Editorial: What Fence Painting Taught Me About Community Building

5 minute read

Like many of you, I spent last weekend working in my yard. Specifically, I was painting my fence—a little spring brighten-up with a fresh coat of sparkling white. My neighbor, one of our closest friends, saw me and came over to the fence with her dog to share a bit of news. Like we have hundreds of times before, we stood face to face, laughing and swapping stories, ignoring the wooden barrier that stood between us.

She asked what I was doing with a sledgehammer she’d spotted in my backyard. I answered that I was tearing down some small shelves I’d built and attached to the fence years ago—shelves that held everything from coffee cups for our over-the-fence chats to dried mealworms for our resident bluebirds. The wood was rotten and didn’t hold paint anymore—it was time for them to go as they’d outlived their purpose. But where will you put your coffee cup, she asked. Here on the post, I replied. Here on the post.

As I swung the sledgehammer and watched the shelves buckle and detach, I felt strong. I felt a sense of creative destruction. And, the fence looked a lot better. Friendlier even. You see, sometimes walls and fences need to be destroyed, and sometimes they just need to be overlooked for the higher purpose.

It all made me think: If we let walls define our boundaries without looking over them, without inviting others in, without examining if they’ve outlived their original purpose, without giving them a new purpose, without critical thought, then we’ve allowed our world to become dangerously small. And this is no time for small thinking—not when we’re writing our own narrative as we define what it means to be a city of innovation.

As the new executive director of Venture Café Winston-Salem, it’s part of my job to help us all discover where our community’s barriers are, discuss if they’re still working or if they’re preventing us from making progress and how we move toward removing them if we can. How do we innovate around, between and over them? And how do we tear them down? We do it bit by bit by building trust, starting conversations, sharing our vulnerabilities and dreams, by showing up to see how we can help each other. It’s up to us to continue the momentum—to build a grassroots coalition of people who are interested in ideas, who are innovators of every kind and who want to invest in our community with their time, talent and resources.

One way we can all start doing that is to tear down some mental constructs—starting with how we think of innovation. It’s a word on everyone’s lips now, a buzzword that’s more important than ever as we build a more resilient economy, rethink ways of working and embrace technology in every facet of our lives. Innovation isn’t just about apps on your phone, and it’s not just about medical advances. Yes, those are important, and we’ll spend plenty of time talking about exactly that—but think of innovation as a larger idea. Think about social innovation—how novel solutions to social problems create value for everyone, not just corporations or private individuals. Or think about civic innovation—how cities are re-imagining community, creating intentional public spaces and improving the places we live, work and play. And now think about the role walls play in each of those endeavors. Often, they’re barriers to progress, preventing connection and blocking the view to what’s next.

At Venture Café, we’re going to meet pioneers in innovation living right here in Winston-Salem and the surrounding areas. We’re going to challenge ourselves to show up and have real conversations with people we don’t know and who might look different than yourself. We’re going to offer our help and receive the help of others with grace and gratitude because everyone has a story and a gift. And we’re going to make connections happen over those real and perceived barriers, in a safe space where trust is built, where ideas come to life and where our city grows into its full potential. Welcome to Venture Café, connecting innovators to make things happen.

Join Karen every week for the Venture Café Winston-Salem Thursday Gathering, a weekly event designed to connect entrepreneurs, investors and innovators. Venture Café Winston-Salem has a vision to connect individuals, communities and organizations in the Piedmont Triad into one tightly woven successful innovation ecosystem through high-impact programming, events and intentional spaces.

Learn more about Venture Café Winston-Salem, its upcoming permanent home in Bailey Power Plant and the Innovation Lives Here There + Everywhere Tour at venturecafewinstonsalem.org.

by Karen Barnes