People Showed Up, Now What? -- Facilitating a Community Garden Interest Meeting

Southwood Community Garden looking great (12/2012)
So lets say you're starting a community garden. You've done your homework, so you realize that when you're starting a community garden, the community aspect is just as important as the garden aspect. In that light, before breaking ground or applying for land from the City of Tallahassee or Leon County, you'll likely organize a community garden interest meeting.

A year ago, I mentioned asset-based community development (ABCD) in a post about my friend and mentor, Amanda Edmonds at Growing Hope in Michigan.  At the core of ABCD is the premise that everyone-- and by extension, every community-- has assets: skills, knowledge, resources, people they know, and organizational affiliations that teams can fit together like pieces of a puzzle to better their community.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to put ABCD into practice when I aided Cristin Burns (marketing manager at New Leaf) in facilitating the Lafayette St Community Garden interest meeting. Below is an outline of that meeting:

Lafayette Community Garden Interest Meeting Quick Sketch
  1. Welcome/Names/Introductions
  2. History/Overview of Project: where the idea came from, land availability, pictures of site
  3. Question: Will the Community Garden be Organic? -- Group decides: yes
  4. Knowledge and available resource offers from Betton Hills Community Garden leader
  5. What is your interest? What brought you here tonight?
  6. Names again (+ something you'd like to grow)
  7. Introduce Asset-Based Community Development: "Everyone-- every single person-- has skills, knowledge, resources, and networks that can help this community garden come into being." 
  8. "Raise Your hand if..." Agriculture, communication, and group process skills-related questions to identify knowledgeable folks amidst the group.
  9. ABCD Questions to Group (Record answers with names attached for follow up)
    1. What, specifically, do you know? What knowledge do you have that could help the creation of this community garden project?
    2. What resources do you have?
    3. Who do you know that could help?
  10. What steps will the team need to take between this meeting and an installed, thriving community garden?
  11. What concerns do you have about the project?
  12. What is step #1? -- Group decides: Field trip to Betton Hills Community Garden
  13. Solidify plan to visit the Betton Hills Dec 8th
  14. Ask for volunteer to take sign-in sheet, create email account, send notes out to group.
  15. Closing: What's a word that captures what you're feeling or what you're taking away from tonight

~ ~ ~

If you're interested in the details and have a few more minutes, I've attempted to recreate a "play-by-play" of the interest meeting, so you can see some of the nuances of community organizing, group dynamics, and the way I facilitate meetings with an ABCD-mindset.
  • Cristin heard through the grapevine (and later confirmed) that Scott, owner of the Moon had a piece of property he was willing to offer to a community group interested in starting a community garden.
  • 4-8 weeks before the meeting, Cristin advertised/announced a community garden interest meeting through the Indianhead and Woodlawn Drives neighborhood associations and their newsletters, via the management at Tally Square Apartments, and in the Parkway Merchants Association network.
  • 15 minutes before the meeting (hosted in the New Leaf Cafe): Cristin set up a powerpoint, a sign-in sheet, and arranged her handouts. 
  • Folks signed in as they arrived. Cristin asked folks already sitting in the cafe, "Are you here for the community garden interest meeting?" She passed them the sign-in sheet and distributed copies of the American Community Gardening Association "How to start a community garden" handout.
  • Cristin briefly introduced herself and asked others to do the same. We went around.
  • Cristin provided an overview of the property: who owns the land, his willingness to lend it for a community garden, where it was, pictures via powerpoint, etc.
  • Folks asked Cristin whether the garden would be organic or not. She deferred the question back to the group saying, "I'm not in charge. I just know about the availability of the land. This is not my project. It only happens if y'all-- if a group of people step up to make it happen. What do y'all think? Should it be organic?" Most folks nodded in agreement.
  • Sue Hansen from the Betton Hills Community Garden offered a few gardening tips and tricks as well as info about free resources like the woodchip "fines" available at the county landfill.
  • After a lull in the conversation, I asked, "Cristin, is it okay for me to ask a couple questions?" She passed the torch to me.
  • I asked the group: "What interests you? Why'd you come out tonight? We've all got something that motivates us, and that's where we need to start because our motivations, our interests will inform the purpose and the design of the garden. So, what interests you?" After asking the question, I left silence. Everyone responded popcorn style (i.e., not in a circle).The answers were varied. Here are a few examples:
    • Because I like to work with my family, to teach my kids how to work
    • Taste
    • I live just down the road and bike by the garden location every day on my way home from work. It'd be really cool to stop, take care of my plot, pick a few veggies, and go on home.
    • I want to know where my food is coming from
    • I want to learn to garden, so I can teach others
    • The price of food is going up, up, up.
  • As folks answered, I echoed them. That's where you repeat back what people are saying in the same words. It helps make sure the group hears the speaker. It also helps the speaker hear their own words, so they can make sure they're saying what they mean.  In addition, it creates a group dynamic where folks feel like a lot is going on. It fills that awkward silence that nobody likes to break. When folks answered with a single word or two, I drew them out, which means I asked them to expand on their idea, e.g., "Could you explain that more?" Lastly, I made sure that every person in the group was given a chance to share. This required leaving space (i.e., silence) after I echoed folks. It also required calling on specific people who were holding back.
  • Next, I proposed that we do names again, more slowly because "I confess, I don't remember any of y'all's names." 
  • Someone suggested that before we said our names, we should shift into a smaller, tighter circle so we could hear each other better. "That's a great idea," I said. Whenever you can incorporate group members' ideas while advancing the core purpose of building the team, discovering and building upon assets, do it. Even small ideas acted upon serve as seeds that can grow into ownership and project leadership. 
  • We shifted in.
  • We went around the circle giving our names.
  • "Okay," I asked, "Who remembers at least two names? Three?" We then went back around, but rather than folks saying their own name, I proposed that the group as a whole chime the names to see if we could remember. "Just say the names you remember." As a group, we were able to name everyone.
  • Next I introduced some ABCD ideas: "Everyone-- every single person-- has skills, knowledge, resources, and networks that can help this community garden come into being. Someone in this circle has grown something before. I'm almost positive someone has a few tools. And we all know people that could help us out. So... raise your hand if..."
    • (agriculture-skill-related questions)
      • You've ever grown anything?
      • You've had a garden for a year or more?
      • You've gardened or farmed for 5 years or more? ("Okay y'all, these are your ag-experts.")
    • (communication-skill-related questions)
      • You've ever talked to anyone?
      • You've sent a bulk email to 10 people or more?
      • You've managed a database? ("Ok, these are your communication experts.")
    • (education/group-facilitation-skill-related questions)
      • You've presented to a group of people?
      • You've facilitated a conversation or led a workshop? ("These are your education and group coordinator experts.")
  • "Okay. So now the question is: What do you know? Specifically. We need to know what the others in this circle know, and we need to write these things down,-- with names attached-- so we can follow up with the right people. What do you know?" Some of the answers included: 
    • I... know how to grow tomatoes
    • I grew up gardening with my parents, so I know roughly what to plant in what season
    • I know how to send emails
    • I can make calls. I do that for a living.
  • Next question: "What do you have? What resources do you have?" Answered included:
    • Shovels
    • a tiller
    • contact information for their neighbors who might help
  • "Who do you know that could help?" I heard folks say:
    • My brother who is a landscape architect could help with a site plan
    • my church family has resources like tools and time and an interest in volunteering
  • After the group laid some key assets on the table, we needed to develop a plan, an outline of how to proceed. It's always temping as a facilitator or group leader to feel like you need to provide all the answers, in this case a "plan of action." Much of the time, however, not having the answer is the best answer. Even if you feel like you may know the answer, asking a question and allowing the group to create the answer transfers ownership from facilitator to the group itself. 
  • In this light, I asked, "Between now-- this interest meeting-- and an installed, thriving community garden, what steps do you anticipate the team will have to take? What things will have to happen between now and then? (In no particular order.) Folks responded with things like:
    • We'll have to price materials
    • design the layout
    • start a committee
    • have meetings
    • do outreach to recruit others
    • make decisions
    • (For each of these answers, I, again, drew folks out. I problematized their answers: "What kind of materials? What will you do in the meetings? What kind of decisions will you have to make? What might outreach look like?" -- The point is to bring to light the details, depth, and additional questions that lay behind simple words, so the group as a whole can see the tasks before them. This also helps reveal additional knowledge and folks' expertise. If someone is particularly able to answer such follow-up questions, they are likely more knowledgeable on that particular topic. E.g., if someone says regarding materials, "We'll need 10-12 inch lumber to build raised beds plus 2-4 screws or lag-bolts per corner, and we'll have to calculate how much mushroom compost we'll need to fill them, which we can get from such-and-such company" that person clearly knows more than most about building raised beds.)
  • Towards the end of this conversation, someone expressed worry about "Time" and "everything that needed to be done." Rather than gloss over the work and difficulty ahead, we embraced our concerns. "So and so," I said, "is worried he may not have enough time to dedicate to the project.  What other concerns to people have?" Concerns are real. If ignored, they'll often seed the doom of community garden projects even if they could have been addressed had they been out in the open.  On the other hand, If they're on the table along with the groups' assets, the team can likely find a way to plan and build their project-- to arrange their assets-- in such as ways as to over-come or accommodate folks' concerns. Some of the concerns mentioned were:
    • soil contamination -- the group decided that they'd do a heavy-metal soil test and likely build raised beds no matter the results
    • vandalism and theft -- folks with experience in prior (and other) community gardens shared their experiences and best practices
    • having enough time to dedicate -- the group talked about various roles and levels of responsibility. E.g., some people would serve on the leadership team, others would be plot members, others volunteers, and some families could share a plot to reduce the days they had to water.
  • To transition the conversation back towards action, I summarized, "So, we've talked about some of the steps the group will need to take, and we've shared concerns. Keeping all that in mind," I posed, "What is step number one?"
    • A couple folks said, "Another meeting."
    • Sue Hansen offered to receive the group on a tour of the Betton Hills Community Garden. There seemed to be a murmur of agreement with this idea, so I asked, "How's that sound? Next step is a group tour to the Betton Hills Community Garden? So y'all can ask questions of the garden team there...?" Hearing general consent, I questioned, "Is there anyone who doesn't think a tour is a good next step?" No one challenged the idea, and all agreed to the tour with enthusiasm. Note: a field trip to a successful community garden is an excellent first step after an interest meeting. There's nothing quite like seeing things growing and talking to folks who were in your same situation situation not all that long ago for equipping a community garden team with the inspiration and knowledge they need to move forward.
    • To make sure the plan was confirmed, we immediately set a date and time for the tour. Sue gave directions on how to get there and gave out her phone number.
  • "Before we leave, we need a volunteer that can take the sign-in list, start an email account for the team, and send out a summary of the meeting to everyone along with directions to Betton Hills." I made the statement, and then stopped talking. I did not attempt to explain how easy the task would be or minimize the responsibility in any way. I simply let it hang. Rhionon raised her hand after 3-5 seconds. "Awesome! Thank you."
  • Out of the blue, someone else volunteered, "I'll be on the infrastructure committee." Then someone else said they'd be on "the garden committee to help make it happen."
    • When someone offers to do something, especially offers to serve as a leader responsible for making decisions, make a note and acknowledge/appreciate their offer. Don't let it fade. By the same token, if you think someone would likely make a good leader, find a way to ease or request them into a leadership role.
  • To wrap things up, I suggested we close by all offering a word that summarized what folks were taking away or how they felt. I heard:
    • community
    • proud
    • teamwork
    • garden
    • skills
    • It's gonna happen
  • Goodbyes and Details
    • Cristin made a copy of the sign-in sheet and sent it with Rhionon, so she could create the email account and get the notes, etc out to the group. (This is real empowerment and ABCD: passing responsibility to those who have offered their assets and leadership, i.e., leaning on folks in real, non-token ways from the get-go, building on folks' assets to create something positive that didn't exist before)
    • I gave Rhionon my notes.
    • Sue and Rhionon conferenced to make sure she had correct directions to the Betton Hills garden.
    • Cristin and I debriefed and departed.
Just as there is more than one way to skin a cat, there are a million ways to facilitate a community garden interest meeting using asset-based community development principles.  Whatever your method, just remember that at the core of ABCD is a faith that people and groups have or are networked to the things they need to grow a better world -- not to mention a community garden on Lafayette Street.

Happy growing,
Nathan, Man in Overalls