We’re networking and meeting with others who are doing things in the area of Participatory Democracy.

On November 24, 2010, we had a conference call with Kai Degner, Mayor of Harrisonburg Virginia, USA, a small town with a population of 47,000.

Background

Kai started being interested in participatory methods 4 years ago while at Madison University. He was then involved in 300 discussions in a Dialogue Project called the Orange Bond Initiative. He is now part of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation. Since then he has used Open Space (OS) for planning events for Non-Profit organizations such as a 2-day conference on water quality. He also used OS for his campaign as Mayor of Harrisonburg. In 2008 he was elected as Mayor of Harrisonburg. Since then, he has hosted several OS events mainly on issues regarding sustainability such as: homes for poor, renewable energy. He feels that OS contributes to helping people with similar ideas know about each other and get organized together to make things happen.

The Summits

Every year he hosts a Mayor’s Sustainability Summit which requires from 80-100 hours of work, 2-3 months in preparation, an out-reach team of 5-8 people who are each connected with at least 3 related organizations and potential partners. This event has also become an attractive news story for media with 200 people attending and more than 30 topics covered. Since 2009 he has hosted up to 20 minor summits on specific sustainability subjects and in total has gathered more than 1200 people. The themes include: health, interculturalism, strengthening local business, families in crisis and justice. He uses OS and World Café formats. The duration of these summits is 4-6 hours including an action piece. Reports are sent out or uploaded on their website. For him, the most important result achieved is the paradigm shift in participants — the attendees are a resource rather than only an audience.

Financing of Events

City planning employees attended training on OS and World Café (WC) and this has quadrupled participation at their events. He has also introduced OS and World Café to other municipalities in his area. In Harrisonburg a mayor’s job is only part time. The rest of the time Kai is a consultant facilitating OS and WC events for organizations and other municipalities in the area. Because of his situation, Harrisonburg does not finance municipal summits. The money comes from local business who are interested in the theme and are invited to rent an exhibitors table.

His Strategy for Success

According to Kai, the greatest challenge with these events is keeping the organizing team motivated and generating the greatest attendance. His most effective strategy for success is to meet with his team and together they ask themselves: What organization would be offended if they did not participate in this event and would compromise the results? Which organization could benefit from the event? Could any other organization come with you or would like to have a table at the summit? Outreach is most important before sending out the invitation. The invitations should include information on the opportunity and what they may gain for themselves as they share what it is they are working on. The theme is also important. It should be more focused for a smaller audience and broader for a larger audience. The venue is best when it is close to restaurants where people can easily and quickly get food and continue discussions or the restaurants could be used for breakout groups.

With regards to having a speaker or presentation at the beginning he felt that there may a danger. The Mayor’s presence at the first event was important. As mayor he was able to get people’s attention.

Next Steps

Kai is now moving forward by organizing meetings with councilors.

Other Contacts

He recommends that we check out the yoosk.com website where political leaders are asked questions.

Web Links

These links show the use of Open Space in Harrisonburg.

 

Joanne Mantha, Pamela Schreiner and Maya Bobrowska

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