The Oakland Table

An Explanation

In the early 90's, Jerry Brown settled in Oakland. There, he started the We The People Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to strengthening the practice of democracy and the ability of people to shape the places where they live. Toward that end, the foundation promotes disciplined study, conversation and civic engagement--all in a spirit of openness and mutual trust.

Brown had invited an old friend, Ivan Illich (1926-2002), together with his circle of friends and long-time collaborators, to be his guests twice a year for six-week periods. They presided over a series of public lectures, seminars, reading groups and conversations where people had opportunity to rethink their own experience of place, neighborhood and city. This program, formerly called "Research by People" because of its participatory character, is now described as The Oakland Table. The change is meant to emphasize that this collaboration requires presence in an atmosphere of hospitality rather beyond mere academic inquiry. What we want to understand is how the exercise of citizenship can become possible in an age of global controls and systems management of people.

In September 2000, a group of collaborators and friends of Ivan Illich gathered around Jerry Brown's Oakland Table in order to reflect on the distinction between place and space. During the various discussions in the auditorium and library, it became clear to us that we live in a world of two heterogeneous spheres. Late 20th-century political, social and urbanistic practices are based on the latent assumptions of homogeneous space. Planning and management treat city space as a matrix that pre-dates human presence; as an empty container of architectural objects. These objects - housing units, roadways, parks, office buildings or 'zones' - are constructed as blueprints on a drawing board and incorporate the characteristics of abstract space: They lack orientation, atmosphere, closeness and traces.

A place, in contrast, arises through the mutual commitment to live where we are; it is the result of dwelling activities. Even though it is possible to identify characteristics that distinguish all places from space, each place is unique. For this reason we refuse to speak of place in the singular, but rather of a place or of places in the plural. What we call "The Oakland Table" cannot exist in space. Jerry Brown's hospitality, and the different guests from Oakland and its environs, contributing their experiences and standpoints, created a unique atmosphere and a sense of being in a place.

The second Oakland Table was April 21st through May 26th, 2001. At that time we focused on the erosion of the most fundamental arts of being in a place: We explored the history of hospitality. We looked at the recent loss of hospitality for the old, the ill, and the crippled; for children, and for those who waste away or who die. And we examined how the institutional provision of services undermines the sense for hospitality in the home, and facilitates ways of inhabiting spaces unfit for neighborly aid, family care, common mourning and mutual commitment.

Since the middle of the 20th century, experts make their living by convincing people that, due to so-called progress they are no longer capable of taking care of each other in any of the many ways different cultures have been cultivating for centuries. New professionals such as educators, obstetricians, vocational advisors, marriage psychologists and dietary counselors succeeded in transforming citizens into needy clients who become dependent on professional services in ever more areas of their life. For those activities that once took place at home, that once created a place, "needy" clients are now moved to institutions where they consume professional inputs to satisfy their needs. Homes and neighborhoods desiccate; they are transformed into hygienic garaging units where no one is born, is sick or dies anymore.

The critique of professional behavior, status, power and latent symbolic functions originated in the sixties and is still beholden to the expert model of the professional, dominant after WWII. "Science says..." or "Doctor knows best!" are catch-phrases to sketch this figure of the expert. But we argue that the age of this kind of professional dominance is coming to an end.

Nowadays it is counselors and facilitators who burgeon much, as experts and professionals a generation ago. They induce their clients to make crucial decisions that were of strictly professional competence in the past. These facilitators see themselves as defenders of the freedom and autonomy of their clients. They consider it their task to persuade patients, students, couples, investors and job-seekers not to get managed but to manage themselves. They claim that their services are needed to "empower" their clients to make so-called autonomous decisions between fixed alternatives.

Medical counselors coax their patient to take responsibility for their own optimal functioning. They provide quickie courses in interpreting test results, such as blood pressure, cholesterol level and antibody counts; in evaluating the corresponding risks; and, finally, in choosing between different courses of actions according to a risk profile. The action might be to take pharmacological treatment, lose weight, undergo an operation or move to a healthier neighborhood. In an analogous way, career counselors bring people to view themselves as a human resource that must be efficiently managed; hygienic counselors make them grasp themselves as immune systems, and educational counselors to select their curriculum according to the ability profile resulting from a set of tests.

At the Table talks in April and May 2001, we took a critical look at the beliefs evoked when facilitators introduce statistical and technogenic critters into the deliberation of people. We want to questioned the assumption that the art of dwelling and mutual commitment can be mediated through counselors and facilitators. Facilitating self-management is an attempt to put a human mask on space. Instead of liberating us from the assumptions and needs experts formerly imputed to us, it generates the illusion that we can regain the art of dwelling and being hospitable if we would only learn to supervise ourselves in the way statistical and technogenic critters demand.

Oakland Table Links


The Loudspeaker in the Classroom, in the Belfry & the Minaret by Ivan Illich
Democracy and Place by Douglas Lummis
Tools for Community Builders by John F.C. Turner
The City in the 20th Century by Joseph Rykwert
Space versus Place: the Loss and Recovery of Proportionality in Architecture by Terrance Galvin
People Regenerating Places by Gustavo Esteva
The History of Hospitality by Ivan Illich
The Destruction of Hospitality by Decision-making by Silja Samerski
The Critique of Professionalism and Services by Sajay Samuels & Jean Robert
The Practice of Hospitality in a Norwegian Village by Matthias Rieger & Nils Christie
The History of Hospitality in the East by Samar Farage


The War on Subsistence: The Thought of lllich by David Cayley
Medieval Philosophical Latin by Lee Hoinacki
Politics from the Ground Up by Jerry Brown
Political Place of Friendship Among Women by Raffaella Lamberti
The Experience of Place by Lee Hoinacki
The Satellite View: Earth and Soil as a Globe by Andrew Stancioff
Historical Conceptions of Place by Jean Robert
Views of the Majority on Language Policy in Multilingual Settings by Antje Menk
Where does the Turing Test Take Place? On the Space that Begets "Intelligent Artifices" by Kostas Hatzikiriakou
Prologue to Proportionality in Architecture by Terrance Galvin
The Office Landscape: Examining the Natural Ecology of the Cubicle Dweller by William Braham
Building Communities from the Inside Out by John McKnight

Speaker Biographies

Ivan Illich
David Cayley
Lee Hoinacki
Douglas Lummis
Silja Samerski
Jerry Brown
Rafaella Lamberti
Andrew Stancioff
John F.C. Turner
Sajay Samuels
Jean Robert
Antje Menk
Joseph Rykwert
Kostas Hatzikiriakou
Matthias Rieger
Terrance Galvin
William Braham
John McKnight
Gustavo Esteva
Samar Farage