My original awareness of conversation as a fundamental and generative force in our collective lives came from a source and a setting that I could never have anticipated. It was the innocent curiosity of two corporate leaders…
The year was 1993 and World Café had not yet appeared in our lives. I was sitting in the living room of our home in Mill Valley, California, with John Browning and Frank Gonzalez, leaders of a regional Sales organization within a major U.S. corporation. They wanted to build their organization as a community. How did you do it in the farm workers’ movement, they asked? What really is at the heart of community development, anyway?
Of course, the house meetings! The house meetings were the basic unit for building community in the farm workers’ movement. Cesar or another farm worker organizer would ask a local family to host and convene a conversation among their friends. As workers shared tortillas and bean suppers, they shared the “if only’s” about their lives and imagined the impossible. They began, through dialogue, to ask the “what if” questions. And from the “what if’s” came the “why nots!”
Two or three members of the first house meeting would then decide to host another house meeting with a small circle of friends in their own homes. The ideas from one conversation would seed several others.
As I stopped to think about it, the light bulb went on. All these years I’d somehow believed it was the phone calls, the lists, the disciplined follow up, and the mass meetings that got people mobilized for action. Of course these activities were important to success. But was there something else, something underneath all of that?
Suddenly I felt as if I’d been hit over the head! Why hadn’t I seen it?
It was the conversations themselves in those thousands of house meetings that actually did the organizing. It was not us, the organizers, that did it. It was the power of the conversations themselves and the meanings that people took from them that did the organizing. When those conversations were really alive, people couldn’t help but act. In concert with others, they discovered the capacity to transform their lives.
I heard myself saying to these two corporate executives, “It’s conversation that’s the heart of it. We can attribute our successes to all kinds of techniques and other key factors, but it’s actually the dialogue, reflection, and shared meaning, along with the seeding and linking of the conversations, and people knowing that their conversations are connected, that’s the core process for co-evolving large-scale social change.
Conversation lies beneath organizing and strategizing!
When I look back at other large-scale change movements—the salons that birthed the French Revolution, the sewing circles that nurtured the birth of the American experiment in democracy, the study circles that transformed Scandinavian society early in the century—all embody the same underlying conversational pattern.
This was such a powerful personal insight about conversation as a co-evolutionary force that I’ve dedicated my life to deepening both the theory (there’s a paper on it that I’ve contributed to this blog) and the conversational practices (both the World Café and others) that can spread this awareness as on behalf of conscious evolution in relation to the collective challenges of our time.