Applying the Gifts of Village Building & Acorn Leadership Training

Hi, I'm Deborah Benham, coordinator for the Pathways to Village Building program with the 8 Shields Institute. In this post, I’ll share examples of how I learned to apply these tools in my own life, and the impact they’ve made for myself and my community. My story may perhaps shine light on some areas where this effective map to changemaking could help you or your community as well.

I first encountered 8 Shields by attending an Art of Mentoring event in 2011 in Scotland. I went straight from that on to doing a series of weekend programs with Maeve Gavin, which explored Acorn Leadership and how to design events using the 8 Shields flow. At the time, I was the managing director of a retreat and sustainable living center called the Newbold Trust, where we had the opportunity to start applying Acorn Leadership principles with the team I was working with. This is the setting where much of this story takes place.

​Applying the Gift Principle

At Newbold, we were an already-established residential community living center, with values based around shared leadership. Bringing in the 8 Shields Acorn Leadership principles really helped me to look at who we had in the team, and what their unique gifts and strengths were. 

Instead of pigeonholing team members into the roles that they already officially had, like that of a kitchen manager or a garden manager, I was able to see each person’s gifts, and better match their unique strengths to the needs of the community.

For example, our kitchen manager demonstrated wonderful qualities of connection and the quiet mind; she always needed to know what was happening in the team or in the community, or in the staff and the volunteer group, and she was always the first staff member to learn all about the guests - she just was so intuitive and so creative!

As another example of unique gifts, I noticed that our garden manager was so naturally playful and embodied, with a lot of vitality and (in 8 Shields terms) a “Southeast” kind of energy [editor’s note - the Southeast is one of the 8 Natural Archetypes in the Acorn Team Model, related to motivation and embodiment].

So, it was interesting having this new model of leadership that helped me focus on the gifts of the people in my team. With this new awareness, I could invite each team member to step into roles and opportunities that would naturally support them to fully express their core gifts and qualities, that perhaps they wouldn't have had an opportunity to express otherwise.

Some of those qualities might not have been valued in a standard organization, because they don't necessarily show up in a job description. Yet, when we applied that underlying model and then invited people to bring those qualities into their participation in the team, it really added a lot to how we showed up!

This vibrancy added a new level to what we were doing and to the experience we could offer to the guests. Basing our teamwork on gifts empowered the team to feel more whole while increasing our effectiveness, and we had a lot more fun!

​The Power of Teamwork to Support Events

I learned that applying the Acorn Model was so helpful in other ways, too. We would quite regularly run some quite large public events; we’d have a couple of hundred people coming for a harvest festival or other similar event.

Previously, I would often be the person that had the whole overview of the event. I would do a lot of the design and organizing, and the staffing and food orders and all of that kind of thing. Then on the day of, I'd be running around madly making sure that everything was working; I’d be holding all of these details in my head, and spinning all these plates in the air. That old way of doing things was really exhausting! 

Once I started working with the Acorn Leadership model and also with the 8 Shields Design Flow to plan events, I found that everything goes so much more easily. I learned our team could have more fun and be even more effective in creating a really connective and meaningful event for all the people that would come. 

I particularly remember a day shortly after implementing the Acorn Model, while I was still new to this approach and its effectiveness. One of my team was making bird nesting boxes. He was surrounded by kids who were also involved in the task. It was a really hot day, and he'd been working on this project for hours. When I saw him,  he looked like he was getting really tired - wilting around the edges! I knew he needed a break and that someone needed to cover for him. But I had been trying to get to another task for the last couple of hours, and I really needed to have a break myself.

I thought, “I'm going to have to step in and let him go and have a break, because I'm the one in charge here.”

Then I remembered, actually no, that's not my role! I realized there was someone else holding this new Southwest Role [one of the 8 primary Acorn Team member roles].

We actually now had a team member whose role was dedicated to making sure that people are taking care of themselves! The Southwest’s role involves ensuring folks are getting their breaks, getting food and snacks, and feeling supported to relax when they need to.  This person was specifically allocated to go around and cover people and make sure that was happening. It was so wonderful for me to remember that!

She stepped in and was able to cover for him so he could go for break. There was a tremendous feeling of resilience in the team, knowing there were people available that could cover these different tasks. Event registration, welcoming, and all the other details that make an event run smoothly were all delegated and covered. I finally didn’t have to do it all myself!

As you can see, using the Acorn model both for designing and running those events helped us move to a new level of impact in what we were offering at that venue. So, that's a couple of different ways that the materials that are part of the Rebuilding Nature Connected Communities course have really, really helped me in my professional life. 

​Supporting Personal Transformation

For those first few years that I was learning this material, I had a big map up on my wall that I had drawn of the different Archetypal energies and the Acorn roles.  I would quite often look at that and ask myself, “Where do I feel really comfortable and safe in particular roles? Which are the roles that I never want to be given when I go and do an event, that feel like such an edge?”

In this way, I identified that it was the Southeast Acorn role [another of the eight team Acorn roles] that was really scary for me. It was this idea of being embodied and playful and energetic while exploring the outdoors... this was challenging for me, as I had grown up in the city being quite a studious kid, reading a lot of books and being quite in my head; I was not so sporty or playful in the outdoors. It really was an edge for me to do those kinds of things.

I remember going to 8 Shields events and just hating it when we got into games and playfulness and anything like that! It was really hard for me. So, I just made a personal commitment that I wanted to “round myself out” in that area and in a couple of other areas where I didn't feel so confident or comfortable.

It's so interesting looking back now, eight years later... now, people say to me, “Oh, you're really playful and you have so many games that you can offer. You really seem to enjoy these things!”

This self-reflection and embodiment process has really helped me to become more whole and comfortable as a human being. Having the chance to express these aspects of myself through the Acorn Team process has helped me realize which parts of me were maybe a bit suppressed, or shy. It’s given me a chance to really welcome those parts and express them more fully!

​Testing & Adopting New Design Tools

In 2015, I was fortunate enough to meet 8 Shields co-founder Jon Young at an event in Findhorn. ​I volunteered on the Acorn Team supporting that event. There, I found out about the online Village Builders program, and was invited to take part in that. 

In that program, we began exploring the Village Builders Toolkit. That material got me thinking about how to actually start bringing more 8 Shields principles forward locally to boost the nature connection, cultural mentoring and community building initiatives I was supporting. 

At Newbold we started asking, what are some regenerative design principles and specific cultural elements that could specifically support what we're doing? 

I remember I made the mistake at first of trying to present the whole big Village Building overview to a few folks - they were simply overwhelmed by it! And then I thought, okay, maybe that's not the right approach. 

We started instead just introducing one design element at a time from the 8 Shields methodology, and experimented with how that element could work for us. For example, we brought in some basic practices of gratitude into our meetings and our morning check-ins. 

We started to think about how we might appreciate and value each other more in the team setting. We made an inquiry into the questions of “How do we really honor people for their contributions and celebrate them? How do we bring more celebrations into our life together?”

​How Celebration & Gathering Awakens Community

We came to realize that we could get quite serious as we thought hard about how to do our work in the world. We found that we while we were working hard to best support the guests the local community, we were at times forgetting to celebrate our own successes. We overlooked how much celebration can support and nourish us! 

With that understanding, we started to have more regular celebrations as a team and as a community. We also began to open our gatherings up, which enabled us to build relationships with other local people. We started to have regular spring and summer festivals with the solstices. 

Those celebrations quickly became really popular. We would get 60 people from the local community coming. At first it might be people that already knew us, that had been to workshops or classes with us. Soon, though, these events started to have such a reputation for being really fun and lovely, with great food and great music, that more and more people came who weren’t so connected with us already. 

The seasonal gatherings really started to build bridges for us with the local community. It was interesting because at first, some of those local community members might have been a bit suspicious about us, thinking we were “the weird hippies down this driveway doing odd workshops” or something.

But actually, once they came and experienced these fun, informal seasonal celebrations, they would then start saying, “Oh, I'd really like to book you for a wedding or for a baby welcoming, or for a special memorial event space for someone that has passed on.” We started to be seen as a respected resource much more by the local community,  as a beautiful and nourishing venue for supporting a variety of meaningful life transitions and celebrations in their lives. So that was really cool, and the celebrations and gathering helps us make that bridge with the larger local community.

​Peace-Building & Communication In Village Building

The Village Building tool set also offered our team the skills of peace-building, which proved incredibly helpful for our community work. This helped our organization hone the intentionality behind how we communicated and related within the team. This training helped us develop clear guidelines that we tried to practice and embody in daily life to support how we communicated with each other in a good way. This work took us deeper into what it means to embody compassionate and clean communication. 

We learned how this level of intentional communication involves taking self responsibility, including learning how to track and better understand the difficult feelings that can emerge during life, and having tools to work through these moments. By adopting a clear process together, we were able to resolve tensions or differences that arose much more easily. 

We also started to make other regular conscious spaces for processing difficult emotions, outside of our business meetings. At these times, we would just gather and share with each other what was happening for us. Working in sustainability and living in community can bring a lot up for people! There’s surface area there for a lot of personal development and transformation, and it really supported us to have these processes established. 

In doing all of this, we brought these Village Building tools and concepts in gradually; the ones that people liked and that worked, we kept. If they didn't, we adjusted them or we stopped using them. So I love how tailored and flexible these design principles are. You can pick and choose from a wide range of tools and processes to see which might be useful for the contexts that you are in. 

​Regenerative Design Tools That Help Community to Jumpstart & Thrive

These 8 Shields tools have continued to serve me well. In the last two years, I've moved to a new community on a little permaculture holding, where I'm living with seven adults and two children. We've started to bring in these principles from Rebuilding Nature Connected Communities and from Village Builders to really help us live well together here. 

We're not trying to host guests or anything here. It's a much more small scale, relaxing thing than what I was doing before. We really just want to be able to live together well and enjoy each other's company, and give the children a good environment to grow up in. 

These design tools have helped our little community -- which has only been going for 18 months -- to really thrive. This feels like such a great place to live! We get along really well, and when we have tensions or differences of opinion, we seem to clean it up really quickly. We have a lot of fun together. We have a lot of celebrations and we have important, serious conversations as well.

We're already starting to look at how to work with more people in the local area. We've had some local food producers come around recently who are wanting to develop their projects more; they're asking us how we managed to so successfully lift up our community in the last year, and what they could do to better support their volunteers and the people that come and join in with the activities on their farm, too.

​Going Further & Supporting the Change

This story illustrates some of the reasons why I became the coordinator of Pathways to Village Building. I saw firsthand how helpful the 8 Shields design principles are for supporting connection and engagement for myself and my community. I also came to appreciate​ how flexible these tools, and the ways they can be easily adapted in implementation for supporting each community’s unique needs. The 8 Shields Model provides such a helpful body of connective work that can be applied in so many different ways. I just really want to share these tools with more and more people, because I have experienced the positive impact they support. 

So many people seem to be looking for these kind of supports in their lives. I see a growing desire for a shift away from the often disconnected, overwhelming kind of society experience that many of us live in, towards systems that are more connected, collaborative, and whole. So if that's something that you're doing and you'd like more support with that, then I'd love to see you on this program.

​Learn more about the 8 Shields Year 1 and Year 2 distance trainings,

 Rebuilding Nature Connected Communities & Pathways to Village Building

8 Shields rebuilding nature connected communities distance mentoring 9-month training
Pathways to Village Building

​About Deborah Benham

Since 2017, Deborah has led a UK-based team incorporating a non-profit organization to support the development of 8 Shields activities in northwest Europe. Prior to this, as managing director of a sustainable living center, she introduced village building principles in support of developing a residential community and its educational programs. Part of the strategy team for 8 Shields Institute, Deborah is fascinated by the application of regenerative culture within organizations. She also works for the Transition Network, with a particular focus on social change, regenerative culture, and Transition Trainings. 

Deborah holds a Ph.D. in wildlife conservation, nature education, and the people/nature interface. After 15 years working in this field, she realized that the critical problems facing wildlife habitats are caused by disconnection and systemic problems within modern human societies. Searching for frameworks amplifying deep nature connection and regenerative culture, such as Gaia Education and Transition Network, she has been passionately committed to 8 Shields ever since discovering it. Deborah lives on a co-operative smallholding in East Devon, England, collaborating with the other members to embody and develop village building and nature connection principles in everyday practices.

deborah benham

8 Shields

Our north star is to re-awaken the attributes of deep nature connection in people and in turn help heal the widespread disconnection and loss of culture worldwide.