With issues such as racial injustice, climate change and educational inequity at the forefront of so many local conversations, the need for a safe space to explore these topics has never been greater.
That’s where World Cafe – St. Petersburg comes into play. The community-led initiative, which is funded by the City of St. Petersburg and the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay and sponsored by the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, the Florida Council of Churches and The Connection Partners, aims to create grassroots-level discussions on important issues impacting St. Pete through a series of World Cafe events.
“I was really excited about the idea of taking on topics that generate controversy, and empowering residents to come together and engage in civil conversation,” said Jesse Coraggio, vice president of community impact for the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay. “This is something we can use to create structural changes in our community.”
The World Cafe model was developed in the mid-1990s in California and has since expanded across the globe as a means of facilitating “conversations that matter” on college campuses, in corporate boardrooms and at small nonprofits. World Cafe – St. Petersburg marks the first time this model has been implemented specifically for a city, Coraggio said.
The initiative began in St. Pete in the summer of 2020 with a call for applicants who were interested in becoming World Cafe hosts. Nearly 100 people who lived or worked in St. Pete applied and a diverse group of 50 people between the ages of 22 and 79 were ultimately selected to participate. They went through an 11-week training period where they identified local issues of interest, explored what they would do in their role as a host and, in general, learned the art of conversational leadership and how to ask good questions.
“What’s relevant is a burning curiosity and a desire for change,” said Argerie Vasilakes of The Connection Partners in regard to what makes someone a good host. “It’s an openness to hear all perspectives.”
So far, four World Cafe events on topics ranging from public art to policing to sustainability have already been held, sparking lively conversation from a variety of perspectives. And because each participant agreed to host two World Cafes when they signed up for the initiative, St. Pete could ideally see 100 such events taking place in the next year.
Vasilakes said she’s been very encouraged to see the community of hosts step up, learn from and support each other.
“They’re not just looking to fulfill their two obligations and be done with it,” she said. “They want to be part of this ongoing, locally sustainable force that continues to help with encouragement and expertise. The more frequently individual participants interact as a community of practice around conversational leadership, the faster the whole system of the city can adapt.”
“So often, you meet folks who are passionate about change but they don’t feel like they have the tools or resources to incite that change,” he said. “The World Cafe model gives them a mechanism to go out into the community and get people together to discuss controversial topics.”
Ultimately, organizers say it’s about continuing to ask the important questions, have conversations that matter and begin to take action as a result.
“It doesn’t mean giving up your beliefs, but we’ve heard people talk about how their own perspectives have expanded during this experience,” Vasilakes said. “World Cafe is great at that.”