A thing is mighty big

when time and distance  

cannot shrink it.

Zora Neale Hurston

 

I recently returned home from a summer camp reunion in Maine. Although it felt in many ways as if being there was returning home.

This month’s musings are about the power of returning to the places and people who have shaped us and is dedicated to Hidden Valley Camp in Freedom, ME-the place itself, and all of those connected to it and who have in some way inspired my experience there. It was a blessing to return to such a special place and see people I haven’t seen in years.

The writer Barry Lopez has a concept that I have always loved: he talks about the need to “reconcile our inner and outer landscapes.”

For someone who works to cultivate sustainable communities, build networks for social change, and support place-based initiatives, I’ve experienced how the places we inhabit and the communities we are a part of can reflect and inform our internal landscape.

Last month, I had the tremendous privilege to return to a summer camp in Maine where I’d spent a decade from the early 80s into the early 90s as a camper, counselor, and program director.

I arrived early with my family, and the place was quiet and immediately familiar. As if it had been within me all the years since I’d been there. Old friends arrived, and the familiarity deepened-the people and the place complementing each other and stirring memories and laughter.

This is the power of reuniting and reconciling with places and individuals who have touched our lives–and those places and opportunities seem all too rare. Each person at that summer camp in Maine had numerous stories, feelings, songs they could share that continue-years later-to have a profound influence on the people they have become.

I remarked to Peter and Meg Kassen, the camp’s owners and directors (and among my early mentors), that my time at camp had fundamentally shaped who it is that I am, my values, and what it is that I do in the world: working with groups of people to create and sustain healthy communities, engage meaningfully with each other, and act as stewards of the places–urban, rural, and wild–that they love.

They in turn confirmed these feelings in their comments to the group around a campfire two nights later, talking about the deeply embedded values of prioritizing inclusion and acceptance (Peter reflected that the camp has long welcomed children and staff from throughout the world and from diverse backgrounds) and which at its core is about stewardship (Meg sharing that “the unsung hero of this place is the place itself”).

These are very central values for me and inform my work-I often quote Aldo Leopold who offered “There are two things that interest me-the relationship of people to the land, and the relationship of people to each other.”

Reunions are life-affirming events, and as the writer Toba Beta shares that “reunion demonstrates the potential in friendships that haven’t emerged in the past”. I reconnected with many friends back in Maine, who even though we are not in touch regularly continue to inspire and encourage me, and some of whom I hadn’t even fully connected with while at camp but who reflect the spirit and values of a place that was so special to all of us.

In addition to sharing stories, we also shared the songs which shaped our camp experience. And we laughed repeatedly at the fact that many of the songs we loved were about disaster and loss–whether a rollicking almost celebratory tune about the Titanic going down, or the more plaintive Neil Young or Joni Mitchell reflections on fleeting youth in Sugar Mountain or The Circle Game.

There was something about camp that built community, acknowledged reality in a place that seemed like a fantasy, allowed for the shaping of lifelong values. Such experiences have been shown to build resilience for children, and I would propose even provide guidelines for creating resilient and thriving communities.

One of my favorite Wallace Stegner quotes epitomizes my feelings after that reunion weekend:

“Whatever landscape a child is exposed to early on, that will be the sort of gauze through which he or she will see all the world afterwards.”

Though there are many places and communities I have come to love, including my home in California and my current professional community (many of whom I could see as their adult or younger selves at that summer camp in Maine!), there is part of me that will always see the world–and possibilities for connection, community, and change–through the experience nurtured by Hidden Valley Camp.

 

Mary Oliver is one of my favorite poets, partly because she is able to capture universal and profound feelings and an appreciation of the moment via an experience with nature.

Invitation

 

Oh do you have time

to linger

for just a little while

out of your busy

 

and very important day

for the goldfinches

that have gathered

in a field of thistles

 

for a musical battle,

to see who can sing

the highest note,

or the lowest,

 

or the most expressive of mirth,

or the most tender?

Their strong blunt beaks

drink the air

 

as they strive

melodiously

not for your sake

and not for mine

 

and not for the sake of winning

but for sheer delight and gratitude-

believe us, they say,

it is a serious thing

 

just to be alive

on this fresh morning

in this broken world.

I beg of you,

 

do not walk by

without pausing

to attend to this

rather ridiculous performance.

 

It could mean something.

It could mean everything.

It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:

You must change your life.

 

Mary Oliver

I spent the summer traveling;

I got halfway across my backyard.

Louis Agassiz

I just tried my hand (and eyes) at a technology fast, a digital detox. No screens or gadgets of any kind for a few days. It made the quote above from naturalist Louis Agassiz even more striking.

We’ve come to prize-and prioritize in many cases-our online existence and it may be that virtual reality is becoming more real every day. Not many days go by where we don’t take the time to check and respond to e-mail, post to Facebook (or any number of social media platforms), talk on the phone, watch TV. These practices shape our schedules-or at least fill our time in between meetings, on commutes, or as an activity with family or friends.

I usually take a late summer break to “re-connect” and this year, that involved both taking a “stay-cation” and taking a few days to not use any devices or stare at any screens. I love the Terry Tempest Williams quote “Perhaps the most radical act we can commit is to stay home.” In a world where we are always moving, always seeking a new destination, there is a power to staying put. This is increasingly true in a world where our “connections” are often mediated by technology.

I typically take a day a week to not turn on my computer, and we try to be selective about how much TV we take in. But I still frequently have my phone nearby, essentially a tiny screen where I stay tethered to more information than anyone could possibly process. In not using any technology for a few days, I noticed the increased presence I felt-both in connections to others, connections to what was happening around me, and connections to my own feelings -which is all usually there, but tempered by the ironic ability to “connect” at any point.

In one of his early books, The Age of Missing Information, Bill McKibben records and watches 24 hours of all 93 stations of the Fairfax, VA cable network (which dates this 1992 book!). He contrasts that with 24 hours spent hiking and camping in his native Adirondacks. Of course, his observations are striking about the kind of “information” we receive mediated by a screen, and that which comes to us via nature, via the real world.

There is no avoiding the fact that technologies like e-mail and others that allow instantaneous communication are here to stay-and evolving. We’re now exploring the potential of the internet of things, as more and more everyday objects–our cars, our refrigerators–are connected and able to talk with each other, self-adjust, provide us with feedback, or tell us that “it’s time to buy more….”

There’s something insidious about this convenience that we should remain aware of: both in the way it affects our relationship to inanimate objects (see the movie Her) and more importantly, in the way it affects our relationships to ourselves, to others, and to the places we live, work, and play.

A recent article in the New York Times (and many others like it) on Dealing with Digital Cruelty talks about the ways in which we behave differently on-line than in person, why that is the case, and what to do about interacting on-line. I’ve always said that on-line communications are not “communications” per se, but ways of transferring information. I think it’s important to have a digital commons, and am always struck by the depth (sometimes possible and sometimes not) people attempt via a technology-mediated exchange.

It reminds me of one of my favorite bumper stickers: “Discuss complex and challenging issues via bumper stickers.”

I am admittedly biased, as my work has always been about face-to-face interaction and about real places-about community building, place-making, leadership development, network creation, and organizational culture and effectiveness. It is critical–whatever the technology is–to use our tools wisely. The insightful elements of science fiction–think Star Trek, the Planet of the Apes, Avatar, the Terminator movies or take your pick–are not that they paint a picture of a possible future, but provide a window into the very real present. While we can’t “jump to hyperspace” or travel time (yet), our culture shifts with every technological innovation-and it’s up to us to decide how that change happens in our lives.

During a place-based learning workshop with that I led with the New Leaf Collaborative earlier this month, I was moved by the reflections that student participants shared about how using place and community as a medium for learning had changed their lives. As many schools are adopting technology as a tool for learning and cultivating the citizens of the future–and as we sense its ubiquity in our lives–I hope that we can find a graceful balance in not forgetting meaningful interaction with the people and places that shape us.

California is not so much a state of the Union

as it is an imagination that seceded from our reality a long time ago.

California was the first to discover that it was fantasy that led to reality,

not the other way around.

William Irwin Thompson

 

At a planning retreat with a client this Spring, several of us reflected that we could capture the value and motivation behind our work in a t-shirt in a simple phrase: “I love California”

I moved to this state twenty-two years ago without any experience of being here, with only the knowledge or a dream that I wanted to be here…as I’m sure many who relocate to California hold.

I’ve heard it said that in California, the world sees everything that it hopes to be and everything that it fears. As the quote above captures, California is not so much a state as a state of mind.

I love the diversity of people and places across this state, from coastal communities to the farm fields of the Central Valley, to some of the highest peaks in the country. I love living in a place where I can meet people whose families have been here for several generations and those who have just arrived. It’s this diversity in part that creates a place that has a special energy and spirit.

That’s not to say that there aren’t very real places and people to protect and very real problems to address, as there are anywhere. Yet there is a mythology—largely borne out I have seen, despite some of our more intractable challenges—that the creativity, innovation, and sense of possibility held by those in California can not only begin to solve the problems we face, but can inspire others to think and act in similarly inventive ways.

A very Californian attitude, I know.

However, this approach can not only support California communities, but can support community sustainability and positive change anywhere. In the work I’ve done around the country and around the world, I’ve seen both the potential that exists when people think positively and creatively and the self-fulfilling prophesy that comes to pass when we think that the problems we face have no solution.

At this time, California faces record drought, a growing population and associated development pressure, and questions around treating our most vulnerable residents fairly. These challenges won’t be solved by ingenuity and creativity alone—they’ll require commitments (and some sacrifices) from policymakers and the public—yet it will make it easier to address these and other issues over the long-term from a backdrop of possibility that is both part of the mythology and reality of this extraordinary place.

 

When you change the way you look at things,

the things you look at change.

Max Planck

One of my favorite quotes is from the writer and healer Deena Metzger: “There are those who are trying to set fire to the world. We are in danger. There is only time to work slowly. There is no time not to love.”

It was the quote that introduced my very first newsletter/blog post, and it remains core to my work.

Although I think of my work as more than facilitation, many people I interact with see me first and foremost as a facilitator. And there is a responsibility there I take very seriously—the role of creating space.

This is not simply space for conversations, and decisions, and results in a meeting but also—and perhaps more importantly—for surfacing challenging topics, reconfirming a group’s values, resolving conflicts, even acknowledging and addressing the powerful emotions that can often arise in our work.

If we are to create the kind of leadership we need to affect transformative change in ourselves, our workplaces, and our communities, we need to create this space—regularly—in our lives. We need to claim a time in our day and in our week to do what I call “big thinking” or just to be silent. We need to weave this space into our meetings with colleagues, so that we are not only focused on “getting things done” but in understanding why and how we are achieving our goals.

And we need places annually or semi-annually that can serve as a pilgrimage of sorts—a place to return to that helps reconfirm our purpose in the world, reconnects us with colleagues aligned with our efforts, and renews us along the challenging path of seeking greater health, sustainability and justice.

Creating this space is much like the role of fire in a healthy forest…seemingly destructive, but allowing the room for new things to grow. Even if that fire is born of crisis, it also allows for renewal in our lives and in our work.

Creating Space is one place that fulfills this ecological role my work. Whether I have been facilitating or participating in this regular gathering hosted by the Leadership Learning Community, I am provided with a clearing for new perspectives and tools, an opportunity to learn with colleagues familiar and new, and a place to reconfirm and recommit to the values central to my work—including collaboration, equity, and health.

In structuring this year’s gathering, there was particular attention paid to honoring the idea of “creating space”—the authentic time with colleagues we most yearn for which is often lost amidst presentations and working sessions. There was also emphasis on scale, reducing the number of participants from well over 100 last year to a maximum of 60 this year. And, as always, our theme explored innovative ways to deepen leadership that can achieve transformative change…though this year, we focused more intently on engaging participants in sharing or designing tools and approaches to do so.

The experience crafting the agenda and facilitating this three-day gathering led me to reflect on some of the principles I often use for creating space and designing dialogue in any meeting, using the mnemonic “CREATE” :

  •  Clarity. Defining why a particular meeting or gathering needs to occur—either for one hour or over the course of three days—is critical. What is the purpose of bringing people together? Clear outcomes (and the right number of them) help structure a meaningful agenda and allow for dialogue and connection among participants.
  • Room. The space that is used for any meeting creates a mood for that meeting. One of my mentors, David Orr, speaks about “architecture as pedagogy”—we learn from the rooms and buildings we occupy. Is there natural light? Is the space large enough for the number of people? The right answers to these and similar questions can make or break any gathering.
  • Expectations. While the first and most important question asked about any gathering is about its purpose, this MUST go hand-in-hand with participant expectations. If we are to genuinely create space for transformative conversations and results, we cannot design for people…we need to design with them in partnership. Getting input—through surveys, interviews, and pre-meetings—is essential for success.
  • Agenda. The path through any gathering needs to provide ample time for each topic, a graceful balance of content to ground a common experience and opportunity for dialogue, regular rituals—whether for short, recurring, or multi-day meetings (think poetry or getting reflections from participants)—as well as breaks to allow for integration. The intensity of a meeting is much different than the work done sitting alone at a computer or on a call with a colleague…and we need to pay attention to this difference in how we map out and balance the time for any size group.
  • Team. As critical to success as a clear purpose and well-crafted agenda is a facilitation team appropriate for the group and topic. While I often facilitate alone, and solo facilitators can be very successful, larger gatherings require two or more co-facilitators who have worked on designing the experience and who can share the tasks of leading discussion, documenting ideas, and resolving challenges. Equally important—particularly in conversations around social change—is the ability of a facilitator or team to address issues such as race and equity, and the important conversations and emotions that can seem like “off-topic” distractions but actually are core to success.
  • Evolution. I don’t think any meeting I’ve facilitated has gone exactly as planned, and as a colleague of mine once shared—“it’s not knowing what to do, it’s knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.” Having the flexibility to evolve with the group—as a facilitator or a participant—AND remain focused on getting to clear outcomes and next steps is the real challenge and magic when coming together with a group of people.

These elements—and especially the final step—models a vital practice in both designing successful meetings and creating more attuned leadership for transformative change: the ability to remain committed to particular outcomes while respecting the evolution and needs of any group and the discoveries that develop along the way.

The arc of the moral universe is long,

But it bends toward justice.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

How do we stay engaged in work that we may never see completed?

For those of us in the sustainability and social change arena—perhaps across many fields—there can be a sense of working for change perpetually. At the 25th Goldman Environmental Prize ceremony this week, multiple speakers mentioned that many of the critical issues linking the environment, poverty, and democracy that we were working on 25 years ago (when my work in this arena was just starting) are still threats.

There has been progress—and we can point to landmark legislation and a shift in cultural consciousness and behavior to prove it—though it is hard to see this when the change can easily get lost in the “so much more to be done.”

We must work at the challenging confluence of the change we have seen and can celebrate, and the vision we have that has yet to be achieved. Forsaking one for the other would either undermine how far we have come or overwhelm us with the magnitude of the problems yet to be solved.

E.B White wrote “I awaken each morning caught between the desire to savor the world and the desire to save it. It makes it hard to plan the day.” As difficult as this makes our work, we can’t move forward without celebrating and building upon the efforts of those who have come before us.

I know that I can easily get caught up in feelings of the progress we’ve seen not being “good enough”—and it’s not. Yet I also feel a tremendous solace and am energized by the victories and more importantly the people who have contributed to a strong a growing movement for positive change.

In his inaugural address in 1961, JFK said: “All this will not be finished in the first one hundred days. Nor will it be finished in the first one thousand days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”

This is the spirit we must have to navigate the long arc of change.

 

 

Whatever you can do, or think you can, begin it!

Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.

                                                –Goethe

Many people like to take the opportunity at a time of transition-a new year, for instance-to change a habit, re-commit to a practice, pursue a goal. Now may be a good time to assess where we have come with our commitments, if we made them at the start of the year (or at any other time).

Mine often live between the realms of some new practice or accomplishment via my work, a desire to cultivate greater community connection, and the importance of physical health, creative pursuits, and spiritual practice.

It can be a heavy load.

I’m reminded of a line from Neruda’s Keeping Quiet: “If we were not so single-minded about keeping our lives moving and for once could do nothing, perhaps a huge silence would interrupt this sadness of never understanding ourselves…”

In trying to create change, there can be a zeal that causes us to miss things-a “competing commitment” as organizational and behavioral theorists Kegan and Lahey call them-and can stop change on an individual or collective level before it even is able to take root.

In his teaching and writing on the idea of “committed action without attachment to outcome”, Donald Rothberg quotes T.S. Eliot: “ours is in the trying, the rest is not our business”. It can be paradoxical to be in a place where we are committed to creating change in a personal and/or social context, but not attached to how things turn out.

While it’s important to have a vision and set goals, these can sometimes create unrealistic expectations for how things should be and can affect our process for achieving the changes we seek (especially if we fall short and become discouraged).

Buckminster Fuller famously said that “there are no failed experiments, only experiments with unexpected outcomes.” As counter-intuitive as it may be, change requires resolve and a commitment to new habits and practices without holding too tightly to what might be.

 

Monthly Practice: Systems Over Goals 

In a recent article in Entrepreneur magazine, James Clear encourages readers to set up a process for change, rather than setting goals. He sees the creation of practices within a particular system (running a few miles a day) more powerful than the end result (compete in a 10K road race). Ultimately, it is the habits supported by a system that create change, rather than the goal somewhere over the horizon.

What would it mean to live
in a city whose people were changing
each others’ despair into hope?

You yourself must change it.

What would it feel like to know
your country was changing?

You yourself must change it.

Though your life felt arduous
new and unmapped and strange…

what would it mean to stand on the first
page of the end of despair?

Adrienne Rich

 

In 2014, DIG IN will enter its tenth year as a platform for working with individuals, organizations, collaboratives, and communities in service to catalyzing sustainability and social change efforts.

What started from a reflection that organizational practice could be more effective, that communities and groups could benefit from working together more intentionally to build sustainable, healthy places, that skills in leadership and conflict resolution could support this transformation has sustained me for a decade. Not only has it been my livelihood but-as all right livelihoods should be-it has been a source of inspiration and education over the past ten years.

I am buoyed by the incredible network and community of which I am a part, and supported and encouraged by the interweaving of individuals, groups, and movements dedicated to doing good in the world. Amidst what can often seem like insurmountable odds, I am renewed daily by those of you I work with directly and so many more who share their courage, intelligence, and passion by engaging in the work of social justice and sustainability.

Over the next year, I will continue and deepen the work of DIG IN-founded to both support practices and policies growing positive impact in communities around California and around the country AND to share tools and build leadership for individuals, organizations, networks, and communities focused on this goal.

To celebrate a decade of this work, 2014 will feature regular gatherings of colleagues and those interested in this work to learn together and share best practices-stay tuned for dates and locations!-and a series of longer articles on the lessons learned from ten years of DIG IN’s work around leadership development for social change, collaboration and networks, strategies for building sustainable communities, and working across lines of difference.

Thank you again for your work and your inspiration. Wishing you and yours a happy, healthy and bright holiday season filled with celebration and gratitude!

To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns,

to surrender to too many demands,

to commit oneself to too many projects,

to want to help everyone in everything,

is to succumb to the violence of our times.

Thomas Merton

I spent time cleaning up the garden this weekend, pruning back the plants that had grown with such vigor over the course of the spring and summer, readying the garden for winter. As I was cutting back a particularly prodigious shrub, I was reminded of the gardener’s adage that “roses don’t need much care-just 5 minutes a day.”

This shrub-not a rose, but the California native Matilja poppy (or fried-egg poppy)-had grown out of control. Its flowers had been beautiful all summer, but now it was unhealthy, overtaxed and collapsing on itself. See where I’m going here?

I am often in conversations with clients and colleagues, and reflect regularly about how we can be most effective in achieving the social change and sustainability goals we set to reach. Most of them are ambitious, inspiring, even overwhelming to work with. Yet even with the smaller projects and objectives that can add up to greater change, I often see individuals and institutions “out ahead of ourselves and unable to catch up” as a colleague recently shared.

In order to truly build capacity, we need to pay greater attention to the work-in planning for it, accepting it, managing it, and completing what we’ve started. I do a lot of work supporting the vision, values, and strategy of sustainability efforts and in many cases execution and implementation is out of balance with the vision and values guiding the effort. How can we work for sustainability if our own individual and organizational efforts are unsustainable?

To grapple with the concept of capacity, I think of this broader quasi-buzzword in terms of the ecosystem created by its constituent parts. Capacity is comprised of several elements we need to consider to assess and manage our individual and collective ability to create impact:

  • Clarity: Strategy and vision are meant to set a clear path for any effort-even when these exist, the connection between strategic pathways and the specific work to be performed isn’t always outlined in a way that can focus effort and prevent mission drift and overwhelm;
  • Capability: Do we individually and collectively have the time and resources required to achieve what we have set out to accomplish? We are often asked to do more with less, or are seeking support for a broader vision-to avoid burnout and realize intermediate victories we need to scale our work appropriate to the time and funding available;
  • Competency: This is the “is it plugged in” question, as it’s challenging to feel that we have the capacity to achieve our goals if individually or organizationally we don’t have the skills to do so-learning and leadership development is essential AND can be a limiting factor in the near-term;
  • Confidence: Knowing that we are able to do the work we’ve set out (provided we have the competency to do so) is often supported by our ability to make the right decision about how to move forward with a particular project or strategy;
  • Collaboration: To be truly effective, we can’t think about capacity in an individual or institutional vacuum-the reality is that the amount of work we take on and the goals we set are more often than not bold and visionary…working together gracefully is becoming the standard of practice in social change and sustainability work, and across sectors.

Ultimately, determining our capacity is an informed choice about what we can or cannot take on-informed by the elements outlined here and shaped by other external and internal factors. We can all work with greater attention to the Merton quote so that we stay as focused as possible, and in our efforts to heal the world don’t unintentionally “succumb to the violence of our times.”

It takes a campaign to change a policy. 
It takes a network to change a system. 

June Holley

There is a not-so-quiet revolution taking place in the way we work. We can see it everywhere in nature, but in our communities and organizations, we are just now beginning to see its power and impact-relationships change everything.

While this might seem blindingly obvious, I’m not talking about relationships in any one workplace or community, critical as these connections are. We are beginning to see the advent of the real power of networks — groups of organizations or communities working together — to affect lasting change.

I define a network not simply as a group coming together across organizational or community boundaries to share ideas and learn together, but to take action in creating transformative change.

When I started doing work supporting organizations committed to sustainability and social change, I always said that “we need less stuff and more glue” to emphasize the importance of connecting individuals, institutions, and ideas. We all operate within systems and in order to shift those systems, we need to not only understand them but to act as they do.

Too many organizations and communities still attempt to make change acting alone. Even groups of organizations acting together talk about transformative change but wind up with only incremental victories.

Networks are about relationships between individuals, organizations and ideas that create a new systems-oriented way of working where our allegiance is not so much to the institution which employs us, but to the larger mission and ecosystem of relationships that can support large-scale transformation.

We are seeing this in the increasing popularity of the collective impact model, and in the number of organizations and efforts-on a local, regional, state, national and even global-level-pursuing collaborative strategies. We are realizing that we have tremendous power, but that we can’t act alone-the power we have comes from working together. If done well, consistently and with great patience, this leads to broader movement-building and social transformation.

Einstein famously shared that “The problems that we face can’t be solved by the same level of consciousness that created them.” Working through a network or collaborative approach creates a different consciousness and new possibilities for affecting change.

When I work with networks, I use a series of “I’s” as important steps themselves, but also as “essential puns” for successful network development including:

  • “I”: What are you bringing-in terms of self-interest, resources, and attitude-to any collaborative effort?
  • “Aye”: To what extent are you affirming your participation-are you “all in” or waiting on the periphery to see how things develop?
  • “Eye”: How are you paying attention and staying aware of dynamics unfolding as a collaboration gets underway, moves through challenges, and evolves?    

With those first three “I questions” as a foundation, here are seven “I” steps to consider when assessing or building any network activity:

  • Intention: Clarify why the group is coming together and the vision for the network;
  • Invitation: Define and welcome key participants and who will reach out to engage them;
  • Inclusion: It’s especially important to identify and connect with a diversity of stakeholders early on, as they will set the tone for the network;
  • Involvement: Provide opportunities for all members of the network to contribute meaningfully-it’s very easy for a core set of people or organizations to do the work, and this leads to power imbalances and lack of engagement. Everyone should have a role, no matter how small;
  • Integration: To be effective, the ideas and institutions in a network are woven together through a compelling vision (see intention), clear strategies and activities, and shared governance-how decisions are made, relationships cultivated, and resources shared;
  • Iteration: Networks need to encourage experimentation, new ideas and new membership-while remaining faithful to their core purpose;
  • Impact: Effective collaboration creates results that can be measured, celebrated and learned from — near-term victories are critical to maintaining momentum for larger change.

Whatever landscape a child is exposed to early on,

that will be the sort of gauze through which

he or she sees all the world afterwards.

-Wallace Stegner

Country music icon Ernest Tubb once said “Be better to your neighbors and you’ll have better neighbors.” I would add: know your neighbors, or your colleagues, or your congressperson, or the place where you live, as these are vibrant gateways to building stronger connections to create community.

The roots of early democracy-in this country and elsewhere-were nurtured by relationships of people to one another and to the places they lived. Participation in decisions about “the commons” were informed by those living and working around us and the places we called home.

Increasingly, community can often be less about our connections to our neighbors and to particular places, and is defined by our identities or professions, linking us with people in other neighborhoods, cities or countries. Both are valuable ways to think about community, which is still an essential building block for affecting change from the local to the global.

Communities create possibilities for action through the networks of support they weave. Communities are crucibles that contribute to forming who we are and how we relate to the other people and places we encounter in our lives. Understanding the impact our community history has had on our perspective is critical as we create and participate in new communities at work, at home, or on-line-which in turn continue to inform our experience.

Our initial interaction with community or place serves as “a sort of gauze through which we see all the world afterwards”-as Wallace Stegner puts it-and though the communities in which we find ourselves can shift over the course of our lives, our roles at work, in our families and in our neighborhoods are often shaped by these first forays in civic life.

It is why programs such as Early Start and the work of creating healthy neighborhoods and school environments for children are so vital. And it is why we must continue to work tirelessly to create sustainable communities for all where there are options for economic prosperity, equal opportunity, and access to a clean environment.

In his book Community and the Politics of Place, former Missoula mayor Daniel Kemmis argues that the erosion of our communities and public discourse are directly related to the disappearance of our “sense of place”: while on-line communities and communities of identity are vibrant and meaningful, they cannot replace the shaping and promise found in those places we live, work, and play. Paying attention to cultivating those relationships-with our colleagues, our neighbors, and the places that we value-is what creates community, and inspires action for positive change.