Wednesday, January 23, 2008

It's gotta be free

Cob Courtyard Wall, Dufferin Grove Park
  • The time: summer 2005;
  • The concept: create an earthen sculpture in a downtown Toronto park that would serve as a gathering place and summer kitchen;
  • The method: offer free, ongoing, no sign-up fee, no commitment, earthen building workshops to volunteers all summer long, providing training to the participants and helpers for the structure;
  • The partners: Toronto's department of recreation, me, and a group of core volunteers.


"Come get muddy" was the cry, an invitation to any and all who wanted to try their hand at earthen building. And people did. They wandered by, asked "What's this all about?", and we said, "Come try it out and see!"

Shoes and socks came off, and feet jumped into the mud, mixing sand, straw, clay and water together to form a building material known as "cob". Then they picked up the mud, slapped it on the wall, and started sculpting.

Some stayed for a few minutes, a couple hours, contributing a little bit of labour and getting to play in the mud. Others were so beguiled by the project that they came back daily or for the whole summer. Many took on leadership roles, leading different aspects of creation, like cupboards, arched windows, the fireplace.

By summer's end, approximately 500 people worked on the creation of the cob wall in Dufferin Grove Park. By any measure, the project was a resounding success. First of all, it was completed on time and on a shoestring budget.

The measure by which it was most successful though, is in the quantity of attendees, and in the quality of their connection to the project and to their fellow attendees. This, in my opinion, was directly attributable to the following aspects of the program:
  • Free: no sign-up fee means participating without having to prioritize attending this vs buying food or clothes or having spending money. Free means not having to identify yourself as someone who cannot afford to attend. Free equalizes the playing field;
  • Drop-in: no commitment to attendance means showing up when you really want to be there, ready to learn and contribute. People who are forced to attend because they signed up are not enjoyable to be around and do not contribute positively to the project. Not having to give your name allows the participation of people who need anonymity in order to stay safe;
  • Ongoing: knowing that a program is on offer for a period of time allows potential attendees to "get there when they get there"; it allows for life to intervene without compromising their chance to be involved;
  • Creative input: whoever was there that day had a hand in making creative decisions about the sculpture, and then they were able to make their ideas reality right then and there.
These measures allowed people who would normally shy away from community classes or projects to participate to their satisfaction in this one. There were moms with babies in slings, newly arrived immigrants, refugees, people who did not speak English, retirees who live around the corner, dads, kids on a break from the playground, people from across town, and men transitioning into civilian life after serving time, and their attendance can be directly attributed to these four aspects of the project.

That all of this could happen was the result of a fruitful partnership between the City of Toronto Recreation staff and me, the project organizer. The recreation staff took this to be part of their mandate to provide free, drop-in activities. They expanded the boundaries of "recreation" to include activities that draw in many more newcomers, across cultural lines. That made the park so much livelier, and this drop-in activity resulted in a permanent, useful and much-loved addition to the park.

Forming a project around these principles requires something very important from the organizers/administrators: trust. They need trust that people are able to decide for themselves what is best for them, trust that people can be counted on to do good work, trust that people will come and take advantage of an opportunity presented to them.

A program free of coercion is one that truly honours the participants, and one that will reap benefits well beyond the original expectations of the organizers. Do we have the enough trust in each other to offer this of ourselves and our city?


To see more pictures of community participation at the Cob in the Park website, click here.


5 comments:

(((((HUGS))))) sandi said...

I'm so excited to find your blog~WAY COOL! I'm newly interested in cob and am really enjoying what you've shared. (((((HUGS))))) sandi

Georgie Donais said...

Sandi,

Glad to hear you're enjoying the site! Make sure to check out the pictures on www.cobinthepark.ca.

Georgie

Chelle Girl said...

Georgie,

I am excited to read your latest post and the need for organizers to trust. In my people watching this week at the coffee shop I listened to two non-profit workers discussing how volunteerism cannot happen in a meaningful way in this culture, people just will not "show up" for thier "shifts". Your article addresses exactly why this is the case. People will involve themselves in projects where they have choice, freedom and autonomy. And people do "show up" when given those things!

aska said...

Hello!
I think that all your cob structures are great!
We come to Dufferin Park sometimes every summer. How can we find out when it is possible to join the cob building?
All the best and good luck with your projects

Mel said...

Hi,
I visited Dufferin Grove Park two years ago after it was highly recommended by friends of mine. After my inspiring visit we started to build a cob bench in the park in my neighbourhood. It was really fun and many passerbys joined in. The problem is I don't know how to finish it. I was told to cover it with an earthen plaster but feel I need more information. Can you send me some advice? Melanie -
stuym@videotron.ca