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All articles here are written by Melinda Briana Epler (that's me!) unless otherwise noted. I'm a documentary filmmaker, writer, and brand experience designer - I've dedicated my life to living a sustainable lifestyle and helping others do the same. Please feel free to contact me if you have questions or thoughts for articles. Welcome!

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One Connection Leads To Another: How to Start Work on Building Your Community

Garden Tour at Seattle Tilth

Green Bean wrote a beautiful post today: Community Building 101. I’d just like to say, “um… what she said.” Please go give it a read. And then come back. I’ll wait.

Have you read it?

Ok… I wanted to give you some examples from my life.

Creating Connections

I’m shy. It’s true. And I’m lazy. Gasp. But as many of you know, I’ve been struggling to figure out how to build community and live locally. This is because I truly believe that it is the next step in this puzzle of saving the world (or at least save as much as we can). And by saving the world I mean combatting climate change, worldwide energy supply problems, environmental devastation, food supply issues, economic woes, and on and on the list goes until one gets overwhelmed so we stop and say ok, let’s get to building community already.

BUT it is easy to stay on the internet, looking for other people like me, green organizations around my city… and just… admiring that they exist. Guess what? Organizations don’t exist without people like you and me! If we don’t do it, nobody will.

So, I had this idea for a local blogger meetup a few months ago, when I first moved to Seattle. I mentioned it to Laura. And Crunchy. And time passed. And then, Laura brought it up again. And time passed. And Crunchy brought it up again and we discussed it a bit. And time passed. And then the end of the summer was getting near, and the pressure was felt. So, we finally set the wheels in motion. And I might say there was actually not a whole lot of work involved!

I’ve been making up a “Northwest Bloggers” list for the last couple of months, so that helped create an email list which we all added to. We posted it on our blogs, Crunchy created a poll, we researched parks (online!), I called the parks department to try and fail to reserve a picnic spot (didn’t matter – we just gathered beneath some trees in the park and brought our own tables), and with a few more emails and a decision here and there, we had ourselves a picnic.

And here’s what can happen once you organize one thing…

It’s Like Magic.

I met Gabriel and Jill at the picnic. We didn’t get a chance to talk until the end of the afternoon, as we were cleaning up. But we hit it off well, and it turns out they also live in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. In fact, they were having a Sustainable Capitol Hill meeting the following evening and said they would love it if I came.

I had been to the Sustainable Capitol Hill website. It’s… not very informative, and their calendar is pretty much empty. I was thinking about emailing them, but hadn’t really …done it. I sort of figured there wasn’t much to the organization.

But I went to the meeting Monday night, and learned that a website isn’t everything. There were about 15-20 people there. And… wow, those people care about the same things I care about! And they are doing the same things we write about here at One Green Generation!!

There is a Tanks to Totes initiative, where they’re going to meeting in front of the local food co-op with sewing machines to teach people how to make shopping totes from donated tank tops and other things you might have around the house. I offered my blog research for extra ways to make bags.

There is a neighborhood tree mapping initiative, where a map of the most interesting trees in the neighborhood is being created, so that people will become excited by the natural world in our neighborhood.

A woman proposed a multi-faceted initiative to help the apartment community become more sustainable, starting with educating the managers and building owners and then helping the renters live more sustainably. Maybe we should start with educating them about recycling, and then energy efficiency and storm windows, and balcony gardening, and, and… the possibilities were exciting! A committee was formed.

We discussed how to teach neighborhood residents about urban gardening, and the problem of the three year wait list for local p-patches, and how we might help people garden in the little space they have now. Maybe we could even match people with yards to people without, and they could garden together. We also discussed having an urban garden tour modeled after the West Seattle edible garden tour.

We discussed the park(ing) day plot: how will it designed, who will be there to facilitate, and will the coffee shop next door be interested in giving discounts that day? The park(ing) plot will be a picnic spot in the parking space, with a table and chairs and a couple of games. A little urban oasis, to bring awareness to the need for parks in our urban area.

And that’s not all, if you can believe it, more was discussed in those 2 hours! This afternoon I’m going to be meeting with Gabriel and the web designer. It seemed since I complained about the website, they thought I might be helpful in discussing what will go into a new website!

And It Continues.

Reeling from that wonderful experience, the next morning I visited to the Sustainable Seattle website, which is also not very good. I heard through the grapevine that they’re going through some changes, and I thought now was as good a time as any to get involved. I clicked on the “volunteer” tab, and right then and there I filled out that puppy. Not 2 hours later I received an email from the acting director saying she was out of town for the week, but would love to discuss early next week and when was I available.

A couple of weeks ago I signed up to receive emails from the P-Patch Program here (Seattle’s community garden organization). Through that email list, I learned about our county’s Harvest Celebration Farm Tour. It’s a totally free event, where 27 different farms in this urban county will have an open house, with farm tours, hay rides, u-pick vegetables, compost and cooking demonstrations, and more. Matt and I are so excited!!!

So here we are, 5 months into our new home, and I am beginning to feel like I am a part of its future – a more sustainable future. And I can tell you it feels good.

Your experience will not be the same as mine, I’m sure. You may not be so lucky as to have a sustainable neighborhood organization set up. But here’s the thing: Sustainable Capitol Hill was created a year and a half ago, by a few friends who were sitting around contemplating community building. And they decided it was time to do something about it. So they did. And you can too.

Other Success Stories

Joyce writes:

I’m on staff at a church, and we talk about building community all the time, usually using the term fellowship. Fellowship has two elements:

1.-common experiences and time spent together, like having potlucks, working on projects together, sharing baby-sitting, getting to church a little early so you can chat with people by the coffee pot, etc.

2.-Deep fellowship, such as small Bible study discussion groups, mentoring relationships, support relationships for those grieving or raising teens or newly married, etc. These are the harder step to take. Without the things on the first list, you have a hard time getting to the second list.

It seems to me that your first steps are things like meeting neighbors, participating in community groups like PTA, etc., helping with projects in your commuity. Your next steps are purposefully pursuing deeper relationships where you really share your lives on a deeper level. That’s always going to be the harder thing to accompllish. It requires a lot of time, and a willingness to let down your guard and be real with your friends. I sure don’t have the answer, but investing in the people right around you is going to be the most fruitful thing in the long run. When you get to that level, you begin to influence and support each other, and become visible to others as united by your common purpose.

Greene Onion writes:

I tend to be more on the anti-social side. I also work at a local Church several hours a day and for these few hours, I’m the closest I can get to my community. Even with my small exposure to the people of my community, I feel there is room for improvement.

Last week, I swallowed some courage and attended the dedication of our town’s newest Habitat for Humanity home. I took some great pictures and then submitted them to the local paper. Since the paper published my pix on Wednesday, I’ve had several phone calls from people in the community asking were to sign up as a HFH volunteer.

My little effort did spawn some good!

Kate writes:

You need to keep your eyes peeled! You spot the same new neighbour a few times, then you can walk over to the other side of the street and say hi. If you live in a friendly small town you might invite them for coffee, if you’re in the inner city they’ll think you’re crazy, so take it slow. If you’re in a cafe, keep an eye on the newspaper clippings they’ve hung up on the wall and the posters advertising events, local libraries often have community ads as well. Yesterday we had lunch at a place with a photo and article on the wall about the local girl who sells them organic eggs.

If nothing else things like that can be a talking point to ’sound out’ the people around you, or the cafe owner. It’s probably worth going to any community-based activity that’s happening, whether it’s a playgroup or bookclub or choir, because you’ll meet people. If you meet a lot of people you’ll eventually meet some that you like and have things in common with. When you meet people who are more challenging you don’t have to try to change them, just be honest about why you live the way you do if they ask. Just seeing you riding your bike might be enough to make them think they could bike.

Katecontinued writes:

Today I had a meet and greet where I live. I invited some dynamic women running for city council to come speak to my neighbors. Happily a few people showed up and I felt it was an important first step. They are all supportive of sustainability, open space, community gardens, etc.

Kirk writes:

To me building community means really getting to know where I live. The landscape, the neighbors, the weather, the local politics. There are other aspects, I’m sure. Unfortunately this requires a conscious effort and can take a lot of time (years?). Not to mention it is also, at times, very frustrating. For me, most often it’s the politics.

I recently finished, and recommend, Wendell Berry’s novel A Place on Earth and, yes, it may seem a bit idyllic and romantic, but then I realize the characters have really made peace with where they live and actually enjoy living there. Compared to more urban/progressive areas of the country, Kansas may seem like a cultural wasteland. I certainly was of that opinion earlier in my life, but now having lived in the same town now for 15 years and the same house for 10 of those, I am beginning to realize just how good it can be.

We average about 6000 miles a year on our van because I can walk two blocks to my son’s elementary school, six blocks to the library, two blocks to a new playground and public pool, four blocks to a bike/walking trail, and 6 blocks to the food coop. I may soon be part of the my son’s school’s PTO. I’m still making peace with where I live, but right now I really can’t see being anyplace else.

To name a few more of the good things here: there are no ozone alerts; lot’s of sunshine; The Land Institute; the Konza Prairie; Cheyenne Bottoms Wetlands; and two neighbors who jog with me regularly at 5:30 am . However, with that comes Fred Phelps, few non-chain restaurants, no easily accessible rail travel, the 47 year-old ex-con who lives with his mother and stepfather next door*, and a statewide population that hasn’t voted for a Democratic president since, I believe, the 1930s.

Your community is what you make of it – the good, the bad and the ugly.

*Kirk has since amended his comment: The ex-con just had a bad drug/petty theft habit that, finally (after a year prison), seems to be getting straightened out. I was naturally a bit nervous when I first found out about the criminal history, but later discovered a shared hobby in gardening! These neighbors really are decent people and we actually talk and joke about things. One of their grandchildren was born the same day (in the same hospital) as my oldest son. Now we occasionally exchange plants & baby stories and let each other know when we’ll be gone so to keep an “eye on things”. We haven’t gone so far as to exchange keys, but overall they’re very good neighbors.

{A good example of how sometimes the ugly can turn into the good….. – Melinda, , 9/13/08}

Abbie writes:

Coming from a small town, I have to say that getting involved with local politics is incredibly important. Both my parents were involved in town politics, Dad on Town Council and Mom on Board of Education, throughout my childhood. My dad just recently decided to get back on Town Council, after years away, because he wasn’t happy about the way the town’s heading in terms of development. I think that for both of my parents, being involved in town government was the best way for them to make changes that they could see make a difference on a local level. While I don’t currently have aspirations to follow them, you never know where the future will lead me.

For now, I get involved by attending Town Council meetings, Agricultural Commission meetings, Board of Education meetings (even though I have no kids, I’m still a taxpayer and as a teacher I feel I have important things to add), and Zoning Board meetings. I listen to the folks who make decisions, introduce myself, and talk about what issues are important to me.

I was personally against the idea of a farmer’s market in my town, since we have well-established family farm markets in town (one is my family’s) that have been here for centuries. I was afraid that the town’s farmer’s would be hurt by bringing in outside farms, and I voiced my opinion. Other farmers in town felt the same way, and eventually, the Ag. Commission came to the conclusion to put the idea on hold, and instead focus on promoting the already established farm markets. One idea they followed through on was setting up a showcase of local produce at our town’s Potato and Corn Festival, to great success. They also sent out a map of our town to all residents, with the 20+ farms marked and notes about what each farm has to offer. I was so happy with the result and so happy that I went to the meeting and voiced my opinion!

Deb G writes:

Building community is one of the keys to getting our world to be more sustainable. The more ways we connect with others about what we are doing, the more we can share what we are doing and why, the more change will happen. I think it’s as easy as finding ways to slip ideas into conversations at work (”Guess what I found this really great second hand store this weekend,” for example), doing something in public that prompts questions (knitting on the bus), planting vegetables in the front garden and talking to neighbors as they pass by.

I’m really lucky because I live in a community that (I suspect) connects better than most. Our farmer’s markets are very popular, lots of people bike, the buy local movement is very strong, there are neighborhood associations that have meetings on a regular basis, there are lots of people with dogs (I met more neighbors after I started walking the dog in Seattle than I ever did before I had a dog.), there are free outdoor concerts every summer, it goes on and on.

Last week at one of those outdoor concerts a group of volunteers got up and explained our city’s food recycling program (we have yard waste/food waste pick-up now). I guess that brings me to one of the other things that I think is key, education. There are still a lot of people that just don’t understand yet how important our lifestyle choices are. I recently had a discussion about plastic bags with a co-worker. She had no idea how damaging they are.

Belinda writes:

I continue to find it surprising just how few community building skills I have. I will advocate the need for resilient, connected communities till my last breath. At this point I am still just doing my best to try and start the ball rolling with my fingers crossed that it will appeal to someone more skilled in this area than me who will be able to make things pick up speed.

The reasons are well worth the effort but learning these skills from scratch certainly can be challenging at times.

And Sara writes:

We moved to our rural community for the “good life”. But Kirk is right, in that you have to make an effort to be happy with where you live, roll up your sleeves, and get involved. Many of these areas around the country have people who are friendly enough, but still treat you like you’re not from “round here”. With patience, good will, and lots of giving back, you can make an inroad to show them that you intend to be from ’round here’, whether they like it our not! :)

We have a vibrant local community, with lots of farmers and active sustainable network. Check out Appalachia Sustainable Development. If anybody is interested in getting something like that started in their community, the work is worth it! This is the single most important endeavor that has helped our community to be built up on the local level, and has helped others see the importance of supporting eachother. Every community should have one.

Other Ideas For Making Connections:

Book clubs, church groups, bicycling clubs or a local critical mass organization, neighborhood council meetings, pta meetings, community preparedness meetings, block watch groups, bridge clubs, block parties, knitting clubs, canning parties, kayaking excursions (maybe for birding or to gather edible plants), native weeding and planting parties, guerrilla gardening groups, city council meetings, …

I don’t mean to overwhelm you, but the opportunities are nearly endless, you just have to pick one and go for it!!

Ideas? Resources?

Please share any other ideas you have for organizing, and getting people together in our communities. And if you have any successes, please share them!

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12 comments to One Connection Leads To Another: How to Start Work on Building Your Community

  • Melinda, I’m pleased you sent me to greenbeans site. :- ) I agree wholeheartedly about building community. If we all stay in our homes silently working on our simple lives we aren’t providing successful green role models for our wider community. We all need to be out there.

    As I wrote at green beans blog, for the past two years I’ve worked two or three days a week at my neighbourhood house. We help homeless people and those down on their luck, but we are also proactive and teach lifeskills classes – I do budgeting and living well on less. We have a permaculture garden in our backyard and encourage our community to come and pick. In the future we’ll be teaching sustainability classes. It’s a great way of connecting and helping to build up healthy sustainable neighbourhoods.

    It’s easier to stay at home stirring the yoghurt but getting out there and meeting others makes a significant and essential contribution to the community.

  • Thanks for the chance to amend my “47 year-old ex-con” reference. He just had a bad drug/petty theft habit that, finally (after a year prison), seems to be getting straightened out. I was naturally a bit nervous when I first found out about the criminal history, but later discovered a shared hobby in gardening! These neighbors really are decent people and we actually talk and joke about things. One of their grandchildren was born the same day (in the same hospital) as my oldest son. Now we occasionally exchange plants & baby stories and let each other know when we’ll be gone so to keep an “eye on things”. We haven’t gone so far as to exchange keys, but overall they’re very good neighbors. Now about the two houses across the alley with the late-night-partying students…

  • I think I’m going to have to let all this sink in before I respond. It’s a lot to think about. =)

    I can’t figure out which of your last few posts I want to highlight on my own blog now! I just want to bring some of your ideas up in my own little corner of the world.

  • I, of course, LOVE this post. I really feel the becoming connected again to our neighbors and our communities is a key component to adapting to climage change, building a better government, and a happier life.

    Thank you for the ideas Melinda.

  • First, I want to toast your marvelous ability to summarize . . . That skill has been honed for years it seems and you have real mastery. And, its twin, the talent for inclusive highlighting. The documentary filmaker is evident in all that you offer here at this wonderful blog.

    I wrote several more paragraphs and put them aside for a post . . . because thread hi-jacking isn’t a very community kind of behavior. :)

    Your community is what you make of it – the good, the bad and the ugly.

    Oh yes . . .

  • Hey Kirk, I”m doing pretty good with my late night students-they’re right next door :) .

    I also want to agree with katecontinued, very nice post! It’s really neat to see all these ideas together.

  • Rhonda Jean, I knew you were doing this, but didn’t know the details – maybe I’ve missed it on your blog. Thanks for outlining it – very interesting!! I love that you’re teaching the classes as well.

    As a side job, for many years I have been writing (and researching) multi-million dollar grants for state, county, and city governments to obtain federal funds for homeless programs and community development programs to prevent homelessness. So I guess I’ve been on the less active but still important fundraising side. What you’re doing sounds MUCH more fun!!!!!

    Kirk, That is a fabulous amendment! Love it. I’ve included it in your comment above, because it is a good example of how the ugly can turn into the good. I think we all need to be reminded of that possibility!

    Stephanie, Please feel free to come back and discuss any time. I am honored that you’ve highlighted both posts on your blog!!

    GB, We are all in this together, pushing one another, learning from one another, growing and becoming more connected. Thanks for the extra inspiration to write this – I’ve been thinking about it all week.

    Katecontinued, Aw shucks, thank you. As I told Stephanie, you’re welcome to write as much or as little as you like here – I am very happy to incite conversations! I look forward to your post about it. If you don’t mind, please make sure you come back and leave a link so we can all read it, as I think it’s important to continue this conversation.

    Deb G, We also have late-partying neighbors. Occasionally we have to say a few nice but stern words asking them to keep it down, and they are pretty respectful. Fortunately our walls and floors are thick in this old building!

    Thank you for your comment & compliment. I like hearing when you all like what I’m writing!!

  • Please feel free to continue to comment in the future, as you all have new thoughts and ideas. This is a growing and expanding idea in my mind, as I’m sure it is in many of yours….

  • Thanks for sending us to greenbean’s post and for your thoughtful follow-up. I say, get your neighbors together for a good old-fashioned yard sale. It’s a great way to recycle your stuff and build community.

    Step one: Actually knock on your neighbors’ door.

    Step two: Invite them to participate in street-wide yard sale.

    Step three: Gather the things you want to sell.

    Step four: Host that yard sale and mingle with your neighbors over snacks and sales. What better way to get to know them than by rifling through their stuff?!

  • Summer Picnic, Thank you so much for your comment – what a great addition to the list! Wonderful idea.

  • [...] buying locally, and becoming an active member of your community. You are beginning to work on community building and [...]

  • [...] isn’t it? Or maybe pre-community building, it’s more like community networking or creating connections. Or… just making [...]

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