It was a crisp, sunny day in Autumn. You knew, by the angle and warmth of the sun, that an apple was blushing at that very moment. Turtles along the Allegheny River banks were heating up their shells. The sky was finally blue again, void of the hazy humidity. The city street was blocked off for the festival and quickly filling up with inflated bouncy houses, ponies, tents and a steady stream of people carrying their health and wellness goodies for their fair booths; busy juggling their crates of info and shielding the sun from their eyes.
The Manchester Youth Development Center - “A Place to Run To” - was a bustle with ladies from the Pittsburgh neighborhood - greeting you with the sun’s warmth as you came in, truly thanking you for coming, both embracing you in a hug and ushering you to your spot (how do they do that?), kindly letting you know they’d be back later to check on you. I felt like I had seven or eight moms that Saturday. It felt wonderful - to be cherished like a child again. Is that how this place operates? Wow. A place to run to felt more & more like a place to stay.
A quick self-check left me feeling suddenly a little abashed. I pulled my head out of my suburban sandbox and took a minute to really get in touch with my “office” for the day. Everyone was helping somebody - in a genuine way - without the usual artificial flavoring. When people asked me where I was from, they told me - “that’s where the rich people live”. I came from a place that was deemed “wealthy” or “worry-free”, which made me appear to be out-of-touch with the realities of living in a city. I tried to brush this perspective off, as the real reality of where I grew up was that it was a community desert - void of neighborliness. Where I was from, people walled themselves in like they really had something to be afraid of. The deer, maybe? I wanted to hide where I was from, just so I could be accepted here. How could I expect to make a difference in someone’s life if they felt I couldn’t even relate to them as a person? I wanted to blend. I wanted to feel the pulse of belonging to something that felt like it really, deeply mattered.
I was staffing the Farm to Table spread at the fair, trying to bridge the gap between mostly rural/suburban farmers and urban eaters. A little girl came up to me and asked me if my Hydrangea flowers were broccoli. She also wanted to know where I got my pumpkin. When I told her I grew it, she looked at me funny - like I grew it out of my ear or something. I had a fancy little set-up of made-in China bowls filled with ingredients for assembling trail mix. You could make a bag of trail mix to take, all the while listening to my spiel about Farmer’s Markets, CSA’s and Farm to Table school assemblies.
There was a little boy, about 8 years old, trying to extract all of the dark chocolate chips from a bowl where they were tossed with dried apples. His aim was definitely to take them all. I asked him if he needed a pair of tweezers & his face lit up! I told him I was kidding, then I asked him if he ever played the game “Operation”. He never heard of it. Then I told him to give the dried apples a try. “I’d rather suck eggs than try the apples,” he said. I couldn’t help it - I was so shocked that he said “sucked” to me - that I threw it right back at him, “Have you ever sucked an egg?” Startled, he didn’t answer - just walked away. Ugh! That’s not how I wanted that to end. For a few seconds I wondered if he was going to tell on me.
From the frying pan and into the fire, I was starting to see that I needed to stop worrying about being “perceived” as the girl who came from where “the rich people live” to actually not being that girl. Today was turning into my day to learn how to meet people where they are - not where you think people should or could be. My cheeks burned as I looked in the mirror and realized that my own fear of not being assessed fairly was representative of giving into the wrong part of the “listening cycle”. Gosh. That whole, “ego is a false prophet in your head” thing - yeah - I fell for that. Just be yourself - quit trying to force the situation!
I stopped pretending to understand the city dweller life and started to relax into it. I was an intercultural - I had knowledge to share about who grows real food, who regenerates our soils for generations to come, how to affordably eat whole foods and how you could get those foods. Student nutritionists working at the local supermarket chain's booth were handing out Cheez-It crackers and Frosted Mini-Wheats. These students of nutrition might go to school in the “city”, but they weren’t here to give this community something better. I may have dried apples that could be worse than sucking eggs, but at least they didn’t have hydrogenated, GMO ingredients in them.
Truth be told, my “rich”, suburban neighborhood doesn’t have an organic Farmer’s Market. We don’t have garden plots where we pull resources together to publicly grow & share food. Our schools don’t have Edible Schoolyard programs. The principal of my son’s elementary school is now officially on her way to becoming a McPrincipal, as she is so excited about her first-ever McDonald’s fundraiser. This fast-food fundraiser comes on the heels of the "Sunny Delight" & Market Day fundraisers. My “rich” suburban neighborhood is so poor in it’s quality of life as a local foodshed community, that all we know how to do is to promote each other’s dependence on the fragile, insecure supply lines of cheap oil and the very processed foods that contribute childhood obesity and diabetes. We are not making the sustainable changes to “Keep it Real, Keep it Local”, even though we are most certainly poised to do so.
Manchester is a multicultural community - mostly African American, but it is definitely getting infiltrated with liberal white folks and other cultural groups. So - of course you have well meaning folks helping to set up socially mindful programs to make the community a more welcoming place for all. David Tracey, coordinator for the YMCA Intercultural Community Gardens Project at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, and keen observer of multicultural cities, says: “everybody mostly gets along, but there are not intercultural exchanges among the different groups of people - even though they share so much in common. So they get along, but they don’t really do anything together. “ Tracey adds that: “a place needs to be actually intercultural (versus multicultural), where different cultures really are working together, and doing things together” for it to be a thriving place.
In nature, there is one organism who’s job it is to promote the vitality of a whole, living system and make it a thriving place. This organism is Fungi. It is the brains behind nature’s emergent and leaderless decision making process. We’ll call the optimal system Fungi seeks to create a community, so our “people” and “fungi” analogy is easier to see. Fungi have four principal process types: Exploration, Assimilation, Conservation, Redistribution. See a need, fill a need - and in doing so you create whole community abundance where all intercultural groups get what they need to complete their processes and contribute to each other’s needs in the process. You could see this activity at the Manchester Community & Family Health Fair. The energy in the room was geared toward nurturing the place.
This place was alive with music blasting, pony rides, raffles and face painting - but underneath all the glory from the festivities there was a robust effort - from the very elderly to the very young - trying to explore each other needs; assimilate resources by reaching out to make introductions across the board at different booths; attempts at conserving systems that were already in place before reinventing the wheel somewhere else; and last but not least, being careful to continually redistribute the real wealth nurtured by the community to all of the pockets of need. In this way, on this beautiful Fall day, we built multiple relationships to perform multiple roles without a single leader telling us what to do. Fungi knows no King or Queen, but it builds the most beautiful, natural kingdoms that then have the strength to reach out to other communities nearby. Shazam-ing resources to the people who really need them is a win-win situation. Making connections mean being the fungi that you want to see in the world: offering collective support coordinated through individuals. And, this, my friends is how those Manchester ladies both hug, guide and support you all at once...