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Open Space for People Unable to Read

The following is an account by John Engle of an Open Space Technology approach designed for people who are unable to read. The idea was conceived by a small group during the 2001 annual gathering of Open Space practitioners in Vancouver, Canada.

“I was so impressed by how few props were necessary, how simple everything was, during my first Open Space experience in Philadelphia at Beyond Borders’ annual meeting this past September. Now, after spending two months in Haiti, it strikes me that these simple props – big paper, tape, markers – are not accessible to most Haitians.”

My new colleague in Haiti, Tim, shared these words with me yesterday when I returned from Lagonav, a small Haitian island of 100,000 people.

Saturday, November 24, my colleagues and I experimented on Lagonav with a form of Open Space that is totally accessible to people unable to read and requires no props – no big paper, no markers, no tape.

There were 40 of us who came together for a day under the theme, Reflect upon exchanges between people on Lagonav and others. Participants included members of local families who have received North American visitors through the Beyond Borders’ Transformational Travel Program, local community organizers and educators who have visited the U.S. to learn about innovative educational models, and literacy instructors who have visited literacy programs in other parts of Haiti. Perhaps one quarter of those present were unable to read.

The meeting was held in the Training Center of Nan Jozen, a large cement block building equipped with wooden doors and shutters and covered with a corrugated tin roof. Accommodations are simple: no running water, no electricity, no glass or screened windows, no flipcharts, no chairs, just benches.

Participation for many at Saturday’s event meant walking 3 to 5 hours one way. Most people on Lagonav eek out an existence through gardening, and/or raising chickens, goats, pigs – some have cows and donkeys. Some fish.

Freda Catheus, a grassroots leader on Lagonav, opened the meeting shortly after 9:00 a.m. My Beyond Borders’ colleague and experienced Open Space facilitator, Eddy Sterling, immediately followed in presenting Open Space. To make sure that people clearly understood the method, four of us performed a 3 minute skit demonstrating Open Space Technology’s four principles and one law in action. People seemed to like it and clearly grasp the skit’s message.

People wishing to lead discussions were invited to stand where they were, articulate their subject, and remain standing. Within 10 minutes, eight people had stood and each clearly articulated her/his subject. Several present were people unable to read. Eddy then asked them to all stand in a row and to once again, one after another, state their theme. He opened the market place and indicated that everyone should go and speak with those standing, decide what subject interested them, and then find a place as a group to discuss the topic.

By shortly after 10:00 a.m., seven small groups–two had merged–were scattered around the Training Center, sitting on the ground or rocks or logs, fully engaged in discussion. There were bumblebees and butterflies. At 11:30 a.m. the group reconvened, and Eddy shared, “We have 45 minutes to talk about whatever you all think we need to talk about.” People expressed openly. There were reports given and general reflections shared. Then, Eddy had us repeat the process by inviting those interested to stand and propose a new subject. Within 15 minutes–12:30p.m.–four separate groups had formed and discussions were underway once again.

Everyone reconvened for lunch from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. From 2:30 to 3:00 p.m. summaries of discussions were given followed by the talking stick exercise with Tibetan chimes.

Final remarks during the talking stick exercise leave us with little doubt that this process is going to be replicated and improved upon throughout the little island of Lagonav. Here’s a sampling of comments: “I just can’t believe how many important ideas emerged as a result of this process.” “I can’t believe people who have never expressed themselves in a large group were standing up and offering to lead small group discussions.” “So often when groups meet, you know that a lot of people are thinking about a lot of things that never get said. Today, people didn’t hold back!” “People need to have the opportunity to express themselves in these small groups. More gets said and dealt with.” “We need to have these types of exchanges more often.”

Some people took notes and then submitted them to be typed in a report. But all knew that whether notes were taken or not, “What happened is what should have happened.”

Learn more about John Engle’s work at www.beyondborders.net.

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