Fourteen people sat calmly in a row, shoulder to shoulder, holding between them over 700 years of experience learning and leading in community development projects around the world. In the air between the fourteen and those who came to hear them speak hung the promise of fourteen stories. Among these stories was a spark of the collected wisdom that would eventually become the Institute of Cultural Affairs and its Technology of Participation (ToP) methods.
The fourteen were: Terry Bergdall, Ann Epps, John Epps, Allan Gammel, Beret Griffith, Maureen Jenkins, Marilyn Oyler, Eunice Shankland, Sherwood Shankland, Bill Staples, Elaine Stover, Nelson Stover, Sunny Walker, and Jean Watts.
They were the torchbearers, those invited to share stories as part of a session titled “Honoring Our Torchbearers and Harvesting Wisdom from Our Communities’ Early Days” during the ToP Network’s Annual Gathering last month.
Many of those who attend these Annual Gatherings are deeply familiar with ICA. But as ToP continues to reach newer and younger audiences, more and more people come to the methods without fully learning about the history and context from which they emerged. ToP Trainers saw this as an opportunity to expand understanding on both sides by bringing together the torchbearers with those willing to carry that flame into the future.
One of trainers gave a brief introduction to ICA’s history and accomplishments to set the context, then asked each of the torchbearers to introduce themselves and the story they planned to share. The torchbearers then moved to round tables around the room and invited participants to join them and hear their stories in more depth. Each table had a blank chart paper and markers, which participants used to write and sketch words and phrases that emerged from the stories. Between rounds, participants moved between tables to hear a new set of stories.
The full group then reconvened with torchbearers and audience sitting together in a semicircle. At the open end of the circle stood another trainer, and behind her a blank white canvas. As she began to lead a reflection among storytellers and listeners alike, a scribe began sketching an image of people lighting torches from a roaring flame. As the questions raised words, phrases, and images, another scribe moved to sketch on another part of the canvas. When the audience came to articulating emotions and memories, another scribe interpreted them in ink and chalk. By the time the conversation had swelled to finding the significance and importance of the stories shared, four scribes were moving in silent tandem, seamless weaving the threads of conversation and insight into a visual journey.
As the conversation came to a close, the scribes stepped away. At the end of the journey, across from the roaring flame, was a figure waiting with open hands to accept the torch.
While the stories shared about the early days of ICA and ToP were personal, they each became a piece of a greater whole, a fuller kind of understanding that ToP methods are uniquely situated to conjure, capture, and convey.