STORIES, the Newsletter of the Open Space Institute (US), Issue 4, December 2000

Purpose of the Newsletter

The purpose of the newsletter is to make our stories available to each other so that we continue to learn and grow.  We hope they will serve you for education, examples, connection and pleasure.

 This newsletter is intended for the use of friends and members of the Open Space Institute (US).  It may be reproduced in any useful way with acknowledgement.  When copying, please include the author/contact/publication at the end of each story.

In This Issue

1--Notes from the Editor
2--Open Space in Zambia
3--Toward Ending a System of Slavery
4--Coming Events
5--Impressions from Berlin, and a poem

Notes from the Editor

 At this holiday season, the list of stories is short, but the news is good. More stories have been promised after the first of the year, but I did not want to wait to send you news of what your colleagues are doing: Opening space in some far corners of the earth for tackling hard and important questions.  Hunger and slavery are hard to admit and talk about, too important to ignore--bringing them into Open Space is a good way to begin.


  John Wilson, England, free-lance consultant and educator specializing in ecological land use and sustainable agriculture, mainly in Africa

  Up until 1991 farmers' organisations in Zambia (for small-scale farmers) were government created. They were part of a chain to channel inputs (primarily fertilisers and seed) to farmers and to get produce back to the market. They were hardly more than cogs in a machine. They were inefficient and subsidised. However, these co-operatives, as they were called, did give farmers an assured price and did mean that they were not exploited  by middlemen.

  With the new government in 1991 came a liberalised economy. Everything changed. Small-scale farmers were now on their own, new players in a market economy of which they had no experience. Non-government organisations stepped into the void left by government's withdrawal. Over the last ten years these NGOs have tried all sorts of ways of working with farmers in groups. While there has been lots of experience gained there has not been much sharing of this experience and learning from it.

   Recognising farmers' organisations as a key part of the strengthening of the capacity of small-scale farmers, three NGOs contracted me to carry out a consultation exercise to find out the experiences in the 90s with farmers' organisations. This would then form the basis of a programme to strengthen farmers' organisations.

   This consultation exercise took place over three months from May-July 2000. The aim was not just to consult but also to create space in which practitioners could reflect on their practice, and to start a momentum towards the proposed programme.

  At the heart of the exercise, which included interviews, workshops with farmers and a strategic planning workshop, was a one and a half day Open Space event for representatives of organisations working to strengthen farmer's organisations. Participants mostly came from NGOs. The theme of the event was: "The development, establishment and promotion of dynamic and robust farmers' organisations."

   The Open Space event was held at a motel just outside Lusaka. People did not stay there overnight. On the first day there were 33 participants, on the second day 24. Within an hour of the beginning there were 22 topics. Examples of some of the topics were: "Women only farmer groups - progressive or restrictive?"; Using farmers' groups to promote agro-biodiversity"; "Role of the traditional leadership structure in farmer groups"; "What role should government play in farmers' organisations?"

   The first day went fine but people really warmed to the spirit of the event on the second day. It was as if they needed some time to get used to it. They started using the law of two feet much more on the second day.

   When people shared on what they liked about the open space, the following are some of the comments that came up:

  -          I was treated as an expert in my own right.

  -          The open space technique brought out real issues that need a focus in strengthening farmer organisations; information sharing among participants was open and uninhibited.

 -          The technique gave me time to discuss my burning issues; I liked the difference in opinions on certain things.

  -          The open space technique allows for maximum participation because you are given the opportunity to discuss issues close to your heart; this was a new and innovative experience for me!

 Comments around what people did not like included:

  -          Not that they are not useful, but a weakness I have thought about in this open space technique is that if a facilitator (one who proposes a topic and leads the discussion) is not very conversant with the topic or not good at facilitating then the group discussion does not seem to go so well.

 -          There was not time to come back together and discuss as a group and come up with recommendations, since the ideas were so diverse in some cases.

 -          There was no plenary presentation to all the participants - this would have allowed other people from different groups to add or subtract from what was presented.

 On the afternoon of the second day, after the open space had been closed, we went into the following exercise:

  "Drawing on the discussions of the last day and a half and on your own experiences, identify what you think are likely to be the 10 most critical areas as far as strengthening farmers' organizations over the next 5-10 years."

  After raising these critical areas they then scored each in terms of how important they felt them to be and then in terms of current capacity in the country to deal with them. In both cases 10 was high and 1 low. This exercise pointed to those areas needing most attention (high in importance and low in current capacity).

  Both the Open Space and the exercise on the second day formed a crucial part of the consultation process. What made the whole thing especially effective was that people were not only feeding into the consultation exercise with the view and hope that they will benefit in future from the proposed programme. They also gained a great deal of immediate learning out of it themselves.

  I see tremendous possibilities for Open Space to enable rich exchange and learning to take place amongst rural development practitioners in sub-Saharan Africa. This is a very difficult field of operation and a great deal is being learnt all the time. Unfortunately most of the time the debate is dominated by northern academics, probably because they have the capacity to articulate issues best. Those working out in the field have the real and direct experience but are often not heard. Open Space would give them the opportunity to share and learn from their different experiences. In the proposed Zambia programme there are plans to hold annual open space events around the issue of strengthening farmers' organisations.

John Wilson for STORIES, Newsletter of the Open Space Institute (US)



Coleen Heglin and John Engle, Limye Lavi and Beyond Borders, Haiti

The word, restavčk, comes from the French, "reste avec," meaning, to stay with.  In Haiti, it defines a social class of children who live with families other than their own immediate family, and who work in these homes as servants.   Typically, they are victims of extreme poverty.  Their parents, too poor to take care of them, give them to other families out of desperation.  More than 60% of Haiti's 8 million people live on less than $100 (US) per year.  In giving their children to a family of better means, impoverished parents hope that their children might find a better life.

These children who, by many standards, live as slaves, typically range in age from nine years to young adulthood; a majority are girls.  It is estimated that over 300,000 children in Haiti make up the restavčk social class.   Work tasks required by these children  include:  fetching water, washing clothes, ironing, sweeping, washing floors, running errands for the household, preparing meals  -- wherever the family has a need.  Rarely do these children ever attend school.  They are often not considered a member of the family, but if so, always someone of lesser privilege and status. Frequently, these children suffer terrible abuse, physically and sexually. Many street children in Port au Prince are children who had lived as restavčks but who ran away as a result of abuse.

Our employers, Beyond Borders, a US based non-profit, and Limye Lavi, a Haitian foundation, have been financing and supporting the work of a Haitian NGO, PAPE (French acronym for Program for Literacy and the Promotion of Childhood), a four-year literacy program for children living in domestic servitude, for more than ten years.   During the last two years, board and staff members of both Beyond Borders and Limye Lavi have been seriously questioning our limited commitment to restavčk children.   While we are helping in the work of improving the lives of the 2,000 children involved in the PAPE program, we are doing nothing directly to end this social system of slavery.

During our annual meeting in May of 2000 in Port au Prince, members of Limye Lavi and Beyond Borders articulated a long-term goal, committing ourselves to "Building networks and partnerships which will collaborate toward the abolishment of the restavčk system."  All agreed that the priority for this fiscal year would be to hold an open space meeting with other interested organizations.

In the months that followed, Limye Lavi staff members gained the full cooperation of the International Program for the Eradication of Child Slavery (IPEC), a program of the International Labor Office, (BIT in Haiti), to hold a one day open space meeting.  The intention: bring together all known individuals and institutions working to improve the lives of restavčk children, and provide a space for discussion and reflection on the topic, "What can we do to end the social system in Haiti of child domestic servitude?"

On December 7, 2000, 77 people, representing 45 organizations, came together at the Montana Hotel in Port-au-Prince, Haiti to wrestle with the above stated theme.  Eight discussion groups were held during the morning session, and 5 during the afternoon session.  Participants included the Minister herself and others from the Ministry of Social Affairs, representatives of large, international and non-governmental organizations (UNICEF, Save the Children, for example), members of grass-roots organizations, a famous Haitian author, a children's radio journalist, psychologists, a judge on legislation for children, representative from the US embassy, and a teen-ager who had previously lived on the streets.

The meeting was carried out in Haitian Creole and French.   People were encouraged to use the language with which they were most comfortable.   The Director of B.I.T. opened the meeting at 8:40 am, ten minutes behind schedule, just after the Minister of Social Affairs arrived.  Approximately 45 people were present.  Respecting protocol and cultural tendencies, we arranged to have several short presentations and the opportunity for everyone present to introduce themselves during the first 30 minutes. Following the Minister's ten minute speech from 9:00 to 9:10, we broke for a 20 minute coffee break.  At 9:30, more than 70 people were sitting in the circle and learning about open space.  By 10:30 break-out sessions were underway.

People took the principles and law of mobility with seriousness.   There were bumblebees and butterflies, breakout sessions that decided to sub-divided early, a spontaneous session of about 20 people who wanted to hear directly from Patrick, the teen-ager.  At 3:10, 57 people returned to the large circle.   Following presentations from representatives from the break-out sessions, there was opportunity for large group dialogue.  We closed the meeting at 4:40 pm.

"We need to establish a platform to ensure that the type of dialogue and exchange that took place today can continue until this terrible system of slavery is abolished" was among the impassioned comments during the last 15 minutes together.  Two radio journalist encouraged organizations to be in touch with them, offering there medium to get messages to the public. During one of the break-out sessions, participants established a follow-up meeting on January 25th.  In the closing circle all were invited to participate.

Pictures and a video of the event will be available, thanks to the Ministry of Social Affairs.

Colleen Heglin and John Engle for STORIES, Newsletter of the Open Space Institute (US)


Coming Events

(for details and contact information, see the Worldwide Open Space Bulletin Board at

May 19-23, 2001 in Greve, Denmark, Open Space Training Workshop, Harrison Owen/Annette Hartwig Larsen/Gerard Muller.

Open Space Technology Training Workshop, Birgitt Williams, various dates and locations.

 Advanced Training Program in OST and the Open Space Organization, Birgitt Williams, various dates and locations.

 August 18 - 21, Vancouver, BC, Canada, Open Space on Open Space conference.



 Joelle Lyons Everett, Sound Resources, USA

 I went to Berlin for the Open Space on Open Space in   October, with great anticipation, not knowing what I would find there.  And I liked what I found:  a greener city than I expected, a city that treasures its trees and open spaces.  Simple, functional design of everything from door handles to transportation systems.  A less-frantic pace than many of the world's big cities.   Dishes on the buffet table that tasted like my grandmother's cooking. (Grandma's parents were Norwegian, Grandpa's ancestors came from Germany long ago, so I was feeling my own European roots.)

 The conference was ambitious in its design, sometimes frustrating, did a good job of holding space for dissension and frustration to be expressed.  The generosity of our German hosts to lead their sessions in English was much appreciated by my and other North Americans.  And it has led to healthy discussions about how we reach out to the world--maybe it shouldn't always be in English?   As a result, website materials about Open Space are being translated:  today into French, Swedish, Portugese, German; tomorrow, who knows?

 The best part of the conference was the people, who gave visitors such a warm-hearted welcome. My special thanks to Michael, Daniel, Felicia, Marianne, Emily, Tim, and the Berliners who made a long commute every day so out-of-town visitors could find space at the conference center. And to Gabriela and Rolf, who generously shared their time and many of their favorite places with a group of North Americans after the conference.

 I went to Berlin with a deep personal interest to learn more about the Berlin Wall.  In November, 1989, a few days after the wall was opened, I was in a meeting with a group of people whose work is change in organizations.  Our usual practice is to begin by briefly introducing ourselves with our answer to the evening's question.

 This night, the question was, "Where in the world did your family come from, and what does that mean for you today?"  Introductions expanded into the whole meeting.  Food on the potluck table stood uneaten as people shared amazing personal stories, expressed their joy for the people of East Germany, and their growing excitement at this concrete proof that transformative change was possible in the world.

 As I packed my bag for this trip, I realized that for all my excitement when the wall came down, I knew very little about its history, and I wanted to know more.  A visit to the Checkpoint Charlie museum, filled with historical exhibits and artwork, made this history come alive for me.  And I am grateful for the stories told by Harry Hampel, photojournalist, taxi driver and tour guide extraordinaire, as he piloted Sheila and Bill Isakson and I on a wonder-filled tour of Berlin.

 I can't pretend to know Berlin from a visit of a few short days. But the city and its people now have a special place in my heart, and I want to return. My memories sparked a poem, below:



 My heart has a wall in the center.

 The open space is no-man's land, dark scar on the city, cruel as razor wire.

 The radio tower blares stories that may be true, but maybe not. The sign of the cross appears in sunlight on the face of the cold metal.

 Gray walls and gray Wall constrict my chest, narrow my view, I travel the blocked streets without joy.

 Invisible, something is rising like maple sap in February. The old snow is black with coal dust, but something is beginning to grow.

 So long as people dance on ladders, paint words of courage on the old gray walls, stand in a circle, light a candle,

 I have hope that my walls too shall fall.


Joelle Lyons Everett for STORIES, Newsletter of the Open Space Institute (US)



In seasons of darkness, may we each have heart and courage to hold space for the coming of light into the world.

STORIES is published online a few times a year by the Open Space Institute (US).

To subscribe, or to find out more about the Open Space Institute (US), contact Peggy Holman

To submit your story , contact Joelle Everett, editor