The Creative Community
— some thoughts for the Possibility Conversation
by vivian Hutchinson
June 2021 17 min read download as Masterclass PDF
COMMUNITY-BUILDING IS an act of creativity in which we are already wise. Our fundamental need to create relationships and to inhabit places of belonging comes built in as part of our membership of the human species.
It took tens of thousands of years to build the wisdom of community into our DNA. In doing so, we evolved into a unique species of social creatures who depended on each other to survive, to learn, and to thrive.
Our ancestors bore children who always required a great deal more care and attention than most other mammals. Even when we were hunters and gatherers, our children were born into connected social groups. They arrived into communities.
Our ancestors travelled and explored and put down roots in every region of the planet. And whenever they stopped and settled, tended fields and traded goods, built homes and cooked meals, they made communities.
The fact of this is often taken for granted: human beings are community-making creatures.
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Shaping the basic structures of human belonging is an act of creativity that comes with its own skills and wisdom. The way we do this is closer to the skills of an artist, or a gardener, than the usual talents of what we think of as modern-day management.
A community is complex. You are never really going to organise or control it. It contains far too many independent motivations. And it is not trying to be efficient.
A community-builder understands that if you want to create possibilities, then you need to postpone the call for ten-point plans, five-year goals, and key performance indicators.
Just postpone. All these tools of modern management have their place, but a community-builder doesn’t let them get in the way of paying attention to what is really of value.
Pay attention. A new possibility doesn’t just arrive from nowhere. It often emerges out of the not-so-usual connections that are already unfolding right in front of you.
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A COMMUNITY-BUILDER knows that if you want to create possibilities, then you also need to stop focusing on your problems.
This doesn’t mean you are never going to address problems.
It just acknowledges that if you primarily focus on your problems, then it is going to be much more difficult for a different possibility to emerge.
This is one of the main challenges of the present-day community sector, and government or philanthropic-funded social services. All this work for the common good has been increasingly taken over by competitive and professional agencies driven by the needs and requirements of their funders and contracts whose “outcomes” are usually focused on managing community problems.
But community-builders have always had a very different mission. They are not so much interested in organising the problems — they want to heal them. And they want to release the possibilities that not only address the deeper causes of our difficulties, but can also work to shape and sustain our well-being.
This change in focus from problems to possibilities is one of the main insights gained from the work of John McKnight, the co-founder of the ABCD movement (Asset-Based Community Development). McKnight is an important planetary elder and thought-leader in the regeneration of neighbourhood life, and the co-author of one of the most popular books on Community Development called Building Community from the Inside Out.
McKnight points out that when most institutions decide to work with vulnerable communities, they usually start with “needs surveys” that detail the various problems that those communities have, and then they point towards the programmes and professional interventions that should be funded to make a difference. McKnight argues that, while this “needs map” may be created out of a genuine desire to help, it does bring with it some important and unintended consequences.
The people who are caught up in different problems start to define themselves by those problems. They begin to think of themselves as fundamentally deficient, or as victims who are incapable of taking charge of their own lives without the intervention of an external programme or social service. This leads to a level of dependence or stuckness that creates the raw conditions for even more social problems.
The ABCD process involves revealing a different map – one that focuses on the strengths and assets of the community, and points towards the significant local relationships that have a critical part to play in community well-being.
This is an effective strategy because it reflects the basic wisdom that most of our local problems are complex and tightly intertwined. The “asset-based” strategy is a process that works from the inside-out. By focusing on a community’s strengths and relationships and gifts and talents, you release the problem-solving capabilities that are there in every community.
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COMMUNITY TARANAKI was started in 2010, partly in response to what many of us saw as a narrowing sense of the possibilities being embraced by our civic and political leaders.
This was perhaps best illustrated for us in 2012 when the then National-led government decided to change the official purpose of local district councils. Up until then, this purpose was written into the Local Government Act as a broad-brushed affair based on the widely-accepted concept of fostering well-being. This legislation empowered local councils to work towards “the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of communities”.
The government changed this legislation and redefined the purpose of councils to be one of “providing good quality local infrastructure, public services and regulatory functions at the least possible cost to households and businesses.”
There was some well-reasoned opposition to these changes at the time, but any controversy about getting rid of what was referred to as “the four well-beings” was never high in the public awareness, and it was generally regarded as an esoteric matter for government legislators.
But it seemed to me to be a very significant reduction of vision and of imagination for our local authorities. It certainly worried me.
And sure enough, at the local level, any serious commitment by the New Plymouth District Council to “community development” was soon sidelined, and it was not long before their whole department was disbanded. (This also happened in many other regions around New Zealand).
Reflecting on this, I began to understand that this legislative change was a symptom of a deeper cultural shift. One of the main reasons it was able to happen, was because there was not a wide network of active citizens standing up for the vision behind “the four well-beings”.
So I started to consider that perhaps this legislative change itself was an opportunity that contained its own possibilities. Instead of getting organised to complain to the government and to the council about the changes, perhaps this was a time for average citizens to get together and begin to pick up this too-easily discarded mission.
This is an area where we as citizens have our own work to do – it is our job as citizens to back these deeper goals of community well-being with the mana and respect that they deserve.
It was this commitment that led us to developing our local community-building projects. They have been a citizen-led response to creating well-being — in contrast to making submissions or being a pressure group to change government policies.
Actually, as political seasons come and go, the policies did change. In 2019, the Labour-led government introduced the first of its Wellbeing Budgets. At the same time, the Minister of Local Government rewrote the purpose of the Local Government Act to restore “the four well-beings” back into the legislation.
This legislative reversal happened without much public fanfare or any real media interest. It was a missed opportunity to affirm how the “four well-beings” are the universal drivers of our best intentions. It is in weaving these well-beings together that we create the best possibilities for our communities.
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WHEN WE WERE drawing up our own mission statement and legal structure for our new organisation Community Taranaki, I found myself at the Puke Ariki museum, at an evening featuring the American social entrepreneur Umberto Crenca.
He was visiting from the city of Providence on Rhode Island, USA, where he had founded an organisation which provides facilities for local artists to live, work, exhibit and perform. The organisation serves thousands of artists and is a tourist destination for over 90,000 people every year.
Crenca talked passionately about creating a Manifesto which was a statement of the possibilities that their organisation wanted to see happen. The Manifesto drove their determination to work towards a just world where all people could realise their full creative potential, regardless of financial or other limitations.
This talk inspired me to go to our Community Taranaki trustee meeting with the notion that we definitely needed to create our own Manifesto. Which we did.
We came up with a statement about why we are associating, and what our projects and activities are serving. It is not written for lawyers and legislators, or for the lip service of politicians or funding agencies.
It is a description of possibility. It has been written to stretch us as citizens. And it is a call for us to stand behind the many levels of well-being that we want to see thriving in our place.
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ONE OF OUR GUIDES to the creativity we need in our communities has been the Taranaki artist and musician Wayne Morris. Wayne has been a trustee of Community Taranaki, and he helped us to design and lead the first versions of what became the Masterclass for Active Citizenship.
Wayne has been a leader in the education of creativity itself, and not just in how it applies to the arts but also in business and in civic affairs. In 2013, he was the initiator of a conference called the New Zealand Creativity Challenge which brought together people from many different sectors with experts on creativity from all around the world.
Wayne has often pointed out that when it comes to any creative enterprise, we just don’t get to the possibilities unless we first cultivate an imaginative mind. He argues that this goal should be one of the central missions of any 21st-century education system. The trouble is, our usual methods of schooling have been educating people out of their creativity — and this has long needed to change.
Cultivating an imaginative mind is one of the main motivations behind why we set up the Community Action Incubator Programme that has been run by Community Taranaki and Tū Tama Wahine o Taranaki. This four-month course of workshops has been designed for people who are starting up new community projects or looking to regenerate existing ones.
The Incubator establishes a peer support group for these initiatives. It enables people to do their work for community, in community — rather than being isolated in their own separate home offices while trying to make a difference.
Besides the regular course of workshops, there are one-to-one consultation sessions which can go into the details of a participant’s project. There are also weekly appointments held between the members of the group.
In the first five years of these Incubators, we have seen the establishment or renewal of many environmental projects, health and healing initiatives, projects for the education and employment of teenagers, workshops for parenting and the care of children, a Living Wage campaign, a national Maori surf championship, and a network of emergency houses for homeless families.
The Incubator gives its participants the time and space to pay attention. The participants might start with a particular idea in mind, but they are also encouraged to follow the unfolding, and to stretch their ideas into possibilities they have not yet imagined.
During one of our Incubator sessions, we show a 1956 film of Pablo Picasso creating one of his famous Matador paintings.
The film-maker focused his camera not on Picasso himself, but on the canvas. He filmed the process of painting over many hours, and the result was an animation of how the painting emerged and changed as the artist followed his creative process. It looked almost like the painting itself was trying to tell Picasso about its own life and character.
An unfolding artwork — from the 1956 French Documentary Le Mystère Picasso
The film shows us something intangible that is rarely captured. Yet, for any artist or entrepreneur, it also shows us something very familiar: the many acts of risk-taking and daring to chase that unfolding that is all part of creating a new possibility.
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CULTIVATING an imaginative mind in a civic space is a definite challenge. This is especially so in a political climate where our aspirations for well-being have been side-lined into a narrowing focus on the efficient management of infrastructure.
We need to keep alive those local civic spaces where a diverse group of citizens can talk with one another, strengthen their relationships, and imagine the possibilities that will lead to a different future.
This is why Community Taranaki started our seasonal gatherings of active citizens, which are now held every three months in the Council Chambers of the New Plymouth District Council. We invite anyone to join us who feels they are making a positive contribution to the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of our province.
We have worked in partnership with the NPDC to create this forum, and the council staff move the tables (that are normally used by the Mayor and other councillors) out of the Chamber, and replace them with a simple circle of chairs.
The circles start with a few short keynote speeches from an active citizen, or a council member or employee. They speak to what they are seeing in our communities, the activities they are involved with, and the questions they are asking themselves. These keynotes spark the rest of the community conversations that we continue in smaller groups.
These small groups are the heart of our process — they are a chance to listen and speak in a way that unfortunately is currently rare in our civic spaces. They are also an opportunity to practice getting out of our personal silos and thinking “bubbles” and get to know a whole range of people that we wouldn’t normally meet and talk with.
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At one of our Summer Community Circles, local artist Shirley Vickery was invited to come and speak. She turned up with buckets full of ferns and lilies, and flaxes and flowers, pinecones and shells ... all things that she had gathered that morning before our meeting.
When it came to her turn to speak, Shirley invited members of the group to join her in creating a huge mandala on the floor of the Council Chambers.
Nothing really needed to be said.
Her collective work of art was its own message about active citizenship and the role we each can play in the stewardship of our place.
Making the mandala itself was a demonstration of the creativity that leads to possibility.
And it was an affirmation of how we each have a part to play in imagining that messy and beautiful wholeness that is also known as community.
Notes and Links
vivian Hutchinson QSM is a community activist and social entrepreneur who has worked mainly on issues of race relations, social justice, job creation and philanthropy. He is a co-founder of Community Taranaki www.taranaki.gen.nz, and author of How Communities Heal — stories of social innovation and social change (2012). He is also one of the creators of How Communities Awaken - Tū Tangata Whenua - a Masterclass for Active Citizenship which is run in partnership with Tu Tama Wahine o Taranaki www.tutamawahine.org.nz.
First published online in June 2021
This paper The Creative Community is part of a larger series of essays by vivian Hutchinson entitled How Communities Awaken. For more information, visit www.taranaki.gen.nz/hca
Tū Tama Wahine o Taranaki and Community Taranaki were awarded the ACE (Adult and Community Education Aotearoa) 2020 Award for Community Programme of the Year for the Masterclass for Active Citizenship. For more information, visit www.tutamawahine.org.nz/masterclassguide
Building Communities from the Inside Out – a Path Towards Finding and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets by John P. Kretzmann and John L. McKnight (1993) pub Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, USA.
“Councils to get shake up” by John Antony, The Taranaki Daily News 20th March 2012
2019 Local Government Amendment Bill ... see https://www.parliament.nz/en/pb/bills-and-laws/bills-proposed-laws/document/BILL_77941/local-government-community-well-being-amendment-bill
Umberto Crenca in Providence, Rhode Island, for more see AS220 at https://as220.org
The New Zealand Creativity Challenge was first held in New Plymouth, Taranaki on 27-28 April 2013. See vivian Hutchinson’s paper “What’s Broken is the We – some thoughts on creativity for the common good” at tinyurl.com/vivianWe13
Wayne Morris, see The Creative Edge Workshop – a practical approach to becoming more creative by Wayne Morris (2010) available from Future Edge Ltd, 693 Carrington Road RD1, New Plymouth 4371, New Zealand
Pablo Picasso – see Henri-Georges Clouzot 1956 French Documentary Le Mystère Picasso.
Photopage: Incubator — THE ACTION INCUBATOR — Some of the participants at the Community Action Incubator - Ringa Pūrere workshops in New Plymouth, Taranaki. photographs by vivian Hutchinson.
Photopage: Circles — COMMUNITY CIRCLES Active Citizens at the New Plymouth District Council — Some of the small group conversations at the seasonal Community Circles held in the Council Chambers of the New Plymouth District , New Plymouth. Taranaki. photographs by vivian Hutchinson
the creative process of writing ... take a look at the video made to capture the writing of this book chapter — and how it also unfolded as the How Communities Awaken project itself took shape over a three-year period. http://bit.ly/turningaphrase
ISBN 978-1-92-717635-1 This paper is licensed for distribution under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/nz/deed.en