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NW Initiative Creates Exemplary Civic Infrastructure

Recently, NCDD Board member John Backman wrote a guest piece on the CommunityMatters blog highlighting a great civic infrastructure in the Pacific Northwest called the Thriving Communities Initiative. TCI is an interesting case study of successful civic infrastructure, and John’s article pulls out some key lessons we can learn from it. You can read his piece below or find the original here.

Civic Infrastructure You Can See

CM_logo-200pxSometimes the raw materials of civic infrastructure are there but the connections are missing. Sometimes the connections are there but nobody sees them.

South Whidbey falls in the latter category. The residents of this Washington State community – about 20,000 people on the southern portion of Whidbey Island in Puget Sound – know one another well. Local organizations often work on similar issues. If any community would know its civic infrastructure, South Whidbey would.

And still the videos, highlighting unique and compelling community projects around the theme of food, surprised everyone.

One way to think of civic infrastructure is as “the underlying social structure – activities, meetings, community groups, etc. – that brings people together to address their challenges.” Despite all that activity, even the most robust civic infrastructures can go unnoticed… until a group arises to bring them to light.

“We all get so involved in our work that we sometimes don’t even acknowledge the wonderful overlaps,” said Jerry Millhon, executive director of the Whidbey Institute. “Video can showcase these connections and how powerful they could be.”

The videos were the first project of the institute’s Thriving Communities Initiative, whose mission is to connect and support grassroots leaders within and across communities in the Cascadian bioregion (which includes parts of Washington, Oregon, and northern California). Thriving Communities was born amid the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis, when a question emerged for Millhon and his Whidbey colleagues: how could communities thrive and be resilient in such difficult times?

The first seven videos, produced in 2012, depicted unique and compelling community projects happening in South Whidbey. Since the theme of that year revolved around food, so did the video stories.

“The stories answered the question ‘How is food connecting people in a way that allows the community to thrive?’” said Millhon. “We saw many stories around dignity and respect and a sense of belonging – stories of food banks and community gardens. Food is a connective material.”

The project ended up connecting people far beyond South Whidbey. Thriving Communities used the videos as a launch point for its first conference, which more than 100 people attended – including Jeff Vander Clute, the co-founder of Thrive Napa Valley, who has been participating in Thriving Communities since its inception.

“The gathering promoted the kind of conversation and connection that inspired people to go home and do great things in their communities,” Vander Clute said.

The annual conferences have continued to inspire great things. At one gathering, grassroots leaders learned about Supportland, a rewards program that encourages consumers to shop local and local businesses to share customers; three communities have started Supportland-type programs as a result. An innovative model for food banks, presented at a Thriving Communities conference, is now the norm in a number of Northwest locations.

As effective as they are, the videos and conferences are not the only ways in which Thriving Communities fosters connections and makes them visible. The initiative is building an online library with a range of resources, including profiles of organizations engaged in effective projects. A new website and social media presence enable even far-flung communities to connect with one another. Whidbey Institute leaders are seeking out ways for Thriving Communities to collaborate with other community organizations.

The initiative continues to focus its efforts on a specific theme each year. From food in 2012, the team shifted to “living local economy” in 2013 and to health in 2014. This year’s videos tell the story of how different aspects of health create a thriving community.

As for the future of Thriving Communities, Millhon envisions many years, and many themes, to come.

“There is a hunger and energy around this work from communities, and it isn’t going away,” he said. “So much is going on within 100 miles of the institute. Even so, we don’t want to get too far out over our skis; for this to work, it must preserve a regional focus and the grassroots feeling it brings.”

You can find the original version of this CommunityMatters blog piece at www.communitymatters.org/blog/civic-infrastructure-you-can-see.

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Roshan Bliss
An inclusiveness trainer and group process facilitator, Roshan Bliss serves as NCDD's Youth Engagement Coordinator and Blog Curator. Combining his belief that decisions are better when everyone is involved with his passion for empowering young people, his work focuses on increasing the involvement of youth and students in public conversations.

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