Starting a community conversation using the World Café format

Explore how community members from Lowell, Michigan’s 2012 Community Visioning Process did just that.

In 2012, the City of Lowell, Mich., along with two surrounding townships and Lowell Area Schools, decided it was time to conduct a community visioning process to help guide infrastructure and community development initiatives over the next several years. Community leaders selected Williams & Works as the lead consulting firm for this project and Connie Bellows, Managing Partner of Conversation Matters, as the public engagement consultant . Bellows was asked to work with community leaders to design a public input process that would connect many diverse people and ideas so the final implementation plan would be representative of the entire community.

Before launching the public input process, Bellows and her business partner Julie Cowie first met with elected officials from the three units, business leaders, non-profit organizations and school administrators to gather their input on what themes the public engagement process should cover. The themes that will be discussed include: infrastructure, education, housing, health care, agriculture, energy, parks and public spaces, downtown development, transportation and other topics of interest to community members.

Bellows and the Project Steering Committee then designed a public input process based on the World Café format. World Café is an organization that promotes “café conversations” as a tool for creating common purpose, sharing knowledge and making intelligent decisions as a group. As the name implies, the meeting room is set like a café with small round tables covered with tablecloths and a large piece of writing paper, a flower centerpiece and writing instruments.

Participants sit in groups of four to six people and engage in a series of conversational rounds lasting 20 to 45 minutes around meaningful questions. Rounds of conversations are designed to build on one another and explore new questions. Table hosts keep the conversation flowing and work to ensure all voices are heard. At the end of the session, the entire group comes together to share and explore emerging themes and to document discoveries on flip charts.

World Café published the following guidelines in 2008 to help people use this process, which is meant to be flexible for many different circumstances:

  • Clarify the purpose – Pay attention to the reason you are bringing people together. Make sure key participants attend. Keep the meeting focused.
  • Create a hospitable space – Create a space that feels safe and inviting through a café-like atmosphere.
  • Explore questions that matter – Framing questions to support a logical progression of discovery throughout several rounds of dialogue.
  • Encourage everyone’s contribution – Find ways participants of all levels can meaningfully engage in the process.
  • Connect diverse perspectives – This process offers an opportunity for the group to connect overall themes from diverse perspectives.

Bellows said she likes this tool, “Because in a very short time you can hear what an entire room thinks rather than a just a few vocal voices. Other formats usually have people stay at one table the entire time and then you only hear what five or six people think. The World Café format allows the group to build on other themes so there is more opportunity for the cross-pollination of ideas and connections of diverse perspectives.” Bellows is planning for 50 to 125 people to participate in each of the three public input sessions in Lowell. The sessions will be designed so that people will be able to discuss several topics that they are passionate about.

Once all three public input sessions are conducted in Lowell by the end of Oct. 2012, Bellows, Williams & Works consultants and the Steering Committee will work to develop a plan for implementation. They hope to create realistic time frames for actions and they hope members and organizations will be motivated to become champions of specific tasks. It is possible a new organization will need to be created to be the central coordinator of all implementation plan activities for the three communities.

For more information about how to organize a World Café conversation, visit the World Café website or contact Connie Bellows. For more information about the Greater Lowell Community Vision project, visit the community’s website.

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