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The Institute of Cultural Affairs was incorporated in 1973 in the USA. ICA-USA is a private, nonprofit, social change organization (IRS designated 501(c)3). Its primary objective is to promote positive, sustainable change in communities, organizations, and individual lives in the USA and throughout the world by helping people visualize, plan, and implement consensus-based strategies aimed at reaching goals they envision for themselves.

More than forty years of methods testing and refinement have enabled ICA-USA to create and sustain a variety of programs across the USA and abroad which invoke one common principle: the desire to release the creativity of the people, involve them, and allow them to shape their own destiny. The ICA-USA facilitates this creative process so that people can learn for themselves how to think, plan, and lead. Among its many accomplishments, ICA-USA is the only group to have facilitated town hall meetings in each county in the United States and facilitated meetings for positive social change in every time zone around the world.

ICA-USA is proud of its exceptionally qualified faculty. Each trainer team brings a wealth of both up-front facilitation and training experience coming from work with large and small businesses, nonprofits, community agencies, governmental and educational institutions, and neighborhoods. They are skilled at both transferring these methods and answering your questions about how these methods work. The trainers provide an interdisciplinary and multicultural approach to organizational change and development.

The Technology of Participation methods were co-created from the beginning. Their initial forms were developed through action research in the fields of community and organizational development. Since the 1960’s and the beginning of the Ecumenical Institute, the forerunner of the Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA), group processes were carefully crafted to achieve certain objectives. 

The concern was to bring methods and spirit to a wide public. These processes were referred to as “the methods” and at the heart of the methods was phenomenology or existentialism. The methods emerged out of the practical demands of hands-on efforts at community building and an intense community study and dialogue with the writings of people like Kierkegaard, Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Bonhoeffer, Camus and Ortega. The methods have always served to immerse people in the reality of their own situation and their own depths at the same time.

As the methods developed, they also benefited from the work of other authors:

Alex Osborn’s work on brainstorming, Olaf Helmer and Norman Dalkey’s Delphi Process, and Piaget’s writings on Gestalt psychology, for example, have all influenced the Consensus Workshop method.

During the 1970’s and 1980’s, the ICA and these methods moved around the globe and into many different cultural settings. The methods catalyzed community development efforts, impacted government agencies and introduced transnational organizations to participatory change processes.

Thousands of ordinary citizens were taught basic consensus formation methods in the 1970’s, first around the U.S. Town Meeting campaign and then with the Global Community Youth and Women’s Forums. Thousands of Village leaders across the world were taught participatory planning methods as part of the ICA’s Human Development Projects and the 55-nation International Exposition of Rural Development. Again more men and women in corporations and government agencies learned the methods through ICA’s strategic planning workshops and leadership training seminars in the 1980’s. Each of these opportunities provided occasions for refinement and reflection on the methods. In 1989, with the publication of Laura Spencer’s Winning Through Participation, the methods became known as the Technology of Participation (ToP).

This process of reflection and re-evaluation continues to this day. There are 140 active ToP Trainers in the United States, with courses offered in __ on a regular basis. They meet annually, stay in touch via e-mail and a Web site, and combine their training of others with their own direct engagement as facilitators. This effort of interchange takes place in many situations for ToP users both locally and nationally, and has proven to be a very effective tool for discerning new applications of the methods and sharing effective practices in the established uses.

There are active training systems in ToP methods today in the United States, Canada, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, Egypt, Australia, Belgium, the United Kingdom, Vietnam, and Tajikistan. Course materials are available in English, Spanish, Croatian, French, German, Arabic, Russian, Dutch, Chinese, Portuguese, and Vietnamese.  

Institute of Cultural Affairs (ICA) and ToP methods played a key role during the late 1980’s and 1990’s in the development of the profession of the facilitator. Much of this was done through helping to bring into being the International Association of Facilitators (IAF) in 1994. The IAF, which now provides a mechanism for the professional certification of facilitators worldwide, continues to offer a vital forum for professional development and the interchange of a wide variety of effective methods in the field of facilitation.

* Written by Marilyn Oyler and Gordon Harper – Published as part of Chapter 10 – The Technology of Participation – pp. 157-158 in The Change Handbook: The Definitive Resource on Today’s Best Methods for Engaging Whole Systems, by Peggy Holman, Tom Devane, Steven Cady, and Associates, San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc. 2007.

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