Michael Bischoff

Michael Bischoff

Over the last couple of years it seemed that almost every meeting I attended included some kind of structured “conversation”.  There are several organizations facilitating these types of conversations – Art of Hosting, Open Space Technology, World Café, Heartland.  It was never clear to me what makes these conversations different from or more productive than any other conversation where group members seek to solve a problem or address an issue in a community.

So I was curious to attend “From Conversation to Transformation” sponsored by the Social Innovation Lab in St. Paul a few months ago.  The purpose of this meeting was to examine the impact of these conversational approaches and possible next steps.

The two hundred attendees were asked to join one of fifteen “story circles”, each one focusing on a project or initiative which had included structured conversations and resulted in some degree of action.  The groups included a wide range of activities, involving social action groups, government and corporations.

I chose the to join the group about Native American Somali Friendship, the recipient of a large grant through the Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation/In Commons Connect for Health initiative (which I wrote about in previous posts).  Native American Somali Friendship describes itself as an initiative where “grassroots community leaders came together in order to end violence and live in a safe neighborhood through cross cultural dialogue.”  The project addresses violence and tensions between Somali and Native Americans in the Cedar Riverside and Phillips neighborhoods in Minneapolis.  I was curious to learn what they had accomplished since receiving their $100,000 grant through a very public process.

The Native American Somali Friendship project has indeed increased communication channels between Somali and Native Americans, in particular women and elders.   Unfortunately, the  project  organizer didn’t have any data yet on whether these dialogues have resulted in decreased violence and increased safety.

I recently sat down with Michael Bischoff, Clarity Facilitation, who has been instrumental in organizing the Social Innovation Labs,  described as “intentional community conversations that lead to change.”  I asked Michael about the next steps for the Labs.  In his view these efforts will be more likely to be effective if they are sustained (two years or longer), topic-specific and incorporate a sense of commitment and rigor.

Success for the Labs means many things, according to Michael, including the creation of an “ecosystem of innovation” and the implementation of innovative ideas resulting in improved quality of life of communities.

Michael doesn’t see a dichotomy between conversation and the rough and tumble of the “real world” power politics, etc. In his view, both are part of the whole picture.  He also recognizes that conversation alone can’t create change, noting that it must be combined with other strategies such as community organizing and “design thinking”.

His vision is to bring organizations and people together, recognizing the complexity of social problems and contexts, to set the conditions for systems to organize themselves.  This model envisions common goals but not necessarily a common plan, a process that involves influence without control.

It’s a little hard for my linear mind to grasp but let’s see what happens.  Right now the Lab has convened an ongoing project, presumably involving structured conversation and other processes, to support the development of a sustainable food system in North Minneapolis.  I’ll talk to Michael six month from now and see how these efforts are progressing.

Your thoughts are also welcome in the meantime!


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