A quick Google search on “World Café” turns up, in addition to information about NPR’s blog on Essential and Emerging Artists, such winning and approachable phrases as “the World Café is a powerful social technology for engaging people in conversations that matter, offering an effective antidote to the fast-paced fragmentation and lack of connection in today’s world.” Or, “A Café Conversation is a creative process for leading collaborative dialogue, sharing knowledge and creating possibilities for action in groups of all sizes.”
Right. Because that’s the kind of thing normal people say on normal days.
At CURE, we like to think about it a little differently. Yes, a World Café conversation is all of those flowery things mentioned above, but more simply, it’s a way to talk honestly with people you don’t know about things that are important to you. World Cafés strike the balance between a party with a lot of painful mingling and a really high-powered and exhausting presentation series. They take the small talk out of the mingling and the “data download” experience out of the presentations, and the net result is a chance to learn with a variety of people through sharing personal experiences and knowledge. It’s both fun and intellectually stimulating; plus it’s a great way to meet people.
Structure of a World Café
The first thing you should notice when you walk into a room set up for a World Café is that it feels welcoming. Many practitioners even suggest putting flowers on the tables–anything to make the space look more like a café or coffee shop where you would have long conversations with old friends and less like a spare conference room in an office building. There should be several tables with seats for four at each. At the table you will find markers, large sheets of butcher paper, and a card with the Café Etiquette.
Once you take a seat, hopefully with three people you don’t know very well, the World Café facilitator should then introduce the basic principles of a World Café conversation. The facilitator will also ask one person at each table to volunteer to be the table host: the host is primarily responsible for ensuring that all voices are heard and that thoughts are recorded as the conversation takes off. Then the facilitator will introduce the first question, and you will turn to the three other people at your table, introduce yourself, and begin to discuss the question at hand. While you converse, you are encouraged to doodle, write, or diagram on the butcher paper, thus creating a record of the ideas and experiences shared at your table.
After 20 minutes, the facilitator will gently end the conversations in the room, and while the table host will stay at the table, the other three will get up move around and sit down again at another table with three new faces. The facilitator will introduce a second question that builds upon the first, and the conversations will begin again. This time, the table host will share the main ideas and themes that came up in previous round to lay a framework for the new question.
This cycle is repeated, usually three times, and followed by a “harvest” round with the whole group and led by the facilitator. During the harvest, the goal is to seek patterns and consistencies that emerge: these shared ideas are considered the collective intelligence of the room. Thus a World Café allows a group of people to come together, share ideas, and develop solutions that are greater and more creative than any one person could develop alone.
Don’t Worry; We’ve Got a World Café In the Works!
CURE is planning a World Café as an integral part of our event “Don’t Worry; We’ve Got This” – A Gathering of Rising Leaders on Friday, May 2. We want to discuss the theme of leadership, especially in a rural context, and learn what beginning leaders need to become full-fledged community powerhouses. We know that, as smart as the CURE staff are, 50 people conversing thoughtfully together will be smarter, and we have great hopes as to the wisdom you all will be able to develop together.
We also know, based on some smaller focus groups we have held, that isolation is one of the greatest challenges to rural leadership, and we are hoping that the other great aspect of a World Café–the chance to meet people–will be salient at “Don’t Worry; We’ve Got This,” as well. Because the structure of a World Café encourages you to get up and talk to new people while bypassing the frivolous get-to-know-you small talk, you will have a chance to connect with people in a meaningful way in the space of just one evening.
In order to keep your connections strong, CURE will also be rolling out the first phases of our Leadership Network, which will provide an easy way for you to stay in touch with the people you meet. We hope that you will use the network not only to share ideas, but to eventually collaborate on future projects that will bring mutual benefit to your communities. At the same time, we hope that the knowledge that you are not alone in your work and aspirations will lend you support in the uphill battle we call social change.
If you would like to learn more about “Don’t Worry; We’ve Got This” – A Gathering of Rising Leaders, check out our Events Page.
Post by Ariel Herrod, Watershed Sustainability Program Coordinator.