Executive Director’s Reflections: Stewarding Our Place

Melissa Spear, Executive Director

Melissa Spear is Executive Director at Common Ground.

Yesterday was a day to hold meetings outside at Common Ground.  Three of my meetings were held at picnic tables tucked into one shady corner or another of our site.  In the morning I met with a group of visitors from Connecticut River Academy, a new magnet school being established in East Hartford.  They had come to learn more about Common Ground, and were excited about their own possibilities as we discussed the nuts and bolts of how we work to ensure that our educational activities contribute to creating a community that is inclusive, just, equitable and sustainable.

As we sat in the deep shade of a large maple down by the Harvest Pavilion I would occasionally look up to see Shannon, our Farm Manager, and her interns out in the garden – which is at its most beautiful this time of year – prepping beds for planting.  It was impossible not to reflect on the essential role our site plays in connecting people to each other, to their food, to the natural world, and to the values that underlie our mission of “cultivating healthy habits of living and sustainable environmental practice.”

Later in the day I sat with Joe, our long time Site Manager, in a spot I especially like right next to the chicken yard. As we talked I occasionally found myself smiling at the shenanigans of our motley crew of birds – moments of comic relief that broke the seriousness of the moment.  An escaped hen busily scratched away in the mulch under our feet as we discussed how much has changed at Common Ground over the past 5 years, and what impact those changes are having on our organization and will continue to have going forward.

I again found myself looking around at our site, this time noticing all that has been done since I have been here. The children’s garden is newly renovated with rebuilt beds, arbors and a beautiful retaining wall defining its eastern perimeter; the propagation greenhouse is in its second season and served to start thousands of seedlings this year; the chickens were given a magnificent new coop this winter that makes egg gathering and chicken observing that much more convenient. The site looks spectacular right now – everything is green and mowed and mulched in preparation for camp starting next week. I could not help but feel proud as I looked around, but my conversation with Joe was about more than what has been accomplished over the past 5 years:  it was about what will be required to care for our site as we continue to grow our programs and our community in to the future.

I have to admit in retrospect that when I came to Common Ground four years ago I had a very limited understanding of the critical role our site plays in all of our programs and only the vaguest idea of what it takes to properly care for it. As it turns out, managing the many demands on our site and its facilities takes up a significant amount of my time and energy as Executive Director.  Even performing the most basic maintenance becomes an exercise in logistics:  lawn mowers and other noisy equipment cannot be used when programs are running (which is most of the time); the constant presence of curious children means tools can never be left unattended; there is only one week to thoroughly clean and wax floors in the school building between camp and the start of Common Ground High School; painting has to be coordinated around all other activities – which seem to be non-stop and everywhere!  In fact all construction and maintenance activities must be carefully planned so as not to disrupt other activities or cause safety hazards on our site.

But it is not just the logistics that make maintenance an issue:  it is the time and resources required to keep our site and its facilities running smoothly.  Things have become much more complicated over the last 5 years as our programs have grown significantly, and the addition of a new building will inevitably add another layer of complexity – not to mention the effort that will be required to manage the conflicts that will arise as a result of having a major construction project on site!  As Joe and I talked it became clear that over the coming year more than ever, Common Ground’s site will require significant dedicated management time and capacity to ensure it continues to meet the needs of our programs and our community.  This includes not just addressing the maintenance needs, but perhaps even more challenging, balancing the multiple demands placed on the site, and mediating the conflicts that unavoidably arise as a result.

As I sat there in the dappled shade of the afternoon watching our happy chickens lounge in the dust it seemed clear that we had managed things well so far.  But we are all beginning to feel an edge of anxiety as managing our site becomes more complicated and as we anticipate the changes that a new building and the site modifications it entails will bring.  Yesterday’s conversation with Joe was the first of many our organization will need to have to make sure we are ready to meet the challenge.

I will continue to keep you all updated as we close in on a real date for start of construction….


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