Reflections on Building a Community

April 20, 2015 7:45 AM | Anonymous

Parker Palmer, one of my favorite deep thinkers and writer who focuses on issues in community, leadership, and social change says,

“Leadership for community consists in creating, holding, and guarding a trustworthy space in which human resourcefulness may be evoked.”

Wow. That sounds deep, eh? Well it is and we can learn from this depth of wisdom.

If you’ve been to this website before, you already know that Chicago IPSI is transforming its meetings so that they are based on a community of practice (CoP) model. Why? Because the model we had before was not sustainable, and there was enough desire, vision, and love of the community to launch us forward towards a new model that more aptly meets our professional and connection needs. One where we, indeed, have begun to create a space for human resourcefulness, or room for contribution from each and every Chicago ISPI member to be able to “give and get” in equal parts.

So far, we’re on a steady climb. It’s not been without stumble, but let’s talk about what’s worked thus far.

In the beginning, we reached out to long-time members of Chicago ISPI who had successfully run local community meetings and asked for their key learning. One dictum came clear...

Lesson Learned: Do not do it alone! Avoid taking the majority of responsibility on one or a few people.

I knew if I was going to lead the exploration of uncharted terrain based on research and inspiration alone, I needed  to round out my perspective and make sure my thinking was challenged. From the get-go we recruited a “core team” of leader advisors who came from different vantage points. Who knew it would turn out that the three of us had complimentary, yet distinct points of view whose voices could grow to a crescendo faster than Beethoven’s Symphony #9.  

Lesson Learned: Lead a community with other leaders. Seek out different points of view and welcome debate. Have the grit to allow healthy discourse and challenge to broaden and strengthen your thinking.

We all knew clearly that we couldn’t build the community with just the three of us. The first time we had to trust, and be willing to let go of the idea, was at last year’s Cracker-barrel. We told ourselves we were going to do an “ask” of the attendees for volunteers to build these community meetings. If the attendees were not interested, we’d leave it there. 18 of you filled out brightly colored cards and offered to be on a team.

Lesson Learned: Check in with the community at critical milestones. Ask for buy-in. Do not move forward without it.

We recruited the majority of the volunteers for our Face-to-Face (F2F) Design team; the challenge was to structure in-person community meetings. So that no Chicago ISPI member had to travel too far, the idea was (and is) to create multiple communities throughout Chicago-land, based on geography. Up to this point, which was around November 2014, our core team had had many discussions on what these meetings would look like. And, at the same time, we were mindful that we did not want to impose our ideas on the new volunteers. In other words, we wanted them to be able to contribute original ideas and contribute to the vision.

This is the stage when things can get potentially tricky... We were building a new kind of widget, without known equipment and with a new team. We had no policy and procedure manual and no standards for hiring. We also did not have a defined task. Our task was conceptual and visionary. What would you do?

Lesson Learned: Trust the person with the clearest idea and use a collaborative process. Take the time to set up collaboration systems. Now!

We developed a track to run on for the group. This track needed to be structured enough to help guide the teams, yet open enough to allow for creative thinking. It ended up looking like general descriptions of work streams--meeting design, content selection process, facilitator support, participant on-boarding, evaluation and logistics--with defined suggested goals, tasks, collaboration points, and examples. For each track, we recruited work stream leaders—right then and there, in that first kick off meeting--and asked them to commit to a weekly status meeting and the duration of the project.  And, by the way, this all happened in December of 2014 so that the team was prepared to start work in January of 2015.

Lesson Learned: For emergent collaborative work, teams need a solid structure to get them started. Face to face is a must to build connection and trust. Once the trust is established, a looser structure, deeper collaboration, and controlled experimentation is possible. And, you can get work done in December!

There’s more to this story, but this is a blog...

I will make one last point, though. When you set an intention to build a community, which is something you’ve not done before, with people you’ve mostly just become acquainted, and you want to elicit “resourcefulness” from the contributors, trust is the operative action word.


  • April 21, 2015 11:33 PM | Ann Battenfield (Administrator)
    Thank you, Ranya, for sharing this part of your story and some of the most important lessons you and your team learned.

    It reminded me of the moment we decided to take this path. When the Advisory Team talked to Chicago ISPI members last spring, they were struck by something that came up over and over again. Members truly liked Chicago ISPI, were loyal to it, and all had something in common - this sense of belonging and of community.

    That isn't always easy to find. Some of us go to many professional meetings and never feel that way. The goal of Ranya's team was to make it so that everyone who comes to our meetings can access and build that sense of community, with a little bit of shared effort. That everyone who attends our meetings can, if they want, find fellow community members who can and will help them grow, find answers to tough questions, and get their professional needs met. Taking a cue from Judy Hale, it's their professional home.

    Only time will tell whether we've succeeded in creating a type of meeting that fosters and creates this sense of community. I am sure, however, that if intent, desire, and the hard work of Ranya's team was all that was needed to do so, we have it already.
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