Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Snow Shoveling as Community Building

In Minnesota, we take our snow shoveling seriously. It’s not just the annual average of 45 inches of snow in Minneapolis or the occasional snowstorm like the great 1991 Halloween blizzard that dropped 31 inches on the Twin Cities. We have an average of 100 days each year with at least 1 inch of snow on the ground; and that’s just the “southern” part of the state. Prepared with a muscular snow blower, a collection of shovels, ice choppers, and supplies of sand and de-icer, snow shoveling goes beyond removing ice and snow from sidewalks and steps. Snow shoveling is community building across neighborhoods in cities and towns.

On my residential street 2 miles from downtown Minneapolis, snow shoveling goes something like this. Our renter shovels our walks and steps while I shovel the walk and steps for our 85 year-old neighbor, Lily. This includes clearing a short path between our houses for Amanda the postal carrier to use; she always makes time for a quick, friendly chat with Lily that is reassuring to all of us. Several neighbors take turns shoveling the steps and walk of a neighbor, now in assisted living, making it easier for her daughter who’s away at school and for the mail carrier to navigate. The neighbor across the alley clears in front of our garages. Lads from a group home down the street clear sidewalks on both sides of the street with a snow blower; being good neighbors is one of the house rules. At least once each winter, they receive a gift of cookies from an appreciative neighbor.

So the sidewalks get cleared for all of us including dog walkers from surrounding streets. The postal carrier has an easier time getting through in snow, wind and sleet. Lily is checked on. And the lads make a contribution appreciated by many.

This is not just on my street. Friends in other parts of the Twin Cities share similar versions of snow shoveling as community building on their streets. I have no doubt that variations on our cold weather community building exist in cities, towns, and neighborhoods across the country. Very likely they are also small, personal, and very daily gestures. Yet, taken together they take care of people, create connections, and contribute to cohesion and community. 

Could snow shoveling as a metaphor for community building extend to museums, libraries, arts organizations, and other community resources?

The neighborhood might be the sidewalk around the museum; the block, cultural corridor or warehouse district where the museum is located; the west side, uptown, old town, north loop, or urban landscape that resonates for the museum. Neighbors might be in the houses or apartments across the street or around the corner. They might be regular or occasional passersby, friendly and familiar strangers waiting for the bus, dog walkers, storeowners, or shoppers returning from the market. Staff and residents at a nearby restaurant or shelter, the mail carrier, office workers, museum vendors, or the chatty barista around the corner are neighbors that introduce vitality and potential connections daily to the museum neighborhood to foster social well being.  

Good Partners and Good Neighbors
In addition to engaging in many intentional partnerships, collaborations, and networks, museums can also be valued neighbors. They can generate goodwill and strengthen community in multiple small, informal, spontaneous interactions right outside their doors, down the street, and around the corner. From the cashier to the facilities manager, from the groundskeeper to educators and director, museum staff and volunteers can make the most of even brief encounters by being friendly, building relationships, going a little out of the way, sharing, acting on good intentions, and playing good will forward. 

Be friendly. A visible, friendly presence towards neighbors and regular passersby is reassuring and welcoming. Wave and nod to them. Introduce yourself. Learn names and, when you can, greet others by name. When possible introduce one neighbor to another. Gradually you’ll get to know who they are, what they do, their interests, and their connection to the community.  

Connect and build relationships. Casual interactions offer possible connection with another person. A connection may begin in a nod, a smile, a hello, or a few words. Following-up and building on previous, even if brief, conversations, build relationships with people, a place, and ideas–the foundation for relationships that are critical for a sense of safety, trust, and understanding.

Go a little out of your way. Make a bit of extra time to be helpful. Watch children crossing the street, stop in at the local market or restaurant, or attend the annual National Night Out block party. Keep an eye out for the older couple on their daily stroll. Staff out for a walk over the lunch hour can pick up trash to make the museum and the neighborhood look better. Being proactively helpful speaks volumes.

Share. Sharing, whether space, expertise, or connections, matters. And it goes in both directions. A resident’s local knowledge about the neighborhood’s history can be fascinating and helpful to the museum in building and deepening its understanding of the community. Share produce from your garden, let the neighborhood association meet at the museum, or loan your snow shovel.

Act on good intentions. Don’t just think about engaging the community in the life of the museum. Invite familiar faces and new acquaintances to participate and join in actively. Listen to new friends as part of a focus group, benefit new perspectives during prototyping, or bring neighbors together to contribute to a project. Thank them heartily for their participation. And invite them back.

Play it forward. If someone picks up on your wondering about community artists, return the favor of helpful information. The museum’s expertise in social media or green practices could be valuable to a small non-profit or a group of neighborhood artists. Add books to the Little Free Library down the street or set one up in front of your museum, filling it with books and engaging with those who take and leave books.

Neighborly shoveling doesn’t replace the need for each person to clear walks or for snowplows to clear streets and alleys. Similarly, small acts of community building do not replace well-planned partnerships and collaborations. In both cases, being a good neighbor fosters connections and good will in ways other activities can not.

Start with thinking and talking about what being a good neighbor means for your museum, in your neighborhood, and how you can be helpful. Appreciate both the tangible and intangible benefits that emerge from daily interactions, concern for familiar faces, and a welcoming presence. Small gestures can change the way people relate to each other; enrich museum perspectives; build bridges between people unlikely to meet otherwise; advance local and specific neighborhood needs and interests; and infuse a culture of welcome, inclusion, and belonging throughout your museum. Let well-being, connection, and community start at the museum’s front door, move out along its sidewalk, and spread throughout its neighborhood, reaching neighbors, friends, and acquaintances.  


  1. Lovely article. In Britain, the extreme weather type is flooding, especially in the North. Being a southerner, we don't come across such difficulties!!

  2. Mary, I am glad you enjoyed the post and that snow shoveling is not something you deal with seasonally, though I imagine there are ways in which neighbors give hand to neighbors.

  3. Great thoughts and a lovely sentiment. Really put a face on making and maintaining relationships

  4. Thank you, Linda. Relationships are at the heart of what matters. Making, nurturing, maintaining, and valuing them is important work.