The circle (photo by Amanda Daniell)
Last Saturday I hosted my first Open Space event. It was a gathering of people from the Vancouver-area animal advocacy community. I've also written about the event on the Liberation BC blog.
Looking back after a week, the event seems to have been a success. I suppose the real success of the event will be if it has made the community stronger and if any benefits to the community come out of it. A big challenge will be developing from this single, possibly quite isolated event into a culture of collaboration.
It's nice to come together and be in a room with lots of people you pretty much agree with. You can talk openly about what you believe, you can really "talk shop" without boring anyone, and you feel understood.
Even if that's all this event did was let people feel good for a day, that itself is valuable. People working in this area often don't feel supported by friends, family, and co-workers, and coming together with like-minded people can serve as an important reminder that we are a community, that there are other people working on and caring about these issues.
But, an event like this becomes really valuable when new connections are made that carry on into the future. It becomes valuable if it opens up the web of connections and enables us to more easily and readily work together for common goals.
Looking over the feedback from the people who attended (about half of the people who attended responded to the online survey asking for feedback), they seem to have liked the Open Space format and being empowered to choose and lead their own discussions. I think that doesn't happen enough in any part of the animal advocacy movement. So often we go to conferences and hear from experts, we get asked to take action as part of some big organization's campaign, we are enlisted as supporters and we don't "own" any of the decisions.
If we can build collaboration into our local activist community, can it potentially make us stronger and more able to respond to the complex challenges that working on behalf of animals presents?
Many of the issues people had with the event had to do with logistical elements of the event, such as the level of noise in the room and the length of breaks. The next time I plan one of these, I think I will make sure that there are breakout rooms, rather than having multiple small circles in the one large room. Also, I hadn't set aside an actual lunch break, but I think a break from intense discussion midway through the day would have helped everyone relax and renew their energy for the afternoon.
Some people expressed concern that the people leading the sessions may not have been experts or "qualified" to lead a discussion. My only answer to that would be that with complex questions, often passion and willingness to take the lead can be more important than expertise or knowledge.
Some of the attendee comments about what could be improved for next time included finding a solution to the noise level of the room, more breaks so that the day is less hectic and there is more time to absorb what was just discussed, more efforts to include minority communities, a shorter time frame, and putting attendees in contact with each other through a shared contact list or online forum. (A forum has been set up on the event website for anyone to use.)
I think that there were some people who were uncomfortable with the dispersion of control over the event. We all come to these sorts of events with our own ideas about what should happen, about what we want to get from it. But, not everyone is going to see it the same way as us. With a "normal" conference, we go to listen to people speak and we know the agenda before-hand. It has been set for us. Being uncomfortable with that normalcy being pulled away is completely normal – and actually healthy. Getting through the discomfort to where we are comfortable with being open to what happens, to exploring and listening, leads to a healthier and more vibrant community. And a stronger one too. But it is uncomfortable.
Of course I had my own agenda in organizing this event. I wanted to empower people to take the lead in their own activism and in working together towards becoming more effective individually and together, as a community. I deliberately framed the event as "animal advocacy" because I wanted it to be inclusive of all people working for animals – whether or not they agree on everything. My goal is not to get us all to agree, but to know and understand each other better and, if possible, find ways to work together.
One of the really interesting aspects of organizing this event was finding a way to create an open and inclusive event that empowers people to find their own voice and learn from each other while still meeting my own goals. It is difficult to resist the urge to control the event, to influence the sessions posted by the attendees, to exert some sort of structure to the agenda, to move sessions around to fit in with my own ideas of categories.
Now, going forward, how can we keep building community while working to become more effective and powerful? Many people want to do more events like this, and I'm going to be meeting with people in the next couple of weeks to talk about what they need and want. Some smaller, more focused events around specific issues might be interesting, or possibly a world cafe focused on animal rights and visions of goals. Really, the next steps should form out of what the community wants and needs, and the community really just means all of us.
If you have ideas or suggestions, please feel free to post them in the comments.