Resource-full: reconfiguring how we create in community

On Tuesday, I did what parents around the world tell their children not to do. I turned up at a parking lot and met up with a bunch of people I did not know, but had found through the internet. I even got in cars with them and drove to another state.

What was I doing?

I had joined a group of half a dozen Illinois Democrats in a carpool to Wisconsin to pound the pavement and get out the vote to recall Governor Walker.  But I’m not here to write about the dangers of the internet or about the dangers of hanging out with Democrats-I-do-not-know.  Or even the Walker-Recall campaign. Rather, I’m thinking about a chat we had in the car on the way back. We started talking about obesity. A huge (I know, I know – how could I resist the pun!?) issue in the US. Our discussion eventually took us into the territory of individual responsibility, media, messaging, government. When the conversation concluded I kept thinking: we talk a lot about lack of resources to create change – when what we are really lacking is imagination, connection and spirit.  We also lack a commitment to taking responsibility – too often, the average citizen/resident will say ‘Well, it is the fault of such-and-such and the responsiblity of so-and-so”- rarely factoring themselves in to the equation.

Jack (not his real name) looked at obsesity as a cultural issue, placing significant blame on the role of the media and advertising in pushing people in a particular, unhealthy direction. He seemed to think government needs to intervene somehow to counteract the message.

Blame the media. Blame the government. Blame advertising.

And when that doesn’t work, just blame the system. Blame the system – for example – where people are so busy working to pay the basic bills they don’t have time to shop and cook. This is why – Jack exclaimed – fast food is so popular.

I agree with him – in different ways, through different influences, people are pushed into behaviors that aren’t serving them and their families very well. At the same time, I found myself – bouncing in my seat – describing how, in community, we can create counter cultures and that everyone has a role to play. I talked about individuals and their choices – including people like him. Yeh, even thin Jack who lives in an upper middle class Chicago suburb with his thin family has a role to play in creating culture and systems change that addresses (among other things) obesity in the United States.

A lot of what I said to him is based on stories I know from ‘inside-out’ community development.

Let’s take a neighborhood – Anywhere, USA. It is a neighborhood with a lot of working class families – people who have little free time to cook and shop and no extra monies to pay someone to do the cooking or buy healthy pre-made meals.  As Jamie Oliver has been doing in the UK and the US, someone could set up some sort of project to teach people different ways to eat healthy, yet inexpensively. Some of the issue is, after all, lack of experience with healthy eating as a result of what’s been passed from one parent to the next.  But, as Jamie found out (I say this based on watching the documentary about his UK experiement – unfortunately, I haven’t found the weblink for it), this isn’t particularly straight-forward and it isn’t a silver bullet. ‘Educate the people’ is effectively what he was thinking/trying to do – thinking this was THE answer. And really, I think Jamie knows that it is not THE answer.  In fact, from what little I read about his work in New York, he also started working with farmers’ markets and other local inititatives to create healthy eating communities.

We are talking about cultural and systems transformation – which involves a lot of players – in and out of the neighborhood.  I shut my eyes and just spit out different ideas that were coming to mind:

  • While there are a whole bunch of people with not enough time to cook and shop, there could also be people who have time to cook, e.g. a retired person who still wants to be active, and maybe even has the know-how and passion for it.
  • While the local shops might not be selling fruits and vegetables, in the surrounding areas there might be farms or even bigger shops that are harder for people to get to.Maybe some of those people who have spare time might be interested in shopping for others that don’t.
  • It might be that the people with time and an inclination to be actively involved could be connected with those wanting support – new networks could be created.
  • Or, as Jamie is trying to do, a core group of people can become educators in a community and teach others how to cook inexpensive, quickly-made, healthy meals.
  • Potentially, small service-oriented businesses are created. This isn’t about charity or huge volunteer schemes. Sometimes, money might be exchanged in return for a service. Or another type of currency exchange might take place. 
  • It might be, for example, that some people are out there who would love to cook for others and in return would want a seat at the dinner table, because they have no one to eat with at home.
  • Maybe some local people would love to create a community garden for growing vegetables.
  • Maybe some want to work with nearby farmers and other food providers to generate a greater supply of affordable healthy fruits and vegetables that can be brought into the community.
  • Some of the relationships might play a role in nurturing individuals to become more confident and have a stronger sense of self.
  • Some of the relationships might lay a role in job creation.

All of this – and an infinite range of other types of relationships an exchanges  – can happen through the forging of new connections in creative ways – ways that harness existing resources differently, sometimes uncovering resources where people thought there were none. I mean ‘resources’ in a very broad sense: people’s passions, skills, thirst for learning, secret talents, desire to belong, participate, be heard etc., alongside money and other systems of currency/transaction.

I let out such ideas in a torrent – bouncing, bouncing, bouncing in the passenger’s seat as Jack drove. Jack’s response was: What’s the business model? What business model would support this?

I stopped bouncing and slumped in my seat. “I don’t know. I don’t think about business models. My point is that we have way more resources and capacity to do things differently than we think and it is about opening up those resources. But it takes people coming together creatively and collaboratively. Anything is possible, Jack! But we can’t leave it to that small portion of people we like to accuse of having all the power and get mad at for using that power simply to line their pockets or give them status. .”

“Hmmm” was his response.

I know that in different spaces around the world, people are playing and experimenting with being resource-ful. And it is slowly spreading.  I hope people like Jack start hearing about these stories and get inspired – connect with the spirit of them – to ask “What could my role be in reconfiguring how we live together and how we work with our resources differently?’ or ‘If I could imagine how our communities could be different – more nourishing, healthy and thriving, what would I begin to see and what might my role be?’

That said – to give him credit – maybe Jack’s onto something…all about media, he said. Hmmm. How can we get more publicity to draw widespread attention to the potential alternatives – economic, political, social – we have within us? How do we – people seeking to unleash the alternatives to the status quo – start doing our fair share of nudging people generally in a different direction?

Thanks to Jack – for inspiring me to write this post and nudging me to keep thinking about resource-fulness, how we get the message out there that we have way more creative power than we think we do. We are resource-full.


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