“All Beings Are Invited” Sustainability + Community Alexandria, MN

I spent a lot of time as a kid just outside of Alexandria, MN where my grandparents have had a lake cabin, since the 1960’s, as a place for family to gather and evolve together as a community. So, it felt universally fitting when I was invited back to the area to support the launch of sustainability conversations in Alexandria.

My wonderful friend, Shannon, who grew up in Alexandria, has recently moved back to the community and is now called to help energize the Local Food and Sustainability efforts there. She and her business partners have founded Venn Hagen: It means “friends,” and is a local food market, deli, co-working and educational space in the heart of Alexandria’s busy downtown.

To help spread the news about Venn Hagen, I’m thrilled to be welcomed into the community to share space and perspective on Sustainability. We decided it was so much goodness we needed a Three-Session Series: Sustainability in Community, Economy, and Spirituality.

session 1: SUSTAINABILITY IN COMMUNITY

On July 2nd, I gathered with a group of beautiful humans, at Yoga One studio in Alexandria, for a yoga practice followed by a deep, provoking community conversation about what Sustainability means for their community.

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why community?

“What is your community?” I ask this question to almost every group I visit because Community and Sustainability are inherently linked. Here are a few ways to think about the connection:

  1. Expanding Perspectives. Sustainability requires us to look outside our individual perspectives to see how we relate in our world. Communities are spaces (figurative or literal) where we connect with other people and perspectives. Even though no one in a community is exactly the same, the similarities that bring us together help us trust each other and open ourselves to new perspectives.

  2. Keeping Community Alive. Most communities want to continue in existence, or in other words, want to be sustained. Logical. :)

  3. Academics Say So. The Venn Diagram of Sustainability is the most widely accepted model for thinking about sustainable development. It says sustainable balance is achieved when the three values Economy, Environment, and Society overlap. In this model, Society represents the human value and the way humans relate to each other. In my workshops I talk about a variety of tools humans use to organize their relationships. One of the most significant tools is Community.

cultivating space for community: Why yoga?

We opened the evening with a yoga practice because it’s an amazing tool and analogy of cultivating an energy of community.

So far, the common thread I draw from communities around the world is that community is a group of unique individuals who share at least one common value and some form of connected purpose. A key for me in this is your uniqueness.

Your Uniqueness is Crucial to the Sustainability of Your Community

From my view, your uniqueness is your birth-right superpower and when it combines with a community of uniquenesses, (I’m pretending that’s a word,) the sum is balanced, strong, and aligned for a Sustainable world.

Unfortunately, people (everyone, me too!) often resist stepping fully into their uniqueness because it feels like we different, or separate from others. Feeling separate is a vulnerable place and it is easy to be self-conscious or even afraid to share and receive other unique perspectives. The bugger of it is that when you wall yourself off, you confine your individual superpower, and in turn, your community is less resilient.

In a yoga class, everyone hears the same cues and yet, everyone practices a unique expression. The uniqueness of every person’s energy combines into one unified energetic space: a custom community space that is created to hold each person individually, and together, so they are supported for open conversation.

conversation: The [com]Passions of Alexandria

In these conversation settings, I often ask people to consider their passion, dream, and a barrier they identify to that dream. Then, we run the barrier through a series of questions, usually including my 8 Limb Model of Sustainability. The idea is to stimulate conversation that considers a variety of perspectives so the outcome will be more balanced, and therefore more sustainable. It’s not a pursuit of perfection, it’s a pursuit of expansion.

When I asked the 20 community members to share their passion and dream for their community, I witnessed a community that is deeply compassionate and craving vulnerability.

I witnessed a community that is deeply compassionate and craving vulnerability.

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setting the stage

The first thing shared that evening was a barrier: the fear of unknown or unfamiliarity. The group identified a few topics where fear is holding back progress:

  1. How to support shopping local and in particular how to sustain the downtown shopping outside of the tourist “lake season.”

  2. Another topic is food and the resistance to learning where food comes from.

(Sidenote: I think these topics are super interesting on their own, and particularly cool in the context that this event was to support the opening of Venn Hagen, a local food market.)

Next I asked, “What is your goal with one or both of these topics?” The response was “unconditional community.” Even now, as I type this post, I think, what a gorgeous goal: a community that is unconditionally open.

With the goal and barrier identified, the questions for the conversation were set:

“How can we, people in Alexandria, transform fear to create unconditional community?” and “How can the 8 Limbs of Sustainability inform this transformation?”

Out poured real, open vulnerability.

the power of vulnerability

The community shared thoughts and feelings on big, bold topics including spiritual values, food values, sexuality, race, fears of being judged, and worries about how to not make people feel excluded. It was as though a bandage was taken off a wound that just needed to breathe.

Everywhere in the world, people have preconceived notions about any community. In a town like Alexandria it might be that everyone is white, mid-western, Christian. Preconceptions can create a lot of pressure on a community and its individuals to either live up to the conceived standard or risk the feelings of other people or themselves getting hurt by daring to voice differently. But, when you have conversation that requires you to consider a variety of perspectives, your mind automatically opens up, and an open mind is always more capable of compassion.

That night, the conversation revealed a diverse group of people: some who were born, raised and stayed in Alexandria; some born, moved away, and returned; people who’ve lived in major cities in America, in Europe; people who identify as Christian, Buddhist, Spiritual; English speakers and Multi-language speakers; people who care about food, humanity, business, nature; and so much more that was left undiscovered. They came together and were brave. They busted open topics in genuine compassion, and in my opinion, that kind of compassion is what leads to Sustainability.

safe space: an invitation

Alexandria is craving deeper conversation and exposure to each other. To redefine their individuality to their community, thereby evolving their community. By the end of the conversation, the group agreed that a potential answer to their question was to create “a safe space where anyone, [all beings,] can be generous and feel supported.”

As deeply moving, and heart-centered as that answer was, several people chimed in pointing out that those kinds of spaces did exist in Alexandria, but that people just didn’t go. And that’s when the deeper work was revealed: “What’s the invitation?”

“What is the invitation to the safe space where all beings can be generous and supported?”

The work now, Alexandria, is to ask that question to your 8 Limbs of Sustainability. Or to whatever model of diverse perspectives feels right to you. When you invite with vulnerability, vulnerability will appear.

Such beautiful work, Alexandria. You were brave and honest with each other. I am honored to have shared and held space for this meaningful work. I see you and you are unique, whole, and cultivating sustainable community!

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UP NEXT: Session 2. Sustainability in Economy. August 11th at YogaOne. 7pm-9pm.

Heather McDougall