Wir Machen - We Do - taken at Fabrik23 in Berlin

Three lessons for creating powerful collaborative gatherings

Narrative Initiative recently brought 100 people from around the world to Berlin for Meeting the Populist Moment. From idea to execution, we learned lessons about the power of bringing people together from a small office in Brooklyn. 

Successful gatherings connect people and create conditions for the formation of a “we.” Pulling off a convening with that level of impact takes more than making a checklist (and crossing items off it). The work of gathering is both art and science. It begins by committing to the people you seek to bring together. You sweat the big and small details with deep respect for why you are doing this and the experience of your participants. In return, all those involved bring energy, motivation and enthusiasm. These are the foundations of a “we.”

In democratic nations around the world, authoritarian leaders are channeling discontent into political power. Women, minorities and immigrants are being repressed. Governments are tightening controls on economies and the media.

Recognizing that this moment requires collective thinking and responses, Open Society Foundations and Narrative Initiative co-organized a gathering for people to reflect together on what we need for a better future. In the words of Priya Parker (The Art of Gathering), “gathering – the conscious bringing together of people for a reason – shapes the way we think, feel, and makes sense of our world.”  This is what we intended to do at Meeting the Populist Moment. For you, dear reader, we wish to encourage the creation of thriving spaces for learning and conversation in a time of rising challenges.

We have three lessons to share to help others create powerful collaborative gatherings

  1. Intentionally build a we (participants) with a we (the team).
  2. Invest in creating trust and care.
  3. Bring a sense of humor and a recognition for one’s humanity when you show up in this work.

With these steps, we begin to manifest the change we seek in the world. Your gathering and how you plan it must model your vision for a better future.

Street art in Kotti neighborhood of Berlin

Street art in the Kotti neighborhood of Berlin.

Build a we with a we

Organizing an event of this size means having a team of humans. Many humans. You need to distribute the work and work together. We called this Distribute and Conquer.  That is easier said than done. Success requires the right conditions. Here are ours.

Clarify who does what. First, know your resources, human power and bandwidth. Be honest. Be realistic. This up-front analysis will save you when things don’t go as planned…and things rarely go as planned. Like many before us, we underestimated the amount of work needed. What you can’t handle, outsource! Use local vendors whenever possible.  Bring diversity and inclusion front-of-mind when sourcing your event.

Second, don’t work in silos. Help the humans doing the planning talk to each other. Bring key partners into the info and communications flow early. Integrate operations and communications in the planning.

Lastly, when working with a partner, we recommend drafting a Memorandum of Understanding. This can be as simple as listing what each partner does, what is done together and who pays for what. This defining of roles and responsibilities is helpful when unforeseen needs pop up.

For example we needed an emcee and a performer. That meant we needed a stage which then required a sound engineer. These changes are inevitable. As you get closer to the event, and stress levels increase, you will thank yourself if you have divvied up the work. Your budget will also thank you if you know from the start what each partner can cover.

Create a common story for your convening. Story powers external communications, event planning and more. Our event story grounded the participant journey from the moment invitations arrived. Story becomes a compass explaining why a person is here, why they should be here, and what we aspire to produce from a diverse set of minds, bodies and experiences. Story also provides a focal point for anyone working on the event. It will inform how you recruit, select and work with participants and speakers.

Location, location, location. Thinking about why we were together provided helpful criteria when choosing our location. We wanted Meeting the Populist Moment to happen outside our usual US-centric echo chamber. We also knew that EU and US advocates had shared interests, common challenges and much to learn from one another. We focused on a location in Europe and landed on Berlin. The location met our needs and also gave us time together in a city with historical resonance to this moment.

Fck Wars. Street art at Fabrik23 in Berlin.

Fabrik23 offered meeting space, history and an inspiring attitude.

Let your venue be a reflection of your community and the conversation you seek to create. We sought a space that would challenge preconceptions and encourage people to form innovative, groundbreaking ideas. That ruled out hotel conference rooms. We chose Fabrik23, an old converted factory located in one of the most ethnically diverse areas of Berlin. It’s a venue and neighborhood defined by a history of resistance and resilience. The vibe was inviting and motivating.

Care for your teams and your participants

Consider more than just the needs of participants. Each of the humans involved in planning and implementing a gathering is critical to its success. Take time to communicate and listen. Things happen, plans change, stress increases. Make time to check in with each other. Put it on the agenda. We made it a point after each day in Berlin to take stock of how folks were feeling. We asked everyone on the team what was great about the day and what could be better.

Communication is your backbone. Create a communication plan that delivers the story about your convening to participants, staff, volunteers, and your community following the event from afar. What tools and platforms will you be using? Make your life simpler, not harder. We often worried about the wrong things. We learned that it’s more important to make participants part of the story early on and keep them updated than to create something polished and sophisticated.

Pick vendors like you pick your friends. A professional and cooperative vendor can make a big difference in the quality of an event and your team. Choose wisely. We worked with a stellar group at our venue, Fabrik23. They looked out for us, advising when our thinking was going to collide with reality. We, and they, made time for emails and meetings before the event.

Advance work is essential but mistakes happen. It’s a funny story now but we almost ruined the polish of a floor that had been painstakingly refinished by hand. It was made more difficult when realizing we had been working closely with the human who had done that work. A good relationship – and working with humans who have good spirit and patience – meant ending the event on a positive note despite a (near) disaster.

Set up participation guidelines. We sought a safe and comfortable space for every participant. We created a code of conduct and established reporting mechanisms for abusive behavior. Your gathering is a reflection of where you and your community are and where you want to be together. Embrace it with care. Likewise, treat your participants and their security with the necessary level of care and respect. Create a photo release policy and make it visible.

Meeting the Populist Moment. Berlin 2019.

Have a little sense of humor (Be human!)

Our event was essentially humans addressing a problem created by humans in a space put together by humans. Owning up to your humanness will help set the tone and affect the success of your time together.

You need to be game. Bringing people together requires your team to use their energy as the fuel that transforms ideas into reality. You draw on this energy for the duration of your planning but it’s most needed in the two to three weeks leading up to an event. This time is a sprint and the team needs to be ready to handle whatever comes its way. There are no small jobs, no big jobs. We headed to Berlin with a pretty clear plan of who would be doing what. But as we were always reminding one another, this was all hands on deck. Once there, we needed to be able to handle the unforeseen together.

Put yourselves in other people’s shoes. Imagine you are showing up to this event. What would you need? Make sure people have necessary information. Ensure the space is accessible. And don’t underestimate catering. Good healthy food keeps participants happy and prepares bodies and minds for action. It also helps to make people feel like a part of the “we” that is being created into that space. We made sure to meet lots of dietary restrictions so that everyone had an opportunity to sit together and break bread. And yet, we did not plan for the temperature fluctuations accompanying climate change. We failed to project high temperatures and different cultural expectations of air conditioning. There was some grumbling and lots of sweating.

Bring your humanity to the event. Things will go wrong. People will not show up. You might break a few things (or a few rules). It’s ok. You’re human. We showed up in Berlin knowing we had to have compassion for ourselves, vendors, participants, speakers, even taxi drivers and copy shop staff.

One lesson: check yourself first when blame lurks. There were many things we had not thought about and many things we should not have done. We found ourselves troubleshooting in the hotel bar until 2 am in the days before the event. We’re not gonna lie: there were adult beverages. There were also many, many jokes. This event went well mostly because we took care of one another throughout the process. Even at 2 am the day before people arrived we enjoyed each other’s company and knew not to take ourselves too seriously.

In the end we learned that building an event is similar to building a “we.”  Fostering solidarity and a transformational moment requires deep collaboration from start to finish. It takes time and it takes work – a lot of work. It won’t always be pretty. There will be differences of approach and work styles. But the successes and challenges you share in the process will help create a moment that makes possible the ability and the power of individuals and groups to imagine together how we can turn ideas into reality.

Categories: Commentary, Events
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