A week ago my wife and I got in a car and drove to Austin, Texas, to teach two days of classes on making wooden spoons. We weren’t sure what to expect–what the facilities would be like, what wood or tools would be available, or how many people would show up. But teaching is an act of faith, so we went.
The place where we taught is a community like no other. It’s called Community First. Ten years in the making, it is a place where formerly homeless people can live, work, and grow. There are several micro-houses on the property, with many more under construction. The residents pay rent and work jobs, which includes helping out around the village by tending gardens and goats, doing construction, and keeping the place clean.
My role in all this was to teach some of the community staff how to make wooden spoons and spatulas so that they could in turn train current and future residents to work wood. There is a big demand for locally-made handicrafts in Austin, so the residents will learn to make things with their hands through ROADS Workshops. Selling their woodenware at local craft markets will help them make a living. But first the teachers had to be taught. It’s something I’m accustomed to doing in my day job–teaching literature to students who will soon become English teachers in their own right. It’s exciting to watch anybody develop a skill, but I especially enjoy seeing people gain skills with the express purpose of passing them on to somebody else.
I was able to each eight people (four men and four women) to use a gouge, a drawknife, a spokeshave, and card scrapers to shape a usable utensil. Only a couple of them had had any significant woodworking experience before, so we started with simple spatulas, and a few of them progressed to spoons. We used black walnut, which is reasonably easy to shape with hand tools. Almost everybody left with at least one completed utensil. There were some agonizing moments, such as when a nicely-shaped spoon split right down the middle of the bowl, but everybody learned a lot, and I think everybody enjoyed the process of watching a recognizable object emerge from a block of raw material.
And, in a way, that’s what was happening all around us. We were working under a big tent in the middle of a construction zone. Had it not been for the heavy rains just before we arrived, there would have been construction equipment roaring all around us. The village is still very much under construction, and while many parts of it are already in place and operating as designed, there is still a lot of work to do. The people in charge have a clear, viable vision for the community, and there are smart, talented people who have thrown themselves into building and maintaining the community. They know they have a lot of hard work ahead of them. If you are interested in supporting them, I hope you will visit their website, or send me an e-mail and I will put you in touch with the right people.
I have built many things, and the hardest thing to build is a community. But it is the most rewarding thing of all to build.