Calais – Warehouse, Open Space principles & the right veg

calais open space 160724I have just spent 3 days in and around the Jungle in Calais, and there are two preceding blogs circulating which look at the work of the Refugee Community Kitchen and Jungle Books. These are just two parts of an intricate, fully functional, completely unexpected operation or organised chaos to bring the maximum level of life and hope to the 7000 people living in political and governmental limbo in Calais.

When not knee deep in carrots, I work quite a lot with the system developed by Harrison Owen to help to run effective meetings and events called Open Space Technology. Over 20 years it has been used to help to ensure that each person is working most effectively when they are present in a space where they are collectively tackling an important issue about which they are passionate.

I realised that, with the addition of a quick principle about veg/ingredients, the operation of the kitchen, and the whole interlocking of services and support across the whole of the Jungle, observe the basic four principles and one law which Harrison put forward. He will not be surprised by this. I was delighted to muse over it whilst chopping aubergines.

The camp is totally supported by volunteers who arrive in waves or trickles and stay for days or months depending on their own external life commitments. On any one day or shift the organisers have to get used to the principle “whoever comes are the right people” – there is no time to wish for a few more, or worry whether they will stay long enough – we just get on with the job with whoever is there. The principle, once accepted, takes so much of the pressure away from wishing it were different. It ain’t. The challenge for us all, back here in Blighty, is to make sure the right people, whoever they are, know there will always be work and a welcome for them.

Principle 2 states “whatever happens is the only thing that could” – and as the Warehouse awakes to start work in the morning with preparations, deliveries, support services and care, they need to be aware that overnight the militaire may have closed a restaurant, or stopped 700 children being fed in a safe area, or decided that no building/repair materials can get through the gate. Whatever happens, outwith the immediate control of those ready to start work, has to be accepted. There are contingency plans between the organising volunteers for some eventualities, but in the main they roll with the punches. Behind the scenes there will be political and governmental negotiation, but on the ground the work continues relentlessly.

Open Space suggests that all topics or area of work should generate action points, so that “we” get stuff done. No point wishing someone else would sort the mess out, whoever is there at the moment needs to get on and deliver whatever is possible.   “When it starts it starts” – and whilst the stew should have been on the simmering gas jets by 11am, there is a problem if the 30 bags of tomatoes are not chopped and ready, or even available on site. Then it can’t start. [Editor’s note — times and quantities are fictional…please don’t make stew with my timings or quantities…these are for illustration purposes only !]

And now I would like to add a specific principle for the kitchen, a variation on the 1st principle, “whichever veg are in the fridge are the right veg” (or variations on that theme whether the department is distributing food, or helping to clothe the 7000 people in the jungle). The chefs have to be endlessly inventive. The donations have to keep flowing. The deals with “just past their best” suppliers, and larger business distributors have to be made, and without that it won’t start, and it won’t arrive in time. By a miracle, god’s will, power of the universe, skill or luck it just about keeps arriving. But that needs us to keep sharing the news in a positive and empassioned way, and reaching out to all contacts we can.

The next and final principle which we use in facilitating an Open Space event is the one which suggests “when it’s over it’s over”. This can be very powerful. If a job takes ten minutes and we’d allowed 30 minutes, then finish it, clean up, wash the knives and chopping boards, and get on with the next task…there is always a next task. But similarly, this crisis of human limbo-land is not over. It has been going on for too long, and will continue until governments re-consider the waste of money and human life that they are causing by their failure to act together. It is not over, and so every day of the week, every week of the year, a hot meal is needed by 1700+ people in the jungle, and many more if the militaire keep up their strategies instructed from on high. Tonight I have booked my Eurostar cheap deal to get over again in October for a week because, I suspect, it will not be over. And if it is then I will have time to sightsee in Calais, and the North area of France. But I suspect I will be back in the kitchen with new friends (whoever comes) and jumping in a van to get “the right veg” from somewhere.

Although I have written two blogs in quick succession about just three days in Calais, this third blog is hoping to reach a different group of “right people”. People who might google Open Space or things like that, or read business networks. By reaching out with Calais Jungle as the heart, I am hoping to reach some new people.

There is one Law offered by Harrison Owen to encourage the best use of Open Space, and it also applies to the Jungle. It is called the Law of Mobility or the Law of Two Feet.

Even as I type this I realise the awful impotence which the word mobility rises in my gut around this situation. We can use our two feet and we are mobile. Those that we serve and support have had their mobility removed by the limbo-madness that they are in. They cannot go back to their homes which we and our governments have helped to destroy, and they cannot reach their destination because of an unhealthy distrust of “foreigners” coming to swamp Great Britain.

But we the privileged free citizens of the UK and other nations can use the law of mobility and go where we are most needed. That’s the point – we all have a part to play, and something we can do. But we may need to make a move to be most effective.   I am afraid I don’t have “treasure”, but I do have “time” which as a freelancer I can offer. So my feet took me to Calais to help…and I didn’t need much talent to drive a van or chop carrots. Others may be time-poor but a bit more cash-rich, and there a short move to your bank account, or one of the online donation portals can have an immense good effect – such as

Within the Warehouse working area the law of two feet works seamlessly – if there are too many people around the carrots, and not enough people at the washing up, then the flow of volunteers move with just the tiniest prompt to down knives and pick up dish cloth.   There is endless washing and cleaning, to ensure the best possible hygiene in the kitchen. One of the smallest jobs of the day is washing up the 150 plates and forks from the volunteer lunch – everything is like home, but scaled up to enormous numbers.

So dear colleagues who use Open Space, friends who have been to D&D over the years, and those who know me from many other lives and ways. I hope you will have a think about how you can use your time talent and treasure, and your own mobility, to help those who are stuck in limbo so close to re-starting productive and UK tax paying lives here in this country A country that they all believe to be the most welcoming and supportive for a multi-cultural workforce and community.

My final blog (which will be the 4th of 3 – with homage to Douglas Adams) will follow when Anna is ready for me to shout about a plan/event she is thinking about.

Thank you for reading and sharing these blogs



  1. My thanks to Harrison Owen for the following email following the blog: “Chris – Your blog is powerful …And for anybody…who is wondering what to do with your life… Chris has a monumental answer. Just open some space is a cramped corner of the universe… for people in pain.”

  2. Chris…. this is inspiring beyond words….. Thank you SO much for demonstrating once more how the OS Principles are Life being lived…. and thanks for “the right veg” addition too! From an OS old timer…. Romy

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