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Q&A with Peter Forbes: ‘Building Communities for a New Nation’

04/08/10 by Juanita Teschner


Peter Forbes, executive director of the Center for Whole Communities in Vermont, will speak on “From Ecology to Community” at the Center for the Environment facility on the Catawba College campus at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 22, followed by a reception. The event is open to the public, but registration is required. Register online or call 704.637.4294.


In addition, Forbes will lead a Whole Communities workshop called “Building Communities for a New Nation” on Friday, April 23, at the Center facility and a second workshop on Saturday, April 24, in Raleigh. The presentation on Thursday and the workshops are co-sponsored by the LandTrust for Central North Carolina and Conservation Trust for North Carolina. Registration fee is $20 per person. For details and to register online, visit


Juanita Teschner, director of communications at the Center, recently interviewed Forbes for this Q & A.

Q:  The Whole Communities concept is based on ‘whole thinking.’ What do you mean by that?


A: Whole thinking is the attempt to treat not just the symptoms of a problem but the root causes of that problem. So when we speak about whole thinking, it’s an attempt to see what’s at the cause – the very root – of these challenges we face in either land conservation or building healthy, whole communities.


Q: Tell us about the Center for Whole Communities and why this work is so important.


A: We are a leadership development organization that works with communities and organizations and coalitions who want to make their change-making efforts more effective. All our programs are focused on seeing the different parts of a system and bringing the different parts of that system together to see how they might work more effectively together.


Q: What precipitated the whole communities approach?


A: I worked for 20 years for a national conservation group, and I couldn’t figure out why some sectors were fairly closely aligned but couldn’t seem to have dialogue. It was always troubling to me as someone who loves people and loves the land that often those two are seen as separate. It never made a lot of sense to me that housing and conservation wouldn’t be thought of together. Really it’s our culture that has separated all those interests. It’s time to create a shift so it’s more likely that we can as a movement collaborate and come up with bigger, more effective solutions.


Q: Could you give us a couple of examples?


A: In the beginning, we brought together loggers and wilderness advocates — folks who, in many cases, are in opposition to one another. Yet they are both connected to the health of the land. By creating the space where those two groups could see what their shared interests are, we made it possible for them to inform one another and coexist more effectively. We also worked to bring together conservationists and farmers or conservationists and housing advocates, who for years were also seen in opposition to one another. By helping them to see where their interests are aligned and how they can actually be collaborating as opposed to being in opposition, it becomes a game changer. All of a sudden, it’s a win-win for everyone, and change gets accelerated.


In the culture at large, there are so many forces of fragmentation that keep different groups separated from one another that it is very hard to find ways to collaborate, to address problems in a more meaningful way. So many groups are trying to tackle little pieces of the problem because their focus is narrower and narrower. By bringing them together, very often they can come up with a solution and a response that is much more successful, much more compelling, and that begins to address the root problem.


Q: What has been your greatest success in your work with various organizations?


A: I think we can take some measure of credit for the degree today in which conservation is connected with sustainable agriculture in this country. Ten or 12 years ago conservationists and farmers were on opposite sides of many issues, and yet these two groups both love the land. They love it in different ways but they love it. When they are in opposition, it’s a very difficult situation for the land because there’s no opportunity for compromise or for really engaging change. Over years of bringing these two groups together, we see today literally dozens and dozens of land trusts across the country operating community-supported farms and engaging with community through farming that never existed before. And we see many more farmers being willing to protect their land because they too see the merits of that world. So by bringing different worlds together, something better almost always results.


We have also had a lot to do with making conservation a more recognized public health issue. In other words, we help people understand — and doctors understand – that conservation is not about the conservation of everything other than people. Conservation is also about people, and it’s about the health of the community. I think we’ve done a lot to bring the interests of people in alignment with the interests of the land.


Q: You are obviously bridge builders. How do you do that?


A: Patience and empathy. A lot of our work is about the process of building and maintaining bridges between interests, and we do that by teaching transformational leadership skills – not just transactional leadership skills. You go to business school or college or law school, and you are taught how to get something done: how to pass a bill, how to sell a product, how to finance something. The more contemporary form of skills is how to be in relationship with other people because that is the key piece as America becomes far more diverse. The essential skills today are how we relate to one another so that we’re not in opposition as much.


So a lot of the work we do in building bridges is helping different sectors to see what they have in common and helping sectors see how America is changing. There are two really important facts that we talk about: In 2042 – basically one generation from today – every metropolitan statistical area in the United States will be dominant non-white for the first time. In fact, what that says is that America is already changing very quickly from a dominant white society to a dominant non-white society. Forty percent of all Americans under the age of 24 today are people of color so that change is already happening.


This is something to be celebrated and to be engaged with, but it’s not the way some parts of the environmental movement are organized. Right now, most of the groups that are in favor of protecting the land and the environment typically are primarily white organizations. Those organizations that are concerned with people and their needs are, generally speaking, primarily people-of-color organizations. Those stark differences need to be overcome if our collective interests are to be meaningfully addressed in the future.


We teach that it’s not possible just to protect the land, and it’s not possible just to protect people. You have to do both. The health of the land is intimately connected to the health of people, and the health of people is intimately connected to the health of the land. We can’t just do wilderness protection or just healthy rivers; we also have to be, as movements for change, really concerned with hunger and poverty and how people are living their lives.


Q: What will happen at this workshop?


A: The first important ingredient is the audience. We’re expecting that we will have people from public health and from housing and from human rights and from land conservation. That’s really important because that type of diversity is the first necessary step in going from treating the symptom to beginning to treat the real overarching problem. By having more different people and different organizations in the room, we also have the possibility for a different type of dialogue together.


So our time together is going to be spent on understand the changing demographics of the region and the country, what the collective vision of the participants is, how to create a healthier, whole set of communities in North Carolina and what it will take from each of these organizations to succeed in doing that. What makes that different from most other gatherings is that it is really common for the human rights and public health people to get together, but not necessarily with the environmentalists. And it’s really common for the land trust folks and the environmentalists to get together, but rarely are the human rights people involved. Without that kind of cross-disciplinary approach, once again, we aren’t going to be able to come up with solutions that create durable change.


Q: What does it take to move from vision to practice?


A: It takes a lot of effort and time to create a real inclusive vision for the future. The most important thing is that these participants will have the chance to hear each other and get to know each other and to begin to build understandings that will allow a shared vision to unfold. In this first encounter, the most important thing is just creating the space where people can begin to develop relationships. From those relationships will emerge a shared vision.


But this is not just a theoretical conversation together. We will land on concrete, practical things that this group can do together that will create the actual change we’re talking about. That is what will sustain them – the opportunity to do that work.


Q: Do you typically come back and nurture this along or do these people grab the ball after this time and move forward on their own?


A: Sometimes they can grab the ball on their own. Sometimes there is so much positive energy that comes from this experience of being in the room together and seeing that “we can really do this work differently” that that’s the spark that is needed. More often than not, there needs to be one or more opportunities to keep engaging. That doesn’t mean we need to do that, but it’s good to have a structure in place that enables these groups to continue to be in dialogue together. After our session, they’ll have the knowledge of how to do that.




“Building Communities for a New Nation” workshops in Salisbury and Raleigh are organized and sponsored by Black Family Land Trust, the Center for the Environment at Catawba College, The Conservation Fund, Conservation Trust for North Carolina, LandTrust for Central North Carolina, Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, North Carolina Community Development Initiative, Triangle Land Conservancy, and Z Smith Reynolds Foundation.

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