Tag Archives: sustainable communities

Sustainable communities are dynamic communities III

By embracing change and focusing on keeping our communities dynamic, sustainability often falls into place. I have developed 15 keys to creating dynamic, healthy, learning communities. My last post focused on communication keys, and the previous post on more general keys. Here are the final keys 11-15, which focus on structure:


11. Know that structure can lead to dynamism
Having spent much of the past twenty years working with non-profit organizations, I have heard a great deal about the desire to resist the creation of intentional social structures or to document one’s intentions. Often, ironically, these desires are expressed during meetings. People may see structure and documentation as a means to oppress the knowledge and skills of the many talented people who make up the learning community. However, I see structures as quite the opposite – they often act as facilitators of freedom and allow more individuals to contribute to their community. This is for two reasons, as made explicit by Jo Freeman:

  • No group is truly without structure. Without any formal structure, informal structures remain in place. These informal structures often favour the hoarding of information, poor communication practice, and unequal power relations. I am not advocating for overly structured communities. Instead, I suggest that we should be conscious of the underlying structures that exist in any organisation and put measures into place to help address any inadequacies. For a practical starting point, check out Chapter 4 of Building Powerful Community Organizations.
  • Groups without a clear structure often rely on informal personal networks. These networks are often segregated by race/class/ethnicity/gender /etc. Joan Meyers, of the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations, provides some interesting commentary on this point based on her extensive research with One World Natural Grocery, which successfully implemented a system that helped to facilitate participatory democracy in a workplace community.

12. Allow many to lead and step away from FOMO
Ensuring that those who wish to lead have an opportunity to do so helps build dynamic and robust communities, provided that it is coupled with healthy communication practices and a clear sense of roles. This means being open to the ideas of others, being willing to take responsibility oneself, and also being willing to follow and support others. Equally, it means that not everyone needs to be involved in everything. Many ambitious people experience FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) at some point in time. Multiple, fast communication methods at our fingertips has heightened FOMO for many individuals.

13. Create time and space for reflection
The best ideas are often generated when one steps out of his or her usual pattern. Stefan Seigmeister speaks effectively to this idea in his Ted Talk, The Power of Time Off . While we do not all have the luxury of taking a year to ourselves, we can find small cracks in our days that allow us to physically and mentally step away and think. This might be in the form of physical exercise, pursuing a hobby, taking a bath or finding a quiet place to sit. Communities can facilitate reflection by actively creating or preserving green spaces. The Great Neighborhood Book provides inspiration in this regard.

14. Plan for succession
Many people have discussed succession planning in terms of formal workplace models. Succession planning allows us to help celebrate and build upon our successes. It helps to ensure that the wonderful contributions of past leaders are not lost, while also developing new leaders in our communities. In these ways, succession planning is vital to the sustainability of healthy communities. However, it is important to keep in mind that succession planning should be something that allows us to celebrate and build, not just hold onto the past. The aim is not to continue doing things the way someone else has done them, or to maintain past structures, programs, places or projects in the same manner as they have always existed. If we keep the big goals in mind and understand the importance of change, succession planning becomes a key part of creating dynamic communities.

While many of us have experienced succession planning in terms of formal roles in workplaces, it is equally relevant to our communities to think about informal roles – keep in mind, all communities have structure, including roles. Who helps take care of elderly living alone in your neighbourhood? Who makes sure coffee is made in the morning or dishes cleaned up after a lunch meeting in the office? Who take leadership in ensuring that shared green spaces are kept clean? What will happen when local business owners or farmers retire? Who else could learn into these roles?

15. Balance the ups and downs (institutional settings)
For organizations working with a board, or at least in a hierarchical structure, it seems like half the people I speak to congratulate colleagues on their ability to ‘manage up’, while the other half warn of the dangers of such an approach. The key is in balance and communication.

Everyone in a learning community has something to contribute. Keep this as the focus while also maintaining some sense of organizational structure. Otherwise nothing will get done! A good board of directors will value the insights of those they have hired. At the same time, boards are there to offer a different set of valuable perspectives and experiences.

Sustainable communities are dynamic communities II

By embracing change and focusing on keeping our communities dynamic, sustainability often falls into place. I have developed 15 keys to creating dynamic, healthy, learning communities. My last post focused on broad keys. Here are keys 6-10, which focus on communication:


6. Know thy neighbour and respect that s/he knows a lot
Everyone in a community has something to contribute. To learn from and value one another, we need to know one another. How can we make this happen? Go for a coffee, go for a walk, or invite a neighbour or colleague into your home. Let others into your private world, and get to know theirs. Socialize with people you wouldn’t otherwise. It doesn’t matter where you are – institution, office, suburb, or city – getting to know one another is always possible if we let down our guard. This allows us to appreciate each other in our humanity, but also as skilled people with whom we can connect and share. If you are really ambitious about this aspect of community, start a Human Library.

7. Ongoing communication & good communication practice
Once you have begun letting people into your world, and start to know theirs, keep it up. For those in neighbourhood settings, take it a step further and tackle a task together – help each other out with maintenance tasks, collectively take care of shared green space, or hold a neighbourhood dinner. Invite everyone, don’t be selective.

In an institutional setting, the same principles apply. However, given the prevalence of meetings in such settings, also ensure that you are employing techniques that are inclusive. Follow good meeting hygiene practices.  Behaviours that lead to the hoarding of information and poor meeting management can limit the number of people in the lead. The lack of good communication practice can leave some feeling disempowered and bitter, and ultimately the organization or project falling flat when leaders burn out or leave. There are lots of resources available that focus on the idea of conversations and open spaces. Four resources that provide practical suggestions in terms of facilitating communication are: Born’s Community Conversations; Wheatley’s The World Café; Kaner’s Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making; and Chamber’s Participatory Workshops: a sourcebook of 21 sets of ideas and activities.

8. Recognize that everyone has limitations
Everyone has limits on how much they can contribute to their community or workplace. Everyone has a unique skill set and knowledge base from which to contribute and upon which to build. Other life commitments may also demand that an individual focus her or his attention elsewhere (eg. elder-care, childcare, an ill spouse, a personal commitment to another community.) Recognizing that everyone has limitations helps us to respect the life balance of others, while also ensuring that we create space for many people in our communities to contribute and lead.

9. Be willing to step up and take responsibility / contribute
Take the time to think about what you are good at, what you enjoy, and in what ways you would like to build upon your skills. Consider how you can best contribute to your communities. Then do it. When you make a mistake (and we all do) take responsibility for it and use it as a learning experience.

10. Be open to feedback / ask for help
Ask for help. Ask colleagues, friends and neighbours for their recognition of your strengths, feedback on your ambitions, and what they think is difficult for you. For those in school or workshop environments, invite a colleague to sit in on a session and provide feedback. Give and receive feedback with open minds and honest intentions. Always assume the best in everyone.

A common way to pursue personal and professional development at a more intense level is to get involved in a coaching relationship. One of the most interesting coaching arrangements I have come across is the Gemini Project that teams up senior executives with youth from “tough realities.”

Sustainable communities are dynamic communities I

The sustainability of your community is likely one of your core concerns whether you are at the helm of a successful NGO or school, or simply want to ensure that your neighbourhood remains vibrant. Community sustainability is, without a doubt, central to community learning and health. However, in aiming for the goal of sustainability we sometimes get side-tracked – focusing more on maintaining what we already have than sustaining our primary goals.

By embracing change and focusing on keeping our communities dynamic, sustainability often falls into place. I have developed 15 keys to creating dynamic, healthy, learning communities. Here are the first five:

1. Know your goals
The broadest goal of many communities is often to maintain a healthy network of happy, valued and active people. This goal matters much more than whether or not this is facilitated through a community garden, a choir, a specific program, a particular office structure, and so on. While we often lament the passing of a great initiative or the retirement of a particularly wonderful leader, it is important to keep in mind that social interaction and stability can be maintained in many ways. In fact, it is more likely that it will be maintained if the community is dynamic than if we simply hang onto the projects to which we have become accustomed.

2. Celebrate
Communities often get so caught up in what they don’t have (lobbying for better education, health or transport services; improving green spaces; perfecting programming, etc.) that they often forget to celebrate what they do have. Celebration helps to create healthy minds, bodies and communication. It lifts spirits and can make people feel valued. It can make it easier to accept change when we dwell on what is positive. It can also help us to quickly prioritize and see through the fog of criticism.

3. Letting go of competition
Humans have competed with one another since the beginning their existence, so it is no surprise that competition readily develops between and within communities. Individuals aim to protect their turf, their funding, their organizations, their green lawns, their departments, their privacy, their positions, their access to resources, and so on. However, despite the fact that we have always competed, it is cooperation that often brings us our greatest success.

After all, we wouldn’t have survived as a species if hunters and gatherers hadn’t figured out how to travel and share resources together. And just ask anyone who has scaled the highest mountain peaks, landed a huge corporate contract, maintained a successful community program, or even pulled off a great dinner party. It usually wasn’t done in a spirit of conflict. And if it was, those involved likely did not end the day feeling relaxed. Keep the big goals in mind (see #1) and respect that everyone in every community has something to contribute. Know that it is okay to feel pride and a sense of accomplishment, to celebrate successes, but that these can occur separately from competition.

4. Leave room for new ideas
Help to keep room open for fresh ideas from both newcomers and those who have just had a stroke of inspiration. Being open to new initiatives involves leaving space for them. In a school setting this might mean intentionally creating some blank spaces in the timetable, to be filled with innovative approaches. If a long-standing program or initiative fades away, or a key member of the community leaves, don’t feel that the void needs to be filled right away. In fact, it is better to leave some time and space for people to assess their needs and become inspired by new situations. In all settings, this might mean making sure that everyone’s life is in balance and that people have the mental and physical capacity to consider new ideas.

It is important to create an environment where ideas are received with an open and positive mindset, and community members regard each other as skilled and knowledgeable individuals with worthwhile contributions to make.

5. Know that change is freeing
Once we accept that dynamic communities are healthy communities, we often realize that change not only helps to sustain our communities, but also brings with it a great sense of freedom. Suddenly, anything is possible. New skills can be developed and old ones appreciated. We can celebrate the past but also welcome new ideas. We let go and let things happen much more readily.

Coming soon….the next post will focus on communication-based keys that foster dynamic communities. The following post will focus on structural keys.