Laying Down the Welcome Mat: A Report from the Thriving Communities Conference at The Whidbey Institute

Posted in Community, Feature, More Stories

Whidbey Life Magazine Contributor
March 25, 2015

“What is home to you?”

That was the question asked of the 85 people gathered at the Whidbey Institute for a three-day conference on Shelter that began on Thursday, March 19.

If there’s a more soulful place to ask this most fundamental of questions than the Thomas Berry Hall at the Institute, it’s hard to imagine it. The hall, with its soaring roof, skylight to the heavens, stone hearth and artfully designed windows that draw the eye into the forest beyond, seems designed to both engender feelings of home and prompt ideas about connection and community. The massive image of earth that hangs over the hearth reminds us of the magnificence and vulnerability of our planet—a planet on which large numbers of people lack a home.

“The four pillars of the conference, and of a resilient community, are dignity, respect, trust and a sense of belonging,” said conference organizer Jerry Millhon. In pursuit of an accelerated way for organizations to find each other and collaborate, Millhon and his team (Aimie Vallat and Noah Dassel) spent an entire year scouting out small, innovative grassroots projects in both urban and rural settings and making short videos about them.

Ross Chapin presenting his plan for community development of a 40 acre parcel in Langley on Whidbey Island (photo by Eric Neurath)

Architect Ross Chapin presenting his plan for community development of a 40-acre parcel in Langley on Whidbey Island (photo by Eric Neurath)

Like everything that comes out of The Whidbey Institute, the videos have heart—lots of it. In seven minutes or less, project founders, staff, and beneficiaries explain their solutions to housing in terms guaranteed to move you. (These same folks were in attendance to answer questions and confer with others, putting the “confer” back in “conference.”) The videos aren’t just talking heads; they’re chock full of spaces and structures: clustered groups of neighboring houses with shared open areas (Langley architect Ross Chapin’s “pocket neighborhoods”), cottages that replace tents for the homeless (Quixote Village), private and common rooms that provide a safe haven for teens (Cocoon House), repaired houses for the aging and disabled (Hearts and Hammers), affordable houses designed with land stewardship in mind (Lopez Community Land Trust), healthy building technologies that go beyond conventional green building standards (Thriving Communities EcoVillages).

Indeed, behind each and every project can be found exactly who and what the conference promises: common people doing uncommon work for the common good.

Attendee Donald King, a Seattle architect, was impressed by the stories of hope, justice and equality. “These folks are looking at housing issues through a different lens. We need a different lens, because large challenges require a holistic strategy.” King, who echoed Chapin’s goal of “creating small scale community in a large scale world” hopes to learn from others working on the challenges of housing insecurity in order to avoid repeating the failures of the past.

Lars Henrikson, an employee of Seattle City Light’s conservation programs, has a long-standing interest in the kinds of buildings that contribute to making communities sustainable. “Something is calling me to work in that area after retirement, but I don’t know what just yet.” Henrikson finds the openness and fluidity of the conference just right for engaging with fresh ideas and entertaining new possibilities.

 Chaitanya Burgess sharing her experience being a homeless teenager, and finding assistance through Cocoon House in Everett (photo by Eric Neurath)

Chaitanya Burgess sharing her experience being a homeless teenager and finding assistance through Cocoon House in Everett (photo by Eric Neurath)

As executive director of Cocoon House, Snohomish County’s emergency shelter for at-risk youth, Cassie Franklin appreciates the diversity of the organizations participating in Thriving Communities. Although Cocoon House was established in 1991, Franklin still looks for ways to become a better leader and for ideas to bring to her county’s Homeless Policy Task Force.

Tonya Burgess, 25, first entered Cocoon’s transitional housing at the age of 14. She had lived on the streets, in the woods and in various shelters before finding a home at Cocoon. Although she “aged out” of Cocoon when she turned 17, she remains close to the staff and is currently a member of the board. “At this conference, I hope to wake up the spirit of community in every person, old or young. I hope I can find a way to inspire new generations to listen to this call before they’re the ones in need,” Burgess said.

 (photo by Eric Neurath)

From left to right: conference organizer Jerry Millhon, Georgia poet Tannur Ali, Chicago architect Antonio Guitierrez (photo by Eric Neurath)

How to provide housing that honors the cultural heritage of the Black community in the Central District of Seattle while using a business model? That’s the question that preoccupies Thomas Bangasser of the Union Street Business Association. Bangasser’s grandfather began buying property in 1941 within one square block at the intersection of 23rd and East Union, and Bangasser himself grew up there. “The racism inherent in large lending institutions has prevented the district from flourishing as it might have,” he said. Bangasser hopes the conference will give him new leads and connections to others with useful insights and similar goals.

“Community has become more important since I’ve retired,” commented Nancy Hager of Bend, Oregon. “At my age, I’m asking myself what I want, and how do I want to be challenged, for the next 20 years.” Hager is considering a new place to settle, finds “pre-packaged” retirement communities sterile and unappealing, and seeks a situation where she can retain her creativity and independence while interacting with others around her. “Here at the conference I’m finding an exciting network of people who are trying to rebalance the inequities of the world.”

(photo by Eric Neurath)

Saviour Knowledge presents the plans of the Union Street Business Association to help revitalize Seattle’s Central District (photo by Eric Neurath)

Architect Antonio Gutierrez coordinates housing, fights for tenants’ rights and stops foreclosures in the Chicago neighborhood of Albany Park. He was inspired by the video stories, by the people featured in them and by what has been accomplished. Gutierrez feels the topic of Shelter is of widespread concern. “Across the nation similar conversations are occurring among people of different backgrounds, races, classes, cultures, languages…creating a chain of actions and reactions that will create better communities for future generations.” The challenges he faces—zoning ordinances, limited volunteer labor due to potential liability, access to land—are typical in an urban setting. Gutierrez is determined to translate the lessons of the conference to his neighborhood. “Solidarity is happening, and happening organically,” he observed.

Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson has attended every one of the four Thriving Communities conferences (previous themes include food, local economies and health). “It’s always inspiring,” Price Johnson commented. “This one on Shelter is especially timely because of the County’s Comprehensive Plan update—our effort to look ahead 20 years at the sheltering needs of our community. Do we have the right support from the county regulations to support the ways we want to live?” She encouraged Island County residents to visit the County’s website to express their vision for the future.

Admittedly, the challenge of providing shelter to those who need it is a daunting one. But Millhon and the Institute staff, modeling the conference on the kind of communities they seek to encourage, built in plenty of spirit-lifting activities: song, spoken word performance, dialogue, idea forums, tasty and healthy food, outdoor fires to celebrate the equinox, visual reporting (drawing concepts as they emerge), and harmonic incantations.

Lunch “marketplace” group discussing topic of reclaiming abandoned homes (photo by Eric Neurath)

Over lunch, participants discuss reclaiming abandoned homes. (photo by Eric Neurath)

As if to reflect the swirl of ideas and alliances, chairs—comfortable chairs, no less—were rearranged into endless configurations to form ever-shifting “nodes of connection.”

And at the very end of the conference, a word—both pledge and farewell among the members of this thriving but temporary community—was uttered. Together. Three times. Across a standing circle. A word much like “OM.”

But slightly altered for the occasion.




Videos shown at the conference can be viewed at

Whidbey Institute’s “Thriving Communities” website for 2015 is located at

Featured photo at the top: Artist Anne Jesse translates themes of the conference to dynamic visuals using a technique known as “live graphic recording.” (photo by Eric Neurath)

Dianna MacLeod has lived in intentional community for most of her adult life.  Her own shelter is currently being constructed in modular form as a learning project by students in the homebuilding program at Seattle Central Community College.  She travels frequently from the island to visit her house as it evolves beneath the large and sheltering roof of the Wood Technology Center.


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  1. As a participant in this gathering representing H & H, it was so engaging to learn about the work of the other key organizations and meet so many hopeful, helpful and interesting people. Dianna has really captured the story of the whole conference and many of the individuals involved. Great article!

  2. Both text and photos really capture the nature of those thriving communities gatherings (I’ve been at all 4 too)–inspirational, connective, informational, and just plain fun. Greta job, Dianna

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