Free Speech, Free Listening

This is a remarkable little experiment with huge implications and potential. Lucas Cioffi took some dining room chairs down to the local pedestrian mall, put signs on the back offering “Free Speech,” reminiscent of Fran Peavey’s travels and invitation as “American willing to listen.”

When Lucas wondered if he shouldn’t add more rules or guidance to shape the dialogues that have emerged, I said I didn’t think so. Though as he had already used signs and the phrase “Free Speech,” I suggested “Free Listening” would be a powerful addition to the signs. The combination of the two, right and responsibility, seems like robust and complete guidance for these small groups, all the way up to our federal government.

The Limits of the Microphone?

Friend and colleague Koos de Heer shared this video on Facebook today, and sparked a small chain reaction for me.

First, at its climax, last 30 or 45 seconds, Chaplin cries: “let us fight…!” Yes, to fulfill promise, to free the world, to end barriers, greed, injustice and so on… but it’s still all FIGHTING! Then, it occurs to me that the rallying cry for science and rationality to deliver humankind must have been heard by many of Chaplin’s original viewers. Decades later we would seem to have made science and rationality the new dictators, perhaps more dangerous because more distributed, more deeply embedded in human culture. Even an old community organizer like Barack Obama rises on the strength of a cool, rational, technology-enhanced campaigning.

I think Chaplin was onto something with his bits early in the video about kindness, and what all humans want. Wish I could here a crescendo built on that view, before he slipped back into “fight fight fight!” The big paradox… How does one person make this sort of empassioned rallying cry for neighbors, brothers, sisters, friends, lovers, parents, teachers, partners, fellow travelers and other strangers?

For me, something of the answer might unfold next week. I am looking forward to spending four days in a CJYI training course, with an old friend who just happens to be the guy who hired Obama into Chicago and introduced him to organizing. We — he’s a student in the course, not the teacher — will be learning a person-to-person approach to something called restorative justice, what a practitioner/journalist friend has called “get a rock and talk.” Not especially rational or technical or scientific. Not any sort of fighting or rallying. Just a quietly personal and increasingly effective movement, reflecting on responsibility, redefining justice, and ultimately reallocating power, in real community.

silent night / newtown news

years ago, simon and garfunkel recorded a song called silent night/7 o’clock news. in one channel, they sang the old christmas song we all know. but in the other, they played news reports of the day, most memorably, about the war in vietnam. so, yes, that’s me in the red suit at a neighbors/family party this weekend and there’s more to this story than “ho, ho, ho!”

i have a friend, ben roberts, in newtown, connecticut, who is hosting a number of open “cafe” calls this week, for people to come together to talk, to explore what’s happened and think about what might now be possible, on guns, schools, mental illness, and anything else that participants might decide is related. the cafe call details are here and the one word that stood out for me in the many good and wise things he’s posted is: isolation.


it seems to be the underlying assumption, common perception, and slippery slope at the center of all sorts of horrible news stories. our natural reaction, our immediate response, is to come together. like we did after 9/11, like ben and others are doing on the phone this week, like he and his neighbors are doing all around newtown, like we do for more ordinary funerals — but also for holidays.

in the wake of the shootings last week, the cry goes up about gun control, and then it’s expanded to mental illness, but it seems to me that the thing that makes guns and illness possible is isolation. Francisco Varela, a Chilean biologist, philosopher, and neuroscientist once said something like “If a living system is unhealthy, the way to make it more healthy is to reconnect it with more of itself.”

just three days after our world crashed down on 9/11, i convened an open space gathering at old st. patrick’s church, here in chicago. what i remember best from that day is that after 70 or 80 or more participants posted something like 30 breakout session topics, nobody moved. nobody broke out. everyone wanted only to be with everyone else, in one big circle. we sat and talked, taking turns in that large group, for more than three hours, without any break, connecting and reconnecting.

when i was in grade school, in a suburb of detroit, in the 1970’s, safety meant being able to go to any house that displayed a red hand or a blue star in the front window. when there was a string of child abductions — every time it snowed, a kid would disappear, and every time the snow melted, they’d find a body — we were told to run and yell for help if any stranger tried to get us into a car.

the message was that help was all around, help was there for the asking. a bit like santa’s helpers being scattered all around the neighborhood, watching behavior, but also watching out for us. this is just the opposite, i think, of the voice that says, “the world is dangerous. i need to be prepared to shoot my way out,” or “if i’m hurting or struggling, nobody could possibly understand.” it’s these views we need to attack, need to prove wrong, need to dispel with our action.

i’m thinking that the solution to our current grief is not simply the opposite of gun rights, nor the opposite of mental illness, but the opposite of isolation, the opposite of whatever darkness might separate us from ourselves. holidays it seems, and especially the one(s) upon us now, in the dark of northern winter, are for practicing: coming together, rekindling light, watching over, and looking out for each other.

coming together might just be the only and every thing we need. the challenge, i think, is that it’s going to be most effective when we do it with those who seem most different from how we think we are, everywhere we are, in families and neighborhoods, churches and schools, politics and business. but teachers and pastors, mayors and the president, can’t do it for us. we have to do it together, each of us, all of us, everywhere, with every one, every chance we get.

merry happy to all, and to all a good night.

radical radish

and the winner is… swiss chard. topped radish and eggplant in this year’s voting. we planted radishes two or three weeks ago, already coming up. kale, collards, spinach, mesclun, arugula, too. doesn’t leave a lot of room for the chard. the accidental non-conformist strikes again.

Regional Economic Communities

My friend Tim Reeves, in Munich, has been working on something called Regional Economic Communities. I’m just starting to explore his ideas, but I’m intrigued because he (and co-author Anna-Lisa Schmalz) seem to be articuting something quite new. At the same time, it rings a bit like a conversation I had ten years ago with friends in India, about the wisdom and utility of many overlapping languages spoken there. It seems to me that the “solution” for which many are fishing about will have something to do with overlapping wholes, reflecting a world that is layered and connected rather than simply delineated and divided. Given my long history with Open Space, I appreciate the emphasis on renewing the mechanism of personal responsibility, as well.

Why we need Regional Economic Communities

The egocentric world-view is not viable in the long term, because its picture of the world is incorrect. This is because the basis of ones own life is shared with and made by countless other beings, or in the case of resources there is only a finite amount available. The egocentric view ignores these facts. It demands more than would be sustainably possible and thus destroys its own basis for life. We don’t need to look far to be able to see that humanity is moving fast towards such a fate.

The only attitude which is able to survive in the long term is that which puts the well-being of the community of all beings on this planet foremost, actively cares for them and takes responsibility for this goal.

A global way of thinking leads to local action. The Regional Economic Community was devised to put these insights into practice. It consists of a Community of Participation and Ownership (CPO) and a barter community which builds upon it. It invites all the citizens within the region to step back fully into personal responsibility, in both economic and interpersonal respects, and provides the tools required to do so.

neighborhood news?

after i wrote yesterday about network and neighborhood, sally duros shared this this in the nytimes about the emergence of neighborhood news.

makes me think that someday we’ll all be tweeting (maybe slightly expanded from 140 characters?) about what is happening, more than what is happening to us as individuals. all tweets will coded by location, so at anytime, from wherever you are, you can pull in a stream of tweets coded for some radius of your own choosing. a way to listen to the neighborhood, and report into it, from wherever you are.

imagine the reports from a parade or street fair, from a place where someone is running from police, or a school yard on recess. okay, now imagine the kids drop their blackberries and go run and jump and swing.

from the nytimes about hyperlocal news…

If your local newspaper shuts down, what will take the place of its coverage? Perhaps a package of information about your neighborhood, or even your block, assembled by a computer.

A number of Web start-up companies are creating so-called hyperlocal news sites that let people zoom in on what is happening closest to them, often without involving traditional journalists.

The sites, like EveryBlock,, Placeblogger and Patch, collect links to articles and blogs and often supplement them with data from local governments and other sources. They might let a visitor know about an arrest a block away, the sale of a home down the street and reviews of nearby restaurants.

networking neighborhood

<hmmm …> this article in the economist touches on some of what i’ve been thinking about the social networking tools. that despite the wide online connecting, we’re still basically limited by brain. or at least habits of brain-as-brains-currently-are.

the article distinguishes between a broadcast network (100s or even 1000s), a dunbar-sized network (about 150), and a more intimate social core (i’ll say loosely, 5-15). it talks about average numbers, but there will, of course, be differences between individuals — but also within individuals. i picture the variation within my individual network as a flutter in the boundary between the core, the dunbar, broadcast groups. if flutter is the right word for the fluctuation in the opening of my social aperture, then maybe float might be the way to describe the shifting my social aim. that is, as my aim changes, from project to project, the whole aperture pans the landscape of people i know. do i change my focus or emphasize the fluttering on “one side” of my circle, changing subjects in mid-conversation with neighbors who might also be connected to my work.

if maintaining a social core takes energy and attention, takes grooming, then what if i have several very different projects. if my core people in each of those aims don’t overlap, does my work in each suffer for lack of a full core? or do i get overtaxed by staying close and current with several sets of core folks? i suppose this is where hierarchy is born. i need a full core to accomplish things on most projects, but i’m split between projects. in those projects where i’m short core support, maybe i show up just enough to support somebody who’s more present, more connected in that realm, more often, leveraging my limited connections into another’s deeper connections. mostly i go along, vote the way he or she does, and occasionally get the support i need for something.

greater ease and effectiveness, simultaneously, and happiness too, would seem to rely on a stronger core, either by choosing people who are closer with more similar aims, or by gathering a very disparate group that is able to understand the essence of the challenge as similar across many diverse projects and places. we specialize/localize or generalize/globalize.

now, what if distance core is not as strong as when we can share food and drink and all kinds of other physical connectings and alignings? seems as longs as we are bodies, local is going to have some major advantages. what does generalize/locally or specialize/globally mean? is there a social network platform that supports this? seems that it’s possible, but not necessarily directly supported, or at least distinctly supported by facebook, twitter and the like.

i think what feels like strongest support, and the group i’ve been part of that has been most interesting, helpful and alive, is a small (7-10) group of people, with diverse aims, in terms of projects and places, but a common or super aim, something ranking up there with love, compassion, joy and common scope, in that we were wishing and working on these things to blossom on a similarly large scale, even as we all were local enough to gather in the same room with some dependable regularity. many individual aims, shared vision/language, large spanning/spilling scale, local gathering.

local gathering and diversity of aims happens naturally, just look around the neighborhood. but less likely to find local in an online neighborhood. unless neighborhood expands toward global, in which case body starts to get confused, as perception still seems to happen very locally. but the neighborhood might lack a larger mission, a higher purpose, and the energy of a rising dunbar- or broadcast-sized network tide. but but but.

how to find the great waves in a neighborhood, make local connections in facebook, change the world in a small group, or invite far-flung activists to a monthly potluck dinner? can we grow facebook legs and arms, twitter hands and feet, using distance tools to take local steps into embrace? does broadcasting scale heighten elevate otherwise small local purpose? where does the great heart rest down into soft earth? forgot your password? </hmmm …>

successful leadership cafe

the open space approach is best known for inviting meeting participants to craft their own agenda by taking personal responsiblity for issues they care about. the “world cafe” approach to “conversations that matter” is characterized by larger groups gathering in few-somes around bistro tables for several short rounds of conversation. usually there are several rounds, with table-mixing in between each, addressing a series of questions. sometimes the ever-shifting groups take successively deeper cuts on the same basic question.

last weekend we did something a bit different.

we hosted 100 scholarship finalists (high school seniors) and another 20 scholarship recipient students and alumni, in four rounds of conversations, each lasting 25-30 minutes, in a 20-table cafe. we had several purposes to accomplish. we wanted to promote the two hosting universities, give finalists a good taste of what it would be like to be part of this leadership scholars community, have conversations that mattered so that they would be genuine and useful (even to those who didn’t win the scholarships), and finally, this was still part of gathering data for evaluation and selection of scholarship winners.

the process

in the first round, we did something rather like open space. the question was, essentially, “what are the question(s)? or what should they be?” the task for each table was to generate a list of questions about leadership, community, how the world is, and how it should be. we asked, “what do young people know that nobody else seems to be noticing? what questions you are already living in, caring about and looking for ways to do something about? what questions do young people need to address on the way to leadership? what questions are you wrestling with and want to raise with your peers? what questions must young people raise in the organizations and communities you come from?” during this round, i went from table to table with a small tray, noticing progress and clearing away the last bits of box lunch trash. this round and three subsequent rounds lasted 25-30 minutes each.

in round two, each table chose one person to stay on at that table, and choose one question from their table’s list for the next round of discussion at that table. everybody else changed tables and twenty different, but important, conversations sprang up. notes were taken on flipchart paper, one sheet per table.

in round three, a new host stayed put while everyone else moved. the new host chose a new question, from the questions list at that table, from the list at their original table, or they could choose to recap and continue the previous conversation with new tablemates. again, 20 different conversations sprung up, as i pulled and posted the session two notes from each table. where a topic was continued, the group often kept their old notes for reference.

in round four, we changed hosts and tables as before, and asked one person from each new table to visit the snacks table, bringing some of everything to their tablemates. we also asked that the questions be chosen and conversations proceed with special emphasis on taking action in the next year or so, the first year of campus life.

at the end of that round, we invited everyone to turn toward the center, creating so many loosely concentric circles, sort of one big huddle. the task for the next 30-40 minutes was proposed as a whole-group conversation about “what happened here? what did you see, hear, feel, think, …notice? what did you learn? what do you want to remember or do as a result of what happened here today?”

as a finishing exercise, everyone was asked to reflect and write briefly on two questions… “what will you remember or do as a result of these conversations?” and “who were the 2 or 3 people who were most important to your experience today?” in this way, all of the scholarship finalists were included in the evaluation and selection process.

results …and replication

the individual tables buzzed through each round and i thought the plenary was remarkable for the level of ownership, engagement, and the genuine sense of community that had emerged. days later, my client confirmed a resounding success. turns out that several university and scholarship groups, and even some of the participating students, are eager to replicate what we did. the notes from each round will be shared with all participants, as fodder for reference and replication.

having a room full of “high potential” scholarship-seeking youth certainly didn’t hurt the quality of the conversation, but judging by what i’ve seen youth do in other places, this sort of competition is not the essential element for success. i’d expect any replications to meet with similar success, and the absence of the competition would allow for some tweaking of things like the evaluative writing task, which could become more of a moment of recognition, thanks and appreciation.


New from Fresh Taste:

Good Food for All is a new blog and resource space for all those in the Greater Chicago foodshed and beyond wishing to learn and engage with others in the local food movement. This collaborative space is dedicated to news, updates, events, and innovative ideas related to local food.

‘Foodshed’ is a concept coined to represent where a given population’s food comes from and how it gets there. The focus of Good Food for All is the Greater Chicago foodshed, which includes all of Illinois, in addition to parts of Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota.

If the capacity of our foodshed were fully used and its products dedicated to the Chicagoland market, it could provide a very considerable portion of the region’s food needs, a healthy working landscape, and a significant stimulus to our economy.


this weekend i did a number of small things that i’d like to think must be part of some grander solution. perhaps you’re doing some of these same sorts of things.

on saturday morning, we woke up to a pile of new snow. so i shovelled our house and six or seven neighbors, plus the park on the corner and the lawrence avenue bridge across the chicago river.

later that day, we bought faucet parts from a tiny little local 30-year-old family shop where adam runs a service counter almost buried in every imaginable faucet part, old and new, as a steady stream of customers line up six deep for his help fixing or finding parts for all kinds of old faucets. on the way home we stopped in at the riverbank neighbors mid-winter planning meeting. then we loaned our folding chairs in support of a baby shower across the street.

tonight, i wrote and mailed a letter to our new governor recommending somebody for appointment to the metropolitan water reclamation commission (the folks who manage the river at the end of our street). this week i’ll send out an email reminder for our block’s next monthly potluck dinner. last weekend i distributed 1000 neighborhood newsletters to 30 block delivery people. it’s also time to make and distribute flyers for the neighborhood winter social event.

less locally, this week i’ll also have conversations about organizing meetings for the future of buffalo new york, the future of the credit union industry, and some other important projects where i might make some small contribution to others’ larger success. more personally, we’re still chipping away at a number of plumbing projects (with some borrowed tools) as we refinish an old house, still slogging away at the triathlon challenge mentioned a few posts back, and just getting started on painting the kitchen so we can finally order cabinets and counters.

mostly this doesn’t seem so much like working as just living. and when i stop long enough to notice, it seems quite lucky that i’m able to do any of these things.


Being visible in the practice of open space technology brings a number of inquiries and requests for training and coaching and such. Being visible on this web, these come from everywhere around the world. It’s been a fun way to connect with people, or sometimes, discover connection.

Today I was chatting with Pete terHorst about open space and invitation. I mentioned that some of my approach to that comes from what I learned from my Dad, who worked at Ford in Governmental Affairs and Public Relations. He used to write things ended up in state legislation or on the bronze marker at Henry Ford’s birthplace, stuff where words really matter. So this is some of the sensitivity I bring to the crafting of invitations.

Well, it turns out that Pete’s dad worked for Ford, as well. Same group, different city, a ten-year overlap with my dad. I call home and ask, and sure enough, Pete’s dad is somebody well-known to my people. And this is some of why I don’t blow off any of these random requests for training and coaching.

When it Snows, it Pours

Awoke to a small blizzard today. Watched a neighbor clean several inches of snow off his SUV, waving his brush in gentle swooshing strokes and little detailing moves, with the grace of a great concert conductor. When another neighbor came out, he cleared her car too. It was all just that much fun. Later in the morning, in the course of a wide-ranging conversation about Open Space and Unconferences, friends and projects and writing books, Doc List pointed me to Wisdom. After lunch, Wyatt Sutherland and I had lots of good laughs about rebuilding old houses, and hatched a bit of a plan for YellowCello Young Artists to play in open space. Finished just in time for training home with Jill, to Jerry’s moroccan stew and a gaggle of neighbors at the monthly potluck. A great warm day, even with the thermometer running on empty.


This is the strongest, clearest public statement I can remember hearing in a long time. Maybe ever. This video of an interview on al-Jazeera, shows Wafa Sultan, an Arab-American woman, working as a psychiatrist, living in Los Angeles.

She addresses the “clash of civilizations” as a sort of Muslim excuse and challenges Muslim culture to, in so many words, grow up. Unbelievable… “…We have not seen one Jew blow himself up in a German restaurant. Three great Buddha statues have been reduced to rubble. We have seen not one buddhist destroy a Mosque.”

via Carla Winterbottom

Economic Development in Buffalo

I was in Buffalo NY last week and facilitated a number of meetings for the City of Buffalo’s Department of Economic Development. We did a tenant meeting at the historic Broadway Market. We did a networking session for commercial development leaders. We did another session on housing and that got documented nicely by Buffalo Rising.

Buffalo’s lost half its population in the last 30-40 years. Lost lots of other things, too, as housing stock and jobs and tax revenues declined. That said, there are many good things happening there. And good people. We’re looking for next opportunities for bringing them together. We’re building a blogsite to support that togethering, as well. I’ll post that link when the site’s ready.

UPDATE: is now up and running, with reports from our first three meetings. Here’s the report from the largest of the meetings, with a video of the closing circle.

Somethin’ Happenin’ Here

When the Bulls were winning NBA championships, you could step into any elevator in the city and feel the vibe, the anticipation, the density or pressure of everybody paying attention, focusing. Perfect strangers striking up conversations, everybody assuming that everybody else was thinking about last night’s win or this evening’s contest. I think it’s happening again, but it’s not about the Cubs and the World Series (at least not yet).

I go to the hardware store today and the old thai guy who runs the place totals up my bill for some boiler parts. Then, pretty much out of the blue, he asks me, “So, what do you think about this $700 billion bailout?” Earlier this week, I went in to get a blood test and the arm sticker has his computer tuned to CNN political reports. I walk into a meeting the other day and about the first thing out of my client’s mouth is basically, “Can you believe this Palin mess?” And I’m hearing this election, the financial mess, and even conspiracy theories raised in conversations in decidedly (at least until now) non-political offices. There’s somethin’ happenin’ here, I think.

Now add to that, the President gets on the TV (finally)… but says basically, “Hey, this is really bad.” I’ve never heard of such a thing. The president’s supposed to get on and tell us it’s all gonna be okay. But then, the funny thing is, nobody seems to trust the government anymore, so when the Sec’y of the Treasury says people should be very scared, nobody seems to panic. I see a lot of people paying attention. Watching and waiting. Nervous, maybe, but not panicked. Like we’re all watching each other more than the TV, to know if everything is okay.

Yes, we’re on this big financial edge, but I think we might be on the edge of something more. And more positive. No way to know. What it is ain’t exactly clear, or so the song goes. But suffice it to say that the world is SO very upside down right now that the Cubs could finish the regular season with the best record in MLB, and if they win the world series, there is just no telling what kind of crazy strange world we could be in.

For what it’s worth, here’s the best bailout plan I’ve seen.

National Park(ing) Day

National Park(ing) Day 2008, an annual event, is coming up on September 19th. It celebrates parks in cities by creating temporary parks in public parking spaces. National Park(ing) Day is an all-volunteer event, and any participation is welcome. One can, build his or her own park, help others build parks, or simply visit Park(ing) Day parks throughout the day. Get the details here, a how-to manual, photos and videos, or to connect with participants near you.

Home Again

It’s just past our first anniversary in the house here and it finally feels like we’ve arrived someplace.

Some weeks ago there was a NYTimes story about a 17-years-running monthly neighborhood potluck “supper club” in New York City. I shared it with a few neighbors here. They shared my interest and last night we had our first dinner. We had positive responses from about 20 of the 28 households we invited, which we thought was pretty good. And by the miracle of potluck, we had entrees, salads, fruit, veggies, and desserts, all totally unplanned. A success by all accounts. At several points through the evening I thought, “I should get up, get around, see all of what and who is here.” Sort of “conference” mode kicking in. Each time followed immediately by the realization that there was no need to rush. No plane to catch. We all live here. And the party’s just beginning. At home.

In a year of busy comings and goings, we’ve met a number of our neighbors, but almost all the conversations seem to take place as one person is just about to walk or drive off to something else. After a night a just hanging out with folks, I came home last night thinking, “What a bunch of good and interesting people.” This morning I’m remembering that this “good people” view shows up over and over again in a volume of favorite life stories my Dad wrote down a few years ago. So the new party feels a lot like the continuation of an old party. Home again.

Chicago Civics 101: Getting (Green) Things Done with City Government

A political education and organizing workshop:

Saturday, June 28
10AM – 1PM
Chicago Center for Green Technology

Learn how the city works from the people who do it everyday! Work more effectively and strategically with aldermen, ward staff, and city departments to get green things done and build the healthy neighborhood food systems we envision. This three-hour workshop will provide tools, insights, and guidance – and a chance to converse with policy makers about ways we can help them to help us, help each other. More Info and Register Online

Water Walk

In Chicago, we drink out of Lake Michigan, so things like this matter:

Two Anishinawbe Grandmothers, and a group of Anishinawbe Women and Men have taken action regarding the water issue by walking the perimeter of the Great Lakes.

Along with a group of Anishinabe-que and supports, they walked around Lake Superior in Spring 2003, around Lake Michigan in 2004, Lake Huron in 2005, Lake Ontario in 2006 and Lake Erie in 2007.

…to raise awareness that our clean and clear water is being polluted by chemicals, vehicle emissions, motor boats, sewage disposal, agricultural pollution, leaking landfill sites, and residential usage is taking a toll on our water quality. Water is precious and sacred…it is one of the basic elements needed for all life to exist.

More about the walk and news from this year walking around Lake Michigan again.

Backyard Stewardship


Well, it’s official. I’ve been fingerprinted. I’ll be getting a badge and a handbook.

But mostly I’ll just be doing here in my own backyard what I’ve been helping others do around in lots of other places. I’m the new volunteer steward for the Ronan Park Nature Trail that runs along the Chicago River just north of here.

So I’m doing what I suggest to all my clients, posting invitations online, in newsletters, and in the Park… convening gatherings, in this case to work on and enjoy the Trail… and beginning to document what happens in simple blog, an open public record.

Please join us if/when you’re in the neighborhood!

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