Building Community

This section is currently under development: feedback would be appreciated.

Building and teaching lessons is start, but one person can only do so much of either. Just as we learn best together, we teach best when we are teaching with other people, and the best way to achieve that is to build a community.

A framework in which to think about doing this is situated learning, which focuses on how legitimate peripheral participation leads to people becoming members of a community of practice. Unpacking those terms, a community of practice is a group of people bound together by interest in some activity, such as knitting or particle physics. Legitimate peripheral participation means doing simple, low-risk tasks that community nevertheless recognizes as valid contributions: making your first scarf, stuffing envelopes during an election campaign, or proof-reading documentation for open source software.

Situated learning focuses on the transition from being a newcomer to being accepted as a peer by those who are already community members. This typically means starting with simplified tasks and tools, then doing similar tasks with more complex tools, and finally tackling the challenges of advanced practitioners. For example, children learning music may start by playing nursery rhymes on a recorder or ukulele, then play other simple songs on a trumpet or saxophone in a band, and finally start exploring their own musical tastes. Healthy communities understand and support these progressions, and recognize that each step is meant to give people a ramp rather than a cliff.

Whatever the domain, situated learning emphasizes that learning is a social activity. In order to be effective and sustainable, teaching therefore needs to be rooted in a community; if one doesn’t exist, you need to build one.

The first step is to o the reading. People have been writing about grassroots organizing for decades; [Alinsky1989] is probably the best-known work on the subject, while [Brown2007] and [Midwest2010] are practical manuals rooted in decades of practice. (If you want to read more deeply, [Adams1975] is a history of the Highlander Folk School, whose approach has been emulated by many successful groups, while [Spalding2014] is a guide to teaching adults written by someone with deep personal roots in organizing.)

The second step is to decide if you really need to create something new, or whether you would be more effective joining an existing community. There are thousands of such organizations, from the 4-H Club and literacy programs to technically-oriented groups like Black Girls Code. Joining an existing group will give you a head start on teaching, an immediate set of colleagues, and a chance to learn more about how to run things. The only thing it won’t give you is the ego gratification and control that comes from being a founder…

  1. Make it a democracy. Sooner or later (usually sooner), every appointed board turns into a mutual agreement society. Giving the community power is messy, but is the only way invented so far to ensure that an organization continues to meet the actual needs of the people it’s supposed to be helping.

  2. Make it rewarding. The community organizer Saul Alinksy said, “If your people aren’t having a ball doing it, there is something very wrong.” Community members shouldn’t expect to enjoy every moment of their work with your organization, but if they don’t enjoy any of it, they won’t stay. One way to do this is to thank people: everyone likes to be appreciated, and communities should acknowledge their members’ contributions both publicly and privately.

  3. Provide training. Organizations require committees, meetings, budgets, grant proposals, and dispute resolution. Most researchers are never taught how to do any of this, despite the fact that universities depend on them too. Training people to do these things helps your organization run more smoothly, and gives participants a powerful reason to get and stay involved. If you aren’t large enough to provide training, join an organization that is and take some of theirs. As with Rule 2, it’s always best to learn on someone else’s dime.

  4. Communicate. Nobody’s going to come to a meeting unless they know about it, and nobody’s going to help you raise money if they don’t know how you’re going to spend it. Mailing lists, blogs, and Twitter all give you ways to stay in touch. Use them sparingly so that your audience isn’t overwhelmed, but use them. Marketing for Scientists is a good place to start for guidance.

  5. Write down the rules. As Jo Freeman described in “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”, every organization has a power structure: the only question is whether it’s formal and accountable, or informal and unaccountable. Make yours one of the first kind: write and publish the rules governing everything from who gets to decide when software is ready to release and who’s allowed to use the name and logo to how complaints of inappropriate conduct are handled and what actually constitutes inappropriate conduct. (This model anti-harassment policy is a good start.)

  6. Enforce those rules. Communities need to have some moderating force. If you see someone that is not acting in line with your code of conduct or values, privately say something or tell a leader of the community and ask them to privately say something. Bullies that persist in communities have a toxic effect and should not be allowed to linger.

  7. Make space for everyone. If you’re too engaged or too quick on the reply button, people have less opportunity to grow as members and to create horizontal collaborations. The community can continue to be “hub and spoke”, focused around one or two individuals, rather than a highly-connected network in which others feel comfortable participating.

  8. Soup, then hymns. Manifestos are great, but most people join a volunteer community to help and be helped. Focus on things that are immediately useful, e.g., on what can people create that will be used by other community members write away. Once your organization shows that it can actually achieve things—even small things—people will be more confident that it’s worth thinking about bigger issues.

  9. Don’t be afraid to pay some people. Volunteers can do a lot, but tasks like system administration and accounting need full-time paid staff.

  10. Trust people. Micromanaging or trying to control everything centrally means people won’t feel they have the autonomy to act, which will probably cause them to drift away.

  11. Look after yourself. As The Idealist’s Survival Kit discusses, burnout is a chronic risk in any community activity. If you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be able to take care of your community.

  12. Move on. Every organization eventually needs fresh ideas and fresh leadership. When that time comes, train your successors and then move on. They will undoubtedly do things you wouldn’t have, but the same is true of every generation. Few things in life are as satisfying as watching something you helped build take on a life of its own. Celebrate that—you won’t have any trouble finding something else to keep you busy.