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The Courage to Convene
Vicki Robin


TABLE of CONTENTS
[click on any heading]

What is Convening?
Convening: a Particular Kind of Leadership
Conveners Stand on "Vortices of Possibility
Why Convene?

The Unfolding of the Simplicity Forum Congress
Convening as Sustained Attention
Agenda Setting
A Big Speed Bump in the Ramp Up
Spirituality and Activism
The First Night
Introductions
The Meeting
How I Felt

Is "the collective" merely an assemblage of individuals, or is there an intelligent field that members of a collective participate in? If the latter, how does such a field arise and develop its "soul"—the integrity and tenderness that allows individuals to participate without fear? Is there always a point of focus, an individual who leads and either retains or passes on leadership to the next individual? How does this leadership get conferred, passed on and even, if ever, transcended? Do such fields persist once the individuals leave the space? Do they influence other individuals and fields? How are they like—and not like—the fields we each recognize and work with called our individual selves?

We live in an era when people of good will, faced with a "sorcerer's apprentice" horror of non-living systems—systems without souls multiplying out of control—must learn the art of collective intelligence and action. We are called into multiple communities that need to ensoul themselves—create coherence and purpose without diminishing the ethical integrity and autonomy of the individuals who participate or demanding undue loyalty. We need to learn to swarm, and to mutate apace with the mutations of the systems without souls—corporations, governments and other institutions that no longer serve the well-being of the whole. This is one way to talk about a wisdom society, and training ourselves in these arts is as crucial as an army training soldiers for war. The consequences of failure are just as great.

One element of such spontaneous service communities is "convening." A convener is the person who "calls the circle", who gathers people for the purpose of meeting the social and spiritual realities of our times. Convening might be a calling, like healing or teaching. It comes from, and serves, the whole.

In 2000, the Fetzer Institute awarded the New Road Map Foundation a small grant to gather leaders in the inchoate simplicity movement to investigate "the power of simplicity" to change the world. The gathering resulted in the creation of the Simplicity Forum, a leadership alliance "promoting and honoring simple, just, and sustainable ways of life for all." In 2001, Fetzer Institute gave a substantially larger grant to continue this work of convening. Simplicity for Fetzer represented a toe in the water of "spiritual activism"—taking stands in the affairs of the world from a core of spiritual perception and practice. Simplicity is inherently a field that looks in both directions—inner and outer. As our lives deepen, we want greater simplicity. As we simplify our lives, there's space there for the deepening to grow. Simplicity and spirituality are in a mutually reinforcing positive cycle. You simplify so that more of god can be present in your life. You clear out that which is in the way of love, beauty and truth manifesting through you. But you also simplify because it's just—it's fair to those who don't have as much as you do. You "live simply that others may simply live." It is also ecologically inappropriate to over-consume the shared wealth of the world—you include the natural world in the "others" who must not suffer unnecessarily and unintentionally from your actions. Gandhi, King and other inspirational leaders call us to such spiritually whole and just lives.

As the convener of the Simplicity Forum (SF), I have been asked to reflect for the Collective Wisdom Initiative on my process of calling this alliance into being and fostering its development.

What is Convening?

Convening as I am discussing it in these reflections, is a form of improvisational social artistry aimed at a higher order coherence and intelligence. It arises from and serves love. Humans gather for many reasons and in many ways—parties, meetings, meals, work, church. Each sort of gathering has a purpose and a preferred amount of coherence. Parties are loose containers for the purpose of fun, frolic and perhaps a bit of business on the side over a beer. Church is a formalized, ritualized gathering where the people are drawn more to divine contemplation than lateral connection. Show up any week and the same basic ceremony unfolds and more or less the same people are in the pews, heads either bowed or eyes front listening to the preacher. Business is goal oriented, asking workers to be skilled and professional—and intentionally or unintentionally asking that deeper elements of self be left out side the door. Meals feed our bodies and our need to connect in community, to be part of a group. Meetings often focus on purpose and outcomes ñ old business, new business, decisions and done. Convening is different from all of these. To state the ideal, I "convene" in response to an inner call arising from the collective, assemble elements like a floral arranger might select and arrange flowers, shape the event as it unfolds with the kind of body-knowing of a skier whizzing breakneck down a hill, and lead from and with the heart.

Convening: a Particular Kind of Leadership

Popular interpretation of living system theory leads us to believe that systems just organize themselves. I believe this ignores the function of the "leader"—the person who magnetizes the random energy of the collective, focuses however briefly or lengthily this attention, and then releases or directs it. Clearly a boss bosses. A parent parents. A tour guide guides. These people hold official leadership positions and people follow—or resist—their direction. But life is filled with subtler and more ambiguous interactions where "resting energy" is directed by someone for something.

"Let's go the movies," could activate and motivate a group of bored teens. The kid who comes up with the idea and voices it is a momentary leader. Soon everyone is discussing which movie to see. Some have information about movie plots and ratings. Some have emotional needs that hold sway—they want a comedy or a drama. If you traced the flow of decisional energy—of leadership—in the group you might find it moving around as alternatives are weighed until a "yes" emerges from everyone and then, as a clump, they all mobilize and go. I say this to make the point that we are quite used to this process of an instigator, a deliberation (shared leadership) and a collective recognition of which way to go. With tougher and more complex choices, of course, more formalized processes come to bear—Robert's Rules, Consensus, Parliamentary Procedure, Council, etc.

It seems to me that our social conditioning, our helplessness as children, our need for years of guidance and our brain's untapped potential for growth beyond what we already know—all of this entrains us to take cues for thinking, feeling and doing from our environment. We will follow the leader (or resist the leader) often without discrimination about the state of being of he or she or it who leads. Human groups need a head. Or perhaps, better said, create a head. The head can be benevolent or ego maniacal, dignified or erratic, selfless or selfish, a conductor or a soloist, radiant or greedy. The head sets the tone. Often the founder, long after his or her death, still sets the container for what can and cannot happen in the group. While every group member is free to step into the position of organizing the energy (whether others "follow" is another story!) there are those whose temperament, inner guidance or destiny puts them in the center of group energy more often.

A convener is a particular sort of "head." A convener senses something wanting to happen and authorizes him or herself to precipitate that potential energy through an intervention or invitation. A convener doesn't "make it happen" out of nowhere, however. A convener is most like a host, welcoming a presence in. A convener responds as well, to a hunch about what's being said without saying in the group. A convener notices what is happening in the field and self authenticates, and risks. The guess could be off, but the ball is in play, and willing participants will then toss it around until the group field is in communication with itself.

Actually, anyone, anywhere can "host" or convene energy—put something in play that the group responds to in order to give and receive its best. Even if a member of the group resists, it doesn't matter—their gesture simply becomes a factor of the game.

Conveners Stand on "Vortices of Possibility"

Many power struggles arise from the perception that there is a limited field, a limited "pot" of possibilities. When nothing new is available, a struggle for domination seems logical. Yet, from the point of view of a convener, there are multiple fields of possibilities outside the postage stamp of the recognized game. They see these vortices of possibility arising like clouds in a sky. Others shout at one another in a corner, imagining a boundary while the convener's sees something quite permeable. Conveners see open spaces, as well, where nothing is happening so the field is clear. In a way, a convener is a social entrepreneur—the one who steps into a potential while others compete for a limited pie.

In my life, I've expanded over time the capacity to see such possibilities outside the norm. I've experimented with living there—on my own and with others. I've failed many times in bringing forth possibility by not taking into account all the dimensions of the other energies afoot. I didn't see how resistant others, or my own fear, would be to large scale change. I tried to dominate to bring possibility into effect, my own or others feelings. So I am learning the art of noticing possibility, being willing to embody it so that others can assess whether it fits their own inclinations, and being willing to shape, with others, how the possibility will evolve.

I see these "vortices of possibility" as focal points of energy in a group field. Wow, a mouthful! But I mean that there is always a field created between living beings, and within fields there seems to be a moving point of resolution of the "full catastrophe" of hopes, fears, desires, memories of every individual as these are projected into the collective space. This byproduct of all our emanations could seem like chaos, but I have the sense that there is always a point of resolution. The convener is one who watches this play of energy, watches this co-creation of possibility like a cat might watch rainbows cast off by a crystal twisting on a string in sunlight. When the moment seems right, the convener "pounces"—steps into the focal point, embodies it, articulates it, invites others to interact with it. In religious terms, this might be a moment when there seems to be "a call." A skillful convener will watch what happens to the field when she steps on that point of focus and adjust the stance as responses reveal where the focus flows in response to the "grand gesture.". She will then boldly step into that new focal point. It becomes like a conversation between the convener and the field. Also, if someone else has a more accurate guess of where the energy wants to go and steps on that point of focus, a good convener will then dance with the new possibility. But if another tries to "wrest power" from a point of ego, a good convener might stand more firmly and report more clearly on what she is sensing so that everyone can make a clear choice about where to head.

Words! The above took more time to write and to read than this subtle stepping into possibility takes. And these words are a poor description of that kind of cat-like attention that a convener embodies.

So, in my view, there aren't just leaders and followers, the powerful and powerless, the agenda setters and those that adapt. I think things are a lot more fluid than that, but not unstructured. Leadership is always present. Anyone can take it, as long as they know that it does not mean that their will controls the outcome. Leadership, whether it's mobilizing your friends to go to a movie or mobilizing a nation for war, can appear when one has the courage to be consequential and the humility to be overruled. The concept that one is or is not a leader defaults leadership to a few who have the temerity to propose, persuade and/or impose.

Also, there are many kinds of energy that get mobilized on the way to an outcome. People shape spiritual space, emotional space, intellectual space as well as action. A minister or shaman or ceremonialist designs a shared time to maximize the sense of connection with the divine. An actor can move us to tears or laughter. A writer directs our attention to the products of their imagination or their intellectual inquiry. A lecturer draws attention to facts they have arranged for an effect and the audience responds—mentally or verbally agreeing, disagreeing, spacing out or wishing they were somewhere else. A convener moves and shapes the social sentiments of a group, their willingness to do something or go somewhere together. All of these people, however, if they share a common will to expand the possibilities of what it means to be human, are sharing leadership in this collective journey to wholeness and wisdom.

Why Convene?

Conveners live in big questions and seek to make pattern and meaning out of disparate elements. They become, live inside, their search. It's not just idle philosophical inquiry, a desire to understand for oneself. I believe that conveners sense themselves as part of a larger system and are trying to serve that system by making sense of random data. They become an aspect of the heart-mind of the collective. They feedback their selected data and interpretations into the system of which they are a part, in an effort to increase connection and insight in the collective. They place diverse elements next to one another to help the system observe an emergent pattern.

Writers would express these intuitions through words, metaphors, paragraphs, fiction, non-fiction. Artists would express their "sense of things" through color, texture, shape. Musicians use words and notes, voices and instruments. A convener's palette is people. He or she might select for harmony or conflict, subtlety or contrast using diversities of age, gender, opinion, nationality, race, tribe, sector of society, occupation, class, personality types, spheres of influence, beliefs or other spectrums along which humans sort themselves. Social scientists would assemble such groups for study, but social artists are attempting to influence the collective, which is the source of their inspiration to convene. The purpose could be peace, it could be discovery, it could be understanding, it could be community building, it could be reconciliation. The output of the convening would be available to all who attend—once called into being, the circle is a living entity which comes to know and shape itself.

Because conveners hold themselves as servants to larger questions and processes, they become trusted. People know they will be more themselves—wiser, kinder, smarter—in the spaces conveners create. The "gatherings" might be on-line, on conference calls or face-to-face. They are always many-to-many, with the convener serving as a host, assembling the participants and, when necessary, shaping the flow of connections and communications. After the event, the convener will often feedback into the system the essences of what occurred, not as the final word, but as a new input to create the next step in insight, coherence and community. The convener "holds the space" 24-7, because the collective lives within the heart of the convener. The group becomes one more element of the whole system that the convener tunes in to for vital information on the health of the whole.

The Unfolding of the Simplicity Forum Congress

Convening as Sustained Attention

I'd participated in an expensive "fiasco" of such a high order that it really got my attention. Rather than weaving all the strands of gold into an exquisite fabric, the facilitation team took misstep after misstep to the point that there was mutiny. What good arose was in spite of the design. This experience planted in me a thirst for real synthesis, real creative and mobilizing dialogue among leaders. What didn't happen was a partial map for me in designing the space of the Forum.

Agenda Setting

We used a web-based survey tool to give everyone a chance to weigh in on Conference priorities. Carol Holst, myself and our facilitator, Ron Kertzner, synthesized the responses and designed the agenda to suit the expressed needs of the group. I believe that being consulted on the agenda gave everyone a greater sense of ownership of the meeting ñ and less cause for rebellion during the meeting!

A Big Speed Bump in the Ramp Up

Two weeks before the Congress I learned that Fetzer was not going to fund us again for another year. While we had no firm promise, I'd gotten an indication that we might expect an equal amount to the prior year, just over $100,000. It required a great deal of steadiness in purpose to approach and run the meeting without any resources on the horizon to enact any plans we might concoct. I held it as a liberation from funder-expectations rather than a collapsing of part of the field. As simplicity and frugality practitioners, we were very able to imagine how to do anything on a shoestring and I had faith that "way would open" elsewhere. I think my steadiness allowed everyone to skate on this thinner ice with full abandon and enthusiasm—and work is continuing even with these diminished financial prospects. To me this was another affirmation of the accuracy of convening the Forum. Had it not been a good guess of what the collective wanted to do, the field might have collapsed at this barrier to forward momentum.

Spirituality and Activism

With a web-based dialogue space and an email list, a great deal of dialogue happened during the year. A divide became apparent between the people who saw spirituality as essential to simplicity and those who felt that our spirituality was our own business and that our work should be pragmatic and political. No one disagreed on the importance of the spiritual dimension to existence, but we disagreed on how it should be woven into the design of the Forum, the purpose of the Forum and the presentation of the Forum. I chose to hold the "spiritual" pole for the group so that the demands of the activists could be met without sacrificing the community building and communion building aspects. I designed my opening comments to "call the circle"—to really knit the group together and to set a high intention. I also named the countervailing forces that might present themselves—the conflicts and tendencies to withdraw energy—so that the group could be alert when and if they arose. Without using the word "spiritual", I created a spiritual container in which we could all feel relaxed, alert, included and called to our highest.

The great gift was Dennis Kucinich. I invited him to speak as a local Congressperson and as someone who has stunned the transformational change movement with his courageous stands for peace. As a politician, he might be expected to speak for the art of the practical and possible in the current government gridlock. Instead, he spoke about simplicity standing at the threshold of the immanent and the manifest, about simplicity bringing spirit to earth. He got a standing ovation and the spiritual foundation of the Forum was firmly set.

The First Night

Because a fair number of participants could not arrive in time for an official group session on the first night of the Forum, we set out food in the gathering room and allowed the first evening to be a reception. This gave people many hours to get acquainted and begin to seek synergies in a relaxed and gracious way. I am convinced that this contributed to the conviviality of the Forum.

Introductions

For something new to arise, the members of a group need to have the chance to present their "already knowing" to others sufficiently to feel seen and gotten. You can't expect leaders to set aside their life work to "synergize." The urge to explain what they do and why will be too great during the whole meeting for them to really participate. Instead of building on other's ideas, their contributions will simply be new fragments of their basic lecture. Somehow I knew that each leader needed to feel truly seen, known and appreciated before they could be enthusiastic about co-creation. We had each person do a one-screen self introduction on an email list of the whole group. Because they were brief, most participants read them—and the rolling in of colleagues emails prior to the event built momentum. Then we offered each person a chance to do a poster about their work. We gave them a basic format and total freedom about content—and had them send the file to a local Kinkos for printing. These posters hung during the whole conference on the walls of the Conference room, so people were always inside the commitment and stories of their colleagues. Finally, we had each person send in a 100 word bio—these were assembled in alphabetical order and each participant had a copy. The first morning, after the greeting from myself and from Dennis Kucinich, each participant stood up in the order of their bio listing and had a minute to add anything additional or personal to their bio, which everyone had printed in front of them. By the end of these three successive self introductions, I felt none of the "look at me!" energy I had at other events. People were simply delighted to be present.

The Meeting

With all of this prior work in place, the meeting went very smoothly. The only element missing was sufficient free time. The group simply took it in the form of late into the night sessions in the hospitality room and the halls. The fact that we had a never-ending supply of beer, wine and snacks was essential to the success of the meeting!

The one point of tension was the need of one participant to reshape the agenda for some specific organizing he'd hoped to do. I had seen this coming weeks before, had a long conversation with him, got his buy-in for the agenda, and so at the time of his outburst, it was easy to stay steady and refer back to our prior agreements. In the end, he got what he needed and in the final session he apologized to the group for his public upset—and the group affirmed our love for his passion and commitment. The essence of this was that the good will and the container were set so clearly and solidly that the space could handle outbursts and oddballs without losing the thread of continuity.

How I Felt

As the convener, the meeting lived inside me, but not in a stressful way. Most of the time I was silent, but when I needed to speak, I was present with a few pointed words. I was relaxed, and in that space, everyone could relax. Yet I was highly committed and engaged, which helped everyone stay alert to the precious opportunity we had to build our community—and to build a movement. The success of the meeting was everyone's doing—and ownership was high. However, I recognize that "something" in me held the shape of the meeting, the vibe of the meeting. The best I can say, is that it lived in my belly and radiated through my heart (and sometimes through my mouth).

An interesting further exploration might "cross-tab" kinds of initiatives, organizations, meetings and outcomes with some personality typology. Do groups inevitably partake of the personality of the convener, however much she might want to "step out of the way" once the flow is flowing? If so, what outcomes can we expect from each personality type? Is every type a leader, but in a different way?

I hope these reflections on convening will call forth more insights from others. They represent my inklings and sensings, not anything I've read or systematically studied. I offer them as a gift to the collective for shaping by others with their own knowings. I believe that convening is an essential form of leadership for a wisdom society, and getting better at it will allow us as a species to more consciously evolve.

(see also My Call to Convene)


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