As participants of the gathering, we wanted to seize the opportunity to learn what was going on at Occupy Wall Street.
What this really meant was that we wanted the third day of our gathering to have a different flow to it. We wanted to take our learning to Occupy Wall Street and see what would happen. We wanted to try using Open Space in a space that had been opened for social justice.
I now realize I am forgetting to include an important detail. I was part of the calling team for the gathering, and I had just come home from a quick meeting by the calling team and hosts, where we had designed the flow of the third day. We knew what we were going to do.
A few hours later, I was sitting in my living room, exploring with Rita and Mario about what we wanted to learn from Occupy Wall Street during the gathering, and we began to realize that we wanted to propose changing the next day’s plan. We talked and talked and talked, revving ourselves up about what we hoped to birth and trying out different ways of framing a proposal to visit Occupy Wall Street.
We decided that in the morning Mario would speak first at the gathering, and Rita and I would back him up.
Then Rita spoke.
I still trembled.
And then I spoke.
And then, something happened that I hadn’t anticipated at all.
I guess I must have forgotten that this entire gathering, including our little “interruption” was being HOSTED. And not just hosted, but hosted by three people who beautifully know how to handle changes of course, momentary blips, unexpected interruptions.
The hosts asked for a few minutes to meet alone and talk about what should happen next. They then suggested to our gathering that we hold a “circle council”. This would take the form of a circle where each of us could describe what we were feeling about the proposal to visit Occupy Wall Street, followed by two rounds of giving alternate proposals and providing clarification, and then voting.
As the circle progressed, I heard statements like, “I will NOT go to Wall Street” and my mind immediately went to, “Well, that’s a deal breaker,” but as the circle made its way around, I realized that we as a group could come up with a solution that could meet the needs of everyone. Some of us could go and some of us could stay! This may seem incredibly obvious, but I assure you it had not remotely occurred to Rita, Mario, or I the evening before.
And that was that!
We all got what we wanted, the days’ flow was altered, no one was angry at anyone. Amazing! Nine of us went to Occupy Wall Street. Many more of us did not go. When we joined up again, we shared our learning with each other, closed in circle, and said our goodbyes.
Perhaps this was the beginning of something new and important, a Co-Revelation. I learned, at least, that skilled, caring hosts serve a community by being not easily rattled, and that a community can hold multiple needs simultaneously. Sometimes even the most obvious lessons are not that obvious in the moment.