Helping People Design Their Own Communities

Yamizaka-san and I were invited to do a workshop in Osaka.  Yamizaka-san was a landscape architect 10 years ago.  Now he’s something else?  But what does he call it?  A community developer?  A community designer?  Both of those have the sense of someone working from the outside.  He works from the inside and is no longer sure of what to call his work.

40 or so people joined us at a small café in Osaka for an evening of dialogue.  Yamizaka-san is a charismatic character.  A decade ago the death of a dear friend helped him realize that he wanted to make a difference with his own life.  He kept noticing that he was attracted to people’s true stories and started to find his path.

He and I each spoke for a time before moving into several rounds of World Café.  We’d only met earlier that evening and didn’t know much of each other’s stories.  But as soon as we met, I was thinking about my friends from Elos Institute in Santos Brazil.  Ten years ago they were architects as well.  And they changed.  Like Yamizaka-san, they had this weird idea that architecture should serve people.  Imagine that!

Yamizaka-san, like my friends at Elos, had never heard of Appreciative Inquiry or Asset-Based Community Development when they started their community work.  Like them, he began developing an approach that was based on listening – really listening – to people’s stories about what they want in their community.  He talks about how he coaches the teams of people he how sends how to “just listen.”  Don’t signal your agreement with what people are saying,” he says, “or they’ll start trying to tell you want they think you want to hear.”

Just Listen.

When we’re helping communities develop themselves from the inside out, the role of the outsider is to listen.  From a place of listening it is sometimes possible to offer an idea or two, a story from somewhere else, or some conceptual frameworks.  From a place of listening it is possible to respond to the true requests that arise in the group.  But it comes from this posture of listening.

In a conversation in the U.S. in September with my friend Nomura-san from Fuji-Xerox’s KDI, we started to develop the idea of the sacred outsider, a different role than the expert outsider.  The sacred outsider is a mirror, reflecting back the knowledge and wisdom present in the system while occasionally sharing a glimpse of possibilities from beyond.

It was a lively evening in Osaka.  People sparked each other’s enthusiasm and experience and shared their ideas about how communities can design themselves and how some of us can be sacred outsiders to that process.

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