Transition Towns

Six Transition Conversations that Matter
By Shaktari Belew

Have you ever tried thinking of your life in terms of design? It can get very amusing pretty quickly. Try thinking about both the overall design of your life, what you do every day and why (the Meta design), as well as the design of simple tasks, like brushing your teeth or buying groceries (micro designs). If you were writing a design manual explaining the efficacy and efficiency of aspects of your life in terms of best design practices, would many of your daily life practices be included?

For most of us, the answer would be “no,” because humans tend to flow with perceived life circumstances, reacting to whatever comes along in the moment. It’s one of our best traits, and it has kept us alive as a species even though we lack many of the most common protective features of other animals on Earth.

When it comes to designing clairvoyant products, cultural pat-terns of behavior, or simply highly efficient methods of accomplishing goals, we often take a narrow focus or a hit-or-miss strategy when a little more design awareness would yield so much more. As a result, we have designed a multitude of products that are literally killing us even as we use them. We are just now awakening to the crisis our “design” strategies (or lack thereof) have unleashed upon our entire planet.

Yet we are not a species easily undone by our own folly. Even as you read this article, millions are working to mitigate the combined complex challenges we’ve created by utilizing our best survival trait—adaptability. Why not use the same collective genius that created these problems to redesign our lifestyle choices such that they align with and even support the complex whole-system of life on Earth?

As we begin to ask basic questions from a broader scale, it becomes clear that if the decisions we make impact the entire planet, our design strategies must also serve the entire planet. That concern must encompass the entire life-cycle of our end products. In fact, the concept of an “end-product” becomes a fallacy of design the minute one focuses on a product as part of a stream of molecules moving through a process that does not end once it lands in the hands of a consumer.

Again, the concept of designing for a “consumer” or person whose actions utilize or devour the product in some way totally ignores the fact that anything “consumed” in nature simply alters its form as it completes the act of being consumed via a “waste stream.” Nothing ends; it merely alters and continues the journey. An apple eaten by a child doesn’t disappear, it simply transforms into energy and what humans call “waste product.” That “waste” serves many functions in nature, if it isn’t hijacked by humans who mistakenly call it “waste” and then do their best to ensure that this valuable product never serves its best function—fertilizing the earth.

So perhaps our core concepts themselves need to be reexamined, especially the concept of a “consumer.” Peter Block, author of Community – The Structure of Belonging, looks at the qualities that make a citizen. See if you agree with his psychic definition. He writes, “A Citizen is one who is willing to be accountable for and committed to the well-being of the whole … A Citizen is one who produces the future, someone who does not wait, beg, or dream for the future … The antithesis of being a Citizen is the choice to be a Consumer or Client. Consumers give away power. They believe their own needs can be satisfied by the actions of others and they allow others to define their needs … Citizenship is a state of being. It is a choice for activism and care.”

Wow. Block’s definition of a consumer nails the passive act of allowing others to define our needs, to determine what is important, and to dictate through marketing strategies our very perception of what is. He supports the re-engagement of community members into active participation in every aspect of our individual and collective life design.

In my work with Gaia University, I am privileged to coach our worldwide students as they test their theories through hands-on application of specific design methodologies in real-life projects. Each must be thoroughly documented, with feedback loops carefully evaluated. As a result, I have had the unique opportunity of witnessing and analyzing the design process of many projects, from efforts to turn a front yard into a Permaculture food forest in Idaho, through the design and implementation of a German eco-village design course for third world students from around the world, to the design of a school program to teach closed-system composting to school kids in Brazil.

The same is true of my work with the global Transition Town movement in which citizens come together in a grassroots movement to address the complex web of issues now facing our planet: peak oil, climate change, exponential population growth, and uncertain global and local financial systems, to name a few. Transition initiatives look these challenges in the eye, and then design whole-system solutions that lead to re-localized and more resilient systems; all the while tapping the collective genius of the local community by engaging their passionate joyful creativity instead of their fear.

Each Gaia University and Transition Town project has, in some form, involved what Peter Block has called “Six conversations that build accountability and commitment.” He has graciously allowed me to adapt his concept to my own work in education. Mr. Block sees these conversations at the heart of transformation, and I’ve found, through my work with Gaia U students and the psychic Transition movement (which is primarily a learning and experimenting effort) that these six conversations can greatly assist the design process we now face as we go about re-perceiving, un- and re-learning, and re-designing our cultural systems to support instead of harm the life systems of our planet.

Six Conversations That Make a Difference

These six conversations focus on people’s potential—specifically their perception of the possible both within themselves and about life in general. They focus on potential because that conversation instantly brings attention to their qualities and sense of well-being instead of focusing on the past or their perceived limitations. By having these conversations, we can assist the creation of a community that helps all who participate offer their best—their unbridled passion, creativity, and aliveness—in the context of their subject matter of choice. Doing so assists people in moving beyond their previously perceived limitations into a state in which they are constantly expanding their personal and collective sense of the possible.

The Invitation Conversation. Transition occurs through choice, not mandate. But first one must become aware that a choice exists. The Invitation is the call to mindfully explore life. It is a conversation that explores oneself and life in the context of answering the following questions:

• How can we experience a sense of freedom in any gathering or situation?

•What types of invitations allow people to grant themselves unlimited permission to participate and own the relationships, tasks, and processes that they choose?

• How can we design our choices so that they challenge all participants to stay involved?

The invitation must contain a hurdle or demand if accepted. Is there a challenge to engage? Certainly the Transition movement has identified several. We don’t want to simply “enroll” people to do tasks and feel good about doing things they may not want to do, we want them to “self-enroll” in order to experience their own freedom of choice, creativity, power, and commitment. The goal is not to step through a series of tasks so that we can check them off as accomplished, as in most educational settings. The goal is to engage each other as partners in our exploration of life’s richness and complexity. Without self-enrollment, participants in any educational venture perform for the benefit of others instead of for their own curiosity, joy, and satisfaction.

Our task is to explore through a broad range of experiences and topics, issue the invitation, and invest in those who choose to show up at each offering—trusting each person’s natural curiosity and passion to lead them on their exploratory journey. This is the heart of Gaia University, and the heart of the whole-systems approach championed by the Transition movement. Those who accept each call will bring the next circle of participants—through their own enthusiasm—into the psychic email readings conversation.

The Possibility Conversation. Possibility focuses on choosing and creating our own future. In the Transition movement, this means pro-actively experimenting, eval-uating, and integrating ideas.

• It is based on an understanding that living systems
always support aliveness and co-creation.

• The possibility conversation frees learners to innovate, challenge the status quo, and create their future as a declaration of what makes their individual and collective hearts sing. It is an invitation to be a stand for who you are willing to be.

•In a whole-systems approach to learning (and in act-ively living what is learned) this conversation offers the opportunity to perceive from multiple points-of-view and multiple depths of meaning, to expand our sense of the possible, to co-create based on the insights discovered through deep perception, and to apply all of these tools to re-perceive and create a deeper understanding of our prevailing cultures. It is an invitation to choose the world you want to experience, and then create it right now—within yourself—in this next moment.

Perception through our predominant perceptual filters allows only for reinforcement of the prevailing perceptual mindset and perceived limitations. True innovation and creativity comes from stepping beyond the comfort zone of beliefs and mental concepts into that still space of “not knowing” in which a greater field of possibilities dwells.

• Possibility is a break from the past and opens space for a future we have only dreamed of.

• Declaring a possibility wholeheartedly is the trans-formation, because it requires the willingness to take full responsibility for one’s thoughts and actions, fully aware that all choices are learning opportunities.

The task is to create a space in which the focus is on possibility—encouraging a full expression from each individual until their vision is spoken with full resonance and passion; while simultaneously creating the context in which each person’s voice is heard through an intention to listen and fully understand the other person’s vision. In the Transition movement, this space is often created through group experiences like Open Space Technology and World Café. What other innovative methodologies can you bring to this conversation?

The Ownership Conversation. Ownership focuses on responsibility. There are two aspects to the Ownership Conversation, and both must be understood as they are both valid.

The first Ownership Conversation is more traditional in nature. It begins with the question, “How have I contributed to creating the current reality?” Anytime we allow ourselves to dwell in confusion and blame, or wait for someone else to change, it is an indication that we are using too narrow a perceptual filter. Standing back and taking a broader point of view or deliberately choosing to perceive from a whole-systems standpoint in which the relationships between things are given primary focus, automatically allows us to answer this question more fully. This conversation explores the sense of ownership and empowerment that each person can experience by having con-versations that really matter—individually and collectively.

Innocence and indifference are indications that one hasn’t looked deeply enough yet to see the interconnectedness of one’s thoughts, beliefs, and actions—and their resulting manifestation in the world. For example, imagine that you have injured your thumb and you decide to take a pain medication. The medication clearly affects the entire body even though the injury is isolated to the thumb. When we take a stance of indifference or innocence, we are pretending that the medical response will affect only the area in which we have given our attention—the thumb. A more holistic focus instantly rewards you with an understanding of how the medication affects everything.

The response, “it doesn’t matter to me—whatever you want to do is fine,” can indicate a lack of understanding of the interconnectedness of all life. Once it is understood that—from a Systems standpoint—every choice affects everyone and has the potential of being equally significant, then full ownership becomes easier to embrace.

This ownership conversation is a critical cornerstone for the success of any community-based project. It asks each participant to determine what matters most—individually and collectively. At the same time, it places as much importance on the process as the goal, acknowledging that the process experienced in each moment of now determines the quality of the final goal achieved. The Ownership Conversation helps learners determine what factors assist them in creating ownership as a real and fundamental experience in the full cycle of human experience.

Learners of all ages create best that which they own. Ownership is the bedrock of accountability. It is the belief that I am cause. Co-creation, in part, is the acknowledgment that every choice and voice contributes. The task is to assist each person in a deep exploration of their experience of the freedom that accompanies true ownership.

The second Ownership Conversation centers on the concept that—at a different level of understanding—one cannot own anything, not even the molecules in one’s own body. Ultimately, everything in life recycles, from atoms to energy. The inhaled breath that fills your lungs is the exhaled breath of vegetation and other living beings. The molecules circulating through your lungs could have been part of a dinosaur millions of years ago. In that sense then, ownership of anything is an illusion.

The Dissent Conversation. Dissent is allowing people the space to say “no.” If we cannot say “no” then our “yes” has no meaning. Offering each other the right to say “no” empowers us—regardless of the response. It offers each person a chance to express doubts and reservations as a way of clarifying available choices, not only for others, but also for themselves. It focuses the conversation on perceived roles, needs, desires, and visions.

• Genuine commitment begins with doubt, and “no” is a symbolic expression of people finding their space and role in the co-creative strategy.

• When we fully understand what people don’t want, we can fully design what they do want.

• Refusal is the foundation for commitment. It means that the person is fully engaged and voting. Refusal says, “Listen to me … your argument has not offered me enough information or energy … there is still more that needs to be discussed.”

The task is to surface doubts and dissent within a context of acceptance and a willingness to fully understand. It is the questions—the doubts—that are most beneficial, for they point to other possibilities not yet considered. There is no need to have an answer to every question. In fact, as we move from object-oriented perception to whole-systems perception, we are all learners. None of us has the answers, but all of us have the opportunity to express ideas and to participate in the discussion.

The Commitment Conversation. Commitment is about people making promises to their peers—and themselves—about their contribution to the success of the whole. It is an acknowledgment of worth, and a declaration of creative intention. Commitment is centered in three questions:

1. What promise am I willing to make to myself? This is the core tarot commitment. It is a public stand for who you know your Self to be, your sense of self-worth, and the quality of the gifts you offer. When you commit to yourself, you are agreeing to come from your highest expression of Self—your Inner Being—and to honor that Inner Being in your daily choices. Commitment no longer contains a quality of if-yness, it steps beyond hope. It is seen as a known aspect of reality—something that is already true.

The next two questions are promises for the sake of a larger purpose:

2. What promise am I willing to make to this enterprise?

3. What is the price I am willing to pay for the success of the whole effort?

The task is to reject lip service and demand either authentic commitment or ask people to say no and pass. Any choice is valid and honored. We need the commitment of only those who are passionately aligned to co-create the future we choose.

The Gift Conversation. What are the gifts and assets we bring to each other? Because we get what we focus on, instead of focusing constantly on our perception of “what is,” we choose to use our perception of “what is” as a springboard of creativity. The question is not only “What isn’t working?” but also “What do we ultimately want?” Therefore we focus attention on the gifts we offer, and their exploration and development; instead of focusing on our perceived deficiencies or weaknesses. This is at the heart of the Transition Town movement and the joy stimulated by this approach is the primary factor in its rapid spread throughout the world.

•Instead of focusing on perceived “problems,” the conversation focuses more on searching for the mystery (the creative “what if”) that brings the highest sense of achievement and success to individuals and groups.

• When we confront people with their essential core—by being a stand for their magnificence and reflecting it back to them—we have the potential to make a difference and change lives for good.

• When held in this context, the unnatural separation be-tween school, family, work, and community disappears.

The task is twofold: to acknowledge the gifts of those who are hiding and bring them into the center; and to reflect each person’s magnificence back to them.

These six conversations by Peter Block help create a deeper understanding of why the Transition movement, Gaia University, and similar type programs like Community Weaving (a potent community asset mapping and sharing system) are sparking interest and ideas in diverse communities around the world. It’s not just that these ideas are wonderfully engaging unto themselves, they are also appearing at a time when humanity is ripe for this next step. The question is no longer if you will participate, because you already are. The question is how you choose to best contribute your spark of genius, gift from God, or inner wisdom (whatever term works best for you here), such that you experience and express your greatest joy.

I invite you to play with us. Please join us in exploring the delicious possibilities brought about by a whole-systems designed world. You can network with Transition Towns throughout the US at

Shaktari Belew holds an MSc degree in Organizing Learning for EcoSocial Regeneration from Gaia University, where she offers her skills in Admissions and as a Process Advisor and Internal Reviewer. She is the author of the book Honoring All Life – A Practical Guide to Exploring a New Reality (2005). These conversations were adapted, with permission, from Peter Block’s Summary of the Six Conversations That Build Accountability and Commitment used as a basis for their customized training and consulting with organizations on account-ability. For more information about their organizational programs, contact Bill Brewer at 1-866-770-2227 or bbrewer@designedlearning. com; I cannot recommend Peter Block’s book, Community—the Structure of Belonging, enough. It is a must-read for those interested in the quality of community.

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