Knitting a Community Together

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The Voorstad neighborhood of Deventer in the Netherlands is a model of asset-based, community-driven development (ABCD). Residents of this lower-income neighborhood have used their own resources to sweep the streets, plant the medians, create 180 street gardens, build parks for people and dogs, operate a welcome wagon, develop a community center, and offer programs for young people.

I first learned of Voorstad from Joop Hofman, an amazing community builder who has cultivated an ABCD approach throughout the Netherlands and especially in his own city of Deventer. He is also an ardent fan of the Go Ahead Eagles football club whose stadium is located in the heart of Voorstad.

IMG_0394 Joop introduced me to Gerlinda Tijhuis, the City of Deventer’s neighborhood process manager for Voorstad. Gerlinda had done a great job of getting the municipal government to pay more attention to Voorstad, but she had also challenged the residents to do those things best done by community.

Gerlinda (pictured at the right) took me on a tour of community-driven projects in Voorstad where we met Kim Arntzen (on the left), a resident who had initiated a knitting group. The group was knitting scarves in the red and yellow colors of their beloved Go Ahead Eagles. This seemed like such a frivolous project for such a high needs neighborhood.

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The scarf project started with ten women knitting around Kim’s kitchen table. As word spread and public venues were added, more and more people joined the effort. Neighbors taught one another how to knit, and the non-knitters provided support. It wasn’t long before about 200 men and women were engaged. As they worked, they shared their stories, challenges and dreams. New friendships blossomed and community was built.

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People were knitting everywhere – at the community center, in the park, and on the street. They even knitted at the stadium while cheering for the Go Ahead Eagles.

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The group started stitching their work together to make one long scarf. At halftime in the football game, they paraded the collective scarf around the field. It grew longer each game.

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In 2017, they stitched the scarves to create a blanket that covered an entire house. The house they selected was the home of a Syrian refugee family. Wrapping the house in the red and yellow blanket was the community’s way of expressing warmth for their new neighbors.

Community knitting project in the Voorstad neighborhood

By 2018, the scarf was large enough to wrap Wilhelmina Fountain and The Waag, two of Deventer's most iconic structures.

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Kim’s vision from the start, which I discounted as totally unrealistic, was to create a scarf so long that they could wrap it around their entire neighborhood. But this week, after several years of work, Kim’s dream is becoming a reality. Neighbors are using a cherry picker to suspend their three-kilometer-long scarf from light poles marking the perimeter of Voorstad. The project has instilled the residents with a sense of pride in their neighborhood while knitting them together as one community.images0.persgroep.net

The knitting project reinforces an important lesson about community development. Communities aren’t built by outside experts using evidence to come up with solutions to address what research shows are the neighborhood’s most pressing needs.  Rather, people come together when they are relying on one another’s resources to fulfill their shared dream. No matter how frivolous it may seem to those on the outside, a shared dream can fuel community. There is nothing frivolous about an inclusive community because that is the key to health, safety, resilience, happiness and mutual support.

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