Building a Playground – Building a Community

Readers and viewers who follow Viodi on various social outlets may have seen some somewhat odd messages lately about dancing bunnies, wiener dogs meeting Wienermobiles and S.J. Sharkie mixing it up with a bunch of kids. Let me explain the background and the bigger picture behind these seemingly off-topic dispatches.

Together by Necessity

A fun video showing a hidden gem in America's heartland.
Perham, MN – Home of KLN Industries and Arvig

One of the things that inspires me about the people who work for independent communications companies in rural America is how deeply woven they are into the fabric of their communities; the technician may be the mayor, the marketing person may sit on the economic development board and the owner might be a volunteer fire fighter. As locally owned telecommunications’ companies, these businesses are often the major commercial anchors connecting their communities both electronically and physically by their employees’ presence.

In the rural areas served by my telecom friends, the economics don’t support the same level of paid employees that one finds in urban areas, so citizen volunteers are essential to a thriving community. As a result, there appears to be less of divide between the governed and the local government in rural America, as compared to urban America.

And though income levels may vary widely in small town America, they don’t divide like they do in the urban areas. When you are in a town of 2,000 people, there isn’t much choice as to the restaurants you go to, the schools your kids attend or the church where you pray. People of different incomes are forced to live together and help each other out when disaster strikes.  Kids grow up knowing that adults are looking after them, as well as watching them to make sure they are on the straight and narrow (see Search Institute’s 40 Assets).

Together, But Apart

An out of focus picture of San Jose looking East with snow on Mount Hamilton
San Jose in the Winter

Contrast the picture of small town America with life in the city, specifically my hometown of San José, the nation’s 10th most populous city. We have it all; great weather, location, outdoor fun (mountains, beaches), first-class universities and the exciting technology industry. One thing that is lacking is the same level of community I have sensed in my travels to rural locales

We also have a divide. Some would argue that income is what divides our community. I argue that it is a lack of “social connectedness“; a term used by a recent column in the Wall Street Journal.  I am not talking about the electronic social networks that make it easy to connect with anyone, anywhere at any time. No, I am talking about the face-to-face, arm-in-arm connections that one gets by having to work with one’s neighbor, whether they like each other or not, to accomplish something that would otherwise not get done.

We skip over each other as we head off to work, eat or play. Simply, there are few reasons to be restricted to one’s neighborhood and, as a result, we miss serendipitous connections that can only come from  face-to-face encounters. Sure, we have neighborhood web sites.  Although these discussion boards can be good ways of informing, they don’t take the place of face-to-face communication that leads to real collaboration.

Further, we have the luxury of economies of scale, so we can pay people to do what others voluntarily do in rural areas. As citizens, we become reliant on professionals to protect us, maintain our common areas and create a labyrinth of rules to protect us from each other. Despite the apparent advantage of having professional services, crime is increasing, more people go to work outside our city than work here and our communications’ network is nowhere near the gig speeds many of my friends have installed in rural America.

Simply put, the people of San José generally aren’t and don’t need to be as invested in the community like those who live in rural America.

Build a Playground – Build a Community

S.J. Sharkie give his opinions on playground designs.
S.J. Sharkie give his opinion on playground designs at Design Day.

“It starts with a playground,” is the tag line that Kaboom! used to hook me into a project that has become all consuming in a good way. Kaboom! helps communities build playgrounds. Our community’s early Christmas present was the selection by Kaboom! and its partner the Sharks Foundation (yes, the one associated with the future Stanley Cup winner) to build a playground in our West San José neighborhood. This is a neighborhood where one can cross the street and the percentage of children living in households with less than poverty-level income level jumps from approximately 7% to 35%.

What this playground provides is the vehicle to build a community; a community that crosses the street and brings together young and old, rich and poor, neighbor and neighbor. Although it will be open to the public, like a park, it will rely on the people of the community to maintain it and take ownership; we can’t fall back on the city to take care of it, as it is truly the community’s park.

Raising awareness about the community playground with the Wienermobile.
Outreach With the Wienermobile

We are already seeing the beginnings of a stronger community through the events like Design Day, the community car wash and the activity associated with planning this Saturday’s Community Fundraiser.  Still, we have a long way to go in terms of raising awareness and getting to my personal goal of having the 5,000 households in the immediate area each give $2 to raise the community’s fundraising share.

Here are some of the lessons learned so far from this fast-track project:

  • Partnering with a non-profit – in our case the San José Parks Foundation – is invaluable in terms of removing barriers to accepting donations and transacting business.
  • Finding a partner who has the land and a similar mission of wanting to help the community is a necessity. Pueblo De Dios is the perfect partner in so many ways.
  • Fortunately, we have had invaluable support from our Councilmember’s office navigating through the city’s rules and regulations. These rules aren’t made for lay people and trying to figure them out takes away from time that could be spent doing other valuable things.
  • Social networks and email are great for initially getting the word out and starting the excitement, but it is difficult to compete with the cacophony of other posts on these networks.
  • In person outreach is a must.  The serendipitous things that can result from a conversation still can’t be duplicated in electronic media. It is a must to connect to the community in a human-to-human way, whether speaking after a Church service, at a community event or exhibiting with the Wienermobile to raise awareness. That’s not to exclude electronic communications, as they have their place. For instance, we found this bunny video to be a good ice breaker for talking to strangers.

So, if this Saturday, February 8th, finds you in Silicon Valley, which San José is the capital of, please stop by for a chance to win the Party Animals’ dancing and singing bunny at our first annual Community Day for our playground; Pueblo Play.

Party Animals dancing and singing bunny helps promote Community Day.
Click Image to watch Party Animals dancing and singing bunny promote Community Day.

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