More Conversation Instigations

Like grunge rock, Starbuck’s, and anti-globalization protests, the Conversation Café is spreading out from Seattle. One group directly inspired by Vicki Robin’s original has been launched in Tucson, Arizona, while conversation conveners in China, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada plan to follow suit.If you’d like to start a conversation café in your town, contact Robin’s organization, the New Road Map Foundation, which has trained dozens of “hosts” in the simple methods used in Seattle: Conversation Cafés, New Road Map Foundation, Box 15981, Seattle, WA 98115, 206/527-0437; e-mail project coordinator Claudia McNeill at; Below are some other conversation-based projects around the country.The Public Conversations
Project (PCP)

Laura Chasin, a practicing therapist, hit on the idea for PCP in 1989 while she watched an abortion debate on television devolve into a shouting match. It occurred to Chasin that she might apply the conflict resolution techniques she used with families every day in her office to public debates over abortion and other controversial subjects.
During the next several years, Chasin and her colleagues honed techniques not unlike the simple methods of the Conversation Café. Even within the dramatically polarized abortion debate, the PCP dialogues bore fruit, Chasin told newspaper columnist Ellen Goodman. “They went out thinking these people are compassionate, principled, and share concerns that I have.”Public Conversations Project
46 Kondazian Street
Watertown, MA 02472
World Cafe
This project of the California-based Whole Systems Associates is basically an adaptable blueprint for fostering conversation in groups large and small. The model recreates a café setting–complete with food–and groups divide into small groups of four or five people to explore a given topic for a short time. There’s a good deal of emphasis on visual means like diagramming and drawing to inspire creativity and “map” evolving ideas.
Juanita Brown and David Isaacs, principals in Whole Systems Associates, hit on the idea of the World Café by accident while they were hosting a seminar. Before the formal session began, participants gathered informally at several small tables with paper and crayons. They scribbled ideas, switched tables, and brainstormed together. By lunchtime, the paper table-cloths mapped the network of ideas that had been exchanged.“We suddenly realized that we had tapped into something very simple, but potentially very powerful,” the two explain in an online description of the process. Since then, World Café methods have been used on problems ranging from museum design to factory worker safety.World Cafe
Commons Cafe
Disillusioned with the adversarial nature of the justice system, African American attorney Sharif Abdullah quit the law and eventually formed the Commonway Institute in Portland, Oregon, which sponsors the Commons Café and other projects designed to foster “inclusive social change.”
The Commons Café is a discussion format that is adopted by local individuals or groups, with help from Commonway advisers. Discussion focuses on “the barriers that separate us”: race, culture, and gender, to name a few. Rather than throwing the doors open–the Conversation Café, approach–Commons organizers carefully recruit a group of up to 40 participants from both sides of whatever cultural divide is at issue.Commonway Institute
Box 12541
Portland, OR 97212
Essential Conversations
These public forums, sponsored by the Twin Cities-based Heartland Institute, are a hybrid of the talk and the salon. A speaker primes a group of about 200 with ideas and suggestions–conversation guru Margaret Wheatley (see p. 55) has played this role in the first several forums, held in Massachusetts and Minnesota. The audience divides up into small groups, then reunites for a final hour of ensemble talk.
The topics range considerably, but, according to Heartland co-founder Craig Neal, the basic theme is “the integration of personal growth with what we do in the world. The issue of meaningful work is a real fire-starter, and we return to it again and again.”Essential Conversations
Heartland Institute
4243 Grimes Ave. S
Edina, MN 55416
Tel: 952/925-5995
Fax: 952/920-7168

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