I was contacted in the fall by a disability leader in our community and asked to help figure out how to build more “inclusion” opportunities for students in our school system that wanted to belong more in our town. I told him I wouldn’t help him if that was his goal, but I would be willing to help if he wanted to talk about how to create a more welcoming community for everyone who lives in our town. He agreed, started making calls, and a core group of fifteen folks from many walks of life was assembled.
Over the next couple months, we met three times around a wood cookstove for a bowl of soup and a discussion. Out of the soup came a vision: Welcome Vashon—a creative hub for projects and activities that make Vashon a more welcoming place for everyone.
We decided to put on community event called We All Belong.
Many of us guessed that a vague topic like welcoming would be a tough draw on a Saturday morning when there were household chores, shopping and yardwork to be done. We took a straw poll and agreed we’d be delighted if we got 50-75 people to show up. We could not have been more surprised! That Saturday, 164 people came through the doors at 9 am and went to work over bagels, fruit and coffee. We had a large group discussion, and then asked people to stand up and describe welcoming projects that they would be willing to “host” and stand behind until they were completed. There were more than twenty action projects identified, with multiple people signed up to help in each one.
Looking back, I believe the key to our success was to NOT focus on getting social services sponsorship or primary presence on the planning group or on the day of the event. Make no mistake: the social service agencies in our town do very, very good work, and they also described themselves as working at the limit of their dwindling resources and staffing. One of them said they were “tapped out.” Another person we talked to questioned what we would do that agencies in our town weren’t doing.
I’ll admit to being gun-shy. I’ve learned over the years that community development that originates in human services most often doesn’t really result community development. It turns into efforts to increase collaboration between agencies, or into efforts to recruit more volunteers to help at the agencies. Although that can be useful, that’s not what we were about. We had a specific vision of locating untapped gifts, talents, and desire in our community, and providing a public container for those capacities to rise to the surface and be used. We wanted our efforts to spin around the center of our community rather than the center of our social service agencies.
Our core group is now in the enviable position of having more to do than we ever imagined, in terms of helping folks connect with each other as they begin to act. We’ve also got folks who were not part of our event asking if they can include their welcoming project on our website so others can get involved with them, too. Although “welcoming” may seem like a vague idea to many, in our town we’ve learned it means a lot.
The What’s Working section has details on the outcomes from the”We All Belong” event. Find further information and updates at www.welcomevashon.org.