KaBOOM! Playground Build in West Oakland

in community stories

Some of my pictures, videos and tweets from the KaBOOM! Playground Build Day at Wade Johnson Park and the Oakland School Police HQ, Acorn & Lower Bottoms neighborhoods, West Oakland.

From an introduction by Carletta Starks, one of the principal organizers of the event:  Why Wade Johnson Park: OUSD Police Services Chief, Pete Sarna, recognized that the children in the area did not have a playground or other activities to keep them busy, and identified Wade Johnson as a Park that could be developed for the children in the area. Chief Sarna contacted KaBOOM! and worked with the City of Oakland Redevelopment Agency to get accepted as a site for a KaBOOM! Project. The site was approved, and KaBOOM! and its funding partner, Foresters, began the process that led up to Build Day.

Who is KaBOOM!: KaBOOM! is a non-profit organization dedicated to saving play and fighting the Play Deficit by ensuring that every child has a great place to play within walking distance.

Live tweets with pics here: scroll down to April 30, from 8AM to 3PM

Some Photos

Some Video

See also: KaBOOM! – Empowering Neighborhoods and Restoring Play; Foresters post-event press release; More photos, from Yuan Zhu.

About us

in community stories

Building blocks for building communities

  • Our purpose is to provide a ready reference for people who want to work (and play) together to make a difference in their neighborhoods.
  • We focus on communicating information that people can use to improve their neighborhoods and their relationships with their neighbors.
  • We summarize the best material that’s already out there, and try to make them more accessible (shorter, mobile-readable) and richer (f.e. by using tags & links).
  • We collect stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things for their neighborhoods. (Some of us learn better through stories than through technical stuff)
  • Theory is good, but we like practice (lessons learned, case studies, best practices).
  • We try to distill the material so as to highlight ideas that have been tested, whether they worked or not.
  • With your help, we maintain a list of online libraries and resources that are available to the public, for free.

Please help improve this resource by posting your suggestions using the form below.


Our Blocks is an all-volunteer effort. Our current Co-Editors:

  • Allegra Williams is a community organizer and practitioner based in the greater Boston area, where she focuses on creating and expanding community networks to improve the quality of life in neighborhoods. She recently coordinated several public art and cultural initiatives, and co-founded a homeless coalition in Lowell, Massachusetts, which advocates for policy change, alongside social service agencies and homeless residents. She earned her Masters degree in Community Social Psychology from the University of Massachusetts Lowell, where she works as the Program Manager of the university’s Community and Cultural Affairs Office. She organized the 2010 Innovative Cities conference.
  • Brian Fier is involved in community building and development. He is interested in information dissemination, collaboration, and improving communities. Additionally, he is developing tools for connecting people to each other and to information with the intention of helping improve communities and people’s lives. One such project is Campus Dakota where he is the President and Community Developer. Brian has a master’s and bachelor’s degree from North Dakota State University; his coursework was focused on the social sciences.
  • Christina Holt got her MA in Child Development and Psychology, and her BA in Community Leadership Development, from the University of Kansas. She’s the Associate Director for Community Tool Box Services at the KU Workgroup for Community Health & Development. Christina was a Research Associate at the KU Work Group, then served at Community Living Opportunities from 2004 to 2007, as Senior Administrator, Behavior Analyst, and Director of Behavioral Services and Family Enhancement.
  • Dan Rapson worked as Director of Construction at the Wake County Chapter of Habitat for Humanity, then the third largest affiliate in the United States. He attends Wayne State University in downtown Detroit, and is interested in developing housing and food resources in the city.
  • Hien Tran graduated from San Jose State University with a degree in International Business. Her nonprofit work started in her early college years. She worked at Catholic Charities, Charities Housing, Girls For A Change, and the International Rescue Committee. When not at work, she bakes, gardens, reads, and promotes community development.
  • Jami Jones is a graduate of Portland State University with a BS degree in Science and Community Health.  She worked as a System Analyst and IT Business Analyst in the Telecommunications Industry before serving as Information Coordinator for the Alliance for a Healthier Generation.  She currently serves as Manager of Technical Support and Training at the University of Kansas Workgroup for Community Health & Development.
  • Joseph Porcelli (@JosephPorcelli) is the Chief Executive Neighbor at NeighborsForNeighbors.org a Boston based 501c3, which operates social networks that connect people who live, work, and serve in the same neighborhood, providing them with tools to communicate and collaborate. He founded The Mug Project (winner of the 2009 Green Residential Waste Reduction Champion Award), and The Nametag Project to promote neighborliness. Joseph also worked as a Program Coordinator for the Boston Police Department, where he helped develop and maintain crime watch groups.
  • Laura Toscano (@gardenvarieties) is an Operations Manager at KaBOOM!, a national non-profit dedicated to bringing play back into the lives of our children. She’s an advocate for unstructured play, exploration, community gardening, local farms, public art, and dreaming big. Laura has a BA in Philosophy from Yale University, and blogs about helping to save one of DC’s last truly local farms as The Garden Variety Philosopher.
  • Leo Romero (@LeoRomero) majored in History and Political Science at the University of the Philippines Baguio, and did post-grad work in Business Economics at the University of Asia and the Pacific. As an organizer, he’s worked with students, workers, tribal minorities, businesses, and NGOs. His day job is in affordable housing, as Regional Manager at The John Stewart Company, where he’s focused on working families, seniors, the formerly homeless, and people with AIDS, addictions, or developmental disabilities.
  • Neal Gorenflo (@gorenflo) is the publisher of Shareable.net. A former market researcher, stock analyst, and Fortune 500 strategist, Neal left the corporate world to help people share through Internet startups, public events, and a circle of friends committed to the common good. Through this circle, Neal met those who would co-found Shareable.net with him. In addition to his work at Shareable, Neal serves on the board of nonprofits Independent Arts & Media and ForestEthics, and is a Strategy Fellow at FAS.research and a member of Stanford’s Persuasive Technology Lab.
  • P H Yang (@TravelFoto) is a documentarian of social causes. He was born in Hong Kong, and started his career in photography at the age of eight. Since then, he has traveled to five continents, documenting his journey in photographs. He has documented the plight of migrants and of the homeless in the US, and of  underprivileged children and migrant workers in rural China. PH supports nonprofits by, among other things, making his photographs available for exhibition, with proceeds donated to these organizations. You can check out his photography here.

While many of us work in organizations that care about communities, we don’t represent them here. Please don’t blame them for anything we might do.

Thanks to Allen Gunn of Aspiration for helping us set up and maintain this resource. And thank you Ami DarArthur CoddingtonBritt BravoGina Cardazone, Matt Garcia, and Paul Lamb for the inspiration, guidance, and support.

Be a Blockhead

This is a new project, and we need your help. The only criterion is that you’re able to write excerpts, summaries, or syntheses of good material that’s already out there, so people who want to do something about their neighborhoods can quickly pick up proven ideas to apply. If you want to be a Blockhead, please email us using the contact form below and tell us a bit about yourself, with links to sources we can use to write your bio (your blog, Twitter feed, LinkedIn profile etc). Then register so we can give you edit rights. While waiting for us to get off our day jobs and respond to you (see why we need you?), you can read and improve upon our Style Guide.

Your Name (required)

Your Email (required)


Please tell us a bit about yourself, and why you want to help. Thanks!

5 steps to your new community garden

in community stories

When I moved into my new apartment in Washington DC, the first thing I did was contact the two nearest community gardens to apply for a garden plot. The first replied that I was just barely outside the borders of their eligible neighborhood; the second regretfully informed me that they had no available spots, and that their waiting list was so long they had actually stopped putting people on the waiting list.

So what gives? Where can I grow some food? My windows face north. I could suspend pots from the clothesline over our building’s alley… or become a guerrilla gardener… or volunteer at a local farm… but those are topics for another post.

I know I’m not the only one in this situation. And at the same time, the availability of fresh, local, healthy produce is severely limited in many urban centers, especially in the most under-resourced neighborhoods, so we should definitely be encouraging people to grow their own food. We need more community gardens, so let’s start digging!

Why build a community garden? Because aside from all this talk of obesity epidemics and food deserts and dire predictions on food security, we need more than just access to good local produce to make this work. We need a food culture that’s tied to agriculture and a knowledge of where our food comes from. A culture that’s centered on a community gathering space to get together and swap recipes, show kids that dirt and bugs can be fun, share ideas and know-how, and ask…

“What should we do next to fix up the neighborhood?”

So here’s what you need:


Compassion, Altruism, and Do-Gooding – from the Greater Good Science Center

in community stories

The Greater Good Science Center is an interdisciplinary research center devoted to the scientific understanding of happy and compassionate individuals, strong social bonds, and altruistic behavior. While serving the traditional tasks of a UC Berkeley research center—fostering groundbreaking scientific discoveries—the GGSC is unique in its commitment to helping people apply scientific research to their lives.

The Compassionate Instinct – Think humans are born selfish? Dacher Keltner reveals the compassionate side to human nature.

Humans are selfish. It’s so easy to say. The same goes for so many assertions that follow. Greed is good. Altruism is an illusion. Cooperation is for suckers. Competition is natural, war inevitable. The bad in human nature is stronger than the good. These kinds of claims reflect age-old assumptions about emotion. For millennia, we have regarded the emotions as the fount of irrationality, baseness, and sin. The idea of the seven deadly sins takes our destructive passions for granted. Plato compared the human soul to a chariot: the intellect is the driver and the emotions are the horses. Life is a continual struggle to keep the emotions under control.

Even compassion, the concern we feel for another being’s welfare, has been treated with downright derision. Kant saw it as a weak and misguided sentiment: “Such benevolence is called soft-heartedness and should not occur at all among human beings,” he said of compassion. Many question whether true compassion exists at all—or whether it is inherently motivated by self-interest.

Recent studies of compassion argue persuasively for a different take on human nature, one that rejects the preeminence of self-interest. These studies support a view of the emotions as rational, functional, and adaptive— a view which has its origins in Darwin’s Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals. Compassion and benevolence, this research suggests, are an evolved part of human nature, rooted in our brain and biology, and ready to be cultivated for the greater good.

Global Compassion – A conversation between the Dalai Lama and Paul Ekman

Emotions unite and divide the worlds, both personal and global, in which we live, motivating the best and the worst of our actions. Without emotions there would be no heroism, empathy, or compassion, but neither would there be cruelty, selfishness, nor spite.

Bringing different perspectives to bear—Eastern and Western, spiritual and scientific, Buddhist and psychological—the Dalai Lama and I came together in conversation and sought to clarify these contradictions, in hopes of illuminating paths to a balanced emotional life and a feeling of compassion that can reach across the globe.

Better Than Sex (and Appropriate for Kids)

By Christine Carter. Might be that sitting with your legs crossed repeating stuff like “May all beings be free from suffering,” is a little too far-out for you. I’m a scientist for crying out loud, so you can imagine how I might feel meditating while surrounded by prominent neuroscientists, which I recently did on a 7-day silent meditation retreat. Except that I actually didn’t feel silly. Why? Because there is new scientific research that demonstrates the incredible power of loving-kindness meditation: No need to be self-conscious when this stuff might be more effective than Prozac. Also called metta, loving-kindness meditation is the simple practice of directing well-wishes towards other people.

Compassion across Cubicles – A new research movement tries to help everyone who tunes out their emotions when they punch in to work.

Five-foot tall panels divide the physician’s billing department into a maze of cubicles at Foote Hospital in Jackson, Michigan. Each cubi¬cle contains one of the 39 employees who make up the billing office staff. Most of the employees are women, many are single mothers, and they spend each day on the phone trying to collect unpaid debts owed to the hospital. The work is repetitive and may seem uninspiring. Yet the hosipital staff widely considers this department one of the best places to work at Foote. “Our department is special,” said Susan Boik, head of the billing unit. “People care about each other here.”

The Altruistic Electorate – New research debunks some conventional political wisdom.

By Jason Marsh. A new line of research has challenged some age–old assumptions about why people vote, suggesting that it’s concern for the welfare of others—not narrow self–interest—that sends people to the polls. In one study published earlier this year, Richard Jankowski, a professor of political science at the State University of New York, Fredonia, found that altruism is the single most important factor in predicting whether someone will vote. Jankowski recorded people’s responses to questions measuring their level of concern for others, and then compared those responses with their voting data from the 1994 general election. He found that if people expressed concern for helping others, they were far more likely to have voted. In fact, a sense of altruism was even more influential than people’s age, income, or education level, generally considered the most important factors for voting.

Connecting through compassion – For three decades Charles Garfield has trained volunteers to care compassionately for strangers. He shares what he’s learned about the extraordinary deeds of ordinary people.

I discovered a lost civilization on the cancer wards of San Francisco’s hospitals, hordes of anxious people facing a limited life span. I wanted to find a way to meet the psychological and social needs of these patients. It was obvious that I couldn’t meet this challenge alone, and many of my colleagues simply didn’t have the time or inclination to help. On a hunch, I turned to volunteers, who I trained in interpersonal and listening skills, and who could continue to provide peer support to patients even after the patients returned home. I soon realized I had a phenomenon on my hands: a cadre of volunteers who could respond to the human elements of illness and death—the isolation and loneliness that mainstream

Altruism in Space - What does the science-fiction series Battlestar Galactica teach us about human nature?

In the 1970s, anthropologist Robert Trivers proposed the theory of reciprocal altruism, which argues that organisms provide a benefit to others only in expectation of future reward. But Trivers’ influential theory has some holes. It doesn’t necessarily explain why someone would sacrifice her life for another, nor does it cover anonymous acts of charity. These behaviors offer a more benevolent picture of human nature, challenging the inherent selfishness presumed by Trivers’ tit-for-tat theory of altruism. So which is the more accurate depiction of altruism— and, by extension, of human nature?

Compassion & Empathy (from GoodWiki, GGSC’s user-editable website – think Wikipedia for the greater good)

Definitions and Overview – Based originally on text by Jennifer Goetz (UCB) – The construct of compassion is not clearly defined in psychological literature. Our first step was to form a working definition that would allow us to explore related constructs. We define compassion as a feeling of sorrow or concern for another person’s suffering or need accompanied by a subsequent desire to alleviate the suffering. This phrasing focuses on compassion as an emotion: a short-lived feeling that anyone may experience. We expect, however, that there are specific conditions in which people will be more likely to feel compassion, that there are differences in individual propensities to feel compassion, and that many people and cultures may view compassion as a basic human value.

More on Compassion and Altruism from the Greater Good Science Center

United We Serve Brings Catholics and Muslims Together, and other selections

in community stories

Serve.gov – This year during Ramadan, right before the start of the United We Serve Interfaith Week of Service, the Interfaith Committee at my church, St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Arlington, Virginia, organized an iftar (dinner to break the Ramadan fast) for members of local Muslim communities. More than 60 Catholics and Muslims attended the dinner, a turnout far surpassing our expectations.

The ‘youngest headmaster in the world’

BBC News – Around the world millions of children are not getting a proper education because their families are too poor to afford to send them to school. In India, one schoolboy is trying to change that. In the first report in the BBC’s Hunger to Learn series, Damian Grammaticas meets Babar Ali, whose remarkable education project is transforming the lives of hundreds of poor children. Via Reasons to be Hopeful

Organization shares bounty

Glendale News PressLiana Aghajanian – As cars whizzed by on a crisp, early Sunday morning on Buena Vista Street, Marie Boswell shuffled a ladder and boxes to the backyard of Burbank resident Allison Bluestein before sticking a sign on the front lawn that read “Fruit being picked by Food Forward. This all-volunteer grass-roots organization gleans fruit off trees on properties and donates 100% of the bounty to food pantries in an effort to fight urban hunger, said Boswell, one of the fruit picking coordinators.

Homes repaired, hungry fed at Hope for Gaston community festival

Gaston GazetteCorey Friedman Volunteers spent Saturday painting and installing bathroom fixtures in the teacher’s assistant’s North Morris Street house. Hers was one of 30 homes renovated during Hope for Gaston, a neighborhood block party and outreach festival in Gastonia’s West Highland community. “At first, I wouldn’t let anybody in because I was disappointed I didn’t have the funds to fix it up,” Brooks said. “I was ashamed. Hope for Gaston has saved my house.”