Wildflowers Institute

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Wildflowers Institute, led by Hanmin Liu and Jennifer Mei, helps foundations and local governments identify and foster the informal ways communities sustain themselves. Liu and Mei identify the elements that define a neighborhood’s culture and then amplify those elements for sustainable, positive outcomes. “Basically, we go into a community like a tuning fork, find the frequency that makes the neighborhood resonate, and then hit the tuning fork—hard,” says Liu.

Mei and Liu began working together in 1978 to organize the United States–China Educational Institute (USCEI), a bilateral exchange program. Focused primarily on health care and education, their work brought hundreds of scholars into contact with elite universities and medical schools in the United States. Drawing funding from the Educational Foundation of America, the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, and the World Bank through the Chinese Ministry of Public Health, they built an academic bridge between the two countries, based on an understanding of cultural differences and how to overcome them. In 1996 Liu was named to the board of trustees of the Kellogg Foundation, an organization supporting families and communities as they create conditions to propel vulnerable children to achieve success as individuals and contributors to the larger community and society. Throughout his two decades of service to the foundation, Liu oversaw the distribution of millions of dollars into communities worldwide, but he found that too often, once the financial commitments ended, so did the impact on the community.

With the goal of achieving longer-lasting impact, Liu and Mei founded Wildflowers Institute in 1998. Its mission is to build community will to adapt and grow from generation to generation. The strategy is to uncover what works and harness that energy to improve the adaptive functioning of the community at large. The institute has developed a three-step strategic approach.

The first step is to identify and build trust with “informal” leaders within the neighborhood who lead through inspiration and consensus—not necessarily individuals with official titles but rather those who are best connected. Liu and Mei invite these leaders to join the institute’s fellowship program. The purpose of the fellowship is not to build capacity but rather to help the leaders develop greater clarity about the formal and informal structures that sustain change in their community. The fellowship program gives direction on ways to make things happen from within and puts a spotlight on these generative processes. It helps the fellows find their compass—the beliefs and values that form the core of the community and guide them in their relationships and endeavors. It focuses on local stories of people and places that give community members mental maps of how best to adapt and grow.

Wildflowers fellows act as ambassadors, helping to build an interface between the core of their community and those outside, such as helping institutions and governments. For example, in San Francisco’s Tenderloin in 2014, the fellows and trusted resident scouts undertook door-to-door canvassing of SROs (single-room-occupancy buildings) with a survey. They identified more than 650 artists who were creating the art and fabric of the Tenderloin but were hidden from the public eye. Mei recalls:

Almost all of the artists were in some process of putting their lives back together. Some had taken a wrong turn in life, some were social outcasts. Many had been injured before their time living in the Tenderloin. So they all had learned to make art on their own to help them make sense of their lives—they had this internal drive to express their feelings and put some order to their inner and outer worlds.

The second step is to determine how the informal side of the community is organized and how it functions for the good of the whole. Liu and Mei seek to uncover what different informal groups have in common. They invite the fellows and groups of residents to build three-dimensional models of their community using blocks and figurines: the people and structures, the beliefs and values guiding their relationships, and the unique characteristics of the whole entity. The model building reveals social architectures and the symbolic representation of projects that serve the community at large. The models and the descriptions of them transcend differences in oral and written languages and yet offer clarity about formal and informal social structures, social order, and underlying purposes uniting many different groups in the community. It gives everyone a shared vocabulary to discuss direction, strategy, and tactics.

“We want other neighborhoods, other cities, to know how to do what we do, so that they can do it even when we’re not in the room.”

Wildflowers’ third step, making social investments, highlights the hidden talent and supports libraries, parks, clubhouses, associations, and other gathering places that are safe and formative for creating original artworks. In the Tenderloin, the project that emerged from a Wildflowers study was the ripple effect of “under-the-radar” artists who live and work in the neighborhood. This project culminated in a December 2015 ceremony where Wildflowers presented sixty Tenderloin-based artists with awards of $1,000 for artworks, many of which revealed insightful stories of what personal and social change looks and feels like in the neighborhood. The project was called “The Hidden Gems of the Tenderloin.”

Following up after the ceremony, Wildflowers discovered that the community had asked fifty-five of the sixty resident artists to create other art projects in the Tenderloin. Three years after the initial social investment, the executive director of the neighborhood’s Boys and Girls Clubs and a friend of Wildflowers shared with Liu and Mei a drawing that local children had made of their neighborhood, commemorating the third anniversary of Boeddeker Park in the Tenderloin. The children had been invited to draw a picture of their community, and they drew a tree filled with descriptive words. Liu recalled:

Although Wildflowers was not involved in the children’s depiction of the neighborhood, nor were the children involved in any of the earlier Wildflowers activities, we noticed that a lot of the words they drew had come up in our model-building session: “resilience,” “a safe place to be,” “hope,” “positivity.” But the biggest and most important, which is right in the middle of the tree, is “healing and culture.” That was the heart of the neighborhood, a hidden asset, and three years later the community was framing the neighborhood with this language. That’s what success looks like for us—revealing a generative process such as healing that ripples out to everyone, and making people more conscious of this asset. Healing has a life of its own among the residents.

Wildflowers Institute and CultureBank

Investment from CultureBank would enable Wildflowers Institute to grow their work in the Tenderloin and provide them with a place to share their knowledge with artist entrepreneurs around the country. Liu says: “We want other neighborhoods, other cities, to know how to do what we do, so that they can do it even when we’re not in the room. That for us is the key—making the Wildflowers method so user-friendly that anyone can independently tap the resonant frequency of their community.” Together, CultureBank and Wildflowers Institute could propagate a culture of equity in which communities no longer need external stimulus or funding to develop their own positive assets, but possess the tools to do it themselves.

Lead image: Falling through the cracks is by Ira Watkins, one of the Hidden Gems award winners.