25 senior Community Network Builders’ from around the country converged in Miami this past fall to generate what they called “actionable knowledge” about what they do, how they do it and why they think this work is distinctive and impactful and needed now in struggling American communities.
This 2 day convening was sponsored by the Knight Foundation with Grassroots Grantmakers, and with our planning and facilitation help. “Community Network Builders” are seasoned leaders and change agents working locally to build new networks of relationships across class, race, geographic, professional and other boundaries that otherwise hamper effective progress and functionality in our towns, cities and rural areas. These new networks are designed to unleash the kind of creative and optimistic energy – and a more effective functionality – needed to tackle tough challenges and drive positive community change in the 21st Century.
Five headlines emerged from what we consider a first ever gathering of this type:
While the Community Network Builders at the Miami convening can be found working in a range of disciplines – community organizing, community building, human services support, engagement in faith communities, health care – they have a common perspective and a common approach: to offer the optimum environment for people to engage, bring their own best stuff, build trusting relationships and co-create. In this way, Community Network Building is about unleashing aspirational energy – or an aspirational force – to catalyze and shape and sustain healthy and productive community life.
Over the two days, participants – organized beforehand into Session Teams - led Open Space small group discussions and fish-bowl reflections sessions around 4 areas of inquiry:
The Practice and Urgency of Creating Space
Community Network Leaders see their practice as creating aspiration-driven spaces – rooms, meetings, physical space, moments of community life – that help people connect across differences, build supportive relationships, engage in value exchange, generate action and co-create with each other. They see their work in these spaces, wherever they may be, is rooted in an essential bundle of activities and behaviors explicitly designed to create the force needed in the moment.
As Leaders and Stewards, Trading Control for Co-Investment
It is a challenging irony that to effectively lead in a network environment requires one to lead with one’s own needs, questions and vulnerabilities. Community Network Builders see their primary role as ‘creating, recognizing and protecting spaces for co-investment.’ But the leadership/stewardship role in a network like this creates a fundamental challenge to the leader – to work to diminish his/her own real and perceived positional power in order to create space for others to lead, create and engage. This is more than leading by example. This is the primary set of acts and behaviors that is the leverage to pry open spaces where trust can be established and rule. Community Network Builders work in environments where mistrust is heightened and the pain of being invisible and diminished is palpable and present in many people and therefor in most of our interactions. It takes radical acts of surrender to counteract these forces and we as leaders need to surrender first; surrender control, pre-conceived notions about what will work, pre-determined views about the outcomes that will result.
If surrender is the first role, bold experimentation with “devices and contrivances” designed to bring people into mutually supportive relationships is the second. The network steward is not a passive facilitator but the first in the room that voices the need and desire for new connections and relationships and the ‘mad scientist’ who comes up with contrivances like The NeighborCircle, the NeighborNight, Tuesday’s Together, The Check In, the Hello Circle, Speed Friending, The Weaver Explore – all simple devices to encourage connectivity across differences.
The 3rd primary role is to protect this kind of ‘connectivity space’ when the network is successful and gets busy producing the programs and projects and campaigns that inevitably and quickly grow from all that great connectivity. The need for these spaces does not diminish with network growth, but the ability to protect and sustain them becomes more challenging and complex.
In each of these roles, there are essential acts and behaviors that need to be performed and proliferated though the network environment. Some of those featured are:
Local network building is challenging traditional ideas about community based organizations and blurring some lines between and among silos and the helping professions.
Because the orientation is to work through networks of relationships, the forms that are emerging to support this work need to be more flexible, less boundaried and exceedingly adaptable.
Because they are challenged to create shared spaces – shared by people and organizations that have not and would not typically share space - they are pushed to cross traditional neighborhood boundaries, professional boundaries and institutional boundaries.
In addition, local community networks have three unique features that also challenge traditional forms:
The Griot’s Role in Community Network Building
The word “Griot”- the traditional name of the West African storyteller – comes from French and Portuguese words for “servant.” The Griot’s role is to hold and pass on the powerful narratives that guide moral choices and community life. The Griot is a servant of ‘the truth.” Capturing and disseminating the truth about the impact of Community Network Building remains a difficult challenge for a number of reasons, but the conversation at the Miami Convening was hopeful and instructive. First, because we all realized that we need our own version of the Griot – a network of people from a range of disciplines who work together as servants of the truth and tell the powerful story that is emerging from this work. There are 4 elements to this powerful story that can be developed:
But, as the group agreed, it’s all about telling a powerful story: having a powerful narrative that is backed by powerful evidence, some of which can be/should be quantitative data. But the task is not a narrow one of being able to identify and commit to a data set and tracking technology. The task is to generate a broad partnership willing to work closely to develop and disseminate a powerful narrative in an environment characterized by skepticism, a short term outcome orientation, and an unwillingness to commit the resources needed to do this well. This will take relationship building across lines of difference between and among a special group of people who occupy the “practitioner, funder, policy maker, evaluator” spaces, but who are all willing champions and, even more importantly, willing to be Griot’s in their own complex and rarified environments.
These are just some of the thoughts and knowledge that emerged from our convening that we know are driving action today in communities around the country. There are great notes, graphic illustrations and video and photos available that bring our moment in Miami to life as well. There are new connections and new trusted relationships among experienced community builders that were started during our convening that will bear fruit for years to come. There is energy and there are strategies for continuing the network building we began in Miami – with cross city learning, regular group Skypes and conferencing and further convenings. All of these things will be pursued in a network-centric way: demand driven and with shared leadership.
We are often pressed for the “elevator speech” around this work. We don’t have that. But because community network building is about engagement and conversation, we conclude this piece with an “elevator conversation” that we could imagine taking place once we have engaged (trapped) a foundation leader, corporate CEO or policy maker in an elevator that gets stuck for a little while.
How can I/we best spark change in my neighborhood?