Empowering a Climate Change Movement, Part 4: The Global Warming Cafe

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Posted: Wednesday, April 25, 2012 3:13 pm

This is the fourth of a six-part series excerpted from chapter 11 of my book Social Change 2.0: A Blueprint for Reinventing Our World. It shows how over 300 communities in 36 states have built a bottom-up movement focused on helping Americans take direct responsibility to reduce our carbon footprints while at the same time substantially reducing our energy expenses. It describes how tens of thousands of people are stepping up to help bring the planet back from the brink--one household, neighborhood and community at a time. And it offers a whole system solution by showing how by directly and strategically addressing carbon reduction in the short-term we are building demand for legislation and a low-carbon economy to scale up over the long-term.

The first step of a Cool Community campaign is to enroll as many community organizations as possible as partners and dissemination points. Once partner organizations are enrolled, the challenge is designing a recruitment tool for them that is easy to use, does not demand great expertise on the topic of global warming, and has the potential to start multiple teams at one time. We had solved a similar problem on a smaller scale in our sustainable lifestyle campaign through our block-based, peer-to-peer recruitment process for forming and replicating EcoTeams. This overcame the need for a charismatic enroller, thus enabling the process to be scalable. The design challenge here would be to apply a peer-to-peer approach with much larger numbers of people.

As a matter of course I am always looking for social innovations that I might be able to use for the various issues I am addressing. I experienced one such social innovation I liked very much and tucked it away in the back of my mind for future use. Called “The World Café,” its purpose is to accelerate the formation of intellectual capital by tapping into the collective intelligence of a group of people through a series of guided small-group conversations. It can work with groups as small as twenty people and as large as several hundred. Two dear friends, management consultants Juanita Brown and David Issacs, created it. Their critically acclaimed book describing this tool, The World Cafe: Shaping Our Future Through Conversations That Matter, has made a major contribution to the field of large-group processes.

The guidelines for a successful World Café process, as described by Juanita and David, are as follows:

1. Groups of four people sit together. The café is most interesting and effective when people sit with those they do not know.

2. Once the World Café begins the host presents the questions to be explored.

3. For centuries indigenous peoples have used a talking stick to encourage mutual support and deep listening. Use a pen from the table or a symbolic object to pass around the table to each person. When you hold this object, it’s your turn to speak and answer the question. No one should interrupt the person. Those listening are encouraged to write, draw, or doodle on the paper tablecloths as others talk. Once everyone has spoken then general discussion is encouraged.

4. You move in rounds of conversation to different tables to cross-pollinate ideas—carrying key insights, themes, and questions to each new conversation. Patterns emerge, additional perspectives surface, and surprising combinations of insight and creativity reveal themselves. The café host lets people know when to move to the next table.

5. Each table chooses one person to act as a table host and agree to stay at the same table to welcome each round of guests. When the new guests are seated, the host briefly shares the high points of the last conversation and then encourages the guests, using the talking object, to link and connect ideas coming from their own table. As each person shares, the others continue to record and or draw key ideas and new connections on paper tablecloths.

6. As part of the final round the overall Café host asks, “What’s at the center of our conversation?” and invites people to “listen into the middle” for the deeper themes and larger patterns so they can access the collective wisdom.

7. These insights are shared in the larger group, and if possible, visually recorded for the larger community to observe.

Juanita, along with another friend involved in the World Café work, Tom Hurley, and I would periodically talk to support one another in our various endeavors. In one of our conversations I told them I was interested in developing a large-group enrollment process for the Cool Community campaigns. I was keen to see if we might be able to combine the World Café process with our EcoTeam recruitment event. I told them our challenge was not making the case that we had a problem; Al Gore had already done that with his movie. In fact he had done this so well that people left feeling a sense of foreboding doom. This is part of the nature of accepting reality. To empower people to take effective action, which was our goal, we would need to help them first address and transform the fears they were feeling, and then help them gain a measure of control by becoming part of the global warming solution.

What I knew from our large-group empowerment processes is that much of the transformation occurs as a result of people’s interaction with one another in the group. I also knew from our information events that enrolling people on EcoTeams is most effectively done by their peers. If the new social norm is to reduce our carbon footprint to minimize our impact on global warming, the people most able to influence the take-up of this new set of behaviors are our peers. What I appreciated about the World Café process was how it enabled highly engaging peer-to-peer conversations. We would need to use these conversations in such a way that people could both process their feelings and move to concrete action to reduce their carbon footprint. This would require people to shift from intellectual knowledge, detachment, or avoidance of the issue, to emotional engagement. If we got this right, we would have a transformative tool that could create real lift to this emerging movement.

Collaborating with Juanita and Tom was as good as it gets for me. They each combine strategic thinking and heart, informed by a unitive way of addressing change. This would also be a good modeling of the synergy that can and needs to be created by blending complementary social innovations—in this case, the World Café large-group engagement process, EcoTeam information and recruitment event, and Low Carbon Diet behavior-change program. We called this hybrid social innovation a “Global Warming Café” and defined its purpose this way: “To help people bear witness to the fact that life as we have known it on this planet is imperiled with global warming and based on that to provide them an opportunity to process their fears and hopes for the future. And then become part of the global warming solution through taking personal action in their household and larger community.”

We designed the process in both a two- and four-hour format and recommended the latter to get the full benefit. It would begin as soon as people entered the room through the projection of slides that connected people with the diversity of our planet’s people, cultures, and natural beauty, interspersed with images of Earth from space. These images served to remind everyone of the common ground of our shared humanity, now at risk. The images would continue to be projected during the World Café process, subliminally informing and inspiring people as they engaged in conversation with one another.

The World Café guidelines would be explained and people would then be immersed for the next two hours in answering two questions.

• “What are my fears for myself, my family, my community, and my planet’s future inhabitants around global warming?”

• “What provides me hope that we can successfully address global warming?”

People would move from table to table four times, first doing two rounds on fears and then two on hopes. Depending on the number of individuals participating, they would interact with as many as twenty different people. Each table would have a host who at the end of the process would synthesize and report on the fears and hopes of the people who were at that table. A graphic facilitator would record the group’s fears and hopes on large butcher-block paper displayed on one of the walls in the room.

This would be followed by a presentation of the slide show I described earlier in this series, to inform people that there was a proven community-based behavior-change strategy for taking effective personal action with the potential to be brought to scale community by community across the nation. The goal of this part of the Global Warming Café was to help people move from feeling like victims of forces outside their control to feeling hopeful that there is a way of concretely addressing this issue.

To avail ourselves of the power of peer-to-peer diffusion, after the slide show, we would, if available, have several people who had participated on Low Carbon Diet EcoTeams describe the concrete carbon reduction results they achieved and their experience of social connectivity from participating on a team with neighbors, friends, co-workers, or members of a faith community. This would be followed by a question-and-answer period. Questions could be directed to any of the EcoTeam members or to the Global Warming Café facilitator.

We would then have people participate in a final World Café process around making a personal commitment to action. We would encourage participants at a minimum to consider participating on an EcoTeam; and then consider volunteering for the Cool Community campaign or championing ideas to help their workplace, child’s school, or local government lower its carbon footprint. The latter commitment provided an opportunity to spawn social innovations to address carbon reduction and create openings for synergy.

We would “close the deal,” to use Wes Sander’s term, by asking people to raise their hands if they planned to participate on an EcoTeam. From our past experience we expected that most people would make this commitment, and having one’s personal commitment witnessed by peers created the motivation for them to follow through. We would then invite people to share the ideas they were willing to champion and record them next to the hopes and fears, all the while encouraging cross-pollination where possible. We would conclude by getting interested people organized into EcoTeams and collecting names of volunteers wishing to participate in the Cool Community campaign.

An opportunity soon came along for testing out the Global Warming Café. Gail, my wife, being the enthusiastic and environmentally conscious person that she is, had organized an EcoTeam of our friends as soon as the new version of the Low Carbon Diet was published. Our EcoTeam was completing the program just as I was putting the finishing touches on the Global Warming Café process. I asked the team if they would be interested in being guinea pigs and helping me prototype this new tool. They were enthusiastic and we set a date two months out to give it a try in our very own community of Woodstock, New York.

This would be an interesting experiment on several counts. A lot of progressive former New Yorkers make their homes in Woodstock and the surrounding area, but I would not characterize the town as an early adopter for environmental issues. Testing it here would provide a good gauge for the level of demand for taking action on this issue that existed beyond the bright green communities. I was also intrigued to see how it would work to have an EcoTeam serve as the organizers for a Global Warming Café. This would be taking the process of EcoTeams replicating themselves quantum and was a model that could easily be scaled.

Before I proceed further I have a true confession to tell about my personal experience of doing the Low Carbon Diet. Gail and I assumed we would ace this program, given that we were leading a very green lifestyle. After all, we’d done so many of the actions in the sustainable lifestyle program I had created previously, and thoroughly integrated them as a way of life. However, because I am always flying all over the planet telling people to lower their carbon footprint or promoting some other save-the-world idea, our household carbon footprint was not a pretty sight. When Gail and I calculated it on a scale of one to ten with ten being the best, carbon neutral, and one being the worst, 80,000 pounds or more, we scored a one—the worst!

Fortunately, there is a happy ending to this story. After accepting our fate as high carbon emitters we got down to business and got to level five by losing what we called the “hard pounds,” or those lost through behavior and system changes. We insulated our roof, installed triple-pane windows, switched to renewable energy from our electric utility, and installed a solar hot water system, among other things. We then got to level ten by losing “soft pounds” through purchasing carbon offsets. Most of my team was also in need of a similar low carbon lifestyle makeover. My take-away from this experience: A green lifestyle is not the same as a low carbon lifestyle. And if my EcoTeam was the early-adopter crowd, what a vast opportunity we had to impact the American carbon footprint.

Anyway, our EcoTeam stepped up to the challenge. We got a local faith community, the Woodstock Jewish Congregation, to donate a room for seventy-five people. We persuaded the Woodstock Town Board, a wonderful regional environmental organization called Sustainable Hudson Valley, and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, our state environmental agency to co-sponsor the event. We got food donated from local businesses. A member of our team created a flier that we distributed to various community groups. We got our local media to do stories encouraging people to come. Because we wished to make sure we had the food and space size right we requested that people RSVP.

To our delight and surprise, within about a week of our advertising, over a hundred people had signed up. We called the Woodstock Jewish Congregation and asked if we could get a larger room. They obliged and provided us a room for 150 people. Three weeks later we called back again for their next room upgrade to 200 plus people, which was their congregation room.

When the dust had settled, 225 people attended from throughout the mid-Hudson Valley region of New York. All attending committed to lowering their carbon footprint by least 5,000 pounds for a total commitment of over 1,000,000 pounds. We formed twelve EcoTeams on the spot with a commitment from people to form another eight teams when they went home. This comes to about a 70 percent recruitment rate. The Department of Environmental Conservation sent a representative from the region that liked the format so much that she decided to organize Global Warming Cafés throughout the Hudson Valley region. The Woodstock Town Board was so motivated by this outpouring of citizen interest that they agreed to make the town carbon neutral and were featured in the New York Times.

To provide a little of the local color and a sense of how the event motivated our government officials—the personal action to policy change equation—I have excerpted comments by several of the government officials attending from an article written by Andrea Barrist Stern for our local newspaper, The Woodstock Times.

“I was impressed by the turnout and the format that had people speaking to strangers about their hopes and fears,” said Kristin Marcell from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. “It created a sense of bonding . . . and had everyone on the same page in a way I hadn’t seen before. We usually see the scientific side and this presented the emotional side, which is something we need to do.”

Woodstock Environmental Commission chairwoman Mary Burke said her “general feeling” at Sunday’s program was “Wow.” She added, “It wasn’t that I didn’t think people were concerned, I just didn’t think you’d reach them that easily.”

Woodstock Town Board members Liz Simonson and Bill McKenna and Ulster County legislator Don Gregorius were among those present on Sunday. Gregorius said he exchanged cards with a Putnam County legislator at Sunday’s event because both are interested in seeing how the program might be useful at the county level.

Simonson related she was at one table with two young boys who found the prospect of reducing their carbon footprint “exciting” even as several middle-aged participants were dejected about the possibilities. She said the boys’ enthusiasm made her feel, “that I have to pick myself up, dust myself off and get moving.”

The Global Warming Café activated the civic and political will to be part of the global warming solution. It also met the need people have to talk deeply and personally on this issue. Because the tool is easy to use and the procedure for using it is described in detail on our web site, many hundreds of Global Warming Cafés have now taken place throughout the United States and around the world involving all the sectors needed to scale up a Cool Community campaign.

I’ll share one particularly promising application for the Global Warming Café from the corporate sector. The director of Corporate Social Responsibility for Nike, Sarah Severn, an early adopter within an early-adopter company on issues of environmental sustainability, asked me to lead a Global Warming Café for employees in their Beaverton, Oregon, headquarters. Within one hour of advertising the opportunity to attend the café, the event was filled at 100 people. Sarah’s team found a larger room and opened it up to 150 people, which was also quickly filled.

They did it up right, turning the largest room in their Conference Center into an Italian Café with ices, espresso coffee, and red and white checkered table clothes on each table along with a vase of freshly cut flowers. In addition to the employees from every part of the company who attended, there were interested community leaders and visitors from other companies who were attending a national sustainability conference Nike was hosting. Sarah had thought to include them so that the event could disseminate the program more widely. The slide show building the planetary connectivity used sports, of course, as the metaphor for our shared common humanity.

She got the president of the company, Charlie Denson, to kick off the café. He talked in a very heartfelt manner about how his children had motivated him to get involved in environmental issues and how excited he was to see so much interest among employees in taking personal action. We went through the café process, slide show, and then the action commitment. Four hours later all of the Nike employees attending committed themselves to participating on an EcoTeam; making changes to help the company lower its carbon footprint; and taking this program into their communities as part of their corporate volunteer program. And three of the companies represented—Hewlett-Packard, Harley-Davidson, and Schlumberger—committed to putting on Global Warming Cafés for their employees.

Within a short period of time, Nike had sixteen EcoTeams working on reducing their personal carbon footprint and helping the corporation do the same. Some of the teams even developed “biggest loser” contests among themselves. And with the active support and encouragement of the company, many employees have now taken the Low Carbon Diet into their communities and shared it widely throughout the company.

With the Global Warming Café tool we had cracked the code on how to engage larger numbers of people in participating on EcoTeams. We saw that any group from an EcoTeam to a large corporation, and everything in between could effectively use it. We also saw that it was capable of bringing the civic, public, and private sectors of a community together. We were on our way.

With the Low Carbon Diet behavior-change program, and the Global Warming Café community engagement tool, the “hardware” of this movement was in place. The final element was to flesh out the “software,” or a detailed strategic implementation plan for bringing this program to scale communitywide. In Part Five of this series, we look at how to bring this all together -- the Cool Community strategy.

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