Category Archives: Participation

The Refuge of Community

What is the meaning of community for us; each of us, as individual persons? This question has been nagging at me since September when I attended Tamarack’s Community Change Institute in Toronto. It has come into sharper focus for me in the wake of the results of the U.S. Presidential election.

The institute’s theme this year was about the role of creative disruption in system change, which, of course, could also be an appropriate topic for a post-election blog. However, at the Institute, I kept running into people for whom community as refuge seemed important, even if they did not or could not name it as such. On Thursday evening of the event we went en masse to meet with a group of Syrian refugees and enjoy an evening of Syrian food, music, and dancing. It was not this experience, though it was powerful as well as enjoyable, that formed the question that has been nagging me. It was personal interactions with a couple of people at the event.

Prefer to hear and see The Refuge of Community video blog? Click on play button below.

One was a young black man from Florida, another American, who was attending his second Tamarack event. We connected early in the conference and shared a couple of meals together. As an act of remembrance, he wore a button with the picture of his friend, another young black man, who had been innocently shot and killed only a few months before. He was surprised to meet another American – especially a very white guy with roots in the Midwest – who did not hold the biases that made him feel threatened for his own life in his own country. He was finding among the Canadians a sense of community that did not judge him by the color of his skin. We became friends and together we experienced the refuge of community we had found at Tamarack and through our friendship.

The other was a young Muslim woman whose parents had emigrated from Iraq to Canada. It was not clear to me whether she had been born in Iraq, but it was clear that she was seeking community and had not yet quite found it. We also became friends at the event and had some nice conversations at breaks and between sessions. The night of the dinner and music with the Syrian refugees, I saw her and spoke with her again briefly. With a quiver in her voice and tears welling in her eyes she told me she had not known of this group that was so welcoming to Muslim people. “For the first time, I feel like I have a place,” she said. She, like the young man from Florida, was finding the refuge of community.

When I was at the Tamarack event in September many Canadians, and people from Denmark, Australia, and other countries as well, asked me what was going on with the U.S. Presidential election. I really did not have a good answer at that time. Now that it is, thankfully, over and I have had a chance to return to my musings about the refuge of community, a narrative has emerged that helps me make sense of the election. It is about the power of community and the need each person has for a community that offers a sense of refuge from the most troubling and disturbing aspects of life.

For American’s in the “fly over” states of the Midwest, this election was about finding the refuge of community after years of feeling like others had taken control of their lives and they had been left behind. I can appreciate that feeling. I am a native of Iowa in the Midwest and I have often heard – even my friends and colleagues here on the East Coast – speak with dismissive ignorance about the people in the middle part of the United States. (Does the same thing happen to people in the middle provinces of Canada, I wonder?) For example, people I know on the East Coast confuse Iowa with Ohio, even Idaho. They assume the geography of the Midwest is all the same – flat and bland – until you get to the Rocky Mountains. Even worse, they assume we Midwesterners are poorly educated, backward, and inconsequential. The 2016 U.S. Presidential election reinforced a lesson that we all should have learned a long time ago:

It is dangerous to stereotype and to allow our stereotypes make us believe others do not matter.

The U.S. Presidential election teaches us a powerful lesson about the need people have for the refuge of community. We all need to feel like we have a place in our community. Let me say that again. We ALL need to feel like we have a place in our community. This is true whether that community is a neighborhood, a city, a state, or an entire country. It is also true even when we consider micro-communities such as interest groups, sports teams, and places of worship.

Though I do not believe it is unique for our time, our world currently has many fractured communities in which some feel “in” and others feel “out.” Those who are “in” feel like the community is a refuge for them. Yet those who are “out” feel like their communities are not safe places for them. The young man from Florida has felt “out” of the U.S. community and the young woman in Toronto has felt “out” of the Canadian community. They remind me that as individuals we will be guarded and careful even as we seek the refuge of community for which we yearn. The U.S. election reminds me that when enough individuals who feel “out” of community finally come together they will disrupt the community and its systems. This is what I believe happened in the U.S. Presidential election. We experienced the disruption of people who have felt “out” of the national community coming together to re-establish it as a place of refuge for them.

The lesson of this U.S. Presidential election is a powerful one for those of us who work with communities. We must always be diligent to establish communities in which all can find and feel refuge. I know that is a very steep challenge; in fact, it may, in the end, be impossible. It looks impossible in the U.S. right now when one candidate, representing one vision of community, handily wins the Electoral College while the other candidate, with a very different vision of community, wins the popular vote by nearly three million. Nonetheless, we who work in community do so because we see a third way in which the whole community can come together to ensure a place where all can know and feel the refuge of community. Our unique gifts and abilities are needed now more than ever; and, so, our work continues.

Be greater; Do good; Everyday.

Tom Klaus

Hey, What’s that Buzzing Sound?

A buzzing sound can mean many things. When I was a kid growing up on an Iowa farm, Bumble Beea buzzing sound usually meant bees were near by…typically a scary thing since I was pretty sure they had me in their tiny stinger sights. Ah, but there are buzzing sounds that are not at all scary and indicate good things are happening. I heard one just like that last week in Buffalo, New York.

It intrigues me that I can almost immediately distinguish the type of buzzing that is happening, even before I know the source or the cause. Last week in Buffalo there was definitely a strong, positive buzzing sound. It was the buzz of genuine participation.

For the past few months I have been working with a group of volunteers in the community who have come together to see what can be done about teen pregnancy in Buffalo. Last year the community was funded through the Office of Adolescent Health (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) to replicate prevention programs and facilitate referrals to youth friendly health centers in an effort to reduce the teen pregnancy rate by 30% over the next five years. That is a tall order. The effort, known as the Buffalo Collaborative Community Initiative to Reduce Teen Pregnancy (BCC), is led by Cicatelli Associates Inc. (CAI Global). The BCC includes partnerships with key organizations and groups throughout the community, including the Erie County Department of Health, numerous community based organizations (CBOs), the faith community, and “just plain folks.”

The group, known as the Community Action Team or CAT, was originally convened about six months ago and I had my first meeting with it in December 2015. I was asked to help the group get a better understanding of its community mobilization work and how it relates to the overall project. In that meeting the group was still new and forming and there was not much to buzz about…except for just a little bit of confusion about its role. This is pretty typical for new groups in the early stages of development.

Last week I returned to Buffalo to work with the group again. This time there was a different kind of buzzing. Early in the meeting I led the group through a series of exercises that were designed to get them moving about, meeting other CAT members, and having substantive conversations with one another. There was a buzz at that time because the members really put themselves into the exercises and, yes, they were participating.

But the real buzz of participation was the one I heard after the exercises were completed, and the CAT divided into its five different “action groups” and went to work. Now, overall, the CAT has responsibility to lead effort to mobilize the community in support of the teen pregnancy prevention work. I decided to sit in with a group that was working on a survey for new and recent parenting teens. As part of their contribution to community mobilization, members felt it would be motivational for the community to know more about what it was like to be a parenting teen today compared with “back then” (10 or more years ago). Mostly I listened in to the conversation and only occasionally asked questions or offered ideas.

There was this moment when my ears and mind, though, were pulled away from my action group by a buzzing sound. The room was alive with buzzing, and not a bee was in sight. All five groups were meeting in the same large groom and the sound that had arisen in the space was the strong, positive buzzing of engaged people working together in genuine participation. Wow! What a sound! What a moment!

How is that groups come to make this kind of sound together?

I believe it happens when we, the “experts” who are often asked to lead such groups, allow it to happen. To allow it, though, we have to let people actually participate meaningfully. Meaningful participation is, in part, what I mean by genuine participation.

The temptation we often face in leading community change is to be in charge, set the agenda, make the decisions, and “demonstrate” collaboration by recruiting members to a group like the CAT, yet without really allowing them to have a meaningful role. That is, we create the appearance of community participation without actually having community participation.

Look, I know just how tempting it is to do that. We often work with tight deadlines, and too few staff, so we feel pressure to shortcut the process by convening groups and, mostly, having them “rubber stamp” our ideas and plans so we can “check the box” of community involvement for the annual report to the funder. I have observed a lot of that and research I have recently published with a colleague supports that observation. (See the contact box below to request more information on this research.) Also, frankly, I have experience doing the same darn thing…much to my embarrassment and shame.

We can do better though, right? Of course! We will know we are doing better by the kind of buzzing we hear. Listen carefully. Token participation creates a buzzing from discontent, disappointment, frustration, and irritation as people grow to feel ignored, over-ruled and used. Genuine participation generates the buzz of excitement, enthusiasm, hope, and empowerment that comes from having a meaningful role in community change. I know which kind I want to hear.

Be greater. Do good. Everyday.

Tom Klaus