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Community and the Experts

In the fall of 2014, my colleague and I had the good fortune to venture up to the then-sunny, corn-laden state of Indiana. I’d never been before, so I approached this trip and all its meandering with eyes wide open. We were there to deliver trainings to members of three rather distinct communities: one in the south, another in the middle, and the last in the north. This way, it was presumed, we’d attract regional crowds and would therefore impact a large swath of the state’s “active transportation choir.” Curiously and flatteringly, the state’s sponsoring health department applied the term “trainings” to describe what my colleague and I were there to do; the department also billed us as “experts” on the subject of creating communities where children might thrive.

In reality, of course, our presence in the Hoosier state was less a deliverance of wisdom, and more a facilitation of creative dialoguing. Those local change agents, as I saw them, were provided an opportunity to exchange their time-tested insights and unique knowledge of local resources that no outsiders-including yours truly, even having marshaled the power of Google-had access to.

community deer

Without exception on three disparate occasions, my colleague and I witnessed the creation of community. In the space of six hours, attendees freely offered to donate their time, skills, and resources to assist fellow community leaders advance one another’s livability goals. I remember one conversation in particular: a traffic engineer offered to conduct pedestrian safety audits in several neighboring small towns (< 5,000 residents), despite the fact that such a task was not in this person’s job description. Together, these change agents were laying the foundation of a community, much as described in Peter Block’s and John L. McKnight’s energizing book Abundant Community, which details how neighborhoods can overcome the degradation of consumer culture and draw upon local resources toward addressing all members’ needs.

A week later I laugh while recounting these inspiring outcomes, for at first, many of the attendees were taciturn, shrugging their shoulders, escaping into the comfort of their idevice screens. Yet once a few confident leaders began sharing their stories, postures relaxed and nods of recognition and agreement cascaded around the room. What started off as lecture-bound presentation had matured into an occasion for communing. After the third and final “training”, a story emerged, a tale of how paid “experts” from another land swiftly became bystanders of authentic community development.

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