Café Stories, An Interview:
Juanita Brown and Sharif Abdullah
(Some time ago, I had the opportunity to sit down with my friend, Juanita Brown, the "Godmother" of the "World Cafe" dialogic process and author of the book of the same name. Juanita was the first person to turn me on to the cafe process. The "Commons Cafe" is a branch on her tree. This interview highlights several different aspects of our collaboration.)
Juanita: We begin with Sharif Abdullah, the Director of the Commonway Institute in Portland, Oregon. First could you tell us what the Commonway Institute is and what its purpose is?
Sharif: The Commonway Institute has a simple and profound purpose: to create a world that works for all. And by “all” we mean, not just all people, but all beings. We do that by the practice and philosophy of inclusivity.
By “inclusivity”, we mean the recognition that all of our lives are inextricably linked to each other and because we are linked, we have to treat each other in a profoundly different way then our current practices.
We conduct projects and experiments that bring people together with each other. In that mode, we have conducted a number of projects over the course of the past decade that have brought people together across racial, economic, and ideological lines.
Juanita: And you have recently written a book about this way of thinking?
Sharif: Yes, the title of the book is “Creating A World That Works For All.” Through the operation of our consciousness we’ve created a world that works for only a few. The world that we now see is a reflection of our limited consciousness. It doesn’t even work for the people it purports to work for. We advocate changing of our consciousness to inclusivity. That change to consciousness will result in a profoundly changed world. That changed world is a world that works for all.
Juanita: You said that you conduct experiments and creative ways of bringing people together across these separations. I understand that you have recently been doing work with café, café learning and café conversations. How did you get introduced to the café concept?
Sharif: Well, by you! (Laughter)
Juanita: Yes, well… (Laughter) But what intrigued you about it? What drew you to the idea when I first introduced it to you?
Sharif: I remember when you first shared the concept at my first Peace Building for the Twenty-first Century meeting. I remember that your conversation about the World Café was working on two different levels for me:
1. Part of me was saying: Wow, here is a really neat tool, I have never thought of putting people together this way. I wonder how the café concept would work for the kind of dialogs Commonway sponsors.
2. My other thought was operating at a non-rational level. When you work a jigsaw puzzle, you know where the pieces fit. The fit was right there. On some non-rational level I just knew the café concept was a fit for the work of Commonway.
It is very difficult to try to shift people’s consciousness. At Commonway, we have a specific goal. Our goal is not to have people ‘feel good’ about each other. Whether or not they feel good is a side issue for us. Our goal is not to just have people come together. Whether or not people come together or not is a side issue for us. Our goal is to specific. We want people to shift their consciousness from thinking “I am separate”, to thinking “we are one”.
Juanita: Aha, to experiencing that sense of connected-ness.
Sharif: Correct. Actually the experience of “we are one” is secondary to the shift to “we are one”. Now there are a lot of people who believe that they already believe in inclusivity. I put together events that test that belief. For example, people say: “Oh, I really feel great about our Latino community in our town.” Well, I put them together with real people from the Latino community, because their only experience of the Latino community was going to a Mexican restaurant.
So, by putting people together, they can have the experience of seeing how close they are to “we are one” or how far apart they are from “we are one”. The question that we have in dealing with the café concept is: is this a tool with which we can shift consciousness? A tool in which consciousness actually changes?
Juanita: So you decided to create a Commons Café series to help explore and see if this tool was a vehicle for that?
Juanita: Before you mounted this series, what was your intuition about that? What was it about the café that you sensed could possibly help support that happening?
Sharif: I’ve been exploring a concept and notion with Tom Callanan of the Fetzer Institute, of ‘deep meeting´. That concept says that whatever the topic is, we can take this topic to a deeper level in the right circumstances with the right facilitation, etc. My question for the Commons Café then is two-pronged: Can we get the consciousness shifted toward the concept of “we are one”? Can we have the experience of “we are one” there? Is there something about the café format that can trigger or facilitate this immediate experience?
Juanita: Okay, great! So when did you initiate the Commons Café?
Sharif: Our first café was in November, 1998. We did three, stopped, evaluated and learned what we learned. Then starting in January, assuming I can find some additional funding or assuming that all the forces work right; we’re going to do another series.
From the first Café we already see that there is a deep need for people to commune at this level. People really needed this.
Juanita: What was the purpose and the intention of the Café? In terms of the focus of the content of what it was going to deal with and why did you choose that content?
Sharif: The focus was to get a group of people to address fundamental issues in a non-meeting setting. The fundamental issues of our time include: race, class, ethnicity, values, politics, etc. We know that these things get talked about in sound bites or at the most superficial and most antagonistic levels. We wanted to see if it was possible to go deeper into these conversations. For it is possible ordinary people from a spectrum of walks of life to be able to communicate with each other across their notions about how the world works?
On the one hand we wanted to have a relatively light and a very safe atmosphere. We didn’t want anyone to feel “I’m going to get beat up if I go to this meeting”, neither physically, mentally nor emotionally. On the other hand we wanted it to be a risk, like if you’re out in public you never know what’s going to happen so….
Juanita: Like an adventure!
Sharif: Exactly! An adventure is a great word. We wanted people to feel like, “I’m stretching out my border here”, but we didn’t want them to feel that they were putting themselves (personally) at risk.
Juanita: Okay. Who was the constituency that you invited? Who did you invite to the Café?
Sharif: I went to six organizations and groups saying: “I want you to bring ten of your members to the Common’s Café.”
Juanita: Aha! Wonderful!
Sharif: Each of these six represents a different slice of life. I went to a group that feeds homeless people and said: “I want you to bring ten homeless people.” I went to A New Age Church which is upper middle class to upper class and said, “I want you to bring ten members.” I went to an environmental organization and said, “I want you to bring ten of your people.” I went to a human rights group and said, “I want you to bring ten of your people.”
So we had generation issues, class issues, race issues and they’re all sitting down at the table. You’re sitting down with your issues. You’re sitting down with “the other”. No one was identified as “that’s the poor one”, or “that’s the rich one” etc. We just had on name tags.
Juanita: Right, right… How did you sit them down at the table?
Sharif: My tendency is to manage situations; this time, I really relied on self-organizing principles. Where the café takes place is really important. We held this in a festival market place that has fallen on bad times, most of the tenants have moved out, so we had this huge space that’s available to us there. The tables and chairs are already there and the coffee vendor is already there and…
Juanita: Wonderful! So like it’s a real café place.
Sharif: It is already a café place. There are other patrons all around us.
Juanita: Oh, a real café place… great!
Sharif: Right, they’re looking at us and next week we’ll have cards inviting them We had people walking by…. “Oh Sally! How are you? What are you doing here?” “Oh, I’m at this thing and…” So there are tentacles everywhere.
Juanita: Oh… this is wonderful.
Sharif: Yes, and we had an arrangement with the coffee vendor (they’re one of the sponsors of this) and they’re giving us a fifty percent discount on all the coffee. One of the incentives is that you get $5.00 worth of lattes and deserts for free, just by showing up.
A lot of people didn’t even need the incentive, they didn’t even use their coupons. On the other hand, it was interesting for some of the homeless people that were there. They used $4.99 worth of their coupons. They made sure they used all of it.
The instructions were that you were to sit down at a table where you didn’t know anybody. There was a little jockeying at first, but as the tables started filling up, they were just grabbing seats. It was interesting that we had a table with only four people at it and another table with eight people at it. I couldn’t figure out at first, why people were moving chairs to congregate at another table and not sitting at another with more room? There is so many dynamics here, such a richness that we’re trying to process.
So they sat down and they had a top yellow card which asked that they reveal something about themselves.
Juanita: So you gave each group a stack of cards with a rubber band around it with a different colored card on top. They opened up the card and you had a series of questions, that are like, to get to know your table mates. Like, arrange the names and birth dates of all your children in chronological order. Who’s the person that had the shortest amount of distance to get to the meeting? The longest distance? Where were you born? The person born closest to the meeting site? The furthest? What are your hopes for this meeting?
So, very non-threatening opening questions.
Sharif: Right. So when they’re getting into these initial questions there is a person there who appears African-American. He says, when they get to where were you born… “I was born in London.” The group is like: “You were born in London?”
Juanita: Right, right, right! It shifts all of the stereotypes in a certain way.
Sharif: I went around to each of the tables. I assumed it would take a half hour to go through the “icebreaker” questions. I was prepared to order them to spend 30 minutes, then move on. Then I thought, wait a minute… self organizing principles. They will move when it’s time to move. I went around and said: “Whenever you are ready, you can go on to the rest of your questions.”
One group said that they felt obligated to do the other questions, but they really wanted to stay on the first one. They really wanted to get to know each other. I found that to be really interesting. Some of the interactions around the substance questions and all the questions of that café were around class and money issues. The issue was deep, the questions were deep and the fact that the person had “the other” in front of them was very, very deep.
I went around and sat at each table for a few minutes. At one table a person whom I knew to be upper class, made a statement about homeless people. The homeless guy who was sitting right across from him said: “I don’t do that and I don’t even know anyone who does that.” The well-to-do guy across from him says: “Well, you’re not homeless!” The guy says, “I am homeless.” The other guy says, “homeless people are dirty. They have dirty clothes. You’re very clean, very neat and very presentable.” The other guy says, “Well, I’m clean and I am homeless.”
I am watching this guy’s world view shift right in front of him. This is a very dangerous time for him. This is like the snake that sheds its skin and it’s real vulnerable when it comes out of it… At that point he only had two choices:
He had to accept this new reality that, “I’m just really wrong about ‘these people’. Or he had to get up and leave the café.
Juanita: Or he had to say, “You’re not like ‘those people’. That’s his third option. “I like you. You’re not like the other ones.”
Sharif: Right, right! The problem was, he started looking around at the other tables and there weren’t any dirty people at all the other tables. To the point where you can’t pick out, “well that person must be homeless, because… “
The homeless person helped him work through it. He could have said, “Why you dirty so-and-so… you don’t know anything about it!” He could have gone off on a diatribe and the guy would have retreated into a shell and nothing would have been understood.
Juanita: Right. Now do you think that there was something in the context of the Café format that created a situation where that negative scenario did not play out, but rather…
Sharif: Absolutely! It would not have happened in a meeting. It could not have happened in a meeting. If I had had the same group of people in chairs facing each other there would have been no time allowed for that interaction to play out. You had about three or four other people at the table and they’re being supportive of that interaction because they’re learning so much. With ten, twenty, fifty people, that one-on-one interaction just simply could not have happened.
There’s another example. This is simply great! There was another table where the well-to-do guy was showing off his education. He was comparing the café to pop physics and David Bohm and Implicate Order and he gives a quote and the homeless guy across the table from him says: “That wasn’t David Bohm, that was David Peat.”
Juanita: (Laughter) Oh God!
Sharif: The guy looks like, you can’t know that; you’re homeless. Come to find out they had the same degree. The well-to-do guy is like, “I didn’t know the homeless had education?” The homeless guy says, “Yeah, I have education, but I don’t have a home.”
Juanita: How wonderful!
Sharif: When I got the evaluations back, a lot of the evaluations were saying: “I really saw my stereotypes about homeless people and I’ve changed my stereotypes about homeless people. However, more of them said: “ I changed my stereotypes about upper class people.” The homeless people were there learning also.
Juanita: So the collective intelligence of the whole began to rise? Or rather, be accessed?
Sharif: Yes. Here is a situation where they are learning from each other just by their presence. Now these two folks might meet on the street where one has his hand out for quarters and the other is walking by him, okay? But there is no context for their interaction, even if they wanted it.
If the homeless guy saw him reading Stephen Hawkin’s book, he wouldn’t say: “Oh yeah, I read that last night.” In the café there is a context to do that.
Juanita: Okay, then let’s ask the question. I just want to get a little sense of how it actually worked. In this particular Café, people did not move from table to table; they stayed with their particular table, even though they had the freedom to move, it was not engineered for them to move.
Sharif: Correct. It was not engineered for them to move. For this Café, I had to handle many different variables. We had a number of big issues and we had twenty minutes to decide it. All along, I’ve created some good questions and I’ve created them in some particular order. One of the people I was working with said, “What happens if we shuffle the deck? So that each table is dealing with these questions in a different order?” We’re adding complexity. As we’re organizing the cards, the question is: Shuffle? Not shuffle? Shuffle? And so we shuffled them and the tables dealt with the questions in different orders.
Now the other question was to get up whenever you want to get up.
Juanita: So you gave them the freedom to move or not move.
Sharif: Right. One guy looked at his table mates and moved to another table. It created a great deal of controversy at both tables. The first table had already gone through two sets of questions when the move happened. The table that the guy left, people thought the guy was just leaving as opposed to going to another table. They felt quite put down. Like this was a statement against them. In the evaluations, they wanted to know: How did we fail him?
Sharif: We’re looking at the tables set-up for five or six people per table. Then someone said to me, “No ten. You can have a good Café meeting with ten people to a table.” I said I’ve never visited a coffee house where there are ten people sitting at a table unless they’re talking three, three and three; but I said, we need to try it instead of just going on my intuitive hunch that this would not work. Then if we try it then perhaps we’ll know that the optimal size is six or five.
The other thing was the number of people. I just felt that I couldn’t mentally handle more than sixty people. I thought that if we got thirty or forty-five, that that would be a good showing. Now we have a major problem. Everyone who came to the first café wants to bring a friend next time. I’m like, “you can’t do that.” It feels very artificial, but we have budgetary restraints, we have space restraints and we also have time restraints. It involves getting materials for people, calling people, managing all of it.
Juanita: It’s worth our exploring what would be the conditions that would allow you to have that be more open.
Sharif: What I would want to have and what I would want to do is have a permanent space for this and I would be running Café’s every night. I want this to be known as a Café and you could go, stop in, buy a latte, just sit in the corner and just read, but every night a group or groups would be invited in to have the experience to catalyze the transformation of consciousness.
Juanita: Okay, now, let’s reflect for a moment on what do you think were the deeper principles at play that enabled this Café experience to make a contribution to this shift of consciousness at a collective level that you’re working with in terms of your work?
Sharif: I would point to a number of factors: One was the mix of people who were invited.
Juanita: Multiple voices.
Sharif: The multiple voices at each table. At one point in time it looked like only three of the groups were going to be able to come through with participants. My intuition was saying that three is not enough of a mix. When the fourth group came through, I said okay, four will work and then all six came through. So it was a good mixture.
Juanita: So that the diversity of perspectives, is what?
Sharif: The café was self organizing. People really knew and felt that they were on their own. They could not sit back and ride me, leading them through experience
Juanita: So there was both some structure that enabled coherence, but simultaneously it was open to self organizing within that general frame.
Sharif: I went to one table and everybody at the table, everybody at the table, had had international experience, just by chance. The conversation was: “What did you do in Guatemala?” and “what did you do in India?” or wherever. Then they’d say, “Oh, we have to get back to the question.” I said, “No you don’t have to get back to the question, you’re following what is working for you!”
So somebody talking about issues of class and poverty in Guatemala is not the same as somebody talking about class and poverty in Portland, Oregon, but that was their issue at that time.
Juanita: That was their doorway.
Sharif: Right. If it was one person leading the subject and the others were just watching; that wouldn’t have worked. But everybody had something to contribute to this. So their ability to follow the conversation the way that it comes up in a Café setting, wherever it leads, was important.
We had participants fill out evaluations. I wanted to learn from the participants. Part of the evaluation was: “Did having the cards at the table restrict or foster deeper conversation?” The majority of the participants felt that the cards were necessary. They may have gone to a very superficial level without having the cards ask them for depth.
On the other hand there were a number of people who wanted to have the Café turn into a meeting. They kept saying: “Well, we have to have structure here, there must be a structure, we have to ‘get’ somewhere with this; as opposed to, “I’m here with my friends and it’s cool…”
Juanita: If you think of the Café as a metaphor, would do you see it as a metaphor for? In other words, what is the Café representing to you?
Sharif: One of the things that we know from American History is that the Revolution wasn’t born on the bloody battlefields of Lexington and all this other patriotic propaganda. The Revolution is born in cafés and pubs, with people engaged in honest, meaningful conversation about what their lives are like. What are the possibilities of living their lives. We don’t have that conversation. We’ve almost forgotten the language of politics and I mean politics in its’ pure sense in America.
Sharif: Correct. Of human beings governing their own behavior. I am hoping that this is a way to re-discover what lies important in the creation of the Polis. Vaclav Havel talks about the creation of a parallel Polis. You don’t try to fight the existing structure, because the existing structure, is too good at control and domination. You don’t retreat from them either. You just set up a parallel system and the parallel system may be no more than meeting at a Café and talking about our futures. Imagining our futures.
In one of his writings Havel talks about an encounter he had while he was imprisoned. He met another prisoner while they were pushing laundry carts around (that was his job). The other prisoner was someone he had recognized from earlier political activities; so they stopped pushing their carts and started talking about the structure of the government they were going to create. Sitting in prison, pushing laundry carts was their nexus of opportunity.
Juanita: Czechoslovakia’s equivalent of the Café. (Laughter)
Sharif: That’s right! No coffee and no tables. He became the President and the other prisoner became the Deputy Prime Minister.
Juanita: Beginning from that conversation.
Sharif: Right. Connection carries on. Our society, I guess, is so fragmented now that everybody talks to themselves. They don’t talk to “the Other.” When we start the Café in January (assuming that we do), one of the groups I want us to get there are cops. Cops never talk to anybody other than cops. They have no other context to talk to anybody other than cops or in a very official capacity if they think that you’re a perpetrator. In terms of just the regular citizens that they purport to serve; when would I ever get to talk to a cop? The challenge is to bring people together in the fundamental conversation, but to have the conversation move them.
One of the things that I am used to doing is having a meeting. I will stand in front of the group and I will do the talking. If we have a dialogue process or other facilitated processes, I will be deeply involved in it. So the Café process for me was actually an emotional let down. I did not participate in any of the conversations, but at the end of the night, people were as high as kites. I left before the last group left. They were still engaged. The security guards were gone. You go out into the parking lot and there were groups of people still engaged in conversation in the parking lot.
This is really powerful stuff. But I felt unconnected. I didn’t talk to anybody, I didn’t connect with anybody, but that’s okay; an occupational hazard.
Juanita: That’s okay. In a sense that could be the feeling, oddly enough a paradox, that a host has at their own party. Where they’re so busy ensuring that there is enough food, that the coffee is being served, that the dirty dishes are moving back to the kitchen, etc. They are not able to fully enjoy their own party and yet, they know that they are creating a context as a host for a wonderful experience for the people who come. So it’s an interesting kind of paradox: The Paradox of the Host. I had never thought about that in context of the café.
Sharif: Yes. It was very important for me not to participate, but at the same time I need to get my issues scratched too. Maybe at some other point when I can fully participate.
People came to this conversation because they trust me and they were intrigued by my description. They didn’t come because their group mandated it. The ten people from each sponsoring group came because somebody trusted them.
Juanita: Or because they trusted someone. Isn’t that the principle in real life anyway, that you come to something because someone you really like invites you? Why do you end up at a Café or anywhere else unless it’s because you’re hanging out with your friends? You’re friends invite you, they say this is going to be really fun and you show up.
Sharif: I couldn’t guarantee “fun” at the Commons Café because I didn’t know what was going to happen and still don’t. But people know how disconnected we are in this society and because of that they said: To paraphrase you, people wind up at a café because they want to be fulfilled and have group connection. That may or may not be described as “fun.” “All right, here’s an opportunity to make a connection.” Some of the people who had their paradigms most deeply shifted were the ones who gave the highest evaluations: “I’ll be back and I want all my friends to come.”