First Builder's Retreat

Community building is persistent, demanding work, and it requires more leadership, communication, and coordination behind the scenes than is usually visible to most members of a community, especially if you want to create the kind of deep, nourishing community that we do.

In 2013, Greg Bloom proposed in a reflection on his Open Master's experience that in order for this project to work as envisioned, we would eventually need "nested levels of formal leadership."

"If this is to be a program with more than one small group of people, but with some common structure to thread it all around, then I think we can consider three different levels of experience: the individual experience, the group experience, and the collective experience. In this case, I think there needs to be a specific group of people dedicated to conceiving, planning, implementing, and evaluating the key aspects of each.

"It’s possible that the group responsible for structuring collective experience will be like a strategic rudder from quarter to quarter and year to year -- overseeing things like communication channels and all-group gathering planning, eventually addressing the question of funding, grappling with big questions that come up from the individual-experience and group-experience groups, addressing any problems that they have, etc.

"This is work that will take time. But fortunately, we have a lot of people who want to learn how to do this kind of work."

Thankfully, as Greg observed, our community has been blessed from the start with the fact many of the people who were drawn to the Open Master's were drawn to it in a large part by their desire to create and hold community for others, as much as to care for their own learning goals.

But while there has always been significant energy in the Open Master's for this, it has never been clear exactly how to connect, coordinate, and support the natural leadership that wanted to emerge in our community, especially as our small experiment in DC grew to other cities, and as new members came from virtually anywhere in the world, and moved in and out of different places and groups.  That last fact alone has made Greg's vision for nested, distributed leadership structure always seem right to me, but at the same time has made it very difficult to know where to start with it.

But in 2014, as often happens in the Open Master's, the leadership Greg described at the "collective level" came together naturally, in the process of finding ways to support the leadership that was emerging organically at the local and personal level in each of many different manifestations of the Open Master's.

Each of these manifestations— such as local groups in DC, The Netherlands, and San Francisco, and Axle's Fellowship— did not emerge because we asked them to, or because we put out a compelling campaign inviting people to do something specific, but because creative people took inspiration and refuge in the vision that the Open Master's represented to them, told us what they want to do, and then brought those visions to life.

And just like each of those manifestations, the leadership we have needed at the collective level was not born by design, but instead emerged responsively while trying to find ways to better support and connect the leaders who were stepping up all across our community by their own volition.

Local Roots, Global Shoots

It started in the winter of 2013, when Jacob Levin contacted me cold to learn more about the Open Master's and decided to drive all the way to DC from North Carolina to visit a study hall.

At that moment, though he did not know, Jacob was like rain to crops in a drought.  In my own leadership journey within the Open Master's, I had reached a low point in which I was struggling to imagine how we would ever meet the demand of all who were saying yes to this invitation.

Jacob Levin
Jacob Levin

Jacob's energy is infectious, and it was just what I needed.  He was also the first spark that led to the Builder's Circle.

To give you an idea of just what kind of person joins the Open Master's, all you need to do is listen to Jacob's story, and all of the complex dimensions and passions contained within.

Jacob is, at once, a devout and deeply contemplative Jew who is currently observing the Shmita(a sabbath year)with his girlfriend Rachel (yes, Jacob and Rachel… we know), while living on a farm in North Carolina. At the same time, Jacob is a traveling hip-hop artist who uses his music to help high-schoolers reconsider their educational paths, weaving together his gift for creating accessible prose with his mile-deep understanding of the radical educational theories of intellectuals like Ivan Illich.

Jacob describes himself as "an aspiring peasant and healer," and his "ongoing research interests include mystical pedagogy, solidarity economies, eco-spirituality, food sovereignty, deschooling, the Temple of Hip Hop, decentralizing technologies and apocalyptic political theology."

Then, soon after meeting Jacob, a chance meeting at Joshua and Cherine Gorman's house in Oakland brought my stars in alignment with another beautiful enigma of a human being: David Bronstein.

David Bronstein
David Bronstein

David is a striking presence, and not just because of his Scandinavian height or his Nordic forest of a beard.  My good friend Adam once summed him up perfectly when he said that David "has a gift to make a moment out of something that, under almost any other normal circumstance, would probably have not been a moment at all."

In our first conversation, David shared that he wanted to go to grad school to be a teacher, but he couldn't find a grad school that would train him to be the kind of teacher he wanted to be. What he was saying resonated deeply with the goals of my own learning journey.

I told him about the Open Masters, and he let out a characteristic David yelp.  It has been communi-love ever since.

After meeting Jacob and David, things really started happening again in a way that felt like the summer before the first launch of the Open Master's in DC, but this time with the benefit of a year's worth of experience.

Their work called others into leadership, too. Inspired by workshops that Jacob facilitated in the Bay Area, Jesse Sleamaker, Sarah Bradley, and Sophie Silverstein stepped up to start organizing in San Francisco.

These were no lightweights, either.  Sarah is a storyteller with deep experience in strategy design for nonprofits and social enterprises.  Sophie is a trained counselor and college coach who is deeply well-read and insightful about the higher education systems into which she is helping send high schoolers.  And Jesse is a born community builder, not to mention an education entrepreneur, and a talented curriculum designer.  Many of Jesses's friends that I met this summer in San Francisco credit their friendships with each other to Jesse's now-famous potlucks.

One thing that stood out to me about this group was that our energy for the Open Master's did not know one place to call home. David was moving back and forth between DC and the Bay. Jacob was moving back and forth between North Carolina, DC, and the Bay. We wanted this community to exist, and we did not care where it lived. I recognized that these people who were stepping up to lead and organize needed a way to support each other that wasn't rooted in just one place.

So, a year ago I started hosting weekly "Cross-Pollination Calls." It started with just one call and a question, and then became a staple in our lives.

Nearly every Tuesday for the last year, we have shown up to share an hour, give or take, with Jaocb, David, Sophie, Sarah, Jesse, and me. Some others have joined in and moved on along the way, too. But, throughout, this group of six remained.

Cross-Pollination Calls
Cross-Pollination Calls

Every week over the last year, that amazing group held space in their calendar to support each other, learn together, and, most importantly, to talk about what we were building together.

Some weeks we dove deep into the weeds: helping critique plans for workshops. Other weeks, we went meta: trying to find words to better articulate the work we were doing.  We became a regular place for listening in, sharing, and helping craft the story of what we thought the Open Master's was becoming.

We also learned together.  For nearly three months in the Spring, we decided to turn our calls into a structured course on the Art of Facilitation.  We worked throughout the course on our own skills and also on producing things we wanted to build and offer to Open Masters community as facilitators, coaches, or organizers.

Most importantly we built things.  We created the first physical Open Master's learning resources, we created a 90-minute Open Master's Crash Course, and we have organized half a dozen new workshops, regular meetings in San Francisco, and two retreats.

Coming Together

By July, the group had grown quite close, and we decided we wanted to meet all together, in person, for the first time at a beautiful beach hostel in Point Reyes California.

In person, we finally recognized what was happening and gave it a name, inspired by a tradition of the Open Master's Netherlands, who held "Builder's Saturdays" each week for those who wanted to participate in organizing and strategic conversations.

Builders Retreat
Builders Retreat

Lauren Higgins, a driving force behind some of the earlier less-well-fated attempts to give our community structures for leadership, once said that, for a community like ours, leadership and the ability to make decisions should naturally be in proportion to the willingness to do the work.

In that same vein, we did not ask the Open Master's community for permission to "lead."  But we have instead directed our collective energy toward doing whatever we saw was needed, and inviting others to join us in doing the same if they are so moved.

It is not clear whether the Builder's Circle will be the ultimate solution to leadership at the collective level that the Open Master's needs— almost certainly it will not be— or whether it will be a piece of or a step in the direction of future forms of leadership for this community.

But for today, it has provided exactly the right structure for the leadership given where our community is today, and it reflects the creativity, resourcefulness, and commitment of those who have been drawn by their own will to serving our community rather than through an obligation or a paycheck.


Groups have a difficult history in the Open Master's.  We have tried to create several different containers, names and invitations for helping our members form groups of different kinds and sizes, online and offline, and around different themes or meeting times or geographies.

For example, one early attempt at arbitrarily organizing a larger group of Open Master's members into smaller "studio groups" stands out in my mind as destined to fail almost from the moment the first blog post was written about it.  Of course people in a community of self-directed learners do not like to be told with whom they should meet, and how!

But this experience has helped teach us a few important lessons that could inform the work of anyone else who wants to create other groups in the Open Masters:

(1) Deep relationships can absolutely be developed in a virtual forum.  Still there are some things that help significantly:

  • Our group was small (6).  This was a good size for every member of the group to talk in a 60-minute google hangout.
  • Our meeting time and day has never changed, and been on the calendar every week, much like church, weekly team standups, or P2PU's weekly community calls.
  • Just like P2PU's heroic host of community calls Bekka Khan, it helps to have one or more people be absolutely committed to being there, sending the invite, and sending the notes, regardless... even if no one comes one week.
  • It helps significantly if you plan to eventually meet in person, or start off that way.
  • Also, many of us made an effort to meet each other one-on-one as we traveled around, before meeting all together for the first time.  These small interactions matter just as much as the calls in building our sense of community and relationships.
  • Our timeframe was open-ended, but we set specific goals and intentionally transitioned between different phases as we went— such as between a more strategic phase, a learning phase, and finally an action phase.  It also helped for us to have cyclical breaks between each phase and season.

(2) This group was not planned of or designed from the start, but we still have done awesome things together.  Much like mentorship or dating, the relationship emerged because we met once, liked each other, and wanted to see each other again.  Rather than telling the group they were obliged to meet again, after the first, great meeting I simply asked the group if holding regular meetings would be helpful to them, if I helped ensure they stayed regular.

(3) Healthy groups that see each other this much need a balance of:

  • Action and Reflection
  • Facilitated time and un-facilitated time
  • Pie-in-the-sky and practical

(4) Giving a group boundaries ("What is expected of those who call themselves members of this group?"  "How does stepping in and stepping out work?") and an opt-in policy for all group activities helped build a very strong group even among self-directed people.

(5) Laugh a lot.

The Future

Here's what we know about the Builder's Circle today:

  • As the name implies, we are oriented toward doing the work, not just talking about what is needed.  We answer email inquiries.  We edit videos.  We take on projects that are needed, such as creating workshop templates and guides.
  • We are committed to keeping the community up-to-date about our projects and priorities, to hearing and responding to the needs and concerns of different members of the Open Master's community, and of developing and supporting community catalysts and leaders within our community at all levels.
  • We are an opt-in group of people who want to care for the needs of the whole Open Master's community from a global point of view.  You are welcome to join if you are able to take on the time and responsibilities of joining.
  • We meet weekly, every Tuesday at 9am PST / 10am MST / 12pm EST / 5pm CEST.

This Fall, the Builder's Circle's priorities are:

  1. Designing and building a new website, including a member site with public learning profiles, places to share our work, and embedded learning resources.
  2. Designing a rich offering of new member experiences to better onboard new members of our community.

We're looking forward to sharing the fruits of our labor!

If you are interested in knowing more about the Builder's Circle and possibly joining, email us at builders [at]