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Research on Researchers: Sheenagh Interviews David Wetherow

December 31, 2012

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1) David, can you tell us about the Star Raft method of building networks? Where does the idea come from and how does it work?

About 25 years ago, my brother and his wife had a little girl who was born with what a good friend later called ‘interesting differences’.  I flew out to California with a plan to deliver two weeks of advice and ‘training’.  It soon became clear that the new parents were only going to be able to hear only one or two things.  So if I could only say one thing, what would that be?

After giving it some thought, I said, “The thing that will make the single biggest difference in this child’s life and in yours, is the degree to which she is surrounded by a circle of people who know her, love her, aren’t afraid to touch her and be touched by her, and know that they will be part of her life and she will be part of their lives, forever.

“Every decision that you make from here on in needs to be viewed through the lens of whether a particular course of action will her away from that circle or bring it closer to her.  And that can start today.”

This idea infused all of our subsequent work on cooperatives, Microboards, person-centered planning and supports, and having a home of one’s own.  We kept asking, ‘How can we call the circle together, keep it strong, and make sure that the specialized supports that someone might need don’t disconnect them from their circle?’.

We noticed that the circles we called Microboards were benefitting from having a strong ‘shape’ – a clear set of roles and responsibilities that kept people engaged and active.  But for people who didn’t have Microboards, the idea of a circle always seemed to be kind of ‘squishy‘ — the image didn’t offer much information about how to build it, how to keep it going, or what it was supposed to do once it got started.  So we kept looking.

A few years passed, and one summer while sailing on the Lake of the Woods, I was invited to join a circle of boats called a ‘star raft’ anchored in a quiet bay near Sioux Narrows.  I was told that recreational sailors create ‘star rafts’ when they want to anchor in community, in contrast to the usual practice of anchoring out at some distance from other boats.

The sailing star raft is based on a nautical tradition of hospitality and helping each other stay safe on the water.  People share what’s on board (food, drinks, music, stories).  They help new sailors learn the ropes, share knowledge about managing hazards up ahead, meet new friends and plan new adventures together.  I realized that what I was experiencing that day on the Lake could serve as a powerful model for building, sustaining and navigating creative circles of support.

Once we had that model in mind, it was easy to incorporate other ideas and strategies into the same picture:  a step-by-step pattern for making invitations and agreements, identifying and mapping where each member is ‘anchored’ in the larger community, identifying and sharing the gifts that each of us ‘carries on board’, seeing the possibility of engaging and mobilizing other people’s personal networks, and so on.

2) Does the Star Raft method of building networks replace other methods, like the PATH?

The Star Raft is something that is designed to work in tandem with PATH and other person-centered tools like MAPS and Essential Lifestyle Planning.  It can also work in tandem with other efforts that incorporate circle-building as part of their process, such as Microboards, PLAN networks, Citizen Advocacy and Circles of Support and Accountability.

PATH and the Star Raft are closely aligned but they play different roles.  A friend recently said, “PATH is a great tool for planning.  The Star Raft is a great tool for what happens next”.  A Star Raft can start without a PATH, but it works best when there is strong support for ‘setting a good direction’ right from the start.  PATH can be a big help in setting direction and bringing circle members on board and aligning their energies and commitments.

3) Can you tell us about someone with a disability who has been important to you?

Faye and I shared our lives with a beloved adopted daughter who lived with significant mobility, communication and health challenges until her passing in 2004.  Amber’s spirit still inspires our work and our lives.  You can find some of her words on our website at

Certainly there have been others … Scott moved from the same institution where Amber had lived, and his ideas and his journey taught many of the lessons that we later built into the Star Raft.  Catherine gave shape, substance and heart to l’Avenir and Prairie Housing cooperatives.  Clarence inspired the very first Microboard (it’s still working 27 years later).  Each brought home the meaning and the power of committed friendship.

5) You have been involved in helping people with disabilities to live fulfilling lives for a long time now. What do you think are the most important things for us to be working toward today?

That’s a great question, Sheenagh, and if I’m certain about anything, it’s that we need a ‘mosaic’ of answers.  The good news is that the answers that we most need are coming directly, from self-advocates, families, community partners and professional allies who are listening carefully and walking faithfully with each other.

My little piece of the mosaic is this:  I’m convinced that this idea of building an on-purpose circle and consistently following the ‘threads’ of someone’s gifts and interests in the direction of companionship, connection and contribution belongs be at the heart of family life, self-advocacy, and direct service work.  I know that it’s entirely possible to do this.

6) Do you think it is important for people with disabilities to be involved in research that relates to them?

Without question, both in framing the research and the questions, bringing unique perspectives to the search, conducting inquiries, seeing patterns in the answers, and converting the knowledge into day-to-day practice.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. December 31, 2012 4:55 pm

    An awesome post. I love the work of David Wetherow and this image of star rafts.

  2. January 1, 2013 10:20 am

    Dave Wetherow taught us the way in IL 5 years ago. Keep up the good work Dave. We ate forever grateful!! Happy New Year.

  3. January 1, 2013 1:06 pm

    5 years ago, Dave brought this concept to IL. Thank you!!

  4. Jerry Laidlaw permalink
    January 3, 2013 11:12 am

    I would like to help with the research if you need help it sounds great concept

    • January 3, 2013 11:20 am

      I think there will be lots of opportunities coming up Jerry and it’s so great to have you and Laura involved. You contribute so much. I’ve been looking at lots of research from England and Australia that involves people with disabilities as co-researchers. It’s really exciting! I think this is my favourite example:

      • Jerry Laidlaw permalink
        January 3, 2013 11:35 am

        Thanks Aaron iam excided to

      • Jerry Laidlaw permalink
        January 3, 2013 3:46 pm

        I jest finesed reading the reserch project hope you or someone starts a group like this here. thank you for sending it



      • January 5, 2013 7:24 pm

        cool 🙂 it’s really exciting isn’t it?

        i think we’re spending some time together in mid-January and we can talk more.

      • Jerry permalink
        January 5, 2013 8:24 pm

        yes great I am excited about this

  5. January 4, 2013 11:46 am

    Thanks Aaron for sharing this. It helps us in Cincinnati give something else to point, too that this is happening elsewhere, and it’s a good, wise investment of people that can tip the scale. we use this local research a lot to show to families about the importance of building ordinary citizens into one’s life:

    • January 5, 2013 7:21 pm

      really great article, Candice – thanks for sharing it. i look forward to sharing it with other people as is exactly the kind of thing we like to point out as well 🙂


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