Together Institute
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Together Institute

The personal growth dimension of community leadership

Can I weave transformative communities without transforming myself?

Artwork by Jessica Benhar for Holstee

“It is becoming increasingly clear what the challenge is in system change. It’s not the problem out there. It’s us.” — Philippe Vandenbroeck

As I have been working with communities and networks over the past two decades, my focus has naturally been on the group. Yet recently I have come to understand that there is a crucial (and sizeable) area of the community weaving practice that I have not paid enough attention to until now: myself.

I have come to realize that if I want to weave thriving groups, I also need to work on myself. When I shape and guide a group, I bring my own motivations, hopes, values, but also fears, anxieties, traumas, biases and blindspots into the group.

For example, over the years I have developed a bias that in purpose-driven communities being together is more important than doing together (because, in my opinion, we have plenty of spaces for doing, but few for being, and once we connect on the being level, a whole different way of doing becomes possible). But it turns out that not everyone has that preference. Different groups and different contexts need different foci. However, unaware of my bias, I have imposed my belief onto groups. In retrospect I realized that there were many instances where I wasn’t fully listening to what the group needed. And the groups were worse off as a result.

Another example I have observed is around values. The values of a group are strongly shaped by its initiators (or source). If I start a group, whatever values I embody will become deeply embedded in the group, and as Michel Bachmann beautifully points out, these values will almost be impossible to change later on.

Where am I in right relationship with myself?

I have found it useful to look for gaps between what I aspire the group to be and where I am at, personally. For example: If I want my group to act generously with each other, how am I generous in my own life? If I want my group to be transparent about money, am I transparent about money? If I want my group to have a culture of proactively addressing conflicts in a healthy way, am I having healthy conflicts in my own life? If i want my group to value diversity, do I embrace diversity in my own life? In a certain way, starting with myself is the ultimate application of the “weaving from the inside out” principle.

I was inspired to think about the inner dimensions of community weaving by Richard Bartlett’s community building methodology, Microsolidarity. Rich proposes that thinking about a group starts with the self. And interestingly he proposes to visualize myself as a group: “I found it really useful to think of myself as a collection of parts, a network of overlapping identities who share custody of this body called Me”. So how I relate to different parts of myself influences how I relate to other people.

If we want to transform systems, we have to transform ourselves

This relationship, between the inner and outer world, is increasingly coming into focus in the context of the urgent systemic crises we’re facing. For example, the Inner Development Goals, are an initiative that adds a self dimension to the Sustainable Development Goals and it recognizes how transforming outer systems without transforming ourselves might not be possible: “There is a vision of what needs to happen, but progress along this vision has so far been disappointing. We lack the inner capacity to deal with our increasingly complex environment and challenges. Fortunately, modern research shows that the inner abilities we now all need can be developed. This was the starting point for the ‘Inner Development Goals’ initiative.”

The framework encompasses five main dimensions and, given my bias ;-), I’m happy to see that two of them are strongly connected to community weaving: relating and collaborating.

What about the personal growth of community members?

Of course it’s not just community leaders, but also members who bring their hopes, fears, traumas and blindspots into the group. How can we create spaces for their inner growth? I’m a total beginner to this and would love to hear what you all think. I’m inspired by the work of people like Lana Jelenjev and Rei Chou who center healing in communities. The little I have come to learn is that dealing with trauma in a community needs a whole new set of skills and deep experience. Most communities don’t yet have the capacity to hold these kind of spaces and conversations. But what if they did?

I’d love to hear what you think — how does this resonate? Thank you for sharing your thoughts in the comments.

Thank you

Thank you to my friends at Holstee and Jessica Benhar for the beautiful artwork. Thank you Rich Bartlett for your work with Microsolidarity. Thank you to the people driving the Inner Development Goals forward. Thank you Lana Jelenjev and Rei Chou for bringing the conversation around healing into communities. And thank you to my collaborators: Michel Bachmann, Erin Dixon, Sita Magnusson, Lana Jelenjev, Nettra Pan.

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Fabian Pfortmüller

Fabian Pfortmüller

2.7K Followers

Grüezi, Swiss community weaver in Amsterdam, co-founder Together Institute, co-author Community Canvas, fabian@together-institute.org | together-institute.org