Tuesday, April 09, 2013 12:23 PM
Most of us long for greater community feeling and action, but in our hyper-individualistic culture, community can be hard to find. Here are 16 ways to build and strengthen yours.
This article originally appeared at Huffington Post.
Over the years I've watched people struggle to build community and community organizations in a culture that has become more and more hyper-individualistic. "What's in it for me?" trumps "What's happening with us?"
I've founded organizations from scratch (The International Documentary Association, aprofessional organization for documentary filmmakers) and served on the board of others. I've been a member of still more. Some have been more informal and/or countercultural (a Voluntary Simplicity Circle, a local permaculture guild, the early National Organization for Women) and some more traditional (our town's rose society). Some have survived and thrived; others have fallen away.
Most of us long for greater community feeling and action. And as we wake up to the enormity of the challenges we face in an era of degrading environmental, economic, political and social conditions, we instinctively know that unless we can come together to effectively create constructive change, we and our children may not survive.
So what does it take to build and sustain an effective community or organization? Humans have understood and used this social technology since we gathered around the campfire in the Paleolithic, but we in modern Western and westernized industrial cultures seem to have forgotten many of the basics.
For anyone planning on pulling something together effectively, I offer this simple checklist for community-building success.
1. Build a campfire. Sometimes we want to literally build a campfire to gather a crowd and sometimes we need to create another kind of clear, focused attraction that draws us into the circle.
2. Connect with nature and the seasons. Our community programs and activities can either connect us to the rest of nature or they can further separate us from the Earth and universe that make life possible. Tying whatever events we hold into what's happening seasonally to all beings (human and otherwise) is a traditionally effective way of creating community.
3. Take the time to welcome each person. Some groups have designated "greeters." Other groups take time to go around the circle welcoming and acknowledging each participant before proceeding with the event's main activity. This isn't a frill. It's basic to building community. People who feel seen and known are more likely to continue their involvement than people who remain unwelcomed and anonymous.
4. Provide food and drink. Again, so basic. Traditional societies always took hospitality seriously. Having people bring things to add to the collective feast is better than mere catering.
5. Ceremony, ritual and even a sense of spirituality or the sacred. If we've tied our event or meeting to the seasons we've already added a sacred dimension. And every culture throughout history has created its own form of ceremony and sense of occasion for various community purposes. We can get great ideas from them all. Deep in our collective human memory lie countless spring or harvest festivals, ceremonial or religious events, meals and celebrations that included a strong sense of passage, initiation and the sacredness of all life.
6. Collective problem-solving. I've found that we can't create community for community's sake. People bond into a community when they can come together to participate in solving a real-world community problem or heal a person, group or situation that demands a community solution. In our society we tend to deny our need for a community until our interdependency becomes painfully evident, and that's the teachable moment when people are fully motivated to participate! We also need some agreed-upon method of solving internal disagreements. For some groups, it's Robert's Rules of Order. For others, it's discussion and community consensus. And everyone in our society needs to learn the techniques of nonviolent communication, because we've been brought up knowing how to complete but not cooperate.
7. Storytelling. Humans are a storytelling species. This goes way back to those Paleolithic campfires. We learn best when see and hear stories told by storytellers or acted out in theater or other visual media. Literacy is a latecomer in human culture, important as it is. And rational science is later still. As our brain structure reveals, facts don't arouse us as much as stories and full-body experience do. We need all of these, of course, but too often would-be community builders make the mistake of thinking that bombarding people with facts will create change. It doesn't. Most of us now "know" the facts about global climate change -- but few are inspired to act on this knowledge.
8. Elders. In every functional tribe or culture, the elders have been valued for their storytelling. How else do we know where we've been and how things worked out in previous efforts at change? Who else can share the lived lessons of birth, life and death? Even people who can no longer participate in the hunt or the barn-raising or the harvest can provide valuable service to the community by sharing stories. Adults in high-stress industrialized culture tend to find elders' stories slow and boring, but they are a critical resource for our collective survival. We also need to beware of the "Star From Afar Syndrome" where we bring in outside professional or celebrity storytellers from some other community rather than honoring and developing our own community's storytellers who don't abandon us at the end of the evening.
9. Gifts and sharing. As we focus on creating a sharing society (as opposed to our current "gimme gimme" culture), it's nice to give small gifts (plants or flowers from our garden, seeds, passalong gifts, etc.) to those who attend our events, as a way of helping everyone feel valued and appreciated. Also it's critical to de-monetize community organizations and activities. Like their corporate counterparts, too many modern non-profits have become obsessive money-charging and money-generating machines, losing sight of their higher purpose. Expensive events and fund-raisers destroy community, creating the sense that the moneyed few are the valued guests. True community welcomes everyone, wealthy or not. The key is keeping events local, simple and created by the community for the community. "Many hands make light work." Some of the best community-building events I've ever participated in cost nothing and involved everyone bringing their own chair, outdoor blanket and food utensils, plus food to share.
10. Shopping. Yes, we're trying to recover from being mindless consumerists, but we also need to remember that humans have been bonding through meeting others in the marketplace since ancient times. This is why the sales or silent auction tables are perennially popular at many events. And again, the money is a gift to the community.
11. A little excitement. At each meeting, our local rose society holds popular raffles of donated plants, rose-themed items or useful gardening objects. Archeological evidence shows that humans have been gambling since prehistoric times and many of us seem to enjoy a little flutter to add some fun to daily life. And of course whatever money is raised goes into the common coffers, so is a "gift" to all.
12. Child care. Traditional community events were always multi-generational. If all of us are not welcome, we're reinforcing the generational segregation that is destroying modern society. Besides, children provide a critical source of untamed energy and entertainment for every gathering. A society that no longer enjoys the sound of children playing is a sick society indeed. And banning children from adults-only events deprives them of the role modeling and true education they crave. Those of us who remember being at local community events as children now realize how these gatherings formed and shaped our adult lives, even if at the time we didn't understand what was going on or were bored or distracted.
13. Transportation. In tribal or village society, this wasn't such a big problem, as people lived close together. But now, even in smaller communities there is always the question of how to get everyone to the event. Helping people travel together and providing transportation for those without cars or unable to walk is a great way of building community even before the event starts.
14. Music. Our amazing ears are portals to the soul and spirit of the human psyche. Even a simple drum can bond individuals into a coherent group. And community singing can be extraordinarily powerful medicine, as our churches and temples have known for millenia.
15. Dance and body movement. Modern society makes us sit, sit and sit. Bringing the body into action connects us the way nothing else can!
16. Beauty. Those of us focused on changing the world can often forget to appeal to humans' inherent love of beauty. We want action, not aesthetics! And then we wonder why few come to our meetings. Our eyes, like our ears, are portals to the inner life. Too often we forget that our species has been painting on rock walls since we gathered in caves. A simple flower on the table or painting on the wall brings powerful archetypal energies to bear as we gather in community. And a meeting held outdoors brings all of nature's magnificence to our senses, adding extraordinary power to our community activities.
The bottom line? Any community gathering, organization or event that engages body, mind, soul and spirit has a far greater chance of surviving and thriving.
Linda Buzzell is a psychotherapist, ecotherapist, and co-editor of "Ecotherapy: Healing With Nature in Mind."
Image by Quinn Dombrowski, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, May 26, 2011 1:32 PM
The next time you visit your local library to check out a book, perhaps you’ll leave with some basil, butterfly weed, or sweet pea seeds in your pocket. Seed-lending programs, operating out of public libraries, are taking root.
The concept is simple: Seed libraries allow patrons to “check out” seeds and grow them on their own land. In exchange, the gardener or farmer is asked to donate seeds to the library at harvest time. These will be used by fellow library-goers in the next growing season. “Unlike a seed bank, the libraries are living collections that change every time a gardener returns seeds,” Organic Gardening writes.
The Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library, housed in the Richmond Public Library near Berkeley, California, celebrated its one-year anniversary this month and has nearly 400 users. Carefully cataloged by type—herb, flower, or edible—and degree of growing difficulty, the seeds are a small but powerful force in bringing fresh food to all members the community, says Mother Earth News. The free program “provid[es] access to fresh, healthy food in communities where it may not otherwise be available and teach[es] everyone how much fun growing your own food can be.”
In addition to the seed-lending libraries spreading up and down California—at Alameda Free Library and San Francisco Public Library’s Potrero branch, for example—they are beginning to sprout elsewhere, such as at the Fairfield Public Library’s Fairfield Woods branch in Connecticut, reports American Libraries.
To start a seed-lending library in your area, visit Richmond Grows for tips and resources.
Source: Organic Gardening(article not available online), Mother Earth News, American Libraries, Richmond Grows
Image by mathteacher..., licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, August 13, 2010 5:09 PM
One of the coolest programs of Minnesota’s Land Stewardship Project is its Farm Beginnings program, a “farmer-led educational training and support program who want to evaluate and plan their farm enterprise.” Check it out in action: There’s a great profile on the organization’s website of two Farm Beginnings participants and their fledgling fruit farm, originally published in the most recent issue of the Land Stewardship Letter. It’s compelling reading for any urban-bound individual who has ever dreamt of someday heading back to the land.
Source: Land Stewardship Letter
Image by Nicholas_T, license under Creative Commons.
Monday, June 28, 2010 5:19 PM
This is very cool: Since the fall 2009 semester, Bunker Hill Community College in Boston has been offering midnight classes, according to Spare Change News. An adjunct professor came up with the idea after she noticed students falling asleep in class. The students explained that their work schedules made staying awake for daytime classes difficult—despite wanting to be in school. And lo, midnight classes were born. This spring the college offered three courses (Principles of Psychology, College Writing II, and Human Growth and Development), and there are plans to expand course offerings further this fall.
Source: Spare Change News
Image by quinn.anya, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, June 18, 2010 12:38 PM
Giddy biking and public policy enthusiasts crowded into Minneapolis’ Uptown Theater last night, grabbing pints of Surly brew (in a corn-based compostable cup, no less), and settling in for a panel discussion on “Cities, Bicycles, and the Future of Getting Around,” part of a popular “Policy and a Pint” series sponsored by local public radio station 89.3 The Current.
Headlining panelist David Byrne, avid cycling advocate and former Talking Heads frontman, was no doubt causing some of the buzz—I mean, he’s David Byrne, for heaven’s sake; if you haven’t seen Stop Making Sense, stop reading this blog and go. Go now. Do it. But to be fair, Twin Cities cyclists have also had a lot of other things to get excited about lately: Bicycling named Minneapolis the #1 U.S. city for biking, and that was even before last week, when the initial phase of Nice Ride Minnesota, a spectacular public bike sharing program, got off the ground.
Nice Ride co-sponsored the panel, which also included Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, author Jay Walljasper, and Steve Clark, manager of Transit for Livable Communities’ Walking and Bicycling Program. (The men rode cheerful green bike-share cruisers down the aisles of the theater.) So, you might ask yourself, what is the future of cities, bicycles, and getting around?
David Byrne delivered a photo-based powerpoint, beginning with slides of suburbs shot from above and termite high-rises (take note: the insects have a better grip on passive heating than we humans), and transitioned into the alienating, futuristic cities imagined by folks like Hugh Ferriss, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Buckminster Fuller. He also showed also a vintage image featuring a super-mega-highway from General Motors—which at the time, Byrne stressed, was the biggest company on “the whole damn planet.” Its vision carried weight.
The evidence of that weight is all over. Byrne began showing photographs from his travels: shots of downtown highway underpasses, barren stretches of road, vacant parking lots, and dead strip malls. “The city is a parking lot,” he said, “and when it’s not a parking lot, it’s a parking structure. This is dead. This is dead life.”
Not everywhere, however. The mood shifted as Byrne began flipping through photographs shot both stateside and abroad, rattling off some of the more promising places he’s been and things he’s seen. New bike parking facilities and protected bike lanes—one in New York that he says has changed his rides for the better. A sensor that clips onto spokes that could be used by employers to track and give credit to employees who commute on two wheels. European town squares, where cars are not prohibited but are so obviously inefficient choices, they’re hardly ever seen. And a preteen band playing—not well—on a street corner. He stopped, he said, and listened for a minute, wondering in effect: Is this avant guard? Is their dad hiding just around the corner? But the point is he stopped, a moment he never would have had if he had been traveling by car.
Mayor R.T. Rybak followed Byrne’s presentation, raising whoops from the audience by declaring that the city would work to keep the laurel that Bicycling gave it. “Portland is just a street in the city of Minneapolis,” he quipped, and then launched into a rapid-fire speech about how Nice Ride came to fruition—and what the city has planned next, including 35 new miles of bike trail.
Up next, writer Jay Walljasper (a former Utne Reader editor, as it were) posited his vision for the future of cycling: “Incredibly sexy and utterly normal.” To understand the sexy part, he proposed, think back to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—that scene where Butch (Paul Newman) gives Etta (Katharine Ross) a ride on his handlebars. (Walljasper imagined thousands of Americans, sitting on their couches, wondering: Now where was that bike again? The garage?)But in all seriousness, he said, biking is sexy: “It’s elegant, fun, and will make [you] feel a lot better.” The utterly normal part became evident in a gauntlet thrown down to the people who are already biking nuts—to break down the clubbishness and exclusiveness, and make sure that everyone can access the “environmental, social, and spiritual” reasons to ride.
In closing, Steve Clark from Transit for Livable Communities, a nonprofit working to reform Minnesota’s transportation system, took the stage. “I do believe our world is changing,” he said, “And it’s hanging so fast that we can’t [appreciate] what’s happening.” His prediction: 2010 will be recorded in history as the year our love affair with the automobile came to an end.
Clark was a rousing, earnest speaker, pointing out what he sees as the cracks in the foundation of car culture: both oil-related Gulf crises (BP’s spill and Iraq), rising rates of asthma, obesity and health issues, and air pollution, to name a few. Federal financial support his organization has received is in a sense groundbreaking, he says, representing government recognition that biking and walking are real parts of a solution to national transportation needs.
Transit for Livable Communities, for example, through its Bike/Walk Twin Cities program, was able to financially support Minnesota Nice Ride, the largest bike-share program in the United States. Clark packaged his take on why bicycles are the future into a tidy and timely acronym:
Nimble. Bikes are a quick and nimble way to get around.
Inviting. Anyone can ride one, and you can do it in regular clothes.
Convivial. On a bike, you interact with people. In a car, you don’t.
Efficient. Biking is so efficient, it even beats out walking.
And you know? That really does cover it. Biking is just nice. In every way. Oh, and by the way—here’s a trailer for Stop Making Sense:
Image (top) by tsuacctnt, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, April 30, 2010 2:56 PM
Our sister publication, Natural Home, just named “America’s Top Ten Best Green-Built Neighborhoods” in its May-June issue. The list contains a lot of interesting places, like Kalahari Harlem, for example, where half of the 250 homes were sold as affordable housing. Or the impressively scaled Issaquah Highlands community in Washington state—with more than 3,000 green-certified homes. Very cool stuff, all around.
Source: Natural Home
Wednesday, April 21, 2010 3:36 PM
Public art is one of those tricky things: I tend to still appreciate it, even when it doesn’t hit my aesthetic sweet spot—but I also understand why it’s often contentious. When it comes to art, not everyone can agree on everything, right?
Maybe that’s the wrong attitude: Jon Pounds, executive director of the Chicago Public Art Group, has a nice short soapbox piece in Public Art Review focused on increasing community participation—and even seeking consensus—in public art projects. He argues that “the public art industry” is too much like science: something we all study and engage with as youngsters, but then grow up and largely leave to professionals, with their special lexicons, high-tech equipment, and formal procedures.
What public art should be more like is cooking, Pounds writes: Something “we seldom study . . . as part of early education, but [that] we all appreciate [as] something we need every day, that we enjoy for its sensuality and meaning, that is richly varied in its forms, and that allows nearly everyone to feel the pride of accomplishment in one’s ‘work.’ ”
Here’s how he’d accomplish that ethos with respect to public art:
I believe that each of us—that is, every human being—is more creative than we are typically asked to be in the course of our lives. Ordinary people have skills, capacities, knowledge, and wisdom that they are not asked to bring forward. Just as eating tasty food encourages us to cook, public art should encourage all of us to cook, public art should encourage all of us to be participants in planning and creating public spaces, expressing collective values, and playing with the unknown.
I believe public artists and public art administrators should seek much more public engagement through their shared creative processes. A messy, occasionally discordant process can also result in an extraordinary aesthetic solution. Those solutions arise because ordinary people can know aspects of a place better than anyone else. An inclusive democratic process based on consensus (rather than simply voting) is ultimately good for us all when ordinary people are asked to example social and philosophical contradictions and to visualize aesthetic interruptions of public space.
Source: Public Art Review (article not available online)
Monday, April 05, 2010 2:39 PM
Cohousing communities have been around for decades, but until recently not in New York City, reports Next American City. Brooklyn Cohousing intends to change that: Founded in 2007, the now 20-household group is in the thick of developing cooperative apartment living in the NYC borough—and providing a cool opportunity to observe the nuts and bolts of a contemporary cohousing start-up.
Take decision making, for example. As Anna Wiener writes in Next American City:
Members of Brooklyn Cohousing make most of their decisions using a nuanced consensus process. There is no designated leader or manager, though members alternate meeting moderation duties. In an attempt to expedite meetings and dodge digressions and interruptions, members guide the conversation with color-coded cards, raising yellow to ask a question, green to answer, blue to share a feeling or opinion and so on. In the planning states, this process has been used to make decisions about everything from finances to design details. As one member wryly observed at a recent meeting, the process leads to a “better quality of decisions, not necessarily a high quantity of decisions.”
Members of the group acknowledge that the decision-making process, however painstaking, has been integral to the formation of a tight-knit community. “I think a big thing that’s compelling interest in this is actually a breakdown of some of the more traditional types of community,” [founder Alex] Marshall says. “Forty to 50 years ago . . . . it was much more common to have various close-knit neighborhoods. People often have to create consciously what used to happen more unconsciously.”
Read more about Brooklyn Cohousing’s vision and ambitions on the organization’s website, including the challenges of financing cohousing in this economy.
Source: Next American City (excerpt only)
Image by 561design, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, February 10, 2010 4:05 PM
Writing for Toronto’s Spacing, Joe Clement shares a genuine community-building super story: the organic transformation of the city street he grew up on into a robust gardening district. Clement himself got the ball rolling. As a young gardener who quickly “outgrew” his parents’ yard, he began asking neighbors if he could help them convert their front lawns into cultivated spaces. What happened over the next 20 years ought to inspire novice and pro gardeners alike—anyone planning on putting seeds in soil this spring:
Slowly but surely more and more neighbors began relinquishing their prized turfs in exchange for a garden, and that’s when something very interesting began to happen. The neighbors began interacting with each other beyond the perfunctory hello and goodbye while coming and leaving. The gardens were acting as social facilitators, bringing people out of their homes to tend to their yards and discuss gardening tips and strategies for expansion or plant sharing.
These conversations continued and expanded into broader social interactions. Soon neighbours were helping each other tear up their lawns, till the soil, and reconfigure their yards for both flower and produce production. Many of the not-yet-converted yards began sprouting carrots and corn and eggplant along with the foxgloves and dahlias.
Boulevard stripes were tilled and converted to gardens, making room for more vegetables. The neighbors are now tackling the backyards of homes rented to college students and converting them into productive gardens. Thanks to the dedicated work of several residents in particular, and the support of the rest, this street now produces enough organic produce to supply the Sorauren Farmers’ Market on a bimonthly basis.
Source: Spacing (article not available online)
Image by Mzelle Biscotte, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, June 11, 2008 4:45 PM
Living in the city amid dense development and endless pavement, it’s easy to forget the pleasures of cultivation and growth that can be found in gardening. Writing for Permaculture Activist, a quarterly magazine that promotes the design of “ecological human habitats and food production systems,” author David Tracey outlines, step by step, how to build community and reconnect with the earth by beginning a community garden.
The first step, Tracey writes (article not available online), is choosing the right location. Nearly any size plot of land can be used, but the size will affect future plans. “Make sure you have enough space for everything you hope to do, now and later,” he advises. “Think of what you’ll need for other features, perhaps an orchard, an herb garden, a picnic spot or a pond.” Community gardens can fit perfectly into vacant lots, street ends, abandoned park spaces, and unused schoolyard areas, among other places. The area needs a fair amount of sun and water, it needs to be safe from crime and vandalism, and it needs to be accessible to gardeners and enjoyers.
The next step is choosing the right people: like-minded individuals who care as much about community as they do about gardening. “Think of the garden as what grows only after you’ve tended the community,” Tracey writes. Once your small community is assembled, set up a mission and lay down garden ground rules.
How are you going to pay for the land? Tracey recommends pooling volunteer money, donations from land trust groups and other organizations, and possible government grants to fund the project. In Seattle, in conjunction with the P-Patch Trust, the city has established community garden space servicing residents of 70 neighborhoods.
Once your garden is established and your community decides what to grow, you'll need to tend it and promote it. Tracey suggests a “work party” at the end of every month where garden members get together to weed, prune trees, and perform other general maintenance tasks. He also advises an annual “Open House/Plant Sale,” monthly planning meetings, and other fun events that bring members of the community to the garden in admiration of their hard work and dedication.
For more information on community gardens and to find one near you, visit the websites of the American Community Gardening Association and the Urban Community Garden.
Image by Paul Symington licensed under Wikimedia Commons.
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