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Ground Rules Deep Dive #7: Serve the Highest Good of the Community

By Milenko Matanovic

Together we are capable of extraordinary achievements. Over the years, Pomegranate Center has proven this by encouraging people to uphold a code of conduct that leads to creativity and collaboration. This code of conduct, what we call “ground rules,” is essential to creating a positive atmosphere that focuses on how things can be improved, free from complaints. In this series of short essays, I will look at different ground rules, evaluate why they are important, and share stories from the field.

A vision is an articulated and shared image of the future that represents our collective wisdom about how the world ought to be. It is a prerequisite for creative democracy. Ideally, when imagining desirable prospects, we would make a list of possible scenarios, evaluate the pros and cons of each, analyze what would need to happen to make them real, and then, together, choose the most promising ideas that will define our actions.

A vision is not an opinion. It is much more than personal likes designed to keep us comfortable. It is about the highest good for all, including our children and their children. It is a far-sighted idea so compelling that it gives us the courage to make it real, to do something about it even if that requires us to change.

A vision indeed isn’t about what we do not want. It must go deeper. It demands us to propose something better instead of complaining about how things are. It will take time for us to shift our thinking from what frustrates to what inspires, but this is necessary work.

In 2012, we received a grant to build a project in Tuscaloosa, Alabama a year after a devastating tornado ripped through the city. Our goal was to spark a creative project that would signal the beginning of reconstruction, no matter the scale of our project. We also wanted to demonstrate how to turn the debris from the tornado into something useful and beautiful.

The local parks department identified five possible sites for the project. Together, we organized a gathering to choose the location. We showed images and conditions of all the places, and then asked all who came the same question: Where would our project offer the highest service and usefulness? The first round of responses was predictable: Everyone promoted their neighborhood’s site. By the end of the first round, we made no progress.

After the break, I thanked all for caring for their neighborhoods and then asked them to shift to another level of thinking: What is the best for the city? Then a small miracle happened. A woman who in the first round eloquently promoted her neighborhood’s site said that she changed her mind. Another community needed the project more, and her district had resources to create a park on their own. Her position opened a floodgate for others to follow with ideas for how other neighborhoods can best benefit from the proposed project. In a short time, the group agreed to focus their collective energies on the proposed site.

Afterward, grateful, I asked her about her change of heart. She said that, when prompted, she looked at the bigger picture. Until that moment, she felt that her duty was to promote only her neighborhood as others supported theirs. But when she widened her perspective and looked at the entire city, it became evident that the need of her neighborhood paled in comparison with the less affluent. In her mind, she visited all the sites and, when she lined them all together, it became clear: “We should help the one from the least affluent neighborhood. They need it the most, and the rest of us will learn from them so we can make similar projects in our neighborhoods in the future.”

Collectively, we do not have a shared image of the future that would guide us in our personal, organizational, and political actions. Everything is a battle between different scenarios. Everything takes longer—and wastes energy and goodwill in the process. A truly functional, creative society must find ways to articulate a shared vision of the future. No matter how chaotic the present appears, through it all, a shared image will emerge, and we will all have to contribute to its clarity.

Community meetings are a mini version of this significant work. Too often they are celebrations of negativity, blaming, and preserving a status quo. For the sake of us all, this will need to change. That is why it is critical to ask participants to step up to their better selves. The ground rule encouraging people to come up with ideas that serve the highest good is one way to accomplish this. Other ground rules help. They urge the participants to widen their focus and ask what ought to happen and not just what they want. Such work takes courage and compassion.

The change in attitude, embodied by the woman in Tuscaloosa, is required by all. She did two things: She looked at the broader context, and she focused on principles and values, not on how the project should look.

Creating a vision for the highest good will work like that, but all of us will need to do the work of articulating the values and principles that should guide our country forward. Then we will need to trust the skills of specialists to design details.

We all should be in charge of the vision for our country. It will require we all move away from blaming, complaining, accusing, and resisting putting our skin in the game. And then we should empower those with the most skills to honor the vision, serve it, and make it real.

Read the sixth installment in the series, “Look for solutions with multiple uses” here.