Goodbye and Hello
A Special Announcement From Pomegranate Center
In conjunction with celebrating our 30th anniversary, Pomegranate Center is excited to announce a key organizational transition and a new addition to our programs.
This week, Founder and Executive Director Milenko Matanovic moves out of his current role and into the role of Director Emeritus. Going forward, he will focus his time and energy on writing and speaking engagements, while continuing to conduct trainings and be involved in special consulting projects as needed.
Eric Higbee, Pomegranate Center’s Design Director, is stepping into the role of Executive Director after four years with the organization. He brings with him a decade’s worth of experience in landscape architecture and a passion for grassroots community organizing.
As a part of Milenko’s new role, he will also head up our newly founded Institute for Everyday Democracy. The institute is a place to exchange ideas, participate in discussions, and generate a body of thought about how we participate in our democracy. It is a natural extension of Milenko’s thirty years teaching communities how to work more collaboratively.
Reflecting on his nonprofit, its legacy, and its future, Milenko says, “Pomegranate Center is a small miracle, and I hope to encourage others to jump into small miracles of their own making.”
A Q&A With Founder and Executive Director Emeritus Milenko Matanovic
Talk about the seeds that grew Pomegranate. What inspired you to start a non-profit? How did you know that this was this was the niche your experience and expertise could fill?
I grew up in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, then a part of former Yugoslavia. The city was wonderful. It was “sustainable” because being unsustainable had not yet been invented. I walked and biked and took trains and buses, and bought fresh food almost every day because we did not have refrigerators. My parents released me to the city without fear and I got to know it very well, perfectly comfortable with it.
On the other hand, I grew increasingly uncomfortable with the people in power telling us how to think and what to do, and people without power who gave up their imagination and creative ideas. An invisible grey blanket covered everything.
Coming to the USA, I had two major realizations: First, many American cities were friendlier to cars than people and lacked the kind of comfort I experienced in Ljubljana. The centers were mostly fine, but the peripheries were places to pass through only with no there there. Second, democracy (which, from behind the iron curtain, looked like an excellent way to conduct politics) at the local level was disappointing. Citizens who showed up to discuss and comment on new developments, transportation solutions or housing choices, dominated the proceedings with fear of change or used meetings to exclusively promote an ideology or a fixed idea, unwilling to hear another point of view.
I founded Pomegranate Center in 1986 to explore the connection between physical environments and community engagement and building social capital. I wanted to connect these two ideas using creativity and the arts.
How did being an artist prepare you for the work Pomegranate does?
When I grew up I was a troublemaker. Some people called me a hooligan, wrongly, because I never used violence or negativity; I relied on humor and improvisation instead. I became an artist because artists were allowed to do their own stuff. I collaborated with OHO, a group of young artists, and we became quite famous for doing totally unexpected art. My projects were quick and improvisational temporary installations in parks, forests, rivers, and city streets–all done with the cheapest materials. My material budget for the summer of 1969 was $25. But the work was daring and fun and now recognized worldwide.
When I came to the USA I became interested in redirecting my art away from galleries and museums and push it into everyday life. I wondered what would happen if I made communities my studio and worked collaboratively with people living and working there. Instead of doing my own stuff, I wanted to see if it was possible to put myself in service to others. My earlier experience of doing a lot with a little and doing it quickly served me well. Our projects are done quickly–a recent project’s first community meeting was held in May and it was built in July. Over 250 different people worked with us over three months, each of them feeling some pride and ownership and ready to tackle more projects.
What do you hope to be your legacy at Pomegranate?
I hope that my work will make collaboration more universally acceptable. Problems of the whole can no longer be solved from any singular perspective, and collaboration will become urgently needed to join insights and ideas as we plan for the future. We need each other’s differences.
I also hope that my legacy will offer encouragement to people desiring to do similar work. I was naïve when I started Pomegranate Center 30 years ago. Being a new immigrant I did not understand how things work here. I was blissfully ignorant about nonprofits and boards and fundraising. I spoke with a strange accent (I still do), offering answers to questions few were asking. My ideas received many rejections. It was never easy, but always exciting. I feel very lucky and grateful for support and opportunities. In spite of all those factors I am still here exploring new ideas. I am not quite done yet.
What are your plans for the future?
I will continue to be involved with the Center, but will step away from the day-to-day operations. I want to focus my energies on how we can all do better with our democracy. I will run a small department within the Center, the Institute for Everyday Democracy, to look at how we can improve politics at the local level. I will continue to train, do some writing, and offer talks and consultancies to those interested in my three decades of experience.
Introduce us to the new Executive Director Eric Higbee. How did you choose him to take the reigns? What’s the most important thing you want Pomegranate supporters to know about him?
Eric is a talented and skilled designer with a passion for community. I was very glad when he joined our team years ago, and am delighted that he said yes to becoming the second Executive Director. He has a vision for the next cycle of work, is very well organized, and has a great and talented team. I am certain that he will take Pomegranate Center to new heights.
A Q&A With New Executive Director Eric Higbee
What brought you to the Pomegranate Center? How did your background in landscape architecture prepare you for the work Pomegranate does?
I decided I wanted to be a landscape architect when I grew up because I felt it was the best place to combine my artistic impulses with grassroots activism. After going back to graduate school and after many years working for landscape architecture firms around Seattle, I started making a concerted effort to track my career back towards this passion for participatory design. I even had my own landscape architecture practice that focused on community-driven urban agriculture projects.
When I joined Pomegranate Center four years ago, it was a perfect fit. I was able to contribute my decade of professional design and construction experience and I already had a deep familiarity with facilitating public design processes.
What has working with Milenko meant to you? What’s the most important lesson he has taught you?
Before coming to Pomegranate Center I had facilitated several of my own community design processes as a landscape architect, and I thought I had a good grasp on how to do it. I’ve been amazed at how much I didn’t know, and have learned an incredible amount working with Milenko. He has spent the last 30 years, through trial and error, trying to figure out how to create the conditions to best involve people in collective decision and design-making. He’s really onto something here, and I am grateful for the opportunity to learn from him.
What are your plans for Pomegranate? What do you hope to accomplish in your first year as ED?
My plan is take Milenko’s legacy and run with it. I see Pomegranate Center’s first 30 years as an era of research and development, with an effective and tested model emerging in just the last few years. Now our task is to shift into application, dissemination, and scaling up our impact.
We’ve been working with the Board of Directors over the past year to map out a bold vision rooted in strategic and sustainable growth. In the next year our plan is to refocus on the Puget Sound area and establish at least two new partnerships that replicate our successes in Walla Walla and San Diego. We will continue to train more people and agencies in the Pomegranate Method, and lend our services to more communities for exciting grassroots placemaking projects. Lastly, we will be rallying the troops and growing our camaraderie of faithful supporters and our Board of Directors. My hope is that the old adage, “Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid,” will prove true.
What do you hope for the future of Pomegranate?
Our methodology is rooted in decades of application and refinement, and Pomegranate Center is uniquely positioned to be a national leader in the conversation about how our democracy works. My hope is that Pomegranate Center continues to increase our exposure and impact, and that in the future it will play a significant role in a movement in our society towards more inclusivity, collaboration, and stronger communities.