Want to Change the World? Build Community.

In the face of global crises, let’s stop elevating personal sacrifice as our greatest source of solutions; it’s time to seek each other, imagine together, and act collectively if we want to accelerate change.

credit: C Bryck

you keep an ever-growing mental list of all the things you should and shouldn’t do? Buy less! Recycle more! Don’t fly! Go vegan! Ditch the plastic straw! Take your money elsewhere! Drive electric! Don’t procreate! Bring your own bag! Speak-up! Be courageous! Be the change!

My own list has become terribly long — inexhaustible and exhausting. But for ‘good people’ [read: affluent, privileged, middle class, educated] who desire a more just and equitable future, our most prevalent strategy seems to be the strength and morality our own free wills. Guess we better get on with saving the world, one-vegan-burger-at-a-time.

But how have we come to believe the pervasive myth that individual action will create the world we want? Ironically, the burden placed on us as consumers to change our own behaviour is often an explicit and well-funded strategy of large corporate entities seeking to deflect responsibility for spreading disease, poverty, malnourished soil, pollution, and even death. Don’t believe me? Consider the long recycling campaign championed by the very industry that produces plastic waste. Or the recent Netflix series, Broken, that highlights a myriad of industries guilty of perpetuating the label of the ’irresponsible consumer’ (IKEA is one of them!). In fact, the show’s co-producer expressed that his intent in making the series was, indeed, to wake us up:

‘…individual actions or individual acts of consuming in the quote unquote ‘right way’ are not going to fix the systemic problems…”

While individual action may help us to cultivate our own sense of optimism, it should never have become our default strategy for change; this myth is damaging especially when there’s a more critical narrative to adopt. That is: when we work together, we can create the world we want.

What we’re able to accomplish in community (whether it be hyper-local or multi-nodal) can create traction that ripples outwards, affecting mindsets, other communities’ behaviour, and ultimately even policy-change (in the boardroom and in government). It’s deeply human to work in this way; we feel seen, connected, and relevant. While imploring us to discard the false myth of individualism, the journalist Martin Lukacs writes,

“the impulse of humans to come together is inextinguishable.”

And it’s true; most of us have a deep, if unspoken, desire to collaborate towards a shared vision of the world, a world that works better for more people. But, with the help of unchecked capitalism, we remained trapped; many Western cultures have forgotten how to work together, so to perpetuate the myth of the-individual-hero-changing-the-world often feels like our only hope.

So where does one begin? How does one imagine a more optimistic future and rally others around them? Though community-building has existed for millennia, there simply aren’t enough modern resources that reveal and support the art and science of community-building. No one teaches us how to do this in school. And what does exist on the topic tends towards the academic community or serves the aims of those building online business models.

Community-building is both a mindset and a learned skill. It’s often intangible, ongoing, and soft work, that requires emotional intelligence, pattern recognition, connection-making, commitment and consistency, and the cultivation of weak ties. Although some soft skills can only be cultivated through introspection and one’s own journey of self-actualization, there are common components and principles of community building that can be taught, practiced together, and made explicit. These are what I want to share with you.

Whether you are in the thick-of-it as a community builder or are inspired to begin now, you likely need frameworks for deeper understanding and sense-making, resources to aid you in skillful execution, examples from failed and successful experiments, teachers and mentors, and communities for community-builders!

In 2020, I’ll publish on the following topics — an accumulation of much of what I’ve learned. I would be honoured if you’ll join me on this journey of uncovering and discovery. If nothing else, I hope to save you some time while learning with you along the way.

  1. Purpose, Identity & Values: why are these important; when is community-building not the right strategy; how and why to enable a collaborative approach to co-define these together
  2. Roles & Participation: levels of engagement; co-creation do’s and don’ts; an introduction to platform strategies
  3. Gatherings & Channels: how, when, and where to convene
  4. Governance & Guidelines: various models of community governance; ways in which we can create liberating structures to unleash both autonomy and interdependence
  5. Health & Success: how to tell if your community is healthy; which metrics to pay attention to; why and how community leaders should host themselves

Am I missing any important topics? Let me know!

P.S. Thank you to the following people who encouraged me to begin writing and sharing my ideas: Joanna Ashworth, Marthe Reinette, Femke Bartels, Kate Imbach, Daan Weddepohl and many others. For a lot of women - and other people of underrepresented [read: underestimated] groups - it often feels scary to hit ‘publish’ on an idea or story. If this sounds like you, check out my friend Lauren Currie’s organization: #upfront

I am a community and collaboration designer living in Amsterdam. I like to write, too. Find out more about my work at http://oonaver.se