On the Renewal of Flourishing Places

We have been on something of a hiatus. From the Latin “hiare,” hiatus meant “to gape” or “to yawn” and often referred to as a literal gap or opening in something. One takes breaks and looks for the gaps, waits for the openings.

As I write these words, the scenes of yesterday’s riots at our nation’s Capitol are still fresh in my mind. January 6, 2021, was the Day of Epiphany, and my family had placed a King Cake pre-order from BreadCraft, a local bakery. The cake was a marvel of purple, gold, and silver sparkles. We leave our Christmas tree standing until the day of Epiphany, and always remember the occasion as it marks the anniversary of my wife’s discovery that we would be having a child. Our son is now a long, lean 17 year old high school junior, who shared some sense of our shock at the images of terror and destruction, at the masked flag-bearing white men and women attacking police, damaging property, and desecrating sacred civic spaces. The King Cake was a needed balm for palate and spirit. 

An odd time, perhaps, to return from hiatus. Our break from posting content here at Social Possibility Lab was mostly a time of reflection and reconsideration. Over the past year, we experimented. We toured parts of Central Appalachia and learned about clean energy and sustainable development leaders and entrepreneurs. We visited San Francisco and met with creative people leading clean energy advocacy and entrepreneurial projects across the United States. We interviewed over two dozen leaders from West Berlin to West Virginia, Washington state to Washington, DC. We shared dozens of posts with resources and links related to the work for social good and better places. We continued our professional work on numerous projects in higher education engagement, regional economic development, and workforce development. We conducted an essay contest and shared words and work on the theme of crisis and possibility. We added many new friends and associates to our newsletter and shared regular updates to a budding network.

Still, we are an infinitesimal drop in a nearly infinite bucket and I have been struck lately by the noise and the volume, the many emails, the mountains of content. My introverted, introspective instinct is to pull back and desist, to refrain from heaping more bustle and bluster to the roaring superhighway of information. Hence, our hiatus.  

We will lean in the direction of less. But I am also re-dedicated to the importance of good work, however small. So we will continue here with our experiment, though we will reduce our frequency of push, dull our volume just a bit. Visit us anytime, we’ll leave the world-wide door open, our posts up, our work accessible. About once a month, we’ll continue to send forth a dispatch to our email followers. If you prefer, unsubscribe here. I get it, believe me.  

For those of you who want to keep following our work and words, receiving the intermittent updates, our 2021 focus or theme is Flourishing Places. To imagine our communities, places of all sizes and sorts, as flourishing is a pressing and necessary work.  

The pandemic and the interconnected concerns of economic recovery, racial justice, and social change have made 2020 a particularly challenging year. I am interested in what place, or community, means in this post-2020 moment. In 2021, I will keep exploring and keep speaking with a wide range of people to learn more about their communities and their work. I will also be diving deeper into my own place and the particular communities in which I work or learn about.  

What does it mean for a place to flourish? What is a flourishing place, and how do we best help our communities to flourish and thrive? What about recovery, what does that look like, and is recovery even a useful term or aspiration? In what ways are we seeing new possibilities, especially in ordinary places such as small cities, towns, neighborhoods, and rural regions? 

Our focus encompasses three main sub-themes:  

Leadership and Efficacy;

Who is working for positive change for particular places, and how are they going about that work? How do leaders (whether formal or informal) advance flourishing places? What does that work look like? How do new leaders emerge and how do places encourage fresh voices and new leaders? What practices, policies, initiatives, or projects are most promising?

Inclusion and Justice

What does widespread prosperity or flourishing look like in a place, and how can it be advanced? How are economic, social, environmental, health, and cultural concerns and domains intersecting and connecting? Are more inclusive, equitable, sustainable or just places and economies a priority, and if so, how are these aims being pursued and advanced?  

Imagination and Wonder

In what ways are flourishing places also places of wonder and astonishment and imagination? Are there opportunities for people to encounter wonder, and are there ways to encourage places of wonder? How are new possibilities being identified, considered, and pursued? Are people encouraged to imagine and to pursue ideas?  How is that encouraged? What is the role of arts and culture? Of nature and the outdoors?  

One pre-dawn blue-black morning this autumn, I discovered a huddle of chestnut fur on our drive. Motionless and still, a small bird had likely been felled by a stalking cat, an unexpected collision, or the overnight freeze. I veered past, leading our ever-inquisitive dog away from the carcass.  Biscuit licked the yard’s frost-rimed grass. After leading him back into the house, I returned to collect the remains, plastic grocery bag in hand. My fingers brushed the soft feathers. The huddled body trembled, shook, slow-shuddered and ventured a light awkward hop followed more confidently by another.  

The scene was like those classic chase sequences in action movies, the ones where the heroes leap into the open-cockpit of a propeller plane and taxi it down a packed dirt or grassy field runway while their pursuers are just behind. Instead of accelerating to a graceful flight, the plane hops and bounces and appears likely to stall or crash. Just as the villains are readying to leap on the wing from their pursuing jeep, the aircraft lifts and soars and the hero is away and free, leaving at least one pursuer sprawled and tumbling. And so. The sparrow propelled into the dense smooth branches of a vaulting crepe myrtle, and I was left gawking in its wake. 

Like the sparrow, we have been collectively stunned and stilled, and our recovery is likely a faltering and awkward one. 2020 has struck unevenly. We have all been disrupted, many severely. The most serious disruptions and losses have more often fallen on those individuals, families, and communities less ready to weather the blows. Despite the damages and rifts, we remain interested in how the 2020 interruption, this great global hiatus, has created new openings for possibility.   

We do not presume that some places are flourishing and that others are not, nor that we can readily recognize flourishing when we encounter it. Every place is its own sort of conundrum, a wonder, a particularity. We will spend most of our focus on the ordinary places:  the small cities, towns, and rural areas.  

I am also fully cognizant, or so I think, of the flaws and snares of the recovery narrative. The accompanying assumption that our communities were fine before, all proper and correct thank you very much, and that we simply experienced a blip that will soon pass, returning us once again to a steady state status quo. It is not enough to go back, as we have long accepted structural inequity and stark injustice and rejected more noble imaginings. We have not yet forged places where all have equal and ready opportunities and supports to flourish. So, we must not only restore, but also invent, create, dream, and build.  

And yet, crisis and challenge do bring change and possibilities, for good or ill. Again, I remain interested in the ways we identify and pursue possibilities for greater good. This process often begins with a step back, with reflection (thinking differently); with looking around and learning, and with imagining (seeing differently); and with a changed behavior, a new approach, worthwhile experiment (doing differently).

So, Social Possibility Lab remains an experiment and we will continue to explore these kinds of questions, perhaps with even more urgency. 2020 has indeed been a year. My hope is that you, whoever you are and wherever you may be reading, that you are well and remain so. We invite you to journey with us into the new year with a wary hope and a ready tenderness.