“Heartspace” is the name for the invisible blanket of lasting connections within each of us individually and around all of us collectively, always in all ways. Heartspace is to engagement what oxygen is to breathing: Without ever knowing anything about it, we all benefit from it all the time. If we learn to use it consciously, we can benefit from it more directly in tangible ways. If we never know what it is called or use it on purpose, we still benefit from it.
My understanding of Heartspace grew from a lifelong awareness of connections, and a long career in teaching people how to connect to the world around them. I grew up in transition, with my family moving from one place to another frequently until I was in my pre-teens. For the second decade of my life, my white Canadian-American family lived in an African American neighborhood in the Midwest.
Times weren’t easy, but they weren’t impossible, either. A Canadian kid with corduroy pants and cowboy boots is bound to clash in schools crammed with kids wearing parachute pants and Air Jordan hightop shoes. My parents took me along as they volunteered throughout the neighborhood, and my dad led me toward becoming an Eagle Scout. I felt alienated and accepted in equal measure, learning about African American culture while discovering how racism seemed to travel in two directions.
All of this unconventional upbringing helped me establish early the necessity and power of relationships. My childhood on the move taught me the depth of family connections, while the neighborhood of my teens relied on meaningful relationships to keep kids safe, to care for elders, and to stop the violence that haunted it. My parents regularly taught my siblings and me about the breadth of the universe and all the ways it supports life, and I learned to seek out expressions of that support when I was young. Getting through school, staying safe in my neighborhood, having good friends to grow with, and jobs came to me as I learned to live my mom’s mantra, “The universe provides.”
Beginning my career as a teenager, I got my first job teaching when I was only 14. Starting with a theatre program for low-income students in public housing projects, I navigated 10 more years of direct service with young people. I taught nature, adult living skills, and English for refugees. Working high adventure programs and community building organizations, I helped build self-esteem and teamwork, reaching all kinds of young people along the way. By my late teens, I felt truly stateless, a man whose identity was constantly shifting according to where I stood. I started moving again. When I was 19, I decided to call God to task by packing everything I owned and driving to New Orleans, a city I’d never been to. Relying on a few hundred dollars and a recommendation letter from a minister, I lived homeless in the city after my car broke down halfway there. I found little sympathy from ministers, church workers, and social service staff who were massively stressed by the violence and crime around them. Three weeks after arriving I went home penniless and without possessions, beaten up by fists and confused by apparent failure.
Returning to Midwestern youth work and determined do what I wanted with my life, I took all kinds of jobs working with communities few wanted to. By my mid-20s, I began my career as a writer, speaker, and trainer. I started consulting with community groups, local/state/federal governments, and schools across the United States and Canada, teaching how to meaningfully involve communities. After completing a bachelor’s degree in popular education, my graduate work focused on educational leadership. Independently, I researched 50 years of studies and literature focused on meaningful involvement. My content analysis led me to see a recurring series of patterns affecting the ways young people and adults are engaged throughout our communities. Since 2001, I have worked with more than 10,000 children, youth, and adults annually to teach these patterns and improve community engagement. The sectors that embraced my early work, including nonprofits and schools, craved successful ways to engage the people they served. It was validating to have them turn to me, although frustrating to uncover the inability of these systems to do the work required.
Living in New York City briefly in 2007-08, I discovered many adults want to learn how to make meaningful connections in their lives, too. Returning to the Pacific Northwest, I began deliberately reaching into the world within me for support. As a single dad, I found myself surrounded by a beautiful blanket that warmed me as I sought to be the best dad I could to my daughter. I wanted to name this blanket and teach others about it. Using the frameworks I’d developed through my early research, I taught others how to connect within themselves and the communities around them. I discovered many adults and young people are yearning for deep and intentional involvement in institutions throughout their lives, and my frameworks were useful for teaching them. Coming to understand how personal engagement is essential for effective community engagement, I discovered how we can massively change the world through knowledge of self and meaningful engagement. While all people are engaged in some form throughout their lives, few name their engagement, let alone determine why they are engaged or how it affects them. This book explores that, beginning with the following definitions.
If you have lived the concept of Heartspace all your life, your intuition has guided you. Just like some people understand the world through scientific method, others through music and math, and others through nature or writing, there are those of us who understand the world through Heartspace. In the same way that science, music, math, nature, and writing are undeniable realities, so is Heartspace. For others, instinct has led us towards consciously engaging with ourselves and others. We have rich insight about lasting connections and the wealth they create in us, and we want more of that gold. We live by instinct, too. If you haven’t had either the experience of intuition or instinct, don’t worry—Heartspace is still here for you, too.