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Of Communities and Creampuffs
Not many people know of my early career as an actress—perhaps because it peaked with The King’s Creampuffs, presented by my 5th Grade class. At the time I enjoyed the play because we scheduled rehearsals in place of penmanship and it involved sampling creampuffs. Lately, however, it has come to mind more for its unlikely relevance to planning and our work here at the Foundation.
A brief synopsis: Once upon a time in a land far, far away, there lived an old king with an unfortunate weakness for creampuffs. He ordered his royal baker to make batch after batch, and with each batch his stomach obligingly grew larger. One day, however, the cunning Witch of All Witches (that was me) stole his creampuff recipe in an effort to undermine the entire kingdom. Furious, and suffering from withdrawal, the King ordered the baker to try to remember the recipe. The baker baked away, but never managed to create a good creampuff again. In a final act of desperation, the King sent his last few creampuffs back to the kitchen so that the baker might pick them apart and thereby discover what was in them. As we might expect, the result was nothing more than a big pile of crumbs and a very unhappy king…
Much of our recent work at the Foundation has focused on the complex question of how to identify the character, or the “heart and soul,” of communities. One common method is to identify all the parts of a community—the businesses, the organizations, the values, the people, the history, the land—and assume that the whole is the sum of these parts. As we learned from the King, however, a pile of crumbs hardly adds up to a creampuff. Other methods for identifying community character focus less on the substance than on the glue that holds the substance together. “Community capacity” consists of the collective efforts, abilities, and desires of citizens, all of which are necessary for progress and action. If the King’s baker had focused solely on the process, however (positive thinking, the temperature of the oven, the force with which he stirred), I doubt he would have been any more successful.
Can any process truly identify the precise combination of ingredients, timing, and techniques that make a creampuff heavenly or that make a community hum? Creampuffs, communities, character, even the carbon that pervades them all—each is an unlikely amalgamation of atoms, forces, circumstances, and more than a dash of magic. I’m starting to think that a complete identification process is a physical and philosophical impossibility, and I’m also starting to think that the attributes of the people experiencing the character may be more important than the character itself. In a world of unimaginable complexity and urgent challenges, deconstruction often seems the only manageable strategy. While it has its uses, deconstruction fundamentally assumes that the end product (character) is a constant, experienced the same way by all people. At times we try reconstruction instead, as in a planned community: start with a pile of ingredients, sit back, and wait for character and cohesiveness to materialize.
We might instead look for processes of “superconstruction”—ways of identifying and linking together all the seemingly disparate elements of places and people, all the satellites and derivatives of character. We might look for processes that ask what it is about circumstance, what it is about geographical, temporal, philosophical, physiological differences, that make people experience character the way they do. It’s a no-brainer to imagine that people immersed in deep poverty would be less impressed by the friendliness of a community than those who are well-off, but does gender matter? Age? Favorite color? The weather on the day you happen to ask? The prospect of considering so many (perhaps infinite) factors is disarming and even discouraging, but also intriguing. If character is influenced by so many variables, then there are also countless ways to protect character, to strengthen it, to share it, and to celebrate it. If community heart and soul is as much a result of experience as it is of substance, then a downtrodden town may need little more than the passage of time or a change of heart to reawaken.
Like most children’s fairy tales, The Kings Creampuffs wrapped up neatly with the requisite hackneyed lessons: The Witch of All Witches was defeated (I got over it), the King got his recipe back and once again gorged himself on perfect puffs, and all lived happily ever after. Our quest for community character will hardly end with the same tidy resolution, nor should it. Character, like creampuffs, is a difficult and delightful thing. Recipes evolve over time and so do places, and so must our understandings and experiences of them. Here at the Foundation and in communities and organizations across the country, we will continue to search for ways of identifying character. We will improve, and we will fall short. Then we will try again, and again, ardently ever after.