Interview with Nancy Margulies

Nancy World Cafe host (and so much more) Nancy Margulies, interviewed by Nicole Anne Boyer:

NAB: When and how did you first become involved in TWC?

NM:  About the time Juanita and David were figuring this out, they came out to Sundance where Margaret Wheatly was doing a workshop.  I was up there working with her, doing workshops on chaos, complexity, and self-organization. She had just written her foundational book Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World.

When I heard Juanita describe the World Café as a process and a way of understanding the power of conversation, I immediately said “I want to work with you and support you in any way I can” because we had been talking about this “other way of being together”, of being part of a healthy living system, but didn’t have a a specific way to practice it— it was all theoretical. To me Open Space and the World Café were good examples of what Margaret’s theory suggests.

Juanita and I put a poster together, and I started to illustrate and host cafés myself and developed my own variations, like the “Passion Cafes” – think of Open Space meeting TWC where people define their topics and the café tables are organized around those topics. And then the Climate Change café started.  I also used TWC in New Orleans to help the recovery process, and then to help people around the country consider what we can learn from what occurred in New Orleans.

I have a set-up in my home that allows me to host cafés as well, which I use for dialogues within my community. So I just got involved.  I was sick when Juanita was writing the book, so I feel bad that I didn’t help there, but I just wasn’t available. When I started feeling better, I just got back into it again.

NAB: What does stewardship mean for you personally?

NM:  It means I care for the whole of the World Café community.  I keep an eye on the notion of how we’re doing on the largest scale — how it’s going out in the world.  My particular area of stewardship, what I’m concerned about and interested in, is what I call the “Runaway Café”.  That’s where people see the World Café once and want to host it, but don’t learn and understand the elements needed for a World Café.  For instance, they assign a leader to each table, or the have a specific outcome they know in advance.  This is a situation where you have people at tables, but it’s not a World Café.  The real value is in the guiding principles, and its important that these principles not be lost.  So as a steward, I keep an eye out for that.  I make myself available.  I mentor and coach in setting up World Cafés all the time.  About once a week I field an inquiry, send some artwork, or help with what questions to ask, and remind them of the elements that make it a world café versus a table conversation.

NAB: Why are you a steward?

NM: The World Cafe like an offering, a gift to the world, to help us take the next step in our evolution as human beings.  We have the possibility to listen to each other and know that we have the wisdom we need to think together, to become a system that knows that it knows.  Instead of homo sapiens, we can become homo sapiens sapiens.  In other words, we are capable of collective intelligence, we can draw from a shared morphogenic field, and we need know and experience that we can do this.  Even [inherent] in casual conversation is the way we create the future— it frames what’s possible, it motivates us to take action.  How we spend our trivial time really matters.  For instance, if we spend our time talking about how much we hate our president, to use a recent example, we are creating that kind of negative energy.  On company coffee breaks, instead of complaining, we could say, “ hey, we are the company, we can explore what the company can become.”

NAB:  What are some of your favorite stories of the World Café in the field?

NM: When I was hosting a café at a University last semester, during the break I was talking to the professor.  She told me students were complaining to the teaching assistant, so it was clear they were at the rebellion stage.  So we used the last round of the café to talk about this.  I explained: “we’re going to apply the Café process directly… we’re going to look at this very class and your experience of it.”  The questions I asked were: What’s working? What would you like to see happen? And how can you contribute to making it happen?  Well, this changed everything.  This reminded them of what they liked, and there was a lot they did appreciate, and what they wanted to add or change was discussed in the context in how they could make it happen. This was a wonderful turnaround.

Another time in New Orleans, we did a Café to give people a chance to tell their stories and feel heard. Then we asked them to create a “map of hope”.  We first asked them, “Create a symbol that represents New Orleans for you.”  Then we asked them: “Write down some of the things you are seeing now that give you hope.  Talk to people at the table, and as you listen, add things to your map of hope that give you hope.  As you go around to other tables, keep building your map.  At the end I suggested they each Look at their maps, highlight one action that can be taken next.”  Everyone left in a very different mindset than when they arrived.

My daughter and I hosted a café in a small colleague town.  The students and the people who lived in the town didn’t get along at all.  So our Café focused on how to live together in collaboration.  The results were amazing with so many creative ideas.  The art students, for instance, agreed to go to the main street and decorate all of the shops with boarded up windows and put in art installations.  The business students then helped the local merchants get more business back on Main Street, and creating businesses tailored to students so they didn’t drive to the next big city.  It was a great example of how the Café enabled people to discover ways to help each other out.

NAB: What are your current passions and interests? What are you particularly excited about now?

NM:  Are you familiar with The Natural Step?
Well, I’m working with Terry Gips, who lives in Minneapolis.  Building off the Natural Step, which arrived in North America in the early 1990s, Terry has been going around the country teaching this concept and improving it – making it more compelling and the science more accessible.

So we’re developing a curriculum for all age groups and all segments within various communities and at the national level.  We may do this with Obama’s “Green Team” and a huge publisher, so we’re partnering for
the largest possibilities.  The way Terry teaches is extremely clear and very valuable, and I can make it fun with visuals like animation and clear graphics.  The workshops may be followed by Climate Change
Cafés like I’ve been hosting, and there may be a blog forum as part a larger sustainability initiative.  For instance, after Terry does a workshop, we can encourage people to host cafés, and discover what it
means to their community.

I have a proposal in for Obama to go on TV once a month and pose a question for national conversation and dialogue for people to talk about in their communities, the results of which he would reflect back
to the nation. We’ve got a web address already,, which would showcase TWC and other methodologies to help people host their own conversations.  We’d then expand the conversation to the international level.

The first questions are unifying questions.  They are about our common values and dreams.  None of them would be about handling little details, but more about helping us figure out what we all want for our
children and the future.  These would be Appreciative Inquiry types of questions.

In order to do this work with Terry Gips, I’ve been learning to do simple and fast animation, combining existing and new techniques. Animations like this are little advertisements for an idea, which are
effective and interesting, because they are passed around on YouTube.  This is like coming full circle for me because I used to do animation in the 1960s, but that involved painting on acetate.  So learning these
new technologies has been quite the learning curve.

NAB: What inspired you to get back into animation?

NM: The Story of Stuff really inspired me, if you’re familiar with this. It was so viral and amazing.  Also Playing for Change particularly inspired me, which shows different musicians around the world playing the same song, “Stand by Me”. That just blew my mind.

Look what’s possible— on the iPhone you can download an application called Ocarina which plays like a flute.  You see on the phone the holes in the shape of a flute and you simply blow into the phone’s mic
to make music.  And it gets even better.  You can look at the iPhone and select a screen that shows a picture of the globe where people are also playing flutes, and you can hear them play— like Kiko from Japan.
It’s a very powerful visual, the knowing that we’re all playing songs, and that these songs are coming from the same earth.  There is a Native American expression that when you are singing, and you stop singing,
someone somewhere else starts singing at that exact moment—so the song never stops and that we have this continuity, through artistic expression.

There is also a photo essay on line of young people in a small tribe near Ethiopia, who like to dress up.  They use natural dyes and local plants and flowers to make the most sophisticated and gorgeous things,
something beyond what you’d see in Vogue Magazine.  Just seeing all of these faces of African teenagers, being able to see them in their creativity, I’m really stunned by that.  We’re able to capture interesting things like this.

Another short example of something I did on  I just drew while my daughter videotaped me, and I listened an audiotape of my friend, Dawna Markova, telling a story— a very low-tech sort of thing, but we can now use these tools.

I’m very committed to sustainability and social justice, and so I don’t want to be flying all over the country with a giant carbon footprint.  I’m looking for local projects that don’t require me to get on planes.  My goal is to fly half as much as the year before.  The new technologies make it possible to be connected to other people in the world.  People can see what I’m drawing and participate.  So we have all of technologies things converging.

I’m also working with Gifford Pinchot at the Bainbridge Graduate Institute, where I teach a course.  He’s asked me to coauthor a book with him called the Happiness Damage Ratio.  This is a way to stop and
think, before we do something, about how much pleasure we’ll get or be sacrificing, or what the impact will be on the earth in terms of damage or restoration.  It will be a short an easy book on how to make these
kinds of decisions.  Part of this is redefining the good life.

Finally, I’m teaching once a semester at The Presidio School of Management as well.  We’re doing a Café this Thursday in fact.

NAB: What does success look like for TWC, for you, in the future— say 5-10 years from now, what’s your dream for TWC?  How can we bring TWC to its greatest potential?

NM:  Success would be that the World Café is built into the culture as a natural part of who we are with each other.  Where Obama will have introduced and opened a space for generative dialogue and appreciative inquiry, which becomes as common as a church social – on Sundays for instance there might be World Cafés.  Where we see that this is a way for our culture to get together, to think together, with children and parents and faculty — the whole system — using this to gather and share ideas, as a way of learning from one another.  In the future, this won’t be unusual.  You won’t meet someone and have to tell them what a World Café is.  And the principles will become more obvious— that the wisdom is within us, that conversation is part of how we create shared meaning.

Success would be that lots of people have the capacity to host Cafés.  People will have been taught this in schools, and in business schools it would be at a more sophisticated level so that people who are developing leadership skills understand that leadership is about enabling other people to develop strong relationships, share information and learn from each other.

I imagine little electric vans available for “Café To Go”, where place an order and the van comes with all the supplies you need, and helps you set up the Café.  There would be also a Café “On the Road”, where couples get into alternative energy vehicles and travel around the country, hosting cafes on different topics, and sharing with people what they heard form the last community they visited, creating a network of learning with people feeding good ideas into a central area.  This would be all networked via the Internet so that you won’t feel that it was just one, individual conversation, but that the larger network was in communication with itself.

There would be also physical, “Brick & Mortar” Cafés.  For instance, there might be a regular café at a restaurant, or Sunday Brunch, with the topics announced in advance.  My daughter did something like this in St. Louis where she hosted cafés often for women on topics of special interest to them.

NAB:  Wow! What an amazing vision to end on! Thanks very much for your time and stewardship.


  1. I’m deeply inspired by Nancy’s vision of a time where people naturally understand concepts such as Appreciative Inquiry and World Cafe and the possibility of “on the road” and “to go” enablers. We’ve just started to introduce the words and the understandings into the Uniting Church in Australia and as the institutional church fades as one type of community space a new, and much more organic idea of community emerges. Love it!

  2. Will do Nancy. A colleague and I were in the US in May talking to community development and emergent church groups about these same concepts so saw some of what you are experiencing (it was surreal, by the way, as an Aussie to be talking to people who were friends and acquaintances of an, at the time, future US president. Quite a grounding experience). I look forward to feeding further into this discussion as we go along.

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