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Open Space for non-readers, without props

forwarded by John Engle, from a colleague of his in Haiti

JOHN: My colleague, Tim, who is new to Haiti, shared these words with me yesterday when I returned from Lagonav, a small island of 100,000 people - 20 miles wide and 40 miles long - off the coast of Haiti.

TIM: "I was so impressed by how few props were necessary, how simple everything was, during my first Open Space experience in Philadelphia at Beyond Bordersí annual meeting this past September. Now, after spending two months in Haiti, it strikes me that these simple props Ė big paper, tape, markers - are not accessible to most Haitians."


Saturday, November 24, my colleagues and I experimented on Lagonav with a form of Open Space that is totally accessible to non-readers and requires no props Ė no big paper, no markers, no tape. The day's event followed a design that emerged during a small group discussion at OsonOs? in Vancouver. Not surprising, it worked! Perhaps others have done similar things. This was a first for us.

There were 40 of us who came together for a day to Reflect upon exchanges between people on Lagonav and others. Participants included: members of local families who have received North Americans as part of Beyond Bordersí Transformational Travel Program, http://www.beyondborders.net/Trasformational%20Travel.htm community organizers and educators who have visited the U.S. to learn about innovative educational models and to share their experiences, and literacy instructors who have visited literacy programs in other parts of Haiti. Perhaps a quarter of those present are non-readers.

The meeting was held in the Training Center of Nan Jozen, a large cement block building equipped with wooden doors and shutters and covered with a corrugated tin roof. No running water, no electricity, no glass or screened windows, no flipcharts, no chairs, just benches. But, at the Training Center of Nan Jozen, one finds a heartwarming welcome and extra-ordinary hospitality: delicious food cooked in huge kettles over open fires, clean sheets on rows of sturdy bunk beds, a Coleman lamp, good drinking water, toilet paper and well constructed outhouses, and a view and country sounds that nourish one's soul. And then there's the singing which starts every meeting. Powerful words pour forth in strong, beautiful voices giving witness to hardship, expressing solidarity to overcome obstacles and forces of oppression. Clapping hands, beating drums, bodies swaying! to the rhythmÖI get goosebumps every time, even though I have been visiting the island at least a half a dozen times a year for nearly ten years.

There are no paved roads on Lagonav. No electricity except that which is provided by some privately owned generators or solar panels. Up until five years ago when cellular technology became accessible, there were only five telephones on the entire island. There is no postal service, nor free schools. Typically, there is never more than four doctors on the entire island at one time. One hospital and several modestly equipped clinics serving100,000 people.

Participation for many at Saturday's event meant walking 3 to 5 hours one way. Most people on Lagonav eek out an existence through gardening, and/or raising chickens, goats, pigs - some have cows and donkeys. Some fish.

Freda Catheus, a leader in the grassroots organization with which Beyond Borders collaborates, opened the meeting shortly after 9:00 am. My colleague, Eddy Sterling, an experienced Open Space facilitator, immediately followed, presenting Open Space. To make sure that people clearly understood, four of us performed a 3 minute skit demonstrating the four principles and one law in action. People liked it and clearly grasped the skitís message.

People wishing to lead discussions were invited to stand where they were, articulate their subject, and remain standing. Within 10 minutes, eight people were standing, several were women, several were non-readers and all had clearly articulated their subjects. Eddy then asked them to all stand in a row and to once again, one after another, state their theme. He opened the market place indicating that everyone should go talk with those standing, decide what subject interested them, go find a place and discuss the topic, then reconvene in our large circle at 11:30.

By shortly after 10:00 am, 7 small groups - two had merged - were scattered around the Training Center, sitting on the ground or rocks or logs, fully engaged in discussion. There were bumblebees and butterflies. At 11:30 the group reconvened, and Eddy opened it by saying, "We have 45 minutes to talk about whatever you all think we need to talk about." People expressed openly a combination of discussion summaries and general reflections.

Then, Eddy had us repeat the process, inviting those interested in proposing a subject to stand and state it. Within 15 minutes - 12:30 - four separate groups had formed and discussions were underway once again.

Everyone reconvened for a hardy lunch enriched by a convivial ambiance from 1:30 to 2:30. From 2:30 to 3:00 summaries of discussions were given followed by the talking stick exercise using Tibetan chimes.

Final remarks during the closing circle leave us with little doubt that this process is going to be replicated and improved upon, throughout the little island of Lagonav. Hereís a sampling of comments:

"I just canít believe how many important ideas emerged as a result of this process."

"I canít believe people who have never expressed themselves in a large group were standing up and offering to lead small group discussions."

"So often when groups meet, you know that a lot of people are thinking about a lot of things that never get said. Today, people didnít hold back!"

"People need to have the opportunity to express themselves in these small groups. More gets said and dealt with."

"We need to have these types of exchanges more often."

Some present did take the initiative to take notes and they were submitted to be typed in a report. But all knew that whether notes were taken or not, "What happened is what should have happened."


generalizing from this story, i come down to the following as a basic design for open space without the props, for non-readers or others where it is more important to feel and be together than it is to write it down.

of course, you could always add a few sheets of poster board, one per group, to the mix and still generate some sort of proceedings document, even if it was all pictures.


opening the space without props

first half or whole hour:

next two hours:

first round discussions: invite all to talk to the conveners (standing), find out which topic you want to start with, find a place to have the discussion, reconvene for half hour and report the essentials

next two hours:

invite more topics to stand, speak and line up... repeat down the line and invite all to begin next round of discussions... reconvene to report the essentials

eat lunch along the way, where and whenever it fits in.

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Last edited November 25, 2002 11:35 pm CentralTimeUSA by Michael
© 1998-2020 Michael Herman and www.michaelherman.com, unless signed by another author or organization. Please do not reprint or distribute for commercial purposes without permission and full attribution, including web address and this copyright notice. Permission has always been granted gladly to those who contact me and say something about themselves, their work, and their use of these materials. Thank you and good luck! - Michael