Community Builder’s Manifesto
I don’t know why I am surprised that my work centers more and more each year on my major in college — Community Economic Development, with a focus on Non-Formal Adult Education.
Rather than reject the wide-eyed aspirations of my youth, I am running more firmly toward them, convinced that many answers to our questions lie in the way we choose to belong to each other.
Building community is the strongest thread in my own body of work.
Now that “Building Community” and “Ecosystems” have become buzzwords that we throw around with quite different definitions, I feel compelled to define them for myself and for the next stage of my body of work that is centered around helping us connect to each other for our economic, emotional, spiritual and physical well-being.
I often see “building community” defined as synonymous with “acquiring fans, prospects and clients,” which, while essential in business building, is quite different in practice than what I believe community means. I asked friends on Facebook what they thought it meant, and an interesting discussion ensued (feel free to add your take).
Ironically, in my tiny Northern California college in 1984, we had hours-long meetings for weeks on end, struggling to define what community meant, how it should operate and how we should behave.
After about week five, I started getting bored.
Because to me, building community is not a rigid set of rules that governs how we operate, but rather a collective interpretive dance that some days is glorious and inspiring and other days is about as bizarre as this video.
Community Builder’s Manifesto
Many of us spend time in our neighborhoods, businesses, social and spiritual spaces working to bring awesome people together.
Who doesn’t want a bustling, downtown, a packed event, or a thriving online forum?
We call this work “community building.”
But what does community building actually mean? How does it behave? How is it structured?
Based especially on my work the last two years building the Main Street Learning Lab at K’é and three decades of gathering people in business, in the arts and online, this is how I choose to define community building.
Community is the earth, water, air, and sunshine for our sense of belonging and purpose. It is the ecosystem — the set of people, places, structures, organizations, resources and behaviors– that allow us to feel like we are seen, heard, understood and valued, and where we find the tools to reach our goals.
Our best work takes place in a community that we understand and that understands us. That is why it is natural and prudent to build your business or career with people who “get you.”
At different times in our life, we need different types of community. That is why we can spend time in a place, or organization or group of friends feeling like we totally belong until, one day, we don’t.
As we change, our need for communities change, which is why many are fluid, appearing and disappearing after they have lived out their purpose.
You never build community by riding into town on a horse with a bullhorn.
You discover community by sitting quietly on a bench in the shade in a town square (literal or metaphorical), observing the way people interact with each other, and listening intently to the person who sits down next to you.
If you perceive there is no community, you are usually wrong. Our fundamental yearning is to connect with each other, so sometimes these meeting places and relationships are hidden, tucked away in corners.
Magic community building questions are:
“Who is here? Who is not here? Why aren’t they here?”
If you really dig into these questions in your own neighborhoods, online spaces, places of worship, organizations and community events, you will uncover a wealth of useful data.
And don’t stop at your first answer to “Why aren’t they here?” Keep asking. Challenge your thinking. Engage with people who are not in your community and ask them that question.
“Well I asked once, but they didn’t come so I guess they are not interested” is not a valid response.
Support first, then build
A common inclination is to think the answer to building community is to create new events or forums. We assume that people haven’t been gathering because the existing events are inadequate.
That may be true. It may also not be true.
Before building anything new, go to existing event organizers and ask “what do you need to strengthen what you are doing?”
Sometimes it is marketing help. Or resources. Or space. Or new ideas. Or encouragement.
If your first answer is always to build something new, you may be inadvertently draining huge emotional, financial and physical labor from people in the community who have been working to build their own events for years, or even decades.
To build new relationships, demonstrate your commitment to the community by first supporting what is already there. Then you can decide together what else might be needed to fill the gaps.
We connect around shared purpose, but bond over witnessing the truth of our lived experience
Community doesn’t replace sociology and history.
Many strive to create magical spaces where we are only connected by the things that we have in common, which can be many.
But it is not inclusive, or loving, to deny the history of our own experiences. It is not inclusive or loving to refuse to acknowledge that we are treated very differently as we walk or wheel down the sidewalk on the way to shared spaces, based on how we appear, who we love or where we worship (if at all). Denying these differences shears our connection, it does not enhance it.
Learning about each other’s lived experience can give us new ways to think about when, where, how and why we meet.
Our health, safety and well-being is related to our understanding of and care for our differences.
We speak truth and honor boundaries
I do not like conflict. And I have learned to embrace it, since it is impossible to do anything meaningful without making mistakes, running into differing opinions or pissing someone off.
It is important that we speak clearly, openly and honestly to each other when we don’t agree on something.
It is important that we listen with an open heart, and curiousity.
It is important to be flexible in thinking and open to change, or as my friend Bob Sutton likes to phrase it “Strong opinions, weakly held.”
It is important that we say no when we need to.
It is important that we respect hearing no when we want to hear yes.
It is impossible to build healthy community structures with unhealthy behaviors and lack of boundaries.
Resentment festers. Unsaid words turn into unfortunate outbursts. Unheld boundaries turn into depleted bodies, tired minds and weary spirits.
We don’t all have to be friends. Or like the same things.
My best friend of 34 years has never seen a Star Wars movie. She is lukewarm on John Legend. She doesn’t feel the need to take pictures of her newly painted toes. I am passionate about every one of these things.
We have a lot of friends in common, and we also have friends who will probably never connect.
What we share is connection to purpose, and to the health, safety, well-being and joy of each other.
We can be in community and not be good friends.
We can be good friends, and not share every community.
Enduring community is built around a mission, not a person
By definition, community and ecosystems are made up of many different people, parts and systems.
When you are interested in building community, you may take on the roles of convener, encourager or spokesperson.
But if you start to notice that without you convening, encouraging or speaking that nothing happens, you are building an empire, not a community.
Define together what you are working on. What are your goals? What is the vision? Who is it for? How will you know if you have reached it?
Spread leadership around. If everything will fall apart without you holding it together, let it fall apart. A new, more sustainable structure will appear from the rubble.
Any significant cultural, legal, economic, social or innovative change comes from a large collective of leaders working on it.
Community building is capacity building
In community, it is our job to help each other be better, stronger, more capable, competent and secure.
Our engagement with each other is an endless journey of personal transformation and skill building.
We want to end our days together feeling more alive, empowered and bold.
Our one daily commitment is to never let an opportunity pass to show how much we care for each other, how much we believe in each other, and how much we are committed to growth and change in each other. With this mindset, amazing things can happen.
In whatever way you work to make your home, neighborhood, workplace, business or organization a more welcoming, vibrant, fun and effective community, thank you.
We are stronger together.