Sunday, August 12, 2012

In Memorium - Greg Junell

"You never forget your first _____"

This phrase, with the blank filled in, is often used while looking back fondly at something you experienced that still touches your soul - and so, it's true of me today as I reflect on the loss of an amazing person - Greg Junell.  Who, you might be asking, is Greg Junell?

217889 4090473336906 567645232 n
Greg Junell - 2011

Greg was and still is the heart and soul of my very first experience with community.  We didn't call it 'community' back then, but looking back on it now, the slo.punks was the first community I can remember being welcomed into with no reservations.  When you are a teenager away from home for the first time, experiencing college at a very competitive school like Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, life can be scary, awkward, and downright difficult.  Though 'The Punks' (think Cyberpunk, not punk rock) didn't have formal leadership per se, Greg was the closest thing they had to a community shepherd.

Even now, I think back to meeting him for the first time - big tall Greg, red beard sprouting out in every direction, but with a smile and a heart that just oozed out of every one of his pores.  Greg was one of the few people I've ever met in my life who always seemed happy to see an old friend, or make a new one.  Part computer guru, philosopher, pirate radio DJ, and big kid, he could engage in manic silliness one minute, and then dive deep into his psyche to argue philosophy with you the next.

Greg didn't always agree with everyone (I know he and I had vastly different political views for example), but he truly was the model that I think we need more of in our society today - reasoned discourse.  I never came away from a conversation with Greg angry or upset about our differences.  I frequently came away enlightened or challenged to look at my life and views in a unique way.

I think the best testament I've heard about Greg though is one shared by several of my classmates at Cal Poly through the years - even those of us who had not had as much direct contact with him as we used to are feeling his passing in a very raw and emotional way.  His impact on our lives is something I know we are all grateful for.  He spent the most recent years of his much too short life helping inspire the next generation as a teacher - I can only imagine the awesome times those kids who got to learn from him had! :)

I'll always carry the experience of my first community with me going forward, and I have Greg to thank for that.  Rest easy my friend, you've earned it.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Finding Your Community Magic

'Festival Magic'

I've heard this phrase for the past 8 years while serving with an amazing group of 4000 volunteers who put on the Gilroy Garlic Festival - lauded by most as the premier food and entertainment festival on the West Coast.  While the saying started out as a bit of a joke to explain how things get done, the reality is those two words are the bedrock of an annual event that has been taking place for almost 35 years.

IMG 00482

The history of the festival is long and storied - this video gives a great overview.  However, the elements behind the concept of 'Festival Magic' are applicable to communities of all types, whether it's open source software development, social media communities, or affinity groups.  This 'magic' isn't really all that magical - it breaks down to the following main ideas:

Empower Everyone to Lead

Gilroy Garlic Festival volunteers are expected to lead (and follow) at all levels of the organization.  Even the most junior volunteers are given some form of responsibility and ownership of their designated tasks, and they are always encouraged to share ideas on how to make things better.

Additionally, in the words of Hugh Davis, Garlic Festival president for 2012, 'no job is too small for a volunteer to take on.'  It's worth noting that he said this while responding to a patron who was both grateful and shocked to see him helping pour cups of free water for festival guests waiting in line to board buses back to the parking lot.

Empowering your volunteers and community members to lead in their own way gives them a sense of pride and ownership in your community.  The Garlic Festival learned this lesson early on, and it's baked into the DNA of the organization.  When people are interviewed about why they volunteer for the festival year after year, the two main themes that come out are pride in the event and a sense of ownership/family.  In short, none of the volunteers wants to be the one who lets the festival (or each other) down.

Nurture the Next Generation

The Garlic Festival's founders had amazing foresight (and the experience of seeing another similar festival fail in leadership development) and decreed that no person would ever serve more than one consecutive year as the festival president.  Additionally, there are defined terms for board members, advisory committee members and committee chairpersons.  These limits are not meant to discourage volunteerism at all - in fact, it's quite the opposite.  Encouraging volunteers to find and mentor new leadership talent builds an organization that not only continually strengthens its ranks, but also brings a new influx of ideas and passions to the table.

A strong community is not afraid of leadership change - finding a way to embrace and encourage turnover keeps things fresh and vibrant.  In our case, a future Garlic Festival president may well emerge from the volunteer pool of teenagers at this year's event!

Make it Fun!

You can probably file this one under the 'yeah, tell us something we don't know' category.  However, it is always easier said than done.  In the case of the Garlic Festival, we accomplish this primarily by focusing on making the event fun for the patrons.  When they are having fun, it's infectious - our volunteers can't help but feel the atmosphere of fun when they see festival guests enjoying themselves.  Does this mean that there isn't serious business going on with our festival volunteers?  No, but purposely making the work fun makes the time go faster and encourages people to volunteer and contribute year after year.

The next time you are evaluating your community, think about the fun factor, and what you can do to improve it.  Sometimes this can be as simple as letting a team develop their own identity in the form of t-shirts, slogans, or nicknames.  Remember, fun doesn't necessarily have to cost a lot, but enabling people to make their tasks fun goes a long way toward encouraging continued community involvement.

The Bottom Line

Building up this kind of community is not easy or quick - the festival has had its share of bumps along the way.  However, by continuing to focus on bringing in new ideas and talented people, the strength and bonds between the volunteer community have continued to grow.  At the end of the day, the most powerful thing you can work toward building in your own community is a pride of ownership that guides your members long after you have stepped away from leadership.

My hope is that you'll take some of these fundamentals of our 'Festival Magic' and sprinkle them liberally within your community to help it thrive and grow.  Who knows, one day you might be as lucky as we'll be next year in Gilroy to celebrate 35 years of community, food, fun and fellowship! :)