On the weekends and evenings (actually, anytime I’m not working at my day job here at CCMU), you can find me toiling away in the fields in Northwest Denver. There are farm fields in Denver, you ask? Yep, my wife and I own and operate a quarter-acre urban farm, called Sunnyside Up, nestled near I-70 in the historic Sunnyside neighborhood of Denver. We have ducks, chickens, and honey bees, a fruit tree orchard, over 15 varieties of nuts and berries, and too many vegetables to count.
One of my favorite parts of working on the farm is the time it allows for reflection. Whether I’m cultivating, irrigating, or doing animal chores, my mind wanders to family life or my community work. More often than not, the task at hand offers some sort of lesson or analogy that helps bring clarity to my musings.
This past weekend I had an “Aha!” moment while checking in on our two beehives: honey bees hold the answer to community autonomy. If you’ve never had the privilege of peeking into a beehive, you’re missing one of the most amazing natural experiments in collective decision making and collaboration. Every time I open a beehive, I’m reminded that the bees are in full control and I, as the beekeeper, am just along for the ride. Each colony has all the makings of a thriving community: a tireless leader, the “queen bee,” who works day and night to ensure the healthy future of the colony; dedicated community members, the “worker bees,” who commit their lives to providing a service or product to the colony; and a truly democratic process that allows for decisions to be made that benefit the whole of the colony and leaves nobody behind.
As the beekeeper, my job is to provide a little direct support to the bees, some extra food here, a little water there, and to keep track of the bigger environmental context, like planting a variety of nectar-flowing flowers on our farm so a bloom is happening all year or providing a safe and protected area for the bees to live. Aside from this “technical assistance” provided by me, the bees do everything else. They identify their own problems and make key decisions based on the will of the collective. This “Aha!” moment immediately reminded me of a classic figure that I always come back to in my work.
Source: Community participation for health for all. London, Community Participation Group of the United Kingdom Health for All Network, 1991.
Clearly, honey bees are at the high control end of the spectrum. Here at CCMU, we strive to engage with communities in much the same way a beekeeper engages with her bees. We firmly believe community-driven solutions are the cornerstone of successful health care systems across the state of Colorado. But we don’t simply consult with or advise communities as to how these local solutions should be implemented or conceived. Instead, we take the lead from communities, responding with a little bit of direct support, via technical assistance, and keeping track of the bigger context across the state and country. Following a community’s lead may take a bit more time, but we believe the benefits of our approach far outweigh the challenges. And in the end, we are always awed by the power of community just as I am awed by the power of my bees.