Crafting unRivalrous Space

Sisters resting there heads together in a park
Lyle Enright

Why does our networking so often look more like throwing parties and making space for the unknown?

“It’s, you know, a gathering,” I told my wife, not sure what other word to use. “A gathering of creative peacebuilders.” “So, like a conference?” she said. I shivered as I zipped my suitcase, snagging on an untucked pair of shorts, and had flashbacks.

After 6 years in graduate school, I’m overly familiar with conferences. They’re lonely affairs where I sometimes want to run to my room after finishing a talk. I don’t want to risk chit-chat with some editor, or the shame I’ll feel if my work can’t hold their attention. Still, the pressure to perform straightens my back and clenches my teeth into something like a smile.

The unRival team didn’t know what to expect at our first official gathering, under the mountains of Heber, Utah, but we knew it shouldn’t feel like a conference. We call ourselves unRival Network, but networking often feels like a tightrope between selfless attention to other people, and self-obsession that strikes all the right poses and proves all the right credentials. A rock band from my teenage years captures that anxious energy in a song titled “I Am Trying Very Hard to Be Here”:

Before you came, what was your name?

… No one’s from here, no one my dear,

Not even the trees.

Purpose, Performance, and Rivalry

In The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker lays out the stakes of gathering without a purpose. From standing meetings to big galas, “we often let old or faulty assumptions about why we gather dictate the form of our gatherings.” We let forms, rituals, and obligations set tones we should be more intentional about. “We end up gathering in ways that don’t serve us, or not connecting when we ought to.” 

One of these “faulty assumptions” is performance. The vaguer the purpose of gathering, the stronger our sense that some responsibility falls on us. We reinforce that assumption every time we send in a professional biography with our registrations, trying to pack in as many accomplishments as possible. These rituals prime us to compare ourselves to others—to get anxious about whether we carry ourselves with the same posture of purpose. 

No one really wears a magical aura of purpose, of course, and so all our constant looking at one another produces a feedback loop. No matter how polite the invitation is, we can’t shake the feeling that these spaces aren’t meant for us. We must try very hard to be there.

Amongst peacebuilders—many of whom are also academics or non-profit leaders—the tacit jostling to prove oneself takes a heavy mental toll: how cutthroat can I be for my cause? Will I out-maneuver my friend for that grant? Do sweatshop workers in Sri Lanka deserve this more than trafficked women? Wherever I am, I’m proving that I and my cause deserve to be there, that I deserve a cut of scarce resources hidden beyond my reach.

We’re still exploring what unrivalrous space can do for creative peacebuilding. A more intimate environment can create new ways to think through problems. It can create a new way to do work, where the pressure to get results doesn’t impede risky and artistic thinking. Most of all, it can help move the peace process forward by reducing our sense of powerlessness.

Crafting unRivalrous Space

An unRival gathering shouldn’t replicate these traps. It should marry a sense of purpose with the sacred uselessness of gathering people. It’s about what good, driven people do with an opportunity to enjoy each other. We wanted the energy of a Good Party, which is an end unto itself. We needed to remove the assumptions that make people feel the need to perform.

We’ve had a lot of experience crafting that kind of space since our first gathering in Utah. We’ve tested and refined other approaches at events in Chicago, and in Atlanta. Our partners regularly turn simple dinner and conversation into something truly remarkable.

It’s not painless work; but we’re getting better at it, and have learned some crucial lessons:

Modeling Matters

The role of the host matters a lot in unrivalrous space. There is no need to size others up if the host models the purpose of the gathering. The pressure to perform melts away. An excellent host creates a sense of belonging, a sense that one does not have to try very hard to be in the space they’ve created.

When we play host, we take on the responsibility of a guiding purpose, letting it shape everything from the guest list to the caterer. We want to gather creative peacebuilders in our networks who share strong and specific values, who bring a diversity of perspectives, and who wrestle with the loneliness and lack of support that often accompanies peacebuilding. We plan meals, choose wine, and even commission artwork around these core goals. As a result, our guests feel seen for who they are, not pressured to perform.

Purpose can be provisional

While we, as hosts, base our purpose on an audience and their needs, we originally communicated our purpose through a banner-question that each of us shared: What do we do about the relationship between Christianity and violence in America today? 

Almost no one discussed our leading question. But because they all shared a stake in that question, something else took root: a sense of trust, of straightforward conversation, shaped by the environment we created.

This was risky. An explicit purpose can create pressure if it sounds like a job to do. Our weekend might have turned into one more conference with a “theme” and panelists jostling to prove they had the best answers. Purpose needs to communicate trust and belonging, to dignify our time and the people we gather.

We’ve learned that holding purpose loosely helps underscore that dignity. Humility makes room for other purposes and heads off rivalry by giving agency to others. This balance between the purposeful and the personal helps create the atmosphere of a Good Party, where gathering is itself the whole point.

The “where” of creative peacebuilding

We’re still exploring what unrivalrous space can do for creative peacebuilding. A more intimate environment can create new ways to think through problems. It can create a new way to do work, where the pressure to get results doesn’t impede risky and artistic thinking. Most of all, it can help move the peace process forward by reducing our sense of powerlessness. When we’re not playing a role or trying to prove ourselves, even small results become more meaningful.

For creative peacebuilders, performance culture undercuts the fundamental effort of building just peace. In these calculating environments, unrivaling and networking feel like opposing purposes. We’re creating spaces where both are possible—and where you don’t have to try very hard to be there. Andrew DeCort of the Neighbor-Love Movement perfectly captures the goals of such a space:

“The hugs, the eye-contact, the kind words, the self-disclosure, the self-revelation, the mutual vulnerability, was that oxygen tank [I needed] to breathe and to say, ‘Okay, I can continue to imagine, I can continue to hope.’ What I experienced was this healing power that creates resilience. I think unRival is providing that kind of oxygen that sustains the work of leaders that are trying to do something [while] being shot at from every single side. You show up in a hotel room and there’s a handwritten card that says ‘We’re so glad that you’re here,’ and that just touches your soul.”