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March 28, 2013

Oregon Community Builder Brings the Commons to Life

Paula Manley sees the commons as the animating force in her work with leaders, organizations and communities that are building a more just, peaceful and sustainable world. As a community educator and consultant to nonprofits, she has supported the work of groups including the National Alliance for Media Arts & Culture, Habitat for Humanity, Council for the Homeless, and countless others in the realms of independent media arts, community development, and women’s empowerment.

In addition to her consulting practice, Manley co-founded The Oregon Commons, a project “working to inspire appreciation, stewardship and advocacy” for all that Oregonians share. Oregon Commons hosts workshops to help people explore the diversity of their local commons, and partners with Portland State University on a capstone class, Reclaiming the Commons, which engages students in service learning projects.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Manley about how the commons influences her work, life, and passion for the arts. Read on to learn about Manley’s belief in the commons for shaping a more just and viable future for us all.

– Jessica Conrad

How did you first learn about the commons?

Since the early 1980s, my work has involved helping people to take collective action, and more specifically, to make use of media tools to share their stories, communicate across differences, and help create social change. At some point I started thinking of media as an information commons, especially with the advent of the Internet, and that idea has been central to my personal, political, and cultural outlook.

I’ve also been influenced by David Bollier’s book Silent Theft and Jonathan Rowe’s writing. They broadened my understanding of the diversity of the commons, and helped me see how foundational the commons is for the future of life, democracy, and our capacity to co-create the kind of world we want to live in. Lewis Hyde’s work, especially The Gift, was an early influence concerning the essential role of arts and culture (and artists) in the community building at the core of our commons.

Can you say more about how the commons influences your work as a consultant to nonprofit organizations?

The work I’ve done for a long time has been about facilitating groups of people—mostly arts, cultural, and community development groups—to translate good intentions into collaborative action. Because nonprofits have the goal of benefitting the public, they are part of our commons. These groups bring people together to steward and protect and co-create everything we need for our communities and society; this includes responding to many social needs that cannot be addressed by the market economy. So I definitely think of my “day job” as commons work.

My early background in community-based media was formative, including pushing to open up media platforms for diverse, noncommercial voices. In our interconnected world, understanding how to use media tools and interpret media messages is fundamental to being a citizen and a participant in culture creation—not just a consumer.

What led to the creation of Oregon Commons?

The Oregon Commons project emerged a few years ago over dinner conversations among friends who felt overwhelmed by the primacy of the economy and the marketplace in everyday life. To change the system we believed it would be fundamental to take control of our own way of seeing the world; and the commons provided a lens for recognizing the gifts of nature and civilization that we share across generations. We got a big boost with the publication of All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, including the opportunity to work with the On the Commons crew to host a big local event in Portland, the Commons Convergence, which brought together activists involved in many different aspects of commons work—from place-making to conservation to supporting family farmers.

Oregon Commons hosts workshops, correct?

Yes, our initial work has involved hosting public workshops to engage people in exploring the diversity of our commons—or, more specifically, to help people name different commons, think about what the commons mean to their lives, neighborhoods, and communities, and to consider their roles in stewarding the commons.

We also partner on workshops with neighborhood groups and other organizations that are already organized around a mission. It’s a process for discovering whether the commons framework can open up a new way of thinking or provide a foundation for their work.

For example, we recently worked with residents of a low-income building and a local nonprofit that hosts a community room within the building. The room is basically a gathering place for people to interact or use a computer or grab a cup of coffee. We organized a workshop during which we encouraged residents to think about the commons from their vantage point. What do they share in the building? What do they share in the neighborhood? How would they like to be more connected with the larger community outside of their building? How might that be accomplished?

What a great example, Paula. It’s important to talk about the commons with people from diverse economic backgrounds.

Yes, I agree, but then the question becomes finding the appropriate point of entry. When we were given the opportunity to work in the low-income building, we had to think carefully about how to start the conversation. How would we engage people who might not already be thinking about “the commons”? It was our first experiment in a subsidized housing situation. But you did hit the nail on the head: We’ve been thinking a lot about class diversity in our commons workshops.

What other strategies do you use at Oregon Commons to make more people aware of the importance of the commons?

When we work with neighborhood associations, it’s natural to introduce the language of the commons. On a very fundamental level, these associations are already engaged in commons work: Their work is to make better neighborhoods, often by creating shared spaces that didn’t exist before or improvements that contribute to livability. It’s easy to connect the dots between the commons and their work, and you can see the light bulbs go off when people start to recognize their work as commoning.

We’ve also been inspired by partnering with student teams from the Reclaiming the Commons class at Portland State. This year one team developed and tested a lesson plan with third graders about clean water, one wrote a children’s book about saving a neighborhood park, and another developed a wonderful video about a local tool lending library. These students are from diverse backgrounds and disciplines. Through their capstone class they study the commons and take action in service of the commons—and then they graduate and take that experience with them out into the world.

What do you see as the biggest obstacle to creating a commons-based society right now?

Greed, power, privilege, and short-term thinking. I think that sums up the basics.

What do you see as the greatest opportunity to strengthen and expand the commons right now?

Our interconnected world is opening up more ways to learn about the positive, life-affirming, community building work going on around the globe, and also providing ways to connect to that work and draw strength from it. Borders and barriers are dissolving.

What are a few of the most beloved commons in your life and community?

I live in the Pacific Northwest, so the Colombia River Gorge and the old growth forests are not very far from where I live in Portland. Those are touchstones. And one of my favorite commons is right outside my home and office, where we have converted the street corner into an informal gathering space with benches, sculptures made from found objects, and a small public art installation space. This has become a lively zone for interaction among neighbors and passersby. I take delight in that almost every day.

This interview has been edited and adapted for OntheCommons.org.