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HOW MIGHT OPEN SPACE PLAY A ROLE IN TRANSLATING UNEMPLOYMENT INTO NEW SOCIAL FORMS

Tom Atlee, convenor and notetaker, Cheryl Honey, Doug Marteinson (BC), Jeff Aitken, Keith McCandless? and Pam Hathaway

Tom explained why he was inspired to convene this session:

Peggy Holman's Journalism that Matters work http://journalismthatmatters.org has used Open Space with journalists for eight years. She and Stephen Silha bring together "the whole system of journalism" -- mainstream print and broadcast reporters and editors, publishers, media critics, bloggers, journalism academics, community journalists, etc. -- to explore the crisis in the journalism industry and co-create "the new media ecology".

Many mainstream newspapers are folding and tv news programs are losing viewers and advertisers. The most recent Journalism that Matters gathering was attended by many professional journalists who were unemployed, were afraid of being fired, or were faced with firing their colleagues. There was a lot of fear and concern about unemployment in the air.

But Open Space did its magic. A number of professional journalists and bloggers and community journalists connected with each other to cocreate a variety of innovative entrepreneurial journalistic projects which, if successful, could spark a revolution in journalism. In a conversation with Tom, Peggy said she felt like she was seeing an industry being recreated, reborn before her eyes. Seeing things from a systemic transformational perspective, Tom got an image of the old industry of journalism collapsing like an old building into an open space where the bricks reorganized themselves into new buildings. The old system was dying into the birth of new systems, midwifed by Open Space. The Phoenix was rising from the ashes.

Tom wondered how far this dynamic could be carried. Many, if not most, industries are in crisis. Could Open Space be used to convene people from those industries to co-create their next form of work, appropriate to their new circumstances? Tom was attracted to this because he wants to see a more sustainable and sensible society be born -- and mass unemployment, properly handled, is clearly an opportunity to help that shift along. More generally, Tom wondered if Open Space could provide a forum for unemployed people to find jobs or to start moving beyond the corporatized industrial paradigm of "jobs" altogether, into a paradigm of a society based on people supporting each other's meaningful contributions to community and society, whether through a job or something else (including what's now called "volunteer work" and "family life".)

Tom's vision was at first based on convening "whole industries or sectors." But Cheryl Honey raised another approach to this that is grounded, instead, in community, which also has potential to make a transformational difference:

Cheryl described her work with Community Weaving in Chicago, supported by the Illinois Department of Human Services. She's been working with the coordinator of Security and Emergency Preparedness for the whole state. Her Community Weaving self-help/mutual help networking approach is being piloted in Chicago because that's where Obama came from and he has said it is time for neighbors to become responsible for themselves and each other. In crisis times, people become frightened and disconnected and bad things happen. So the idea is to use Community Weaving to create social order in times of crisis. Community Weaving is like a community-wide Open Space. People begin to see welfare recipients as good neighbors. They get back to a sense of shared equity, with a decentralization of power. Laws like Patriotic Act that (for example) make it illegal to sell organic food outside of the formal systems that monitor retail food activity, block decentralized mutual help activities, so things like that have to change. While the officials tend to want to convene other officials, experts, and recognized leaders to deal with urban problems, the Community Weaving process is open to whoever shows up, and leadership roles are available to whoever is emerging, whoever steps forward. A group of women, for example, created outlets for unemployed African-American men -- including a semi-pro football team, among whom some got jobs -- all of it self-organized. One policewoman got involved with the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation in order to get resources to use mediation instead of the police in domestic violence cases, and she was trying to change the laws that cover that. Cheryl saw this as good neighbors morphing into whatever we're supposed to morph into. Often it goes way beyond "employment". For example, people got involved in pulling black rich soil into their neighborhoods for gardens, linking up with 4H Clubs, etc. In some ways they are moving into a "Transition Town" type of work.

Community Weaving had earlier gotten a study done on its effectiveness in "village building in schools" and its association with academics has made it qualify as "an evidence-based practice", which has been an immense help in getting federal money flowing through the program. Cheryl said that FEMA money is coming down all over the country, and Open Space is well positioned to make a difference in that realm.

In a discussion of measurements that can be used to validate such work, mention was made of June Holly's "network maps" to measure the weaving of social capital.

Cheryl also offered the idea of practitioners living in income sharing intentional communities which practice some craft they sell in the micro-economy, thereby generating income they can use to support their unpaid community organizing and process work.

Cheryl was asked how she gets the needed people in the room at her Community Weaving events. She replied that people come because they have a need, interest, desire, or some resource to offer. They call their event "the gathering" and "the community weaving experience" and hold it at some huge location. They have computers all over the place -- the goodneighbors.net, so they can also continue to connect. The interaction starts with a need and then creativity bubbles up to satisfy the need. Community Weaving provides a safe space to talk about such things. Community psychology is meeting people where they are at and gaining trust, and that takes a little while. When people come to these gatherings, the facilitators ask "What's happening?" That is the only question they ask.

We also talked about the possibility of a "jobs fair" or "jobs camp" type of Open Space where people seeking work and those with work ideas or opportunities get together. (Since techies call their Open Space conferences "unconferences", Tom joked that this kind of gathering could be called a "jobs unfair".) Tom noted that this approach might connect to Obama's and Van Jones' Green Jobs program. He also wondered about a marketing approach for this -- "Retraining-Plus" -- since the government handles unemployment with handouts and retraining, we could arrange to have them offer Open Space job fairs as well. Of course, this would have to be piloted and proven before it could become official.

Doug Marteinson talked about convening stakeholders in Open Space to deal with child homelessness in Calgary and with the cumulative environmental impact of oil sands in Alberta (where the law requires oil companies to deal with only a small part of the problem).

Keith McCandless? then took us off on a fascinating thread on Positive Deviance. He described Discovery and Action Dialogue used for intractable, massively entangled challenges like malnutrition and antibiotic resistant pathogens, where everyone's behavior needs to change. The Positive Deviance approach includes members of the community or workplace who are are actually dealing with, creating and/or solving the same problem. The approach goes to the frontline where the problem manifests, to see what's happening. The formal leadership in charge of the area with the problem tends to pay attention to this work because it is a real problem for them. Positive Deviance practitioners use stories like the one about turning around malnutrition in Vietnam with a village where mothers were feeding crayfish from rice paddies to their children, or the story of hospital doctors being stopped at the door by cleaning ladies because they didn't wash their hands.

We explored how Discover and Action Dialogues might apply to unemployment. 1. You need to pick a problem people care about and give it a name that has some emotional charge, that's easy to relate to and, ideally, measure. Let's take, for our unemployment example, "abandonment by society". One basic form of question is: How do you know X is present? For example: When do you know that you are -- or someone is -- [or is at risk of being] abandoned by society? This question is actually designed to deepen their sense of despair about the problem. (For example, doctors were asked "When do you know the spiritual needs of patients are being neglected?" Then they were asked "What's the worst thing that can happen when the spiritual needs of patients are neglected?" Their answer was a story of a patient committing suicide. It is OK to deepen despair if the solutions are right there.) 2. What do you do to prevent abandonment? 3. What keeps you from doing that all the time? 4. Is there anyone around here who seems to be able to avoid or help others avoid abandonment? Any ideas? 5. Who else should be included in our conversation?

These questions spread themselves and individualize the problem. You engage the people that are there in a specific conversation. Include some that have the problem and some that don't. You aren't solving the problem for them -- even if you know the answer; you are getting them to pull themselves up by their collective bootstraps. Experience suggests that until you have a community organizing themselves, they aren't ready to share with other communities. Then you go to them and ask them "How are you doing it?" -- at which point their emergent shareable solutions start to come out. These solutions are discovered by people at the place where they are. It spreads simply through getting more people invited to the expanding conversation, so they end up teaching each other. You ask them "What do you do to handle it for yourself and for others?" You come to study at the feet of the only people who can solve the problem, those involved. As a practitioner, you don't answer any question that they haven't asked you directly and even then you try to give the question back to them.


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