After the excitement of the tenth anniversary of the World Café in Vienna, Pat and I embarked on a mission to organize an annual meeting for aficionados of the World Café (or Gathering as we later called it) in Europe, But where should it take place? This is the story of the first World Café European Gathering which was held in May of 2007 in Dresden.
After previous meetings in Paris and Amsterdam with World Café practitioners from all over Europe (France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and the UK were represented – later Austria and Denmark would be added), we had already made some key decisions about the characteristics and qualities of the event which we wanted to organize. After much discussion and multiple edits, we came up with a purpose for the Gathering (which later was adopted as the purpose of World Café Europe).
“To create a space in the spirit of World Cafe practice to stimulate collective dreaming, thinking and action in and between organizations/communities across Europe.“
This purpose can be seen in its original form on the rug of our meeting room in Amsterdam. This meeting took place in early 2006. This purpose continues to be an inspiration and guidance for our work today.
The implications of this purpose for our up-coming Gathering soon became very clear to us. We couldn’t just hold a meeting for the practitioners of the World Café; we felt obliged as well to offer this form of dialogue to the citizens of the city in which we chose to gather. As we were to phrase it later: we didn’t want to just consume the city we chose to meet in, we wanted to give something back in return as well.
I suppose in retrospect that this attitude was driven by two factors. First there was the history of the World Café founder – Juanita Brown. She had had a history of activism behind her before she ‘discovered’ the World Café. She had spent many years helping farmers in California organize themselves and fight for their rights. I remember her telling me once that if she had only known about the World Café back then, how much easier it would have been for the farmers to find their own voice. This idea of a grass-roots, bottom-up unfolding of dialogue had somehow gripped us and permeated right into our very bones. Secondly, some of us felt quite strongly that what we were undertaking was meant for society as a whole, not just for consultants. If we were not willing to directly engage with society, could we really say that this form of dialogue was for the benefit of society?
Thus the idea of a ‘Local Café’ was thus born. In addition to an event held for aficionados of the World Café, we would also convene dialogues on diverse topics throughout the city where we were going to meet. Our Central Café was modeled on the event held for the tenth anniversary of the World Café in Vienna. The Local Cafés were, in our view, the next logical extension.
But where should we gather? This question was almost as highly debated and time consuming as formulating the purpose statement. Of course each person offered his own home town. It was not surprising that the options of Amsterdam, Bilbao, London, Munich, Pans and Stockholm were on the table. After a lot of to and fro, we didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. To break the logjam, I decided to offer a city that none of us was from – Dresden.
Why did I offer Dresden? The decision has a long history. I first went to Dresden in the year 1980 when I was an exchange student for a year in Tübingen, located in what was then West Germany. During the semester break I was curious to get to know the other half of Germany. I planned a trip to the former German Democratic Republic which included a stop in Dresden. I still remember standing in front of the rubble that was the Frauenkirche – with a lonely sign condemning the fascist American and British piIots (and their governments) who had brought havoc to the city with the bombardment from the skies in February of 1945.
Shortly after the fall of the Berlin wall, my connection to Dresden was greatly strengthened. One of my consultant colleagues/friends decided to take advantage of the opportunities made available by the opening of the East. Along with three of his friends, he bought what had been one of the largest furniture manufactures in East Germany – the Deutsche Werkstätten Hellerau.
This had not only been a manufacturing site, but also the place where Richard Riemerschmid in the early 20th century prior to World War I had attempted to create a new type of working community.
During the 1990s, I frequently found myself heading to Dresden to visit my friend, fascinated by what was happening in the eastern part of Germany. Pat and I got to know Dresden quite well, baring witness to the amazing transformation which the city has experienced. From a place which in 1989 still had many of the scars of the bombing of 1945, we were able to watch building by building how Dresden was able -like a phoenix rising from the ashes – to regain its baroque splendor.
In 2005 thanks to Pat’s museum work, we were asked to facilitate a dialogue between members of the business and cultural communities in Dresden. It was one of the first World Cafes that we had conceived and facilitated together. Through this experience we got to know several important decision-makers in the city. These connections plus the familiarity which we had gained with the city over the past decade gave me confidence that this would be an ideal location for our first European World Café Gathering.
At our next planning meeting in Munich, the choice of Dresden was approved and the energy to organize the Gathering was unleashed…to be continued in “the magic of Dresden – Part II“…