Building Community with All the Right Pieces

September 13, 2021

Have you ever dumped out one of those Lego kits to build something with your child? All those pieces seem overwhelming until you realize with relief that there are illustrations along with step-by-step instructions to guide you.

But what happens when you’ve added a piece that doesn’t belong or you forgot? We’ve all felt the frustration of having to deconstruct something and start over. And hopefully we’ve all felt the joy and sense of accomplishment of reconstructing something beautiful.

My role as the mother of a 30-year-old son with autism—and as a community developer—means my work is never done. Both propel my constant need to explore how Matt and others like him can live happy, healthy and purposeful lives. They have also made me a kind of Lego master, constructing different strategies and approaches for Matt—but deconstructing them, too. While you may not find me in First Place–Phoenix’s ever-popular Lego Lounge, I often feel like a connector in perpetual motion, focused on building bridges to housing, employment, healthcare, arts and culture, recreation—the list goes on.

While perpetual motion can be energizing, it can also be exhausting. As noted by fellow pioneers, things never happen quite as fast as we might want or need; but when we persevere and collaborate, there’s the chance to create something even more beautiful.

In A Different Key: The Movie, the new award-winning documentary about autism, masterfully depicts how pioneering parents and professionals continue to tenaciously reconstruct expectations in critical areas ranging from education, research and employment to relationships, housing and healthcare—and, perhaps most important, the definition of home and community.

Like people, communities need continuous care and feeding to be strong and resilient. But people and communities are not nearly as precise and predictable as that image on the Lego box or the instructions inside. And if you build it too fast or without all the right pieces, the foundation won’t support what goes on top—or worse, it can collapse.

The power of our examples and our visions have rippling effects for how we respond to diverse special populations with equally diverse needs, interests and geographic preferences. These examples are positive and hopeful, helping us realize change is possible by building a different future from the one prescribed for too many decades by too many with too few tools, training and experience.

I’ll keep exploring as a mother, community developer—and Lego master—as long as it takes to build diverse, collaborative communities that support Matt and so many others like him on their paths to greater inclusion, interconnection and independence. Join us Oct. 13–15 for the 10th First Place Global Leadership Institute Symposium—and continue filling your toolbox with sources of inspiration that will keep you building!

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