Saturday, 27 July 2013

Portland Gathering 2013 Thursday: Connecting with the Community

Ideas about inclusion and community living
World Café Graphic

 Thursday's session of the Portland Gathering of The Learning community focussed on connecting with and building communities.

Michael Steinbruck challenging delegates to think
deeply about how they enable people to connect
We know this is a key problem for many people, with the rise of loneliness and social isolation affecting more and more people.

We discussed how Beth Mount is suggesting that the focus of our work needs to shift more toward community connecting, and Michael Steinbruck asked us to ponder the tools and strategies we've used that work to connect people.

Many strategies were discussed. The reality that the most simple approaches were the best: really being intentional about introducing and connecting people, in person, then allowing people to connect rather than getting in the way.

Tools like "from presence to contribution" and "what happens here" that help us think about how to support people to do more than just 'be present' in community settings, but actually participate, connect and contribute were discussed, and in my feedback I suggested looking into the '5 Ways to Wellbeing' (Staying Active, Connecting, Keep Learning, Taking Notice and Giving) as something that applies universally to how we can be in the community.

What was widely recognised as the most deeply instructive session of the morning was led by 'CJ' Webb of OTAC (Oregon Technical Assistance Corporation), the organisation that organised and hosted the Portland Gathering so brilliantly.

She gave us a very simple exercise: each table was given one or two words, with the instruction to go out into the community and find out about those words, without using the internet at all. The catch being we only had 30 minutes to do it in!

Our group had the words "Council Crest". Being a Brit, I assumed that this meant some kind of coat of arms that belonged to the local city council, so I began to study the parking meters and drain covers to try and find some insight, with no luck. My colleagues however found that a much more successful strategy was simply to stop passing people in the street and ask them what it meant to them.

We soon discovered it was a beautiful part of Portland, a mainly residential area overlooking the city with the most amazing view, and a very popular park. We found out detailed instructions of how to get there, and that it was also one of the best places in Portland to go to 'make out'.

Another groups found out the meanings of 'Stumptown', (Portland was originally surrounded by the stumps of trees, cut down to provide the wood to build it)

The group that was sent out to find out the meaning of 'Peach Melba' not only found out the story of it's invention, but sourced the ingredients in the community and made some from scratch to share in the session, all within the 30 minute deadline.

Another group had been busy seeking the meaning of the words 'Red Robin'. A homeless person became so intrigued by what they were doing that he went out of his way to help them. One of them told him "We walked past 4 homeless people before we talked to you". She felt this was deeply instructive about who we include and exclude from our concepts of 'community' when she shared this story with the rest of the Gathering.

The group that went out looking for the meaning of the word 'weird' was told "In Portland we think being normal is weird".

Kristi Patton's group found Mill Ends Park, the world's smallest park, which consists of one single small tree and a couple of rocks.

In the feedback about what they had learned about how we might contribute to community people said things like:

  • "We can be knowledgeable about our own communities so we can be brokers of information to our communities"
  • "Take the journey and risk learning something new, slow down and be more observant"
  • "Being present, helping others feel welcome and comfortable"
  • "Take time to plan, walk and look at what you've never seen before by walking"
  • "The community is a cornucopia of free opportunities" "Find out what is important to the community"
  • Laura Buckner tweeted "Don't forget people have virtual communities...FB, linkedIn, twitter etc....more connections!"

Overall, I found that over the 3 days I had had wonderful welcoming friendship from all the people at the gathering. At first I'd been noticing all the differences between Britain and the USA, but by the end I was realising there were far more similarities, that we share very much the same challenges and opportunities.

I realised that in our learning community, we've an international family of people who are speaking the same language of inclusion, connection and focus on what's important to the person.

I'll go home having learned a tremendous amount, with a load of questions to think about and a stomachful of inspiration. I can't wait to get back next year!

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