Spirit behind gathering was reason enough: digging into how a community can host itself

Posted in Community Leadership

By John Connelly

In late November, I spent the majority of one mild and perfectly sunny Saturday sequestered deep within the recesses of Grand Rapids High School. There, I immersed myself in assorted conversations with a diverse group of nearly 100 other Itasca County residents.

As a guy who places a high value on his limited leisure time – and tends toward introversion – why would I choose to spend precious weekend hours this way? I could have gone for a jog. Or cleaned out the garage before the lockdown of winter. Or identified some groundbreaking strategies to perfect my skills as a husband and father.

Instead, I spent the day at the high school, sitting on semi-comfortable cafeteria furniture. The event I was attending was called the Grand Gathering of the Itasca Area. A group of community volunteers designed the affair as a county-wide conversation about a simple but intriguing question – What is the future that we want to create for ourselves? That question piqued my interest, enough so that I signed up to participate without really knowing how things would work.

What was interesting about the Grand Gathering was that, other than the framing provided by the posed question, there was no set agenda. No specific organization hosted it, so it wasn’t developed with the objectives of any one group in mind. In addition, specific topics to be discussed weren’t predetermined. The idea was simply to attract a broad group of local stakeholders and to provide them with the structure to talk about the topics important to them. The invitation was literally wide open.

The format used during the Grand Gathering was called Open Space Technology. In this approach to group conversations, a facilitator invites participants to post topic ideas in a marketplace. Other participants are then free to decide which conversations they want to join. The conversations are harvested in a way that summarizes them for all. Open Space is just one technique that many Itasca County residents have learned during the Art of Hosting trainings provided in the area since November 2013. The trainings have been funded by Blandin Foundation and facilitated by the Meadowlark Institute.

During the Grand Gathering, attendees enthusiastically proposed 40 different topics that fell within broad categories of community, people, environment, and economy. Some ensuing conversations were highly conceptual and will likely go no further. Others, such as a conversation about health services for veterans, have already led to action.

A final report about the Grand Gathering was just released, and it captures the essence of the many conversations that took place that day. Still, the tangible outcomes remain to be seen. New relationships were definitely formed. Shared passions were certainly identified, and some folks are already talking about the possibility of a Grand Gathering 2.0.

What is most remarkable to me is that the event ever happened at all. I’ll repeat it again; The Grand Gathering wasn’t organized by any one business, agency, or non-profit, though some did get behind the event to help make it a reality. It was developed by individual volunteers who had the spirit, passion, and desire to make something authentic happen. What’s more, the creators of the event weren’t attached to outcomes. Instead, they were excited about the possibilities.

How often does something like this happen in a society that begets competition and seems to imply that we all live and die by brand? As a matter of fact, it doesn’t happen very often. Those versed in all things Art of Hosting believe the Grand Gathering was the first time a community in the United States has used Open Space to host a conversation about and for itself.

And how does it happen? Well, in this case, it started with one person. Doesn’t it always? An individual participated in the first Art of Hosting training in Grand Rapids and asked – How can we become a community that hosts its own conversations? One by one, other community members joined her. They brainstormed ideas and invited input from others. They developed a planning committee, and they recruited financial, administrative, and promotional support from local organizations.

In the end, the Grand Gathering was pulled off by a group of people who cared about their community, who wanted to do more for it, and who were willing to take a risk.

Their commitment was inspiring. That’s the real reason I was there. If others can find the initiative to care and the gumption to act, then so can’t I?

John Connelly is a resident of Grand Rapids and participated in the Art of Hosting training in September and the Grand Gathering in November 2014. He works as a freelance communications consultant for a variety of non-profits and local units of government including Itasca County.