First Thing's First: Who Are We?
Today's buzzwords are collaboration, community engagement, and networked leadership across several industries. There's a lot of talk about adapting a systems perspective and moving away from linear approaches to change. These views and processes are all well and good. As a matter of fact, they hold the promise of a more holistic pathway towards ecological consciousness and societal transformation.
But what if a well-rooted identity with an ecological ancestry as well as a present day sense of place do not first exist?
Recently, I was called upon to facilitate a community collaborative aimed both at promoting the value and supporting the preservation of a rare ecosystem and at cultivating relationships in order to establish a well-founded sense of place within the Oak Openings Region of Northwest Ohio. The hosting non-profit group consists of scientists representing various organizations such as The Black Swamp Conservancy, Toledo Metroparks, the Department of Natural Resources, The Nature Conservancy, University of Toledo, and others. These agencies hope that community residents will share the same values of conservation with them and act in accordance to protect nature.
An interesting twist occurred after a series of sessions and dialogues. The locals were completely unaware that they live in what The Nature Conservancy deemed "one of the most important ecosystems in the U.S." and "one of the last great places on Earth." They also lacked a sense of shared identity.
One participant said, "I don't know how we would define our area or how to give it it's own personality. That seems to be our challenge. Who are we? What defines us? What makes us [Toledo] different from the people in Kansas City or Detroit? We have kind of an open slate here."
Others thought the region had a low self-esteem and "needs to create a new culture or somehow shift the attitude of the area."
As the conversation gained momentum some of the elders recounted the lost history of this place. They spoke of the rich jazz and blues culture; they told stories of what it was like to live here during the 1930s, '40s, and '50s. The younger generations leaned in, amazed at what they learned. People suddenly beamed with pride. They listed what they love about this place, why they choose to live here, and their hopes for future generations.
The revelation came from one of the scientists, who specializes in trees. She smiled and took time to look carefully around the room at each community member. And then she said, "I got it! It's about bringing all those different pieces together. I think that's exactly what we [as a non-profit organization] need to do, to make it a much bigger picture than we have been. For example, I am obsessed with trees. But I can tell you right now, I've talked with a lot of people and they are not obsessed with trees. I cannot start where I am. Instead, I need to make those connections you are all making."
Those connections, she said, link the area's history, arts, and people together with the natural environment.
"We need to change the meaning of ecology," a biologist chimed in. "It is clear to me now. The ecology of the Oak Openings is not the natural environment in of itself, but what about us? Humans are part of this ecology. I had not thought of it that way before.”
As author Robert L. Flood pointed out in his 1999 book, Rethinking the Fifth Discipline, "We can only meaningfully understand ourselves by contemplating the whole of which we are an integral part."
The community members recognized that in order to manifest a shared sense of identity, they must think systemically—seeing the whole picture rather than separate pieces. Place-based people cultivate ecological insights that include both an individual and collective connection to the local history, community, nature, arts, and economy. It is impossible to expect people to be in close relationship with life on Earth if they are living in isolation from each other, their own history, and their own sense of self.
I learned that the people of the Oak Openings Region see the complexity of the system they reside in. However, they are deciding to begin their transformation by first asking, "Who are we?"