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.
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.
One 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.