7 Top Tips For Supporting Citizen Driven Community Building – Part 5
This is the fifth blog in a seven-part series. In this series we’re sharing 7 top tips on citizen-driven community building, and how organisations can act as precipitants to those civic efforts, or at least make sure they don’t get in their way.
David Wagoner’s words from his poem ‘Lost’, neatly sum up the essence of the previous four blogs in this series:
“Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger”
If you are intent on precipitating grassroots action, then being truly present to what’s “here” and paying due respect to the power of the unknown, the often invisible potential and the actual capacity of local residents and their place is key. The challenge is this: how can an outside agent do this for a community? The answer is, they can’t. The only people who can build community are those that live, sleep and trade there. What an outside facilitator can do is animate a community to identify, connect and mobilise its assets from the inside out.
Floods and earthquakes often act as powerful precipitants of community response. However, there are other ways to precipitate mutuality and interdependence, indeed more positive and less traumatic ways. Natural disasters remind us that community spirit often lies dormant and disconnected until something or someone wakes it from its slumber. Put more plainly, community action generally needs to be animated and organised.
This week I’ll be exploring the central role that Connectors and connections more generally play in precipitating and building community life.
Top Tip #5: The vital role of connectors
I have previously written about the 7 habits of highly connected people, where I attempted to break down the habits of Connectors. Separately in a three-part blog series called connectors, conductors and circuit breakers I painted a portrait of how stewardship, shared accountability and commitment can grow a culture of community in a place. This blog builds on the ideas shared in these previous blogs, by exploring the difference between connectors, leaders and networkers.
What is it that connectors do and how does it play out in practice in a neighbourhood context?
When two assets that are not connected become productively connected, change happens. The function of a local connector is to bring these assets together. These connectors are residents who function unknown to others, and often unknown to themselves, as the invisible glue of community life. They are not spies for the government, or volunteers to be recruited for agency programmes. Calling them connectors really turns them off, and generally speaking, they hate meetings and formalities. If they are in ‘the room’, or at ‘the table’ it will not be in a formal sense, they’ll be in the middle of the crowd handing out cake, or at the edges creating a welcome at the centre for the people who most others see as strangers.
Some leaders can be excellent connectors, but connectors in our experience do not relate well to the term ‘leader’, they react to it in much the same way that someone who’s uncomfortable wearing a collar and tie does. ‘Leader’, is a term that feels itchy and uncomfortable when they try it on, whereas descriptions like relationship builder, connector, good neighbour, and even unsung hero fit better. In truth, any label is little problematic because, in their mind what they do is not anything special, they came into the world ‘made this way’, and this is how they live and move and have their being.
This highlights, the limits of outside agencies starting their engagements with a neighbourhood by inviting ‘leaders’ to a ‘meeting’. To do so is to largely miss the connectors, who for the most part are already naturally doing the very thing that creates health, wellbeing, safety and prosperity,and hence won’t see much point in going to meetings to talk about it, when they can use that time to ‘just do it’. The challenge then is not to provide capacity building to leaders, but to afford due appreciation to connectors, and then support them at the speed of trust to get more organised with their neighbours.
A story: Hodgehill 1 (Birmingham, UK)
When Rev. Al Barrett (Church of England) arrived in Hodgehill in Birmingham with his wife and two young children, as well as providing ministry to the local congregation of Firs and Bromford, they were also coming to take up residence (the latter I believe has as much significance as the former). Having moved into their new house on the Hodgehill Estate, where now several years on they have been living and ministering as near neighbours, not as salaried strangers. It seems to me as I reflect on their journey thus far, that I suspect as they turned the keys in the hall door of their new home all those years ago, they opened up the potential that is only available to those outsiders who are prepared to recognise that they may never be completely accepted as ‘insiders’, but through practice, trust and radical presence, can hope to be embraced as ‘alongsiders’, which is to say, trusted companions who live alongside those they serve as neighbours.Al is an alongsider, and he is fortunate that the Church of England enabled that him and his family, economically as well as spiritually.
In the early days of arriving he and a small number of his parishioners/neighbours, intentionally began to seek out what they called ‘unsung heroes’. They did so by regularly going to the places and spaces on the estate where people bump into each other; where residents gather formally and informally.By going to these places and regularly showing up as neighbours, learning with their community, not as researchers studying a community , they built genuine trust. By paying attention and by asking questions, they surfaced many community-building stories that had within them the breadcrumbs that lead to 93 connectors in a population of near 5000 residents.They then spoke with each of these ‘unsung heroes’ as they called them and shared with them the stories that neighbours had shared with Al and members of his congregation, stories about the connections their efforts had enabled and the importance of their contributions. Al and his faith circle also threw a party for their ‘unsung hero neighbours’ to celebrate all they’ve done and continue to do to weave their community together. I love that Al and his small congregation sought to discover weavers, and in doing so actively resisted the temptation to seek out believers. Instead of trying to get local people to be interested in what they prescribed as a good life, Al and members of his congregation set their faith agenda aside in order to become genuinely interested in how people grow community in Hodgehill.
From the outset, their great insight was to understand that the people who could help them see most deeply behind the negative narrative that had grown up around the estate were the unsung heroes, what the ABCD Institute, Nurture Development and many others have come to refer to as ‘connectors’. We have seen the same phenomenon play out in communities in inner city London to rural Yorkshire, with people of faith and people of none. Throughout our work, in hundreds of neighbourhoods across the world, we have come to appreciate that there are residents in every community of place that embody the function of a connector.
1 We are delighted to be working and learning with Al and his community through our ABCD Learning Site process over the next 3 years, so you will be hearing a lot more about their journey and the wider journey of residents in Hodgehill and more widely in Firs and Bromford.
So based on 21 years of field experience, what happens when you intentionally bring community connectors together in one place?
A community connector is an individual (local resident) that has come to be defined more by what they contribute to the wellbeing of their community, than what they receive from the marketplace. They are good at discovering what people care about and where the assets can be contributed and received. They are not single issue people, although they have their pet projects and personal passions, they are more driven by the desire to create a culture of community, what they more likely would refer to as ‘community spirit’.
Connectors are not super-heroes nor should we expect them to be.There is huge power in connectors joining together; indeed, we have found when a group of connectors that reflect the broad diversity of a neighbourhood (age, gender, ethnicity etc.) band together, they can ‘move mountains’. Here is an overview of the combined gifts, skills and passions that we have observed in associations of connectors, in communities, across the world (its important to emphasis the list of characteristics below does not seek to describe any one connector, but what you might expect to encounter among a wider group of connectors in a neighbourhood context):
- Gift centered: they believe everyone has a gift, skill or passion that is essential to building community spirit. As far as they are concerned, there is nobodies gift that is surplus to requirement.
- Well connected: their relationships go deep and wide and are diverse. Their relationships are reciprocal and are not exclusively reliant on the connector. Our experience is that on average connectors have somewhere in the region of 80 to 100+ connections to neighbours in their neighbourhood.
- Trusted: they are trusted because they build relationships at the speed of trust.
- Believe they are welcome: in a hyper-individualistic, consumerist society it’s striking how insecure people feel about reaching out to people they have not been introduced to, or to whom they can’t introduce themselves formally. Informal, unscripted conversations come naturally to connectors; they feel welcome to reach out to their neighbours and to help them connect with each other.
- Hosts: they are naturals in the art of hosting, when at parties organised by others, they arrive early to help, stay late and hang around the edges helping people who are not sure they are welcome to find a way in.
- Welcomers (Bridgers): of the stranger at the edge. They are skilled at brokering people who are at the edge into associational life. Connectors will actively stake their social capital on the virtue of welcoming the stranger and their gifts into the fold of a club or group they personally know already. In this way, they are the practical architects of social inclusion, and while they rarely talk about it in such terms, they make it visible by the way they live their lives.
Connectors and Networkers are not the same
In the same way that we’ve drawn a distinction between leaders and connectors, while acknowledging overlaps, it is just as important to make a similar distinction between a networker and connector. In my experience a networker is much more likely to use language such as: ‘my network”, “I use my network to..”, “it’s not what you have, it’s who you know that counts” than a connector is.
A networker has clear self-interest in engaging and investing in ‘their network(s)’, they will be clear on ‘who’s good for a favour’, and will happily reciprocate because they understand the trade offs. They will make what they often refer to as ‘referrals’ in business dealings, or introductions in their personal lives, but expect the same in return. In that sense there is a certain amount of opportunism in constructing and maintaining a network. It’s important to say there is nothing wrong with that, but when viewed through this lens connectors and networkers are subtly different in their motivation.
Of course there is also self-interest in what connectors do, but to my eye, they are not primary driven by what they calculate will be a personal return, unless of course you count the glee they experience when two people who were not connected, become so. Another distinction between a networker and a connect is that connectors are more likely to use ‘our’ and ‘we’ language, while networkers lean toward ‘mine’, or ‘I’ language. Connectors can be overheard to say things like “we just get together on our street, at the drop of a hat,” “our book group, hardly ever actually reads a book, but that’s fine by us”. They also tend to describe what others do for others, rather than what others do for them. Connectors don’t tend to think of themselves as networked, which is somewhat ironic given how networked they actually are. But they do think of themselves as deeply connected with, and in, the lives of their neighbours and friends. They are driven by an innate desire to weave their community towards denser, deeper connections, rather than broader, loser ties. The anomaly in this regard is their willingness to go past their existing connections to the edge of their networks and bring outsiders in.
In simple terms I would say networkers invest in multiple interpersonal relationships; some are deep, but the wider the network the more surface level many of their relationships are. Connectors, by comparison, may not know as many people, since they are driven, not only by depth in their relationship, but also by the desire to connect the people they know to each other. This is where a group of connectors become so powerful, by connecting across their relationships.
The drive to grow interpersonal relationships versus a culture of community, marks another critical distinction between networking and connecting; it also provides us with an insight into how both think differently about personal power. Connectors tend to feel powerful (a sense of agency in the world) when people who were disconnected become connected and reciprocal, that sense of agency grows as those connections deepen and the associations spread.
They experience a certain glee in hearing how two people they know, who didn’t know each other before, got connected under their own steam or through another connection. In other words, connectors are comfortable with people getting on and connecting behind their backs’, they don’t even need to claim kudos for having created the conditions that made that new relationship possible.
Networkers by comparison, don’t seem to experience joy on hearing two people in their network by-pass them, and went straight to each other. Many networkers I know experience a certain controlling twinge at such moments, “why wasn’t I informed of this”, “but you’re ‘my’ friends?!” Of course, these thoughts rarely get spoken out loud.
My sense is that the glee connectors experience together is grounded in joy at the idea that a culture of community is taking hold, but also revel in the absence of the need to objectify or control their relationships. Connectors grow their power by giving it away. Connectors are naturally possessed by what the humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers referred to as unconditional positive regard they have the added advantage of not coming to fix, cure or rescue.
If we can learn again as a species to see the neighbourhood as the primary unit of change, and to celebrate the connectors who have already figured this out, then we have every reason to hope for an alternative, healthier, wiser, more just future.