As the external evaluator for Wildflowers Institute (WI) in 2004, I carried out participant observations at one WI fellows meeting and two site visits to local communities, conducted open-ended and semistructured interviews with almost all WI fellows and many participants in these programs, and maintained close e-mail and telephone exchange with Dr. Hanmin Liu. Based on information gathered during these activities, this report evaluates WI’s U.S. programs in building socially sustainable communities, focusing on new developments and comparing them with WI’s work in the previous year, which I observed closely but for which did not write a formal evaluation.
First I will review the development of the WI theory that has led to the shared new vision of building socially sustainable community and new strategies that placed even more emphasis on the inner strength of community leaders and residents. Next I will evaluate the two major WI tools in community building: the WI space and Vision-Building (VB), which WI fellows have developed in important ways. WI made learning programs and the training of youth leadership in 2004 top priorities and has made impressive progress on both fronts, thanks to the collective effort of WI fellows. The writing of a handbook for community building, the newest item on the WI agenda, has also involved WI fellows in developing the text content and two authors in participating in the WI process of community building. I conclude this evaluation report with remarks on the application of WI’s theoretically informed initiative in its 2004 work, that is, the aim to empower community leaders so that they can change the way how people perceive and build their communities from an inside-out approach.
The New Vision and the Strategies
The shared vision among WI fellows by 2003 revolved around three key points: (1) in order to move forward in their community-building work, both leaders and their communities need to undergo a process of cultural healing, (2) to reconstruct their identities, individuals and communities need to uncover the commonly held virtues and cultural premises (i.e., the commonly held expectations for individual, family, and community behaviors), and (3) through the discovery of these cultural premises, communities will be able to design and create social spacesthe centers of social gravitywhere the individual, the family, and the community can grow. While agreeing on these three points, WI in 2004 developed a new vision of community building that aims at the social sustainability of the community, which, in my opinion, represents the most important achievement of the year.
According to this new vision, community leaders in the twenty-first century need to consider several elements. First, because social capitals are the limited resources that are under attack by rapid market expansion, and because the breakdown of family and community contribute to increasing inequality and other social dysfunctions, the preservation of social capital and the promotion of equality are essential to socially sustainable development. Second, the teaching and learning of self-uplifting, self-organization, and self-reliance may be equally important, because the development of a community can be sustainable only when it ceases to rely on outside assistance and starts to grow from within. Third, the effort to discover who you are (or the construction of a collective identity for the community) therefore becomes a key to long-term development in both economic and social terms. Fourth, economic growth is critically important because a community experiencing prolonged poverty and economic difficulties cannot sustain itself either. In this connection, one must have a more balanced view of the marketplace because in today’s world a community’s economic sustainability cannot be achieved outside the market economy. Finally, a community cannot be sustainable if it is oppressive to individuals; a sustainable community has to achieve a good balance between individuals and the collective entity.
The vision of socially sustainable community builds on WI’s emphasis on the role of culture in community building. However, this vision has gone beyond the initial stage of cultural healing and identity searching and aims to restore the balance between the core and interface cultures, between social and economic capitals, and ultimately, between the individual and the community. Methodologically, this new vision derives from WI’s trademark "both/and" approach and continues to emphasize the internal strengths and virtues of a community in its long-term development.