When RCP coordinators come together for their annual meeting the day before the Gathering, it’s a chance for these leaders to delve into big questions about the practice of collaborative conservation and get support from peers who have encountered similar challenges.
For the second year running, organizers have embraced an Open Space Technology model in lieu of a more traditionally structured meeting, in order to maximize time for participant-driven discussions around the issues coordinators most want to explore together. The result is a refreshing departure from the familiar meeting dynamic where organizers decide in advance which topics will be covered, and participants respond to pre-determined prompts.
Open Space Technology harnesses the emergent properties of groups by allowing attendees to co-create the agenda and direct their own interactions with peers.
On the afternoon of November 14, RCP coordinators and leaders settled into the amphitheater-style seating of the atrium in the John C. Olver Design Building at the University of Massachusetts, home to the School of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning. Facilitator Peter Lane with the Institute for Conservation Leadership set the stage by asking everyone to take a moment to look around at those present in the room. Never again will this constellation of individuals be together in quite this same way, Lane observed, so the conversations and interactions possible today belong fully to this moment in time.
Lane then invited participants to reflect on the theme of “Responding to Change and Uncertainty” in their work and jot down a pressing challenge or discussion question on a brightly-colored card. One by one, attendees stood and shared their responses with the group, affixing their topic to an open slot on a grid mounted to the wall delineating available time blocks and breakout spaces. As more coordinators spoke, clusters of like ideas began to emerge, prompting participants to combine related topics. Several similar questions about succession planning and managing leadership transitions merged. When a distinct topic was raised, this warranted the creation of a new agenda item: How do we foster cooperation versus competition with fundraising among RCP Partners? What role can RCPs play in climate change adaptation and mitigation? How can we broaden our collaborative by authentically engaging new regional partners from other sectors?
With the roadmap for the meeting in place, participants dispersed to discussion spaces created in the open room with moveable wall dividers, and circles of chairs.
In Open Space Technology, participants are encouraged to embrace the “Law of Two Feet” and take responsibility for their own learning and contributions during the session. This means that at any time, attendees are free to move between breakout group conversations, or even break off to explore an emerging topic if their curiosity or interest leads them elsewhere. This kind of fluidity is welcomed as a source of cross-pollination between individuals and ideas and allows participants to use the allotted time in a way that feels most engaging and productive.
In each of the concurrent breakout sessions, volunteers stepped up to facilitate the discussion and record key insights on flip charts. In a breakout on engaging partners from new sectors and backgrounds, one participant observed that RCPs are often positioned to take risks that individual member organizations may not be able to absorb, serving as a sort of “Research and Development” lab for conservation innovation. Cultivating meaningful relationships and projects with new partners, be they health care organizations, water utilities, affordable housing advocates, community groups in urban centers, or others, requires a high level of trust that can take years to establish, and RCPs may be able to provide the platform to build these connections within a shared landscape. Another discussion on climate change adaptation generated a robust list of existing resources and persistent needs for RCPs to act as change agents in a changing climate. The freewheeling conversation touched on models for mapping green infrastructure at the municipal or watershed levels, ideas for more effective storytelling, and strategies for influencing public policy.
To wrap up the meeting participants reconvened on the atrium steps and shared reflections and impressions from the day. No two participants had taken part in exactly the same set of discussions, and the takeaway thoughts they shared reflected new connections made and inspiration sparked. As the sky grew dark outside, and the meeting disbanded, small groups of RCP leaders hung back, still deep in conversation, exchanging information and making plans for follow up. It was an ideal outcome for a peer-exchange event designed to strengthen the community of RCP coordinators and leaders that exists through the RCP Network.