Meet People Where They Are (Then Sing to Them)

Ruby(This is Part 6: Community-Driven Tour 2010 New Zealand. To read these posts from the beginning, head here.)

Hamilton: Visiting the Waikato
Blink twice and it’s Tuesday. We’re in Hamilton, an agricultural and university community about an hour south of Auckland. As I noted in the first post in this series, we rarely know we are at the beginning of something amazing until we look back. It is that combination of happenstance that makes me smile to think of what has brought us to Hamilton.

It began last summer, with a post I sent to the listserv for the Association for Research on Nonprofits and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA), offering sample copies of The Pollyanna Principles for professors who might use the book as a text in their nonprofit management classes. Suzanne Grant from the University of Waikato in Hamilton requested one of those sample copies.


When I sent Suzanne’s book, I included a note mentioning that we were actually coming to New Zealand, and that perhaps we could find a way to connect when we were there. And that was about it for our correspondence.

Fast forward 6 months to about a month before our trip. Suzanne sent an email, telling me she would not be able to attend the conference in Auckland. Is there a chance we could come to Hamilton as guest lecturers at the university?  And if we were to stop in Hamilton, is there anything else we might be able to do while we’re there – perhaps a workshop in the community?

Of course our answer was yes, and again yes and YES!

With those possibilities in hand, Suzanne involved Community Waikato, a capacity building provider in Hamilton.  And in barely two weeks, we had arranged for Dimitri and I to do a governance workshop at Community Waikato in the morning, then head to the University to do a lecture on sustainability in the afternoon.

We smiled at the wonderful serendipity, and then felt like we were in a Ronco commercial: But wait, there’s more!

Five days before our departure from the US, we learned that there was a last minute addition to our Consultant Immersion Course.  At the time we’d been too busy in preparations to see any significance in that late addition being Jane Stevens, the lead consultant at Community Waikato.


But here we were, driving on the left-hand side of the road, joyful that we would be teaching at the very facility that is home to our now beloved Jane. Between Suzanne’s finding me through an offer I made for a sample book via a listserv last summer, and our now delightful friendship and connection with Jane, we felt fated to be working in Hamilton.

Community Waikato
Our morning session at Community Waikato began with a blessing from Jane, speaking joyfully and authentically (as Jane does) about her gratitude for the work we had done together in the immersion course.  I had barely been introduced and I was already crying!

The group was as engaged as it always is, talking about Governing for What Matters. You would think I would become jaded to that reaction, but each time it is energizing and new.

Community Waikato Group

Several things about this particular session stand out, though.  The first was Ruby.

Ruby is perhaps six months old, and that day she was accompanying her mom, Lou Belle, to work at Community Waikato.  Before we began, Lou Belle asked if it was ok to keep Ruby with her during the workshop.  “If she gets fussy, I’ll take her out.”  And of course we told her that Ruby was welcome, knowing that moms in these circumstances tend to be overly sensitive to disrupting others, and that Ruby would not be a problem at all.

Ruby again

When little Ruby started to fuss, Lou Belle would take her outside to nurse or just get some air. But for the most part, Ruby remained quietly smiling, absorbing “community” all around her.  When the group would talk about the future we wanted to create, we could point to Ruby as one reason why.

The “future” was not an abstract in that room; it was sitting right there with us.  And by the end of the workshop, as we shared lunch with the staff at Community Waikato, the conversation made it clear that the workshop had resonated profoundly with Lou Belle.

We were reminded in those moments that walking the talk of building community means more than the concepts we teach. It is a matter of seeing every single thing we do as an act of building community. Ruby helped teach us that for 3 hours that morning.

The second memorable part of this particular workshop came at the very end of the session, after the group had taken its last moments to reflect on what they had learned, after I had thanked the group, and after they had applauded.

As the group prepared to disperse, a voice came from the back of the room.  “Can everyone hold on for just a moment?  We’ve asked Jane, and she has said it is appropriate to share this, and so Hildy, we would like to share with you our traditional way of saying thank you.”

As if on cue, the participants all rose and faced me, as they sang Te Aroha – the same traditional Maori blessing our students had sung to Dimitri and me a week before.

Te Aroha
(Let there be Love)
Te whakapono
(Let there be Faith)
Me te rangimarie
(And let there be Peace)
Tatau tatau ae
(For us all – it is agreed.)

Thirty-plus people singing to me. As I stood in awe at the grace that surrounded me, an older gentleman broke the silence.  “You thought you were crying before the class, eh?” And we all laughed, as indeed that is how I ended the session as well.

University campus

University of Waikato
We had lunch with the staff at Community Waikato, and then Suzanne herded us over to the university, where a small group of perhaps 20 adult students gathered to talk about moving from sustainability to thriving.

I talked about shared vision for the future of the community; talked about the Diaper Bank model of building programs by engaging existing community resources; talked about community engagement as friendraising; talked about building funds upon assets organizations have laying around waiting to be tapped.

University Group

In reflecting at the end of the session, a PhD student summed up what we have been wondering for years now: “I’ve gone through the Nonprofit Management program at several universities, and I’m now on my way to my PhD. Why has no one taught me any of this in any of the classes I’ve attended? Why am I just hearing of this now?”

The question haunted us as we drove back from Hamilton to Auckland, where we would spend the next day preparing to depart for the South Island (including not only laundry and shopping, but 3 hours at the post office to ship stuff back to the U.S.).

Tomorrow would begin a whole new part of the adventure. And despite everyone telling us how amazing it would be, we are soon to discover we have no idea just how amazing “amazing” is.

Part 7 is next: Community Development – To What End?

3 Responses to Meet People Where They Are (Then Sing to Them)

  1. Hildy! It sounds like you had a profoundly valuable visit to Aukland! I especially like how you turned the theoretical into the tangible. The “future” means so much more to me when I think of the world I am creating for Guthrie. And how I am preparing him for the future. With Ruby as the tangible representation of the future, I image folks went from thinking with their heads to thinking with their hearts.

  2. What a wonderful story! I hope to meet the other Jane some day; she sounds wonderful.

    Of course, in my world, many events start and end with a song. My music convention is just over; we started with Take It Back, by Kathleen Sloan from Denver, who comes to Toronto every year. We ended with Take Me Home, by our own local Debbie Ohi. The words are in the program book; everyone sings along; and the tradition helps build community as faces come and go.

  3. When I was just starting out in nonprofits and anxious to fit in and do it “right” — which meant conforming to the status quo of the large, fairly corporate organization I worked for. We got involved in an issue that affected native American communities, and I went to a meeting where a tribal leader was talking about the impact of this issue on her people. She had a very small baby with her, and she calmly held it, rocked it, nursed it, all the while telling all these men (and me) in their suits how urgent it was that this issue be addressed. She profoundly changed forever my view of what it could mean to be a woman in a professional world. 12 years later when I had my first child, I remembered her and was fearless about bringing my daughter with me whenever necessary. Both of my children (now 11 and 8) have learned from being raised in a world of community benefit – and have been incredibly helpful to our work in so many ways!