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  • Shari Melto

Lessons from the Climate Café

This has been an exciting year for the Climate Café – A dozen GOMI students facilitated eleven Cafés in six communities (including Wolfville, Nova Scotia), and engaged more than 400 people in meaningful conversations about extreme weather, sea level rise, tidal power, local food, and media literacy.

Most who come to the Cafés believe climate change is an urgent issue – they want to talk about what to do. Excited to have a forum like Climate Cafés, they eagerly share their ideas about recycling, composting, edible gardens and permeable roadways while forging new relationships with others who share their concerns.

Although adult-adult conversations about climate change are common, the icing on the cake for everyone at a Climate Café is interacting with students. Adults are surprised and inspired by students who are passionate, knowledgeable, and concerned about climate change. The students have a lot to say about being involved: “It is great to finally be taken seriously by adults,” and “it opened my eyes how I can help my community.” Both students and adults leave Cafés more hopeful about the future and eager to get more involved: “It was a great way to connect with others who care about our Earth and are working to make change.” One guest summed it up by saying, “Cafés have tapped an unmet need – these students are making a difference!”

Climate Cafés are still a work in process. Each one is unique adventure, more like a jazz improvisation than a string quartet! As one student said, “it’s like being on Broadway without a script or a rehearsal!” Here are a few challenges to consider if you’re thinking about hosting a Climate Café.

• Who’s on first? We never know how many students would be able to make it to a Café until the last minute. High school students have calendars packed with cross country events, science fairs, social activities and part-time jobs. Keeping them engaged for eleven Cafés is a challenge. However, there were always at least five or six at each Café -- perfect for 20-25 guests. Another challenge has been “succession.” When experienced seniors shift their focus as graduation nears, the “junior varsity” must step up to the plate – ready or not! Cafés with less experienced students can be a bit rocky, but they catch on quickly.

• How much coffee? Sponsors or parents, who offer to bring refreshments, ask a logical question: “How many people – how much coffee?” Unfortunately, predicting the number of guests has been impossible. For one Café we did a media blitz -- posters, an op-ed, email blasts, and even a radio spot – and we had 25 guests. In another case, we sent out a handful of invitations and had standing room only for more than 50 people! We’ve learned to set up for 20-25 and have plenty of extra chairs, materials, and coffee available, just in case.

• Where to go? The ideal place to hold a Climate Café is a light, airy space with tables of four or five people. However, finding a free space like that for 25-50 people can be difficult. We held Cafés in a beautiful community center with flowers on the tables, in a crowded Sunday School room with only folding metal chairs, in a tiny rented storefront where we were packed like sardines and under a tent at the Farmer’s Market. The best was a summer Café with comfy wicker chairs on a breezeway! The good news is that it didn’t seem to matter – everyone had a great time wherever we were.

• What’s up? Some people who come to their first Café are confused. They think a “conversation” is just the typical presentation with Q&A rather than an opportunity to engage with others. We found that a simple prompt gets a great conversation started. For example:

• Take a minute to draw a picture of your ‘special place.

• How is climate change impacting your ‘special place?

• What actions can you take, and what can you do as a community?

Once these conversations start, they take on a life of their own!

Is everyone listening? One important purpose of a Café is to practice respectful dialogue, to ensure that each person has an opportunity to say what is on his/her mind without interruption. Although most people are good listeners, there are always a few who interrupt, take off on a tangent or who just want to talk -- a LOT! To help students facilitate these challenging situations, we created Café Cards to encourage participants to practice five dialogue skills. Each speaker has a few uninterrupted minutes to share his or her ideas, and then the others in the group listen, inquire, confirm and explore. The process adds a bit of fun and helps prevent one person from hi-jacking the conversation.

• Please come again! Another challenge is keeping things interesting, so guests come back. Different conversation topics seem to help. For example, we hosted one Café about “fake news,” using a set of Café Cards on misinformation techniques, e.g. red herring, cherry picking, and fake experts. Another Café focused on shifting the community toward local, seasonal, organic food. Both were lively conversations!

Overall, it has been a very successful and rewarding year! The conversations have been amazing, and feedback from participants has been overwhelmingly positive regardless of cramped spaces, uncomfortable chairs, or spilled coffee. Everyone agrees that the students are the ‘secret sauce’ – their energy and passion are contagious and they give everyone hope for the future!

Most Americans harbor an unsatisfied hunger for community.

– Daniel Yankelovich, The Magic of Dialogue


Shari Melto spent more than 20 years with global consulting firms in the fields of talent management and organization development. She was director of learning & development at McKinsey and director of staffing & recruiting at both Booz and Hewitt. With the support of a MacArthur grant, she partnered with arts boards in Chicago to strengthen their organizations. Shari believes that we have a moral obligation to ensure a healthy, sustainable future for our children and our earth—and working with GOMI provides a unique opportunity to do both.

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