Community Building Best Practices

Community Building Best Practices
By Karen Hewitt (ze/she/they)
Associate Director, Leadership Columbus

We are all culture creators. Every one of us has the power to create the communities we want to see. The question is: What practices are you committed to in building community?

I had the recent opportunity to present at an intercultural relations conference about building community. To be fair, I have been building community all my life. I started intentionally building community in Columbus when I moved here in 2012: I wanted to create a tangible guide for folks, so they could have similar success in relationship building. 

To help in moving forward with intention, this list of Top Ten Best Practices for Building Community emerged following a social media post where my community members shared their number one non-negotiable practices. Here is what we came up with and what I invite you to do:

Top Ten Best Practices for Community Building:

1. Do your own work. Over the last three years, we have all experienced a collective trauma that is, to date, unmatched. We have had social justice and racial justice uprisings. We have suffered tremendous loss and grieved so many of our loved ones. And now, we are trying to ‘return to normal’. This is the invitation to pause, slow down, acknowledge how and where you are not okay, and seek the support you need to regulate your nervous system and heal. This practice requires only you. Before you interact with anyone, do your work of being grounded. What do you need to be grounded mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually? 

Doing your own work could mean doing research, understanding and learning accurate history, seeking out expansion and development opportunities, learning about lived experiences other than yours, seeking out healing modalities that best serve you, starting meditative practices, starting consistent practices around bodily movement, engaging in therapy, starting a hobby, or shifting your relationship with substances. 

Everyone will need a different prescription to ground. The vision is to show up as your favorite self: the you that loves you when no one is around or providing their opinions. Your favorite you. This takes attention and discipline and investing in yourself. When you are consistently grounded, watch how your interactions and relationships begin to shift towards authentic connection. 

2. Get Clear on Your Audience. Inclusion is definitely the hottest buzzword of the moment and sometimes its essence can get lost in trying to make everyone feel welcomed. In our current socio-political climate, it would be quite a feat to make inclusion a reality. There is always an unspoken ‘everyone, but…’. 

This practice invites you to get very intentional about what ‘everyone’ means to you. Get specific and clear on who you are centering for this event, project, etc. Intentionality can get lost in trying to make sure everyone is welcomed. Of course, you want this to be a safe(r) space and people to feel included. But inclusion takes time, effort, cultural responsiveness, and resources. Focus on who needs to feel affirmed and center them. The thing about affirmation is that when you intentionally create an affirming environment for the few, it then becomes expansive enough for the many. This is not at the expense of anyone. Your audience will appreciate it. 

History has shown us years of centering and affirming the dominant demographic. Get honest with yourself about who you want to center and make it so. The term marginalization comes from people being left in the margins and uncared for. Make sure you are creating with and not for by including people who have the identities of the group(s) you are trying to center in your planning committee, advisory board, on staff, and/or as paid consultants. All too often, we make plans to include others without actually asking them what they need to feel included.

My personal community building centers Black, Trans, Gender Non-Conforming, Neurodivergent, and Differently Abled experiences, as these identities hold my lived experience.  Many who do not share these identities report experiencing my events and gatherings as a soft landing that is joyful, safe, and inclusive. Historically, my identities have not been centered. Some have said that it is revolutionary to center the most historically marginalized and vulnerable. If my liberation is truly tied up in yours, here’s the truth: if the most vulnerable among us are cared for and centered, all needs will be met. 

3. Create trust and Psychological Safety. This graphic is by Timothy R. Clark, CEO of LeaderFactor. Psychological Safety is key to building and sustaining our communities.  These four questions can show us where our blindspots are as leaders and community members. If the answer is yes to all of these questions then you likely have a culture of trust and community. If the answer is yes to some of these, then you probably have mixed reviews on safety and trust from the people in it. Challenger safety is most often missing because people feel like they cannot challenge authority or people in power. As a community builder, are you able to take feedback and implement it for change? Keep coming back to these questions and get curious when people are not feeling one of these safeties. 

4. Food. Snacks. Vibes. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs discusses basic physiological needs as food, water, warmth, rest, safety, and lodging. This may seem like a given, but it is incredibly important to make sure that there are food and beverages present for the community events where this makes sense. People tend to be happy and more engaged  when they are fed, hydrated, rested, and comfortable. 

The vibes portion of this is a little more intentional and a little more nuanced. Just as you need to get clear on your audience, you also want to get clear about the vibe. Make sure the messaging for the event speaks to that audience and sets clear and accurate expectations. What kind of music will there be? What does accessibility look like for the location? As much information and transparency that can be given beforehand is best. 

5. Positive Intent. In the DEI space, positive intent is often used as a disarming tool when harm occurs. People are told to assume positive intent. This burden of assumption often lies with the person who is experiencing the microaggression, wayward comment or behavior. If I assume positive intent then I won’t take it personally and it’s not as big a deal. I am proposing a shift to the way we discuss positive intent. Since intent is something that can’t be measured by anyone but yourself, my invitation is that you check your intent. Make sure you have positive intent when you enter community spaces, and that your actions and words match your intent. If everyone makes sure they come with their own positive intent, then we all will have positive intent in the space. 

6. Curiosity vs. Judgment. We all have judgment. Judgment of our environment is a primal need to determine safety in a short amount of time. There is nothing inherently wrong with judgment. When judgment turns into assumed narratives or policing of any sort, then that’s the problem. If we become curious, then we get information and we don’t have to make any judgments. We get to hear what is true. Ask questions, get curious, and that will inevitably lead to more connection. A lot of conflict could be solved, or even avoided with just one participating party having more curiosity. 

7. Trauma-Informed Leaders. I can not overstate how important this piece is to the safety and well-being of the spaces you are creating. To be trauma informed is to acknowledge and understand the potential impact that trauma-both individual and collective-may have on a person’s or community’s well being, ability to be present, and capacity to engage. Having people who o understand trauma, crisis and dysregulated nervous systems is essential. People are coming in from all kinds of external experiences and variables. Attendance of  those who are trauma informed, culturally responsive, and center healing and healthy environments is a non-negotiable for me. Trauma-informed leaders have a ‘not on my watch’ mentality that calls everyone in their orbit to a higher standard of co-existing. 

8. Commitment to repair. As humans, we are going to make mistakes. As we make room for people to be messy, (including ourselves) we must have a governing practice around how we process harm. In my experience, zero tolerance policies do not support the power of healing within a community. Repair is arduous and challenging. It requires commitment and awareness of transformative justice, restorative justice, and/or community accountability. It truly takes a village to create infrastructure where people can be called into something else being possible. When we vision the communities we want to see, there has to be room for healing and repair when there is a rupture.   Identify your non negotiables around harm that would not allow for someone to return. Having a commitment to repair does not mean that repair is always available. Repair requires all parties. Healing only requires you. 

9. Power Among. There are four types of power: Power Over, Power For, Power With, and Power Among. Power Over is your typical dictatorship or authoritative rule. Power For is when we do for people without necessarily asking them what they need. Power with is the same as the myth of equal distribution of work in group projects, which anyone who has ever engaged in a group project knows never really happens. Power Among is the notion that all contributions are necessary and we should be intentional with sharing it. That we, as a collective, with all of our power and influence will do what is best for our communities, together. 

10. Focus on Right Relationship. ‘Right Relationship’ comes from the Principle of Oneness, stating that we are all connected, and we impact each other. Right relationship is about being aligned and in integrity with yourself and others. I often think of Right Relationship, in its ideal state, as the recycle sign in action. interpersonally. To govern this space of alignment we create agreements instead of rules. We are intentional about language in our internal and external communications. We call each other in when there is a misstep.

Being in Right Relationship brings to mind the ecosystem of trees. They are all connected to a root system that then interconnects with the rest of the roots. The root system of trees is an interdependent system that supplies nutrients to the trees that need it when they need it. There is equity and no animosity if one tree needs more nutrients than another. When a tree dies, all of the other trees are nourished by its nutrients. There is constant giving and receiving in beautiful harmony. Ideally, humans would interact in this way. There has been so much fracture at the roots in humanity that it is often hard to see this as possible. I have experienced this concept in smaller community ecosystems, and it is divine. It is my belief that this level of community care, equity, reciprocity, and intention is possible if we center healthy and Right Relationship with each other. 

What items would you add? What questions do you have? Go build the communities you want to see, culture creator!