Serving vs. being

Photo: Duff Axom

I want to begin this post with a question: is there a difference between serving the whole and being the whole? I come to this question after participating in many discussions on the importance of social service, serving one’s community, service learning, and doing one’s part in community. I’ve noticed that these discussions often tend to frame the context as the individual existing as a separate entity from the community, be it neighbourhood, school, workplace, or city. I have begun to wonder what these discussions would be like if we framed the discussion with a different assumption – that we are the community?

Here are three examples that have inspired me to think more deeply about this point of view…

1.     Volunteerism
When volunteering, I have so often heard – or used myself – phrases that explain my actions such as: “contributing to my community”; “serving my community”, “doing my part”; “doing what is right”; “helping those who can use my skills.” While these are all laudable goals, I wonder if I should rephrase my actions as simply ‘being’, or as “I am the whole, therefore I act as part of the whole”. In fact, perhaps this approach completely removes the word ‘volunteer’ and instead just becomes the word ‘existing’ in community.

 2.     Service Learning
A natural outcome of volunteerism in the education world has been ‘service learning’. This is the idea where someone, or a group of people, offers a service to another group. In this process, one group receives a ‘service’, while those offering the service learn from their experience. While there is much that is positive about service learning, I once again wonder if we can reframe this idea. Should we instead think of it as ‘being learning’ or ‘grounded learning’? We are not separate from those to whom we are offering a service. Instead, we exist in our local communities and learn from this existence. In this sense, we are also ‘grounded’ in our local contexts. It is not about learning from books, or being fed information by someone else. Nor is it about structuring a situation of servitude for the sake of a particular educational outcome. Instead, it is the natural learning that takes place as a result of us being fully embedded in our communities and seeing ourselves as such. For youth in particular, this ‘groundedness’ might involve shifting the learning experience so that youth see themselves as part of a continuum of ages within the community. This would make visible the fact that the youth make up the community, rather than existing separately from it and offering a service to it.

3.     The Tragedy of the Commons
This is a concept drawn from economics that seemingly exists in many communities. As an educator, the tragedy of the commons is regularly discussed with reverence, specifically in regards to caring for the school grounds and infrastructure that we share. We often seek to solve the problems such as hoodies or dishes being left around; graffiti on desks or walls; or litter. Solutions are many-fold: letting students know that they are privileged to be a part of such a well-resourced community; teachers role-modelling a sense of respect for the school infrastructure; extrinsic rewards and punishments; asking students to be of service to their community (sometimes as a consequence); and so on. However, the solution that comes closest to true for me is when we instill in students the idea that they are not just a part of the school – that they are indeed the school community. The school is them and they are the school. Much like environmentalists often argue that by understanding ourselves as part of the ecosystem, we naturally become more caring for our planet. From an economist’s perspective, we are always acting in self-interest by caring for it (and ourselves). It is only once we lose touch of this true sense of community that the ‘commons’ suffers.

This is not a new way of thinking, and I am not sure if all of my examples speak to everyone as clearly as they speak to me. Nevertheless, I plan to challenge myself to shift my language away from ideas of servitude, and more toward ways of being. The natural world does not merely surround us – we are a part of it. In the same way, we are also not separate from the social world, but part of the whole. I wonder if anyone else is up for this challenge? It would be wonderful to hear your reflections on this.


Communities on the move

Photo: Carol Mitchell

Laments about being stuck on cars, trains, buses and airplanes are commonplace. It’s easy to complain about being stuck in transit. This post, I want to turn this around and instead look at how commuter experiences can be transformative opportunities for community building.

My childhood experience with this has perhaps been shared by others. As a child, I would sometimes go away to girl guide camp. I would be dropped off in a parking lot on the outskirts of Toronto and, along with a sea of girls dressed in blue, board a bus to ride for about two hours – a lifetime in kid world. I knew no one when I got on the bus. By the time we arrived at our destination, I was best friends with the girl beside me and had laid the groundwork for my broader social network at camp.

School buses and school bus stops are also a place where children and parents come together, interact and learn. Psychologists have been studying ways to make the school bus experience a positive one. After all, much has now been written about the importance of unstructured, social learning time for kids. One option might be to focus on shorter ride times with consolidated age groups. The Head Start program in the United Sates has begun a somewhat formal program to connect in-school learning experiences with learning on school buses.

As children grow into their young adult years, the opportunity for transformation in transit grows. In October, I blogged about the work of Mujahid Sarsur and the Bard Palestinian Youth Initiative. A participant of this program reflects on his experience travelling on a bus after visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum with the program:
“The discussion was so evocative that it did not end when we exited the museum.  Each participant, Palestinian or foreign, was bursting with something to say.  On the bus ride to the Mediterranean, we told the driver to cut the music so that we could better manage our meanings across the linguistic divide.  I personally have never spoken clearer Arabic than I did in the half hour separating Jerusalem from the sea.  For some reason, passion pulls the levers of comprehension and communication in a way that nothing else can. In retrospect, that bus ride back-and-forth may have been the most significant segment of our entire trip.”

A recent blog post about commuters to Chicago’s financial district makes the connection between commuting and community-building among adults. The post discusses the connections that are made ‘10 seconds at a time’: how the bus driver – that the blogger has affectionately named ‘Spiffy’ – has ten-second conversations each day with each commuter. Other commuters listen into these conversations. As this is a regular ride for most of the customers, Spiffy’s short conversations form the basis of a social network – one that allows people to gain insight into one another’s lives outside of their workplace. The blogger even recounts a story of a ‘get well soon’ card that was passed around the bus for a regular rider who had been hospitalized.

Another way that adults are building community while commuting is through the creation of book clubs. Commuter book clubs have been in existence for quite some time, and seem to be increasing in popularity. The Kitsapun Library has launched a book club on the ferry between Bainbridge Island and Seattle.  First Capital Connect in the UK also operates a book club that encourages commuters to read and discuss the same books – this also acts as a means for publishers to promote new materials. Also in the UK, Book Swaps for London have set up areas in train and tube stations that allow passengers to drop off and pick up books for free. On a smaller scale, the Rolling Readers are four women from Georgia who use their commute to read aloud and discuss the content of books.

Anyone out there have stories about connecting with others while in transit?

Beyond skate parks – transforming communities with teens

There is no doubt that the teen years are ones of dramatic change for young people and those around them. It is perhaps for this reason that teens are often seen as awkward accessories to our communities – ones who must to be occupied with skateparks or part-time jobs until they mature. However, the innovative and energetic nature of teenagers is often exactly what needs to be at the centre of our communities.

Photo by Peter Pearson

Columnist Jack Knox recently spoke to this point in an article about Earth Day. He challenged his own assumptions about ‘misspent youth’ by citing the students at Reynolds Secondary School who grow Swiss Chard (who would have thought that teens eat chard!?); run an organic salad bar; and raised $84,000 for cancer. This is just one local example, but the positive potential of teenage energy is more broadly recognized as well. Brain science supports the notion that teens are innovative and creative people with the potential to bring fresh perspectives to building ideal communities. David Suzuki explores this in a fascinating discussion on Surviving the Teenage Brain.

So how do we harness this brainpower of teens in our communities? Here are five ways to get started…

1. Be welcoming and positive
See teens as key players in your neighourhood, community and school. Talk to them about their ideas and ambitions, keeping an open mind. If they do something that seems risky or a little incomprehensible, seek to understand their thinking. As adults, our knowledge of risk and critical thought can limit our thinking. Teenagers allow us to see things in new, entrepreneurial ways.

 2. Include teens in community planning
Community planning processes can benefit immensely from the fresh perspectives and energy that teens have to offer. In turn, this kind of hands-on experience is ideal for the way that teens learn – in social, experiential settings where risk taking is a must. Teens may gain lifelong leadership and planning skills. Acting as partners, teens can be put in the position of using their skills to teach adults, who may be limited by their more cautious thinking. Two resources to check out are the Youthscape Guidebook and Co-Management: A Practical Guide.

3. Connect schools to communities
Connecting schools to communities allows teens the opportunity to step beyond the confined walls of the classroom. It often allows more room to put teens in positions of leadership and to learn in a hands-on manner. It provides experience that may help them find employment. In return, it allows older community members to be inclusive and develop a deeper understanding of this age group of citizens. Explore ways that this can happen through my previous post Breaking out of the Ivory Tower: Schools and Universities building bridges to local communities.

4. Support youth friendly transit
In many settings, youth are limited by their lack of mobility. Concerns over lack of public transit routes, infrequency of public transit, cost or safety concerns may leave them isolated and unable to fully engage in our communities. The website contains the results of a research project that created a set of guidelines for land use planners to help overcome some of these obstacles.

5. Support recreation
Despite the title of this post, skate parks are great. Other contexts for connecting teens with their community include libraries, swimming pools, drop-in centres, community centres, climbing walls, music and dance venues, art studios, sports fields, community gardens, and parks. These spaces provide physical exercise, opportunities for safe risk-taking, and contexts for social learning. The Ontario Partnership for Active and Engaged Youth has recognized the importance of this by introducing the Playworks Youth Friendly Community Awards.

How is your community putting teens in a central role?

Taking a break, enjoying community

So cool to live in a place that looks like this!

Laura is taking a brief break. Watch for a great new post on April 24. You can also follow @communitiesknow on twitter.

Do social services support or erode society?

Photo: David Sky (creative commons)

As someone involved in both community service organizations and my local neighbourhood, I have spent a great deal of time thinking about the relationship between these two realms. I recently came across John McKnight’s discussion of the tensions between community services and capacity building. He states that “[paid] service is not care” as it can only be a “freely given commitment from the heart of one person to another”. McKnight argues that within the context of the United States, the extent to which neighbours care for one another has diminished and that citizens have become increasingly reliant on services. This, in turn, has eroded our overall social and personal well-being. These ideas are very similar to those of Robert Putnam.

This point of view left me feeling uncomfortable. While on one hand, I agree with these notions and see capacity building among citizens and neighbours as vital, I can also see a role for community services. In particular, there are three themes related to my personal context that keep coming to mind. As you will see, the comments in this post end more with questions than answers. I invite you to contribute comments that provide examples of positive experiences with community organizations, that generate discussion, or that help us answer some of the questions I pose below.

First, I appreciate the role that community organizations play in my society. There are times when the needs of my neighbours or myself are beyond what I can meet. If community centres, public health care, schools, libraries, social organizations, and so on were to disappear tomorrow, my community would be worse off. The key question is how to best integrate these organizations into the community and vice versa. How can we imagine these organizations not as service providers, but as supporters of community? How can community members feel ownership over these organizations? How do we avoid building this as a ‘service industry’ and instead find ways to decrease competition for turf and funding between community organizations, while still providing financial support to those who work in these contexts?

Second, I work in a profession that I believe is inherently tied to community and to caring. I see this as complementary and connected to what I do as a community volunteer, as a family member, and in my neighbourhood. As an educator, I provide a service. More importantly, this is part of the role I play in society – one that indeed ‘comes from the heart’. Schools have a long and complicated relationship with communities. However, I see their future as one being increasingly tied to community, not in conflict with it. I wonder how we can further enhance this role? I wonder how communities can feel increasing ownership over schools?

Tied to my role as an educator is striking the balance between being engaged in paid employment and taking the time to support my neighbours and family in other ways. I am a parent, living with another parent and two children. Both my partner and myself are engaged in paid employment outside of the home. There are times when we have each backed off from our employment so that we can be more present with our children and serve different roles within our community and neighbourhood. This approach has been incredibly rewarding. However, at times, it has also been frustrating. We both enjoy our employment immensely, and both of us are engaged in work that we see as being vital to community building. Our places of employment have also contributed to a greater sense of community both for our children and ourselves. I have also been aware that backing off from paid employment has been a luxury – one that not everyone can afford. When working outside of the home, we have also relied on services, including childcare. Our relationship to these services was not one of negative value for our community. In fact, our involvement in community organizations and services has been what has often facilitated a deeper connection to other people in our community.

I would like to suggest that the relationship between neighbourhood-based caring and community-based services not be a dichotomous one. Instead, I would like to continue to focus on a discussion of how we can best strike balance. How can we reframe ‘services’ as part of our broader social organization so that they are deeply integrated into our communities? How can we facilitate services that are mutually supported by and support the building of community? How can these exist in partnership with capacity building in our neighbourhood communities?

The power of language

Photo: JoBrad

Many of us live in multilingual communities. This is wonderful in that it provides richness to our neighbourhoods and schools. It can also pose a challenge, as language can act as a barrier to sharing ideas, skills and thoughts with those around us.

In October, I posted about reaching across national borders to build community. I now turn to ways that we can reach across language borders to build community in our neighbourhoods, schools and workplaces. Learning another language is not only a powerful way to help build community, but it also contributes to our personal health. For adults, brain researchers have noted that multilingualism can delay the onset of Alzheimer’s. For children, studies have shown that learning a second (or third) language provides them with more flexibility in thinking and problem solving, a greater sensitivity to language, and a better ear for listening in general. For all ages, learning another language can be a powerful way to gain insight into another way of life, culture or perspective.

Here are six different approaches to building community through multilingualism:

1. Take a language course, download a language app or check out a language program from your local library. Many cities host language lessons in cultural centres, community centres, libraries, colleges or schools. A few communities have reached out to provide free lessons to their neighbours. In my home city, the Victoria Native Friendship Centre is always open to those who wish to find out more about Aboriginal language and heritage;  the Turkish-Canadian friendship society offers free language lessons to beginners; VIRCS (Victoria Immigrant and Refugee Centre Society) and ICA (InterCultural Association) both offer free English lessons to newcomers. The Canadian government also offers free 5-week French immersion programs to tertiary students and teachers. Onkwawenna Kentyohkwa is an adult Mohawk immersion program that takes place on the Six Nations Grand River Territory in Ontario, Canada. They have published some great ‘before’ and ‘after’ student videos here.

2. The Noun Project is attempting to create a visual dictionary that allows us to share basic information regardless of languages. Anyone can submit an image and the images can be used freely. You can see a written ‘translation’ in one of 25 languages by scrolling over it. Feedback is accepted by those leading the project and images are tweaked or removed if they do not symbolically make sense to users. The images are useful not just for reaching across language ‘borders’ but also by providing information to those who are illiterate.

3. How about starting with a ‘hello’? For a less intensive experience than committing to a course of study, try logging onto a website that teaches you how to greet someone in a language other than your own. You can hear how to say ‘welcome’ in many languages here and how to say ‘hello’ here. Jennifer Runner hosts a page that features greetings in over 2200 languages. Sue Unstead’s Say Hello was one of the best books I purchased for my own kids. There are buttons they can push to hear the word ‘hello’ in ten different languages.

3. Support immersion programs. I am lucky to live in a place where French immersion is an option within almost any school district in the country. In larger cities, programs such as Mandarin immersion also exist. Educational and language researchers have often noted that children benefit not only linguistically, but also in terms of developing their ability to solve problems, see multiple perspectives on an issue and demonstrate flexibility in their thinking. All of this is great training for becoming active community builders!

5. Teach and learn language through  Frontier College. It runs English-language and French-language literacy programs in ‘unconventional classrooms’: places like community centers, shelters, farms and prisons. Volunteers are needed across Canada, and Frontier College provides training and support to enable you to work with children, youth and adults. The labourer-teacher program allows you to work alongside labourers on farms, while teaching English in the evenings – a way to exchange experiences and skills. You can learn more about them here.

6. Ask. Simply ask your neighbour. While it may seem awkward to initially try and communicate with someone who does not speak the same language as you – just go for it! With a little creativity, you will likely be exchanging ideas and information – or at least morning greetings – before you know it.

Anyone out there have a language story or resource to share?

Breathing Life In by Stepping Away

photo: Bernard Bradley

Sometimes the best way to enhance our communities is to step away from them. Much like the modeling exercises described in my last post, this can provide a means through which we can refresh our thoughts, gain perspective and return with renewed vision and purpose.

The business world has long recognized the idea of increasing productivity and creativity by stepping away from what one is doing. Ryan Jacques at thinkpost reflects on this idea by emphasizing the need to create change in our daily and weekly routines. Even little alterations to our day can make us more innovative and ready to deal with bigger changes. Similarly, there has been an explosion of recent stories describing companies that are exploring ideas such as ‘nap pods’ and meditation rooms in their workplaces. Many companies have discovered that these are effective ways for employees to step away and recharge themselves throughout the day. Along the same lines, Stefan Sagmeister speaks to the power of time off on Ted Talks – he closes his design studio for 1 year out of every 7.

Many of these ideas can carry over from the business world into those of place-based communities, schools or our personal lives. I have found a number of ways to shake up my regular routine, allowing me to be more creative and energized.

1. Conferences and institutes
One of my favorite ways to ‘get away’ is by connecting with people and colleagues at institutes and conferences. These experiences are refreshing in multiple ways. Not only do I get to attend inspirational workshops, but I am also reminded that the webs of creativity in our world are large. Everyone I connect with usually has a story to tell, a life path that is interesting or an inspiring nugget of information to share. Last week, I attended a conference where a colleague I had not previously met, passionately shared what she had learned from her morning workshop over lunch. This kind of sharing and connecting is both exciting and motivating. In my interview with him, Peter Block also reflected on the value of conferences and institutes: “Conferences and educational intermissions are places for reflection. Place where thought is valued. Time slows down to a natural speed. Priceless, regardless of content or keynote speakers. Living in another community is also priceless. It opens us to the stranger, which we need to wake up again. It is the antidote to the dulling and life consuming effects of like-mindedness.”

2. Volunteering
I make sure that I am always involved with a committee, board of directors or other form of volunteer work in my community. I select something for which I have skills, but that is not already a part of my work or family life – allowing me to stretch out of my regular ‘comfort zone.’ Often these commitments last 1 to 5 years, meaning that I am able to pass the torch to another community member so that we can all meet new people and take part in new experiences.

3. Meditation, Yoga  & Exercise
I am fortunate to live in a beautiful part of the world that readily lends itself to a walk in the woods, or meditation on the beach. When pressed for time, even just 10 minutes of midday stretching does wonders for recharging my body and brain. There is a great deal of research on this topic. The Mayo Clinic provides a good summary of some of the key benefits of integrating yoga and meditation into your daily routine. These include gaining a new perspective, an increased ability to manage stress, an increased self-awareness, an improved focus on the present and reduced negative emotions.

How do you get away?