Ken Leinbach was on an airplane when he realized that even as an “ordinary science teacher,” he had enough power to change at least one person — himself. Passionate about preserving the environment, he got rid of his car, reduced the amount of trash he threw out and did more recycling. “I became green before green was green,” he said.
Executive director of the Urban Ecology Center since 1998, Leinbach used the story to illustrate a tenet of abundant communities: “What we have is enough.”
Leinbach joined panelists Dr. Michele Bria, executive director of Journey House; Christopher Boston, director of Sustainable Communities at LISC; and Sharon Adams, a founder and program director of Walnut Way Conservation Corp., at the recent workshop, “Recognizing Abundance in Milwaukee.” Jeanette Mitchell of Cardinal Stritch University moderated the program.
The second in the three-part “Building a Better Milwaukee Series,” the session was offered twice in one day and attracted a total of about 275 people. The series is a collaboration between the Cardinal Stritch University Leadership Center and the Marquette University College of Professional Studies.
The conversation was loosely organized around five tenets of abundant communities discussed in “The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods” by John McKnight and Peter Block. “Right in our neighborhood we have the capacity to address our human needs,” wrote McKnight and Block. “We all have gifts to offer, even the most seemingly marginal among us.”
The authors posit that consumerism, with its belief that “however much we have, it is not enough,” has torn the social fabric in this country, but that people can assume roles and take actions to reweave it.
While Leinbach changed his own habits, he soon realized he could have a bigger impact with the help of others. As a teacher, he had discovered that children learn better outdoors. Soon after he started working at the Urban Ecology Center in Riverside Park, he borrowed eight or nine canoes that people weren’t using and started taking children on canoe trips. Today, Urban Ecology Center is a national model for urban environmental education, serving 20,000 children per year.
“What we have is enough,” Leinbach repeated. “By matching your gifts and my gifts together, the need will be met.”
Discussing the tenet “We have the capacity to provide what we need,” Bria cited the Journey House Center for Family Learning and Youth Athletics, which is now under construction. It took a 12-year effort, during which the economy came to a grinding halt, to bring the project to fruition. With enviable tenacity, Journey House and Longfellow School eventually were able to acquire the funding to build the center, which includes a new cafeteria, kitchen, gym, computer labs and classrooms.
“There were so many naysayers, but I didn’t even hear them,” Bria said. “Our team was so focused on where we needed to go. In the middle of May we will open a $6 million facility that honors the people we serve in Clarke Square,” she said.
For Chris Boston, the discussion brought to mind the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
Boston, a native Milwaukeean who been a community organizer for 13 years, sees his role at LISC as “a bridge builder to abundance.” “I believe we have abundance,” he said. “The question is ‘How can we build bridges to get people over the waters of insecurity?’”
Sharon Adams, who moved back to her family home in Lindsay Heights in 1997 after 30 years away, has spent the past 15 years working to recreate the abundance she felt in the neighborhood as a child. In 2000, a decade before publication of “The Abundant Community,” Walnut Way was incorporated with the philosophy that “People heal working collectively for the common good. There is enough.”
Adams recalled that when her husband, Larry Adams, began planting food in the Walnut Way garden, he was warned that people were going to steal it. “They can’t steal what they own,” he responded. “The food belongs to everyone.”
In the same spirit, Walnut Way now is working to turn a block of unused buildings into an Innovation and Wellness Commons to help create jobs for some of the 3,300 people in the neighborhood who are actively looking for work, Adams said.
“Today we’re on a path. By 2015 there will be a multitude of jobs in our neighborhoods,” she added. “We’re doing it step by step.”