Communities are, and operate through, relationships. They are alive and dynamic. Not static. Not distant. Present. Continuous. Human.
When the idea of “communities” sounds inhuman, when we refer to them in the terms we use to discuss objects (chess pieces, action figures, nail polish), the hair should stand up on the back of your neck.
“Community” is never separate from us. It is us.
We (literally, you and me — we) operate in the world through relationships. Our relationships — personal, professional, digital, IRL — define our reality: what we see, what we experience, the stories we hear, the privileges we hold, the way our identities develop, everything.
Our relationships, our communities are our in-groups. In-groups are the people we identify with. Out-groups are the people we don’t identify with. Other people’s communities. Other lives. Other experiences.
Whenever we seek to do what is variously referred to as “community building”, “community engagement”, “social change”, “social impact”, or “civic [you-name-it]” it is essential that we ground ourselves in this knowledge.
We already have communities. The people we’re trying to serve already have communities. Communities may overlap. Communities may disconnect. Communities may use different languages or words to describe the same thing. But no matter what, communities already exist.
When we don’t take the time to ground ourselves in this way, we set ourselves up for a number of iconic and tragic mistakes, including:
- Columbusing and otherwise trampling on the existing relationships, work, and strategies present among those we seek to serve. (In other words, failing to see communities and community work that is already happening.)
- Mistakenly identifying ourselves and our approach as “objective”. (In other words, failing to see or account for how our own communities influence our perspective and thus the decisions we make, the things we prioritize, and the approaches we promote.)
Again, our composite relationships, our in-groups, support us personally and professionally and define the boundaries (limits) of our experience and our identities. In general, it can be difficult for us humans to relate to out-groups and to see* out-groups without effort — but this is especially true if the communities we’re coming from possess social privilege. And most of us working either in the for-profit “for good” space or in the non-profit industrial complex that supports public policy and public goods possess some form of social privilege.
Acknowledging this privilege and proactively accounting for the power disparities this creates is the work of building with, not for — especially when it comes to “civic” ventures. What we’re talking about here — the challenge of negotiating the experiential and communal biases that every human brings with themselves everywhere — these are things you can’t address through stapled-on stakeholder focus groups, design thinking workshops, or good intentions alone.
This kind of innate, human bias requires us to make more fundamental changes to ourselves and our strategies — changes that don’t stop at promoting inclusion, but do the work of fighting exclusion. This kind of bias requires us to rethink our assumptions of expertise and of “impact” and alter our understanding of the roles of designer, creator, leader, civic agent, you name it. It requires that we articulate and proactively account for power in our relationships (working and otherwise) and specifically acknowledge power disparities.
This kind of bias requires us to focus concretely on people — on our differences, not just our similarities.
It is through the navigation of difference that we can move away from frameworks that keep our privileged in-groups at the (civic) center to frameworks that allow for collective power-sharing, deliberation, and action. Frameworks that allow for real self-determination and real collaboration. Frameworks that allow for transformation.
(That’s what “social impact” is supposed to mean, right? Social transformation? Otherwise….what?)
*Note that when I say “see” here, I mean it both in the sense of being aware that these other communities exist at all and “see” in the sense of recognizing the humanity of these other communities when we are aware of them.