What Could Possibly Go Right?: Episode 101 Anne Stadler

May 16, 2023

Show Notes

Anne Stadler is a pioneering elder and board member at Sourcing the Way. Her specialty is offering services that support self-organizing individual and collective leadership. She opens space for the emergence of spirited leadership and inspired forms for collective evolution. A founder and organizer of local, national, and international peace efforts, and an award-winning television producer at KING 5-TV in Seattle Washington, Anne has decades of experience in guiding the formation of emergent communities. She is a pioneer and fluent practitioner of Open Space Technology and Appreciative Inquiry.

She answers the question of “What Could Possibly Go Right?” with thoughts including:

  • Learning what love is in your life, guiding and pulling us forward through even bleak times and problems
  • Appreciating “all these little bubbling initiatives that people undertake out of love” that are creating change 
  • Realizing that “We live in an emergent reality. We’re creating the future all the time, or we’re being drawn into it.”
  • Exploring the principles of Open Space for community building

Connect with Anne Stadler:



Anne Stadler: Love is a guiding force. Love is the thing that’s pulling us forward.

Vicki Robin: Hello, Vicki Robin here, host of What Could Possibly Go Right, a project of Post Carbon Institute. We interview cultural scouts, people who see far and serve the common good, asking them each our one question: in the midst of all that seems to be going awry, what could possibly go right?

My guest today is Anne Stadler. Anne is a co-founder of many community organizations in the Seattle area, including the Third Place Commons, and is a board member of the Compassionate Action Network International. For more than 20 years, she has consulted with organizations and people who want to use open space for co-creative leadership and thriving communities. She has also been an award-winning TV producer of documentaries and special programs produced in collaboration with community leaders. She lives in Lake Forest, Washington.

I invited Anne to be my guest because she is for me, a model of the humble servant of the community wellbeing. She doesn’t have a theory of change or a 10 point plan. She comes from what she likes to call the beloved community, seeing what’s possible, to turn barren spaces like malls or ignored neighborhoods or groups of people that aren’t in communication into places of connection, which she talks about as festival.

She’s inspired me for decades. I have learned from her about social processes that can help people give their energy and joy to the common good. In private and in public, she’s the same inquisitive, honest, and loving human being. So I’m very happy to bring to you my friend, Anne Stadler.

Vicki Robin: Hello, Anne Stadler. Welcome to What Could Possibly Go Right? I’m so glad you’re here.

I’m especially glad you agreed to join me for this podcast in which our guests, who I call cultural scouts, help us to see through the tangle of threats humanity faces, and notice what’s coming together even as things seem to be falling apart.

You have been an inspiration to me and many other people for decades because you notice possibility and you help us to see how our loving spirits can make a difference. I wanna quote a little bit from the David Wagner poem; just the beginning and end, the one that he says:

There is a thread you follow. It goes among the things that change, but it doesn’t change. Nothing you can do stops times unfolding, but you don’t ever let go of the thread.

I’ve seen you hold that thread. I have heard you call it beloved community. I have seen it in your promoting open space and promoting public spaces in our region and more. So Anne, I’m eager to know whatever you’re gonna say, to show us this thread you’ve been holding. In the midst of all that seems to be going awry, what could possibly go right?

Anne Stadler: Wow. What an opportunity. Well, you know, I think the thread has really been following love, and learning what love is really over my lifetime. It’s certainly been a big learning, I mean, that’s very importantly part of mine. My eye has been on love.

What is love bringing to us? Because I have felt in my own life that even though things look very bleak – and they were at different points – there’s been this weird something even before I became conscious of it.

My father died when I was 11 and he became ill when I was seven, during the Depression. It was a really bleak time, for my mom, for us. Life continued and as I got older, I asked myself, how could love do that to us? Because I really did remember what a wonderful thing was happening in our lives when he was alive. I remember I was on an airplane, I got this very clear message. He’s in you. Why are you asking that question? Find him in you. And it was like, wow, of course he’s in me. I must have been 40 years old when I finally got that realization, and it wasn’t just genetically, it was in little traits like, I’m a good baseball player and I’m a good this and that. Those are from my dad and my mom.

So this thing as love is a guiding force. Love is the thing that’s pulling us forward. That’s been a very crucial thread. I’ve tried different initiatives, where we say out loud… my way of opening space is to say, take responsibility for what you love. It isn’t walk away from what you don’t love. It’s take responsibility for what you do love and follow that the whole time that you’re living, that you’re working with other people.

It’s creating communities, where we are offering our gifts to each other because that’s more fun and it’s more alive and it’s more juicy, more creative. It’s the kind of place I wanna be in and around, rather than being so focused on what’s going wrong that is only digging the bigger hole down to wrongness.

I wanna open up and I love finding the little initiatives that people have. I wish we philanthropically supported them more, but there are all these little tiny bubbling initiatives that people undertake out of love. They often are the thing – and I learned that when I was a television producer – they are the thing that is changing what is happening amongst citizens who have a problem. Those little initiatives that somebody did and thought of and they worked and they kind of spread through the telegraph. So anyhow, that’s guided me all along.

Vicki Robin: So you talk about beloved community, I’ve heard you talk many times about that that’s your focus. So talk a little bit about what does that mean to you and where have you seen it emerging?

Anne Stadler: Well, I saw it right in when I started working in the peace movement in the sixties. Dr. King was speaking it, saying the words beloved community, came from him really. We were practicing nonviolence, we were really students of nonviolence. I marvel at what all we learned. I mean, we worked with Gene Sharp, we worked with various people, to be non-violent and that meant we had to take it in our daily life. Not standing out on the street protesting.

It had to be in your daily life that you did things, and that’s always been a part of my M.O., is if I’m doing anything, it’s in my family first and among my neighbors, and it goes out from there rather than it’s out there and then it finally comes into my family. Because boy, your family’s the bottom line here, or your dear ones, whoever they are, they’ll give you the feedback you need when you’re off beam.

One of the things I think as I grew older, I learned that my mom was always practicing that. I didn’t know that’s what she was doing, but she was the kind of person who had walked down the street in this small town near Rochester, New York, where she taught school until they finally, I think, kicked her out because she got too old. Mrs. Morgan, how are you doing, Mrs. Morgan? Or she’d stop and she’d say, Jason, pick up that thing you just dropped.

You just learned how you have to stop littering and stop throwing plastic and stuff like that away. You pick that up. You just learned that in school. Okay, Mrs. Morgan. She was one of these babushkas, you know? She knew what was going on and she was making sure it was,.

I’ve learned all that from other people and watching them and listening to them and noticing how things get done that you love to be part of. The best times we have at the Whidbey Institute is when when we did Spirited Work which was emergent.

That’s the other crucial thing. We live in an emergent reality. Once I’ve said that, it’s gone. We live in an emergent reality. We’re creating the future all the time, or we’re being drawn into it. We’re not creating, it’s co-creating. But we’re being drawn into that from the field. We really have to live that way and following this thread helps us do that so we don’t get stuck someplace because it’s felt good or because we got trampled on. All the reasons why you get stuck.

Vicki Robin: So how do you see love moving out and amongst these very large issues?

Anne Stadler: Well, for one thing, that’s the eyes through which I look. I’m not picking up on all of it. I mean, I read, of course, all the terrible stuff. I mean, it could be worse, but not by much. Every possible thing we’ve done wrong is coming crashing together to change. But I take Karuna News, for instance. The service space guys scour the news to find little tiny instances of heartful behavior, compassionate behavior that we are doing all the time.

I’ve talked to Michael Brown who’s running the Civic Commons, to call that to his attention and to say, we need something like that here. So Yes magazine supplies part of it. It was a wonderful group of people on the Seattle Times, Naomi Ishisaka and her crew who supply part of it. They find the stories and they tell them, and we can read them.

I run into people, they show up, oddly, just because they often do like you’re doing, just ask ’em a question, you know? What are you doing? What do you love these days? And I get answers and I think that’s probably true of all of us, that if we’re following that thread, even moderately, we have this way of without even saying that’s what I’m doing. But just our own curiosity, right?

Vicki Robin: Yeah. To bring that into daily affairs, even when you’re on serious teams that are working on big issues to bring that love in. Whether it’s the moment at the five minutes of silence in the beginning or the rituals of love, the protocols of love. Because it’s one thing to say, oh, the love in our hearts and we’re extending it out, but are there rituals that you see or protocols or processes that tend to bring love out in circumstances where there’s a lot of negativity or hostility or just our hearts are shut down and we’re in our minds. What do you do there?

Anne Stadler: I think a lot of us… and I do light a candle, in order to send light, to be part of light, and that’s a ritual, but often this happens sitting next to somebody waiting for the airplane and you start talking because you’re delayed or whatever. It’s amazing the conversations that happen right amongst strangers.

Amazing. And I don’t know what it is, but I often, I want to go there with people. I don’t like surface, I never liked going to cocktail parties or anything like that. It just bores me. It’s boring. I want a deep dive if I’m gonna have anything and I think that’s pretty crucial.

Just don’t be shy. Ask the question and let the other person tell you what they wanna tell you. But I think though, the crucial piece is just be curious. Don’t be shy and ask the question.

Vicki Robin: Yeah. So, you’ve done a lot of things that have brought form to love. You’ve done the expressions of your love. One story I think would be great is to talk about what you did at Third Place Books, that you insisted that there’d be a commons and I spent a time in that.

Anne Stadler: Yeah, I did insist, I guess. Yeah, because Ron and I, the owner, Ron Sher, who’s the wonderful owner of Third Place Books was not particularly interested in having the community mess around with his business to begin with.

And so we had this thanks to Third Place Commons, which he’d already created. We had this back and forth over lunch, each of us eating lunch with someone else, but continuing the conversation back and forth and finally in the parking lot. I said, well, what are you gonna do? I offered to get a little group of the community together for him to talk to and see if there was anything that could possibly work for both of us. And he said, well, let’s have the meeting, you get the people and we’ll have the meeting. That was one.

Vicki Robin: So what was your vision? What were you promoting in this? This was a big bookstore. And what were you promoting there?

Anne Stadler: In the little town of Lake Forest Park. I was promoting that the community take responsibility for the Commons.

Vicki Robin: And what was the commons? It was like an open area or it was like the food court or what was it?

Anne Stadler: It was like a food court, an open area with a stage next to the bookstore. It was a wonderful place. Absolutely changed the whole character of our so-called downtown, which doesn’t exist.

It’s a mall, and it used to be a whole pretty horrible mall, right? And so I wanted, and I thought he did too, since there was a stage to have the community showing itself off to each other. And on that stage, kids performing and senior groups and all the rest of it. So we discussed with him, the owner of the bookstore who was leasing this space, what would work for them and what would work for us? How could we be involved?

And we came up with the idea that, Friends of Third Place Commons. In fact, I remember the idea came from a guy who was in the economics department at the university, and he said why can’t you have, like we have friends of what’s the university radio station, right?

Yeah. Friends of K U O W. Why can’t we have friends of third place commons? Perfect. So we became a nonprofit. We were the ones, friends that were programming the Commons and by the time we got through… and we did one other thing, which I think is really helpful. We did a model day in the commons to open up our relationship with the commons. From morning until the place closed at night, we had the day all programmed with everything that could go on in the commons, including the Boy Scouts put up a tent.

I mean, there were people doing things like that because it’s a fairly big space. Plus stuff on the stage started, I think, with the third or fourth graders doing marimba from school. It ended with either a senior chorus or a high school group singing. Anyways, it was a wonderful day and it was to show this is us, this is what we could do here.

It really did open up the space, right? That’s another crucial thing, opening up the space. And when we would have issues like the issues about protocol, what do you do in the commons? Which included among other things, what if the kids are necking over on the couch? What are we supposed to do? Because older people, if they knew that you were part of the commons board, might come to you while you’re there and say, what are you going to do? You have to go over there and do something about them? And we’d say, no. If you wanna speak to them, go ahead.

But I mean, all that kind of thing it, you rely on the people who are there, who showed up that they’re enough to take care of what is needed. If you find that you need something else, finally you, you know, invite them into, but you always have an open door that’s very critical, because the universe knows better than you do what you need. So you want that, you need to be fulfilled by helping it walk in the door.

And yeah, those are just, when we did Spirited Work, which was an almost seven year long, every season gathering for three and a half days. Then we were online. We had a wonderful online environment with big, big mind media which we continued our face-to-face. You could come anytime. You did not have to sign up for a year.

A whole family came from Pennsylvania one time with their two older boys or high school aged kids for the summer gathering for three and a half days. We asked them, well, how, how did you find out about us? And were we proselytizing any place? Well, we don’t know, but we just did. And no, nobody knew anybody who had invited them. But somehow they found us and they came for that one gathering. And they were great. They turned out to be a lovely match for everybody else who was already there, right. And they loved it.

So things like that kept happening, and they do happen if you have that attitude of welcoming the stranger. So welcoming the stranger is a very crucial aspect of a commons area or a beloved community, an open system where you really actually trust that what is coming in the door and you together can do something that is healthy, life-giving, loving. At the very least, non-violent for each, right? Yeah.

Vicki Robin: Yeah. So what I’m hearing from you is that there’s the thread of love, but there’s also the thread of open space. That there are principles to how we conduct our lives in our communities, in our businesses. I know that officially there’s principles of open space, but it’s like there’s principles of welcome, of welcoming the stranger. You never know who in your midst is gonna be the person who says or does or offers the thing that ignites the group, you know? You just never know.

And so, so talk a little bit about gracious space or open space. Don’t you use the term Gracious Space? No, no. That was somebody else.

Anne Stadler: That was the Ethical Leadership Group. Because sometimes it’s not very gracious, to tell you the truth. People get angry with each other and it’s possible in open space to get angry with somebody else. The nice thing about open space is you can say goodbye for now, but I’ll see you again when I can talk again.

So you can withdraw from the circumstances. You withdraw from the circumstances, you let your feet carry you or your intention carry you to where love is taking you. If you don’t feel a sense of that, but you feel anger and unresolved conflict, you may not deal with it till even the next time that you get together. But you don’t let it go. That person is not cast out from your little circle, right? Whoever the provoker is, that person is welcome or you’re welcome. If you’re the one that’s provoking the, the anger you can come back in.

I think the other thing that we learned, which I just am realizing is so important, especially we learned it in Spirited Work because we were taught it early on in Spirited Work, maybe the second year I got a clear message and that was whatever you thought you knew about community, throw it out the window.

You are being taught what the community is, so listen and pay attention. And out of this, because I had been a community organizer for 10 years, I thought I knew a lot about this. Out of this came a group of stewards and the way it happened was we opened the space to tell people if you want to be part of, join us. For initiators, join us. You can do so, but the requirement is you do commit to a year, if you’re a steward and you also have some kind of a spiritual practice. It doesn’t matter what it is, but some kind of a practice. So people signed up and we had a group of stewards from then on, and they usually numbered about 10 or 12, and we met monthly and we were the ones that ran the gathering.

What we learned – in fact, I was talking to a friend of mine yesterday about this – we learned how to deal with conflict. What we did was if conflict arose, we saw it as an opening to what wanted to emerge. So when there was an opening there, we shut up and listened for about a minute or two minutes and I mean, it became a ding on the bell. We listened for about two minutes and somebody would get the idea, oh, it’s this, we let the field come in to teach us. Right? And that arose out of a collective experience.

So I have had a training we all did in the wisdom of the collective circle. Not the individual, but the collective circle. I think that is where we’re headed now in our whole concept of leadership. Leadership with, not leadership over; power with, not power over. I pay attention to that in every group that I’m in. That’s why I use open space.

Vicki Robin: Right, right. And so if you’re willing, let’s dial this up to, whether it’s state or national politics. These are the places where it seems like the most stuck. How does love enter? What are the vectors for love entering people who are making consequential decisions?

I know that I got stuck in anger, during the last presidency. I couldn’t, I felt powerless about protecting things that I loved. So I was just wondering, do you have examples of this kind of love, this kind of letting the field speak to you? Letting what wants to emerge, emerge?

Were you seen that operating even – your focus has been city of Seattle – in Seattle? Where have you seen that?

Anne Stadler: It’s a good question. That’s a very difficult arena and my answer has been don’t work there. My answer has been work with the citizens and the non-citizens, the people who are here because they have to be here. The undocumented people who are here, people who live here, work with them because they are the ones, and corporations who have foundations and are trying to learn something, they have also ways in to change what they do. And so that is primarily what I have actually done.

But living in Lake Forest Park, I don’t treat my city council people any differently than I treat my neighbors. I call ’em up and I tell ’em what I think, or I invite ’em out for coffee and ask ’em what they think and and how can we work on such and such. I think I’m probably like my mother in that regard, but like I’ve had a bee in my bonnet about affordable housing and that we needed it here as well as all around the King County and the region.

I’ve worked both with other citizens who, who care about the same thing. I have talked with several city council people and I know who is interested in that. And former city council people who we can make common cause with. So I do that.

So I guess I don’t know what to tell you about the federal system. I think it is difficult to have a relationship of that sort, right? Even with you know, a progressive representative like Pramila Jayapal who I think is wonderful and I think her motivations are wonderful. I’ve never tried to have a relationship with her and I don’t contribute money to politics except in small doses. My money goes if whatever there is to nonprofits and citizen activity, right? So I don’t have any particular clout for anybody in that, at that level of interest.

But, I see women and it’s a lot of this is coming from women internationally, in the climate change arenas, in in economics and other realms. They’re the leaders in this now, and I totally agree with what they’re doing and they seem to have talked with each other. I mean, it’s not just me that’s doing this. There’s a whole lot of us who are doing all of this. Totally. So I pay attention a lot to that. Yeah.

Vicki Robin: You pay attention to where you know whether or not you’re gonna impact it. You pay attention to where love is emerging. Yeah. And maybe you congratulate people or you just add energy to it or whatever.

Anne Stadler: You connect somehow. You help them connect; connect with them. Yeah. And if I’d done anything probably in terms of that sort of thing, probably it’s not about my celebrity or anything like that at all, because I am not, nobody knows me, I’m not well known for anything, but I am a connector and I don’t hesitate to do that, to say, call so-and-so and pay attention to who would possibly be able to be working together. And often they do, right?

Vicki Robin: Yeah. Right. Yeah. So that’s a piece of it is to be a connector and and I think that’s part of what could possibly go right. I think it’s part of like the whole attitude, because what could possibly go right? It’s not just about the things that are emerging out there. It is how are we in this world noticing the things that are going right, noticing the sprouts, watering them, drawing attention, convening groups in this. This is an activity, it is sort of counterintuitive when we’re so upset about things that are happening and we wanna oppose the forces that are making, doing the destruction.

But I think what you’re giving us is a sense of that in small ways, in our families, our neighborhoods, in our communities. This process of coming from love, noticing what’s emerging watering it with your attention drawing people together, if there is something that needs to be created, not assuming that you’ll create it.

Just bring together a team and let the team create it. It is a way of being a citizen or a force for love in the world, and it may seem small. I work locally in my community. I live in a little town of a thousand people, of wonderful people, and I think I operate somewhat like you operate there, noticing what’s emerging, getting a bee in my bonnet.

I have the same bee around affordable housing, you know? And just like poking around, there’s a little sort of poking around thing I think a lot of us do this. I think a lot of us do this and we don’t lift it up. We don’t say that’s important, and it’s almost like this is what keeps the world together. These people who are connectors and people who are noticers, and people who water the things that are emerging.

Anne Stadler: And who are weavers because these connectors are weavers of a new cloth, basically. The cloth that just hasn’t formed yet because it’s just threads out here, right? Not us following the threads. And this is really interesting. This is probably one reason why the plethora of circles has arisen, is the need for that kind of experience, whether it’s cancer circles or food doing circles or whatever. I mean, it’s so interesting. Somebody was asking me the other day, they were remarking on how wonderful PCC is, and I said, yeah, we were part of the buying club in our neighborhood that started PCC and a buying club.

What was that? Well, it was a circle that went down and got grain and cheese down to Pike Street Market once every two weeks or something and ordered it. And then we took turns cutting it up and parcelling it out for our neighbors. They bought it and that turned into PCC. You know, I mean that’s how things work. That is how it would work as human beings, so let’s just keep doing it more.

Vicki Robin: Right? Exactly. Feel something in your heart. Gather people around the question. Listen carefully for what’s emerging. Yeah. You know, do the legwork. Go down and get the cheese from Pike Place Market. Do the legwork and do it in a spirit of like adventure and conviviality and see what comes. I think we should all have a list, at least a part of where we put our energy and attention that is that sort of cultivation of possibility locally. Not just locally, physically, but you know, among real people in real places.

Anne Stadler: Yeah. Well, the other thing is be sure you have some good food and be sure you have some music. So tell everybody to bring their instruments and make it a potluck or whatever, put out something so that we have, we have all the stuff that reminds us how juicy life is.

I know that was hugely important the whole time we were developing World Without War Council. The whole decade that we were developing World Without War Council. We always did that kind of stuff. And we didn’t just do it to raise money, we did it because it was fun.

I think that that’s that’s another thing. I don’t know you how you are. I am so tired of being invited to contribute to people who can’t thank you without asking you for more money. It just drives me nuts. I mean, I feel like, what do they think I am or we are, we want to be part of something. Can’t we be part of something? More than just handing him a check.

Vicki Robin: Right. So, right. I think that’s so important because it’s like there’s an epidemic of loneliness. Yeah. I mean, people feel excluded from the common life. Because they don’t have the money or because of their money, age, appearance, mobility, whatever the issues.

 I think there’s a lot of the movements that are claiming, belonging. You know now as awkward as it sometimes is, to cut through the narratives. What they’re saying is we are part of the commons. We are part of what makes this world, this world.

And yeah. I think that’s the spirit of what you have been doing for years. You are part of, whoever shows up are the right people, you are the ones that are making this. With your curiosity and your love and your participation, you’re making.

I’m getting something from what you’re saying. It’s like we are weaving the fabric now, this is not in the past. These are projects that I’ve done as a weaver, but we are weaving it now. This podcast is part of the weave and we don’t have to stay totally positive about things. There are things that are conflictual and we can be in conflict.

But it’s that consciousness of we are part of a weave and if we don’t bring our thread, it’s missing. You know? So true. I mean, at least what I’m pulling out of what you’ve been saying. Is there anything else you wanna say?

Anne Stadler: No, I wanna thank you, so I really would like to thank you. That’s the only other thing I’d like to say, because I think that your question, however, four years ago did you say you started this?

Vicki Robin: Yeah, this is the fourth year. It was three years. It was 2020 we started.

Anne Stadler: Yeah. What could possibly go right? That was exactly the right question. I think what you’ve done is very important.

Vicki Robin: Well, thank you. Yeah. And it is the spirit that you’re talking about. It’s the inquiry together, about what we are noticing that we can through our attention. Give more form to. And I think what the people listen to this podcast, or watch the videos, that’s what they derive, like we all feel like we’re chewing on something together.

It’s not a fixed world out there that you get to like either say yes or no to, like column A or column B. It’s that participation. So thank you so much for evoking how you are in the world. That’s what I wanted people to experience, a true blue, radiant, loving being. So thank you so much, Anne, for joining me in this conversation.

Anne Stadler: Thank you, Vicki, so much for asking.

Vicki Robin

Vicki Robin is a prolific social innovator, writer, speaker, and host of the What Could Possibly Go Right? podcast. She is coauthor with Joe Dominguez of the international best-seller, Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your Relationship With Money and Achieving Financial Independence (Viking Penguin, 1992, 1998, 2008, 2018). And author of Blessing the Hands that Feed Us; Lessons from a 10-mile diet (Viking Penguin, 2013), which recounts her adventures in hyper-local eating and what she learned about food, farming, belonging, and hope. Vicki has lectured widely and appeared on hundreds of radio and television shows, including “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “Good Morning America,” and National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition” and “Morning Edition.” She has also been featured in hundreds of magazines including People Magazine, AARP, The Wall Street Journal, Woman’s Day, Newsweek, Utne Magazine, and the New York Times. She currently lives on Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound and is active in her community on a range of social and environmental issues including affordable housing, local food, and community investing. For fun, she is a comedy improv actress, sings in a choir, gardens, and nurtures a diverse circle of friends.

Tags: building resilient communities