3 Truths & Unwinding Our Definition of "Community"

It's very clear to me that one of main problems we face in discourse around opening systems is how to define "community."

Truth 1: "Community" is a complicated term and it's a pretty blurry concept  

It's often used lazily, drenched in bias and used as blunt force weapon to otherize.  Too often when Openers are told to talk to "the community," systems are actually reinforcing systemic biases by assuming that all people in certain areas hang out together, speak with one voice, and act in concert.  Whether when it comes from a good place (to listen and learn) and in the not-so-great cases (to inform or justify without feedback loops) it often reinforces these systemic biases.  

Have you ever heard people say the following statements?

"That community always does X"

"Have you listened to the community?"

"The community doesn't agree with that idea."

If so, then chances are strong that the system is naming biases they think about a group of people or the expectations they have for the process or program.  Indeed, this is even complicated by the fact that often folks inside a community respond to system aggression by weaponizing their own preferences, unintentionally (or intentionally) reinforcing or disrupting bias. 

Truth 2: There is a "community" or set of “communities” out there we need to open up to

We know people who live in areas or have common values deserve their voice to be heard in processes and in system analysis.  If we are to work as Openers, we believe that we need to listen to these voices, co-create with them and also build systems that respond to them.  

Systems also need to open up.  That means that we have to negotiate the first truth and realize that it can't or shouldn't prevent us from working on the second truth.

Truth 3: This is really complicated work

There is no one meeting space where an entire totality of voices can be shared. No one process where they can all be aggregated, listened to and noted. There is no way yet to be discovered to fully comprehend the totality of the narratives in a community. No one survey that can put together all the majority and minority opinions for perfect representation.  Yet, for many of us in the business of opening up systems, not only are we are asked to somehow accomplish this, we believe it needs to be done.   

The reality? These are the fundamental and inherent tensions in the work of Opening Systems. All Openers and system leaders must manage these tensions and more to move this work forward.    

The folks I've seen doing this work understand that there is no monolithic "community." Strong and experience Openers know how to manage these tensions ( and inexperienced Openers often learn hard quickly how challenging this work is).  Openers eventually recognize that othering groups of people—also known as “"groupism"—is a major part of systemic bias that they encounter daily. 

They accept the first truth and then work on the second: that some version of opening needs to occur for the system to become responsive to families and students.  Then they engage the third truth: that the process is complicated and the process cannot and will not ever speak for all people.  

Unwinding "Community"

When groups begin to take on this challenge, whether it's a group of senior leaders, teams I've been lucky to lead, groups of school leaders and other folks in this space, I’ve often conducted an exercise to help others unwind our conceptions of community. 

It's a simple facilitation.  I ask them to first define it for themselves, to then share it with others and finally begin to engage on the following definition of community (I usually don't show it to them beforehand as it really allow for the most exposure). The sequence is important - it builds the contrast that is needed to fully unwind the concept.  

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[Community is]...a group of interconnected people who share a common history, a set of values, and a sense of belonging – in short a culture or identity...Implicitly, if not explicitly, however, most define community by local geography, typically the neighborhood...While local ties are important, however, they do not always present the most salient form of identity...People can be members of several communities...Communities can have different degrees of share values, and individual people can have different levels of attachment to those values...What binds a community together can be contested and subject to change...Community implies some level of consensus, but healthy communities are dynamic...In the end, we understand community as a historically shaped and emergent phenomenon, not a static one.  

A Match on Dry Grass, Warren and Mapp, ps. 20-21

What did it make you think? What did it push you to consider? 

Maybe it's the complexity. Personally, I'm drawn to the dynamism; the emergence anchored in history.

I sometimes ask the question "Has any community stayed the same for all of history?" and follow it up with the question "Should community tradition overrule individual desire?"  Oh man, that really gets the conversation going.  

I’ve experienced that uniquely amongst various definitions of community, this definition provided by Warren and Mapp uniquely allows us to fully explore the complexities of community. I've also found that a surprising amount of people have never defined community, unpacked their own internal pretzel logic around the concept or debated it point by point with other folks in the education sector.    

Steeping in the Complexity

If we are going to build the open system, then we must be grounded in the complexity and challenges of defining community. We need to know how to be open, to whom we should be open, and to be aware of the perils of labeling community as “the other” in hopes of engaging them.

The reality is simply this - if you're an Opener charged with opening some part of a system, you're gonna have to wrestle with these truths and definitional dynamics.  All Openers need to reconcile the system's need for feedback, the dynamic nature of community itself and the imperfections of any process designed to "talk to the community."

It will requite creative solutions and outside the box thinking - especially because the system is used to the same-old-same-old engagement (more posts on what innovative opening can look like to come).

It'll always be a challenge. However, at least starting with a better definition and a recognition of these truths you can start the opening your system and community deserves.  

Try it out. Explore your definition of community.  Honor the tensions. Push the boundaries of the comfortable into what might be possible.