My mother lives on a medium-sized cattle ranch. Recently, she decided that she wanted to stop fertilizing her pastures. It was getting expensive, time consuming, and the idea of putting more chemicals out on the land was losing its philosophical appeal.
Instead, she connected with a native pasture expert, and they started a multi-year process to restore the pastures to their more natural and healthy state. They did this by focusing on the soil rather than the grass itself. It reminded me of the organic farming movement that is almost singularly focused on the soil. In their view, healthy soil produces healthy plants and a healthy environment. These types have stopped treating the plant and invest in the soil that produces the plant.
In the world of community building, this same approach is catching on. People come from somewhere — they come from communities. Instead of focusing every effort on individual people, the more durable approach is to address the environment they are in. And the best way to create that environment is to make it a participatory one. Communities are full latent assets that just need to be found, connected, and activated.
The Broadway Church in Indianapolis has a unique summer job for kids. Their job ($11/hour) is to meet people in the community, learn what they are good at, and celebrate their skills somehow. At the end of the week, these summer jobbers come together to compare notes and connect people with similar talents and interests. They have been doing this for eight years, and those students now see their community as full of opportunity, talent, and knowledge.
Jumpstarting participation and engagement in communities can have the same lasting effect that active, healthy soil is having on my mom's pasture. It's beautiful, healthy, productive, and less expensive to maintain.