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[whitespace] Growing Concern

Petaluma organizer blazes a different path for dealing with development issues

By Karen Schell

DOES TRAFFIC make you snarl? Are you sick of suburban sprawl? You want the problems solved, and you even have a few ideas of your own, but the thought of a sleeper meeting on the topics of land use and transportation makes your stomach do a U-turn! Imagine for a moment a community forum that hosts no speakers, no workshops, and no experts. A loosely defined topic provides the only framework, and the ideas are generated entirely by the meeting participants.

Sort of like a structured coffee break.

This vision promises to become reality Saturday, July 15, at the Community Forum on Land Use and Transportation at the Petaluma Community Center. Brought to you by the Leadership Institute for Ecology and the Economy, the forum will feature a structure referred to as "Open Space"--a leaderless meeting style that has been used for about a decade in, of all places, the business world.

Born in the early '90s, the Open Space format has been used by companies and organizations like Rockport, Honeywell, even the World Bank to generate new ideas, empower their employees, and increase profitability. The innovative technique cuts out much of the hierarchy and authority of traditional meetings and gives the idea-generating power back to the participants, where it belongs.

Beth Meredith of Sustainable Petaluma, a key organizer of the event, has been focusing on ways to give the public a voice beyond the ballot box with regard to the important issues of land use and transportation, including the lack of affordable housing, the repercussions of widening Highway 101, and other hot-button topics. "The purpose of this community forum is to open up the dialogue," says Meredith. "A lot of the talk has been focused around ballot measures, and that's really narrowed the conversation. We are interested in how we can broaden and reinvigorate this conversation."

The Open Space format certainly gives voice to anyone who wants it. Even better, it gives attendees the option to choose their level of participation.

AN OPEN SPACE meeting captures the energy of the coffee break and carries it forward. It begins as a large circle of people. First, the facilitator explains the loose structure. Anyone feeling passionate about a particular idea within the topic writes the idea on a large piece of paper taped to the wall. The resulting collection of subjects evolves into the formation of the discussion groups. Next, the groups begin to assemble. A participant looks at the wall and decides what topics sound intriguing, then joins those discussions, meandering around to any group that looks interesting.

"Whoever comes to a particular discussion is interested in that topic," explains Meredith. "In Open Space, people are free to move to the conversations that are meaningful to them, where they're learning and contributing, and if they find that the conversation isn't really what they want to be talking about, they can go to another conversation."

Meredith, an enthusiast of the process, has helped organize other key conferences, including the Better Not Bigger forum in Santa Rosa last summer. She finds Open Space to be one of the most useful ways to organize a meeting. People can listen to the conversation, be part of the conversation, lead the conversation, or do any and all of the above. "I'm always looking for ways to capture the energy and intelligence of the people who attend," Meredith states. "I want the output to be multidirectional."

So often Meredith finds that attendees of traditionally organized conferences and meetings leave revved up, only to find nowhere to take their ideas. Open Space gives participants the chance to connect with others. "It really expedites people with similar interests getting together to discuss what's important to them." she explains. Language barriers can be overcome here as well. In an Open Space meeting, participants who speak another language, such as Spanish, can convene a group using that language.

Meredith is quick to point out that the forum is the "discussion and creation of ideas" part of the process and not the "implementation and action" part. That doesn't mean, however, that no action will be taken. "There's no organization, no structure that is going to take our ideas and implement them. It will be up to us, our passion and our responsibility, to take these ideas forward," she says. This is empowering, as participants realize that they are capable of creating change.

MEREDITH, along with co-organizer Rick Theis of the Leadership Institute, is collaborating with some of the forum's sponsors and others to help people carry out the ideas they create. Sponsoring organizations include Greenbelt Alliance, the Sonoma County Transportation/Land Use Coalition, Sonoma County Conservation Action, the Sonoma West Times and News, the Sustainable Petaluma Network (part of the Healthy Community Consortium), and Sustainable Sonoma County.

The organization presenting the event, the Leadership Institute for Ecology and the Economy, is a nonprofit educational organization dedicated to educating current and future leaders and the local community on environmental, economic, and social equity issues.

Everyone is invited to participate in this daylong countywide forum. A $15 donation is requested, but no one will be turned away for lack of funds. Bring a lunch to enjoy in the park or walk to one of the nearby restaurants to eat.

Important topics aside, the meeting style itself should prove intriguing. "Once you experience Open Space, you start looking at all other processes differently. It really becomes a perspective!" exclaims Meredith, who would like to see the technique applied to other difficult issues and processes, including city general plans.

"All we ask," she adds, "is that you come prepared to be surprised."


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From the June 13-19, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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