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Seven Community Building Lessons in Becoming a Hub

Screen Shot 2013-04-02 at 9.32.03 AMThere’s an incredible power in being a ‘hub’ in your community. When people get that you’re genuinely committed to the well being of your community, they will trust you more. While everyone is running around trying to get status, you are gaining stature in the community. Paris Hilton has status. Oprah has stature.

And, one of the fastest and most powerful ways to become a hub in your community is to gather the existing hubs together.

When you do this, everyone wins. You win because you are now known by all your key hubs. Your hubs win because they get to connect with each other. The community wins because a community with well connected hubs works better.

On October 20th, 2012 sixty of Edmonton’s baddest ass do gooders got together for a day of networking and community building at The Good Hundred Experiment (which was naturally followed by the Good Hundred Party).

It’s an event I was co-organizing with my colleague Nadine Riopel, author of The Savvy Do Gooder as a project of The Local Good (a project I co-run in Edmonton).

The Story of The Good Hundred Experiment . . .

Here’s how it came to be: In the spring of 2012, there was an election on in Alberta.

In early 2012, a group of young people in Edmonton decided they wanted their generation to be more informed and involved. They planned a viewing party for the leadership debate; something that many 20 and 30 somethings would be unlikely to check out on their own, and even less likely to discuss with friends.

By making it a social event at a bar, they got over 70 young people to show up, pay attention, and talk it over. They made it cool and easy to engage in the political process. They achieved their goal of creating more politically active young adults.

Seeing this, Nadine was inspired. It reminded her that there were many ways to do good, and many amazing people finding their own paths to the change they wanted to see in the world every day. She decided that she wanted to take a closer look at some of these folks, and at how they were generating such fantastic results.

So she started the Edmonton Do Gooder Project to profile several amazing local do-gooders and their work. One of the first people on her list was me.

Hearing about the project, I was struck by how many do gooders I’ve seen making positive things happen, in different sectors and using different approaches. But many of them don’t know each other. Living in the same city; sometimes even working on the same issues.

So many moments of, “how do you not know this person?!”

And I’ve seen how so many are struggling to get over the same hurdles; not enough money, volunteers or resources to get the work done; overwhelm; burnout; and such steep learning curves.

It’s so easy to get stuck in our various silos (e.g. anarchists hang out with anarchists, academics don’t tend to mix with entrepreneurs, etc.).

And I decided to approach Nadine with the idea of bringing these people together for a day of connecting, and of working together to make each do-gooder’s path a little smoother.


Seven Community Building Lessons

Lesson #1: Have a clear objective and perspective.

There are few things worse than bringing together a group of amazing people and saying, “We should all do something together. What you do you all think it should be?”

That way lies madness. You can get away with that move once. Maybe twice. But after that your credibility is gone. Those events are largely a waste of people’s time.

It’s far better for the convener to put out the word that, “We’d like to bring _____ kinds of people together to explore ________/ have ________ kind of experience/ learn how to _______.”

Something people can ‘get’ right away.

If no one responds then it’s probably because they didn’t experience that as a real need in their community. If there’s no need, then there’s no need for a gathering. In our case, we saw the need for people to connect outside of their silos to get fresh support and perspectives. It turns out that we weren’t the only ones feeling that need. And so sixty people responded that they were willing and excited to spend $40 and a Saturday to attend.

We wanted to support savvy do gooders in meeting each other. That was our promise.

Ever since I founded the Jams project in 1999, I become convinced of the power of bringing good people together in a good way and trusting that good things will come from that. The Jams started with the wondering of what would happen if we brought together 30 young people for a week (from around the world who were all up to good things and in leadership roles in their communities) without a lot of guest speakers. Just letting them connect with each other.

“What are your outcomes? What are the deliverables from this?” funders would ask us. “Will there be a declaration from the youth of the world? A statement of priorities? A new network?”

“Nope,” we replied. “Just friendships. And trust. And we trust that good things will come from that over time.”

And it did. There have no been over 100 Jams in many countries. Those week long gatherings have resulted in dozens of new projects, some new organizations and hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding going towards good things in communities that, formerly, had not had access to those resources.

We had a clear objective: help Edmonton’s savviest do gooders be even more effective in what they do by connecting them with each other. Simple. We knew that through conversations with each other and just knowing about each other’s work and the resources available to them, they’d be more effective in what they do. Our belief is that by having a more strongly and tightly woven community of do gooders that, over time, this would lead to more conversations and collaborations that could help more good to be done in Edmonton.

Lesson #2: Pick your people carefully.

Over the years, I’ve learned that, outside of a clear intention based on a need in the community, 90% of an events success is about who you invite.

A big reason is that, the major reason that people decide to come to any event is because of who will be there. Especially when you’re talking about bigger movers and shakers. The busier people get, the more jealously they guard their time. If someone’s a hub they do not want their time wasted. But, if they know that the event is going to be full of people they’re inspired by and want to hang out with, they’re more likely to come.

That’s why we created an RSVP page where folks could see the photos and bios of who was coming. We updated it regularly. We wanted people to know clearly with whom they’d be spending their precious day.

It’s important to be really clear about who your event is for and to not imagine that it’s for everyone. We kept the Good Hundred Experiment secret because we wanted to make sure that we were picking people we thought would be a fit for the event – people who would add something to the conversation, as well as gain something from it. We wanted people who either had a proven track record of do gooding or were onto a really good idea and pursuing it with a lot of hustle. We wanted the attendee list to be a list that had us feel inspired to show up.

This also has a lot to do with respect, I think. Respecting the time of the people you’re inviting. Inviting the right people sets up the day to be a success.

And so, after months and months of hand picking, inviting and following up with some of Edmonton’s finest – the day finally arrived.

Lesson #3: Have a Clear Schedule and Structure, But Don’t OverSchedule

This is the hardest thing to summarize.

If the focus of the day is clear, it’s much easier to create the schedule and flow of the event.

Our focus felt very clear: help savvy do gooders in Edmonton meet each other.


So, we created a schedule and structure of the day that we thought would best facilitate that.

We started at 9am (on a Saturday. #whatwasithinking?).

People arrived, got some tea and coffee and immediately began to look at the wall full of photos and bios of the participants we’d put up (pictured right). In fact, people kept coming back to it throughout the day. When you’re designing an event, it’s not always just about the ‘schedule’ but about the structural and environmental pieces you put in place for people to connect.

The wall of bios became a way people could learn about each other without having to talk directly to the person.

We created the #good100 hashtag for twitter which people used to tweet all day.

We made sure that people sat with new people regularly.

Think ‘structure’ not just ‘content’.

Throughout the day and afterwards I heard many people voice a feeling of intimidation, ‘how did I get invited here?’ That’s how you know you’ve got the right people – they’re so inspired by each other. #goodnews.

We began with some hello’s and welcomes from Nadine and myself and then immediately invited people to people into groups of six with people they didn’t know and then gave them three minutes each to introduce themselves answering five simple questions (name, project name, what your project does, what’s coming up next for you and what you want to talk about today). Simple.

After 15 minutes, they did it again with another group of six. After the second circle, someone tweeted, “only ninety minutes in to the event and I’ve already got my money’s worth”.

Remember: our stated goal was to help savvy do gooders network. People signed up for that promise. And then we delivered on that promise.

After the small group introductions, participants got into groups of three and each member of the triad got 25 minutes of coaching from the other two participants. This was based on the metaphor of their project being like a boat taking their communities from Island A to Island B.

The two people coaching were under strict instructions to offer no advice to their colleague for the first 20 minutes. Their only job was to ask questions, be curious and listen. I think we often jump to advice too soon.

They asked questions like, “Why do you do what you do? What is your vision for your community (Island B)? Where is your community now (Island A)? What’s your project (the boat)? And why do you do your work the way you do it? (the map)”.

At the end of the 20 minutes they were left with a much clearer sense of the persons project. And then they had five minutes to share their very best, hard won wisdom from years of doing their own projects.

For a lot of the participants, this was the highlight of the day.

We then had lunch where people were invited to eat with some new people. They found those people by reaching into the brown paper bag which held their catered lunch and pulling out a small, wooden, puzzle piece sized toy. Some people had balls, some had butterflies, some had fishes. I had lunch with a cool bunch of fishes.

And, in the afternoon, we broke off into the themes of work that folks were most passionately working on (e.g. local food, community building, women’s empowerment). This was probably the least successful and most challenging part of the day as we didn’t give very clear instructions on how to have that conversation. That was a good reminder about the importance of giving a clear intention and structure. Our intention was vague and we gave no instructions on how to have the conversation. That ended up being frustrating for many.

I joined in on the discussion around ‘how do we make our projects diverse and accessible’ which, for me, lifted up some excited ideas for the future of the Good Hundred Experiment.

Lesson #4: Uniqueness is not a weakness. Diversity makes us stronger.

To quote participant Waymatea Ellis, “Uniqueness is not a weakness.”

I worked as hard I could to make the event as diverse as possible (in terms of age, gender, ethnic background, type of work etc.).

I believe that diversity gives us more points of view. It makes us wiser and our solutions better. It helps complicate things in the most wonderful way. It gives our projects and perspective subtle nuances they would never have had before.

The group we had was amazing and fairly diverse and I’m excited about the possibility of have more young people, more ethnic diversity and also to have more funders, foundations and granting agencies present so we can start connect the people with access to the money to those who most need that money.

It’s easy to get trapped in our silos and have our events be only activists, only white people, only the hip hop scene . . . but our communities can be explicit without being exclusive. They can be clear in themselves and honour the unique gifts they have to bring and their unique natures but also build bridges with other communities.

I think that bridges make communities richer.

Lesson #5: Representative Leadership.

What’s clear to me is that, if we want the next event to be more diverse, we can’t simply invite a more diverse crowd, we have to have the leadership of the Good Hundred Experiment be representative of the communities we want to attract. They need to be involved in the design of the next event (which we hope will be a two day event) the selection of participants and the facilitation.

To have an all white facilitation team try to run an event for a group that’s majority people of colour, or an all male facilitation team running an event for women, or an all straight team running a healing workshop for the LGBTQ community, or a group of billionaires being the only facilitators of a program for those who are struggling financially . . . wouldn’t be optimal.

Recently in the United States there was a panel of women’s reproductive health issues . . . without a single woman on it.

Barack Obama is the first black president and that brought out people to vote who had never voted in their lives because they’d never seen their own interests or community represented.

When we started the Jams project, the first event was a fairly diverse mix of participants with four white, North American facilitators and one facilitator from Mali. But, after a few years, the groups are far more diverse and so are the organizing and facilitation teams. The facilitation seems to represent the people in the communities which makes everything easier. And the diversity adds an intelligence and richness to the design of the event – more heads are better than one.

I have consistently found that when I facilitated with others who came from different backgrounds of race, class, gender etc. – they noticed dynamics in the group that I was 100% oblivious to – hadn’t clocked it at all. But they caught it. Which allowed us to adapt and respond beautifully.

There’s nothing more welcoming than to see that the leadership of a group putting on your event has someone who looks like you, comes from your background and who represents you. It relaxes you.

In our table exploring this theme of diversity, we talked about how even the venue one chooses can affect how welcome and excited people are to come to your event. An organizer of the Latin American Film Festival had noticed that the Edmonton Latin Community wasn’t that excited about coming to the U of A for the festival, ‘It’s so far! I always get lost! I don’t know my way around!’ they would tell him. A member of the community is more likely to know these things and save you from expensive mistakes.

It’s also one of the reasons that niching around your past wounds and struggles is so powerful. You’re a native to the territory, not a tourist. Whenever I see people choosing target markets they have no background in, I know they’re in for a steep learning curve. They will have to learn the language, tastes, values, point of view and so much more of the community they’ve chosen to serve before they get anywhere. If you want to be a in a position of leadership in a community, it helps if you’re from that community. If you’re wanting to create an event serving multiple communities – make sure that the leadership of the event is representative of that.

When your following looks at you and your team, they should be able to see themselves in you.

Lesson #6: Celebration!

But so much of the glue that holds communities together comes from informal socialization and celebration. Parties. Potlucks. Picnics. Gatherings with no agenda other than to enjoy each others company.

The evening of our event was the Good Hundred Party. While the day had been invite only – the evening was open to everyone to come. In the end, we had about 100 of Edmonton’s finest do gooders and community members.

I saw many good folks catching up after months of being out of touch and new connections being made.

By the end of the night, I had completely lost my voice and left while the party was still bumping knowing that folks were still weaving itself just fine without me.

It’s an exciting time for the Edmonton do gooding community. The more we get to know each other, the more possibilities there are for collaboration. And the more we work together, the happier we’ll be.

Lesson #7: Reflection – Bringing in the Harvest

Make sure you take time regularly to reflect on your event. What went well? What went poorly? Ask for feedback.

At the end of the Good Hundred Experiment, we passed out index cards and invited everyone to write down, on one side, any reflections they had one the day – what they loved, what they’d change, what they’d love to see next time etc. On the other side, we asked them to write down the specific names of everyone who they wanted to see there next time. Many of these names were completely new to us.

Sit down and reflect on your event and harvest the learnings from it to make sure your next event is even better. Write it all down and make clear outlines for activities so that you can give them to any facilitator in the future and have them run it succesfully. Reflection can allow you to scale what you’re doing so it doesn’t just rely on you. It allows you to create checklists, outlines and instructions so that others could step in and have a successful experience. That’s how things grow.

If you try to do it all yourself and you aren’t willing to learn from your experiences your efforts will become stale quickly and you will burn out.

For more reflections on the day . . .

To read reflections from other participants you can go to Nadine Riopel’s blog post You Are Not Alone, Deborah Merriam’s blog post or to the Natural Urban Mama’s blog post.

To see more photos from the day click here.

To read a storify account of the day from the point of view of Twitter click here.

To read a storify account of the party from the point of view of Twitter click here.


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