Have you ever sat still in a garden and focused your attention on the symphony of life around you? Perhaps you lifted some mulch and witnessed the soil teaming with life just below the surface – insects, nematodes, bacteria, worms, mycelia mats, young sprouts, rotting debris – all dancing in unison to the fecundity of life.
Observe and flow with nature
As an instructor in Permaculture, a whole-systems design methodology developed from careful observation of the complex adaptive systems of nature, I’ve learned to focus on the natural flows of nature. Instead of designing a garden with the intent of controlling and dominating the potential of life, I’ve learned to focus on helping Nature accomplish what it is already in the process of doing. This slight change of intention has forced me to re-perceive my relationship to everything, garnering me new insights into complex issues.
First, build the soil
Take the Transition Movement, for example, which grew out of Permaculture. Experienced gardeners know that if you grow the soil, everything else grows well. In the Transition Movement, Community “soil” refers to the rich tapestry of elements active within the community and especially their relationships. Just as Permaculturists help nature along by using “Sheet Mulch,” a method of building soil using thick alternating layers of manure and cardboard to structure the soil so that it supports a diverse and complex web of life, Transition Initiatives use networking, awareness-building, and outreach to build community soil.
See through systems eyes
If we look at my garden through Systems eyes, the soil can be seen as an accumulation of elements and their relationships. The inflows are the many nutrients, insects, bacteria, mycelia, water, silt, sand, clay, and air molecules, etc., that make up the rich tapestry of fertile soil. The outflows are those same elements as they are evaporated, depleted, and used. When they are in balance, in other words, when their relationship is optimally balanced such that the appropriate amount of organic material, water, air, microbial life, etc., is present, then it can’t help but produce visible abundance above the surface as well. The same is true of Transition Initiatives. To begin seeing through Systems Eyes, ask yourself: What are the inflows and outflows within your community systems? What accumulates? Why? Are the community systems designed to produce the desired outcomes? How would you know and how would you measure their success?
Focus on relationships
If you design and grow your community “soil” to encourage healthy, diverse elements – and especially their relationships to each other – before producing large visible projects, and if you design your systems to support those relationships and the health and well-being of all involved, then you tend to get the creative best of each element such that creative collaboration is almost a given. Why? Because through those relationships, the participants experience the trust and caring necessary to successfully collaborate in highly creative ways. They begin to feel safe enough to take risks by thinking outside-the-box, and to trust their own intuition. They no longer see each other as competitors or adversaries, but instead perceive and experience each other as a team with a common goal. It’s what Rob Hopkins, one of the founders of the Transition Movement, calls “tapping the genius of your local community.” It is the result of making a conscious choice to build relationship into the structure of our community systems.
Value what is already present
So how do we build community “soil”? Begin by focusing on and valuing what is already there. What assets are people willing to share both at the individual and group level? What people and groups offer specific gifts to the community? What skills do they bring and what expertise? Which experiences are present, what wisdom? What new ways of perceiving and thinking can they offer so that your group doesn’t develop blind spots through group-think?
Begin by simply noticing these assets and valuing their diversity. They are the gifts you offer each other. There are many ways of mapping these gifts, including the tangible ones people are willing to share. Perhaps one person owns a building that is perfect for meetings, while another is willing to donate printed materials, or bookkeeping and banking skills.
Almost all of us feel undervalued in some way and thrive when we feel seen and heard. You can begin the process of individual and community healing by honoring and valuing the gifts you are for each other – right now. (Check out one such asset mapping tool at the free Community Weaving software program goodneighbors.net.)
Support existing pioneers
Increase the richness of your community soil by building trust and mutual understanding. Consider joining the already existing programs and organizations in your area who are working on similar issues. Ask how you can support their work before expecting them to assist you with yours. Really take the time to observe and listen, with the intent of collaborating with and supporting their goals. In your own mind celebrate their successes and strengths. Let them know how much you personally appreciate their efforts and contributions. Praise spoken out loud is strong glue for community building!
Research salient issues-build awareness
Research the issues most salient to individuals in your community. What are they willing to work on and how? Then increase community awareness of these issues through films, speakers, Open Space events (developed by Harrison Owen), and other playful events that capture attention and build individuals’ confidence in their speaking skills and other ways of bringing their issues to the broader community. Use Flash Mobs (music, dance, or protest as performance art that takes place en masse in under 5 minutes in unexpected locations), street art, mimes, poetry, etc. – anything that makes your audience pause and think from a new point of view while simultaneously adding joy to their lives.
Develop and track feedback
Track the feedback offered so you can hone these awareness-building skills until they sing. When it is clear that the purpose of feedback is to hone our skills in a context in which none of us are experts, but all of us are pioneers, feedback can be encouraging, valued, and contribute greatly to capacity building – which benefits us all.
Persevere, have fun—stay flexible and open
Just as each plant requires consistent light, water, and nutrients to bear fruit, our efforts to initiate change require the same level of consistency, perseverance, and a willingness to learn and stay flexible. Most of all, they require openness to new ways of thinking and perceiving (to expand our perceived field of the possible), the humility to constantly ask questions and question assumptions (to discover and eliminate blind spots), and the playful eagerness of the young child who consistently dances on her learning edge by exploring new possibilities.