Another step into the unknown, I’m on a train hurtling south from Edinburgh to London. Of all unlikely things I find myself an ambassador for Leith Open Space on my way to take part in an international conference of open spacers, more precisely the World Open Space on Open Space (WOSONOS) for participants of this defiantly participative process which – in theory anyway – gives the floor to the audience rather than the organisers. Round about York I’m casting my mind back to how it all began.
Almost exactly seven years ago, I was one of a small group of community activists taking a first nervous step into an empty open space. On a cold, dark November night we set up our stall – old trestle tables and a flip chart – in an unlit, unused retail unit at the top of the Ocean Terminal shopping mall overlooking Leith harbour. We were getting ready for our first Open Space event and we really did not know what we were letting ourselves in for. We had absolutely no idea who would turn up next day.
We had sent over 100 letters inviting people from ethnic minority communities in Leith to come together. Alarmed by a spate of racist attacks following the London bombs of July 2007, we asked: Can We Talk and Listen to One Another? Following the Open Space format we also asked them to bring their burning questions around multiculturalism.
Were we naïve? A small bunch of activists from the Leith Walk branch of the Labour Party, we were setting out to do something Labour party activists don’t usually do: give the platform to the people.
We had chosen Open Space because it is an example of grassroots democracy at work. No keynote speeches, no agenda. To my astonishment the Labour branch had unanimously agreed to support and fund a non-party political platform. Local MP and MSP (both Labour) wholeheartedly accepted the invitation to take part on the understanding that they would not be allowed to make speeches. Maggie Havergal, a professional Open Space facilitator, offered to give her time free of charge.
Some voluntary organisations were less enthusiastic. They did not want to be associated with a political party and they warned that we would have difficulty getting people to turn up. Women would probably not want to come.
But on the day people did turn up – we counted more than 70 – and more than half of them were women. In the opening circle we sat down with well established residents as well as refugees and asylum seekers and tireless community workers: a small group of Scots among Africans, Indians, Asians, East Europeans, Latin Americans…who knew Edinburgh was so very multicultural?
In the closing circle everyone asked if we could do it again….
And so one thing led to another. With no money but lots of enthusiasm we set up Leith Open Space as a small, informal community group. From our second event in the spring grew a shadow scheme to enable people from minority communities to take part in the democratic process – Opening Doors modelled on Operation Black Vote is now in its fifth year. Third and fourth events invited community discussion on Who Cares for the Carers and What’s it Like to be Young in Leith? In May 2012 we joined up with Greener Leith to seek a Vision for Leith Walk.
Meanwhile a very dynamic splinter group had formed as Leith Open Space helped to form the extraordinarily successful World Kitchen in Leith – now three years old – based on a belief that food is perhaps the best way of bringing people together: eating together transcends language barriers!
Looking back – sunlit fields racing passed the train window – it has been a wonderful life-changing experience for me. But I know we could and should be doing so much more. For all its strengths the open space process cannot deliver change unless there are people in the closing circle prepared to turn words into actions. Although I am always comforted by the Open Space mantra (the people who come are the right people), I know there must me many more ‘right people’ who would come if only we could reach them. After the Vision for Leith event our ever-generous facilitator Maggie Havergal suggested we should start a series of mini-events in pubs down Leith Walk. Maybe we will…keep watching this space.