Touchstone Five: Building Connections and Social Interactions
Over the last month or more we have been reviewing the eight touchstones of Community Building. This week we’ll be looking at touchstone five: building connections and social interactions. Given that we’ve gone past the halfway point and the eight blogs, it’s worth recapping on what they are again.
The Eight Touchstones to ABCD are:
- Finding a community building team: Who are the unsung heroes in the community? Who are the individuals that are good at discovering what people care about and where their assets can be used? How can this group be engaged?
- Recruiting a Community Animator: Not someone who sets the agenda but someone who helps people get organized. A champion in the community who is a natural community builder and willing to try new things.
- Hosting Community Conversations: There is a lot of value in the simplicity of a conversation. Host a series of conversations in your community and think about shifting the focus of the conversation to discoverables not deliverables. The basis of the conversations should not be about what is wrong, but about what is strong!
- Engaging Community Groups and Organizations: The great capacity building that exists in communities can often be found in local clubs, associations and informal groups. These are places where people come together and support each other.
- Building Connections and Social interactions: Connector and Animator roles should focus on creating interactions – not just planning events and hoping the community will come – but creating spaces that are welcoming and create shareable moments.
- Visioning and Planning: Once a strong connection is built with the community, it’s time to look to the future and envision what it could look like in ten years. Start by asking these three questions: What can we do? What do we need outside help with? And, what do we need outside agencies to do for us?
- Implementing change: Take action and begin to do what you believe needs to happen. This allows people to reconnect and take back the function of the community.
- Fostering CELEBRATION: Throughout the process, celebrate every effort. Believe in everyone’s gifts!
If you’d like a short conversational introduction to the Eight Touchstones checkout my interview with the wonderful Paul Born (Co-CEO of Vibrant Communities at Tamarack): http://deepeningcommunity.ca/library-topics/podcasts/asset-based-community-development-lessons-across-world
Building connections through social interaction and shareable opportunities
The craft of community building is an intentional one, community animators and connectors are endlessly curious about how they can better create the conditions by which everyone’s gifts can be discovered and received. There are few places on the planet that do intentional inclusive community building better than the folks in Firs & Bromford. Here’s their story as told by Paul Wright…
ABCD in Action in Firs & Bromford
By Paul Wright
My name is Paul Wright, I’m a resident in the community and I work (full-time paid) for a community organisation Open Door Community Foundation. We work in partnership with a youth work organisation: Worth Unlimited, and a resident-led partnership Firs & Bromford Neighbours Together on a project called ‘Together We Can’. One of the key conversations we are currently having is ‘what is our role in all this?’ As individuals who live in the community, as ‘paid workers’, and as organisations.
Here’s the context in which we’re privileged to live and work: in Firs & Bromford, an outer estate in Hodge Hill in the East of Birmingham, over the past 10 years a group of people have intentionally been trying to nurture what we call ‘community’. We have done so by getting out into our neighbourhood to find creative ways to connect people, places, groups, ideas, energy, hopes and dreams. By doing this we have witnessed the growth of what we are beginning to refer to as a neighbourhood ‘ecosystem’ of people, activities & spaces, and their growing connections.
All communities are made up of people with passions, skills, energy, and ideas. We see our primary task as seeking ways to unearth and nurture the gifts, skills, and talents of our neighbours, and finding ways of connecting them with others. We do this through door step conversations, being authentically present in existing social spaces like the school gate, and through creating new social spaces, which we call street events. In all this we invite people into a space where we ask questions like ‘how would you like to get involved in your community?’, ‘what would you love to share with your neighbours?’, ‘If your neighbours were willing to help, what would you love to do to make your community a better place to live?’. This work and the principle of touchstone five is about creating the opportunity for people to share their gifts, skills and passions with others. What has been interesting is that recently we’ve been asking people ‘what made the biggest difference in helping you get involved?’ and many respond by saying: ‘you asked me and believed in me!’
For us this is about hunting the edges and widening the social circles. Asking who’s not involved? Who’s not here? Who’s on the edges of our community? And finding ways to invite people into ‘community’ with their neighbours. Crucially this also involves helping people overcome barriers to being involved and contributing in community life. This can involve supporting people to overcome moments of crisis, but doing so with the intention that such support will enable them to become more connected and able to share their skills and passion as a near neighbour, not so they become a ‘service user’.
Activities and spaces
By nurturing connection between people, a range of new activities and spaces have emerged in our neighbourhood. These activities and spaces are built on the skills, passion, gifts, and talents of local people. They include a theatre group, arts and crafts group, knitting and sewing group, Real Junk Food Kitchen, Stay and Play, After-School clubs, an autism support group and more ideas in the planning stage all led by local people.
Crucially at the heart of these activities and spaces are people who create a welcome for all, generous hospitality, and genuine care are in common practice. What has blown me away over the past few years is how much my neighbours teach me, every week I learn something new about hospitality and care. This cannot be taught in a training programme and nobody in our community is the expert/guru with the all answers. What we have in abundance are people who know how to share life with each other and people who describe their participation in a group as ‘being part of a family’. We are neighbours and friends. Our role in supporting and nurturing the groups I mentioned above and the spaces for active inclusion and welcome involves gentle journeying alongside people and groups, encouraging and celebrating, challenging and questioning, and creating spaces for shared learning.
For us this is where the ‘flourishing’ happens for individuals and for our neighbourhood. For individual people we are seeing social circles grow through social interaction and shareable opportunities. People are feeling accepted, cared for, valued and feeling they are able to contribute. They also now have more people close at hand to whom they can turn to for help. All of this is genuinely transforming people’s lives, and in a way that is sure to endure. One person recently told me before being asked to get involved that she didn’t leave her house for 5 years. She is now working with others to get a weekly stay and play, and after school club up and running (both will be run by local residents). This wasn’t the result of a training programme, or a befriending project or specialist intervention that therapeutically enabled her and you fellow neighbours. It was a gentle invite into ‘community’. And that has made all the difference. Having taken the decision to invest in active inclusive community building at street level we have seen our neighbourhood become a place where people are more connected, more able to overcome obstacles and barriers, and more able to share their passion and skills with others.
So what have I learned?
The interesting thing about understanding our neighbourhood as an eco-system is that our organisations, and us as citizens and workers are all part of that eco-system. We are part of the people, the activities, the spaces and the connections, we too are near near neighbours. We’ve discussed whether we (alongside others) are the catalysts, the substance that increases the rate of connections (the reaction) through social interactions and shareable opportunities. This conversation will continue as we try to discern our ongoing role. But what I do know is that the neighbourhood eco-system is an exciting, vibrant and live-giving place to be, and the place more and more of us love to call our community.
(Street Connector Mentor, Open Door Community Foundation)
I sometimes like to define community as the place I can safely stand, on the days when my feet are sore. Firs and Bromford has become such a place for me, the people there have become my friends and when I am with them, I too am home (away from home).
As I reflected over the weekend on what I have witnessed local residents co-produce in Firs & Bromford, I was moved to write the following poem, with which I would like to conclude this blog:
Here My Friend
(A short poem)
Community builders asks,
Neighbour can you describe the ‘good life’ you plan to find?
Friend can you describe the better world you plan to leave behind?
Co-Conspirator can I walk with you and share what I hope to make?
Fellow traveler what can we do together for community’s sake?
Citizen who else can we invite to join in?
Friends where shall we begin…
…that will enable us to create beautiful, useful and durable things?
And to practice non-violence towards each other and the places where we sing?