This improv leader brings out-of-the-box ideas to build up WV communities

Community meeting in Moorefield, WV

BY KATHRYN RYAN, COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM ASSOCIATE, THE HUB

How do you build a community? What is the secret sauce of effective community development? We have found that communities are built when people show up – when they collaborate and communicate. When people show up and work toward a common goal, amazing success can happen. That’s what The Hub’s newest community development program, Cultivate WV, is working to make happen in two West Virginia communities: Cowen and Moorefield.

But it’s not that simple. Getting people to show up and get involved is challenging. And what’s more challenging is building aim toward a project when you have different people at the table with different opinions, different priorities, different areas of expertise, and, of course, different ideas of what a thriving community looks like. That’s where Jason Young comes in.

When you think of a community meeting, you might envision a bunch of people gathered in a church or the local elementary school gym, sitting in chairs and getting worked up over the challenges their community is facing as they deliberate the best course toward a solution. October’s Cultivate WV community meetings in Cowen and Moorefield did find groups of people gathered in these local hubs – and there were certainly discussions of challenges and ideas for solutions – but the chairs saw limited use.

Jason Young is the founder of the Vintage Theatre Company based in Clarksburg, WV. The group offers entertainment and education in a variety of formats, from operatic and a cappella performances to improvisational and sketch comedy. Jason partnered with the team at The Hub to travel to Cowen and Moorefield to demonstrate how the core components of improv can support effective community engagement.

“Community development work requires collaboration,” Jason says. “It requires people of different backgrounds to work together and try to accomplish a goal – to create something out of nothing. What I’m really teaching is collaboration, which is paramount to this culture-based programming. That’s where improv comes in.”

Jason’s Improv(e) Your Community exercise gives communities and groups a fun format in which to learn tools for effective collaboration.

The first rule of collaboration, Jason says, is hearing:

“The reason we focus on hearing first is that hearing is a way to edify another human being. A lot of times in collaborative work, there are people who feel like they’re not being heard or they don’t have a voice. You have people who emerge as leaders and people who emerge as followers. In improv, there are no leaders and followers. You want everyone to be heard. You want people to feel that they’re a part of the creation of something rather than just the execution of something. That’s how people feel that they’re truly a part of a project. Hearing is the foundation – it’s hard to go anywhere unless you’re really clear on where you’re starting.”

While hearing is the first rule of this work, Jason points out that the second (and just as important) rule is acceptance:

“Acceptance is the improv rule of YES. Acceptance is how collaboration begins, while denial is the thing that ends all collaboration. In improv, you work with yes with the understanding that things are going to change and morph and grow in different and unexpected ways; but you have to start by agreeing to start somewhere. In this work, communities will have to do a lot of brainstorming and solve a lot of problems. So when people put forward an idea, this becomes a jumping off point. The first idea is not what will end up happening, but you have to accept it so that you can build off it.”

The rule of YES means that when someone puts an idea on the table, responses to that idea must begin with yes. Specifically, the response has to start with yes, and…

“People want to be heard so that they can be a part of the building process,” Jason says. “When someone puts an idea on the table and that idea is met with ‘No,’ or ‘That will never work because we don’t have the money,’ or what have you, you’ve just lost that brain from the table because that person likely won’t participate anymore. Collaboration begins with acceptance.”

Want Jason to come to your community or interested in catching a show? Find Jason and his troupe The Fearless Fools at the Vintage Theatre Company site.

Watching community members and local officials, young and old, interacting in groups, laughing, and being goofy together gave such a great energy to the community meeting. But fun and laughter weren’t the only things happening. Ideas were coming out. Brainstorms were taking place. Potential project groups were forming. Community members were coming together around passion, interest, and investment in their community.

Thanks to Jason’s fun and inspiring exercise, residents in the Cultivate WV communities are not just thinking up great community project ideas; they’re discussing them. They’re hearing and engaging with them. And soon, they’ll be building them.

November’s Cultivate WV community meetings will be the next step in this process. We’ll be talking all about mini-grant funds to put these ideas into action. And we’ll be further brainstorming, tweaking, and solidifying the ideas that are already popping up across these communities as they work toward engagement and growth. By hearing, accepting, and building, Cultivate WV communities are improv(ing) their communities, one idea at a time.

Interested in coming to a Cultivate meeting in Cowen or Moorefield? Get in touch with me at k.ryan@wvhub.org. 

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