Lessons from Four Years of Community Building

Photos by Ruby Somera, Seattle WA

I used to write a year-in-review every single year. In 2016, I decided to stop (my last one was in 2015). These reviews, written mainly to remind myself of my progress, felt self-indulgent and repetitive. This year, though, my approach shifted.

I realized that many of the talented women in my life do not share their triumphs. They get downplayed. In community-speak, I might call this non-bragging behavior being relational: holding back on tooting our own horn means we value relationships over one-upmanship or competition. It means we value security and connection.

Communication and linguistic researchers have suggested this type of behavior makes us appear less powerful, which is why it is so helpful in establishing real relationships. You don’t want a friend with power over you (that’s not a friend).

Yet the more insidious truth beneath why we silence our triumphs is that we fear repercussions for standing out. We fear the loss of relationships. We fear our triumphs may make others feel envious, distant, or trigger their insecurities. We understand how it feels to be jealous of others’ success; it’s only natural. Yet being on the receiving end of this kind of treatment hurts (both sides hurt, let’s be real).

But, in choosing to bow to the fear of others’ reactions, you close off to life. You don’t celebrate others’ wins, and they don’t get to celebrate yours. Staying silent means we are feeding the hunger of judgemental and insecure voices. Our triumphs are not someone else’s loss.

I share this year’s reflection on community lessons-learned in the hopes that these lessons help you — that my triumphs may build a bridge to yours, and we can celebrate together. Instead of listing accomplishments (boring), I share 7 of the biggest lessons learned through my work since 2015.

On Leadership versus Strategy

In 2019, after five years apart, my first community management boss texted to ask if we could meet for lunch. He was passing through Seattle and wanted to catch up. We sat sipping lattes, reminiscing about the early startup days. Then he told me that, when I left the job abruptly, he had checked my work inbox to tie up loose ends (I took medical leave to heal from partner abuse in 2014). Scrolling through my inbox, he found personal notes, virtual hugs, and even pictures of some of our community members’ grandkids. He said to me: “I couldn’t believe you could care about that many people at once,” laughing. It solidified to me that asking about people’s lives, caring for them beyond their transactional relationship with our community, was the key to success. This level of care makes you irreplaceable.

As anyone who builds community professionally will tell you, your first few years of work will focus on tactics, relationship-building, and operations. You will experiment and learn by doing. Then, if you decide to advance your community work, you’ll focus on strategy. But what comes after strategy? For years, I assumed strategy sat at the top of a pyramid of community-building skills. It does not. There is work beyond creating strategy, so much more.

When I stepped into consulting and research, particularly in 2019, a new opportunity for growth emerged. It existed in a rarefied air I had not breathed because I’d often been suffocating unknowingly in rigid organizational structures. What I discovered was that leadership trumped strategy, every time. Leadership is the embodiment of strategy. You can have an incredible strategy and be a jackass, and your community will fail. You can have a loose plan but care, try new things and stay in touch with your community, and I will put my money on your success (and with some foundational work, we could supercharge your efforts!). The leader you are determines the community you build.

Further, in this era of #metoo, Black Lives Matter, and the rise of countless other activist efforts with no top-down leadership, a new leadership model must emerge to align with technological shifts, breaking boundaries, hypervigilance, and constant distractions. A community builder’s job must be to energize, train, care, and embody values.

Follow Your Gut Back to Your Integrity

For a few years before 2019, I could not shake the feeling that I was out of integrity. I would write that I valued connection and intimacy but then choose to throw myself into work over friendships. I would complete a significant project for a client and feel accomplished but completely drained. I would not celebrate. I kept going without asking why.

A few years ago, I got very still and tried to figure out why I could not get off the hamster wheel. I went to the forest with my dad and sat in a tent and wrote a lot. I rationalized my past choices by reminding myself of the incredible leaders I’d had the chance to work with (you all are amazing). Still, underneath it all, I knew my purpose mismatched my daily choices. I wanted to prepare for a better future for building community, rather than working with the lackluster state of things today. So I decided to apply to graduate school.

When I arrived in Milwaukee to visit UWM, I got chills stepping into the research library. I could have ignored the chills, but, instead, I let them linger. Countless others I have met this year have told me something similar about following their guts, their dharma, their intuition. Listen to your body. It often knows before your brain.

Can’t seem to access your intuition? Try stepping outside at night. Take a deep breath. Listen. Just listen. Do nothing. What does your body feel when you take in all the sounds and lights and sensations of the world? What does it need? Do this daily, and your entire life will change.

Valid Objections Versus Energy Vampires

Deciding whose feedback to take seriously is a delicate art. Take feedback seriously, except when it comes from an energy vampire.

Often, people who give us feedback have legitimate reasons for doing so. Other times, their insecurity, narrow perspective, or jealousy drives their criticism. To decide if you should take feedback seriously, ask: What does the feedback-giver make you feel? Who do they remind you of? Is that a voice that will lead you somewhere you want to go?

One of my mentors told me this year: if you want to know what you stand for, look at those who do not like you. Your haters say a lot more about your lived values than your friends do. Figure out who you’re okay pissing off. For me, I’m okay pissing off people who value profit over all else, people who manipulate others, and those who live as though opportunities are scarce and must be hoarded. I have a level of empathy for those people, but their feedback rarely registers.

The other big question that has come up for me these last few years is: Do you need to confront people who disagree with you or who are rude to you? To figure it out, figure out what outcome you wish to receive. Dig deeper into that outcome. Can that person give you that? Are they available (emotionally or otherwise) to give you that? Or do you need something only you can give yourself, like rest or self-acceptance?

A Practice: Family and Friends First

These last four years, I have been on the move a lot. I’ve flown between cities and client engagements and, as a result, have missed birthday parties and holiday gatherings, and I’ve taken less time off. That is my choice. But it also is a choice I will make less often. In the summer, I started to see that I was writing a book about connection while isolated and disconnected. Again, the lack of integrity twisted my stomach in knots. I knew I had to make other choices.

Luckily, life got real in 2019 and forced these choices upon me. A friend’s mother was diagnosed with stage three cancer (which she later recovered from!), and I flew to SF to comfort her, I struggled with depression, I moved across the country with my partner, who is now amid career reinvention.

During this time, I realized I could halt all the work and focus on friends and family when needed. But I had to draw a thick boundary line and stick to it. And, even still, I failed. It is a practice. It just is. In a culture that values output, it will continue to be a practice of resistance to put more into my friends and family every passing year. And that is what I intend to do.

Define Your Terms

People throw around words like “community” without defining their terms (I define my terms here). As a result, we’re all having different conversations. One of my client offerings is helping teams create consensus for what community means and how it gets built, and every time I do this work, I ask how groups define “community.” I do this one-on-one, and I get a wild array of answers. Almost always, they share feelings of warmth and friendship and giving. But they cannot tell me why these feelings matter, and people rarely agree across the organization why they should bother investing.

The Future of Loneliness

Hypervigilance is one of the enemies of our time. Loneliness is a byproduct of hypervigilance. As a survivor of domestic abuse, I know the hypervigilance that trauma causes; I see shadows of it everywhere I turn and in people I love and admire. I see it in myself.

Trauma can arise from myriad sources: childhood experiences, generational violence, workplace culture, assault, or even the vague trauma of being surveilled constantly until you begin to internalize the gaze of surveillance and live in a prison of your own consciousness (OK OK I read a lot of Foucault this year).

I see the fierceness, fear, and defensiveness of others, perpetuated and worsened by trauma because I so intimately know it within myself. It is my deepest desire to help the world look right into those shadows, to let their eyes adjust, and to love those shadows as much as the light. Reconciling the dark and light is not easy work, but it is work we must do in community.

Surrender

I walked outside this morning at my parents’ house into the East Tennesee crisp mountain air, and I heard at least three different kinds of bird calls, a lawnmower, the water lapping at the shore of the lake, and a car driving by. All of this noise and movement creates endless unpredictability, yet so much beauty to witness. In listening and surrendering to the complex intertwining systems around me, I see I am just one small part of all of this beautiful chaos.

Now, here is to 2020, to shades of gray, and to being the ones we’ve been waiting for. 🥂

A special thank you to the many healers, coaches, mentors, fellow community builders, and researchers who have guided me in 2019. I won’t name you all here, but know that if I have reached out to you in gratitude, you are part of this special thanks.

I want to cultivate relationships where we celebrate each other, not downplay our fantastic feats and fun times. If you want the same, comment on this post and tell me one thing you’re proud of from the last four years. Then we can celebrate together!

Carrie Melissa Jones

Written by

I research and write about the structures, problems, and positive impacts of online communities.

Community Building and Strategy

Posts about building, maintaining, and growing community.

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