A Reflection on a Citizen Centre Approach
The 2nd National Citizens Convention (NCC) was held on 24-25 September 2019 in Harare. It was a historic process, which defied the prevailing polarities and the paralysis in Zimbabwean society. Zimbabwean citizens from all walks of life – progressive citizens, civil society organizations, informal workers, students, women’s groups, artists, faith groups, and business leaders met under the banner of Citizens’ Manifesto which includes at least 23 organisations and many communities to reiterate a shared vision of a better Zimbabwe for all. Far from ‘your usual meeting’, the process was a deep response to a profound existential crisis in Zimbabwe. This article describes the way the convention was structured and designed to truly be a citizen led engagement.
In September we were part of a collaborative effort to host the second National Citizen's Convention. The first one was two years prior in the Harare Gardens where the Kufunda team facilited our largest World Cafe yet with 1500 participants. This year we made it smaller and longer with close to 300 people instead of 1500 and two days instead of one.
It was a wonderful and strong convention with people from all of Zimbabwe from different organisations and background coming together to explore how to move forward in our challenging but beloved Zimbabwe. Kufunda played a strong role through our partnership as Gateway Zimbabwe stepped into lead the process and facilitation of the two days.
The convention consciously made a commitment to practice a participatory approach. We are inspired by the approach and suite of tools coming out of The Art of Hosting network (the Art of Hosting and Harvesting Conversations that Matter; www.artofhosting.org). There are several underlying assumptions giving rise to the Art of Hosting. In this piece, we explore some of these alongside a summary of how we allowed these to live and breathe through the convention.
Conversation is the way humans have always thought together.
This is our core assumption from which the convention was designed. In conversation we discover shared meaning. We often listen to experts and leaders. Expecting them to guide our path. Although their insight is critical and important, it cannot replace the act of ordinary people coming together in dialogue and exploration to find their own way.
For communities of people to generate shared meaning out of which collective action can develop requires conversation. The convention used simple collaborative conversation methods including the World Cafe and Open Space Technology. World Cafe allows multiple conversations to take place simultaneously and to be woven together through simple cross pollination of people from different groups sharing and building deeper insights. It is a bit like a bee hive where hive mind is generated. By the end of a world cafe one can have an idea of the five most important ideas emerging around a theme that several hundred people have been exploring together in small sub groups of 4-5 people!
Open Space is a method that allows for self-organization where participants create the agenda for themselves and self-appointed facilitators lead and record the resulting discussions. This is often used when moving towards action. Both of these approaches enriched the convention.
People act most responsibly when they care
What we care about, we commit to and work for. It is therefore important to ensure that we are working on issues that we care about. For this reason, the convention began with a World Cafe exploring what people care about and what they dream for these areas. What emerged were simple essentials: Basic social services: Education, health, water, electricity; strong co-creative and safe communities, people centre governance with active youth participation, freedom and unity, a healthy sustainable economy with entrepreneurship and employment and on-going care for the environment. It was striking how so many of the things that people care about, and the dreams that emerged out of the citizen convention are in fact basic human rights. Our dreams as Zimbabweans are not outlandish. They are asking for what in many countries is commonly accepted as the foundation for life.
What we Focus on Expands - Focusing on what’s working gives us energy and creativity.
This might seem almost impossible in today’s Zimbabwe. The focus is often on all the things that are in disarray, which is an almost endless list. Although we have to be pragmatic about what is not working and need to analyze and understand these aspects, much can be harnessed through looking for the places of light; and finding examples of progress, and shift. We have much to learn from these, and as we focus on these we begin to see where things are already in movement in our communities and systems. Part of the convention specifically focused on working with the enormous resource which we had of people coming from many different backgrounds and parts of the country. We used this extended network of people to identify what is working in different domains and regions. This gave us insight into places of opportunity. If we can find ways to strengthen and expand these we can grow new possibilities out of health.
We used a systems map which shows the Zimbabwean context and overlaid it with bright spots - places where change is already happening.
People support what they have been a part of creating - Flow of the Overall Process
Ours was a citizens convention with the aim to generate and contribute to a growing citizen’s movement. For this people need to be fully involved and engaged in exploring and creating what emerges from the convention itself. Thus although we had several thought leaders giving important input and offering their expertise, the convention was designed and structured, so that participants, could explore and reflect on what was being offered and take it further into co-creating their own ideas and clarity for what is needed in Zimbabwe - and their own communities and constituencies - going forward - be that in the area of governance, economy, or cohesion.
Practically this meant that the convention began with people meeting each other and connecting around their intentions and dreams for their communities and our country. After the opening session people could choose to attend one of three parallel panels: Inclusive Economy, Good Governance and Social Cohesion. Each panel was rich in input from thought leaders building a picture of the current reality as well as their suggestions for moving forward. People had conversations in smaller groups to work through the ideas and together develop the deeper themes emerging in each of the three areas.
Out of this came our meta harvest which was summarized in three striking and hopefully meaningful summation images.
The Social cohesion group described how fear and intergenerational trauma keep us nice and not authentic. It asked the question of how we can move forward when what has happened has not been acknowledged. It arrived at the understanding that change begins with us, and that many small conversations at village and community level, across generations and gender, can lead to the healing we are looking for. It saw the potential of moving to healing, truth and genuine relationships through this community based social contract, and also acknowledged the importance of connecting this local work with constitutionally mandated structures - whilst being clear that the real work lies at community level.
Similar summaries came out for the economy and governance from groups of 70-80 people working collaboratively together to find the collective understanding.
Following these immersion in our key thematic areas, people had opportunities to share what they knew of innovative practice - or points of light - in each of the areas, using these to build a simple roadmap for how we practically can contribute to shift and healthy development from community levels and up.
On the second day of the convention we took this principle one step further by hosting an Open Space session. Open Space is a simple social technology in which people actually co-create their agenda, hence the name Open Space. The question was simple: From everything they had explored and learnt on day one, what did they wish to work on towards creating solutions for the future? It was a beautifully diverse mix of sessions: citizen’s governance, trauma healing, community tree planting (greeening the future), arts for social change, and many more. It was a level of creativity that we would not have seen if we had designed the agenda for people.
Thus in summary we worked to develop a deep level of understanding in our key thematic areas as citizens, together with an exploration of points of light. This took us to our open space session, where we developed practical and tangible solutions that we as citizens are ready and willing to spearhead.
We hope it is apparent that the citizen convention was in many ways also a way of living the future today - living the participation and co-creation that we would like to experience in our communities, councils, districts and nation going forward.
The summary of participatory process are borrowed from a set of card by Margaret Wheatley around Community Participation.