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The Commons Cafe
Cafes 
for a 
New World
The January Initiative
 

 
.... Cafe Stories, An Interview 
(Part Two) ... 
 
 

 
 
July 1999

Café Stories Part Two

Juanita Brown and Sharif Abdullah
 

Juanita “Who were the “shepherds”, the co-sponsor’s of the first Café?”

Sharif “Portland State University students; Living Enrichment Center, a middle class to upper middle class New Thought church; Sisters Of the Road Café a food provider for homeless people; the Bureau of Maintenance, the city’s blue collar road workers; the Metropolitan Human Rights Center, which focuses on diversity issues and the Global Action Network, an environmentally rooted, neighborhood based organization.  We had physically challenged people; gays and lesbians; transgender people; and various people of color present.”  

Juanita “What was the purpose of this shepherds’ group?”

Sharif “The only thing they shared in common was me asking them to do this.”

“We gave a five dollar coupon to everyone who participated for coffee and desert, etc..  We only had to pay $2.50 for the coupon, but we could have gone to another vendor’s.  People came there and started to eat their dinner.  They went to the Asian Wok place and some got a piece of pizza.  People were just incredibly laid back and nobody asked for permission for anything.”

“Several people said, “I don’t know what this is, but this is great!”  {Laughter} One evaluation said: “We’re looking for real connections; without this (meaning the Café), the world gets really lonely.”   Here’s another one that’s really good:  “I assumed that my learning would be from those who are not like me, but I learned from those who are most like me.”

Juanita “Meaning that those who are not like him were also most like him?”

Sharif “No. I think that what he meant was (and this is a white male speaking) that he was ready to learn from women or African-Americans, but he learned a lot from other white men.”

Juanita “Okay.”

Sharif “He said, it’s very energizing to say things in a group without being criticized and judged.”  It’s like no one was clear why they were invited and they thought that was really, really, powerful that everyone started off with the same sense of ambiguity.   It was a very ambiguous opening.  In fact, it stayed ambiguous.  They didn’t know in a conscious rational sense why they were there.  They knew it was great, they knew they wanted to come back, they knew they wanted to continue it, but they didn’t have to think about any of that.  They just knew that this was there.”

Juanita “Did they invite their friends?”

Sharif  “We did not let them.  They wanted to, but I made a number of judgment calls just testing the water on this and that was one of the judgment calls.  I wanted to see this group through. 

Now one of the sponsor’s did something that skewed our results a little bit.  They had ten people present each time, but it was a different ten people.  I didn’t notice it until the third meeting.  I never actually questioned them on it.  Did they do this on purpose?  Did they see themselves as ‘spreading the wealth’? Did they have five people drop out?  Did they misunderstand the instructions? We were very interested in keeping track of who dropped out.

Except for two people, we tracked everybody who came.  We knew that anybody who didn’t return, did not come for a very profound reason and they really wanted to come. 

In the third Café, I gave them a moral exercise.  They each had to rate the actors in a story from the least reprehensible to the most reprehensible.  They had to do that individually.  Then, each table had to come to a consensus. They said that the exercise was a very powerful tool for really understanding people’s values. 

Juanita “Yes.”

Sharif “The moral exercise starts off really light weight. The more they get into it, the more heated they get. The most interesting thing about the exercise is that the participants make up facts. All the facts they have are what I’ve told them. They make up all sorts of facts to justify their moral position.  

Juanita “So did they stay at their same tables or did they move?”

Sharif “One time they stayed; one time we let them move and didn’t say anything; the second time we moved them; the third time we asked them to stay at their tables.”
 

Juanita “When you intentionally moved them; did you leave a host and others moved…?”

Sharif “No, we put blue dots on the backs of a couple of chairs and then after an hour said, “Look on the backs of your chairs. If you have a blue dot, move to another table.”

Juanita “Oh, I see.”

Sharif “That left it very, very random.  At a table, there would be a central figure, not so much a reporter, but kind of like someone that kept the weight of that table. So, sometimes they left.”

Juanita “Oh, because they had the blue dot.”

Sharif “Right, right, so it was pretty arbitrary and the dot was pretty innocuous too so it wasn’t that people were looking to sit in a blue dot chair or whatever.  Then the third night we asked them to stay in the same chair. 

Juanita “Can you remember what else did the participants say about the actual Café experience?  Either as a process or about what they learned from it?”

Sharif “One of the clearest reflections is the fact that they didn’t want to stop.  They really grilled me on why they had to stop. They said: “Well if it’s about the coffee, we can do without the coffee.” 

There were several different reasons we had to stop.  We promised people three sessions only.  The students who were helping me to organize the cafes; this was their finals time and I couldn’t rely on them anymore.  I couldn’t ask them for anymore free time then what they’d put in already.”

 “Also, I needed to think about the Commons Café as an organizing tool. What is this tool?  What did we just do?   How does this fit into the larger questions that we’re looking at for Commonway? How does this fit into whatever other projects will be coming down the line?  This is getting into November, into my traveling season.  So I finally said, “regardless of what you want, it’s going to end and we’ll see about getting it started again in January or February.”  I thought I was going to get some money in January and February.  It didn’t arrive for seven months.  I held my breath for seven months.”  {Laughter}

Sharif “One of the co-sponsor’s ‘didn’t get it’; she wanted to turn the “Café” into a “meeting”.   She said that there should have been facilitators at each table; there should have been flip charts available; there should have been tape recorders; etc., etc..”

 “I kept saying: “It’s not a meeting.  You do meetings really well and that’s a meeting.”  It took the other co-sponsor’s to say (too), “That would have turned it into meeting.”  She had to kind of ‘get’ that it’s not a meeting.”

“The other thing was that they felt it was a kind of dominant male syndrome.  That at the tables there were dominant males that didn’t take all of the airtime, but really kind of controlled the flow of events.  
 I didn’t observe a lot of that.  I observed some of that, but obviously if it happened at your table, you’d think the entire world looked like that.”

Juanita “Sure.”

Sharif “One of the co-sponsor’s said that instead of calling it the Commons Café, we should call it the Dangerous Dynamic Discussions.”

Juanita “That’s great… The Dangerous Dynamic Discussions!”  {Laughter)

Sharif  “Yeah, she was real clear. She said that one of the things that kept people at the table was a kind of undercurrent that this is not “safe”, in that, it’s not superficial.  It’s dangerous in that you’re exploring this murky water that you have never experienced. I don’t know my answers in advance.  Not only do I have to come up with them; I have to come up with them in public.”

Juanita “In a sense you’re exploring unknown territory.  Whatever it is people are being asked to come forward, not from their already known, but in a discovery place.  In that sense it’s not safe, yet at the same time, it is safe.  To me that is an interesting kind of paradox that the Café work engenders.  It’s not “safe” in terms of asking people things that were deeply personal, spiritually based to themselves that normally would not be part of public discussion.  So in that sense we can call it unsafe or venturing into the unknown and yet simultaneously the intimacy and the energetic feel of friendship and whatever the archetype of the Café invokes; makes it fine.  To me that dimension of it is very interesting and quite paradoxical.”

Sharif “In any communication between two human beings there is a danger that you are going to hit the wrong nerve and something is going to happen.  So be it.  That’s the dangerous part.  It really is a dynamic discussion.”

Juanita “Yes.”

Sharif “Another issue that came up was a couple of the co-sponsor’s felt that the questions asked people to reveal their personal selves.  You can’t answer the questions from (like), the Democratic Party says such-and-such, so therefore, you not only see the person’s personal experience, you also get a chance to share your own experience with this thing so that people see more of you.  However, you see more of everybody else, so there’s this larger sense of self that comes out of it.  

There was some question about my wording of the questions.  Some of them were more abstract, or allowed people to be abstract than others for a chance at personal experience.  I agree with that and whatever the next round or subject would be, I’m going to do some thinking about that.”

Juanita “So that raises the whole arena of questions and focus on questions and how they’re crafted.”

Sharif “Yeah.  Once we understand what we’re trying to get at, I don’t have to craft questions.  

Juanita “To what degree is it important for people to become self-reflective about the deeper underlying conceptual foundation?  Deeper process principles, etc..  I’m of the stance that where possible, I want people to not only have a great experience, but to know the power of what its’ potential is and why it works.  There are others of us whose been very trained as a deep meditator and for him, the field effects are just as powerful whether or not people are self-reflective; whether or not collective consciousness is becoming aware of the self at increasing levels of scale.  As a conscious thing it is still happening and therefore it is immaterial to him whether they become self-reflective.

I take an organizer’s perspective.  He has a meditator’s perspective.  I have an organizer’s perspective to the degree that people know they both live what they did and know what they did; they can then replicate it in their own environments without … they can be self empowering.  I’d be interested in your own perspective on that.”

Sharif “I need to reflect on that, but I would say my position would be “both- and”, I really understand the nature of the field.  When people walked past the Café, they stop and slow down.  They’re really looking and some actually came over to the tables and wanted to get more information on “how can I do this?”, “is there a sign up sheet?”  I don’t think that was because they heard any conversations.  I think it was because they entered the field.”

Juanita “Yes.”

Sharif “On the other hand, I think there were people who didn’t know what was going on, who really didn’t care what was going on.  All they knew was this was good and I’m being fed. 

Juanita “I’m being nourished by this gathering.”

Sharif “That's right.  In training people to conduct a Café, I start with the history, starting with your creation of the World Café, my interaction with that.  Then we go through the ten steps of the philosophy of inclusivity, the notion that when we as the organizers of the Café, we are the Advocates of the Whole.  We are not there to advocate for any particular part.  We have a duty to everyone we’ve invited. To say that, “This will be a safe space and you will be able to say what you need to say in an environment where you’ll be heard.  Not that you won’t experience vigorous disagreement, but no one is going to beat you up.  No one is going to even emotionally abuse you.  We have some duty there.  

 We talked a lot about democracy and how we’ve moved away from democracy, into the beauty contest of voting for one of two candidates.  What democracy means in terms of power.”

Juanita “You mean the Café being an example of democracy, or…?”

Sharif  “Exactly, the Café as an example of the precursor of democracy, which is the discussion, the public discourse of meaningful fundamental issues.”

Juanita “Wonderful!”

Sharif  “I would hate to see a Café talk about the weather.”

Juanita “Questions that matter.  That’s one of the principles.”  

Sharif “That’s right.  It’s not that the weather isn’t important. There’s a lot of weather out there, but… so what?   What does that get you?  Where do you go with that?  If you can’t go anywhere with it then why are we talking about it?  That’s the problem with talk radio – passionate yet meaningless discourse.  No connection, no community, not real dialog.

Our experience of democracy exists in a mono-culture, the New England town meetings, for example, means that we are for the first time experimenting with the precursors of democracy in a multi-cultural, multi-class, multi-ethnic environment.”

Juanita “As in the Common’s Café?”

Sharif “Right.  I don’t know anybody doing that.  This is really going to be interesting.  It’s moving Americans beyond the notion of being passive consumers of political discourse and debate, beyond watching the McLaughlin Group on television and thinking we are part of a democracy.  It’s like being there and mixing it up around your own table with your own fellow citizens.”

Juanita “It’s interesting that other people reflecting on very different kinds of Café’s say that to the degree you can get the most diversity {they’re not only talking about racial diversity or gender or whatever…} the most diverse voices; the Café works better.  So this principle you are applying to public discourse, (or) the corporate people doing Café’s around new property development or whatever it may be, are also discovering for themselves and re-engaging with the same principle in relation to bringing forward from creative source, the new.”

Sharif “Yes.   In my garden, I do the usual things like digging it up, tilling it up, put the fertilizer in, plant my vegetables.  Every year I see a weed that comes up.  I have it as my symbolic weed and I tend it and care for it and just let it grow through its full growth cycle.  I don’t know what’s going to come from this thing!  Two summers ago, we had a plant that came up; this thing just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger.  It got these little tiny yellow flowers on it and the bees went absolutely berserk!”

Juanita “They loved it!”  {Laughter}

Sharif “I am serious. I have never, ever seen bees act like this!  There were bees lining up on each flower to get their hit.  Who knows how long it’s been since the bees saw a plant like this; really growing and fed and tended and watered.  That to me is plant diversity.  Let it grow and see what happens. You never know. When you put this strange concoction of people together, you never know what’s going to happen and so… something happens!  Somebody said the definition of a weed is a plant you haven’t found a use for.  We need to get more ‘weedy people’ in the Cafés.”  {Laughter}

Juanita “Yes, that’s it.  It’s the innovation principle too.  What you’re really searching for is an environment that enables the new to reveal itself.  What are the conditions that allow that to happen?”

Sharif  In the Café training, we talked about power and how the advocate of the whole has to be the power balancer.  If it became obvious that there was white male dominance at the table; we’d have to do something about that. 

We talked about people and the fact that people need a meaningful connection with each other.  That need is soulful and spiritual.  It’s the need that’s never addressed by e-mail.  That can only augment a really heart-to-heart, fact-to-face connection, as opposed to creating a connection.  

I believe that the idea of the Café cannot be separate from the idea of place.  The conversation has to happen somewhere.”

Juanita “Like in a hospitable place or a hospitable space.”

Sharif “The quality of the Café is inextricably tied to the quality of the space in which it’s taking place.  So that the Café at Fetzer will have a very different quality than a Café in Disney World.  Someone raised the issue of cyber-cafés.  While a cyber-café may be a valuable way to connect with large groups of people on some very disparate topics, it’s not a Café.  It can’t be because you’re not face-to-face.  Even if you have video images, you’re still not face-to-face.  

We spent some time talking about language and communication.  The fact that written language is roughly about ten thousand years old, while spoken language is older than human beings are.  Because other beings -- the more-than-human environment -- speak to each other.  So speech isn’t human, it’s part of our being-ness on this planet.  If we are just sitting around sending e-mails to each other, we are not feeding something that we need to feed.  Our spoken language is regimented in school, in work, etc..  Generally, it’s: You’ll speak when you’re spoken to. You speak within the context of the freedom of that environment – which generally isn’t any.”

Juanita “So the naturalness is lost.”

Sharif “Yes.  Something that needs to get fed doesn’t get fed.  The communication that is face-to-face; we know that between 60-70 percent of it is non-verbal and I believe that it involves all of our senses.  It involves taste, smell, touch, etc..  Which is why the Café works!”

Juanita “This is really interesting.  I’ve never heard this dimension of it in this way.  So, it’s not just the conversation, it’s that you experience or imagine the smell of coffee.  It’s the visual imagery associated with it.  It’s the facial expression face-to-face.  It’s the physical closeness; it’s the all of the above.”

Sharif “Right, watching.  It’s the seeing what you eat and how you eat it. It’s you watching what and how I eat.  It’s having a reaction to how hot the coffee is.  There are a lot of signals that come around that.  It’s our pheromones interacting with each other, in ways we cannot even imagine.  The open nature of the Café allows that to happen with almost no cultural context. At a table of five, one person would have just a cup of coffee; one person would get an elaborate latte and a desert; somebody else would get an organic fruit punch; someone else would have gone to the Godfather’s Pizza and gotten a pepperoni pizza and they’re sitting there eating it and they’re talking with their mouth full.  All of this is the communication experience.”   {Laughing}

If I ask someone to tell me about Joe, they could tell me more about him with all of these sensory inputs.  Think about yesterday when we had our lunch.  The places were set.  The silverware was set a certain way.  The silverware gives you a coded design of what you’re supposed to use first, second, etc., etc..  The food is regimented for you.  All of that is a way to control what could be an open-ended experience.  

If I had the money to do another Commons Café, I wouldn’t just have a coffee coupon; I’d have a Holladay Market coupon and say, “you go wherever you want to go in here.”  But you go wherever you want to go and do whatever you want to do.”

Juanita “Right, so the more self-organized it is…”

Sharif “Right, the more conversation takes place while you’re doing that.  Now, I have a habit of talking while I’m eating.  The more excited I get, the more I shove something big in my mouth and… “glub, glub, glub!”   {Laughing}

Juanita {Laughing}  “Yeah!”

Sharif “That tells you something about me and the passion which I approach certain kinds of subjects.  Other people would be horrified by this, so something else will happen.  I think that for the way we want to do a Café, having real live food available, is an essential aspect.  It’s a leavening aspect of it.  If we had done something like having set a tablecloth at set places and certain forks and knives… the culture of that would have turned some on and turned some off.”

Juanita “Right. So you then have an open informality, which makes people want to ‘come to the table’ however they wanted to.  Interesting!”

Sharif  “Like I said, some people brought the whole dinner!”  {Laughing}  I thought it was great.”

Sharif “There is a spiritual aspect to the Commons Café.  When the conversation gets good, you’ve not erased, but you’ve let down the barriers of “I”, where I am doing this and I am doing that and you become “We” or you move closer to “We.”

Juanita “Yes.”

Sharif “ “We” is a jumping off point of transcendence.  In Jesus said: “If any three or more is gathered in my name, your prayers will be answered.”  He was saying: gather and see what happens.  I think people to the extent that they wanted to come back; that place of transcendence was being fed in ways that Disney World not only doesn’t feed, but actually gives the opposite of.”

Juanita “That’s another very important point for us to explore more deeply.  I don’t want to gloss, but I’m conscious about our time.   

1.  What are the larger implications of what seems so simple?
2.   What is the capacity of people to self-organize on behalf of the things they really believe in?  
We are collective consciousness becoming aware of itself at increasing levels of scale.  That’s to me what happens when people dissolve this “I”, this self becomes a larger entity than this boundary by my own little skin.  There’s something about the Café that in no matter what context this happens with whatever permutations on the design fundamentally that people do; that that’s what happens.  To me there is something very important that’s much larger than a Café that this reveals to us.  For which the Café is simply a vehicle to make visible to ourselves and then to become intentional.”

Sharif “Right, we’re right on the same wavelength.  Actually let me add something to that wavelength.  I don’t know if you know historically, the thing that was the seed bed for the American Revolution was something called the Committees of Correspondence…”

Juanita “Of course, Thomas Payne and the Committees of Correspondence.  He was my hero!”  {Laughter}

Sharif “Okay… there you go.  The Café begins a grass roots conversation that may have political, social, cultural and even spiritual implications to it.”

     END 
 

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