Community Articles
Go to Site Index See "Community Articles" main page
General News · 21st December 2010
Suzan Denis
Picture a café setting in the Tiber Bay Room at Linnaea Farm on the evening of November 30th. Café tables are covered with brightly colored cloth and candles that cast a soft glow of welcome. In large letters, a poster reads: play, doodle, draw; writing on the tablecloth is encouraged. There are sheets of paper and a glass of markers inviting the guests to do just that. And they respond to the invitation. Coffee and treat in hand, the guests take their seats and the evening begins.

There is no way to predict the outcome of a World Café. It depends on who comes to the event, what knowledge and skills they bring, and the synergy of the group as they engage in conversation. The group that showed up on Tuesday, November 30th was motivated, knowledgeable, and intent on moving the dynamics of recent organizational quandaries to higher ground.

To back up for a moment and provide some context, several organizations in the community were challenged with situations that caused dissention and painful interactions between their boards and membership. The entire community was affected. Although, the situations got resolved in the end, there remains a fractured feeling in the community. Many people have expressed a desire to repair the fractures.

The Facilitating Successful Community Process and Decision Making group that meets every second Tuesday was approached and invited to facilitate a community event around the topic: How do boards and membership work together for the mutual benefit of the organization they serve? Suzan Denis volunteered to facilitate a World Café and chose three questions for discussion that would allow participants to get to the heart and meaning of what constitutes mutual benefit. These questions were:

1. What can we learn from what has happened this year between the boards and membership of key organizations? What possibilities do we now see?
2. What has real meaning for us as members of an organization? What challenges us?
3. If our success were completely guaranteed what steps toward positive collaboration and decision-making within the organizations we serve would we choose?

The conversations were energetic and thought provoking. The themes that emerged as the tables shared the essence of their conversations can be grouped into the categories of communication tools, relationship building, and governance.

Universal meeting agreements that contribute to respectful listening and succinct sharing with an emphasis on asking questions and the intention of understanding each other’s point of view were identified. To this end, facilitators trained to bring out the best creative and inspired thinking from all the participants at a public meeting would be useful. In order for the community to express informed opinion about a topic, the proposed meeting information needs to get out early. Employing tools such as a reader’s poll when there is an issue or topic of concern to the whole community would allow facilitators and stakeholders to gather pertinent information in preparation for the meeting.

Another idea that resonated with many of the guests is a council or ombuds-wo/man. Traditionally, elders in the community have served in an advisory capacity and helped community members discuss issues, concerns, questions, and ideas. Perhaps, a council of community members who are recognized as fair, wise, knowledgeable about the community both historically and currently, and relatively unbiased could be appointed or elected to help people brainstorm and problem solve. The council would not be a decision-making body.

It is recognized there are twenty plus organizations on Cortes Island, most operating under a board and membership model. Would it be feasible for organizations of like mandates to join under an umbrella group? This could lesson fragmentation. There is certainly a desire for more inter-organizational collaboration and the idea of a monthly community newsletter was discussed. This would be a free publication that individuals and organizations could submit articles to. It could serve the community as a communication tool that would allow the community in general to stay informed.

A welcome wagon publication that new members to the community receive would be a way to introduce them to the richness and vibrancy of the Cortes community and invite their involvement.

A community forum using such meeting techniques as Open Space, Appreciative Inquiry, and World Café could also be employed every couple of months. The forum could continue the work of repair, serve to minimize misunderstandings and misinformation, and empower community members to practice collaboration, listening for understanding as well as allow them to be heard in a supportive environment.

Conversation about the roles and responsibilities of boards, membership, and the community yielded more questions than answers. Tension gets created because people have different beliefs, expectations, resources, and definitions of what it means to participate on a board or as a member of an organization. Questions include:

1. How big does a decision need to be before it comes to the membership or the community?
2. When is one-way communication the best form of communication and in what situations could two-way communication be utilized?
3. Under what circumstances is holding information back from the community necessary?
4. Is there a policy within organizations around becoming a member in order to voice an opinion about one issue? Do members who join to speak to one issue continue with the organization? Do they feel any responsibility toward the organization’s work over the long term?
5. Would it be appropriate for members who want to serve on the board of an organization to accumulate experience and historical perspective before making a commitment to serve as a board member?
6. And, how is contribution to the community recognized, respected, and honored?

After all, being part of an organization is community members working together to improve the quality of life. Even when there is dissention, there is value in the diversity. In order for it to work, trust and the ability to listen for what has heart and meaning must form the foundation of our work together along with the intention to collaborate toward an outcome that serves the whole community.

Thanks for listening.