I first met Hanmin Liu in 2006 when he was selected as a Purpose Prize Fellow in the inaugural year of the program. Hanmin was then a 61-year old former dentist, who, with his partner Jennifer Mei, had founded a San Francisco-based organization – Wildflowers Institute – to take on one of the greatest challenges of our society: How can we cultivate a culture of community that is socially and financially sustainable in the face of constant and disruptive change, where the locations we live in are determined by work or affordability rather than by shared values or culture; where public spaces are unsafe or disappearing; and where local businesses are closing because they are unable to compete globally.
As a trustee of the Kellogg Foundation, Hanmin has seen one well-intentioned, business-savvy, nonprofit after another come into a community with their “solution” to any of a myriad of problems – gangs, drugs, health crises, entrenched poverty. Progress would occur, but then foundation funding would dry up, and efforts would stall. Often the nonprofits would leave, with little to show for their efforts or the millions of dollars foundations has poured into the community. Hanmin came to realize that change must be initiated and led from within the community, Unfortunately, it is often the case that funders don’t actually know what innovations and social adaptations have already been realized and are unable to recognize the community resources involved in making good things happen. They don’t see the real movers in the community because their mental model of what leadership looks like doesn’t discern such individuals.
Through close observation and extraordinary humility, Hanmin, Jennifer and the Wildflowers fellows were able to identify the existing – but, to an untrained eye, invisible – informal leaders who leverage social and cultural assets in order to empower their communities to be resilient, creative and thriving in the face of adverse winds of change.
Read “In Search of the Informal Capital of Community” for an in-depth understanding of Wildflowers’ approach.
Read “Sustaining Change in a Market Economy: Community, Creativity, and Transformation,” Hanmin Liu’s 2018 paper to help foundations and local governments discover and leverage how communities work and sustain themselves.
I’ve stayed in touch with Hanmin and Jennifer since meeting them 12 years ago, always looking for a way to connect the work of Encore with their powerful vision of a different way of seeing elders in communities as agents of change. Two years ago, I was privileged to attend Wildflowers’ first Hidden Gems Award, an event celebrating a two-year effort to unearth a community of “hidden” local artists, using creativity to bring healing to one of San Francisco’s most diverse and embattled communities, the Tenderloin.
Watch “Discovering the Creative Spirit and Healing of the Tenderloin,” a video highlighting the 2015 Hidden Gems Awards Ceremony.
In 2017, when Encore and researchers from the Stanford Graduate School of Education were beginning our Pathways to Encore Purpose project, I introduced Anne Colby to Hanmin, who generously connected us to informal elder leaders from three Bay Area communities. Anne’s article, “The Power and Purpose of Informal Community Leaders,” tells their stories, illustrates how each of them exemplifies purpose beyond the self, reveals the joy they gain from this work for the common good, and shows how the commitments of individuals can help create shared, collective purposes in their communities.