COMMONWAY INSTITUTE
"CAFES FOR A NEW WORLD"
The January 
Commons Cafe 
Initiative
THE COMMONS CAFÉ EXPERIENCE:

NOTES FOR A CAFÉ ORGANIZER

PURPSOSE:
The purpose of the Commons Café is to bring people together, past the barriers that separate us, for meaningful dialog on fundamental issues that affect society.
THE VISION:
Friends gather at a local coffeehouse, for coffee, tea, dessert and talk.  Some people at the table may not know others, or may have just met.  The conversation starts with introductions but quickly moves to more fundamental matters.  Talk becomes intense, people may disagree, but people stay connected.  Someone wanders away to get more tea, others rise and stretch, topics flow back and forth.  Someone looks at their watch and wonders how time could pass so quickly.  They all agree to come back again and continue the conversation. 
THE BARRIERS THAT SEPARATE US:
All of us experience barriers that separate us from true communion with other human beings.  Fundamental barriers include: race, culture, ethnicity, class, religion, ideology and gender.   These are the barriers that fuel war and violence.  Other barriers include nationality, sexual orientation, language, age, ability and a host of others.

The goal of the Commons Cafe is to create opportunities to transcend these barriers for authentic communication.  In this, the Commons Cafe is a bridging institution that brings together people who would not normally connect with “the Other”.
 

HOW THE COMMONS CAFÉ IS DIFFERENT FROM OTHER DIALOG GROUPS
The Commons Café differs from other salons, discussion groups, dialogs, in several fundamental ways:
1. The Commons Café starts with people who do NOT previously know each other.  Many other salons gather together people who already know each other, or at least know about each other.

2. The Commons Café starts with people who are different from each other in some fundamental ways (race/ethnicity, culture, class, ideology). 

3. The primary purpose of the Commons Café is to connect people who are different from each other.  The Commons Café is designed to reach across racial, ethnic, cultural, class, religious and other barriers.

4. The purpose of the Commons Café is NOT to “solve problems”, or form “action groups”.  These things may happen, or may not.  The purpose of the Commons Café is to connect people who would not otherwise be connected, to dissolve the barriers that separate us.

ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS OF THE COMMONS CAFÉ: 
1. People meeting together in conversation-sized groups.
2. At least 40 people in the café. 
3. Meeting with “the Other”: people who are in some fundamental way different from each other. 
4. A safe, neutral meeting environment, one that facilitates conversation.
5. Light food and drink.
6. Index cards on the table that stimulate conversations about fundamental issues.
7. A readiness to deal with any legitimate special needs for any of the café participants.
8. A fundamental exercise in democratic discourse. 
THE COMMONS CAFÉ FORMAT:
Time:  A typical Commons Café lasts 6-12 hours.  This can happen by having a series of weekly meetings (for example: every Tuesday evening for 3-4 consecutive weeks).  In the large group, the Commons Café is more of an “event”, which encompasses a weekend (for example:  Friday night and all day Saturday).

Size:  40-80 participants for a normal Café.  Smaller groups lack synergistic energy.  Larger groups are possible (see below), but take a great deal of prior planning and organization.

Location:  Where the Commons Cafe is held is very important.  It must be a neutral place, one that feels “safe” for everyone, but is not identified with any one interest group.  Creating a safe environment for mutual exploration is a primary concern. The location should be somewhere that can “feel” like a real café or coffeehouse.  An ideal location is an urban mall that may have seen better days, one that already has coffee and food vendors but does not have a lot of people.  The Commons Café is not a place where things are very “busy”, or where people have already staked out their “turf”. 

Other location possibilities include:
COLLEGE CAMPUS
May be free; college may be a co-sponsor of Café. May be alienating for non-college students
CHURCH/TEMPLE
Generally free; may be a co-sponsor of Café. May be alienating for other faiths
COMMUNITY CENTERS
Free to residents. May be alienating for people from other areas
SUB-DIVISION COMMUNITY ROOMS
Free to residents. May be alienating for people not of that subdivision
CITY HALL OR CIVIC MEETING ROOMS
Generally free. Too many rules

Set-up:  Tables for 4-7 participants.  Five is an ideal number.  Fewer than 4 has little energy to sustain itself over hours; more than seven feels like a “meeting”. 

The size of the table is important: many facilities offer only banquet-size tables for 12.  Try to avoid this, even if you have to rent your own tables and bring them in.

On the table:  Index cards that contain the catalyst questions for the evening; name tags (first name only recommended); paper and writing instruments for doodling.  Some Commons Cafés have included flowers and centerpieces; pipe cleaners and other handiworks. 

PARTICIPANTS:
This is the single most important factor in the Commons Café.

Café Hosts:  The Café Host is the principal organizer for a Commons Café.  The Commons Café is an exercise in bridging the barriers that separate us.  The only way that can happen is for everyone to be represented at the Café.  This process will NOT happen automatically.  In order to get a diverse group, the Cafe Host must work at it.  This is the hardest work of putting on a Commons Café.

“Shepherds”:  The method we have successfully used: identify groups and organizations that represent various stakeholder groups, then recruit one person in that group to become a “shepherd” who brings in others.   For example:  I went to a homeless service organization and asked the Director to recruit ten people to come to the Commons Café.

Therefore, recruiting the “shepherds” is the single most important thing you can do for the success of the Café.  Instead of recruiting 80 people for the Commons Café, you only have to recruit eight shepherds.

The shepherd recruits based on his/her relationship with the participants.  Choose your shepherds carefully.  Does the person actually have a constituency, or do they just have a name or media recognition?  Are there indirect ways to recruit?  (For example:  for class issues, it may be difficult to get a “shepherd” from a rich country club, but it may be easier to get one from a rich church.) 

Examples of shepherding organizations:
RACE/ETHNICITY
  • Churches and temples (generally, the most segregated part of society)
  • Civil/human rights commissions
  • Advocacy groups
  • Barber/beauty shops
CLASS
  • Homeless shelters
  • Country clubs
  • Public and private schools
  • Neighborhood organizations
  • Blue collar associations
  • Churches
RELIGION
  • Churches and church-type organizations
IDEOLOGY
  • Activist/ Advocacy groups
  • Civic organizations (Lions, Elks, Rotary)
  • Single-interest groups (pro/anti abortion; pro/anti labor)
  • Police associations
AGE
  • Schools
  • Senior centers

Another way to recruit "shepherds": consider recruiting shepherds within a particular category.  For example:  recruiting several Baptist churches (one white, one black, one Hispanic, one wealthy, one not...)

Recruitment:  Many times, the director of an organization will allow you to speak to the members.  Or, they will offer to make a general announcement to their group or congregation:  “You could get 200 or 300 people to participate!”  This approach is not recommended.  You do not WANT 200 people from one stakeholder group to overwhelm the Commons Café.  And, more likely, you will get zero, not 200.

People will come because they trust the “shepherd”.  The shepherd will recruit if he or she trusts YOU, the Café organizer. 

The "Other":  Your most difficult shepherd recruiting will be for groups you perceive as “the Other”.  For example:  I have an easy time recruiting African-American shepherds.  White organizers may have a less easy time.  Progressives may have a difficult time recruiting a conservative “shepherd”.  This is a test of your skills as “Advocate of the Whole”. 

A TYPICAL COMMONS CAFÉ 
Beginning:  People start to wander in well before the 7:00 pm start time.  They are asked to visit the registration table, have their names checked off (you should have their names from their respective “shepherds”), given a name tag (first names only, no organizational affiliation), then offered a cup of coffee or tea.  (You either have free coffee and tea set up, or have made arrangements at the mall for discount beverages for this gathering.)

Before 7:00, you invite participants to take seats.  For the small café, you simply ask people to sit where they don’t know anyone.  For the larger cafes, you have pre-numbered tables – participants will get their numbers at registration.  On the table, there will be a stack of index cards, face down. 

At 7:00, the primary host welcomes the participants, lays out the few guidelines for a successful Café, reminds participants that the Commons Café is not a meeting, then invites them to turn over the first card.

Middle:  For the next two hours, the hosts wander from table to table, NOT taking part in the conversations.  (Larger cafés will have “table hosts”, people who are knowledgeable of the Café process and are there to provide guidance – if necessary – to each table.  They are NOT present as “facilitators”.) 

The conversations take place organically, without guidance.  Some tables pass around all the cards; others self-select a table manager who asks all the questions on the cards; some tables ignore the cards altogether, or use the questions to frame different questions. 

Ending:  Ten minutes before 9:00 pm, the primary host thanks the participants, asks them to fill out an evaluation of their experience, and then says they are free to leave or may stay for further conversation.  (In several cafés, the majority of participants stayed for two additional hours, until security guards invited them to leave.  The conversation continued in the parking lot.)

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