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What does a vegetable patch and good community engagement have in common?

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It’s been a great summer so far for getting out in the garden. I love a whiling away a few hours in the garden and clearing my mind. But I recently starting wondering what a healthy thriving vegetable patch might have in common with good community engagement…

A community – if nurtured well – can be very powerful. If nurtured poorly it can be dysfunctional.

I like to think of it in simple terms…

Picture a garden bed. Imagine there are hundreds of different herbs and vegetables all growing together in the same veggie patch.  If you nurture them by providing them with nourishing soil, regular composting, decent water and protect them from the elements – what happens?

They will grow healthy and strong and provide you with a useful product that you can create all sorts of different meals from. The best bit? You can keep going back to pick more over and over again.

On the flip side, you can forget to give it the attention it needs to thrive. Sure you might be too busy to properly water the produce regularly, you might scatter the odd bit of fertiliser every now and again when you remember and with some good luck one or two of the veggies might grow a little bit. But once you’ve picked them, that’s it. The patch is empty. There’s no ongoing benefit. The environment simply won’t help generate anything any more.

I have two questions for you

1.    If you were a vegetable which patch would you rather be living in?
2.    If you want to grow good quality vegetables which patch would you rather be cultivating?

When it comes down to it, human communities and options for engaging with them are no different to veggie gardens.

The thriving veggie patch took a lot more nurturing. It needed plenty of hard work, dedication and attention. But you’re left with a healthy garden that you can pick and choose from as you need to. You know you will get good quality produce over and over again. It saves you hundreds of dollars a year on your grocery bill – and you’re healthier for it! You notice the garden seems to take on a life of its own. Your tomatoes are multiplying at a rapid rate and new shoots are popping up day after day eager to be part of your patch and you haven’t even lifted a finger!

On the other hand, the neglected veggie patch might have provided you with one or two tasty morsels but probably more from sheer luck and determination on the vegetables’ part rather than anything you can take credit for as the gardener.

And what about all the little seeds of promise that you lost along the way? You’ll never know what benefits they could have added to your next meal. Next time you want to grow a veggie patch, you’ll have to start all over from scratch because your soil isn’t healthy – you need to re-do your foundations again.

So let’s apply the vegetable garden philosophy to community engagement.

As a living, breathing community member (a vegetable) I would rather be part of a community (vegetable patch) which is being facilitated by an organisation or representative (the gardener) who is responsive to my needs and genuinely cares about what will help me and my area to thrive – and not just this time around, but also in the future. I want a long-lasting, fruitful and connected relationship with my gardener.

You won’t get the same results from me if you don’t give me the individual attention I deserve. I don’t feel nurtured when I’m asked to fill in a token survey sent to me by someone I’ve never interacted with along my journey. I’m probably not going to attend a stock standard town hall meeting which would be a struggle to get to even if I wanted to because it’s scheduled from 4pm and I don’t finish work until much later.

If this gardener had worked hard on cultivating a relationship with me, then he would know this and would seek my input in a different way – a way that suits me, my needs and my schedule. In turn, I’d be more inclined to help him grow his garden. I would talk to and involve relevant people from my own network. The gardener has nurtured me and I will nurture others on his behalf.

The expert gardener isn’t interested in survey responses. He is interested in quality relationships and connections. He knows that 10 good relationships with key community members will be more valuable to him in the long run than 100 survey responses. Because those 10 influencers will go forth and multiply – much like out-of-control basil.

Think of it as the veggie patch affiliate sales model!

I challenge you to think about your own vegetable patch or the vegetable patch you are cultivating.

Could it be time for some landscaping, pruning and composting?

Think of me as your horticulturalist – I’m here to help you propagate, cultivate and maintain your garden. My gloves, watering can and trowel are at the ready and there is nothing I enjoy more than a garden overhaul!

In action at the Northern Sound System

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Becky Hirst shares the wealth of information gathered from the community following a ‘Community Think Tank’ at the Northern Sound System, near Playford South Australia. The Think Tank was held as part of the 2011 Update of the South Australia State Strategic Plan.

Community Think Tanks

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Hear about Becky Hirst’s role in the development of the 2011 South Australia Strategic Plan, particularly in relation to the Community Think Tanks she facilitated.

Will Facebook technology replace sticky dot voting?

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I came across this fab video yesterday of Renault at the Amsterdam Motor Show using Facebook to enable ‘real people’ to ‘like’ things on their Facebook profiles in person.

Clever, ey?

I think we’re a long way off implementing this type of ‘card swiping’  at community engagement events but can’t help but dream of the day when  community members turn up to a consultation event and are issued with  little swipe cards so that they can share their offline experience (and opinions) with their online friends.  The potential is huge and I hope to give this a go sometime before my retirement! (That gives us approximately 33 years)

Don’t be afraid… I dare you to start the conversation

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I had the pleasure of independently facilitating a challenging event with a challenging topic on Saturday. The topic was nuclear energy so as you can imagine I was braced to put my facilitation, moderation and mediation skills to the test.

Interestingly, the Council who hosted the event (The Corporation of the Town of Walkerville) had decided to invite four scientific professionals to speak on the topic – all putting forward their arguments as to why they are in favour of nuclear energy.

As you can imagine, this decision caused outrage particularly given the Council had also chosen to promote the event using a cartoon image of a couple questioning whether they should have a nuclear reactor in the backyard. The flyer itself attracted media attention and the RSVPs were flowing in, so we were expecting a big crowd. We were also aware that protesters would be present – something which I completely understood, given the pro-nuclear slant the afternoon was taking.

One of the first questions I ask my clients when I undertake a piece of work for them is ‘what is the decision to be made?’ but in this instance there was no decision. The decision as to whether Australia should have nuclear power was way way out of these decision-makers hands. This was simply a case of the Mayor having heard an interesting public lecture on the topic and wanting to bring the conversation to Walkerville. There was no intention for a nuclear reactor in Walkerville – it was just a conversation about a topic that is of interest (or dis-interest!) to our population. I did question why they had chosen to hear only the pro-argument as in most instances you would hear from both those in favour and those against and I must confess I was a little apprehensive as to how it was going to pan out.

I’m pleased to report that the afternoon was a success. I have no interest in whether peoples opinions changed as a result of it because being completely independent that wasn’t my mission – so this isn’t my measure of success. My mission was to guide the speakers, the Council and the audience through the discussion and this happened in a calm, considered and incredibly civilised manner. As at the majority of events I facilitate on controversial topics, I was expecting questions from the audience to be more like long statements of opinions but no – we had short succinct and very well composed questions. The panel members respondent with the same tone. It was a conversation… a real conversation!

I don’t know whether the success of the event was because we planned for worst case scenarios; because we laid down some fairly hefty structure and guidelines for the running of the session; or even because the idea of hearing just one side of the argument meant there wasn’t the back and forth debate like watching a game of tennis.

My biggest learning from the event was in relation to the courage shown by the Mayor of Walkerville to host a public conversation on a controversial topic. She took a great deal of personal flack for her decision but went ahead nevertheless. From the feedback received she is of course considering hosting an event looking specifically at the ‘anti-nuclear’ argument.

My wish for the future is that more Government organisations and departments don’t shy away from the difficult conversations but instead take them on (with thorough and sound planning of course). I also hope more start to use scenario based questioning as Walkerville did. The mundane questions we see again and again in public engagement activity (What’s your vision for the future? How can we better serve you?) can only be described as weak and pathetic when you compare them to ‘What about a nuclear reactor in your backyard?’.

Yes, this particular event was fictional as far as Walkerville’s decision-making goes but imagine the lively discussion and debate that would occur if instead we looked the REAL issues in the eye and ran at them with great gusto! If Walkerville can pack out a town hall with a diverse crowd on a Saturday afternoon on a long weekend, then perhaps we’ve got something to learn from them.

For those interested in the nuclear debate, and hearing about the event from one of the speakers perspectives, visit Decarbonise SA.

Time-lapsed Open Space

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I facilitated the South Australia IAP2 event yesterday which looked at the future of online community engagement. I used Open Space Technology as the method of facilitation and it was great fun. The technique seemed to be well received by most. Only one participant wanted a more traditional approach of ‘listening’ to an expert present and used the ‘Law of Two Feet’ to leave the event! We live and learn!

This video is a time-lapse of the event, with an image captured every 45 seconds. Enjoy!

5000+ Moving City Forum

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Becky Hirst recently facilitated a Forum for 5000+ which is a design-led project for the redesign, renewal and reactivation of inner Adelaide. The Moving City forum examined how we get around in Adelaide – and how we use the city to get around, along with the connections across the broader metropolitan area and into the city.

It’s time for a conversation

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I’m always fascinated to observe community action over issues of importance.  Community activism and lobbying is usually a text book case of a frustrated community who isn’t being heard, no matter how loud they shout.  So they have to shout louder.  And louder.  But is anyone listening?

I’ll use an example from within my local community but will hand over to wine guru (consequently a god in my eyes), James Halliday for an explanation:

“The McLaren Vale Grape Wine & Tourism Association is understandably up in arms about a proposal for South Australia’s largest home builder – Fairmont Homes – to convert 77 hectares of a total of 177 ha presently used for cereal crops into high density urban housing and the usual supermarket/warehouse/Bunnings-type shopping centres. Phase 1 would see 1200 dwellings and 2500 residents, Phase 2 yet to be disclosed. Curiously, indeed astonishingly, none of the many hundreds of pages of planning documents include any use of the key words ‘tourism, grape, food, and or wine industry’. At no point in the entire process was the community consulted about any of the decisions relating to the planning process until the obligatory ‘community consultation’ period at the end of planning. Indeed the community was not notified of the consultation period, and became aware of it two days before the closing of the process.”  Read more at The Tentacles of Urban Sprawl, James Halliday, 21 September 2010

I’ll confess to not knowing all of the facts about the issue in question but know for certain that there is an angry community (in fact, several angry communities in relation to various ‘urban sprawl’ threats in South Australia at the moment) who feel that they haven’t been consulted.  And if there was a consultation process, no one told them about it or gave them reasonable time to provide submissions.  As we so often see, consultation processes regularly expect members of the public to provide formal written submissions in response to hefty documents without clear information as to what is negotiable, what isn’t negotiable, and so on.  It’s often a complicated process that only the hardened and well resourced community member participates in, and even then it requires a decent amount of time to pull something together.

The concerned community is passionate about this topic.  It’s important to them and they won’t back down.  Their concern is not just the specific housing development in question but to quote local businessman James Hook, “Our region needs proper planning, not a system of sprawl out and build services later” .  With the use of social media on their side, I remain regularly updated of the protest plans through pages such as ‘We Oppose Seaford Heights’ and ‘Stop Urban Sprawl – Mount Barker’ (with collectively over 1000 fans, and they are just the groups I’m aware of) and the more they are ignored, the louder and more angry these communities get.

There is growing debate within the South Australian community in relation to population growth and the impact this will have on urban development and infrastructure.  But at the moment any discussions happening within Government are happening very separately to those happening in the community.  The longer there is that divide, the less healthy the relationship between Government and community becomes.  The less healthy that relationship, the less likely that sound, informed decisions are made.  It’s a situation without a happy ending for anyone.

The solution?  As simple as it sounds, I believe that a conversation is needed.  Imagine a Government that opened up the opportunity for some healthy dialogue and deliberation not just between them and the community, but between the community themselves.  But most importantly, a Government that strives to reach the broad community to invite them in to the conversation; provides straightforward, timely and safe spaces for healthy debate and consultation; actively listens and takes on board the issues and topics they hear from the community insight; and transparently makes decisions that are based on the conversation that has taken place.  This is no easy feat and would need careful coordination and very thorough planning but with the right commitment, could certainly be achievable.

It’s a simple and very ancient philosophy on which I base all of my work in community engagement:  Tell me I forget, Show me I remember, Involve me I understand.  Confucius 450BC.

Involve me, I understand

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Official launch of the Matson Library mural

Gloucester Citizen article, October 1999

Back in 1999 a young graduate embarked on her first role in community work.  The role was Community Involvement Officer for a Neighbourhood Centre in an area of high deprivation, dense housing, poor access to services and so on.  Nothing learned at university would prepare this youngster for the challenges she was to face in the coming years.  That young enthusiastic graduate was me and the lessons I learned in that first job have never left me.

One of the first pieces of work I jumped in to was working with a colleague to plan and coordinate the transformation of a grey, often covered in graffiti, wall on the side of the local library.  It was decide that the local children in the area would be involved in designing a colourful mural reflecting nature.  Local schools and youth clubs jumped on board and before we knew it a design had been created.  I remember many cold, windy and wet Autumn days spent working with the children to create the mural on the side of the building and it was a proud moment when the children witnessed the mural be officially launched by the local MP.  I remember a true sense of ownership being present.

As the years went by I would walk or drive past the mural and it was always there – immaculate and colourful – retaining that sense of community pride and ownership.  I always used this piece of work as a great example of community development, in that by involving the children and young people in designing and painting the mural, the mural would hold a certain respect within the community and would remain untouched for many years.  I particularly remember some of the children who participated in the mural lived directly opposite it and I sensed they would keep a 24/7 watch on it!

Revisiting the Matson Library mural 11 years later in 2010

Revisiting the Matson Library mural 11 years later in 2010

Having moved away, I was fortunate to be back in the UK last month and dared to go off route and take a drive past the mural.  Would it still be there 11 years later?  Would it be covered in grafitti?  As I turned the corner and saw the dazzling mural still there 11 years on, I couldn’t help but feel a hint of job satisfaction!

So the lesson to be learned?  Involving people in a process and ensuring ownership of community activity, development and assets creates community pride.  The value of community pride off the scale.

Always a facilitator

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Name badges for my friends - always the facilitator

I am delighted to share this article written by Carla Rogers, Principal at Evolve Facilitation and Coaching. The article resonated with me and I chuckled at Carla’s observations of the facilitation skills used in hosting a party! Perhaps now my friends will now forgive me for those times they’ve been forced to wear name badges when they’ve come to my parties?

On a more ‘serious’ note though, the article highlights the observation that the best facilitation is often invisible.

Wow! February and March have been busy months at Evolve. I am recovering from a big week of festivities, where my partner and I celebrated birthdays that ended in 0’s. We combined the 0’s and had a centenary celebration on the weekend. During the planning for the festivities and the ‘big event’, I got to thinking: How much of our ‘facilitation skills’ do we consciously and sub-consciously bring to the fore in social events?

I believe that there is something unique about facilitation as a skill set and practice. It is both learned and innate. Its uniqueness is that there is opportunity for practice in every interaction, and also how we facilitate ourselves, inwardly and outwardly.

The ‘tie died’ theme party was held at our local surf club with stunning views across the beach, Montague Island and the magnificent headland and rock formations. It was, as you could imagine, very colourful. My first shock (and assumption – never assume in facilitation) was that nearly all of our party goers did not have tie-dye in their wardrobe. I have to admit, perhaps with retrospective embarrassment, that I had enough tie-die in my wardrobe to decorate the hall and dress most of the party.

Our first conscious piece of facilitation was the invite – setting the theme, and laying the picture of what people could expect (e.g. kids would be entertained for a couple of hours). Our second was to adopt some Open Space Technology principles – whoever shows up are the right people and when its over its over. Our third was to have a good look at the layout of the venue, where we placed food, drinks etc, how we could create a space that was easy, comfortable, that encouraged interaction and provided opportunities for dancing, group interaction and quieter conversations. Our fourth (and possibly more controversial) was to use name tags. To make the name tags less formal, we used the tie dye theme. We also had some of our practiced facilitators (e.g my mother) offering name tags as they met and chatted to people.

Luckily, many of our friends are natural born sub-consciously competent ‘facilitators’, who encouraged interaction between ‘strangers’. One of those was the children’s entertainer – the pirate. I was very impressed with the way that she seamlessly integrated into the party. As some parents remarked “Wow – where did you get this women – I did not see my children for 2 hours”. She wandered through like the pied piper (many times) gathering the children, entertaining them, they would then disperse for a while and she would regather them (particularly our daughter who is very much into the Open Space ‘law of two feet’ – wandering rapidly between activities). All in all, the pirate managed to entertain over 20 children for 2.5 hours – a very advanced facilitation skill set if I ever observed one.

While I am observing and dissecting the facilitation principles overtly here now – our goal was that any ‘facilitation’ was invisible – which I think the best facilitation, generally, is. And most importantly, my partner, daughter and I had a hoot, and enjoyed the only 100th birthday party that we are likely to have.

By Carla Rogers of Evolve Facilitation and Coaching. Please visit Carla’s web site at www.evolves.com.au for additional articles and resources.