Practice Notes: Cafes for taking a conference to action

This week I was hosting at a moderately sized conference in Victoria BC with 100 regional public sector union members.  The purpose of the gathering was to increase the number of active members and to inspire members to engage and improve local communities.  These union members all work in the public service and so they have a close ear to the ground on the issues facing communities from homelessness to addictions to environmental degradation to service levels in health and education.  Many of them took public service jobs in the first place because they are caring and committed people, intent on making a better world, especially for the most vulnerable.

This is the fourth year we have done this conference, and the structure has remained pretty much the same over the past four years.  The first evening there is a keynote from the union president (who then stays and participates through the whole two days) and a special speaker, in this case a well-known progressive lawyer who is currently running for office in a local federal by-election. That is usually followed by a plenary panel, which this year featured some provincial politicians from the labour movement and the current legislature and a journalist.

Day two begins with morning workshops on community organizing.  in the afternoon we begin with a World Cafe.  This year we took the Cafe through the following flow:

  • Two rounds on the question of “What does all of this inspiration mean for my own community activism?”
  • One round on the question “what do I still need to learn to deepen my activism?” The harvest from that round was a post it note from each participant outlining some of their learning needs, which union staff will use to help support the members with resources and materials.
  • Following that round I invited participants to reflect on an area of focus for their activism, such as homelessness, environment, youth engagement and so on.  Participants wrote their focus on the blank side of their name tags and then milled around the room and found others who shared those areas of focus.  We ended up with about 12 groups composed of people from across the region who didn’t know each other and who were interested in working in the same issue area.
  • Using this network we next invited the participants to consider the question “What are some of the key strategic actions we can take in this sector?”  The harvest from this was simply to inspire and connect each other in preparation for the next day’s work.

That was the end of our days work.  A quick poll of the room showed that perhaps 20 people had some ideas for action that were considering.

This morning was devoted to a ProAction Cafe.  We had 21 tables in the room and I opened up the marketplace.  It took about 20 minutes for 21 hosts to come forward and for everyone to get settled.  From there we followed a standard ProAction Cafe format.  During the reflection period, when participants are given a break and hosts are able to take a breath and make sense of all the advice we heard, three people all working on engagement strategies got together to compare notes.  This helped them a lot before the fourth round as they were able to point to work the others were doing.  The action networks were already taking shape!

We finished in just under 2.5 hours.  In previous years we ran Open Space meetings on the last morning, but this year the shift in format gave a more concrete set of actions and surfaced more leadership in the room.  With a quarter of the room engaged as hosts, we topped the average 20% of the room from previous years using Open Space.  ProAction Cafe, used at the end of a conference to generate and develop concrete actions is so far the best process in my practice for getting good ideas out of the room with passion, precision and participation.

One comment.

  1. I like this idea of plaacing a proaction cafe at the end of a conference. While I like coming together to share ideas I also want to come away with some actions. I was thinking os a flipped conference, wheer people consume the information before the conference itself so participants can move mimmediately to dialogue, with that dialogue aiming at producing action at the end.

    Thanks again. Always learning from you, Chris.