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Towards Politics with Heart
Billy Matheson, 2 Mar 08
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Heart Politics gatherings have been a regular fixture in the lives of a wide variety of New Zealanders involved in peace, social justice, indigenous and environmental issues. The first ‘Festival of Heart Politics’ in 1989 was held at the Tauhara Centre, a retreat and conference venue overlooking Lake Taupo, at the centre of New Zealand’s North Island.

The Heart Politics Gatherings were initiated by Vivian Hutchinson, a local community activist who has fostered the development of “gathering culture” as a focus for adult education and transformation. Heart Politics draws on the cultural processes established from earlier series of gatherings held around New Zealand in the 1970s and 80s. These processes particularly draw inspiration from the gathering traditions (hui) of the indigenous Maori people, especially in their approach to welcoming and hosting participants, and in the use of large oratory circles (whaikorero).

While the focus of the gatherings has changed from year to year, the ongoing intention has always been to explore more creative ways to reinvigorate the relationship that active citizens can have with the political life of their country. Heart Politics has also sought to emphasise the links between the diverse contributions New Zealanders can make to their community, their environment and the political life of their country.

Over two decades the themes of the gatherings have reflected the changing face of social and environmental change work, both in New Zealand and internationally.
The gatherings have also enjoyed input from many keynote speakers including American activist Fran Peavey (who wrote the book that inspired the name of the first gathering), Australian deep ecologist John Seed, veteran NZ peace campaigner Sonja Davies, former Green Party leader Rod Donald, former NZ Governor General Sir Paul Reeves, social activists John Minto and Jane Kelsey, and prominent NZ historians Tony Simpson and Michael King.

The gatherings have as much been inspired and fed by the lives and stories of its participants. In 1999 Dale Hunter introduced the Heart Politics community to ‘Open Space Technology’ (a conferencing technique developed by Harrison Owen in the United States). Over the last ten years Heart Politics has developed its own version of this simple social process that allows the participants to co-create the event they are at, rather than having the programme created for them before the event starts. Each daily programme brings with it an alive marketplace of workshops on everything from holistic health to strategic questioning, conflict resolution and networking, men’s and women’s issues, green dollars, various psychotherapies, permaculture, co-housing, facilitation, organisational development, climate change issues, and social enterprise.

The first Heart Politics gatherings, convened by Elaine Dyer and Rex McCann, were annual events held each January (New Zealand’s Summer time) and lasted for five days. But after two years of attendance growth, a winter event was added. An evolving “learning community” of Heart Politicians has been meeting every six months ever since.

Heart Politics has also inspired the development of a number of further gatherings held at the Tauhara Centre, and share many elements of its “gathering culture”. And a series of dialogues have begun which aim to bring together New Zealand leaders who have diverse and sometimes conflicting views on important issues (such as Genetic Engineering and Climate Change).

Another gathering called “The Soul Work of Stewardship” is held every August that uses Dialogue (in the tradition of David Bohm and William Isaacs) to foster the literacy and practice of Stewardship amongst public servants, community groups and active citizens. And last year, another group met at the ‘Hope 2007’ gathering aimed at connecting and developing young change-makers.

Since 1989 nearly a thousand people have participated in the Heart Politics gatherings, and about 10% have become regular participants. Others make the journey to Taupo more occasionally, participating whenever they want to reconnect with a sense of deeper purpose and direction in their work “for the common good”.

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With all due respect, it's the 'late' Rod Donald, rather than the 'former' Rod Donald, which implies he is still living.


Posted by: Christopher on 6 Mar 08

very interesting concept, but I these Heart Politics gatherings have any clout or relationship with the government?

Posted by: melissa on 6 Mar 08

Thank you for your comments and questions.

Christopher, you are right, sadly Rod Donald has passed on, or as one New Zealand cartoonist lovingly suggested "was recycled". He will however always be a former co-leader of the New Zealand Green Party.

Melissa, you've identified a really important distinction. I suspect that the gatherings themselves have no direct political influence. However my observation is that through the gatherings the participants become more willing and better resourced to engage in the wider political life of the country.

More importantly perhaps many of the participants have created innovations for change that are outside the mainstream political environment.

Thanks again for your interest.

all the best,

Posted by: Billy Matheson on 6 Mar 08

Inspiring to learn this morning of this work as we head into Conversation Week 2008, a time when people will gather to dialogue in small groups the world around to consider the most important questions now (selected through a global participatory process).

Like the New Zealand gatherings, we believe that dialogue and open space and other social processes of inclusion give people an experience of having a voice and influencing the thinking and therefore action of others, that this is not power politics but the politics of the community thinking together about its shared future. It shows up as new individual and shared projects and direction. Change happens, but in dispersed and self organizing ways that influence personal, institutional and government chioces. what we understand of power politics are those impossible times when a community is so out of balance that opposing forces fight to the death, but most of our future is determined in the small daily civil conversations that allow change to take root.

Voice is so crucial to politics. Voice is not out shouting or dictating to others because you have for a short while your hands on the levers of power. The experience of having a voice occurs when another actually hears you, the intention and heart of your contribution, the gift you are attempting through your speaking to give. It takes listening. When we are heard, we expand off our position to our next open space. It is quite possible that millions of people in power do practice heart politics which is why no dramatic "power politics" gets reported.

Politicians like Vasconcellos who attempted to introduce heart politics (self esteem) into power politics lost his power. Dennis Kucinich who fights for the heart in politics consistently cannot yet rise to the top ranks of candidates. Obama is possible finding "perfect pitch" in a politics of inclusion of all voices as necessary to progress, which is also heart politics in more traditional language. He can hold polarities and seeks rather than imposes truth. He inspires and he fights. So I think he does represent this heart politics strain - and expresses people's hope for a way into the future that is fair and decent. We are sick of living in tragic times with so many suffering and being given 'tough talk' rhetoric by politicians that we just have to dominate more to assure a secure future. Our hearts cannot tolerate that much suffering in our name. We do want another way. This didn't start as support for Obama but he is an example of respect and listening entering into "clout politics."

I am interested to hear others talk about "heart politics" and clout or power.

Posted by: Vicki on 11 Mar 08



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