Michael Herman
Opening Space for Business Agility

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Cheam First Nation - Cheam BC, June 23, 2000

Opened the space again on Friday June 23, 2000 at a First Nation in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia. The theme was "How can we assert our rights and title in our traditional territory now and in the future?" The setting was a modern longhouse in the community that itself was a living act of decolonization. One of the most powerful leaders in the community's history, and the father of the current chief, had built the longhouse in the 1950s during the era in which it was illegal to practice the potlatch and the winter ceremonies in this part of the world. And to add insult to injury he built the longhouse out of lumber he salvaged from an old church.

This small First Nation has been in the news a lot lately over a road blockade they erected to protest a land use plan that did not include them. They have been involved in several other high profile confrontations over the years over fishing rights and the harvesting of gravel from the gravel bars that form in the Fraser River near their reserve. This Open Space was sponsored by the First Nation's Aboriginal Rights and Title Committee, and was intended to be a community meeting. Up to 70 people were expected, but a sudden number of major events kept most people away. in the end 15 people showed up and 11 topics were posted spread between two one hour time slots.

This OS really tested the third principle, "whenever it starts is the right time." It was called for 9:00am (with an expectation that it would actually start around 9:30). I opened the space at 12:00, after waiting for three hours for people to assemble. It was strangely easy for me to wait three hours for 15 people to gather. Several people came, waited around and left again, and I took my cue from the sponsor as to when I needed to start. So for three hours I talked with folks, ate some of the fresh strawberries and smoked salmon that had been laid out (not a bad combination) and generally bided my time. Finally, 15 people were ready to go. The oldest one was 93 and the youngest was 6 weeks old. Most of the group were elders in their 60s or 70s. These were people who did not appear at first glance to be ready to go out and assert Aboriginal title. Two were stone deaf, one was critically diabetic, one was a baby who still had blurry vision, and two had major respiratory ailments. Nevertheless, I knew the wisdom that lurked within this small crowd, and I began my opening.

During my opening, three people fell asleep (not including the baby, who stayed awake and listened quietly...), and one left for about 15 minutes. I found myself reveling in the absurdity of the moment, having driven 150 kms at 7:00 in the morning to wait for four hours to open the space for 15 people (11 of them conscious and present) who appeared to be not so well equipped to physically undertake the task at hand. But, of course, I continued undaunted and when i reached the end of my opening there was silence. And a long pause. And I kept walking the circle.

Then one man stood up and started talking about how the Department of Fisheries and Oceans was locking him out from his traditional fishing grounds. He spoke for a couple of minutes, during which the sponsor grabbed a piece of flipchart paper and captured what he was saying in the form of an agenda item. She posted it on the wall, the others got the drift and we were off. 10 minutes later we had our 11 agenda items.

People milled about seemingly aimlessly for about half an hour after that. I went to make a phone call thinking it was going to be awhile before any of them got down to work, given the kind of day it had been so far. When I returned 10 minutes later, they were still milling about, but to my surprise, 4 report forms had been filled out. Then it occurred to me that they WERE working -- they were moving around the room at record speed. Almost nobody was sitting. It was a conference composed almost entirely of bumblebees. This continued for another two and a half hours, during which they consumed lunch and kept on working.

Several groups experienced more than 100% turnover! Topics ranged from how to use resources like fish and gravel, to lobby and direct action strategies to basic organizational challenges like where to get money from and why so few people had turned out to the meeting.

A fifteen page book of proceedings was produced with some great strategies and commitments.

The closing circle evolved into a kind of healing circle. First Nations people are used to sitting in circles for healing and so the ritual created the circumstances for action (see the discussion on ritual on Openspace Home at The Meta Network for more on this). And most of the comments were about how important the process had been, and how liberating, and how important it would be to do this with the youth, and to make it a monthly event.

This was the second OS in this community, and we doubled our numbers from the last one. Hopefully the next one will build again. The whole bit about growing appropriate structure came home to me with this one, watching these Elders engaging in strategy around fishing etc. I am amazed at how much of a buzz 15 people are able to make. One of the sponsor group is currently working on a Masters in adult basic education and she now wants to research OS in the context of community building.

In short, the process came home again, and even though I was very well prepared to be surprised, I was caught off guard again! I am learning that it is impossible to facilitate an Open Space meeting and not have my mind blown.


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