The Necessary Ingredient 

— some thoughts for the Invitation Conversation

by vivian Hutchinson

June 2021 18 min read download as Masterclass PDF

THERE’S A QUESTION that you often ask yourself because it is hidden behind every invitation:

How valuable do you expect this experience to be?

In terms of having expectations, it has been our experience that perhaps two-thirds of the participants on our Masterclass for Active Citizenship arrive on the first day with only a limited idea of what they have chosen to turn up to.  They have come for all sorts of reasons — only some of which coincide with what was written on our formal invitation.

We are living in a majority culture that is just not used to turning up and spending the time on deeper conversations about the things that matter to all of us. We are certainly not used to it unless the “turning up” is provoked by conflict and polarization or some sort of catastrophe.

We have lost the simple building blocks of a community literacy that enables us to have these slower talks with one another. And it is within this illiteracy that an invitation to a community education programme like our Masterclass might seem to be an alien thing, and possibly even impractical.

Some of our participants have told us that, on the first day, they had difficulty explaining to their partners just what sort of workshop they were going to, or how useful it would be to their work or their families.

Many of them had come because someone they knew had recommended it to them, or they trusted in the work of the organisations that invited them, or they were curious as to what the particular hosts were up to now.

And all that is OK, because we do get there in the end.

On the first day of the Masterclass, we usually have a welcome breakfast which is also attended by previous participants of the workshops. They immediately get to talk in small groups about what they have learned, and how their experience continues to show up in their lives and families and work and community organisations.

The new participants then start on their own unique learning journey which goes on over the next four months.  Very soon they realise they haven’t come to a programme ... they have come to a meeting place. It is a meeting place that seeks to remember and regenerate a sense of what our citizenship and what our communities are for.

The learning journey for participants starts by accepting the invitation and then really “turning up”.  And once they have come to terms with the risks and hurdles of actually turning up, they begin to notice that the unwritten question behind their invitation has changed:

How valuable do you intend this experience to be?

The Welcome Breakfast at the Masterclass for Active Citizenship —Tū Tangata Whenua — with new and past participants, at the New Plymouth Copthorne Hotel.

THERE ARE SO many community groups or organisations, or councils or government agencies and their contractors that say they are working for “community development”. But what they are really focused on is a form of event management. In doing so, they often get the process of invitation completely wrong — and a great deal of their time and trouble is wasted.

I have come to think that getting the invitation right could well be half the work that is involved in fostering real development in our communities.

The importance of the invitation has always been better understood in Māori society, especially when you see how meetings on a marae usually start with a pōwhiri.

Some pōwhiri – with the wero or challenge, followed by the welcome, lines of greetings with a hongi, and speeches made by elders of the marae as well as the guests – can take as long as half a day. And yet it would be a mistake to think that nothing much is happening, or that you are simply required to endure such a ceremony.

A pōwhiri is based on an understanding that relationships, genealogies and places all have their own way of contributing to your meeting. When the living stories of all these connections are combined with the particular agenda of why you are gathering ... then you might just recognise that a great deal of the work of the meeting is already taking place. 

This slower start to your meeting is not a distraction. It is an art. It is part of the art of how communities build trust, and take some risks in exploring unchartered territory.

It is an art that can lead to some unexpected awakenings. As the American civics activist Eric Liu says:

“Artists invite. Not just in the obvious way of inviting audiences and praying they show. But in the deeper sense of drawing us into places we wouldn’t otherwise go to because we didn’t know they were there, or we did but were too scared to enter, or we were lost in our phones, and we didn’t know that such places was the point of being.”  – Eric Liu

THE REGENERATION OF our communities is a two-fold process of awakening. On a personal level, it involves fostering a more active and engaged sense of citizenship. And on a collective level, it involves inviting your friends and colleagues and neighbours into a deeper sense of “We”.

Over the last four decades, there has been an unraveling and fraying of both the cultural structures of our citizenship and our wider sense of “We”. And the end result of this is that more and more people just don’t feel they have a real stake in our common lives.

The barest evidence of this dis-connection of citizenship can be seen in the level of participation in our democracy – the responsibility we have as citizens to make a choice about the people who will decide our common interests. 

It is hard for me to fully accept that I am living in a country where the voter participation rate is so dismal — especially when so much depends on the quality of the decisions being made around our Council and Cabinet tables.

It is the decisions being made by these bodies that determine so much of the social, environmental, economic and cultural wellbeing of our communities. Their choices are going to be particularly important in the coming decades as we address the local consequences of the global climate emergency, the extinction of so many species and collapse of biodiversity,
the continuing gaps between rich and poor, and the way that these challenges are affecting people and economies everywhere. 

Perhaps we would wish to see much more social diversity represented in our political parties and on our local councils and boards — especially to hear the voices of young people, women, and tangata whenua. But voting is not the act of a wishful consumer. It is the act of a citizen.  And we are in the middle of a slow-burning citizenship crisis.

Civic participation is a crisis that will not be solved by politicians. Nor will it be solved by better branding and marketing campaigns.  It is a question of invitation. The request to engage in our democracy is something that we need to be asking of each other.  This can only be achieved once the roles and responsibilities of our citizenship are part of the everyday conversations we are having in our workplaces, on our sports fields, our marae, our places of worship, in our hotels and all our other meeting places.

It is out of these conversations that we can reawaken a common sense of the stake we have in each other’s lives.

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IN A CONSUMER-DOMINATED society, the invitation is most commonly offered as an aspect of marketing or persuasion.

You can tell that an invitation is being offered in consumer terms, when people start to talk about the need to better “sell” their message, or for customers to “buy-in” to a particular agenda or purpose. 

The end result of this sort of invitation is that we are more likely to become passive spectators at someone else’s event — rather than active citizens who have turned up with our own ideas and contributions to make.

An image that summarises this challenge for me comes from Annie Leonard, the creator of the excellent web series of videos called “The Story of Stuff”.  Her picture shows a human figure flexing their arm muscles.

On one side, the “consumer” muscle is fit and thriving, or perhaps even over-developed like what you would find on an extreme body-builder. But on the other side, the “citizen” muscle looks like what you would find on the comic-book 98-pound weakling.

It is an image that asks us to acknowledge the costs we are all paying for our modern consumer lives — and to recognise that these costs are way out of balance.

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ON A PERSONAL LEVEL, the invitation conversation has been a real challenge to me in my role as a community activist and a social entrepreneur. It has challenged me to consider the merits and disadvantages that come from an invitation approach versus an advocacy approach to social change.

I initially found this confronting, because most of my background and talents as an activist had been tied up in the concept of being a persuasive advocate.

Many of my social change elders in the 1970s had taught me what amounted to a “theory of change”. Looking back, I would now say that it contains some very naive notions, and yet it definitely represented a common understanding about what you needed to do in order to solve community problems.

Those elders wouldn’t have called it a “theory of change” back then, of course, as most of the elements of this theory were simply held unconsciously. But it was a meta-narrative about how we thought change happened, and it went something like this:

1. Firstly, you identify a problem that needs to be fixed.

2. Secondly, you apply all your imagination and creativity in the search for solutions to the problem ... and then you do something about it.

3. Then you learn-by-doing, as you slowly build up a better prototype or recipe that is your solution to the problem. Your goal is that your recipe can be scalable into some sort of programme or scheme.

4. You come to accept that you don’t have any money, or enough money which will enable your ideas to thrive. So you set a further goal that your programme for change will later be picked up and funded by a grateful local council or government department, or a philanthropic foundation.

5. And then you throw yourself into all sorts of opportunities for marketing, and publishing moments, where you get to tell everyone about your programme or scheme and your personal story and how your solutions will definitely solve the problem that needs to be fixed.

6. And at this point you usually uncover all the power and vested interests that many people have in keeping the problem as stuck as it is right now. But you don’t let this discourage you. In fact, you start to engage in all sorts of creative protests and pressure and political activities which draw attention to these power and control issues and point towards the solutions that you are offering.

7. And all this continues until you get to a magical day called “the tipping point”. This is when there are enough people around who see the common sense of your solution, and your recipe or programme starts to become the normal way of doing things. And then ...

8. The local council or a government department does indeed pick up your schemes and ideas and they become the way that things are actually paid to get done.

9. And meanwhile, you are given an award and pronounced a “sound” person and appointed to various statutory authorities and boards, until you ...

10... retire and enjoy your family life.


This narrative is almost like a fairy tale. It has provided the structure for many Disney movie biographies. And I confess I did try it out — with mixed successes — but while this story has many important and worthwhile elements, what I most learned along the way was that there were some major problems with it. 

The story might be described as an advocacy theory of social change.  There’s nothing wrong with the idea of advocacy ... there’s a real talent in getting your advocacy muscles into shape. But the community wisdom here is that we also need to balance our advocacy with an invitation muscle.

And to get this invitation right, we need to learn how to offer our work with a sensible degree of letting go.

Once I realised that there were some real deficiencies in an advocacy way of thinking, I came to discover that my communities already had quite a different “theory of change”.

There were even elders around me who already knew a different story — but I just wasn’t paying the right sort of attention.

The problem with the advocacy story is that you are encouraging people to join your recipe. When you are so completely tied up with getting your innovations and prototypes established, and then marketing your programmes and solutions — you very easily end up becoming blind to the wisdom and contributions that other people are able to make.

When you are selling a solution, the creativity is already done and your need becomes one of asking people to “buy into” your ideas as consumers or clients, or as volunteers, or employees of your programme. 

But when you make a change in perspective from advocacy to invitation, you are awakening in people the sense that they are an ingredient. Your leadership job is to remind them of this, and to welcome them into the mix.

Invitational leadership starts by recognising that every citizen has not just got any ingredient. They have a gift, and it is important. It is necessary. In fact, your community may even be considerably poorer if that particular gift is not in the mix.

In this context, a community “recipe” of what we collectively need to do about a problem is figured out as we go along. The recipe is not so much known, as it is performed. Our programmes and schemes unfold as we come together with others and put our different ingredients and perspectives into collective action.

Meanwhile, the job of an invitational leader is to remind people what the common endeavour is for. Their job is to step back enough to encourage and empower others to put their own gifts to work.

It is a bit like jazz music. In jazz there is a theme or melody introduced into the group of musicians. Every member of that group then has a turn at performing their take on that theme according to their own instrument and personality. The end result is that when they create music together, it is able to go well beyond the sum of their individual contributions.

Wynton Marsalis says that jazz was given birth within an American culture that has been constantly struggling to gain a deeper understanding of the nature of democracy.  He argues that the real power and innovation of jazz is found when

“... a group of people can come together and create art, improvised art, and can negotiate their agendas with each other, and that negotiation is the art.”  — Wynton Marsalis

In negotiating our very diverse community challenges, the move from an advocacy approach to an invitational approach is just such an art. It does mean a whole re-wiring of how we understand the effectiveness and sustainability of our own activism.

This process can be a bit dis-orienting if you are not used to the give-and-take of this sort of collaboration. It can be a bit like becoming aware of a style of music that you have not been used to hearing. 

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AN INVITATIONAL APPROACH to social change asks for a fundamentally different level of engagement. The invitation itself can become a demonstration of our willingness to live more collaboratively.

If you are a community organiser, an invitational approach is one that brings different rewards. When people turn up to your events, or get in alongside your activities, they do so because they are already wired into something that is larger than their own immediate self-interest.

Even if the people turning up are few, they are the few that really want to be there. They are creative and they are curious. They are picking up the challenge, and starting to build trust. And they are much more prepared to figure things out as they go along.

If the invitation is right, then one of the first things they will figure out is that they are not there to follow your recipe. They have turned up to put their own ingredient on the table.

Our communities begin to be transformed when active citizens turn up because of such an invitation.

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Notes and Links

vivian Hutchinson QSM is a community activist and social entrepreneur who has worked mainly on issues of race relations, social justice, job creation and philanthropy. He is a co-founder of Community Taranaki www.taranaki.gen.nz, and author of How Communities Heal — stories of social innovation and social change (2012. He is also one of the creators of How Communities Awaken - Tū Tangata Whenua - a Masterclass for Active Citizenship which is run in partnership with Tu Tama Wahine o Taranaki www.tutamawahine.org.nz.

First published online in June 2021

This paper The Necessary Ingredient is part of a larger series of essays by vivian Hutchinson entitled How Communities Awaken. For more information, visit www.taranaki.gen.nz/hca

Tū Tama Wahine o Taranaki and Community Taranaki were awarded the ACE (Adult and Community Education Aotearoa) 2020 Award for Community Programme of the Year for the Masterclass for Active Citizenship. For more information, visit www.tutamawahine.org.nz/masterclassguide

Eric Liu is the founder of the US-based Citizen University. The quote is taken from "The Citizen Artist" Sermon for Civic Saturday, New York 20 January 2018 http://www.citizenuniversity.us/wp-content/uploads/CS-Sermon-and-Readings_Jan-20-2018_NYC.pdf

If we look at the figures from the New Zealand 2017 general elections, we can see only a 73% voter turnout ... which means that one in four people did not turn up. For young people (under 25 years) the national participation rate is at about 50%, or half the youth electorate is refusing or not bothering to vote. It gets worse when you look at the voter participation rate in local body elections, where turnout figures have dropped to as low as 42%. You can compare this with the New Zealand voting participation rates in national elections during the 1920s, 30s and 40s, when the level was above 90%.

New Zealand Electoral Commission http://www.elections.org.nz/events/2017-general-election/2017-general-election-results/voter-turnout-statistics  See also Statistics NZ – Voter Turnout for Local Body Elections (2013 figures), Bryce Edwards, New Zealand Herald, 3rd November 2017 “Political Roundup: New contentious data shows voter turnout” at http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11940333

Annie Leonard, Story of Stuff see http://storyofstuff.org/

Wynton Marsalis, trumpeter, composer, teacher, and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City. See Wynton Marsalis interview in Jazz: A History of America's Music (2000) by Geoffrey C Ward and Ken Burns.

ISBN 978-1-92-717635-1 This paper is licensed for distribution under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/nz/deed.en

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