Re-imagining Community

Mindcamp Random

Finding Common Ground Through Stories of Place

by Michael Jones

We cannot talk about community without first talking about place
— Peter Block

Each community has a story of place that defines its character and uniqueness. It is a story that reflects a community’s unique dreams, history, economy and people as expressed through its aspirations, accomplishments, challenges and possibilities. Understanding the uniqueness of its stories of place is the foundation for building an innovative economy. And an engaged community is the most knowledgeable resource for creating a story for the future that reflects the uniqueness of the place in which we want to live now.

For example; at a recent conference where a group of community leaders in Atlantic Canada were asked about what the story of place meant for them, they reflected on finding common ground in their deep ties to land and sea — to a mist filled land both gentle and unyielding and to the enduring loyalty to their stories and community. This long history of living on a sea-bound coast gave them the gift of a perspective larger than any one person or any individual’s self interest.

For the Chippewa First Nations community near Orillia, Ontario (and Geneva Park) one defining narrative of place is that their land sits on the confluence of two distinct biospheres, where the granite rock of the Canadian Shield to the north meets the limestone plain to the south. This is The Land Between and their story is about living in a meeting place between two distinct ecosystems and how to make the best of living in not one, but two worlds.

Sometimes stories of place can be distilled to one story and a tagline that does not reduce the story to a slogan but instead speaks to the essence of the place itself.

For example:

In a partnership with a community art gallery that wanted to create a place to display the work of artists with mental health challenges and the Canadian Mental Health Association the story of place was ‘Gifts in Shadow’.

For Quaker Foods, their story finds its place in the American Heartland. ‘Breakfast is amazing’ served as the story of place for reconstituting their product line with heart healthy oatmeal with which to start each day.

And for a San Antonio based engineering company that was a global leader in alternative energy technologies, their employee engagement strategy was constructed around creating a community of conversations, the roots of which originated in the shared experience of growing up in the front porch culture of West Texas.

Too often, we attempt to undertake large systemic transformational changes without taking into account the unique gifts and characteristics of the place we are in. Most communities are not at a loss for innovative ideas. What they may overlook however is how to partner with these unique qualities and features of place — the soil we inhabit — that enables these seeds of innovation to take root and grow.

By looking at place as both something to return to and also something to grow out from — orienting us on a trajectory that includes the future and the past; and by realizing that a place is not an object or a thing, but a power and a presence, we can partner with it in a way that is itself deeply transformative, opening our hearts to the shared experience of beauty, aliveness and possibility.

To read more of this article, please visit Michael’s Pianoscapes blog.

Michael Jones presents The Soul of Place: Re-imagining leaders as storytellers and place-makers as well as The Leader as Artist at Mindcamp 2012.