Teaching from “me in community”

I’ve been exploring a vital question for years, in anticipation of publication of my book, Nest City: how do I share my thinking and my work while being in community with my audience, especially when we are face-to-face?

We seem to think that when one or a few people talk to a crowd about community that we are learning about community. We are not. 

The question comes from long-standing ‘antibodies’ in my citizen-system (me) to the dominant learning pattern of the expert on the stage, separate from the audience. (There’s a time and a place for this, but we are not good at discerning when it is right on right circumstances for the sage on the stage; it is our default shape when we gather in groups.) I get itchy when we seem to think that when one or a few people talk to a crowd about community that we are learning about community. We are not. 

A gathering in this shape–even if the subject matter is community–is not about community. It allows us to see, or visualize, a community of shared interest, but it is not about creating community. In this shape we are talking about community but not doing community, let alone making community. If the purpose of the gathering is about community we would get to know each other; the community would get to know itself. If I leave a gathering having seen the faces of people who share my interests, but nothing else, then it was not about community. If I leave knowing names, knowing a bit (or a lot) about others, shared a bit (or a lot) about myself, found some new ideas together with others and thread some of those ideas together, then the gathering was about making community. Being in the same room, even if we are talking about community, is insufficient to claim that we are learning about community. 

I have no desire to be in learning spaces that claim to be about community when they are not. 

So when I find myself in teaching situations I put pressure on myself to create the seed conditions for community. This means I have a shift to make in my approach, as well as name the shift to the people with whom I am creating the learning habitat. The shift I must make is simple: from “me and community” to “me in community”. 

The shift I must make is simple: from “me and community” to “me in community”.

Me-and-community means I keep myself removed and separate from the community and it’s learning experience. 

Me-in-community means I am embedded in the learning system.
Here is the big difference between the two: separate learning journeys to interconnected learning journeys. Not only are participants connected to each other in their learning journeys, but my own learning journey is intertwined with theirs. We are not separate. We are in the learning together. 

This shift involves growing into new expectations of each other, new foundational assumptions about our learning habitat. For example, when I show up as the expert, what we are all thinking I will do is speak uninterrupted for a long time and lay out what I think. If we are at a conference, I speak for 30 or 60 minutes and then I get off the stage. There may or may not be opportunity for a token exchange between you and I in the form of some questions and answers. Further, I may well leave right after my presentation. Whether I physically depart or not, I leave it to you to figure out what you think about what I’ve said by yourselves. (And you are left, also, to figure it out individually, not as a group: by your selfs.)A community-focused way of learning involves contrasting basic expectation: I share what I see and sense, and then we figure out what it means to us. 

I do not leave you, rather I stay and explore with you. I might have a different role than you in the conversation that ensues, because I have a different experience, but I am in it with you. I do not drop a content bomb and run. I may have a role in holding space as the group discerns what it means for individuals, for the group, and any larger implications. I may jump in and participate with you while another holds space for us. The point: all of the perspectives in the room, all of the expertise, is allowed and invited to mix.

When we learn only from “the expert” there are massive an unimaginable missed opportunities. This is what you can expect of me: an expectation that unimaginable possibilities happen when we set ourselves up to learn together, rather than alone. 

You might also like the “how much of me” series, that gets into the power dynamics of hosts and participants, and what we expect of each other: 

This post first published in Nest City News, September 3, 2019. 

Citizens engage (10 tips)


When Pam Moody was elected mayor of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia 15 months ago, she was inundated with demands to fix things: “The town should do this, you should do that.” She could see the difference between a pity party in a struggling town, and a town that stood up to look after what needed to be done. Her response:



Jim Mustard, deputy warden of the County of Inverness, Nova Scotia, is driven by his passion for children. His passion has led to an exploration of early childhood development and how our brains develop because we spend time together. In our communities, he sees lost opportunities for us to grow and develop when we place experts at the front of the room and we remain alone and in silos. We are not creating new structures in our brains to build connections with each other that will allow us to be more resilient – and create communities that serve us in the best ways possible. We don’t talk about what binds us – we sit and listen.


Paul McNeil, publisher of Island Press Ltd. followed his passion to create a place for Atlantic Canada’s rural communities to find local solutions. He brought people like Pam and Jim to Georgetown, Prince Edward Island, to tell stories and notice what works. They did not sit and listen to a few experts; they explored the stories in the room and they are changing the face of rural communities.


I met Pam, Jim and Paul as moderator for a session at this week’s Federation of Canadian Municipalities’ Sustainable Communities Conference and Trade Show in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. To replicate the Georgetown Experience, which was all about connecting people and supporting the development of new relationships, we began with their quick story of Georgetown, then we asked everyone in the room to dig  into the panel’s stories and tease out the story behind the story.

Our little FCM community built connections with each other they would not have if we would have stayed in the “sage on the stage” pattern. They also proved that there is significant expertise everywhere in the room – in the community.

When citizens are engaging themselves, here’s what’s happening, according to our pop-up community:

  1. Bring your best self – leave the negative at the door
  2. Tell stories
  3. Pursue unusual partnerships
  4. Take action – don’t worry about the specifics
  5. Trust that people want to contribute
  6. Trust that people want to take responsibility
  7. Offer minimal structure
  8. Practice working with each other – commit to meeting more than once
  9. Get together – bust the silos
  10. Pause to look at what’s really going on, the macro


As Pam, Jim and Paul reflected on the session, they all noticed that people are started for leadership, but its not leadership from elected officials thats missing. Its the leadership of people standing up to say:



What work is your community calling to you to do?

Only you hold yourself back.

_____ _____ _____


This post is a wee bit  of the book I am working on, while I am working on it. Here are some plot helpers of Nest City – The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities:


Performance with purpose


From 2005 to 2007 I had the best job in the world, full of challenges at a fast pace.  I was running the planning and development department for North America’s fastest growing municipality: the Regional Municpality of Wood Buffalo in the heart of Canada’ oil sands. Political, cultural, social, environmental and economic struggles were the norm, and in the middle our municipal government with a little department with few people to do the work that needed to be done.  I know now that the whole time there was something bothering me, a little itch that came and went.  W. Timothy Gallwey, in The Inner Game of Work, perfectly describes my itch: performance momentum.

Not all movement or action taken in our work actually moves me, or the organization I serve, forward.  Gallwey: “There is a kind of activity that most of us are very familiar with that is not done with conscious intent or awareness of purpose.  I call it performance momentum.”  Most often it is ‘busy’ work, work that makes us look (and feel) like we are doing something of value.  We get energized by the adrenalin and even panic to get things done.  We get galvanized by the drive to get things done.  And we lose sight of purpose and priorities.

I recognize this phenomenon in groups of people and individuals.  We each have moments when we have the foot on the gas regardless of whether we have traction, when we assume that having a foot on the gas is always a good thing.  We must always check to see if what we do is effective.  We need feedback loops and we need to be open to hearing the messages of the feedback loops.

A city, an organization, a person that is intent on doing things – without a clear and conscious purpose – suffers from performance momentum.  It could be connected to a need to be doing, or seen to be doing.  We collectively create this culture for ourselves and for each other.

When I get caught in performance momentum, I get tired and unable to do the work well for long.  Yet stepping out of performance momentum is not a license to not perform.  There is certainly work to be done – and work to be done in a timely manner.  The catch is knowing if the work taking place is the right thing to do at the right time, recognizing the work’s purpose.  It is about working consciously.

I didn’t reach this understanding until I gave myself time and permission to stop and look at what was bothering me – at what and why I was itchy.  I started to scratch this itch five years ago, and as usually what happens with an itch, it has become itchier and itchier.  My choosing to write and explore is a risk I welcome: I may find relief, or I may find that I set off deeper, longer lasting itches.

So what’s the opposite of performance momentum?  Performance with purpose, full of feedback loops that tell us when we are on track.  Noticing when we have traction, rather than wheels spinning, is part of our learning journey. 


_____ _____ _____

This post forms part of Chapter 4 – An Uneasy Journey, of Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities.

Nest City is organized into three parts, each with a collection of chapters.  Click here for an overview of the three parts of Nest City.  Click here for an overview of Part 2 – Organizing for Emergence, chapters 4-7.



13 ways to THRIVE in community

Our attention creates our reality.  The more I complain, the more I swirl around in a trap of negativity.  The more I appreciate what I have, the more I swirl in wonderful places, with wonderful people, doing wonderful things.  I get more of what I put my attention to.

This notion came front and center at the Community Planning Association of Alberta Conference this week as I listened to Alberta MLA (and Conservative Party leadership candidate) Doug Griffiths speak about thirteen ways to kill a community.  I was struck by his list of things that cause harm, his list of what NOT to do.

Griffiths’ 13 ways to kill a community:

  1. Don’t have good quality and quantity of water
  2. Don’t attract business that competes with yours
  3. Don’t involve young people
  4. Don’t assess community needs
  5. Don’t shop elsewhere
  6. Don’t paint
  7. Don’t cooperate
  8. Live in the past
  9. Ignore your seniors
  10. Do nothing new
  11. Ignore immigrants and newcomers
  12. Don’t become complacent
  13. Don’t take ownership

Knowing what not to do can be useful.  It is nice and clear and allows me the opportunity to easily notice if my actions (or inactions as the case may be) are harmful.  Yet hearing what I shouldn’t do does not provide clear guidance about what to do instead. I still need to know what to do, so being explicit about what to do is critical.  It isn’t good enough to know what doesn’t work.  I have re-framed his speech.  Drawing from his work, here’s my take on thirteen ways to thrive in community:

  1. Provide good quality and quantity of water
  2. Welcome competing business
  3. Create ways for young people own problems, solutions and action
  4. Notice good things everywhere
  5. Choose local businesses first (and be a business that people want to choose first)
  6. Be proud of where you live and look after your place. (Keep things clean and tidy.)
  7. Support what others are doing and work together
  8. Live in today for the future
  9. Engage seniors everywhere
  10. Try new things (and welcome risk)
  11. Welcome and cultivate the “anything and everything is possible” spirit of newcomers
  12. Be active and vibrant
  13. Assume personal responsibility and ownership of your place

I just heard the banquet supervisor with his staff as they are cleaning and setting up the tables for the next meal.  He’s nice and clear on what to do.  He’s setting his community up for success: “Work on one table at a time, rather than spreading out.”

Circle Tale – Habitat for Humanity in St. Albert

Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea,wonderful leading spirits in Circle work, asked my mom, Margaret Sanders, to share our story of our work with the City of St. Albert.  A wonderful tale of how Circle can bring community together around much more than what the conflict is about.  As I think about it, it was a wonderful experience that deepened a design charrette experience for participants.

Here it is:  PeerSpirit Circle Tale


A fantastic image came to mind in conversation with a colleague this afternoon: the whack-a-mole game at fairs and carnivals.  This is also a common phenomenon in the world where I feel like I am one of the moles.  Chances are, if I come up with an idea someone is there to whack me on the head with a mallet.  After a while, I might choose not to offer myself and my ideas.  I have a choice to make.

I wonder who I am wacking with my mallet?

The treadmill gets a bum rap

I surprised myself the other day while running on a treadmill.  I have always thought of the treadmill as a metaphor for people who are stuck in the rut of working too hard and they can’t stop.  It finally dawned on me: I can get on or off a treadmill any time AND I can choose how hard I work.

The treadmill is a wonderful metaphor for choice in our world.  Whether thinking of the treadmill in the gym for humans, or the treadmill in the hampster cage, the same principles apply for physical fitness or my work/life fitness.  They also apply to a community’s fitness:

  1. I choose how fast, slow or steep I go. If the going is too slow or too fast, I can adjust. I can slow to a walking pace to relax, or I can bump up the pace to meet the needs of the moment.  I am not required go full tilt all the time.  I am also not required to slack.  The choice is mine.
  2. I choose how hard to work. I make decisions about how fast or how steep the work is, in alignment with my fitness goals.  I recognize that if I work hard and fast all the time, I will not last as long as if I work hard and fast with breaks to slow down.
  3. I choose when to get on or off the treadmill. When I want a good workout, or even a steady pace, I get on the treadmill.  When I have had enough, I choose to get off and go for a snack.
  4. I choose to seek feedback about myself. As I work, I can seek feedback about the toll the work is taking on me.  I can take my pulse, or use the heart-rate monitor on the treadmill, to see if my work is too hard or too easy for my fitness goals.  By welcoming feedback – especially from my own body – I will make better choices for me.  If I don’t seek feedback, the treadmill may just throw me off.
  5. To make the right choices for me, I need to have goals in mind. How fast, how hard, how steep, and when to get on/off are all connected to my fitness goals.  Is there a big event I am ramping up for that requires harder work for a length of time?  Will I need to allow myself a break after that?  Are there other things happening in life that mean I should slow down?  My choices and feedback are intertwined – my goals will determine the feedback I will seek, and the feedback may alter my goals in turn.
  6. I choose the role a treadmill will play in my life. What are my fitness goals for my work life?  What sort of workout do I need at this moment?  How does this workout relate to by bigger goals further off in the distance – will it help me get there, or just tire me out?
  7. (Note: running faster on the treadmill will not get me off the treadmill.)

The bottom line is this – while on a treadmill, I have a choice about how hard and how long I work.  I can also make choices aligned with my goals and intentions.  These principles apply to anyone, any organization or community: intention around pace, intensity, feedback, goals.

It’s up to me to do what I need to do to suit myself.

It’s up to us to do what we need to do to suit ourselves.

My gatekeeper tension

The tension is growing within me.  I am in the inner circle.  Five of us decide who gets to play in our community of practice playground.

Our purpose as a community is to create space and place to practice being (and being in) learning living systems as social innovators.  As I imagine the playground down the street and the various collections of small people during recess, they choose who they spend their time with.  Sometimes the choices are clear and easy, other times agonizing.  And the choice is ultimately about resonance and attraction.

I struggle with being in a position where I am expected to accept or reject the people interested in playing in our playground because it interferes with resonance and attraction.  A couple of months ago, I glibly referred to the inner circle as the gatekeepers.  Today, my curiosity about the word ‘gatekeeper’ compels further exploration: what it means, how it shows up, and whether the purpose of the gatekeeper is aligned with the purpose of our community of practice, and emerging operating principles.

What it means

The Collins dictionary on my shelf, a gatekeeper comes with a gate and a wall, defined thus:

  • Gatekeeper – ‘a person who has charge of a gate and controls who may pass through it’.
  • Gate – ‘a movable barrier for closing an opening in a wall, fence, etc.  It is an opening to allow for access’ (and egress).
  • Wall – ‘a construction used to enclose, divide or support, often to protect and surround a position or place for defensive purposes’.

How it shows up

The gatekeeper, the gate and the wall show up in how we organize our community of practice.  Simply:

  • The ways we enclose, support and protect ourselves are the wall.
  • The people (inner circle) who determine who may pass through the wall are the gatekeepers.
  • The criteria for passage are the gate.

The quality of the relationship between these three elements is crucial for them to work well together.  The purpose of the wall must be clear to articlate the criteria for passage.  The criteria or passage must be clear to determine who may pass through.  If not, both the gate and the gatekeeper are not able to ensure the intention of the wall is realized.

Alignment of purpose

How well a wall functions is connected to the clarity of the wall’s purpose.  The purpose will dictate how permeable the wall needs to be – what, who and how much the gate and gatekeeper will allow to pass through.  To understand the purpose of the wall though, the purpose of the community of practice must also be clear.

Our emerging purpose:  To create space and place to practice being (and being in) learning living systems

Our emerging superordinate goal, to which our purpose serves, is to:  Be a meshwork of social innovators who create conditions for the continued evolution and growth of life

So what role does a wall in a community of practice play in light of these two statements?  To what degree does a wall separate us from others? Contain us?  Restrict us?  Support us?  Protect us?   Each of these can roles naturally occur in living systems.  They each can restrict us from, or release us to, our growth and evolution.

At this juncture, our gatekeeper practice does not align with these statements.  We judge interested play mates for fit, without criteria.  We are not clear what we are looing for – or not looking for.  We trust on our intuition, but likely also our insidious bias and limiting beliefs.  We decide if they fit before really letting them in and limit our opportunities to be surprised.  We may at some point also be distracted by another gate, ‘the number of people admitted to a sporting or entertainment event, and/or the total amount of money received from them’.

What I value in our community of practice is our trust in self organizing systems.  I value our keen attention to creating minimal structure to allow what needs to happen just happen.  I value our interest in creating dissonance for our selves and each other since we recognize that that is what we need to learn and grow in our life and work.  These qualities are welcoming and expansive in nature.  Our behaviour at the gate does not exemplify our ‘inside’ behaviour.

Emerging operating principles

My emerging operating principles for how I wish to operate as a gatekeeper at the gate in the wall around in a community of practice with the above purpose:

1.     Trust We trust that the people who are attracted to this playground bring something that our community needs.  We may not know or understand what that is as they pass through the gate, but we trust that if what we do resonates with them, there is a relationship worthy of exploration.

2.     Resonant permeability – The gate is open to those that feel called to play in our community of practice playground, whether they have been explicitly invited or not.  The gate is also open to those that feel called to step away.

3.     Evolution is expansive – Being welcoming to all who express interest in what we do is expansive.  Putting our attention to qualities of expansiveness will increase our expansiveness.

4.     Our space and place thrives when we are who we really are – There is no threat in trusting resonance and attraction.  Only those for whom our community of practice resonates will linger.

5.     The wall is a source of intelligence – A wall serves as the transition from one space to another.  The gate is simply where this transition takes place.  What, precisely is the transition, and the nature of it?  In the living system of a human body, a cell membrane serves as a wall.  Bruce Lipton (The Biology of Belief) even notes that the membrane may be the real source of intelligence in a cell, not the nucleus.  The wall may be the brain, as we have come to know it.  What if the real intelligence in our community of practice is in the people who choose to transition in and out of our community?

The gatekeeper in me welcomes all who pass through – the gate ‘as a mountain pass, especially one proving entry into another country’…

The gatekeeper in me is brave enough to share what is behind the wall.

Pondering the purpose of a city/town

How we create our cities and towns has an impact on the quality – and longevity – of our existence.  While this may feel far off, irrelevant and easy to dismiss, there is a simple and familiar metaphor that highlights our individual and collective situation: it’s our bed, we have to lay in it.

Two examples from headlines one October day in 2009 in the Edmonton Journal:

  1. Cities tapping out our rivers, report warns: tampering with flow regimes has put ecosystems at risk; and
  2. Proximity to quality transit, parks may cut diabetes risk: healthy neighbourhoods are 38% less likely to develop disease.

People need to water to survive, let alone be healthy and thrive.  Further, “people who live in neighbourhoods with safe sidewalks, ample parks, good public transportation and ready access to fresh fruits and vegetables are 38 per cent less likely to develop diabetes.”   The point: as we create our cities and towns, we make decisions everywhere, big and small, that have an impact on our well-being.  We decide whether we wish to have a habitat that supports our well-being.  We decide whether or not we wish to make it easy or hard for people to exercise and eat right.  We decide whether we care or not if collectively we look after the places and people we live in and with, and rely upon.

I am not in support of or in opposition to the arguments in these pieces of journalism.  Rather, my intention is to highlight the often unconsidered consequences of our choices as we create and recreate our cities, towns and communities.  In choosing to leave with each other we have made implicit commitments to each other.  In choosing to create and live in larger and larger settlements (and even the small ones), we specialize what we do for each other and we advance what we are capable of.  We are growing and evolving as a species.  Because of this specialization, we have made great advancements in health care, in communication technologies.  None of this would have happened without the creation of cities.  We live together so we can grow and evolve as individuals and together.

Yet these articles point to a bit of a conundrum: what if the choices we are making in how we create our cities is undermining our very evolution?  What if we harm our ecosystem to a degree where our existence is threatened?  What if we design our cities to ensure people are nowhere near as healthy as they could be?  Is the purpose of a city to harm humans or to support humans’ growth and evolution?  Which purpose do the choices we make as citizens, community organizations, NGOs, businesses, developers and builders,  and public institutions serve?





The gift of the sprained ankle

Sometimes you have to be hurt before you sit on the sidelines.

My outdoor soccer team decided this last summer that we would field a team for the indoor season.  We love doing this together and so off we go into a new adventure.

The morning of Game 3 I took an unexpected and tumbling trip down the basement stairs and landed in the emergency room, and left with four staples in my head.  I went to the game that night and watched from the bench.  I support my team no matter what.  Then on my first shift of Game 4 I got tangled with the opposing team’s keeper and hobbled off the field with a sprained ankle.

And so I am wondering what the Universe is telling me.  It might be about soccer, or just the phenomenon of noticing when it’s time to take to the sidelines for a bit.  A question from a couple of team mates startled me in the middle of Game 3: “are you in agony watching and not playing?”  As I reflect on this, I notice that I wasn’t in agony.  I didn’t even think of being in agony until it was mentioned.  I couldn’t do anything about it, so I just watched and enjoyed my team’s efforts.

I have a feeling that the agony, however, is setting in around this ankle.  Not only can I not play soccer for a while, I am required to keep it elevated.  I can’t be physically active.  I have to sit or lie down.  This could well drive me nuts.  It is not lost on me that also at risk, if I do not heal well, is skating, cross-country and downhill skiing.  I love winter and I consider not being able to do these things agony.

But I am curious about what windows might be opening.  One gal on my team has suggested I start doing other things to keep my fitness level up.  I could do weights, and she advises that combined with the weight I have lost I could get quite ripped!  There might be other physical activities that could serve as cross training for running and soccer, that might even improve my performance.  Beyond the physical, I can spend additional time writing and doing things I like around home.  I can find a balance of these things.  Nothing is lost when I notice that other things are gained – I just have to be open to finding them.

So the conscious choice I make is to be on the sidelines enjoying my team’s games and friendship.  The other choice I make is to receive the gift of the sprained ankle.  I see opportunities to try new physical activities and reacquaint myself with quiet things to do at home and work.  I am curious about other places where I need to step back into the sidelines and let others have a turn.