Category

Inspiration

Brewing Collaboration

Our confidence was pretty high. My friend and I were ready to unleash our first home brew on the world. A room full of dinner guests sat around the table as we pulled out our first bottle. Several weeks before we had bought a kit from a local lawn store and followed the instructions as closely as we could— and here we were, prepared to enjoy the fruits of our labor. What could go wrong?

It was a disaster. As I popped the top off that first bottle, an orange, foamy substance exploded from the lip and on to the floor. Once the carbonation had subsided and the floor was cleaned a taste of the remnants told us that this batch– in which we had invested time and money and energy– was simply undrinkable. We thought it might make good compost for the garden. It killed the plants.

We were homebrew failures.

Years went by before I would try again. This time I ventured out solo, and my results were mixed, but mostly I was left with this “meh” feeling of spending hours alone over a boiling pot. It wasn’t much of fun.

So, with these experiences behind me, I made one more attempt, to pull together a small group of guys to brew. We met to purchase supplies, for a main brew day and for a bottling session– and then came the big moment, when we’d open up and (hopefully) enjoy the fruits of our labor.

It was a smashing success. The New England IPA and Belgian Trippel that we produced were not just drinkable — and non-volatile– but really enjoyable! We had done it! And not only did we now have 60 plus bottles of successful homebrew to share– we had built relationships via common experience.

I think brewing beer is a lot like the work we do as community agents of change. It is a mysterious process– most of which occurs without human intervention, hidden under the lid of a bucket or concealed in a bottle. There is so much that is out of control and there is a whole lot of waiting that has to go on. Fresh off the taste of this successful experience, I wanted to share four lessons from home brewing that I believe can we applied to our work in the community

  1. We’re Better Together: When I was brewing alone in my kitchen, it was relaxing– and I don’t mind that sort of internal retreat that solo brewing might afford, but it wasn’t as effective and fun as doing it in a group. In a group, we were able to troubleshoot together. There were times where the directions we had were simply not clear. We had to discuss and make a communal decision about what we wanted to do. There were times where we weren’t sure how to do something. By sharing resources and ideas, we were able to come to the best decision. And the by-product of this was not just spent grains and oxygen bubbles– it was community, forged out of common experience. The same is true for the work we do in the community. While this may seem obvious, too many individuals or organizations go it alone– laboring in solitude, and the primary and secondary results simply aren’t as good.
  2. Ingredients Matter: This is an obvious statement to those who engage in any type of culinary pursuit, but it is an important lesson for those thinking about creating community change. Our friendly salesman at Cask and Kettle Home Brew made a great case for us to invest in Cryo Hops. Not only do these super-science-induced hops produce better taste, you have to use less of them than the normal hop variety. In our community work, we’re often coming with a set of ingredients that we have– and a common refrain in circles is “If we only”— had that grant, knew this person, got this funding, etc. Building the right ingredient mix is essential to making a batch that matters. Sometimes that means bringing a new stakeholder to the table. Sometimes that involves thinking outside the bounds of our normal relationships and resources, but whatever it is we have to put the right stuff in to get the right product.
  3. Fear Contaminants: In beer brewing the biggest enemy is bacteria. Every piece of equipment that touches the beer must be meticulously sanitized– otherwise you end up with the foaming orange stuff from my first batch. The same is true for community development. There are so many things that can inhibit the work– mistrust can seep its way in between potential collaborators, often undetectable at first until it blows up down the road. Small, indiscernible things can create disengagement, especially when people come to the table for the first time. Just like in brewing, we have to be extremely mindful of the potential contaminants that may affect our collaboration. This can be challenging because we always like to stay positive. We like to talk about the potential of this shared venture, which is important… but we should also stay really focused on things that could potentially go wrong so that we can do our best to avoid them.
  4. Embrace the mystery, magic and waiting:  Despite all our best efforts, in the end we don’t really know how something is going to turn out. That is the beauty of craft brewing, really. Because it is a process that is creative and collaborative– as opposed to standardized and systematic– it creates beautiful variation. And all of this takes something we don’t like talking about– time. In the “same-day-delivery” world that we are in today, the idea of aging things is a lost art. But there is no way around that in beer brewing, nor in collaboration for community change. Relationships, even between two individuals, take time and effort to form into meaningful collaborations. This becomes all the more complicated when talking about organizations or multiple stakeholders. And these relationships always occur in a context…there is history, there are cultural and social norms– that either facilitate or slow down the process. But, herein lies that most critical lesson from brewing– sometimes you just have to pitch in the yeast and let it do its work. Start the process with the right people, the right ingredients and the right intentions– and who knows something magical and tasty might happen.

The Beloved Community

As I drove across Vancouver Island today, I was listening to the radio and hearing stories about the last days of the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. It was the 50th anniversary of this death– a milestone that gives us opportunity to pause and reflect on the message behind the man — a message so challenging to the status quo that his life was repeatedly threatened and eventually taken away from us.

I surmise that if you asked most Americans who MLK was, they would identify him as a civil rights leader who advocated for equal rights for Black americans. While certainly this definition is true, it is incomplete because King’s work was not just about lunch counters and water fountains– it was about power and injustice.

No doctrine of King’s illustrates this most poignantly than his vision of “the beloved community”. First coined by Josiah Royce, the founder of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, this term was popularized (although not sufficiently) by King. For those unfamiliar with the term, the King Center defines the beloved community as:

“a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. In the Beloved Community, international disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries , instead of military power. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.”

Sign me up! This vision gives us a powerful picture of what we should strive for and aligns closely with what many other prophets and teachers have described, including Jesus’ notion of the “kingdom of god”.

This radical vision cannot be addressed without thinking about King’s triple evils: poverty, racism, and militarism. Much has been written about King’s legacy on racism and areas of progress and lack thereof. In these past years alone we have seen plenty of evidence that this exists– from police shootings of unarmed black men to white supremacist rallies.

We also must not forget the other two evils. Where do we stand there? In 2017, the gap between the rich and the poor hit one of its highest levels ever in the United States— and the policies of the current administration have further favored those who possess wealth and influence. We remain entrenched in a militaristic mindset– fueled by increased vitriol between nations and a general movement toward nationalism that threatens the progress of the previous decades. King would remind us to call these things what they are– evils– and to recognize them as the ultimate threats to building a beloved community.

And so the challenge is before us. What kind of community will we create? While few of us have broad ability to influence whether we keep troops in Syria or pass tax policies that entrench individuals in poverty–we all have the opportunity to contribute in more localized contexts.

Think about this?

Poverty. Does it exist in your neighborhood or town? Are people hungry or homeless? Why? Do we accept these disparities as a fact of life? Do we give a pittance to charity to show our sympathy? Or do we act compassionately to eradicate what is unacceptable based on the standards of human decency. King called a great nation a “compassionate nation”.

Racism: Are there people in your community who are excluded from the mainstream? These slights may not be overt discrimination, but simply a lack of connectedness. How can you break down the barriers? — by inviting the immigrant family to your next cookouts? by taking time to get to know the new person on the street? These little things can make a big difference.

Militarism: How do we settle our differences? What about your local police force? Are they engaged in community policing or embracing militaristic methods? Do the words we use on social media or at the football game reflect the beloved community or a militaristic approach to the world?

These are simple, little actions that we can all take action on. Of course, we must also use the power of our voices, our votes, and our purchasing to fuel larger, more systemic change. By dogged persistence and unwavering diligence, we can continue the progress, honoring Dr. King’s legacy and moving us closer to the beloved community of which he inspired us to dream.

Building Better Communities: A Blog Introduction

I will never forget that trailer park in rural Virginia. It was there, where as a home-based counselor to children and adolescents, I received referral after referral–moving from trailer to trailer, family to family trying to help solve the challenges that they were facing– academic underachievement, mental illness, substance abuse, etc.  Over time, I realized that these problems were eerily similar from one family to the next. I was on a revolving wheel of dealing with the same issues in a different living room, treating each situation as unique. It was there that I realized the power of community– and the limitation and inefficiency of treating community causes with individual interventions.

Communities Affect Us

We know from decades of research and our own experiences–that the characteristics and structures of the places and people with which we interact have a profound effect on the individuals nested within these structures. We are inescapably shaped by the communities in which we participate willingly or unwillingly. Ecological systems theory describes this most eloquently, placing the individual in the innermost of a set of concentric circles from which they cannot be separated. We are part of communities whether we like it or not– and the impacts are most profound.

Take for example recent studies on variation in life expectancy based upon the zip code in which one resides. Map after map show big differences – or disparities– in how long someone is expected to live based simply on where they live. Often the difference from one side of town to another– or one subway stop to the next –can be seven or more years of life expectancy. These data are the end result of a series of effects on physical and mental well-being that are correlated with characteristics, not solely of individuals, but of the community context.

Of course, communities are not just geographical, but also form around social context, mutual interests and shared experience. Communities can be physical or virtual– they can be united around any of a million things from Bocce to Bayesian Equations, from a neighborhood association to a group of immigrant advocates. Regardless the type, we know that individuals need community– and that the communities you associate with have an effect on your individual health and well-being. Three decades ago, McMillan and Chavis defined sense of community as “a feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together.”

So, why do we talk so much about individuals?

Countless volumes have been written about individual functioning. There are entire sections of book stores entitled “Self-Help”. In fact, a search for “self-help books” returns over one million hits on Amazon.com. We have gurus of all types and backgrounds– telling us how to be more mindful, how to lose weight, how to make more money. These life hacks range in value, but many produce personal returns in efficiency, productivity and well-being. Part of this obsession is our “rugged American (or Western) individualism” — it’s the critical component to the fundamental attribution error– in which we consistently blame the individual– and ignore the community context.
Our focus on individuals leads to a oversimplification, a polarization that is seen in our country today. It leads us to be incapable of taking the perspective of the other, of engaging in dialogue of substance as opposed to debates of repeating talking points. It pushes us to invest resources downstream in treatment, in individualized education, in psychotherapy— that at worst ignores and at best presents a naive concept on the role of community.

The Community As the Unit of Intervention

Communities are living organisms and individuals are the cells. The symbiotic relationship between the two is necessary. We do need to think about individuals inside out, acknowledging the contexts that impact them. This is essential for the doctor or the teacher and has been a key lesson in medicine and education over the past years– that we must acknowledge the context in which the student does homework or the patients tries to manage their diabetes. Increasingly, these professions are beginning to address the whole person, wrapping around supports and building partnerships to address needs that exist beyond the domain of the initial intervention — e.g. helping food insecure patients get to the food pantry or assisting low-income families in accessing the internet so their kids can do their homework. These interventions are absolutely critical.
But, there is another type intervention that begins in the community and makes the community its focal point. These interventions focus on the community as the primary unit of analysis, acknowledging that the changes within the community can have a dramatic and sustainable impact on the individuals associated with the community. It is an outside in strategy that is wholly different, but complimentary to the individual-out approach.
We need to talk more loudly about  principles and practices that help communities thrive. An Amazon search for “community help” (in contrast to the ubiquity of “self-help” resources cited above) reveal only profiles of individuals– law enforcement, fire fighters. While there is a robust literature out there on the power of context– it has not gone mainstream– and this limits our ability to be successful. There is so much research around this– from the characterics of neighborhood segregation to specific elements on what makes collaboration successful. Since our communities are key–to our health as individuals, to our flourishing as a group, nation, world, we need to put more effort and attention to thinking about what works to make our communities better— to highlighting the stories of who is doing it right, to translating the research to the masses and to building energy around how we shape the places and settings that are so critical for our individual and collective success.’

We do know, from myriad stories of heroism, leadership and innovation–that individuals can shape the communities in which they intersect, by their own personal behaviors, through their leadership and more. I call these people “Community Change Agents”. They are our champions. But, often their stories don’t get told widely or loudly enough. Often the lessons that they have learned, their successes and failures don’t see the light of day.

Launching this Blog
This space is now dedicated to sharing ideas and stories, distilling research and best practices and inspiring all of us to become agents of change in our communities. I will be curating the best ideas, the strongest research and the most inspiring stories and share them in this space. If you are a Community Change Agent (or want to become one), I hope you will follow along and add your comments, ideas, and stories to these posts. This is difficult work, so we all need to help one another. Too many great ideas or inspiring stories get lost in the boundaries of neighborhoods or limited networks. Too many research results get sequestered inside peer-reviewed publications at $40 per article– and written for an academic audience– not for those of us who are dedicated to making change. I hope that you’ll find this space a resource to aid you in that journey and look forward to interacting with all of you along the way.