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avatar for Peter Forbes

Peter Forbes

Center for Whole Communities
My life work is focused on understanding, supporting, and facilitating healthy communities through civic dialogue, leadership development, and access to land, nature and place.  For twenty years, I've been creating curricula and leading learning experiences designed to help people transform their lives to better fit their values and to build professional relationships across divides of class, race, profession and ideology.

I am both firmly rooted in one place, and also in service to communities and people across the country.  The people with whom I work to build trust and authentic dialogue are from red and blue states.  I listen and then facilitate conversations between and across differences that enable opportunities to be realized and challenges to be met.  I draw upon past and current professional experience as a political consultant, facilitator, emergency medical technician, artist, author, father, farmer, to see situations and people more fully and to help others do their best work together.  I have repeatedly put myself into challenging situations where my sense of humanity, history, clear values, and ethical leadership have helped to guide and to transform. I'm often asked to help understand and convey the story of what happened.  By drawing upon an unusual variety of practical experience, my efforts at making allies and facilitating civic dialogue has been helpful to leadership development, authentic community engagement, sustainability, conservation, philanthropy and social ventures.

As a young regional director (1987-2005) at Trust for Public Land, I was among the first to begin vigorously connecting the health of our human communities to the health of nature. I eventually became the New England regional director, then a vice-president, then their first fellow, given the time and space to align mission and action, and the finally the inaugural recipient of their Land and People Award, all based upon my work in over 100 conservation projects that helped communities connect to place.  When conservation was primarily about biological diversity and scenery, I created a body of work that broke that mold and re-connected people to place through urban gardens, working waterfronts, farmland protection, historic preservation and early childhood education. Over 15 years, I've wrote  4 books and many essays and opinions pieces that have helped to define “community conservation” as a new practice that brings the fields of conservation and social justice together.

In this pursuit for new, more durable ways to foster healthy places, I co-founded in 2001 the Center for Whole Communities to offer innovative training in leadership development that specifically brought together the worlds of social justice, human wellbeing, and conservation in week-long, skill-building, learning journeys.  By creating a compelling vision for change, my colleagues and I were able to build from scratch a very strong organization with a nationally respected board and faculty and to raise almost a decade’s worth of tuition-free programming for more than 1,500 citizen leaders from 48 states. We created an innovative curriculum based on systems-thinking, setting a table for all, and working across disciplines that gave citizen leaders a direct experience of a healthy, whole community.  We created something that hadn’t existed before, and we succeeded in modeling change not just teaching it. Those alumni are continuing in vital ways to rebuild urban areas, reconcile conflict around Native lands, help communities better measure success, and integrate human wellbeing and health of place.

Recognizing the challenge facing most social profit organizations to measure what matters most to them, I led a team in of 120 collaborators from different fields with funding from Surdna and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation to create Whole Measures. This published tool, and the training that we designed with it, has enabled different disciplines working toward healthy communities to have shared measures of success.

My instinct is to create dialogue and relationship where there is little or none, and much of my strength as a consultant and team member arises from being a courageous convener.  In the 1990s, I was among the first to create dialogue between the rural, lower-income, blue collar logging community and the urban, white collar wilderness advocacy community.  In 2005, I was hired by the Kellogg Foundation to help envision a more just food system through dialogue between farm and restaurant workers, labor rights activists, policy experts and food security advocates. In 2009, I conceived of and launched a new program, 2042 Today, that calls upon the conservation community to recognize the emerging population of color in our country and create space for young conservationists, both whites and peoples of color, to reimagine conservation and how best to be in relationship in order to realize that shared destiny.  In 2010, I was brought to Flint, Michigan by the Ruth Mott Foundation to develop a unique program using story and personal narrative to help former General Motors assembly line workers to imagine a new community.

As farmer, I have particular strength and credibility with people working on land issues ranging from food systems to conservation to climate change to water.   My work is transformative when applied to situations where the most connected and the most affected need to work together or when groups who are separated by influence and access can work to become allies.  

As a consultant and facilitator, I take on specific assignments, I lead communities and organizations and coalitions through conversations that matter, and I co-create and lead learning journeys.

In every project, I draw upon my experience as an artist.  My photography and essays have appeared in seven books on themes about people, place, the power of story, and the opportunities for change.  I’ve also shared my voice through two decades worth of keynote addresses across the country.   A Man Apart, my most recent book, written in collaboration with my wife Helen Whybrow, is a family memoir about creativity, friendship and mentorship published in 2015.   Since 2001, my family and I have operated Knoll Farm, a working berry and sheep breed stock farm, community gathering place, and learning center in the Mad River Valley of Vermont.

Our work began on a hillside in Vermont in 2003, stewarded by the vision and hard work of founders Peter Forbes and Helen Whybrow. The manifestation of the retreat center and Whole Thinking program was made possible with the help of many people, specifically CWC’s founding board: Gil Livingston, John Elder, Danyelle O’Hara, Torri Estrada, Diana Wright and Scott Chaskey.

Based at Knoll Farm for over a decade, we hosted hundreds of people in our Whole Thinking retreats and workshops. Over time, we saw a need to evolve our mission and scope to serve people in diverse communities where they live, and to move beyond our bucolic space. We set out to explore doing our work in other parts of the country and began a conscious leadership transition that would allow the work to evolve with integrity to serve a more diverse constituency. Our 2006 statement on Land, Race, Power, and Privilege documents our aspirations to be a diverse, multicultural organization that served people across sectors, differences, and geographies.

In 2010 we developed our Breakthrough Vision which set in motion a transition of leadership and methodology to further diversify our organization and to better serve change-makers in working in urban, suburban and rural communities across the country.

Fueled by our new vision, Center for Whole Communities rapidly expanded our work from the hillside in Vermont to leading retreats and workshops in Washington D.C., New Mexico, Ontario, Colorado, Maine, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, California, Michigan, British Columbia and New Jersey, New Hampshire, Maryland, and New York City.  We have successfully evolved our work to engage more collaboratively with organizations and communities in the places where they live and work.

In the winter of 2015 we moved to our current office in Burlington, Vermont in the ecotone of the Burlington city-scape and the waters of Lake Champlain.

My Plenary Presenters Sessions

Monday, April 16

8:00am EDT