A Whole Systems Approach to Community and Transition

August 01, 2009
Shaktari Belew
Sentient Times

The distinguished man slowly traversed the room with a methodical gait. Every eye fixed on his entrance, surprise washing over each face. He sat down quietly, as though ready to work—yet caught somehow in a spell of confusion. Why was he here?

Our inquiring gazes were met by a fumbling for words, though none could begin to express the grief and shock of the moment. His grandson had been gunned down the night before by a drive-by shooter. There was no explanation for such wanton violence—only shock and despair. Perhaps it was an attempt to find comfort and order in the chaos of the moment that prompted him to keep his commitment to attend the Community Weaving training where he felt he was a part of something that would make a real difference in his community.

His choice to be one among us touched us to the core. In one simultaneous motion we gathered around to share his pain. We held each other, comforting him as best we could with our compassion, tears, and words, christening the moment with the open-hearted understanding of a good neighbor in the midst of disbelief and tragedy.

Our work crystallized in that moment for me. It was for his grandson and all who have felt the lashing whip of community injustice, inequality, and deprivation that we met on that Chicago weekend. Our intention was to launch Community Weaving and its 10 pilot projects throughout the United States. Yet in that moment the fullness of the opportunity was unveiled. Would his grandson be alive today if the Good Neighbor Network was fully active in his community? Would the participants in this tragedy have chosen a different outcome? How could anyone know?

What separates those who perpetrate acts of bravado or desperation from those who choose a less violent response to life’s circumstances? What allows some to value life so little that the taking of it comes so easily? If it is true that our outer world reflects our inner world, how do we raise children to reflect the values to which we pay lip service, especially when our actions often contradict our words.

When asked, “Are you a good neighbor,” just about anyone would answer affirmatively. Those words conjure up visions of friendly faces, shared memories, and people you can rely on who can rely on you as well. We all know what it means to be a good neighbor, but how many of us actually experience that sense of reliable reciprocal assistance inherent in those words, especially in times of community stress, crisis, and transition?

Our societal love affair with the cult of the individual who “courageously goes it alone through thick and thin,” has increased the sense of isolation and loneliness for many, creating an illusion that no one cares. With no one to go to for help, except the understaffed and underpaid governmental assistance agencies, many feel desperate and lost with nowhere to turn.

How could Community Weaving make a difference? Its power is in its simplicity of design. Years earlier its founder, Cheryl Honey, noticed that when she needed assistance as a single mother of four, the governmental agencies treated her as if she was broken and needed fixing. Yet she was clear she simply needed assistance with some challenging circumstances. What was missing was that ability to connect to a real “community.” She longed for the welcoming assistance of a Good Neighbor—someone she could count on in her hour of need, but who could also count on her in a reciprocal manner. It was the reciprocity that made the difference between feeling empowered and feeling diminished. Cheryl realized that there were millions of people, just like her, who wanted to be connected to a community of good neighbors who would lend a helping hand in times of need instead of being thrown a shaming hand-out. Others with database skills were attracted to her vision and they developed a free internet based asset-mapping network to allow Good Neighbors from around the world to connect and co-create their future together. She calls it “Community Weaving” because it weaves the richness of community members together, empowering participants to offer their best to each other, all the while documenting the process—and thus honoring the gifts that are given and received.

My trip to Chicago offered me a first-hand experience of the disparity between cultural, racial, and economic communities—differences I admit I was rather sheltered from in my every day Ashland life. I met brilliant, dedicated community leaders who lived in some of the roughest neighborhoods in Chicago, dealing day to day with issues I only see on film. I was left with a lingering question: With somewhat equal training and education, in a situation in which we are all working to create communities that fully live up to the promise of community—the extended family-like caring we all long for—why do I live in a relative bubble of ease and comfort while many of those working on the same issues in Chicago live in the heart of danger, facing daily issues I can’t even imagine? (This isn’t an issue I had to travel to Chicago to experience—these separate and unequal worlds can be found in every geographical area.) My emerging rage was tempered by the humble realization that the issues involved were too complex for one simple answer, and I was left in a state of not-knowing—an excellent space in which learning and the spirit of open exploration and experimentation thrive.

I had the privilege of meeting some of the most passionate community leaders, common people like you and me, who have dedicated their lives to the whole-system improvement of their communities through a willingness to see through new eyes, new points-of-view, and creatively explore new solutions. Mary Moore is a perfect example. She is Vice President of the Third Gear Youth Leadership Organization (http://3rdgear.org/) which was founded in 2004 by her son, Linton Johnson III, who plays for the Chicago Bulls. 3rd Gear reinforces academic skills through hands on activities in which children can develop independence and life-skills. Leadership skills are also devloped through entrepreneurial year-round after school programs that complement the school day. 3rd Gear reaches over 5,000 children a year, emphasizing usable life skills, self-discipline, and creativity.

Busy as her life is, Mary found time to house, feed, and drive us throughout Chicago during our stay. Her dedication to community well-being made her one of the most passionate volunteers eager to bring Community Weaving to Chicago. She understands the power of creating a network of Good Neighbors, people who are willing to share their skills, experiences, and tangibles with each other. It is this kind of network of trust that can act as a reliable safety net when we are faced with challenges—whether everyday issues like the need to borrow a truck or larger issues like the need to connect with professional experts you can trust.

Mary understands that trust is the currency of the moment, and quality relationships drive the engine of change. Whole-Systems focus on the relationships between elements as much as the elements themselves. The significance of the shift from a focus on object-oriented ways of seeing the world to one in which the relationships between elements becomes paramount cannot be underestimated. It is the motivation behind many of the most leading-edge successful movements throughout the world, including Transition Towns and Community Weaving. Don’t believe me? Witness the meteoric growth of relational networks like FaceBook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.

So what’s this all got to do with Transition Towns and Community Weaving? As idealistic as we are in the Transition Town movement, my biggest lesson from Chicago was the realization that, for many people, we’ve put the cart before the horse. In conditions in which people are losing jobs at increasingly rapid rates, most people have no capacity to discuss the issues addressed by the Transition Town movement (peak oil, climate change, exponential population growth, and uncertain global finances), no matter how vital those discussions may be to our planetary survival. When immediate daily survival is at stake attention focuses on the basics. People are looking for ways to ensure their family’s survival and safety, and Community Weaving offers a first step towards accomplishing that goal with simple elegance.

Are you a Good Neighbor? Someone who is willing to share skills, experiences, and even some tangibles with friends, family, and neighbors with the understanding that this act of sharing empowers you as much as the person you are momentarily assisting; and the further understanding that your act of sharing will be reciprocated in the future, whether directly or indirectly through the network.

Do you want to live in a community of Good Neighbors? To know that whatever your needs, there is a network of people willing to assist you in finding the most empowering solution with the greatest ease.

When we walked along the waterfront in Chicago, asking people those questions, the response was overwhelmingly positive. Each person wanted to learn more and was eager to begin Community Weaving in their own locale. Luckily, it’s an easy process to initiate. Simply begin by registering as a Good Neighbor in the Good Neighbors Network (http://goodneighbors.net). You can even enter a unique group code that allows your group, whether geographical or relational, to be treated as a unique nested-community.

The whole-systems approach to community championed by the Transition Town movement is a natural match with Community Weaving, because they both support each other in multiple ways:

Community Weaving can become the first step in introducing communities to the concept of whole-systems—those that focus beyond the various elements of any system (in a forest the elements would be the trees, animals, understory, soil, etc.) to include an equal focus on the relationships between diverse elements (how the diversity of trees, animals, and plants affect the understory, the quality of soil, the humidity, moisture content, etc.). In a community setting, how would we design support systems, for example, if our focus was on relationships as much as on pure profit, statistics, and other conceptual metrics? If quality relationships were the highest priority, how would we design public assistance programs, health care systems, and emergency relief?

Both offer practical, real-life opportunities to experience whole-systems thinking.

Community Weaving offers a free and easily accessible network, mapping and weaving together community assets in a way that becomes highly advantageous for the Transition movement and local support agencies. In fact, Community Weaving turns the traditional top-down governmental assistance programs into a side-by-side mutually beneficial community empowerment program in which the community refers only the most difficult situations to the over-worked, under-staffed and under-paid governmental programs—keeping those that are easily handled within the Good Neighbor Network of the extended-family-like domain of the community.

Transition Towns offer Community Weaving a deeper context on which to build trusting relationships. While Community Weaving links the community together, Transition Towns link community members to the complex issues we all face and a network of skilled change-agents willing to explore and experiment new solutions for community well-being.

Both programs focus on empowering individuals to proactively explore and experience their gifts and natural talents by supporting each person’s passions. Both acknowledge that when we follow our passions, we give our best to ourselves and the world.

What could the world look like when we all see each other as Good Neighbors? Would that drive-by shooting still happen? No one knows. But why not begin to experiment with possible solutions that resonate deeply with what we all know and long for? Humans are mammals—naturally community-oriented beings. The Good Neighbor Network, also called the Family Support Network, works because it resonates with that deepest part of our natural wisdom. We know that good communities work because they increase the odds that every member not only survives but thrives. Regardless of the uncertainty we face as a species dealing with the complex issues addressed through the Transition Town movement, focusing our attention and energy on possible solutions that encourage the thrivability, creativity and empowerment of each participant is an excellent next step.

Please join us in exploring the delicious possibilities brought about by a whole-sys-tems designed world. You can network with Transition Towns throughout the US at http://transitionus.org. Transition Town Ashland, http://transitiontownashland.org/, a fledgling addition to the movement, meets twice monthly. An introductory talk is offered the first Thursday of every month at Peace House at 7pm. TTA community planning group meetings take place the third Thursday of every month in the Gresham Room of the Ashland Public Library, also at 7pm.

Ashland will be offering the Training for Transition workshop on August 15 & 16. To register contact Shaktari@AshlandHome.net. To learn more about global Gaia University visit www.GaiaUniversity.org. Learn more about Community Weaving at www.communityweaving.org.

ShaktariShaktari Belew is one of 22 nationally certified trainers from TransitionUS offering a two-day workshop called “Training for Transition” to communities throughout the US. If your community is interested in hosting this potent workshop, contact Shaktari at Shaktari@AshlandHome.net. Shaktari holds an MSc degree in Organizing Learning for EcoSocial Regeneration from Gaia University, where she offers her skills in Admissions and as a Process Advisor and Internal Reviewer. She is the author of the book Honoring All Life—A Practical Guide to Exploring a New Reality (2005).

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