Blue Sky Center’s “Shelton Huts” in New Cuyama, California

They’re hard to ignore when you pull up to the property. They’re not quite tents, not quite wagons. Later, I hear them referred to as “huts.” They come in five iconic styles: Gable, Gypsy, Quonset, Pope’s Hat, and, my favorite, Snail.

These unique accommodations are just one of the many projects housed at Blue Sky Center, encompassing 330 acres in New Cuyama, a town of 1,100 in the high desert of Santa Barbara County.

Founded in 2015, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit exists to help create “prosperity through equitable relationships,” which I suppose can be summarized as something like: “everyone helps each other get what they need to thrive.”

New Cuyama is a small, quiet town. The townsite was originally formed in 1950 as a vibrant company town by ARCO, but it has suffered economically since the oil company’s departure in 1978. Now that oil-and-gas is no longer big business, the principal industry is agriculture. The local population is mainly a mix of longtime farmers, plus newer migrant workers and their families. The K-12 school district has an average enrollment of 330 students. There’s one bar in town, the Cuyama Buckhorn, which will stay open late if you guarantee to bring visitors for a nightcap. A little bottle of Advil costs $16 at the general store.

The site of Blue Sky Center

As a newly formed node in the network, Blue Sky Center has an ambitious two-fold mandate: 1) work with community stakeholders to regenerate the land and economy locally, and 2) share their best practices to a wider audience to inspire sustainable and equitable rural community development at scale.

It was this commitment to creating impact at scale that attracted enso to Blue Sky’s mission.

Last weekend, we were honored to be invited by Blue Sky Center’s Executive Director Philip Jankoski and Director of Development Emily Johnson to the center’s inaugural Rural Summit. The two-day event convened 75+ Cuyama Valley residents, artists, entrepreneurs and outside experts and thought leaders, with the hopes of getting one step closer to building a more prosperous future for New Cuyama, together.

At enso, we believe that the key to social impact is building shared missions that align diverse stakeholders to work together, so accepting an invitation to the Rural Summit was a no-brainer.

Cultural and educational programming at the Rural Summit

Our weekend involved cultural programming, such as guided tours, screen-printing, storytelling and live music, as well as educational programming, including panel discussions and interactive workshops. (Browse the full agenda.)

I joined my enso colleagues Sean McNamara and Alice Pang to facilitate three breakout sessions with summit guests to spur dialogue and practice collaborative processes around three issues:

  1. Food Systems, Agriculture & Climate
  2. Rural Tourism & Hospitality
  3. Creative Placemaking through Art + Design

I facilitated the creative placemaking workshop. As relative newcomers to the area, our group of a dozen participants spent a lot of time agreeing on a working definition of “creative placemaking.” The popular buzzword describes the process of integrating art, design and storytelling into policy and planning decisions that shape the culture and character of a place. One of the summit participants described it as the role of art and design in defining “what a place is, not what it isn’t.” After hearing local high school students talk about how New Cuyama “isn’t as dangerous as Santa Maria” or “isn’t loud like my home before,” that definition became especially poignant.

In the rest of our 2.5-hour session, we worked through a series of exercises, adapting common design thinking strategies mainstreamed by leaders like IDEO and the Stanford d.school, to demonstrate the critical questions that problem-solvers have to answer when designing creative solutions for systemic change:

  1. Define the problem — what can be solved in 5 years, for example?
  2. What does success look like — what would the newspaper headline be?
  3. What’s our mission? Or rallying cry? How might you put it on a bumper sticker?
  4. What are your core values or the guiding principles that will help you achieve your mission?
  5. Who’s in your tribe? Who are the leaders and influencers of your mission? What’s on their mind? What do they need? What can they offer?
Blue Sky Center’s Executive Director Philip Jankoski welcoming guests at dinner

Exploring these investigative questions ideally lead to empathy-driven ideas for activating a coalition of stakeholders around a shared mission. Without asking the tough questions first, ideas for community development projects can quickly become irrelevant, at best, or damaging, at worst.

One of the biggest roadblocks for my small group came early in our discussion, during the formulation of the problem statement. After struggling to articulate New Cuyama’s “problem,” since many of us were unfamiliar with the local history and culture, we turned the mirror on ourselves. Maybe the problem was us.

enso facilitating breakout sessions

On a big sheet of paper we wrote in conclusion: “Outsiders are trying to ‘fix’ this place,” understanding that many people working in community development often bear the burden of false assumptions.

We knew a group of strangers wasn’t going to come up with a comprehensive plan for revitalizing New Cuyama by the end of a 2.5-hour workshop. But it was the first step in a longer-term inquiry, which Blue Sky is committed to leading over time, with the support of their funders and partners. They’re currently hiring for full-time positions through the AmeriCorps VISTA program and making investments in other programs and buildings.

Spending a weekend outside of the city reminded me of the splendor of nature and the nourishment of community — and the hard work it takes to sustain the two.

I hope to go back to Blue Sky Center someday. Maybe next time, I’ll book a night at the Snail.

A unique approach to art and design

enso is a mission-driven creative company. We build mission-driven brands and shared missions. Find us at enso.co and medium.com/enso