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A Community Table in DC?

A controlled discussion is not a dialog or even a conversation!

I attended a culinary diplomacy roundtable titled “Innovation and Advancement in Food Security, Delivery, and Sustainability” at the Meridian International Center as a guest of a guest in late April.  This was one of those events that did not really have a clearly communicated purpose for coming together but was a way for some international visitors who are part of the State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program to better see and appreciate what was happening with the local food scene in DC – yet through the eyes of NGO’s.  It was moderated by a Department of State representative, which is to say it was a controlled event – a precedent was established where if you were called on, you could speak.  Leave it to say, the meeting was more of a pitch competition where organizational leaders were marketing their programs.  When I think of the work we do at Capitol Food Ventures, this is the exact opposite of how we want to conduct our work and participate with our clients – we aim for a more free flowing conversation that can cross-pollinate between those at the table, not to be directed by a focal point for every topic that arises – we aim to redistribute power among those at the table, not concentrate it in a moderator.

The very next day I produced an interactive webinar titled “A Path to Conflict-Free Chocolate?” which aimed to get away from the very form of communication demonstrated at the Meridian Center.  But we could not get away from that form of ‘discussion’ (by the way, discussion has its roots in ideas of percussion and concussion).  Again the conversation ebbed and flowed through our moderator, with no cross-pollination of thought, reactions, or emotions involved.  I could chalk this up to the technology we used – since we had five guests in five different locations around the globe sharing their insights on the cocoa industry – however, I believe it may have something more to do with Washington in particular, but I don’t want to believe it.

That same week I was at another salon hosted by GW and SustainAbility with a focus on sustainable supply chains.  Again, although a much more intimate setting, the manner in which the conversation evolved was very scripted – from the perspective that if you were called upon, you could speak.  What became clear to me were two things:  first, that unless I was called upon, I could not speak, so I needed permission to do so; and second, whoever was called upon was being asked to speak to something in particular and not to what necessarily was being ruminated about by people in the room.

Can we have an open dialog on food in Washington?

I’ve been working with a few different food oriented organizations, individuals, businesses, etc. in DC to establish a ‘community table’ modeled after Food Sol at Babson University in Boston, MA.  The response has been luke warm thus far.  Imagine the idea of people coming together to talk about food related topics – surrounding economics, policy, access, agriculture/farming, production/sourcing, distribution, cooking/recipes, storytelling, history, changing the system, or any other topic of interest – and having this be a free flowing open dialog that could go anywhere and might allow us to share our story, share our interests, and share our experiences.

Would you want this (information) infrastructure to exist in your city – especially if you are an up and coming ‘food’ city?

My hope is that this piece can be a call to all those involved in food – not just NGO’s and food access folks which are important players, but also government departments and employees, business leaders and their committees, entrepreneurs and artisans, chefs and their line staff, students and their professors, schools and their administrators, neighbors, and those with general interest in food, where it comes from, or how it affects your health or our commons.  Let’s find a way to get together and start talking food in a multi-disciplinary, multi-sector, multi-industry, multi-cultural way.  I’m sure John Chambers over at Bloombars would be up for it.

How would the DC Community Table work?

In general, there would be an agreed upon location – which can be an institution or even a shared co-working space – and a ‘facilitator’ could be assigned in advance but a consistent person could anchor the sessions.  Each community table could have a theme or focus for that meeting, where a guest speaks on a specific topic or a paper is presented or a project analyzed, etc. and this can or cannot be the focus on the ensuing conversation – it can just be a conversation starter.  Then those participating or attending can share their thoughts, reactions, how it impacts their program or interests, and offer resources that likely exist.  In the end, there is always a networking aspect and relationship building component – either through exchanging contact info, breaking bread, or sharing juice/tea/coffee.

Some fundamental ideas for governing the community table might be:

  • Open Space Technology principles apply, which means, we would have to let go of control!
  • You have permission to speak!
  • Feelings matter and so do facts
  • Your experience matters, no matter how you view it yourself – you never know how what you say may impact those who are or are not involved in the food system.
  • Diversity of origination, thought, and experience is sought after

Open Space Technology Framework

*There typically is one basic principle, four supportive principles, and one law.

Open Space Technology Framework

So what is dialog?

Hmmmm…I am a little bit at a stand-still on what this really represents – I think we can conceptualize it theoretically however putting it into practice is entirely another matter.  Yes, it is a flow of meaning and ideas expressed openly, honestly, and authentically… but how does this sit with the politically charged or the fiduciary responsibility of a business leader in the room?  Possibly a part of this is allowing the conclusions Owen Harrison illuminates to sink in, namely that:

  1. all systems are open and
  2. all systems are self-organizing.

And, seeing is believing:  experiencing this process work its magic for yourself especially when no agenda is advanced or present, no one is in charge, no prior training is conducted or had, and all those preconceived management principles are buried; this can be a transformative gift in and of itself.  We invite you to help us create that opportunity here in DC.  

The waves are ours to ride… we have only to leave the beach and release our infatuation with control. 

We never had it.  We never will.

~ Owen Harrison

3 thoughts on “A Community Table in DC?

  1. John, excellent observation about controlled dialogues and the lack of interactivity in many so-called discussions — and terrific idea about what a real community discussion group might look like. Perhaps Capitol Food Ventures can test it out in one market, and host simultaneous groups across the country?

    My guess is that what you observed says less about “Washington” and more about institutions with something to win from a restrained overview as opposed to a real give-and-take. Some of the invited NGOs might have been compensated for their time there (as would be the Meridian Center for coordinating and hosting) — and/or receive some government funds. As such, they might have felt less able to speak freely. (I’ve been an invited speaker and trainer for several similar “State Department “leadership” programs around organizational development issues, and they really are highly orchestrated.)

    What you’re considering as the response to that sort of mind-numbing yes-sir gathering would breathe great life into those interested in food issues from across the spectrum. It reminds me of similar community-based discussions that have been popping up across the thematic gamut in the past 10 years — from groups formed around Socratic method of asking questions to those bringing together folks to discuss death. Good luck!

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