One year into my tenure as a community gardener, as I unearth a tangle of mint and mugwort roots, I remember those distant first mornings digging up broken bottles and old shirts. When I first saw the plot and was informed it had “issues,” I took a deep and fearless breath, knowing that I love a good challenge. Being a corner plot close to a sidewalk in a densely populated residential neighborhood, my little rectangle of earth has long been viewed as a handy place to throw coffee cups and cigarette ends. And all plots, not just corner ones, have suffered from theft of the bounty: corn, tomatoes, beans, and peas.
In the first weeks as I piled up hitherto buried treasures (cast iron utility markers, plastic bags, and old shoes), I reflected on the community garden as an organization with physical and social boundaries. There were gardeners who were insiders, and people walking by who were outsiders. I wondered what I would learn about organizations, leadership, and myself during my adventures with weeds, seeds, soil, and the elements.
Seeking to Create New Dynamics
For one who adores sifting out roots and stones with her bare hands, happening on broken glass is a bit dangerous, so my first desire was to stem the flow of new trash in the plot. One obvious approach would be to strengthen the physical barriers: build up the four-foot, chain-link fence with chicken wire and other materials, and grow tall plants like morning glory vines, sunflowers, or climbing roses to create a barrier between my plot and people walking by.
Yet being a natural practitioner of polarity management, I suspected there would be complementary strategies that did not involve building barricades. (Of course, others may have already tried my complementary strategies to no avail! Our knowledge management system in the community garden is a bit haphazard!) So yes, the amended fence is increasingly un objet d’art brut. I also removed trash as soon as I found it, a strategy that is documented in The Tipping Point as a powerful way to encourage respect of shared spaces. And, I would take the seemingly opposite tack, and engage with those who may have been tempted to trash or filch.
Now, I will never know who exactly lifted last year’s corn harvest, nor do I care to know. (I am starting with the hypothesis that “outsiders” have been the culprits since the insiders have agreed to abide by an honor system.) So, I wanted to know something about the people who walk by and how they experience the garden. I went outside the chain link boundary and walked around the entire garden (made up of about thirty plots). On my side of the garden, walking down the sidewalk, sweetpea and sunflower greens leaned into the sidewalk space. By the end of summer 2010, one could hardly use the sidewalk due to larger-than-life foliage. As gathering places for trash and dead stems and leaves, the stalks were also quite unsightly: nothing much to enjoy or admire.
My balancing strategy, therefore, was to create beauty and openness for pedestrians to enjoy, with the idea that a feeling of mutual respect would develop. Over the winter and spring, I cleared the sidewalk area, and planted some herbs and flowering plants at the border. I also speak to people who walk by. Here is a summary of my two balancing strategies:
Clarify and assert boundaries AND Build relationships and respect
Additional ways to talk about building relationships and respect include “stakeholder engagement” and “community building” as my colleagues Tony Bond and Skip High point out. Everyone who is touched by the garden, from county executives to people who catch the bus nearby, are stakeholders who can impact and be impacted by the garden. As many authors have noted, stakeholder engagement, community building, and similar processes are powerful and empowering for all involved. They are also good financial investments.
First: I am enjoying the garden much more, because I love the beauty of the new plantings and open space near the fence.
Second: It is fun to speak with passers-by, many of whom hail from agricultural communities in Africa or Latin America and few of whom are plotholders. They often ask what I am growing and how to get a plot. One gentleman from Sudan told me that he grew cassava, onions, and maize back home, and that he could dig the entire 1/3-acre community garden in four days. After surveying it a bit more, he said, “no, in two days.” Some Salvadorean and Guatemalan gentlemen stood with this gringa as we all wracked our brains to think of the Spanish word for the cabbage growing along the fence. We succeeded in the end: el repollo. These delightful exchanges are the non-edible fruits of the garden.
Third: Very little trash is being thrown into my plot, and so far there has been no theft. (I will begrudge the first ripe raspberries to mama mockingbird, who I am guessing fed them to her ravenous teenagers.) I may never know the precise reasons for the new status quo. I like to think the new arrangement is meeting some needs of the passers-by: full use of the sidewalk, something beautiful and tidy to look at, a sense of being welcome and respected, a source of nostalgia for their own farms and home-grown produce, or awakening pride that they could teach the gardeners a thing or two about growing food crops.
I am still observing and experimenting. The early results suggest that as leaders, we need to develop radar for identifying balancing strategies, so that we can attend to blind spots in how we are relating to their larger world. Without the balancing strategies, the negative side effects of the habitual or preferred strategies (e.g., build barricades) can overwhelm the positive effects and become counterproductive, and may even reinforce and deepen the original problem.
So, what did I learn about myself? Well, colleagues tell me that I am a risk-taker: that I am comfortable with the discomfort of engaging with people and new approaches, knowing the twists and turns of the collective creative process will produce something more enduring and impactful than what I can produce on my own. In the case of the garden, I am left with the sense that I am co-creating the garden in community with insiders and outsiders. (And of course with the plants and animals … and that’s for another blog post!)
Finally, the two balancing strategies have something in common: presence. The barriers and quick clean-up suggest a firm presence about what is tolerated. The engagement and openness also communicate presence—not only in the message sent by attractive plantings near the fence, but in my own physical presence in the garden as a greeter, neighbor, and learner.
Share Your Stories
I called this blog post “Walking the Stalk,” because we can practice being aware of options and possibilities in any area of life. In fact, the more remote it seems from our organization, perhaps the better, because we often carry different sets of unexamined assumptions in different areas of life. According to polarity management theory, using well-defined balancing strategies in the right proportions over time will pay off in any area.
Please comment below to share related experiences:
– What insight did you gain from reflecting on leadership in an area that seems far removed from the context of your professional leadership?
– How did you employ two seemingly opposite strategies to achieve a balanced approach to a situation?
Please share this post with a friend, and I will keep you posted on my experiment!