Winter 1993 // Volume 31 // Number 4 // Feature Articles // 4FEA1

Previous Article Issue Contents Previous Article

Community Free Spaces


Betty S. King
Extension Agent for Home Economics
Cooperative Extension Service
University of Kentucky-Somerset
Internet address:

Ronald J. Hustedde
Assistant Extension Professor
Sociology Department, University of Kentucky-Lexington.

Extension leadership development and other public policy education programs are often designed to nourish the capacity of citizens to solve local problems. The critical factor for these "schools of democracy" is the concept of "free spaces."1 A free space occurs in a setting in which people can meet for public talk and actively contribute to solving public problems. It's characterized by several major components: a sense of shared bonds, a comfortable physical, social, and cultural setting, a social network, engaging debate and dialogue, a participatory environment, and a potential for forming larger public networks and vision. If a free space exists, citizens can learn group identity, self-respect, public skills, and the value of cooperation.2

This article further clarifies the concept of free space and why it's necessary to integrate it into Extension leadership and public policy programs. Two case studies show how free spaces can be embellished or created. The last section offers insights about how the lessons learned from the case studies can be applied to Extension education.

Free Space Settings

Extension educators may have to draw on a variety of free spaces. For example, the black community has historically looked on the church as their free space. These churches founded the civil rights movement and played a crucial role in developing a sense of aspiration and public skills for its members and the larger black community.3 During the early 20th century, women gathered in homes because that was one of the few female free spaces where they could create civic action and a vision.4 These physical free spaces often used interactive learning techniques and room arrangements to facilitate group bonding, debate, and empowerment.

Today's challenge for Extension professionals is to consider where and how free spaces are constructed and how to encourage dialogue and action among citizens. Free space involves more than just finding a suitable meeting place. It doesn't mean one collective free space where everyone in a community will feel completely comfortable. Free space is a strategy respecting the needs of diverse and disenfranchised citizens. We need to rethink our approaches to learning and consider a variety of free spaces. In some instances, our role may be to embellish existing free spaces because there may be some dysfunctional parts that merit Extension help. In other cases, no free space exists and Extension educators have to help create one. We offer two examples to illustrate our point.

Example 1: Nurturing Public Talk at Ray's Grocery

A team of Extension agents discovered an existing free space in a country store. Country stores influence the economic, social, and political life of many Southern communities.5 Citizens gather regularly at Ray's Grocery to discuss issues. However, the team realized the free space at Ray's Grocery has limited potential. Normally, discussion at Ray's skips back and forth from national and state issues to local gossip to community issues with no real focus. Discussion is based on limited sources of information because residents are unaware or don't have access to other resources. Participation is influenced by gender and generational differences. Residents either don't see the need or know how to form larger social networks outside their free space. They lack the public skills or self-confidence to take action to solve their community problems.

A community-based needs assessment at Ray's Grocery6 brought out the most constructive aspects of free space and minimized some of the dysfunctional aspects. Ray's was chosen because people already gathered freely there, communicated openly, and it was a comfortable meeting place. Discussion took place daily among patrons gathered near the back of the store, seated on comfortable, movable, make-shift seating. Local community mementoes, such as softball trophies, decorated the store, creating a warm, friendly atmosphere. The owner's credibility generated a feeling of trust among the patrons.

We were sensitive not to disturb the free space at Ray's when we arrived to do the needs assessment. The agents entered the store separately so as to not overwhelm the store's patrons. We wore casual clothing and visited one-on-one with the patrons to blend in socially. At the right time, one agent returned to the car for a portable slide projector.

Slides were used to create a psychological free space, focus discussion, and provide a cue to help them talk thoughtfully. Slides depicting common everyday living across all socioeconomic levels were shown. Common scenes in the slides were of the store, the owner, his patrons, local residents, homes, farm scenes, churches, the school, activities, and businesses. Some slides represented the symbols of collective strength and pride in the community, while others focused on problematical scenes. The slide presentation was used to create community awareness and encourage local involvement in addressing their concerns. Freire calls this method conscientization or awareness raising.7 Through group discussion, this method helps people realize their own self -worth, potential group strength, and gain confidence to take action to change their situations.

One male and two female agents conducted the gathering as a team to encourage diversity. We knew the patrons comprising the group and the content of the discussion would be influenced by the gender of the agents. As a result of the team approach, both men and women, young and old participated. Our basic plan was to listen and facilitate discussion by asking open-ended questions. One agent took notes. We encouraged the patrons to comment on what they saw in the slides, how things had changed over the last decade, and the effect of the changes on the community. Several community issues and needs were identified. They included: mandatory garbage pickup, need for clean drinking water, unavailability of jobs, changes in work and family dynamics, and outmigration of young residents. After about two hours, the discussion wound down and the patrons invited us to return.

Hopefully, the next visit to Ray's will focus on getting the residents to act on the community needs assessment. This could be done by showing slides of their key concerns and asking problem- posing questions to help residents address those needs-for example, moving beyond identifying the need for public water to exploring ways to extend public water to their community. How agents work with residents to link their awareness of concerns to action is important. Extension agents become co-learners and facilitators rather than just offering solutions to the residents' problems. Skills in asking problem-posing questions, collaboration, consensus-making, and listening become important. The Freire approach focuses on asking problem-posing questions to help residents look beyond their personal needs to the value of working together.8 With Extension's help, Ray's could become a school for democracy as the residents seek information, build networks, and organize activities in addressing their community problems.

The actual impacts from work at Ray's aren't obvious. The focus of the visit was to develop awareness of environmental education in the school and community which is a result in itself. At this point, we can say it could lead to new leadership and physical changes. It will be years before measurable results in the traditional sense can be obtained. The most significant result has been in challenging the Extension staff to re-evaluate how citizens meet and learn.

Example 2: Creating Free Space- From Parlors to Potluck

In other cases, no free space exists and needs to be created. Even citizens who have been involved in public life may still view the courthouse, Extension offices, or other public settings as foreign or alienating. In such cases, homes, churches, and potluck meals can become free spaces. Social networks, hospitality, and a familiar environment are crucial to the formation of free spaces. Homes are good places to begin especially for citizens who may lack group identity, self- confidence, and public skills for active citizenship. Homes are comfortable, friendly, nonthreatening settings that can bridge private and public life. For instance, living room meetings provided a safe setting in the women's temperance movement.9 Citizens can draw on their experiences for strength and ideas to develop common interests. They can also learn from each other the skills for transforming the living room into a more active civic space.

A trained Extension volunteer leader didn't find an existing free space in her community, so she turned her neighbor's living room into an active civic space.10 She organized the gathering by contacting a few neighbors by word-of-mouth. Nine community residents gathered for coffee and conversation with their magistrate for their first gathering. The home setting and the public skills of the volunteer leader helped allay the magistrate's and people's fears of talking with each other. Months later, 40 residents and the magistrate assembled again for a potluck dinner and discussion in their community fire station.

If the local volunteer had tried to hold a town meeting in the courthouse, the results would probably have been quite different. Many residents might have been reluctant to attend. The physical setting would have been unfamiliar and more formal due to rigid, theater-style seating and artificial hospitality arrangements. Meeting in a more natural community setting reduced tensions and gave both the magistrate and residents a greater sense of ownership of the problems and solutions. Local organizers play a key role in organizing, recruiting participants, lending credibility, and leading discussion.11

Potlucks become critical for creating schools for democracy because traditions help build trust. Traditions and rituals can provide stability and continuity and can promote a sense of solidarity and cohesion.12 It's important, however, not to overemphasize the past or allow traditions to serve purely social or personal functions. The potluck with the meeting transformed the space, making it safe for public talk. It helped residents relate to each other on a personal level and provided a means to celebrate their accomplishments. Holding the potluck at the fire station symbolized the prior collective efforts taken to establish their volunteer fire department. In the end, these newly created free spaces helped residents resolve some community problems and develop a sense of group identity, self-respect, public skills, and the value of cooperation.

Learning from Free Spaces

In this article, we focused on applying the concept of free spaces to Extension field work. Some critics might claim free space isn't a new mechanism. Extension Homemaker Club meetings in homes have been built on social functions and education, but these aren't schools of democracy. Politicians frequent potlucks, but typically to gain votes, not nurture problem solving. We argue free space is more than physical space. It's giving structure, developing trust, and nurturing human capabilities. Extension staff can offer a neutral, unbiased presence and the skills to embellish free spaces.

We learned from these two examples ways to facilitate the capabilities of citizens. First, citizens who haven't participated fully in public life need settings with a climate that provides opportunities for self-definition or affirmation. Traditions, rituals, hospitality, food, music, and ties of work, gender, and other bonds can either sustain or fragment a community. A comfortable, nonthreatening physical space sets the stage for dialogue and cooperation. These structures provide support, resources, and experiences that encourage civic action and inspirations for change. Second, Extension educational strategies need to foster cooperation, critical thinking, and action rather than strictly deliver knowledge. These are interactive, experiential, creative, problem-solving strategies.

Are we trying to create schools of democracy or dependency on Extension? Extension professionals can nourish local problem solvers and create schools of democracy rather than rely on old methods. Free spaces can provide a map to help us. We need to build on existing free spaces and nourish them further. In other cases, we'll have to create free spaces. It's doubtful that one collective "free space" exists in a county or city. Most likely, Extension professionals will have to work in a variety of free spaces to create schools for participatory problem solving.


1. S. Evans and H. Boyte, Free Spaces (New York: Harper and Row, 1986), p. 17.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid., p. 58.

4. Ibid., p. 91.

5. Edgar T. Thompson, "Country Store," in Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris, eds. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), pp. 15-18.

6. B. King, J. Brown, and K. Turner, "Milk, Bread and Salon at Ray's Grocery," Across the Ridge, II (No. 4, 1991), 16-17.

7. P. Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Continuum, 1970).

8. Ibid.

9. Evans and Boyte, Free Spaces, p. 91.

10. J. Nelson, "Public Talk," Pulaski Week (January 30-February 5, 1992), p., 1.

11. L. Oliver, Study Circles (Washington, D.C.: Seven Locks Press, 1987), p. 18.

12. G. Wise, "Family Routines, Rituals, and Traditions: Grist for the Family Mill and Buffers Against Stress," in Family Strengths VII: Vital Connections, S. Van Zandt and others, eds. (Lincoln, Nebraska: Center for Family Strengths, 1986), p. 245.