Like many post-industrial Cities in America, Lawrence has struggled for some time to re-invent itself for the 21st century. Our view at Lawrence CommunityWorks is that our City has two major challenges:
Both of these challenges require an investment in Community Building.
There are many who, in the age of the World Wide Web, feel that place-based communities are not so important anymore. People are mobile and connect in different ways now. We think that is true. But it’s also true that “place” for many people, including those with limited income and limited choices, and those who live in densely populated urban areas, is still an important factor in how people connect to information, opportunity and each other.
We feel that ‘community’ starts with a single relationship of trust and mutual benefit which one resident or stakeholder shares with another. A collection of many of those relationships – along with the loose connections that bind a diversity of them together – forms a structural framework for community to exist. When this structural framework of good relationships provides the ability for people to make decisions together, solve tough problems, help each other in daily life, share information and take care of common property, then “community” exists.
Community Building is the process of creating environments where that structural framework – that network of relationships – can flourish. It is also a set of practices that help people understand how to use that network of relationships to make positive change in their own lives and in the community.
At Lawrence CommunityWorks we try to employ a Network-Centric Approach to our community building work. What does that mean? Our goal in Lawrence is to create a new “environment of connectivity” where residents can more easily connect to information, opportunity and each other. We feel that if thousands of residents are induced to “get back in the game” of working together and taking leadership roles in Lawrence, we can truly revitalize our City.
“Networks” are a great approach to engaging thousands of people, loosely connected, in a wide variety of positive activity. Our work at Lawrence CommunityWorks borrows some concepts from Network Theory to guide our thinking and practice.
We all make choices about what to connect to base on value. Getting involved in community is no different. Today, many people don’t get involved because the environment is often harsh, un-productive and sometimes intimidating. We try to create an environment where a) there is a lot of real value for families and b) people feel free to come and go as they please. At LCW there is no such thing as “apathy.” If people don’t come it must be because we are doing something wrong or doing the wrong thing.
Community building is not all business, its not even mostly business. It is relationship building and the business flows from the strength and the patterns of relationships that are built. Relationships flourish when people are comfortable and having fun. So, at LCW community building does not start in meetings. It starts – typically — with eating and talking and having fun.
Unlike some organizations which formally or culturally challenge members to be all in or all out, the network-centric environment is easily woven into the members’ other interests in life; family, church, work, block club, book club etc. It more like the ‘family asset building’ or community improvement’ club that you belong to. It assumes that members will come and go and will vary the intensity of their involvement depending on what else is going on in life and what ‘value’ the person is finding in the network. Increasingly, this kind of ‘transactional membership’ is the norm for how most people live life and choose to spend their time.
The forms of organization that dominate the network environment have to be informal, flexible and action-oriented. A network has to be vigilantly responsive and therefore has to be a ‘shape shifter’ in order to move capacity to the places it is needed. Two important ideas shape how we look at committees or groups in the Network. The first is “form follows function.” ; a habit in the network where the group will always ask itself this question – “what form best suits this function.” As a result, network members are organized in very informal, provisional and flexible groups where positional leadership titles are de-emphasized, leaders change often and the group is decidedly next-step focused. The other principal is “open architecture is best.” Again emphasizing informality and provisionality, the groups embrace the idea that people will come and go and therefore they work hard to keep the group perpetually accessible to new people. This is accomplished with facilitation techniques designed to hold onto the institutional memory of the group while making the work accessible to new voices.
Leadership in the network environment is focused more on being a connector than a spokesperson or even a facilitator. In a network environment the connections are all. The more connected you are to other people, information and opportunity the more value you can extract from the environment. So in this context there is no more valuable a role than helping others to form and find those connections. Increasingly, members are trained to be “weavers” and the “weaver” is an honored and acknowledge leadership role in the network environment.
Self navigation, peer support/exchange and viral marketing are hallmarks of an effective network environment. For these things to happen, the environment must be ‘information rich’. In fact, access to good, timely information is one of the primary value propositions of membership in the network.
In a network, you want to create as many opportunities for people to bump up against other people as possible. This is advantageous to information sharing and relationship building. Informal time is programmed into meetings and events. Spaces are designed to encourage intimacy and comfortability. Organizing activities like NeighborCircles encourage residents to meet and interact on their stoops or in their homes. Regular mixers or ‘Network Nights’ are organized so that members can drop in and get hooked up.
The power of being connected in a network environment is directly related to how diverse its membership and its choices. The network organizer is intentional in starting and connecting a variety of activities – programs, issues, projects, that would attract a variety of people to the network and offer a range of choices for doing different things. They are also intentional about shaping many levels of engagement which meet the needs of a wider range of people, allowing for and encouraging members to get only as involved as they want to be at any given time. An important part of the choice environment is also the choice to create something that you think is important for the network to invest in. A healthy network environment is designed to support the development of a myriad of small, short term activities that resonate with members.