Author Archives: admin

050August 19 – September 21
New Zealand

September 28-29
Maple Ridge, British Columbia, Canada

September 30
Chilliwack, British Columbia, Canada

October 5-9
Singapore

October 19-23
British Virgin Islands

October 30 - November 1
Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

November 9-23
Australia

November 30 - December 1
Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada

December 3-10
Netherlands

I was surprised when Cesar Cala, a fellow community organizer, complained that his efforts were often frustrated by “those GD activists.” “GD” I asked, “what are you talking about?” “The grim and determined,” he replied.

Cesar is right. Too many of us take ourselves way too seriously. We give the impression that activism is our cross to bear. If that’s our attitude, who’s going to want to join us? We need to lighten up and have fun if we want to make serious change.

Recently, I was the guest of Peter Kenyon, of the Bank of IDEAS, who lives in the Western Australian city of Kalamunda. Clearly, Peter’s infectious, fun-loving spirit has caught on. Kalamunda’s activists know the power of humor.

When the state government threatened to amalgamate Kalamunda with a neighboring city, the people didn’t spend a lot of time gathering signatures on petitions or testifying at public hearings. They organized a funeral procession mourning the death of democracy. Dressed in black and bearing a coffin, they paraded through the streets. The action generated media coverage like nothing else and contributed to the premier’s decision to back down. After all, who wants to be held responsible for the death of democracy?

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Kalamunda residents have also taken a light-hearted approach to the very serious issue of climate change. How do you draw attention to the melting polar ice caps and rising sea levels when you are in a city built on a hill 600 feet above and several miles away from the ocean? You prepare for the future by organizing a surf club. Jim Smith founded the surf club as a way to “raise awareness of the need for more sustainable living and to have some fun.” Now the surf club boasts membership from all over the world including the mayor of Miami Beach, Florida.

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Residents of Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood were equally creative in raising the issue of environmental sustainability. Working with Sustainable Ballard, Julia Field started issuing official-looking undriver licenses to those who pledged to use alternative transportation. An undriver license entitles the bearer to board the shufflebus, a foot-powered, Fred Flinstone-type vehicle that gets passersby thinking about what they can do to reduce their carbon footprint.

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One of the best examples of creative activism is the Backbone Campaign based where I live on Vashon Island, Washington. The organization is named for a 70-foot-long backbone puppet that it took to the Democratic National Convention and President Obama’s inauguration to encourage them to have the backbone to support progressive causes.

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When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of corporate personhood, the Backbone Campaign protested by unrolling a gigantic copy of the constitution down the building’s steps; the police didn’t know how to react because they didn’t want to mess with the constitution. Later, the activists used a theater light to project dollar signs all over the side of the Supreme Court; again, there was nothing the police could do because no trespassing or vandalism had been involved.

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Every summer, the Backbone Campaign sponsors an artful action camp which includes training activists how to use kayaks for protests. Kayaktivists successfully shut down construction of a dock to be used for a gravel mine on Vashon Island and that property has now been converted into a large park. Kayakers trained by the Backbone Campaign are also playing a major role in disrupting Shell’s plans to drill for oil in the Arctic.

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In Surrey, British Columbia, residents faced the problem confronting communities everywhere – the loss of access to public space due to a misguided crime prevention strategy. The bench beneath the SkyTrain station had been fenced off in order to keep the "wrong people" from using it. Of course, the fence meant that nobody had access. “How can you build community without bumping places?” the citizens  wondered.

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The community responded with a Free the Bench campaign. During the street fair in the adjacent business district, they used the performance stage to put the bench on trial. A local member of parliament served as the magistrate and one witness after another testified to the good character of the bench. The audience voted unanimously as the jury to free the bench.

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When the local officials refused to honor the jury’s verdict, community members used humor to demonstrate the absurdity of imprisoning a bench. They brought dozens of chairs inside the fence to keep the bench company. When city workers removed the chairs, activists created a park scene complete with a birdhouse and mannequins sitting on the bench playing chess. Later, the scene was changed so that the bench resembled a sofa facing a coffee table and television set.

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More and more people visited the bench to see the ever-changing scene and to have laughs at the City’s expense. One time, artists converted the bench into a dinosaur (benchosaurus). Later, they decorated the space with hundreds of origami cranes and invited visitors to add their own. When it became Christmastime and the bench was still imprisoned, they installed a Christmas tree and a fireplace hung with stockings.

Finally, the City relented and announced that the bench would be set free. Residents were invited to a celebration where they could paint love messages on the bench. There are now many benches on the plaza next to Surrey’s new city hall.

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When neighbors became increasingly concerned about the crime that had overtaken the 118th Avenue business district in Edmonton, they didn't spend their time in meetings complaining to the police. Instead, they renovated one of the many boarded up storefronts as the Carrot, a coffee shop operated by the community. Local musicians started playing in the Carrot and artists displayed their works. It wasn't long before the art spilled out of the coffee shop and into the street, and the annual Kaleido Festival was born. A winter festival soon followed and then a farmers market. Now, instead of avoiding 118th Avenue, people from throughout the region are attracted to this vibrant district of multi-ethnic restaurants and unique shops including a beautiful new center for artists with disabilities.

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In downtown Tacoma, residents were concerned about the increasing number of pedestrian accidents. They organized Citizens for a Safe Tacoma but, rather than holding any meetings, they used their time to paint crosswalks in the middle of the night. The City responded by using grinders to remove the rogue crosswalks. Several days later, however, the crosswalks had been repainted. This time, not only did the City remove the crosswalks but they threatened to prosecute anyone caught painting them. So, the protesters painted polka dots instead of crosswalks.  The City Manager finally gave up, organized a forum on what to do about pedestrian safety, and announced that one million dollars would be budgeted for safety improvements downtown.

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All of these stories illustrate how creative activism can result in greater participation and better outcomes. But, even if the action isn’t successful, at least everyone will have fun in the process. As Emma Goldman said: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”

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April 28
City staff workshop
Kelowna, British Columbia 

April 29
Keynote Strong Neighbourhoods gathering
Kelowna, British Columbia

May 6
Inter-Cultural Association workshop
Victoria, British Columbia

 May 6
University of Victoria workshop
Victoria, British Columbia

 May 7 and 8
Keynote and workshop for BC Recreation and Parks Association
Victoria, British Columbia 

May 11
Speech for Community Building Institute
Cincinnati, Ohio

 May 12
Workshop for City staff
Riverside, California

 May 13-15
Workshops for public library staff
Riverside, California

 May 16
Keynote Neighborfest
Riverside, California

 May 20
Speech for Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast and workshops for community groups
Strathcona County, Alberta

 May 21
Workshop for County staff
Strathcona County, Alberta

 May 25
Keynote Communities in Control conference
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

May 26
Workshops for City of Monash
Waverley, Victoria, Australia

 May 26-27
Workshops for Baw Baw City Council
Baw Baw, Victoria, Australia

 May 28
Workshop for Local Government Managers and Community Development Network
Morley, Western Australia

 May 29
Workshop for Linkwest
Perth, Western Australia

May 29
Workshop for
City of Mandurah
Mandurah, Western Australia

 June 1
Workshop for Shoalhaven City Council
Shoalhaven, New South Wales, Australia

June 2
Workshop for City of Canterbury
Canterbury, New South Wales, Australia

 June 2
Keynote
for Inner Sydney Regional Council
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

 June 3
Workshops for Gosford City Council
Gosford, New South Wales, Australia

 June 4
Workshop for Melton City Council and speech for Volunteer Recognition
Melton, Victoria, Australia

June 5
Workshop for Municipal Association of Victoria
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

 June 8 and 9
Keynote and workshop for Tamarack Institute conference
Hamilton, Ontario

 June 16 and 17
Keynote and workshop for WISE Community Summit
Wenatchee, Washington

June 22 and 23
Workshops for city and regional electeds and staff
Burlington, Ontario

June 27
Keynote for Neighborhood Planning gathering
Seattle, Washington

July 9
Workshops for City Council and staff
Victoria, British Columbia

August 4 and 5
Worshops for Toronto Housing managers, staff and residents
Toronto, Ontario

 

windmills2Most places where I share community building stories from Seattle, I hear a familiar refrain: “That’s great, Jim, but we’re different. It could never happen here.”

I was subjected to that in spades when I was in the Netherlands. The detractors would go on to explain the “unique” obstacles to community building that they encountered. I’d hear: “Our society is so highly regulated that there’s no opportunity for community creativity” or “Government does everything for us, so people don’t take any initiative to do things for themselves.”

Those excuses may be even truer in the Netherlands than they are in some other places. And yet, everywhere I went, I saw inspiring examples of community building at its best. There is a large movement underway in the Netherlands that is called Burgerkracht (Citizen Power).  In some places, it is led by new immigrants and refugees or by people in small villages who have never lost their sense of community. In other places, people are beginning to rediscover community as they realize that agencies are no substitute.

A workshop I facilitated with young people in Rotterdam

A workshop I facilitated with young people in Rotterdam

One of the early manifestations of the Burgerkracht movement began on Rotterdam’s Opzoomer Straad in 1992. Neighbors felt that the municipality wasn’t keeping their street sufficiently clean so they organized to sweep it themselves. They held street parties to build relationships. Then, they erected lights in the alleys to enhance safety. They went on to plant flowers.

Now, a grass roots Opzoomer network includes 2600 of Rotterdam’s 4500 streets. Participating streets need to hold at least four events a year. On many streets, new immigrants and refugees are teaching one another the Dutch language. There are reading programs for the children. Neighbors care for one another and hold fix-it fairs. They create gardens and art together. Christmas, Halloween and an annual Opzoomer Day are celebrated. This is so much more powerful than Seattle’s Block Watch program which is organized by the Police Department and limited to crime prevention.

Displayed outside of the community room, the banner reads: Berkel Park, Full of Talents

Displayed outside of the community room, the banner reads: Berkel Park, Full of Talents

There are so many other examples of community-initiatives throughout the Netherlands. When a small village in Friesland lost its bakery, the residents formed a cooperative to operate their own. In the town of Zutphen, the low-income tenants of Berkel Park have organized their own community center complete with a Kid’s Club, common meal, and clothing and food bank. One of the most ambitious projects I visited was in The Hague where neighbors had purchased a large dilapidated building and replaced it with Emma’s Garden, a stunning refuge featuring a pond, brook, beautiful landscaping and art, a kitchen, and a large, curving mosaic bench among many other amenities; not only did volunteers do most of the work to construct the park, but they now maintain it and sponsor dinner parties and other community events.

Mosaic bench and sandbox built by neighbors in Emma's Garden

Mosaic bench and sandbox built by neighbors in Emma's Garden

Yes, there is lots of bureaucratic red tape in the Netherlands, but passionate citizens haven’t let that get in the way. In Groningen, I was amazed to see that young people had converted a large, abandoned greenhouse into a beautiful, free café complete with kitchen, dining room, library, living room, rocket stove, composting toilets and plenty of artistic touches. They accomplished all of this in two months’ time. When I arrived, they were preparing to serve their first meal of salvaged food. I caught myself thinking, there is no way we could get away with this in Seattle.

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An inflexible building code in Deventer did frustrate a community wanting to build an ecovillage, so they took their idea to the nearby town of Olst where officials agreed to work with them. Now, the first buildings of Earthship Olst have been completed. The walls are constructed of used tires, straw and other waste materials. No energy is imported to the village and no waste leaves. Again, it's difficult to fathom that an earthship could ever navigate its way through Seattle's building code and health regulations.

Paul Hendriksen is the founder of the Earthship Olst collective

Paul Hendriksen is the founder of the Earthship Olst collective

My friend, Joop Hofman, had conducted “guerilla management training" for municipal officials in Olst. The training encourages civil servants to question their bureaucratic processes and to be effective change agents in support of community initiatives. Now, Joop is providing similar training in Deventer where he lives.

Joop introduced me to Gerlinda Tijhuis, a neighborhood process manager for the City of Deventer. Gerlinda was working in Voorstad, a lower income neighborhood with complaints about blight and crime. Government investments had done little to solve the problems, so Gerlinda took a different approach. Rather than trying to address all of the residents’ complaints herself, she told the community that they would need to take responsibility for much of the change. Neighborhood leaders complained to their alderman that Gerlinda wasn’t doing her job, but the alderman backed her up.

Gradually, the community stepped up and took one initiative after another. Volunteers who call themselves the Crazy Hanks started sweeping the streets. Neighbors cleaned and replanted the medians. A few residents removed pavers from the front of their homes and used them to create garden beds; now 185 households have done the same. Volunteers, including the owner of the local mustard shop, have turned a blighted property in the business district into a park. Another problem property adjacent to the railroad track was converted into a dog park. The football club uses their facilities to mentor and tutor local youth. As in other neighborhoods, there was an active playground association but now they are also responsible for a beautiful new community center that they own, manage and program all with neighborhood volunteers.

This paver planter is painted in the colors of the Deventer Eagles whose stadium is just across the street

This paver planter is painted in the colors of the Deventer Eagles whose stadium is just across the street

While many local governments are removing barriers to community initiatives, some are taking an additional step of empowering communities. In the province of Limburg, the eleven villages that comprise the municipality of Peel en Maas have each developed their own plans with the assistance of my friend, Jan Custers.  The planning process garners widespread participation so that the residents can hold their aldermen accountable for implementation but also take responsibility for much of the action themselves.

In Hoogeveen, they combine bottom-up planning with participatory budgeting. Once a community has developed their plan, citizens vote on how to allocate a portion of the municipality’s budget to implement key recommendations. There’s never enough money to fully fund the projects, however, so the community chips in with their own resources.

I visited a village in the municipality whose priority was to care for their elders so that they wouldn’t have to move out of the community to get services. Using local government resources and their own volunteer labor, neighbors renovated a former restaurant to become a very comfortable nursing home. Volunteers do much of the work to support the nursing home including cooking, maintenance, caring for the chickens and rabbits, managing the community garden, leading craft workshops, and taking the elders on field trips. Those elders who are not yet ready for the nursing home are matched with buddies who check on them regularly and make it possible for them to remain in their own homes.

A neighbor volunteers to maintain the village's nursing home

A neighbor volunteers to maintain the village's nursing home

A more urban community voted to use their funds to help create a “Green Heart.” It includes beautiful landscaping, a football field, exercise course, whimsical playground, woodland trail, large insect hotel, lots of art, and other amenities installed by the neighbors. Some eyebrows were raised at City Hall when another neighborhood voted to use their funds to buy a mobile piano, but that has turned out to be one of the best investments in community building as it attracts and unites neighbors through music.

Yes, there are plenty of obstacles in the Netherlands. As in Seattle, there is still too much bureaucracy and too little community. But, based on my six recent tours of the Netherlands, I am hopeful that things are moving in the right direction. The key, I think, is to be less paralyzed by the bureaucratic obstacles and more inspired by community stories and opportunities.

When I visited Taiwan earlier this year, I was reminded that the Chinese word for crisis is comprised of two characters, one meaning danger and the other opportunity. In every crisis there is opportunity. Our world is confronted by multiple crises. The upside is that we now have unprecedented opportunities to rebuild community.

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Christchurch, New Zealand struck me as beautiful and orderly when I first visited Seattle’s sister city in 2008. It was a very different place when I returned four years later. A magnitude 7.1 earthquake had shaken Christchurch on September 4, 2010. It was followed by thousands of aftershocks including one on February 22, 2011 that killed 185 people, collapsed hundreds of buildings, ravaged the underground utilities, caused liquefaction and flooding, and in the eastern suburbs, triggered massive landslides and rockfalls.

But, this crisis brought people together like nothing else. On the vacant lots that are now ubiquitous, residents have created community gathering places – a dance-o-mat, cycle-powered cinema, blue pallet pavilion, petanque court, miniature golf, dino-sauna, little free library, community gardens, coffee shops, a unique pub called the Smash Palace, and dozens more.

Christchurch's Blue Pallet Pavilion

One of my favorite "Gapfiller" projects is Urban Poetica, where the wall facing a vacant lot on Colombo Street has been painted as a chalkboard inviting neighbors to share their poetry. Kirsty Dunn contributed the following poem that was so popular it now appears in permanent paint:

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Out of crisis, Christchurch residents discovered what is most important – community. As one survivor put it, “It was a time when neighbors, family, friends and strangers stopped opening conversations with ‘what school did you go to’ and replaced it with ‘Are you OK? How can we help? Let’s check on each other.”

Similarly, on the global scale, the economic crisis has been an opportunity to rediscover community. At the very time that people’s needs have been the greatest, our governments and other institutions have had the fewest resources to respond. Many people learned what those in the global south and many impoversihed western neighborhoods have known right along – the only genuine source of care is community and all we can really count on is one another. Other people came to realize that even when times were good, they weren’t that happy – whether by choice or necessity, they began to focus less on acquiring material things and more on building relationships.

The economic crisis also opened many governments to the opportunity of community. They began to see neighborhoods not just as places with needs but communities of people with underutilized resources. Many local governments initiated bottom-up planning and matching fund programs as ways to leverage those resources. In the UK, the national government invested in community organizers because its budget was so much more limited than the community’s untapped resources.

A second global crisis is climate change. Increasingly, people are realizing that they can’t wait for government or green technology to solve this crisis. We all need to change in order to live more sustainably, and that will only happen if people feel connected to one another and the place they share. It’s in community that we feel responsible and accountable for our individual actions and have a sense that our collective actions will make a difference. Of course, the most important collective action is to hold government and corporations accountable for doing their part.

The unique power of community isn’t limited to the environment, though. As Margaret Wheatley says, “Whatever the question, community is the answer.” There is a vital role for government and professionals (something the UK government shouldn’t lose sight of), but there is no substitute for community when it comes to what we value most.

In the health arena, there is clearly a role for professionals; you don’t necessarily want your neighbor performing your surgery. But, our community should be in the best position to influence our behaviors, to support our mental health, and to help shape the physical, natural, social and economic conditions that impact our health.

Likewise, when it comes to public safety, you don’t want people enforcing their own laws; that is a job for professionals. And yet, communities are starting to realize the important role they have in holding police accountable. We also know that enforcement alone doesn’t work. In the United States, our spending for so-called justice programs has continued to escalate, we have obscene numbers of citizens behind bars, and people aren’t feeling any more safe. We’ve forgotten about community’s role in crime prevention. We’ve spent way too many resources lining up the ambulances at the bottom of the cliff when community’s job is to build the fence at the top.

I was in Kobe and central Taiwan after their earthquakes, New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, and Australia during and after repeated bushfires. What I heard over and over again is that people are totally dependent on their neighbors in times of disaster. Lianne Dalziel, Mayor of Christchurch, told me: “We found it was more important for people to have relationships with their neighbors than a stock of emergency supplies.”

Similarly, there is no substitute for community when it comes to advancing social justice. No major social change in the United States has ever come top-down. Whether it was the women’s rights movement, the civil rights movement, the disability rights movement, the gay/lesbian rights movement or the living wage movement, every major social change has come bottom-up. Without strong communities, we can’t make change.

Community also has a major role to play when it comes to raising our children, caring for our elders, sustaining the local economy, creating great places, and ensuring our happiness. There is a growing recognition that government alone won’t solve the major problems facing our society.

Yet another global crisis giving rise to community is the democratic crisis. From Tiananmen Square to the Arab Spring to the most recent uprisings in Taiwan and Hong Kong, communities of young people are demanding democracy. Western nations that have long taken democracy for granted are realizing that they too are facing a crisis as fewer and fewer people vote and more and more people think of themselves as taxpayers rather than as citizens. Politicians are starting to wake up and realize that the reason people think of themselves as taxpayers is because government has treated them as nothing more than customers. Elected officials are beginning to understand that building and empowering community is a critical role for government. And, citizens are understanding that they need to come together as communities to challenge the way in which money has come to have more influence in government than the people do. Everywhere I visit, there is an increased interest in participatory democracy which requires strong, inclusive communities.

The crises we face are very real. They can seem overwhelming and make us feel powerless. After all, the problems are so much larger than any one community. What gives me hope is knowing that we aren't alone. There are people in every community working hard to make a difference. We are part of a massive and growing global community building movement. Collectively, we will address the crises that challenge all of us. My friend, Cormac Russell, says that you shouldn't waste a good crisis. In fact, we can't afford to. Let's seize the opportunity!