History of Conversation Café
By Vicki Robin, Co-Founder of Conversation Café
In the summer of 2001, three Seattle friends, Susan Partnow, Habib Rose and Vicki Robin, ran an experiment. They believed that more spontaneous and drop-in public dialogue would serve democracy, critical thinking and neighborliness. So each sat in a different café once a week and invited whoever was there, plus friends, to dialogue about things that really mattered. Thus the Conversation Café Method was born. At the end of the summer they met to plan an outreach method so that in-depth conversations would take place more often in Seattle. That was September 10, 2001. The next day made it clear that Conversation Cafés could help diverse people process 9/11.
From there, Conversation Cafés spread throughout Seattle then on to Toronto, St. Louis, Tucson and ultimately to seventy cities in the US, Canada and Europe. As co-directors, Susan and Vicki built a team to help with spreading the method and serving the growing network. New Road Map Foundation generously funded the project from inception to the present, with the Foundation for Global Community and Bob and Jacquelyn Pogue’s foundation adding considerable funds.
They invented “Conversation Week” – a week each year when all Conversation Cafés considered the same topic, and through sharing the wisdom of each group, sought a global sense of what “we the people” were feeling and thinking about the important questions of our times. They applied the Conversation Café method to the “red-blue divide” in the US through Let’s Talk America. Together with other Conversation Café hosts they brought Conversation Cafés to the Bioneers Conference four years in a row, to half a dozen Green Festivals in cities across the US, to the British Parliament, to PBS and to conferences and meetings too numerous to name.
Eight years after they began, Susan and Vicki recognized they’d done all they could and that the Conversation Cafés needed a new home. When they proposed this idea to Jacquelyn Pogue, perhaps the most dedicated and creative Conversation Café host ever, she welcomed the opportunity to continue support of the Conversation Café model. She also wanted to build on it by integrating her own methods for deepening the dialogue and offering opportunities for community action, which she and her team were already doing in Richmond, Virginia.
With an alignment of their vision, Vicki and Susan transferred the project to Bob and Jacquelyn Pogue, and they are now the stewards of the Conversation Café website such that it may continue to serve the future expansion of the Conversation Café method and support the Conversation Café hosts. Through Richmond Action Dialogues, the Pogues invite other communities to create their own community action dialogues, and to give voice to the evolution of dialogue in its many forms.
Transition and Alignment of Conversation Café with Richmond Action Dialogues
By Jacquelyn Pogue, Director of Richmond Action Dialogues
When Bob and Jacquelyn Pogue were offered the stewardship of Conversation Café by Vicki Robin and Susan Partnow at the end of 2009, they welcomed both the opportunity and challenge. They pledged their support of the Conversation Café initiative to promote community, democracy and wisdom through open, respectful public conversations. Jacquelyn’s interest in dialogue began in 1984 in London through David Bohm. Bob began his training in 1998 with Harrison Owen of Open Space. In 2004 they were the founders of the Richmond Dialogue Group of Virginia, now Richmond Action Dialogues. Since then they have facilitated community dialogue groups utilizing slam poets, television series, lectures, sermons, university courses and documentary films. Jacquelyn continues to lead training programs and presentations for conferences.
We at Richmond Action Dialogues, view Conversation Café as a foundation for work in Deepening the Dialogue and Action Dialogues. Although our dialogue methods differ slightly, require more skilled facilitation training, and we invite participants to consider taking action on some dialogue topics, our basic principles are closely aligned with Conversation Café. We are committed to preserving the purity of the Conversation Café model through the website and training. We are grateful to Vicki Robin and Susan Partnow for holding the founding vision and delivering on the mission of Conversation Café.
With its simple but powerful structure, the Conversation Café model works.
What underlies its success?
The Circle—Sitting equally in the circle together, there is a sense of community gathering around a center. In this center is a space for the group’s thoughts, feelings, insights and threads of meaning to weave together in a new conversational tapestry of co-creation.
Introductions—When people introduce themselves very briefly with their name and why they are participating, it allows for an authenticity that is free of ego. There is no need for titles, labels, life roles, or other pseudo-identities to start the conversation in a heartfelt way.
Agreements—The agreements are read to provide guidelines, or boundaries, for a civil conversation and deeper listening. Everyone’s agreement to follow them establishes a common ground for participation. The host’s role is to support the group in following the agreements and create a safe space.
Process—Describing the process provides an overview of where the conversation is going, how it will be, and when it will be over. The actual dialogue is unknown but the ending time and structure are clear.
Talking Object—The talking object arouses curiosity and invites a kinesthetic experience. It can also stimulate deeper speaking and listening. While talking circles have probably been part of many ancient cultures, we must acknowledge that the inspiration for contemporary circles have come from our own Native Americans. While we use what we call a talking object, it is based on the talking stick that the Native Americans used. We do NOT call it a talking stick out of respect for the sacredness that the talking stick represents in their culture. Also, we are known to have a creative bent when it comes to selecting talking objects, e.g. tennis balls, timer cubes, stones, etc. We wish to share this in the spirit of the following quote by Elder William Commanda, Kitigan Zibi, Quebec: “If we cease sharing our knowledge and stories, we forget that which is taught to us (as spiritual, mindful, heart filled bodies; our Beings).”
Rounds—The two rounds give opportunities for everyone to participate without the pressure of having to speak since one can pass when the talking object is given to them. People get a sense of how others are relating to the topic without having to reveal a great deal about themselves. A group field of energy connecting each other can form in this process of the two rounds, emphasizing why both rounds are important.
Open Dialogue—In the open dialogue there is no goal of solution, agreement or action to be taken, simply an experience of human sharing and connectedness. The focus is on relating and not on a task. As the conversation is co-created, new meanings, interpretations, implications, understanding, and possibilities emerge. The questions can become more important than the answers.
Final Round—The final round provides a time for reflection and an opportunity to express what was challenging, meaningful, or inspiring for each individual. It also evokes a genuine connection with the group as a whole.
We are grateful to Vicki Robin and Susan Partnow for holding the founding vision and delivering on the mission of Conversation Café. We will carry it forward as servers in this time of transformation. We look forward to working together in unity for the common good of all.
Summer of 2001: Conversation Café born.
Ensuing Years: Conversation Café spreads to over 70 cities.
Summer of 2010: The stewardship of Conversation Café is transferred to Community Action Dialogues.
Summer of 2015: The stewardship of Conversation Café is transferred to the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation.