Thoughts on Community Building

I spent some time today writing up my August newsletter. (You can read the letter here. You can sign up for future newsletters here.) As part of that email I have a section where I list my projects in progress and try to summarize what I’ve done on them in the past month. I try to keep the summaries short and focused. But I’m discovering that one of the projects wants more space for my thoughts on it to expand, and that is my project of Community Building. It has only been the past six-ish months that I’ve listed Community Building as one of my projects at all. I’ve been building community for far longer than that, but I finally recognized it as a creative project rather than just a life thing. I began giving it space in my list of creative projects, which in turn has helped me value and make time for the work I put into communities.

Part of what helped me recognize community building as one of my creative projects was reading The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker. That book has done much to shape how I approach community work and event planning. Add to that the organizational work that I’ve done with Writing Excuses for both of the retreats we’re running this year. The amount of learning I do about being a good host while attending those staff meetings is significant. I also spent nine months being the streaming coordinator for my church congregation. And I picked up a job as director of operations for a non-profit that runs literacy events for teens and tweens. All of this meant that I had a new set of eyes with which I viewed Gen Con and the symposium attached to it. I now move through the world with an eye toward event planning and community building, which was not how I saw things before the pandemic. That was an interesting shift.

Because of that shift, I made time to visit with a friend who was also at Gen Con, the kind of friend who lists “community builder” right on his web page. I took him out to dinner because I wanted as much information as I could get about how I can serve underprivileged and marginalized teenagers without screwing up. The conversation was varied and I came home with lots of things to consider. More than that, I came home with a sense of him as community builder. He would talk about the Saturday mornings he spends with “the elders” in his neighborhood. He casually mentions the arts center he participates in. He split his time between Gen Con and at least three other arts, church, and city based events. He’s on a first name basis with the mayor and other power players in his city. I got this sense of overlapping and intertwined community that fills up his life. I wanted several more hours to ask him questions and unpack what each of these connections are and how he builds a life where he is so thoroughly enmeshed but not trapped or entangled. Because mostly I manage my multitude of communities (family, church, writer, city, etc) by keeping them separated and not necessarily bring my whole self to any of them. But perhaps there is a more integrated way of living. And perhaps I am making them all a little bit poorer by not serving as a connector to foster cooperative efforts. I have a lot to think about with this, particularly related to safety issues and what level of connective service I can maintain without burning myself out.

I do think that my shift into administrative work has the potential to make me feel disconnected from the community purposes that the administration is supposed to serve. This is one of the reasons I look forward to actually being on the Writing Excuses retreat in a few weeks. Because suddenly the work isn’t about answering email and checking on tickets and ordering supplies. Instead it is faces and people, it is connection and time. That was one of the things that attending Gen Con gave back to me, a realization that while writing and drawing the Schlock Mercenary comic ended two years ago, that project is still out in the world making a difference in people’s lives. That ongoing work we do to support it and bring it to new people is still adding good to the world, not just us trying to leverage old material for income.

So I bring all of those thoughts with me to the online community building work that I do. It is a different kind of effort to build community in text based, asynchronous mediums. And different again in zoom based meetings. Yet these mediums can answer needs which aren’t answered in other ways. Today I ran the full church stream for the first time in months and I felt joy in being the connecting piece which allowed a dozen people to gather and participate even though they could not attend in person. Next week I’ll hand that job back to the person whose assignment it now is. But I’ll remember as I reach out on Discord, or writing this blog, or sending my newsletter, or scheduling my Creative Check-Ins that community can use many different mediums and connection takes many forms.

Building connections between people, helping people see each other and love each other, is how we begin to solve many of the problems of the world. It is a work that is worth doing and worth learning how to do well. I still have so much learning to do.