We are all equal, but who holds the keys?

I was talking with my friends Rachael and Adam, who work full-time out at Hacienda Market Garden, about the power-dynamics while working in the gardens. It is a topic that I have heard them revisit often. (Hacienda is an urban organic farm where I have been interning in the past few months, which is part of The Working Centre here in Kitchener-Waterloo).

You see, there are at least 6 different groups of people who share the work there; community volunteers, job café workers, full-time employees, college students, seasonal interns, and special events volunteers.

At some point, while we are all side by side pulling thistles out of patches of kale, harvesting beet greens for salad mix, and shoveling compost onto the garden beds you start to notice that status operates in a strange and exciting way here. So much so that you even start to wonder who is really in charge of this thing anyways?

The work gets done, but there doesn’t seem to be a ‘boss’. However, then you remember that only a few of us get to hold the keys to the tool shed and veggie prep storage container, and you wonder how equal we all really are.

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Even in an established community institution that is working it’s hardest to be an alternative community, there are still these kinds of questions that come up. Questions of continuity between what we say and what we do. (Here, I just feel such relief at the permission to never “arrive” at an ideal place, but to always be completely fine that there are places that need some work)

What I learned from my conversations, and from the new book, “Transition to Common Work: Building Community at The Working Centre” (Which I totally recommend if you are interested in community building, social justice work, or a bit of local history) was an alternative way of thinking about how leadership can operate. They call it “Hosting a Space”.

“Hosting” is different from managing, facilitating, directing, etc. Hosting a space is about inviting people into a shared opportunity to express their best self.

The Host of a space hangs on to their role both tightly and loosely.

Tightly, in that they recognize the importance of “setting the tone” for the group by offering an inviting and accommodating example. They are also a resource for connecting newcomers to the project.

Loosely, in that they never need to micromanage interactions or decisions being made. They are simply filling a role in a group of equals.

Hosting a space is about inviting people into a shared opportunity to express their best self.

Once, out at the garden, we really needed to get the garlic planted, but there were more workers than work (Rare for a garden!). There was a moment when we all sort of stood in a huddle and waited awkwardly. No one wanted to be excluded, and no one wanted to be the excluder, but we knew that this group had to get smaller somehow in order to get our task accomplished.

Rachael stepped into her role as host in order to preserve the dignity of each person, and made the suggestion that we could work ahead on preparing the soil in other places for more garlic at a later time. This inspired Paul, a volunteer, to say that he could get wheelbarrows full of compost, and then Gabriel, a worker through the Job Café program, said he could get the shovels.

It is a simple story of a pretty mundane event, but it is an example of how power can be distributed in an alternative way, and it was intentional. Rachael could have acted as a boss, and handed out tasks just to keep people busy, or worse, sent someone home because they weren’t needed. Instead she simply opened up a new opportunity that came from knowing the space well, and let the group work itself into it.

As folks who are, in some way or another, interested in alternative community building, I often wonder what leadership might look like?

Who gets to hold the keys, and what does that signify?

Who is in charge of this thing and what does it mean?

I think it can be a really tricky subject, especially when we care so deeply about the shape and character of the community. How can we hold our leadership roles both tightly, and loosely?

I was inspired by the work that this garden does at intentionally making all participants feel included and valued, while also balancing the need to get healthy local veggies into baskets every week. Let’s turn to the wisdom and experience of others! What are examples of alternative leadership that you have encountered? How can we creatively imagine leadership in PiE or whatever alternative communities we are a part of?

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Eli Tracy is finishing up a Masters of Theological Studies at Conrad Grebel University College, and has spent the last three years getting a sustainable organic farm up and going with his 
family and friends in Northwest Ohio.

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