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Community Engagement: Gardening in the Front Yard

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My black Lab, Hallie, owned our back yard. She would dig. She would run deep grooves into the grass. Garden after garden fell to Hallie's exploits.

Finally, I dug up a plot next to the driveway. And I planted my vegetables in the front yard.

That was almost 30 years ago -- two houses ago, a child fully grown and another dog ago. And still, my garden is in the front yard.

Tomatoes and okra and basil and zucchini in the summer; lettuce and carrots and peas and broccoli in the desert winter. All in the front yard.

Why the front yard? Because my garden makes friends.

Since moving into my current home, my front yard garden has introduced me to neighbors from many blocks away. Some ask gardening questions. Some put my house on their morning walk route, to see what's new. And some bring gifts.

That's how I met Earl. My doorbell rang one morning, and there stood a sweet, elderly man holding a plastic baggie filled with sunflower seeds. "My wife used to love driving by your house. She always wanted to see what was new. I lost her last month." He handed me the bag of seeds. "These are from her sunflowers."

And every year, from then on, I have planted a wall of sunflowers, swirling along the front sidewalk, in honor of Earl's love for his wife. And of course those giant flowers bring more new friends.

So why am I telling you this?

Because planting your garden in the front yard is precisely what Community engagement is all about.

Community engagement forms real, honest, two-way relationships with members of your community.

Community engagement is not about marketing or increased revenues or volunteer recruitment, but it will certainly accomplish those things. It will help you further every single one of your goals, including the ultimate goal -- to accomplish your mission -- all while building a more engaged community.

But here's the real secret -- and it is what separates community engagement from marketing and all those other "just for show" efforts: For engagement to work, it has to be honest; it has to be real.

If my front yard were a well-manicured, just-for-show row of hedges, no one would stop to introduce themselves. No one would make my house a special part of their day.

My neighbors stroll by because my garden invites anyone to walk in, sit down, and chat for a while. In the morning, neighbors find me working. At dinner time, they find me harvesting. My neighbors don't just see the final product; they also see the sweat, the compost, the pruning, the digging. They ask about what's working and what's not working. Together, we learn about all of it.

I do not have to tell my neighbors I want them to be part of my life; my garden shows them.

And when they walk by with a friend, pointing out this or that, they do so with pride, as if some part of my garden is also theirs. Because, in part, it is.

So how about your social change efforts? Are you gardening in the front yard? Are you sharing the inner workings of what it takes to do your work, so the world can become engaged with every aspect of that work? Are you being open, inviting participation in everything you do? Are you making it easy for your community to connect so deeply that they feel as if it is their work, too?

Or do you save those inner workings for the back yard, only showing the world a perfectly manicured lawn and hedge? The difference is more than just metaphor. The difference is the degree to which the community feels a part of everything your organization does.

When your community can point with pride, as if your work is their own work, you'll find you no longer have to "go out to the community" to find volunteers and board members and supporters of all kinds. The wall between your work and your community will disappear as you are all building that healthy, vibrant place to live -- together.