Executive Director Reflections: Learning to Live Our Values

Melissa Spear is Executive Director at Common Ground.

I turned the heat on for the first time this morning. Cooler temperatures, changing light, shorter days and turning leaves all portend the change in season, but the day I flip that switch and hear the furnace kick on really brings it home: summer is behind us, winter is coming.

Whether it is the farm, the school, or community programs, the work of Common Ground is inextricably and reassuringly tied to the inexorable march of the seasons. We follow a rhythm that is to a great extent established by seasonal patterns of weather and light. During the long warm days of summer our campers are at play outside, our farm is in full swing, our Green Jobs Corps employees are hard at work at farmer’s markets, planting trees and completing site improvement projects. During the short, cold days of winter our students spend more time hunkered down in the classroom mastering academic concepts that they can bring to bear in the real world; our Community Programs focus more on gathering around a warm stove to cook and share good food; our farm animals spend more time sheltered in their respective coops and sheds while our farm manager plans for next season’s harvest.

The shift in programmatic emphasis from season to season is a given here at Common Ground, so while transitioning between seasons is hard work (and has gotten harder as we have grown), it is work we are familiar with and know how to get done. If it were possible to stick with just this familiar cycle, life here at Common Ground might begin to seem routine. At times that is an attractive scenario, but one that Common Ground seems unwilling to accept as its fate. Collectively, the Common Ground community seems intent on embracing the uncertainty and discomfort that comes with growth.

Common Ground has grown significantly in numbers over the past five years – numbers of staff, of programs, of students, of program participants, of volunteers. Growth in size has its own set of issues, including the complexity and uncertainty that has come with taking on a major construction project in order to accommodate our increased numbers. But this is only one small part of the picture. Our growth over the past 5 years has forced us to begin seriously reflecting on our organizational culture, especially as new staff and program participants join us, bringing their own set of expectations and aspirations to our work. We have been challenged to clearly define our vision and values, and do the work necessary to ensure that who we are, what we do, and the impact we have are aligned with who we want to be, what we say we do, and the impacts we intend to have.

We are taking on this challenge in several different ways. This summer, with the help of an outside facilitator, our Board and Management Team worked together to develop a draft vision and values statement. The Board’s work was informed by input that had been gathered over the course of the prior year from both Common Ground staff and the broader community. This draft vision and values will now be brought back to the Common Ground community for additional input before being officially adopted by the end of this year.

In parallel with this values and vision work, Common Ground is taking a deep dive into diversity work. This summer seven employees of Common Ground (including me) attended a five day intensive workshop where we were introduced to new tools, skills, and vocabulary that will be applied to productively addressing the challenges of inequity, oppression, and prejudices (sexism, racism, ageism, ableism) within our own organization and beyond. We will continue to deepen this work with all staff throughout the coming years.

Finally, a new full time Director’s position was created in July dedicated to evaluating, aligning and growing Common Ground’s community impact and engagement. Joel Tolman, formerly our Director of Development & Community Engagement, has assumed this position, while Kimball Cartwright has assumed the Director of Development role. As Director of Impact and Engagement, Joel will be working to ensure that Common Ground is a coherent, interconnected and inclusive organization whose work is guided and inspired by a commonly held and understood vision, culture and set of values that serve to align our growing impact.

The work we have taken on to explicitly define our guiding vision and values, and to ensure who we are (defined by our organizational culture, our work and its impact) is aligned with who we say we are, requires an honest self-examination and evaluation. It will require us to explicitly recognize where we are out of alignment and take the necessary steps to achieve the results to which we aspire.

As we take on this work, I can say one thing with certainty: we are an idealistic and ambitious organization with high aspirations. We want to do deep work. We want to be change agents. We want to create a community that is truly inclusive, that has embraced a culture of anti-oppression, and that actively pursues positive social change.

This is challenging work, and it is continuous work that cuts across seasons. So as our programs change with the season, this work will remain a constant challenge across the organization. My hope is that you, and our entire community, will join us over the next year in this grand endeavor, working with one another to co-create the community to which we aspire.


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