Welcoming Communities – an Online Course of Exploratory Discussion
- Pete Shively
Martin Luther King famously envisioned the ideal of a “beloved community” as a place not only desegregated by law but one integrated in spirit, a place where people of all walks, all beliefs, and all races live and work peacefully side by side. Nearly sixty years hence, we seem more distant than ever from King’s idealized vision. And of those intervening years, political scientist Robert Putnam has argued, controversially, that America’s civic and social capital has declined significantly and to the great detriment of our communities and our commonweal. Increasingly, we are not only bowling alone, we seem to be actively ripping apart the patchwork fabric of various civic and social associations that–under one view—nurture the public trust, tolerance, political engagement, equity, and civil discourse that sustain our democracy. Importantly as well, there are also far less idealistic realities about how many of our communities function. They are often exclusionary and nurturing of prejudice, bigotry, discrimination, and conflict.
What are our ideals, if any, for our communities—beloved, welcoming, or otherwise? How distant are our communities from these ideals? And what kinds of different, healthier, and more welcoming communities might we envision for our future?
In partnership with the Diversity Relations Council and the Center for Lifelong Learning at Leisure World in Silver Spring, Maryland, the Interactivity Foundation is facilitating an online course of exploratory small-group discussions on the topic of Welcoming Communities. In this course, registered participants from Leisure World will meet weekly online via Zoom to collaboratively explore and expand on different understandings of what it means to be a “welcoming community;” and later to develop different possibilities for enabling the “welcoming communities” of our future.
The six class discussions for this course will be participatory, interactive, and additive. The “Course Outline,” and discussion questions listed below broadly describe the overall arc of the course. The specific content and discussion questions for each session, however, will be shaped primarily by–and modified from week-to-week to integrate–the concerns, values, ideas, and possibilities developed by the participants.
Stage One: Expanding our Sense of “Community” and “Welcoming Community”
Session 1: Initial exploration of “community”
- What does “community” mean to you?
- What different kinds of communities are you part of—and why?
- What communities have you joined and/or left and why?
- What are different positive or negative aspects of community?
- Let’s start to form a sense of some of the key features or dimensions that come into play for “community”
Session 2: Expand our exploration to “welcoming communities”
- What has made you feel welcomed or included (or not) in a community?
- What could it mean to be a “welcoming community”?
- What are some of the features or aspects of a welcoming community?
- What values or goals might shape our thinking about welcoming communities?
Stage Two: Deepening and Consolidating our Explorations
Session 3: Diving deeper on the concerns, questions, and challenges
- What are some of the key challenges or questions we might face in creating and sustaining welcoming communities?
- What root causes or underlying issues might be at play?
- What values, goals, or goods are related to these concerns or challenges?
Session 4: Developing Core Questions and Concerns
- What are the core or foundational concerns or questions that need to be addressed for welcoming communities?
- How we might prioritize them?
- Let’s start thinking about how we, as a public, might address or respond to some of these concerns and questions.
Stage Three: Generating Possibilities for Welcoming Communities
Session 5: Imagining Welcoming Communities—A History of the Future
- Imagine you’re in a future with your ideal of a welcoming community: what is it like?
- What policies do they have in place to make it work?
- How did they get there?
- What did they build on in our own time to get there?
Session 6: Sorting, Choosing & Wrapping Up
- Let’s continue to flesh out the different possibilities we’ve created so far.
- What are we missing? Any new ideas?
- How well might they address the concerns and questions we’ve explored?
- What could be added to make them work better?
- How might we summarize them for others?
- Wrapping up: where have we arrived and where might we head next?
The Nature of this Course
This course may be a little unusual in that it will focus on collaborative learning by the “students” rather than on directed instruction by the course facilitators. The work of the course will take place in the six facilitated discussions on Friday afternoons, from 3 pm-4:30 pm. There are no real assignments outside of class time, except to read the short discussion summaries from each session. For this to work well, it helps if you follow the agreements below.
Be present. Since the work of the course takes place during the class time, we ask that you be fully present. We hope that you agree to take part in the whole series of six sessions (as far as possible–there are always unexpected absences). We ask that you be engaged and able to participate during the class.
Three conversation agreements. Our discussion process works by the group members working collaboratively to explore diverse perspectives and develop alternative possibilities. This means helping each other to stretch our minds and imaginations. In the discussions we ask that you agree to:
- Be generous
- Listen first and look for the kernel of truth in what others say
- Help each other build on ideas, regardless of whether you agree
- Step up (to participate) and step back (to make room for others)
- Be bold
- Stretch your mind and think of what we might be missing
- Bring up ideas even if you don’t have them fully figured out
- Think of how the conversation could dig deeper
- Have fun The conversation should be enjoyable–it’s not a debate or argument
Don’t Talk about Who Said What (Non-Attribution). Since our conversations depend on exploring diverse perspectives and ideas, we want people to openly bring up and engage with perspectives and ideas that they may not personally support. Generally, we want to separate the ideas under discussion from the people who bring them up. To make this possible, we ask you to agree not to attribute comments to specific individuals if you talk about the discussions with others who are not part of the course. In short, don’t talk about who said what with others who are outside of the course.
Discussion Summary for Session 6
Final Discussion Session: Sorting, Choosing, & Wrapping Up
In the introduction for this final session of this 6-week course on Welcoming Communities, we briefly reviewed 4 different policy possibilities developed from ideas explored in prior sessions. In our final small group discussions, we started by asking “when I think of ‘welcoming community,’ I think of _____________?” We then moved on to focusing on different aspects of the initial four possibilities. What could make them work better? How might they be revised to better capture the key concerns or to better address the core questions we had explored? How might they better describe our optimal visions for more welcoming, inclusive communities? And how we might get there from here? We focused especially on what might be missing and whether there were any new ideas to add. Finally, we wrapped up this final session with an overview of “what’s next” as well as some feedback on the course overall.
Introductory Summary of 4 Policy Possibilities for Welcoming & Inclusive Communities
1. Focus on Enabling Diversity & Inclusivity: set the conditions for welcoming communities and enabling diverse people to live and interact with one another (“build it, and they will come”). Goals, features, implementations include—
- Multi-racial, cultural, generational, and class
- Physical, built changes to housing and more and better public spaces
- Social/cultural changes: address legacies of exclusion, multi-cultural programming; roles for older residents; policies, rules, publicity highlight commitments.
2. Focus on Fostering a Community Spirit of Inclusivity that has to be continually worked on, repeated, and regularized as a community virtue. Goals, features, implementations—
- Neighborliness (know & talk to each other); trust, engagement
- Community service—many options/opportunities to get involved, a role for everyone
- Generosity; looking out for each, helping out
- Community-wide events
3. Focus on Increasing Outreach, Coordination, Interaction—like community relations and state departments. Goals, features, implementations—
- Within a neighborhood: welcoming committees, “ambassadors”, home visits and follow-up visits, personal invitations, introductions, to service, to leadership roles
- Across neighborhoods/communities: communication/coordination, creation of joint initiatives, programs, and celebrations (e.g., mentoring, assistance, cultural events)
4. Focus on creating and supporting Community Leadership Committed to Inclusivity. Goals, features, implementations include—
- Explicit written commitments in mission statement, policies/rules, marketing/publicity
- Include in planning efforts (e.g. strategic plan) and budgeting
- Cultivating next generation of leaders: inviting, mentoring
- Ongoing education and training; openness to change
What should we add to the initial policy possibilities—to clarify them or make them work?
Possibility #1 – Enabling Diversity & Inclusivity—building the infrastructure
- “Build it and they will come!”
- More shared, public spaces for group gatherings and public events. Common rooms for every building and neighborhood.
- Other built amenities that support public gathering: benches, picnic tables, etc.
- Virtual or technological infrastructure: meeting rooms with videoconferencing capabilities—microphones, cameras, etc. Virtual meetings can really help encourage gathering for people with mobility challenges.
- Governance infrastructure/capacity: consider forming some sort of advisory committee to the board of directors and/or broader community. Could research and recommend draft policy statements and best practices for both the board of directors and for individual neighborhoods to adopt.
- More informational and other meetings within neighborhoods and homeowners associations.
- Formal, legal policy or mission statements in place to educate, head off problems before they happen, and have plans in place for responding to incidents when they do happen.
Possibility #2 – Fostering Community Spirit
- Includes a sense of responsibility among all members for sustaining a welcoming community, not just leadership.
- Also need a concentrated group of dedicated people who want to make it work and have the energy and ideas to carry through on it.
- Will require long-term, sustained commitment, efforts, and repetition—it will take time and constant tending; need to encourage people not to give up.
- Improved communication to new and old community members that we are all in this together. Need to establish and reinforce strong norms of inclusivity, welcoming, and positivity for all community communications, especially in writing and online.
- More and new community-wide events and other opportunities for everyone to come together for positive purposes: g., recent gathering to support Asian Americans; also celebrations for each other’s different festivals, holidays, “spirit days” etc.
- Accommodate different levels of interest/involvement—don’t need 100% involvement; some people are not joiners (and that’s ok), and they may still support the goals of fostering a more welcoming, inclusive community spirit.
- Include a sense of “flexibility”—to meet people where they are. There are many different ways to be connected, to be involved, to participate—to match different personality types and interests.
- Possible analogies: “community ambassadors” or “activity directors.”
- Information gathering: need to know who is in the community and what their interests are. We need to listen to the different needs of different community members.
- Build on enthusiasm, positivity, trying new things.
- Establish an advisory group, or committee (etc.), like this group, to provide ongoing support, education, and awareness around these issues.
- May not be formal or governmental, but more voluntary and flexible. Could be in addition to a more formal, governmental committee.
- Could provide an open forum for exchanging ideas, best practices, etc.
- and help build “community within the community”
- Such a group could also act as a clearing house for information
- Strategize for how to respond to incidents, to show support for others, for establishing long-term, systemic change.
Possibility #3 – Focus on Increasing Outreach, Coordination, Interaction
- Return to having regular, quarterly events, gatherings for newcomers.
- Be prepared to address “thornier issues,” including racist incidents, within our community so that we’re able, capable of doing outreach with a plan and with integrity.
- Start with smaller-size groups and communities of interest where people may be more comfortable at first and then build up and out from there. Communities of interest may be able to bridge out to others beyond residential neighborhoods.
- Build connections between different groups and clubs: “open houses” and mixers; include suggestions for how to mix people up, meet others.
- Be sensitive to different personality types: not everyone is a joiner or likes being pushed to do something new.
- Survey and learn from other communities: what are they doing that works.
- Create new and informal interest groups: people interested in attending an event together, having dinner after, etc.
- Include “ambassadors”—people who have personality to be outgoing and training to make connections to do the initial outreach; and who will sustain the efforts.
- Include the role of media and publicity in improving outreach: the community newspaper, social media, letters to the editor, announcements and invitations for open houses and other community-wide events.
Possibility #4 – Community Leadership Committed to Inclusivity
- Form a new group to advise the board of directors and the individual homeowners associations or neighborhoods on issues of welcoming, inclusivity, and diversity.
- Work on continuing education for leadership, staff, and other community members.
- Research/survey “best practices” for inclusivity and diversity by other communities; make recommendations.
- Adopt advance plans and procedures on how to respond to any racist or other anti-social events, to give clear signals about expectations and what is and is not acceptable.
“When you think of Welcoming Community now, you think of ______________?” Or “how has that understanding changed (if it has)?”
- Signs of friendliness: smiles, saying hello, asking questions; other gestures like waves; acknowledging each other.
- Generosity; invitations to take part, to join, to attend.
- Organized, sustained efforts—not just reliance on accident or chance; someone(s) or some group(s) have to be responsible for making it happen.
- Senses of belonging, connectedness, wanting to be involved, and joy.
- May be different expressions or forms of welcoming for different people; not just one way of being inclusive or welcoming.
- Inclusivity and diversity as more real and valuable community assets—not just “good feelings”, but values that make the whole community a desirable place to live.
- I now visualize a “welcoming community” as having a diverse mix of different people, cultures, religious traditions, and other backgrounds within the community.
- It requires a mutually shared philosophy, a set of shared commitments that must be crystallized in writing, in planning, in marketing, and with management.
- My understanding of community is now much enlarged, more expansive. It’s not just my floor or building, I’m now thinking more about the broader community, the whole community.
- My understanding has shifted from a more individualistic view to a much more communal and systematic view. I’m thinking more about structural things that can be done and affect everyone and not just about my individual state of mind.
- I’m thinking more now not just about my personal sense of community but also my responsibility—what I’d be willing to give. I expect more of both myself and my community and am reconsidering my roles and responsibilities.
- I now think of “welcoming community” more as a “leadership” issue; previously I didn’t.
- I now think of connecting multiple different communities.