Building Abundant Communities (Part 4 of 4): Hidden Garden Steps

November 21, 2012

New community possibilities emerge “when we and other neighbors know of each other’s gifts,” John McKnight and Peter Block suggest in their book The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods. And that’s exactly what we continue to see in the Hidden Garden Steps project here in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District.

As has been abundantly chronicled in this continuing series of articles about the Steps and the overlapping shorter series about fostering abundant communities, an awareness of gifts, resources, and an enthusiastic commitment to collaboration has steadily moved us toward a very exciting phase of our efforts to create a second set of ceramic-tiled steps along with murals and gardens featuring California native and other drought-tolerant plants. Project artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher have, since September 2012, been working in their studios to build the 148-step mosaic that will eventually be installed on the 16th Avenue concrete steps connecting Kirkham and Lawton streets. Community involvement in fundraising, marketing, and hundreds of hours of onsite work cleaning up a terribly ignored pedestrian corridor has drawn together an ever-growing group of volunteers and other supporters inspired by the beauty of the first step of steps (on Moraga Street, between 15th and 16th avenues) completed by the same two artists working with a different group of neighbors and other supporters.

Our next big step forward, at this point, is less than two weeks away: our two artists (on Saturday, December 1, 2012, from 1-5 pm), will lead the first of three community workshops for anyone interested in making hands-on contributions to the construction of the mosaic.

This will be a celebration of community and collaboration in action within a local church meeting hall (Christ Church Lutheran, 1090 Quintara, San Francisco). It’s a chance to learn how projects of this magnitude are literally pieced together. An opportunity to work side-by-side with neighbors on a process that not only will produce a new community gem but also contribute to the already strong sense of community that exists within the Inner Sunset District. And a pre-holiday chance to reflect on what our work together over a three-year period has created and continues to create.

It also is a visceral incarnation of the spirit of “making gifts visible,” as outlined by McKnight and Block in The Abundant Community (pp. 120-122): having members of a community teach and learn from each other; bringing together residents and local business representatives (a couple of our sponsors are donating refreshments for workshop participants); and attracting community members of all ages and backgrounds.

There is plenty to acknowledge and celebrate in projects like the Hidden Garden Steps. These community efforts help build connections between those of us who previously knew little more about our neighbors than what we garnered from hurried waves and cursory greetings as we raced from one personal obligation to another. They attract people from other nearby neighborhoods so that we develop an extended sense of community, support, and simple, pleasurable human interactions that often seem to reach no further than a few feet away from our own homes or apartments. They further connect us to those wonderful third places within our communities—the coffee shops, the libraries, the neighborhood farmers markets, and streets transformed into meeting places by community-operated street fairs. And they remind us—through the collaborations we establish with existing groups like San Francisco’s Inner Sunset Park Neighbors (ISPN), the San Francisco Parks Alliance (our fiscal agent), and the San Francisco Department of Public Works Street Parks Program (supporting our onsite work on City/County property)—that transforming a dream into reality doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to start from scratch in our efforts to organize for success.

“The expression of our gifs and their manifestation through association with our neighbors” is at the heart of abundant communities, McKnight and Block remind us in The Abundant Community (p. 109). “The challenge is to make these gifts visible among all in the neighborhood. These are the means for creating our social fabric. The task is to make more widely available these gifts in service of our core concerns for the child, the land, enterprise, food, health, the vulnerable, and our safety With the consciousness and ability to connect our gifts and make them practical and usable, we experience what we are calling community abundance (p. 120).”

And as Hidden Garden Steps current and prospective supporters move toward the day of our first mosaic-building workshop and continue with our fundraising efforts to bring this $300,000 volunteer-driven community-based effort to a successful conclusion, we all have plenty to celebrate—and to offer others in need of the inspiration we continually find from the families, friends, and other neighbors who are contributing to our own abundant successes.

N.B.: This is the fourteenth in an ongoing series of articles to document the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco and the fourth in a four-part series of articles exploring abundant communities. 

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Building Abundant Communities (Part 2 of 4): Trainer-Teacher-Learners in Action

November 12, 2012

Trainer-teacher-learners, in spite of frequently citing a lack of funding and other resources as an impediment to success, are often extremely effective at creating and sustaining what John McKnight and Peter Block call “abundant communities”—those gatherings of people who effectively find strength through a focus on people as creators and collaborators rather than consumers.

Our efforts as members and as the driving force behind the American Society for Training & Development (ASTD), when we are at our best, serve as an easy-to-replicate example that seems to be pulled from the pages of McKnight and Block’s Abundant Community  book on the topic.

When the writers tell us that “a competent community has three properties” (they focus on the gifts of its members, they nurture associational life, and they offer hospitality through the act of welcoming strangers into their group), we immediately can picture any ASTD or any other well-organized and well-developed association that creates a potent, supportive, and dynamic community through individual chapters, informal regional consortia, and national connections firmly rooted in commonly-adopted mission, vision, and value statements.

We know for example that when we walk for the first time into a meeting of any well-functioning local ASTD Chapter, our previous agreement to affiliate with another chapter and/or colleagues at the national level makes us immediately part of the group of colleagues we are about to meet. It’s what I experience every time I go to activities sponsored by my own home chapter, the ASTD Mount Diablo Chapter. It’s what I’ve experienced over the past year with other California chapters as well as with the South Florida Chapter. It’s what I experience when small groups of ASTD members from all over the country meet over dinner, as we frequently do when drawn together by ASTD or other conferences. And it even carries over when ASTD members meet in non-ASTD venues including the weekly #lrnchat conversations via Twitter every Thursday evening.

This, for anyone engaged in a well-functioning association, is the best of all possible reminders of how abundant our communities are and can be in an onsite-online world. When we’re together—together in every sense of the word—our limitations and challenges somehow take a back seat to the benefits we reap from associating in these abundant communities: full of inspiration; full of colleagues dedicated, as ASTD suggests, to making a world that works better; and full of solutions to problems none of us would dream of tackling without the support of other members of those explicitly abundant communities.

And just as McKnight and Block consistently focus on an abundant community’s ability to awaken the power of family and neighborhoods, members of ASTD and other first-rate associations use their strengths and resources to contribute positively and significantly to the extended communities to which they belong and which they serve. California ASTD chapters, for example, are among those informally providing free learning opportunities to returning veterans under the aegis of programs that support Wounded Warriors; having documented initial successes from this sharing of what they bring to their communities, some of the California chapter leaders are beginning to explore ways to create a more formal consortium to expand what they had previously been doing completely at a local level independent of colleagues from other chapters—a great sign that this particular abundant community is pooling resources in a way that creates greater possibilities while also drawing more attention to ASTD, its chapters, and its individual members as potential community partners reaching beyond more local borders.

None of this, however, matters much if our community doesn’t carry through on its commitment to be as permeable as possible. When we are greeted, welcomed, and drawn into conversation the moment we walk into an ASTD gathering, we sense the draw and engagement of an abundant community: it makes us want to join the club. This doesn’t mean that every person entering our community will ultimately want to serve on a board of directors or become a major financial supporter of the organization’s activities, but what makes us strong is our willingness to accept all interested parties at whatever level is comfortable to them: occasional visitor, member of a local chapter, dual member of the local and national organization, member of a local chapter board, member of a national committee of volunteers dedicated to strengthening and promoting the organization throughout its extended community, and former board member who remains engaged at any sort of level that contributes to the continuity of the association.

And that, I would suggest, is the key element and resource that contributes to the success of an abundant community—one capable of holding our attention and setting up the continuity that creates something capable of outlasting the efforts and lifetime of any individual member.

N.B.: This is the second in a four-part series of articles exploring abundant communities

Next: San Francisco’s Inner Sunset Park Neighbors as an Abundant Community


Building Abundant Communities (Part 1 of 4): From Citizen to Consumer—And Back Again

November 2, 2012

To propose the existence of abundance at a time when so many people are discouraged and overwhelmed might appear to be a hard sell. But that’s exactly what John McKnight and Peter Block effectively do and nurture through their wonderful book The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods and the Abundant Community website they maintain to support and spread their work—and ours.

A heartfelt and encouraging paean to the power of collaboration, The Abundant Community serves as a positive source of inspiration for rethinking many of our unquestioned assumptions; it also consistently serves as a useful handbook for those of us interested in and committed to building the sort of collaborative coalitions that make a difference locally, regionally, nationally, and globally with surprisingly little effort.

McKnight and Block begin the rethinking process by drawing a distinction between what they call “citizen” and “consumer” societies—maintaining that until we reverse the trend away from the citizen to the consumer model, we’re going to miss the obvious abundance of resources around us and the opportunities to overcome the challenges that leave so many people feeling incapable of effecting change.

Consumer society, they maintain, is predicated upon the belief that “satisfaction can be purchased”; the result, they consistently suggest, is that we try to buy solutions to everything ranging from healthcare and emotional challenges to education, safety, and security needs. Citizen society, in contrast, nurtures “social and civic life” so that we work together to create and support healthier communities that meet their members’ educational, safety, security, and other needs. It’s clear that the authors are trying to move us from being armchair critics to being actively engaged in creating healthy, thriving, vibrant communities where connections foster success and a high quality of life.

“The greatest tragedy of the consumer life is that its practitioners do not see that the local community is abundant with the relationships [italics added for emphasis] that are the principal resource for rescuing themselves and their families from the failure, dependency, and isolation that are the results of a life as a consumer and client,” McKnight and Block suggest. “Their ships and sinking, and they struggle to swim to safety, ignoring the life raft at their side. The way to the good life is not through consumption. It is, instead, a path that we make by walking it with those who surround us. It is the way of a competent community recognizing its abundance” (p. 18).

The writers are explicit about the problems we create when we fail to acknowledge and build upon the abundance that remains untapped within communities: we marginalize nature to such a degree that we lose sight of much of the beauty that surrounds us and the numerous benefits we might draw from nature; we surrender to marketing efforts that create and then require additional resources to alleviate dissatisfaction in our lives; we pay attention to little more than we can immediately see, thereby missing the opportunity to operate within a larger, more positive framework; and we become slaves to debt rather than freeing ourselves by having a goal of living within our means (p. 50).

They are equally explicit about the numerous, simple achievable changes we can make to address these challenges, e.g., learning “how to fix what is broken rather than replacing it. Shopping when we really need something, not shopping as a form of recreation.” And at a larger level, shifting from a primary focus on immediate challenges and needs to a focus that includes “a future orientation” (p. 54).

The abundant community that McKnight and Block want to help us strengthen is built upon several core beliefs that too few of us recognize: that what we have is enough; that we have the capacity to produce what we need; that cooperation and satisfaction provide a framework for organizing our world; that we each have definable responsibilities for and toward each other; and that there is a basic undeniable reality to the human condition within which we must live. The communities that incorporate these beliefs into daily practices are rooted in focusing on the individual gifts we bring to our communities, nurturing “associational life,” and offering hospitality to everyone—an idea based on a commitment of welcoming strangers to our communities rather than creating barriers to their acceptance (pp. 66-67).

And when we set aside all the theorizing and rethink our way into putting this into the familiar context of our own communities, we see that we’re really not talking about much more than what already exists in those that are successful. A neighborhood association (like San Francisco’s Inner Sunset Park Neighbors) that consistently improves the quality of life for significant numbers of people draws from all these ideas and practices. As does a local, regional, or national association organized around a specific profession (e.g., the American Society for Training & Development, which creates a tremendous learning community for those of us involved in workplace learning and performance, AKA staff training). And as is the case with the volunteer-driven community-based Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District.

There are literally thousands of organizations like this all over our country and beyond our own borders. The challenge for all of us is to recognize them, appreciate them, and support them through our own involvement regardless of whether we can only give a few minutes/a couple of hours/a few dollars a month or whether we recognize that we are ready to become more deeply engaged through deeper commitments—not only to those entities but to the greater extended abundant communities that would not exist without them.

N.B.: This is the first in a four-part series of articles exploring abundant communities

Next: ASTD As an Abundant Community


Christopher Alexander and the Architecture of Collaboration (Part 2 of 2)

June 20, 2013

While there are numerous wonderful and obvious resources available to anyone interested in building successful collaborations, there are also gems—case studies—that are easily overlooked simply because they are marketed in a way that doesn’t immediately bring them to our attention.

Alexander--Battle_for_Life_and_BeautyAs noted in the first of these two articles, architect Christopher Alexander’s latest book (The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth: A Struggle Between Two World-System) is about far more than architecture; its description of two different building systems—one that is very traditional and cookie-cutter rigid, and one that incorporates flexibility and a firm commitment to collaboration to bring a project to completion—makes it a book with a compelling story as well as an essential guide for anyone involved in project management—including volunteer-driven community-based projects.

The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth is, first and foremost, the story of how Alexander and his colleagues worked with a client in Japan to build a stunningly beautiful campus that continues to serve high school and college students in a unified setting designed to inspire and nurture learning. With plenty of photographs to lead us from start to finish on the project, Alexander describes the process of how a commitment to collaboration at times produced spectacular results and at other times really did create battle-like cultural confrontations between those who wanted to collaborate their way to implementation of a dream (the campus) and those who simply couldn’t move themselves past the formulaic (and lucrative) process that was at the core of their approach to project management.

And that’s where The Battle becomes useful to many of us who are not at all involved in the creation of architectural building, but are deeply immersed in building of another sort: building training-teaching-learning offerings that make a difference to learners and those they serve; artistic endeavors that reach and move appreciative audiences; and the sort of community-based project that the Hidden Garden Steps endeavor in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District, represents—an effort to create a beautiful neighborhood gathering place which, when completed, will feature a 148-step ceramic-tile mosaic surrounded by gardens and murals to complement the earlier nearby project that inspired it.

HGS--Tile_Images--2013-03-11[1]Where Alexander begins with his standard practice of spending many valuable and highly-productive hours on any site upon which he and his colleagues are going to build, those of us involved in working with artists Aileen Barr and Colette Crutcher on the Hidden Garden Steps project have spent hours walking up and down those 148 concrete steps that were originally installed in 1926. We know, by heart, the number of steps on each flight; we know how light bathes various points on that site throughout the day and how the site feels in sunlight, fog, wind, and rain. By working with colleagues in the San Francisco Department of Public Works—the government agency in charge of the site—as well as with tree trimmers and plenty of volunteers engaged in monthly onsite clean-ups, we have become familiar with the soil, the native vegetation, the erosion-control and onsite structural issues that must be addressed before the ceramic-tile mosaic-in-progress (pictured at left) can be installed later this year (if everything continues on schedule), and even the wildlife that is increasingly drawn to the site as we have worked to erase decades of neglect and create a habitat that supports everything from birds to a species of butterfly (the green hairstreak) that used to be prevalent in the area but had become rare until colleagues in Nature in the City began working to restore habitats throughout the nearby hills. And by working side-by-side with the artists in free public workshops, we’ve even played a hands-on role in creating the 148-step mosaic that is at the heart of the project.

Just as Alexander describes how he worked with numerous collaborators as well as those who were skeptical of his ability to produce the campus he was designing and working to build, we have created an organizing committee that serves as a project management team while reaching out to other existing groups ranging from neighborhood associations to our local elected officials. We’ve been present at neighborhood meetings, street fairs, and other events that have drawn in new partners. And just as Alexander attempted, in every imaginable way, to foster collaboration rather than hierarchical organizational structures, our organizing committee has been and remains the sort of partnership where the only real titles (co-chairs) exist so that those interested in joining us have a point of contact and so that we have what in essence serves as an executive committee tasked with keeping the project on schedule rather than offering top-down decrees as to how the project will be completed.

Alexander’s description of how the high school/college campus was completed comes across as an honest meditation on the joys and challenges of bringing a collaborative project to fruition, and those of us involved in the Hidden Garden Steps project have certainly had our moments of joy as well as moments of disappointment along the way. But what we all share in common is a start-to-finish commitment to working together as inclusively as possible to create something tangible (the campus, the Steps, or a training-teaching-learning opportunity) as well as something intangible and equally compelling: the sense of community that comes from building something together.

N.B.: This is the second of two articles applying “The Battle” to non-architectural settings, and the sixteenth in an ongoing series of articles to document the Hidden Garden Steps project in San Francisco. A final free public workshop for volunteers interested in helping construct small parts of the overall mosaic will be held indoors in the St. John of God community hall in San Francisco’s Inner Sunset District (5th Avenue and Irving Street) on Saturday, July 20, 2013 from 1-5 pm.


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