Itasca County, MN – Art of Hosting Works – Background, Application and Impact

In just over one year, community citizens of Itasca County, who were not familiar with the term Art of Hosting Conversations that Matter, went from showing up at the first three day training in November 2013 with a healthy mix of curiosity and scepticism, to hosting a one day community wide conversation at the first ever Grand Gathering of Itasca County just one year later that attracted over 85 people who engaged in 50+ conversations that mattered over a five hour period.


How does a community do this? By being passionate about influencing their future and believing it is possible. Support from the Blandin Foundation, (and thanks to the vision initially held by Bernadine Joselyn) made it possible for Jerry Nagel of the Meadowlark Institute and Kathy Jourdain of Shape Shift Strategies Inc. to offer (with other AoH practitioners) five three day Art of Hosting trainings, two Community World Cafes, one Grand Gathering using Open Space Technology and nine days of Advanced (or more in-depth) Training on specific topics. The Community Cafes and Grand Gathering were brain childs of participants in the trainings who stepped up to community engagement and hosting in beautiful and collaborative ways.

Participants understand that good community conversations on important issues offer everyone who shows up the opportunity to speak openly and without fear, to be listened to authentically and respectfully, and to leave feeling an ownership in the outcomes of their conversations. Community or civic engagement is also about accountability and commitment, a request not only to show up but to engage. This is happening in Itasca County in abundance now.

A report on the background, application and impact was compiled for the Blandin Foundation to show the value of the investment made in this series of program offerings for the community and you can access it here: Blandin Harvest 2013-15. (It might take awhile to download as it is full of pictures and stories that Highlight AoH in Action.)

Because Blandin supported this initiative, it made it possible for diverse cross sections of the community to participate – including artists, teachers, business people, not-for-profit staff, government staff from the county commission, natural resources, corrections and more, people from the Leech Lake Nation, people in transition, volunteers and more to participate. People met new friends and brought a variety of worldview perspectives into the room, where people “met” each other in the most interesting and sometimes unexpected places because they brought their curiosity to the conversations.

The stories of impact are still being collected. It is the stories that bring alive what is possible. The stories convey both subtle and large examples of bringing the practices to life. The last set of deeper dive trainings is happening in August 2015 and the programs are filling fast with previous participants, many of whom are planning to bring more people with them.

Itasca County is a beautiful example of the ripple effect that emerges as people change the way they approach meetings and conversations to get to the heart of what matters quickly, to evoke action that impacts, lasts and makes a difference across the region.

Front End Load Your Planning Process – Need and Purpose

“If you are at a meeting and you don’t know why you are there, why ARE you there?” I have heard Jerry Nagel say this often enough when he teaches the Chaordic Stepping Stones at a training. The same goes for a planning process. “If you don’t know why you are doing something, why ARE you doing it?”

Audrey Moen in the circle with others taking in a teach by Jerry Nagel.

Many planning processes jump right into logistics (the 8th Stepping Stone, by the way) – budget, where the meeting will be, what the agenda is, important people who need to there. Then, when the planning team tries to decide what should happen during the meeting or planning process, people are unclear and sometimes confused or there are too many ideas floating around as meeting agenda is fitted to logistics rather than fitting logistics to the purpose of the work.

Purpose imagePurpose is the invisible leader. It keeps a  community engagement process, planning process or meeting agenda on track. Purpose arises out of Need. Taking the time to reach clarity on need and purpose is, what I often tell my clients, a front end loaded process. It takes time. It can get messy – anyone resonate with, “Let’s just make a decision!” And it can change the quality of the whole process. It is part of what we refer to as slowing down to go fast.

Need is an understanding of the current situation – the reason you have decided that something should be done, planned, convened. When the Need is clearly understood, the articulation of Purpose is often easy. Getting to the root Need can take some exploration and conversation because sometimes the Need that appears most obvious is fuelled by less obvious underlying patterns, behaviours or structures.

Jerry often shares a story about a school district he worked with. School funding comes from area rates and the community had refused, several years in a row, to increase the area rate to address some maintenance issues in the school – the roof needed fixing, the seats were broken and there were other maintenance issues. As he asked the planning team about need they repeated these things several times until someone finally had an insight. The relationship between the school and the community was broken. This was the deeper need to be addressed. Recognizing this changed the whole approach to the planning process.

A few years ago, I worked with a group in Nova Scotia focused on breakfast programs in schools. There were some changes in the environment impacting the organization that delivered these programs and prompting the exploration of a new means to deliver breakfast programs. The most obvious need was to ensure and organizational structure for ongoing breakfast program delivery. The deeper need was a recognition that children who had breakfast were better learners. The planning team recognized the need to nourish the children so they could learn better and the idea of nourishment was expansive, offering the possibilities of broader interpretations (but still very focused) into the future which led to the development and name of a new organization – Nourish Nova Scotia.

Nourish Nova ScotiaUnderstanding the need led to this purpose: To cultivate generations of healthy eaters. And, to this  vision: All Nova Scotia children and youth are well nourished to live, learn and play. With a bit of extra clarification: We aim to support the nutritional well-being of children and youth and desire to build their food knowledge and skills so they can feed themselves well into a healthier future.

Need and Purpose conversations often take a group into a groan zone which is one of the reasons people want to cut it short to get to the “important” tasks of planning. When this happens, it is common that the groan zone just gets transferred to some other part of the process, slowing it down somewhere else. Holding people in the space of a groan zone is a leadership skill.

Also, in any given project there may be multiple layers of need and purpose identified. For a project I’m working on with the United Way in Halifax right now, we are planning a community engagement event in September. That event has a need and purpose identified. There is a desire (even a need) to recruit a planning team representative of the community to ensure success. The need for the planning team has been identified as well as the purpose. And there is a meeting planned to invite potential planning team members  to step up and the need and purpose of that launch meeting has also been identified. The need and purpose of the planning launch meeting and the planning team are aligned with the need and purpose of the community gathering (I want to say, of course) and having this clarity at each step of the process keeps the whole thing on track.

KJ explaining something at WC table CA Women's leadershipSometimes the conversation is iterative as understanding of Need and Purpose may evolve through the course of the planning process. Yet, when these two stepping stones are clear, the rest of the planning process can unfold quickly.

A Small Town Grocery Store Renewal Thanks to AoH Patterns and Practices

It is always a pleasure to share Art of Hosting success stories. This comes from Angie Benz who attended an AoH training in Bismarck, North Dakota in November 2014. The AoH training was supported by the North Dakota League of Cities and the Bush Foundation, co-hosted by Jerry Nagel and me.

Angie Benz

Angie Benz

She writes:

I wanted to share a success story.  After taking your AoH class in Bismarck I was so moved and excited.  I knew these were principles that I wanted to implement, I just didn’t know where or how.

Fast forward to last week.  I am a director for our local grocery store board and we have been struggling to say the least!  Our sales were 15% down from 2013.  Our manager, understandably, was a bit disgruntled.  The board members, myself included, had checked out.  And the worst part…this was all being seen by the community.

Then I remembered the principles taught at AoH!  We started out slowly……and grew into something bigger…….and I am hoping that we keep growing!

We started by sending out a survey asking two very important questions:

  1. Is the store important to YOU to have in YOUR community?
  2. Is it important enough to YOU that YOU are willing to pay a little higher price for groceries?

The responses were a resounding YES to both and we knew we had work to do.  We restructured our management team, creating a co-manager position with two people that will do great things together.

Then we had a planning meeting.  Everyone was dreading it!  I sent out an email inviting the management team and the board directors.  I gave them some ideas of what would happen that day. Then, I shocked them all by asking them to bring something that represents their journey with the grocery store….and I left it at that.  (Enter the sound of silence from the group.)  It was so loud that I could “hear” it through email.

The day of the meeting we started out with Check In using a circle setting.  It was AMAZING!  There was emotion, meaning, and most importantly….understanding.  Understanding of all the frustrations we faced in 2014.  We were letting go of the past and moving towards the future with understanding of each other and our journey.

We then moved into a variation of Open Space.  There were only 6 of us, so we used it more as a brain storming session.  At the end of it, one of the board directors made the comment that they thought we would have about 3 ideas…..we ended up with about 50!

Then it was time for us to get a little more specific.  We came up with action plans and timelines for the top 5 ideas/topics.  We will meet monthly to analyze and assess the top 5 and beyond.

To end the day, we did Check Out in a circle setting.  Again, there was emotion, meaning, and understanding.  There was also a sense of team….something that had been missing in the last year.  I said it before and I will say it again….it was AMAZING!

When everyone came and saw the circle they were a little put off and thought I was nuts.  I just asked them to hang in there with me.  They did and the results were incredible!  We left the meeting feeling more like a team than we have in a very long time.

I want to thank you for showing me that there is a way that a group of people with different worldviews can come together and be a cohesive unit!  You very well may have given me the tools to keep our small town grocery store alive!

Thank you, thank you, thank you!


Purpose Statement for the Bismarck AoH training, November 2014


Worldview Intelligence

As our work with worldview continues, Jerry Nagel and I, and other friends and colleagues we are evolving this work with, have been reflecting on what it means to be worldview aware, wondering if awareness is enough. We imagine it is a step, albeit an important one. Awareness in and of itself can be expansive, turning judgment or assumption into generosity and curiosity. And then what? What does it take to create the transformative spaces we have been witnessing with this work? It takes practices, skills and a wee bit of courage too. In was in the spirit of this wondering that the term Worldview Intelligence arose along with the curiosity of what it means; generating the working definitions that follow.

Worldview frame

Worldview Intelligence

  • The ability to learn or understand worldview(s), to be worldview aware
  • Development of skills that offer ways to address differing worldview situations, invite multiple worldviews
  • Creating opportunity and circumstances to use skills, knowledge and awareness to move from differences to progress, for yourself, your organization or community

Worldview Awareness

  • Feeling, experiencing or noticing that worldview(s) exist, individually, organizationally, in community and across stakeholder groups
  • Knowing and understanding more about what is happening in the world around you by being or becoming worldview aware

Having just wrapped up a two day workshop in Minnesota on Worldview Intelligence, a significant thread of conversation was application. How do we take what we are learning and experiencing and bring it to life in personal practice and in the way we approach our work, in the practices of our organizations? Transforming differences into progress.

worldview awareness day panoramicWe have built and are prototyping a number of frameworks that help us and workshop participants see intervention and application points. The exercises invite skill building – on the spot and afterwards in the work. The response has been thoughtful and transformative as people are seeing when and how to apply what they are learning and understanding that the quality of the messenger is as important as the message – maybe even more so when the messenger embodies the qualities and practices of worldview intelligence.

We have been working with worldview for a few years now, in the Art of Hosting trainings we have been delivering and other venues. What we learned there showed us the need for deeper dives into worldview and the identification and development of skills and intelligence that can impact even our most challenging situations. We will share what we are learning as we go and as we have time to digest the depth of experience created that invites people to show up in the fullness of their humanity – for some, the first time they have ever felt so fully invited.

Worldview Awareness as a Transformative Process

Worldview frameWorldview awareness is the most transformative experience Jerry Nagel, I and the colleagues we work with in Nova Scotia, Minnesota and elsewhere have witnessed so far for inviting diverse perspectives into a conversation or a process – around race, power and privilege (diversity/equity), political differences, silos in organizations or for community engagement.  We have witnessed people finding their way into conversations previously inaccessible because no one had language that engages the conversations in this degree of thoughtfulness, reflection and curiosity, instead of with defensiveness, dismissiveness, rationalizations or judgments.

Conversations previously stuck open up because the language of worldview and worldview awareness offers alternative ways for people to ask about how welcoming, open or inclusive they may be, or their organizational culture might be. In one situation, with one of my colleagues in this work, a dialogue that was needing to happen for many years in her organization opened up because someone was now able to ask, “Do we have an issue with worldview here?” The response, which was a surprise to the person making the inquiry, was, “Yes.” My colleague had been ready to have the conversation for a long time without a entry way into it that would be expansive rather than debative. She understood the power of strategically waiting for the right timing to emerge.

The transformative impact we have been witnessing for years now, in our Art of Hosting trainings and other speaking opportunities, through the introduction of a worldview framework and then inquiry through a world cafe or reflective listening has inspired the development of the Worldview Awareness curriculum for personal, organizational and community engagement, identifying and exploring worldview awareness patterns, practices and strategies. The impact continues to be powerful as shared, for instance, in the reflections on our experience in Nova Scotia during the one day introduction to the Transformative Power of Worldview Awareness attended by seasoned diversity practitioners and change agents.

Individual worldview awareness invites each person into reflection about their own worldview, what has influenced the construction of their worldview, how it impacts their communication and relationships as well as how they see the world. This internal reflection, guided by curiosity, then generates curiosity about other people and the evolution of their worldview. In and of itself, this can create “safe enough” space for people to share more of who they are. In one AoH training in Grand Rapids,MN at the end of a World Cafe on Worldview, a young Native American man stood up and shared he felt able to speak more and more openly about his Worldview thanks to the collective exploration we were in and the Worldview teach or framework that invited the inquiry.

The idea that organizations also have worldviews is often a moment of insight and inspiration for participants in this exploration. To be thoughtful and intentional about organizational worldview practices and patterns invites the opportunity to think about policy development and employee recruitment and retention in different and more comprehensive ways. It provides a means to explore alignment of stated organization Worldview with its practices and offers strategies on how to invite and host a multiplicity of worldviews inside the organization which ultimately makes the organization more successful on most indicators.

Community engagement, when done well, invites a multiplicity of viewpoints and perspectives – or worldviews – into the conversation or public meeting. Most community engagement is still done in traditional town hall style – with a panel of experts making presentations and answering questions from the few community members who happen to make it to the scarce microphones placed on the floor of the meeting room. Engagement with constituents needs to be heartfelt and meaningful, not just the opportunity to check off a box that says we consulted.

tug of war rope pixels

Worldview Awareness curriculum, combined with strong engagement or dialogic processes, provides ideas and strategies on how to invite the multiplicity of voices into a process that strengthens the power of engagement and of outcomes, while creating more welcoming and inclusive environments. Worldview Awareness invites the full complexity of a situation and of issues, ensures that people with different viewpoints and sometimes contradictory interests exchange worldviews and often charts unknown territory. This leads to practical outcomes that might not have been achieved otherwise and that can more easily be implemented because all stakeholders involved experience a higher degree of commitment and ownership. The result is better decisions and more sustainable actions (solutions).

One of our dreams is to offer these workshops (tailored of course) to all the places grappling with how to create more inclusive, generative workplaces or communities by accessing new lenses for deciphering the increasing complexity impacting work environments and communities. Worldview awareness offers organizations committed to a diverse workforce the opportunity to engage those they serve, internally and externally, in more generative, compassionate ways in service of the outcomes we all want to achieve.

worldview awareness day panoramic

Real People. Real Lives. Real Community. Real Impact.

Driving from the countryside of Stakke Lake in Minnesota, through the little towns and forested roads on the three hour drive to Grand Rapids, it is easy for me to forget that I am not in Canada, but driving through the US countryside, with my partner and co-hosting colleague Jerry Nagel, on our way to a rural community that is breaking its way out of any stereotypes we might conjure up about rural communities – in Canada or the US. What is happening there could happen anywhere. It inspires hope at a time when hope, especially for our rural communities, is deeply needed in the world.

Grand Rapids welcome sign

What’s Been Happening

In 2013, the Blandin Foundation funded a grant to the Meadowlark Institute to bring the Art of Hosting (AoH) Conversations that Matter to the Itasca County area. Not a one-off training but, thanks to the vision of friend, AoH Practitioner and Global Steward, Bernadine Jocelyn, and her colleagues at the Blandin Foundation, a series of trainings intended to offer residents of Itasca County the opportunity to acquire and use skills of 21st Century Leadership to work with every day life and address some of the most pressing challenges in their communities. The Blandin Foundation was founded by Charles Blandin in 1941 to aid and promote Grand Rapids (population around 10,000) and the surrounding area (total population around 40,000) in such a way that it could be responsive to changing times, a beautiful alignment with the adaptive capacity of AoH offerings.

What’s happening there, with organic emergence and almost astonishing interconnectedness, is a thing of beauty. Four Art of Hosting trainings (130 people altogether so far) since November 2013 with two more in the works; two Community Cafés (with almost 100 participants altogether) convened by a planning team that sparked from an Open Space conversation in the first AoH, called by Sandy Layman, a well known community leader. She asked the question “How can we become a community that hosts its own conversations?” That question is gaining momentum as it continues to spark the curiosity and inspiration of the county.


The first Community Café brought together participants from the first two AoH cohorts and was held one evening during the second training. The second Community Café was inserted into the middle of the fourth training, in an afternoon, and brought together participants from all four trainings and others who wanted to join in.


The Stories That Bring the Data Alive

All of that feels like data. It is the stories that bring the data alive, that show the nuances and interweave of connections; the stories of who is showing up in the same spaces together; the stories of willingness to dive into challenging conversations to address both long held and emerging issues; the stories of risk and courage as people bring AoH patterns and practices into likely and unlikely work settings.

Truly a fractal of the community is coming together – people who might not otherwise find themselves in the same room or the same conversations. The county administrator. Educators. A senior leader in Corrections. Senior leaders of non-profits. Advocates for mental health. Consumers of mental health services. People who have been homeless, some still in transition. People with very diverse political views. Local radio station representatives. Artists. Business people. Blandin Foundation staff. More. All on equal footing with equal voice. All responding to questions centered on “What is the future we want to live into and what can we begin now?”


The stories that are emerging from the people who have been through the training bring the impact alive and are heart opening. Our friend in Corrections, who was in the February cohort, shared with us that he only recently had the opportunity to offer a check in at the beginning of a meeting. He said it changed everything about the meeting. When we asked him how, he said, “People were very emotional.” When we asked him what his check in question was, he said, “How we are doing?” Simply, how are we doing? An invitation to a moment of humanity, an invitation to show up fully. They will now start every meeting with a check-in question. A small, but powerful, shift in practice.

The County Administrator shared that there is a discussion happening at the County offices about mental health funding, the number of agencies that provide services and the need for greater interagency communication. Someone at the county offices, who has only heard about AoH but not been to a training, said that what is needed for that conversation is art of hosting.


In Bigfork, another Itasca County community, community leaders have used World Café to host a conversation about an ongoing contentious issue, bringing new insight and perspective to the issue, establishing a foundation from which to move forward.

The region is facing some growing, possibly divisive issues; particularly around resource extraction (economy) and the environment; issues that are growing more complex all the time. Experience with the patterns and practices of the Art of Hosting is helping people see the possibility of different conversations; conversations that invite a multiplicity of worldviews, give voice to all the perspectives beyond the vocal few, invite people who live, work and play in the region to imagine more of the future they all want to live into, to continue to forge new ways forward on small and large matters. There is a growing buzz in the community and a sense of urgency combined with curiosity and even hopefulness.

The Community Conversations planning team grows with each successive training. The team is now getting ready to call and convene a county wide “Grand Gathering” on November 22, 2014 using Open Space Technology – the first community meeting of its kind in the area. This demonstrates the increasing reach of a commitment that began with that Open Space conversation during the first Art of Hosting training nearly a year ago, building on an idea inspired by the Great Gathering in Fredericton, NB; which demonstrates the interweaving of stories across borders and geographic distances. (And, incidentally, we have discovered there is a history of relationship between New Brunswick and Itasca County thanks to the pulp and paper industry.)

KAXE, a local radio station, present at the Community Café and on the planning team, will be doing a series of radio spots leading up to the Grand Gathering, which is being hosted by the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. The team is in full volunteer recruitment and planning mode and the community is being invited to create an agenda of conversations and possible action steps that are meaningful and relevant to them. Some of the potential conversation themes have been popping up already in the Community Cafés and the AoH trainings. They include an emphasis on youth (brain gain), on revitalizing communities, co-ordinating resources and connecting diverse voices.

IMG_0824One of the many compelling themes that is emerging is around evoking stories and extending invitations. Care enough to ask for the story; bring everyone to the table to identify struggles and be open to hearing the unheard. Notice who is not there who should be and extend an invitation. Be a neighbour, bring a neighbour

It is the tip of the iceberg. The work has only just begun. This community is carving out pathways that can be an inspiration to other communities searching for new ways to imagine and live into the future. What can we begin now?

Real People. Real Lives. Real Community. Real Impact.

Challenge of Leadership in the 21st Century: What’s Needed Now?

In an exploration with Saint Mary’s University in Halifax (one of my alma maters) about an upcoming series of leadership workshops, the team there asked me some evocative questions, worthy of sharing on the Shape Shift blog. The previous blog post explored the question of what guidelines or, in their words, rules, would I share with leaders today. Another of their questions was: Why does the area of leadership fascinate you? Why indeed?

Leadership and leadership development has had my attention for as long as I can remember. It currently has my attention because the way I was trained, or more accurately indoctrinated, into leadership (as is the case with many of the leaders I meet and work with, even younger leaders) is much different than the leadership skills needed to navigate the complexity of today’s world.

I came into leadership positions at a young age; at a time when leaders were believed to have the answers, were expected to solve problems and fix situations that popped up. This was a time when letters were written on stationary and mailed, when fax machines (which are now almost obsolete) were just new and the idea that everyone would have a computer (much less mobile devices that process as much and more than computers) was a farfetched notion. A very different world, a very different worldview.

The world has grown far more complex, social media has a strong influence and our environments and situations are demanding greater collaboration and collaborative decision making because no one person has the solution.  We need to unlearn and relearn our habitual leadership skills and strategies to be responsive and still make decisions and take actions that move initiatives forward.  We can only unlearn what is habitual by becoming aware of what is right in front of us that we cannot see, because so much of our worldview – as much as 80% – is unconscious.  This is why Jerry Nagel and I are in the exploration of the transformative power of worldview awareness.

This is a balancing act, working with dynamic tensions of collaboration and collaborative leadership – also something we are learning our way into.  Many leaders are uncertain about how to navigate this 21st Century world with skill and ease, how to draw out the collective intelligence or wisdom needed to find our way forward. In partnership with amazing colleagues, I have been using patterns and practices that help leaders make sense of the world, invite our own ‘not knowing’ while engaging the wisdom and collective intelligence of people most impacted by or having the most influence over the particular issues or challenges at hand.

These are the solutions that have staying power.  This is what this new series of programs at Saint Mary’s – but also offerings in other venues in other cities – offers: insights into navigating the 21st Century, particularly as leaders of any age feel a responsibility for the significant challenges of our times.