If you look up the meaning of community. You’ll find a lifeless (IMHO) definition: people living in a certain place (as a village or city) : the area itself.
I don’t think this is what we have in mind when we talk about building community. More likely we’re thinking of community the way Fabian Pfortmüller, Swiss community builder, defines it: a group of people that care about each other and feel they belong together. His definition implies connection and relationship, vitality and intention.
Such communities are built in conversation.
At the core of communicating care and a sense of belonging we find conversations worth having. A conversation worth having is one that communicates, verbally and non-verbally, I care about you and you belong. It shows up when we acknowledge someone’s strengths and gifts; when we ask them questions that help us understand who they are. Interactions that communicate respect and worthiness tell people they are important; they have something valuable to contribute. When we have these kinds of conversations, the world of connection and creative possibility open up.
Real community requires a “we” attitude. Our capacity for “we” comes alive in conversations worth having, but quickly disintegrates to “me” in the face of critical or destructive interactions. The reason: biology. Neuroscience shows that any threat to belonging or safety triggers the release of biochemicals designed to stimulate “protect” systems. The more threatened we feel, the more cortisol, norepinephrine, and testosterone. These hormones actually inhibit our ability to connect, think critically, and be creative. A single sentence or question can start a downward spiral into “me-thinking”: Oh, that’s not important. We’ll call on you when we’re ready for your input. No, not you.
The key is to have interactions that support the release of hormones designed to foster connection, creativity and higher order thinking. Oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins completely shift the brain’s chemistry, opening us to “we-thinking.” When we feel safe and included, we engage to our fullest capacity. This is important. If we want to build community, it begins with such conversations.
It doesn’t stop there. Everything we do is mediated through conversation. We create shared meaning through dialogue. We develop visions of the future by imagining together. We design pathways and systems to help us achieve that future. Conversation is the way we build and reinforce community.
We live in times when new ways of being in community are being called for. We need conversations that inspire us to build community broadly and inclusively, and to create pathways, structures and social systems that allow all people to flourish. It’s possible. It simply takes different conversations.
WNC Woman initiated a new conversation in Asheville, NC on October 30, 2018:
Imagine it’s 2020 and all women in our community are beginning to experience a level of equity and mutuality like we’ve never known before. As you look around
and talk with others, you honestly believe that the initiative(s) we started in 2018 are creating systems changes reflecting real and sustainable equity. These changes are opening the doors so that it’s possible for all women to flourish in their authenticity. In addition, relationships among women are different. There is a palpable shift in the way women of diverse races and ethnicities interact and engage with one another. As you look back to 2018, you recall that you and others you respect and love were an important part of community conversations that helped foster these positive changes.
- What does this future community look like? What are you seeing, hearing, feeling, experiencing that tells you things are significantly different, and that real and sustainable change is happening? What is possible for you now that was not in 2018?
- What is different about the way women of diverse races and ethnicities interact and engage with one another? How, specifically, is this affecting you and your life?
- What initiatives did we start in 2018 that fueled these changes? What role did you play?
- If you had three wishes to implement positive change in social systems that are pivotal to equity and mutuality for women, what would they be?
What might be possible if we begin to have dialogues about building communities that work for everyone? Conversations about what we want, instead of interactions focused on resisting or criticizing what is. What future would you like to bring about? Become a conversational catalyst. We invite you to join us in fostering conversations worth having.
This article first appeared in NOVEMBER 2018 // wncwoman.com
Cheri Torres is a Lead Catalyst for positive change, speaker, author, and consultant with Collaborative by Design . She works with leaders in organizations and communities enhancing their ability to fuel productivity and meaningful engagement.