Thursday, July 31, 2008

National Communiversity Conference Draws 14 Communities From Connecticut to California

[29 July 2008 - Applied Imagination - By Steven Dahlberg - Windham, Connecticut, USA] Four Windham-area residents participated this past weekend in the first "COMV08: Communiversity Conference" in New Gloucester, Maine. Miriam and Mike Kurland, Abigail Ricklin and Steven Dahlberg joined 35 other people from 14 communities -- from California to Maine -- to explore how communiversities can invent a new community context in which people anticipate and transform challenges into opportunities for creative action.

The Windham delegation told the participants about Willimantic's efforts to build creative community. Their examples ranged from the Third Thursday Street Fest, the Boom Box Parade and Willimantic's historic Main Street to the Victorian Home Tour, the new Imagine Willimantic Communiversity group, and the new Creative Community Building Program being launched this fall at the University of Connecticut with community-based partners in Willimantic.

"This was an extraordinary gathering of people who spent three days focusing on positive aspects of what's working best in their communities," said Dahlberg, who heads the International Centre for Creativity and Imagination in Willimantic. "There was no whining or negativity -- just a group of people who want to share their communities' stories, figure out how to engage people in their communities, and help their communities learn and grow together."

The Imagine Willimantic Communiversity grew out of a visit to Willimantic in April from the Communiversity Conference organizer August Jaccaci. While in town, Jaccaci met with First Selectwoman Jean de Smet, people from community organizations, and citizens. He also led a public Creativity Networking event at the WindhamARTS Collaborative, at which he shared with the audience his concept of "Communiversity" and invited Willimantic to join a network of other cities and towns who are working to build a movement of communiversities.

Communiversities, according to Jaccaci, are about discovering new and world-changing ways to meet real needs in real places in real time -- with hope. Communiversities weave together ideas about community learning, creative communities and change.

"Communiversities are the sequel to the modern university," said Jaccaci. "We need to profoundly reinvent all aspects of society or we are history. This includes reinventing human learning so that it's continuous and includes all members of the family of life."

To deal with the accelerating nature of community change and transformation, Jaccaci told participants, "you have to go ahead of history, create it, and pull it toward you," rather than merely reacting to what happens.

Lawyer-turned-poet Anthony Burnini, who opened the second day with poetry, invited the participants to work in their communities to "unbury the talents that have been put in the ground" so that people might discover that they have something to contribute to their communities.

Participants spent the first day and a half sharing their communities' stories, which offer several possibilities for Willimantic:

  • Gainesville, Ga. -- Gus Whalen shared how the Featherbone Communiversity emerged out of a reinvention of the Warren Featherbone Company. They transformed the company's old manufacturing space into a community learning center that includes a school of nursing, a children's museum, a business incubator, and a creativity center.
  • Deer Isle, Maine -- Dom Parisi shared a vision for helping people take back control of energy costs. He has a 12-step plan for involving whole communities in making better energy choices everyday. He has particularly focused on what his community’s schools are doing about energy use and conservation, and wants to use communiversities to make that project replicable in other communities.
  • Hope, Maine -- As towns consider how to brand and position themselves to the outside world, members of Hope have adopted "Hope is Hip" as theirs. As part of their Communiversity, they invited citizens to a meeting to talk about business or community issues. Forty-five people showed up. "This showed that people want to be connected and talk to each other," said Larrain Slaymaker. This group continues to meet each month at a different business where that organization can showcase itself and its products to the community.
  • New London, Conn. -- Art Costa talked about how the Re-New London Council is seeking to focus on strengths and assets to build communities from the inside out and to improve their quality of life. They are exploring how to use land-value tax (versus land-use tax) as a tool for building sustainable economies in new ways in cities. Through their Farm-to-City initiative, they are seeking to feed their community with more local food. They also have a buy-local-first campaign for supporting locally owned and operated businesses.
  • Portland, Maine -- Christina Bechstein, an artist and professor at the Maine College of Art, shared examples of how she uses the college's service learning program and arts-based projects to engage students and faculty with a community partner in a community project. She described this as "co-learning with the outside community" and talked about ways to make community challenges, such as hunger, visual and visible.
  • Berkeley, Calif. -- Rand Christiansen is focusing both his doctoral studies and his Communiversity work on the concept of a "cosmology of love" in which he explores how love can help us address those things that keep us separate and how to create opportunities for people to excel in their potential. "Love is the wisdom of well-being," he said.

In the closing session, Jaccaci suggested that communiversities can help create the planet's next renaissance and wondered aloud: "What are the design specifications for this?" He recalled Margaret Mead’s encouragement to him of working to answer the question: How do you create models that are organic and natural as opposed to arbitrary and manmade?

The answer, Jaccaci said, is in intention -- whether one organizes around resonance and reverence or manipulation and control of others. Nature, he said, offers the best models to help people organize and design communities that function as creatively and efficiently as nature does.

Christiansen said that focusing on nature emphasizes a model of something that lives and breathes life, which is what people desire of their community. He suggested the sequoia tree as a model, with its broad reach and its roots that spread out and intertwine and support the grove.

“Nature is fundamentally symbiotic, full of mutually benefiting relationships,” Jaccaci said. “How might communiversities be this?”

The Imagine Willimantic Communiversity will meet to share more about the COMV08 experience on Tuesday, August 5, at 5:30 p.m. at Wrench in the Works, 861 Main Street, Willimantic. Anyone interested in finding out more or getting involved with this project is welcome to attend. In addition, Imagine Willimantic Communiversity Member Phoebe Godfrey will talk about this project at the Windham Board of Selectman meeting at 7:00 p.m. on August 5.

Creating Communiversities:
Partners in Whole Community Learning
By August Jaccaci

A Communiversity
Is a learning conversation
Within a whole family of life
In a place they hold in common
Dear to them all.
This conversation
Is a sharing of mutual needs
In a place of mutual dwelling
In a process of mutual learning
In a vessel of mutual hope.
This continuous conversation
Is the voice of the soul of life
Expressing the sanctity of all life
For the future of all life
In the home of all life.

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