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- Serving vs. being
- Communities on the move
- Beyond skate parks – transforming communities with teens
- Taking a break, enjoying community
- Do social services support or erode society?
- The power of language
- Breathing Life In by Stepping Away
- Modelling community
- Wild in the city
- Libraries leading community
Category Archives: community learning
This week, we are very lucky to read a guest post by Alice Hutton. Alice is dedicated to building healthy communities in both her personal and professional lives. During the twenty years that I have known her, she has never ceased to be creative and innovative in constantly seeking ways to build community. She is currently a community health planner and consultant in Ottawa, Ontario.
Parks often have an untapped potential for creating community, learning, improving the health of a population and making our urban spaces more vibrant and engaging. But how is it possible to successfully capture and facilitate this potential? This is a challenging and oftentimes daunting task.
A couple of years ago our small neighbourhood park was scheduled to have an older wooden play structure decommissioned. The community association called some neighbours together and provided the plan for what would be replaced. The new structure was less than inspiring. It was small; it was geared only towards preschoolers. The plans made the neighbours angry. They felt that the old play structure was better than what was being suggested as a replacement. With some coordinating, a small community meeting was arranged in the park with a city staff member. Frustrations were expressed and conversations began regarding the role of the park, the play structure and what options might be available. At the time my daughter was a preschooler and I listened as several parents argued strongly for the need for monkey bars and swings. The city staff member and the community came up with a creative way to get the best structure available within the budget and maintain the features of the park that were considered assets. And the new structure did indeed have monkey bars. I was not exactly sure why monkey bars were so important, but both parents and older children maintained with conviction that they were necessary.
Now two years later and a parent of child who, after the 578th time of attempting the monkey bars, succeeded and as someone trying to understand the greater importance of parks, I think I am beginning to have an appreciation of why monkey bars are important – both figuratively and literally – in the creation of public spaces. To successfully master the monkey bars takes practice, lots of it. In the process of watching a child learn to swing their body from bar to bar, it becomes obvious that mastery only comes with many failed attempts. However, the child optimistically maintains a goal of reaching across the chasm by watching other children; learning how to move their bodies differently; taking chances, and sometimes painfully failing with a thump on the ground.
I believe that many of the parks I consider successful and uniquely vibrant have achieved their success, due to the persistence of optimistic visions of community members and doggedness to continue striving for vibrancy even through set-backs, just as a child does with the monkey bars. One of the parks I find most inspiring is Dufferin Park in Toronto. It is a space where as soon as you enter the park and start to walk through it you realize that it is pushing the boundaries of what a typical urban park can be. A group committed to the park has built brick ovens, where pizzas can be baked and community meals prepared. A cob (mud and straw) outdoor kitchen area has also been constructed in a design that imaginative and brings to mind mystical homes of fairies or hobbits. The park is also committed to permitting open fires through a series of maintained fire pits. When you move to the playground corner, the typical playground structure is fenced off by a wooden rail fence that welcomes sitting and is adjacent to a huge sandpit with water for children to play endlessly digging and creating. The success of the park and unique activities that occur there are primarily through the efforts of an organization called “Friends of Dufferin Park”. They have built their success through on-going commitment and creatively figuring out new ways to integrate ideas and initiatives into the park. However, it has not always been easy and there have been many challenges along the way, including recent difficulties in the area of job sharing with city staff.
This dedication to making spaces vibrant is not an easy thing to achieve and although government structures and processes at times might make these endeavours difficult to succeed, other government agencies and organizations are trying to gain a better grasp of how public spaces can work. Dufferin Park has spurred the creation of Centre For Local Research into Public Space (CELOS) with a specific focus on public spaces within Toronto. Meanwhile the Ontario provincial government is supporting the exploration of how parks and public places can help residents be healthier and happier in partnership with 8-80 Cities and internationally organizations such as the Project for Public Spaces has been working on this very topic since the 1970’s
With all this energy and commitment why is making successful public spaces so difficult? And why is there not a “Dufferin Park” in every city? I think the answer comes back to the monkey bars: each park is like a child and the community that supports a park has to learn on their own (but by watching others) how to navigate the coordination, engagement of neighbours, community members, government and businesses and continue to dream of potential even if there are setbacks along the way. And most importantly, they must listen. Listen to those who use, used or hope to use the park and what they consider important, because at the time something like monkey bars, or a brick oven might not seem all that important or practical but those who may have some experience and some foresight, might know the value of an element you consider insignificant.
Around the world, there are thousands of literacy initiatives organized by governments, libraries, non-profits and for profits – many notable and successful. However, this week I pose the question: to what extent is literacy the responsibility of us, as everyday citizens in our communities?
Here are five ways that citizens are stepping up in their communities to share literacy…
1. Boys, Literacy and Role Models
As the parent of a two-year old boy, I am becoming increasingly aware of the issues surrounding boys and literacy. This is coupled with my seven-year old daughter’s question a few months ago: “Mommy, why do only the moms volunteer in my classroom?” While I know that there are many wonderful dads homeschooling or volunteering their time in educational programs, her question struck me as important and perhaps linked to issues of learning and literacy. Research studies support this idea, such as this guide from the Ontario Ministry of Education linking the importance of male role models to improvements in boys’ literacy skills. If you want to learn more about these issues, or take action on them, Beth Hering offers a great practical guide to how men can volunteer in elementary schools. The website Guys Read also provides fantastic inspiration for starting your own ‘Guys Read Field Office’.
2. Little Free Libraries (LFL)
This is an ingeniously simple idea: build an outdoor structure that looks like a bird house but acts like a library. Visitors can take a book or leave a book (or both). This not only provides resources for literacy, but also allows people from the same neighbourhood or workplace to be exposed to one another’s interests, boosting literacy and a sense of community at the same time. The LFL website is filled with lots of great resources, both inspirational and practical. There is also an interesting article on the phenomenon on the Abundant Community blog.
3. Street Libraries
Similar to the Little Free Libraries, these libraries are run by volunteers and bring books to the people living on the street. For example, Laura Moulton has created a library in a bike trailer in Portland. Twice a week she rides her mobile lending library around downtown. You can read more about her experiences here and at her blog. In Australia, a similar project has taken root called the Footpath Library. The impact of these street libraries on both literacy and community is summed up by one of the Footpath Libraries’ regulars: ‘For those of us living in crappy little rooms, on the streets, isolated in public housing flats or in cars, it’s the fact that there’s other people around to talk and gossip with, and to be treated with a bit of dignity. They’re big things. And then at the end of the night, to go back to wherever you’re sleeping and have something to read; to forget about your worries before drifting off to sleep is wonderful.” A similar project is the Albany Bulb Library – a library built by and for homeless people.
4. Literacy in the Environment (LITE)
Retired Vancouver educator Vi Hughes and city planner Frances Warner have made it their goal to increase literacy among children by placing words in public spaces at a level at which children can see them. Examples include printing “…the words “up” and “down” on the stairs at recreation centres, write “slide” and “swing” on playground equipment… erect a sign with a simple poem and bright pictures at eye level for children … or put numbers on the floor for counting.” The idea is catching on among city planners and non-profits seeking to promote healthy communities.
5. Rock the Drop
Each year, Teengirlz ask people to support teen literacy in their communities by simply leaving books lying around for others to pick up. A simple way to share books with one another.
The more I look, the more examples I find of great grassroots projects that connect community and literacy: the story of the Occupy Wall Street People’s Library, which is still evolving; or the library in a locker, run by a high school student who wanted to make banned books available to her fellow students. Do you have an example from your experience?
Please click on photos to hyperlink to their authors.
“Physical space is more decisive in creating community than we realize…Community is built when we sit in circles…Every room we occupy serves as a metaphor for the larger community that we want to create…If the future we desire does not exist in this room, today, then it will never occur tomorrow…’change the room, change the culture’” (Block, P. Community: The Structure of Belonging, 151-152).
The Circle: Why Use It?
I am a big fan of the circle as a layout for meetings. This is mainly because I see this structure as a way of not necessarily meeting, but instead promoting conversation, collaboration and engagement. The circle provides a sense of belonging and community in the setting in which it is used.
The Circle: When to use it?
To be honest, I have rarely encountered a meeting situation where the circle has not been justifiable. However, circles work best when the group is small or has already had an opportunity to get to know one another. This is particularly true if some people in the room are familiar with each other, while others are meeting for the first time. Robert Chambers argues that this situation may lead some people to feel intimidated, although this can often be resolved by ensuring that some time is allowed for smaller circles and groups to mix before and after the larger meeting. An approach such as the “world café” can be very useful in this context.
Also, circles are not the only key to a healthy community. While the circle contributes to an engaged, participatory and inclusive culture, don’t forget that other factors such as facilitation and meeting organization, communication practice, organizational structure and attitudes towards change, competition and goals are also part of the picture. See my earlier posts, “Sustainable communities are dynamic communities” for more about this.
The How of the Circle: Addressing Common Pitfalls
I have been to many meetings that have attempted a circular formation, but unfortunately end up looking more like the outline of an octopus. While the imperfection of a squiggly, squished, uneven circle may seem trivial, it is in fact crucial to the success of a community. How we behave in formal or semi-formal settings often reflects, and inversely sets to the tone for, how we interact on a broader basis. Circles promote meetings and community cultures that are inclusive, engaged and productive.
With this in mind, I’ve created a list of six things to watch out for when meeting in a circle.
This is where perfectionist design-freaks really help us out. A circle should be just that – circular, with no lumps, no bumps, or protrusions. An oval is not a circle. A rectangular board room table is not a circle. A circle has smooth, even sides. This means that everyone is brought into the group in the same way.
Similarly, the height of the furniture (and if you are getting really picky, the type of furniture) should be the same. I have been in many meetings where the narrow, ‘taller’ chairs are occupied by people who sit upright and seem more engaged in the meeting process. On the other hand, those sitting on a low couch are able to spread out their belongings (iPod, lunch, laptop, notes), slouch down and settle in. The ‘camp-like’ feeling of the couch seems to give these people license to tune out of the meeting. Alternatively, they may get so comfortable that they are unaware of how much or little they are participating.
3. Sight lines
Circles are particularly wonderful in that they provide us with an opportunity to look every one of our fellow community members in the eye, to speak directly to one another, and to feel like we are part of a group. However, there are times when a visual aid is needed. The flip chart or screen is brought out. Inevitably, the people sitting beside the screen are either cranking their necks around to see what is going on or are quietly hiding behind the screen, catching up on their email. If this is the case, try what Chambers calls a ‘clam shell’ formation (p. 92). This provides sight lines for everyone to see each other and the flip chart or screen. It also has the advantage of providing freedom of movement – people can come and go from the circle more easily than if it were completely closed. When people feel free, they are often more ready to participate because the terms of engagement are in their control. On a related note, be mindful of how long people’s attention is being focused on the visual aid – is the purpose of the meeting to build collaboration and human contact or to have everyone focus on the screen?
4. Lack of space
This is a common issue when attempting to create a circular meeting environment. In attempting to fit lots of people into a limited space, one ends up with an oval or a squiggle, with some people sitting outside of the circle, some cross legged on the floor, and some people leaving the meeting altogether because there is clearly no room for them to be included. There are a few approaches to dealing with this. One is to try what Chambers calls a ‘double circle’ (p. 93). If a double circle won’t work, try for a triple circle. You might want to couple the double or triple circle with break-out sessions that allow for smaller groups of circles to meet. Another solution is to find another room – or if circumstances permit, go outside.
5. Hidden corners
Sometimes, there are people in meetings who hope to go unnoticed. Either they feel self-conscious, intimidated, worried about arriving late for the meeting, or are trying to multitask on an electronic device while everyone else is engaged in conversation. Often these people can be found in ‘hidden corners’. Of course, circles by definition have no corners. So what is a hidden corner? Here are some to watch out for: a circle that is a squiggle and hence, includes parts that look like ‘corners’; visual aids that are blocking the view of some participants; not making the circle big enough and late comers end up standing or sitting on the side lines; tasks that seemingly need to be constantly attended to and allow someone to slip away from the circle (fetching sticky notes, making coffee, etc.); and, finally, uneven seats that allow people to literally slouch into their own worlds. Of course, beyond the physical space, it is the role of the facilitator(s) to ensure that there is space for everyone, both physically and in terms of participation. It is the responsibility of everyone to create an environment where no one feels like they want to be in a hidden corner.
So, what are your thoughts on circles? Anyone have a photo or drawing of their meeting room that they are willing to share? Thoughts on the physical structure of meetings? Perhaps your image would inspire us to reorganize our spaces, or perhaps we could offer some feedback on how you might go about re-arranging your physical space so that it is more in line with the social space that you hope to create.
My last post focused on reaching across borders on a global scale. I now turn to look at another set of barriers that exist in many communities worldwide – those between schools and their broader communities.
Conversations abound about how schools and universities can create communities within their institutions. However, these learning institutions are also often central to their local communities, and thus have a role that extends beyond serving their ‘internal’ constituents. How can schools and universities push down the barriers that may exist between themselves, local citizens and potential civic partners?
Here are three ways in which learning institutions are taking leadership in reaching beyond their own borders to create community:
1. The Community Schools approach
Community schools seem to be enjoying a renewed popularity in many parts of the world. In broad terms, this approach advocates for schools that act as both centres for formal schooling, as well as places where meaningful connections are made between people in the broader community. Doors remain open ‘after hours’ and many community services may be located within the same building.
While each local context varies, there is a wealth of resources that discuss defining, starting, and sustaining such an initiative. The Coalition for Community Schools provides a list of such resources and the Federation for Community Schools provides a guide for starting a community school. Those on the west coast of Canada may wish to check out the British Columbia Neighbourhood Learning Centre initiative. The Council of Europe has also published on school-community-university partnerships.
Of course, to many people from smaller towns, hamlets and villages, the community schools concept is just common sense. Early settlers in rural North America would build school houses as a community, for the benefit of the entire community. In reciting the history of her town in Wisconsin, Montgomery explains that the building of the Evansville schoolhouse in 1840 “was in itself a community event. …Each family was asked to bring timber that was already hewn and ‘good solid oak shingles’ for the roof. …The new school was intended for community use. The building served as a town hall, singing school, writing school, public hall for community events, and a church.” (A few examples from Canada’s early days can also be found here). As is often the case with great ideas, it seems that the ‘new’ idea of community schools actually has a long history behind it.
2. Civic partnerships
Many schools, universities and colleges have taken leadership in their communities by engaging in specific civic partnerships. This can be more manageable than a more generalized community school approach. It may also help to service a particular need identified by a broader community. Here are a few examples:
In 2003, the City of San Jose and San Jose State University created a joint library for all to enjoy. The result has increased access to information resources for the public. In addition, the collaboration has also created a new gathering place in downtown San Jose. A comprehensive overview of this project is provided in this video.
Fitchberg Arts Academy is a publicly funded middle school with a particularly innovative approach to collaboration. The school is located on the campus of Fitchberg State University, and acts as the university’s teacher education centre. Further, the school is also partnered with the Fitchberg art museum, and acts as a ‘museum school.’
Many schools embrace a multiple-use approach, particularly when it comes to arts and sport. Here is an example of just such a proposed centre in my own home area – The Emily Carr Westshore Perfoming Arts and Education Centre is a partnership between the school district, chamber of commerce, the municipality, two local colleges, and local First Nations communities.
3. Embracing the outdoors
Another approach to community collaboration is simple: look out the window, and think about starting with the green space that makes up part of your campus. This can be a relatively easy way to get started in building bridges between a formal educational institution and the broader community. There are many examples from around the world of this type of approach, but I will share just a few from my area:
The University of British Columbia operates UBC Farm that allows visitors to learn about the connections between land, food and community.
The University of Victoria also maintains public gardens, and even provides a downloadable guide for anyone wishing to visit.
With a 550-acre campus that includes an old growth forest and a bird sanctuary, anyone can freely explore the grounds of Royal Roads University. A highlight of the year is the Royal Roads Mother’s Day Paint-In – a free event that allows artists and residents to come together on this beautiful campus, and encourages the local community to visit the campus.
Lester B. Pearson United World College also maintains well-used public walking trails in an old growth forest. In addition, the College has taken an innovative approach to sharing Race Rocks, a small group of islands – with a lighthouse – that they maintain just off shore. Instead of encouraging visitors to come to the island, which would potentially disturb fragile ecosystems, the College has been committed to maintaining live webcams that provides the public with remote control viewing of the island and surrounding area.
As with many other places, the public school grounds in my local area are often populated with sports teams ‘after hours’. For those hoping to open up their grounds, but not sure where to start, Planning for Healthy Places has a very useful online toolkit entitled Opening School Grounds to the Community After Hours.
And in your community…?
These examples are, by no means, the limit of possible collaborations between educational institutions and their local communities. I’d love to hear from you – how have schools, colleges or universities helped the build bridges with the people and places around them?
Many of my posts up until now have focused on building community within localized communities. However, it is equally important to consider how we build community with people outside of our regular circle of connections. In a recent communitiesknow interview, John McKnight alluded to this when he described his powerful experience of living in an international house during his university undergraduate years, and again when he highlighted the importance of welcoming strangers into our lives. Peter Block, in another interview, echoed this sentiment in stating, “living in another community is also priceless. It opens us to the stranger, which we need to wake up again.”
Reaching either within or outside of our own communities to ‘welcome strangers’ is often rewarding, but not always easy. However, even in the most challenging situations, one can find inspiring examples of building connections. Take, for example, the contentious divide between Israelis and Palestinians. Part of what is frustrating about this particular social, political and geographic division is that that the media tend to highlight divisions and conflict between Israeli and Palestinian communities. However, some of the most impressive stories of positive community building come from this same region. Here are four examples that have inspired me:
1. I had the pleasure of acting as a houseparent to Mujahid Sarsur for two years. However, as is so often the case in education, Mujahid provided me with more education and insight through his thoughtful leadership than I could ever share with him. This was augmented by his request to share a room with an Israeli student. It was no surprise, then, that since graduation from Lester B. Pearson United World College, he has continued to lead in the area of community building. In 2009, he invited his former Israeli classmate, serving in the Israeli army upon graduation, to visit him in Palestine. Their visit was made into an inspiring documentary film Breath of Peace, by their fellow Pearson alumnus, Wilmer Chavarria. Subsequent to this visit, Sarsur went on to start the Bard Palestinian Youth Initiative (BPYI). This project has dual aims: it hopes to build a strong society in Mas’ha West Bank, but it also actively promotes cultural community exchange. BPYI is facilitating a sister-city relationship between Mas’ha and Red Hook, New York – a relationship that hopes to forge greater cultural understanding between Palestinians and Americans. The BPYI is attempting to accomplish the same goal inside Palestine, most notably by organizing the first Palestinian educational group to visit Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. Those interested in other exchanges between Israeli and Arab youth, should check out Sedaka Reut and the United World College short courses.
2. This summer, a group of Israeli women defied the social and political borders that divide them from their Palestinian neighbors. Seven times, Israeli and Palestinian women worked in partnership to sneak Palestinian women into Israel to relax on the beach and enjoy a swim together. While some of the trips have been more successful than others in terms of being able to let go and enjoy the moment, the most recently reported visit ended with a shared meal and dancing at the home of an Israeli host. While the efforts needed to reach across these borders are significant, simple activities such as swimming on a beach, eating and dancing are all powerful ways of reaching across borders to build community. More is likely learned in these moments than in any meeting in a political office.
3. In recognition of the importance of educators as community builders, Seeds for Peace runs two cross-border workshops per year that bring together Palestinian and Israeli educators. Seeds of Peace also run international Middle East, South Asian, and American youth camps that bring together and empower youth from regions of conflict. The organization follows up their gatherings by engaging alumni in a number of activities, including the publication of the Olive Branch – a magazine that helps individuals continue to share their experiences and thoughts. Seeds of Peace offers teacher’s guides to educators for free.
4. Julia Bacha argues that the media spends too much energy on the conflict in the Israel and Palestinian region, and not enough time reporting on the peaceful actions that citizens undertake to break down borders. Bacha dedicated eight years of her life to learning about these efforts to resist peacefully, and created a film about the experience. Listen to what she learned in her TedTalks presentation. You might also want to check out All for Peace, a joint Israeli-Palestinian radio station that broadcasts in four languages.
Are you building community across borders? When are we particularly compelled to reach beyond our local communities and become global citizens? Are there borders or divisions that exist within our neighborhoods, workplaces, organizations, schools and universities that we can actively work toward tearing down? In the spirit of Bacha, can we share stories about peacefully building understanding?
Peter Block is a well-known consultant and best-selling author. Two of his recent books – Community: The structure of belonging and The Abundant Community – focus on how we participate in, and create, healthy vibrant communities.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Peter about how we understand and enact community within the framework of our lives that exist in place-based communities, taking into account the complexities of our simultaneous allegiances to multiple communities. Peter also offers a reflection on his personal experiences with community.
How do you think we can benefit from taking a break from our home communities? For example, retreating to conferences, taking part in long-term residential educational programs, or by simply choosing to live in another community for a specific period of time?
Conferences and educational intermissions are places for reflection. Place where thought is valued. Time slows down to a natural speed. Priceless, regardless of content or keynote speakers. Living in another community is also priceless. It opens us to the stranger, which we need to wake up again. It is the antidote to the dulling and life consuming effects of like-mindedness.
Your work emphasizes place-based or neighbourhood communities. Do you see a role for online communities? How can we best imagine the possibilities for online media to contribute to, or create, community?
Online is romanticized community. It offers logistical advantage. So it ranks up there with the phone call, the mail, and the automobile. It is an easy way to know where we are meeting. It does nothing to insure or support the quality of relationship that community rides on. It suffers from a lack of accountability and touch. It most often becomes the substitute for community.
What can place-based or neighourhood communities and institutional communities (e.g. schools, workplaces, etc.) learn from each other?
Every place has a story and needs to produce its own narrative. It is useful in the act of creation. What sharing does for us is give us faith. Benchmarking is built on the promise of enhanced methodology, but all transformation has to ultimately be customized.
In your experience, what is the best example you have seen of youth contributing to community building?
Children, along with music and food and art, are the ultimate connectors. We need them in the room all the time, especially teenagers. They bring energy and passion into the room, plus they are not easily fooled. The best example is Elementz, a Center for Hip Hop and Respect in Cincinnati, Ohio.
What was the most powerful experience in building community in which you were personally invested?
First, starting a business at too young an age was life changing. Risky, interdependent, all on the line, strict measures that could not be denied, hard decisions to stop what was not working and asking people you cared about to move on. Had to show up. Second was my decision to become a citizen of my city, Cincinnati. To care about it. To act as an owner. It was not so much building community, as it was to join and find my voice in it, regardless of outcomes which have been very elusive. Ultimately led to the belief that all the youth in the city are my children, all of the difficulties in the city I have a hand in sustaining. All there is in the end is faith in each other despite evidence to the contrary. We live in a period of growing fear and fundamentalism, and community is our best, and maybe only, response.
John McKnight is one of the best-known figures in community development in North America. He has conducted research on social service delivery systems, health policy, community organizations, neighborhood policy, and institutional racism. He currently directs research projects focused on asset-based neighborhood development and methods of community building by incorporating marginalized people. He is the co-author of the best-selling Building Communities from the Inside Out, which describes an approach to community building that has become a major development strategy throughout the world. More recently, he co-authored The Abundant Community, which focuses on building healthy families and communities.
I had the pleasure of interviewing John about how we understand and enact community within the framework of our lives that exist in place-based communities, taking into account the complexities of our simultaneous allegiances to multiple communities. John also offers a reflection on his personal experiences with community. Watch for an interview with Peter Block, co-author of The Abundant Community, in my next post.
Many people feel like they belong to several communities simultaneously (school, neighborhood, religious, ethnic, linguistic, and so on). Given that you place an emphasis on the importance of building relationships in neighborhoods, what are your thoughts on this?
I’m especially interested in neighborhood relationships because neighborhood is a space where most of us live our childhood. Being an adult often means that we become mobile and lose a sense of place. If we are interested in how a “village raises children,” a neighborhood and the relationships of neighbors become very important.
What can place-based or neighorhood communities and institutional communities (e.g. schools, workplaces, military units/bases, etc.) learn from each other?
We live our lives in two kinds of groups. One is groups that are held together with money – business, government and not-for-profit institutions. The other kinds are community groups that are held together by care, concern and commitment. Institutions need to learn how to support rather than command and replace community groups. The reason is that there are all kinds of functions that only community groups can perform. These are the functions that you can’t pay for. Therefore, if they don’t perform their unique functions, our institutions can only provide a counterfeit alternative, such as, service rather than care, medicine rather than health, schooling rather than wisdom, etc.
In your experience, what is the best example you have seen of youth contributing to community building?
Modern Western civilization developed a unique belief. It is the strange idea that the best way for young people to be prepared for adult citizenship is to keep young people with young people. This peculiar notion has many names – school, youth programs, youth organizations, etc. These are our ways of segregating young people by age and paying someone to raise them. As a result, our young people have very little experience in community building because they have very little contact with productive adults in productive settings. They enter adulthood largely incompetent in terms of experience with productive citizenship.
The alternative would be to structure our communities so that young people are constantly with adults who are active in their community and productive in their vocations. Unfortunately the examples are few and far between because we have committed ourselves to the idea that age segregation is a good thing. And the more of it the better. “We need more youth programs and youth workers and teachers and child psychologists.”
Much of your work emphasizes the social integration of people who come from different backgrounds. You have said that it is “our obligation to always ensure that the door is open.” How do we ensure that everyone feels equal ownership to the door, or that everyone’s door is equally open? In other words, how can we best address the inevitability of uneven power relations?
When I think about the importance of keeping the “door open,” it doesn’t seem to me to be a question about power. It is a question about hospitality. Hospitality is, classically, the welcoming of a stranger. It is a feeling that you have a relationship with people you don’t know. And, why would you have this kind of a feeling? Because, the stranger has come from over the horizon and knows about places you’ve never been, knows stories you’ve never heard, and tells you poems that light up your life. If your door is closed, you live an arid life. So, a good life depends on an open door. I suppose you could say that a good life depends upon whether you have the power to welcome people.
What was the most powerful experience in building community in which you were personally invested?
I left Ohio and went to Northwestern University in 1949. At that time eighty percent of all the students there belonged to fraternities and sororities. The goal of these Greek organizations was to “pledge” people who were like themselves. I can remember hearing a young woman in a sorority say of another woman, “She just isn’t a Pi Phi type of girl.” Their understanding of community was assurance of similarity and like-mindedness. They seemed the most boring people in the world to me and I despaired of living their way. Shortly after I arrived as a freshman, the University opened an International House, primarily for students from other countries. I had the good fortune of being admitted to that House. There, every relationship was the discovery of a person who had come from over the horizon and knew places I had never known, told me stories I had never heard, and taught me magical poems. I’m not sure I learned much in my classes, but I know that our House was the most powerful learning and community building experience of my life.
Communication is vitally important to building community. Despite this, we are often dreadfully uncreative when it comes to communicating with one another. In institutions and workplaces, meetings often prevail as the dominant form of communication. Our obsession with meetings has extended from the workplace into neighbourhoods as residents meet to create green maps, healthy community initiatives, or plan their next event.
Meetings have their place. In fact, I openly admit that I love meetings. Perhaps it is the face-to-face contact, in a world increasingly reliant on online communication. Perhaps it is because I have spent a good part of my life in communities that emphasize participatory democracy – which more often than not seems to mean meeting to create a lot of committees…that hold more meetings.
Nevertheless, meetings are limited in their usefulness. They often encourage participants to be relatively passive, often reinforce existing power structures, and are rarely physically structured in an inviting manner. In addition, meetings promote a particular way of thinking and acting. I wonder if we should try a completely different approach to conveying our thoughts, feelings and proposals. Instead of meetings filled with rules of order, noisy discussions, or ill-prepared statements, what if we took an approach that encouraged more reflection? For example, could poetry serve as a way to communicate with one-another in a more thoughtful manner? Would it force us to be more selective about what we say and therefore perhaps allow for deeper communication? Would it mean that we need to create more time for silent reflection and preparation?
In Yemen, the value of poetic communication has been recognized for centuries. Balahs, Zamils and Qasidahs are key forms of poetic political expression that have traditionally served to bring about change and influence decision-making. This is an excerpt from a Qasidah composed in 1998 asking the president of Yemen to address the inadequacy of widow’s pensions:
Where is the care for the shattered patient?
Where is the medicine or an examination for the diseases of the body?
My children number from one to ten
Behind the feral wolf, each one’s lot is drawn
[Her] daughters, family, and husband
All of them have sought a sprig of moist basil from me…yet there’s naught
My [only] aim is for a morsel of food, a satisfying life
That has honour, for the lack thereof is the stopping of breath
(Flagg Miller 2002, p. 114)
Organizations such as the World Bank and UNESCO have recognized the importance of this form of communication by funding Literacy through Poetry. This is a Yemen-based project aimed at using poetry and oral tradition to improve literacy and the ability to communicate among women.
The importance of poetry is catching on fast in the corporate world. David Whyte, a poet and Associate Fellow at Templeton College and Said Business School, focuses on how poetry and ‘thoughtful commentary’ can “foster courage and engagement” in corporate workplaces. In What Poetry Brings to Business, Clare Morgan “demonstrates that the skills necessary to talk and think about poetry can be of significant benefit to leaders and strategists, to executives who are facing infinite complexity and who are armed with finite resources in a changing world.”
In neighbourhoods, perhaps a less verbal, more open-air form of poetry is called for. Broadsided focuses on printing and posting one-page publications in coffee shops, telephone poles – even inside airplanes. Check out these simple instructions on spreading your ideas through poetry.
Whether it is in your office, neighbourhood, school, home or local constituency office, perhaps you could shake up your regular meetings with a little poetic communication. I would love to hear about anyone’s adventures in poetic communication, or other ideas about how to convey our thoughts in ways other than traditional meetings.
By embracing change and focusing on keeping our communities dynamic, sustainability often falls into place. I have developed 15 keys to creating dynamic, healthy, learning communities. My last post focused on communication keys, and the previous post on more general keys. Here are the final keys 11-15, which focus on structure:
11. Know that structure can lead to dynamism
Having spent much of the past twenty years working with non-profit organizations, I have heard a great deal about the desire to resist the creation of intentional social structures or to document one’s intentions. Often, ironically, these desires are expressed during meetings. People may see structure and documentation as a means to oppress the knowledge and skills of the many talented people who make up the learning community. However, I see structures as quite the opposite – they often act as facilitators of freedom and allow more individuals to contribute to their community. This is for two reasons, as made explicit by Jo Freeman:
- No group is truly without structure. Without any formal structure, informal structures remain in place. These informal structures often favour the hoarding of information, poor communication practice, and unequal power relations. I am not advocating for overly structured communities. Instead, I suggest that we should be conscious of the underlying structures that exist in any organisation and put measures into place to help address any inadequacies. For a practical starting point, check out Chapter 4 of Building Powerful Community Organizations.
- Groups without a clear structure often rely on informal personal networks. These networks are often segregated by race/class/ethnicity/gender /etc. Joan Meyers, of the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, provides some interesting commentary on this point based on her extensive research with One World Natural Grocery, which successfully implemented a system that helped to facilitate participatory democracy in a workplace community.
12. Allow many to lead and step away from FOMO
Ensuring that those who wish to lead have an opportunity to do so helps build dynamic and robust communities, provided that it is coupled with healthy communication practices and a clear sense of roles. This means being open to the ideas of others, being willing to take responsibility oneself, and also being willing to follow and support others. Equally, it means that not everyone needs to be involved in everything. Many ambitious people experience FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) at some point in time. Multiple, fast communication methods at our fingertips has heightened FOMO for many individuals.
13. Create time and space for reflection
The best ideas are often generated when one steps out of his or her usual pattern. Stefan Seigmeister speaks effectively to this idea in his Ted Talk, The Power of Time Off . While we do not all have the luxury of taking a year to ourselves, we can find small cracks in our days that allow us to physically and mentally step away and think. This might be in the form of physical exercise, pursuing a hobby, taking a bath or finding a quiet place to sit. Communities can facilitate reflection by actively creating or preserving green spaces. The Great Neighborhood Book provides inspiration in this regard.
14. Plan for succession
Many people have discussed succession planning in terms of formal workplace models. Succession planning allows us to help celebrate and build upon our successes. It helps to ensure that the wonderful contributions of past leaders are not lost, while also developing new leaders in our communities. In these ways, succession planning is vital to the sustainability of healthy communities. However, it is important to keep in mind that succession planning should be something that allows us to celebrate and build, not just hold onto the past. The aim is not to continue doing things the way someone else has done them, or to maintain past structures, programs, places or projects in the same manner as they have always existed. If we keep the big goals in mind and understand the importance of change, succession planning becomes a key part of creating dynamic communities.
While many of us have experienced succession planning in terms of formal roles in workplaces, it is equally relevant to our communities to think about informal roles – keep in mind, all communities have structure, including roles. Who helps take care of elderly living alone in your neighbourhood? Who makes sure coffee is made in the morning or dishes cleaned up after a lunch meeting in the office? Who take leadership in ensuring that shared green spaces are kept clean? What will happen when local business owners or farmers retire? Who else could learn into these roles?
15. Balance the ups and downs (institutional settings)
For organizations working with a board, or at least in a hierarchical structure, it seems like half the people I speak to congratulate colleagues on their ability to ‘manage up’, while the other half warn of the dangers of such an approach. The key is in balance and communication.
Everyone in a learning community has something to contribute. Keep this as the focus while also maintaining some sense of organizational structure. Otherwise nothing will get done! A good board of directors will value the insights of those they have hired. At the same time, boards are there to offer a different set of valuable perspectives and experiences.