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10 Courageous Things You Can Do to Build Community

by Milenko Matanovič

February 9, 2013

If you want to become a virtuoso pianist, you have to practice. The same applies to becoming a community builder. It doesn’t happen automatically. Here are some simple (though sometimes challenging) ways to start. The good news is that almost everything we do gives us an opportunity to engage in community-minded behavior. With practice, you’ll find it becomes an increasingly large part of your everyday life.

1 Clarify your image of the future: The world around us is changing and we have a choice: sit back and complain about it decide to direct the change. Taking charge of the future means articulating a vision of how we believe it ought to be. Start with your hunches and intuitions, or let your indignation guide you. How can your community work better? Take a hard look at your assumptions, prejudices, and blind spots. Train an internal microscope on your impulses and ask, “Do these represent my highest and best values?” Perhaps they are vestiges of childhood misunderstandings, outmoded cultural views, or simply old ideas you’ve never bothered to question. Discard the ideas that serve neither you nor your community. This will give you a new sense of purpose and direction.

2 Walk the tightrope: Creativity is fostered by the tension between the possible and the real. The more ambitious your image of the future, the greater need for balance. Resist the temptation to choose between becoming a realist or an idealist. When you walk in balance, you are both focused on a task AND open to new ideas and approaches.

3 Generate some passion for someone else’s passion: It’s easy to believe that we have all the answers. But remember, no matter how acute our vision, we only see part of the picture. Taking the time to study what it’s like to stand in someone else’s shoes brings valuable new perspectives.

4 Pledge allegiance to your community of place first, your community of interest second: Geography defines community of place. When we draw the circle wide enough, it includes people with whom we have little in common — except physical proximity. Our future depends on finding ways to collaborate with people who have divergent viewpoints. Healthy communities transform differences among people into gifts.

5 Invite “them” to your meeting: It can be comforting to imagine it’s “us” against “them” but it can also be destructive. Often “they” have insights that can help us better understand the problem and, as a result, discover creative solutions that might otherwise stay hidden. Cultivate the ability to value the ideas of the diverse people around you. This is the foundation of a healthy community.

6 Support a cause that doesn’t benefit you or yours: Some of the most interesting, important discoveries can happen in the spaces between interests, disciplines and ideologies. It’s necessary to step outside of your natural comfort zone to uncover new solutions.

7 Consider YOUR OWN internal contradictions first — don’t play the blame game: Insisting the problem is someone else’s fault conveniently absolves us from doing our part. We can’t come up with solutions by waiting for others to change THEIR behavior — especially when OUR behavior also part of the problem. Did you drive solo to a meeting about traffic jams? Take a moment to smile at the irony of your behavior. Then view your actions with the same compassion and understanding that your fellow community members deserve when you notice that they, too, unwittingly add to the problems they are demanding everyone else should to solve. The humility that arises when we admit we’re part of the problem is fertile ground for collaborating to devise fresh solutions. Let’s assume we’ve all had a hand in creating the problem; now let’s join together to come up with a solution.

8 Be a mentor for those who are less involved in community: Every community looks to a small, overworked group of leaders and we expect them to figure it out for the rest of us. They attend the meetings and take on onerous piles of work, while others stand by in silence… until it’s time to complain. If you’ve been quietly standing on the sidelines or complaining about local conditions to friends and family, approach a community leader you admire and ask him or her to be your mentor. If you are a leader, pull a couple of people off the “bench” and offer to mentor them — especially if they’ve been complaining.

9 Have opponents, not enemies: We challenge and engage opponents. We shoot down enemies. There will always be people someone wants to exclude: developers, environmentalists, new immigrants, youth-at-risk, government regulators, etc. Instead, invite yourself to their meetings and invite them to yours. This simple practice builds bridges for a more productive and positive future.

10 Promote the architecture of encounter: Unintentional interactions happen in intentional places — public plazas, main streets, churches, parks, stores, pubs, coffee houses, farmers’ markets, schools, and theaters. After seeing a stranger five times we may nod. After ten such nods, maybe we say, “hello.” Ten “hellos” may lead to a casual conversation. A strong sense of community happens when we spontaneously bump into people we don’t know. It doesn’t happen when we hide in gated communities and home theaters to avoid unpredictable encounters with “strangers.” Public places can be fascinating classrooms that teach us how to be neighbors. Knowing our neighbors helps us to imagine the future together and it sets the stage for making it into reality.


11 Whatever we do, let’s make it beautiful: Functionality without artistry, beauty, or even mystery deprives our souls of vital nourishment. When beauty is incorporated into the design, more people use our malls, streets, bridges, and town squares and they do it with more enthusiasm, civility, and respect. Infrastructure can become a source of local identity and pride.

12 Dare to build cathedrals: The majority of medieval craftsmen who worked to build great cathedrals didn’t live long enough to see the results of their labor. Nevertheless, they invested their sweat equity in a vision of a place where the sacred became tangible. They understood they were doing more than laying down stones — they worked to build the physical expression of their highest ideals. With each stone they paid homage to their faith in the future, a future they would not live to see. We honor that tradition by building our surroundings with future generations in mind rather than bowing only to the demands of the next fiscal year. We, too, can build communities as expressions of our highest ideals. Our children’s grand-children’s lives depend on it.