A Recipe for Community Wealth

Posted on May 22, 2020 by Helen Johnson

One day, someone new came to town. Let’s call him Sam.

Sam was hungry and looking for a meal. He knocked on several doors and heard the same story each time. “Go away. We have nothing to share.”

So, while sitting in the town square, contemplating his options, Sam began to play with a small, round stone he’d found. After a while, he put the stone in his pocket.

Kids Playing with Bubbles Downtown Photo

Later, Sam made an announcement. He was lucky enough to have a very special, magic stone in his pocket and it just so happened that this stone was the secret to delicious soup. He would show them. All Sam needed was a big soup pot and a fire.

The townspeople were mildly interested. Everyone likes a good cooking demonstration. Someone offered a cooking pot.

Next, Sam said that the stone really brought out the flavor of onion and carrot. Suddenly, someone had an onion to share and someone else threw in a carrot.

As you might guess, through a series of subsequent, individual contributions, a delicious soup came together that actually fed the entire community.

Sam’s work (rooted in his own real need) built trust in a group of people that had been wary of each other and particularly wary of strangers.

Soup here is an obvious metaphor for the incredible impact that a collaborative approach can have. At the MML Foundation, we believe that in a time of hyper-individualism, coming together is more powerful than working alone. We believe in matching the right talent to the right problem and working creatively across sectors. We are committed to working collaboratively with people, community groups, and organizations to create and connect with transformational opportunities that drive equitable impact and build community wealth. Community wealth is local, and it’s built through good placemaking, through leveraging local culture, and celebrating our local assets.

The stone soup story also highlights some core principles that are important to a strong culture. Activities that build trust and develop relationships that require reciprocal obligations are critical to strong communities. During the COVID-19 pandemic our news feeds are flooded with stories of death and despair, but they are also peppered with stories of hope, of people helping each other. We’ve chosen to focus on and share these examples as we’re finding them across our state.

We see people doubling down to provide meals and shopping for each other. We see communities pitching in and creating pooled funding to ensure that local restaurants are supported, and healthcare workers are fed and feel appreciated. Some fitness instructors are offering to stream free workout videos. Photographers are capturing snapshots of love at a distance. These winsome portraits show families sitting alone on their porches, but the act of photography itself functions as a connecting mechanism. We’ve also seen countless demonstrations of creativity in the individual kitchens and gardens of Michiganders. The inherent desire to ‘start something,’ to learn a new skill, has blossomed as we look for ways to be more self-sufficient and in turn, find ourselves exploring creativity, and maybe even having fun.

These stories of how people in places, big, medium-sized and small, are demonstrating their own brand of local flavor, even in a time when we can’t show it by living our ‘normal’ lives. How do we build on this? How can we evolve the way our places operate to support more people, to strengthen local business, and to build more cultural abundance?

Stone soup is a story that isn’t about making something from nothing. It’s a story about working from an asset-based perspective. This approach builds on assets we have already. Some of those are infrastructural, but to start with, it always builds on culture. Culture in a community is its art, music, dance, skills, traditions, humor, and placemaking. It’s the way that we connect with each other and the impact that has on our social fabric.

Why is culture important? Because it embodies the things that help us identify with each other as a community instead of seeing ourselves as a collection of disconnected individuals. Culture matters particularly when the other context that has bound us together for all of our lives—the market economy—is failing us.

Let’s embrace our culture and re-imagine what places that truly support people look like. How do we take cues from the positive ways that we are spending our time during a crisis and build on those things moving forward? We’ll keep collecting examples of what community wealth building looks like in places across Michigan and beyond. And, we’ll keep sharing them. Let’s start dreaming, thinking, and planning for what we want to come back to when quarantine is lifted. Be encouraged. We’re in this together and we will make an impressive stone soup.

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