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Welcoming Communities – an Online Course of Exploratory Discussion

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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. 

Course Agreements

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.

Download PDF of Discussion Summary #5

Download PDF of Discussion Summary #4

Download PDF of Discussion Summary #3

Download PDF of Discussion Summary #2

Download PDF of Discussion Summary 1

Welcoming Communities

Discussion Summary for Session 5

Imagining Welcoming Communities – A History of the Future

Imagine that you’ve time traveled 25 years or so into an ideal future where we’ve figured out how to nurture and sustain welcoming and inclusive communities that address many of the key challenges, concerns and core questions that we’ve discussed in this class.  What is it like, what do you see, and/or what is happening in your view of this optimal future?  What are they doing differently, what policies do they have in place to make it work, how did they get there, and what did they build on in our time to get there? 

We devoted our 5th class session of “Welcoming Communities:  Re-imagining Our Communities,” to exploring different visions for the future that emerged from discussing the questions above. Below you’ll find a summary that sketches out four different focal points, or “policy possibilities,” that broadly correspond with and describe the different visions that emerged from these discussions. In the final session, we’ll see how we might further shape and refine these possibilities for creating and sustaining more welcoming communities. We’ll also consider what we might be missing and whether any new possibilities come to mind.

Different Policy Possibilities for Welcoming & Inclusive Communities

1.         Enabling Diverse and Inclusive Communities.  This possibility focuses on enabling diverse and inclusive communities by attending to the conditions that allow and encourage people across a range of differences to live and positively interact together.

Reasoning for this vision

  • This vision is motivated by a desire for, and belief in, a community that is multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-generational, and multi-class. It envisions a community that is not segregated by race, national origins, ability status, economic status, or age—and where people positively engage with one another across these differences.
  • This community’s diversity is seen as a strength, a factor that makes it a more attractive, more interesting and desirable place to live.

Implementations for housing and the built environment

  • Make sure there are a range of different housing options from low income to middle income to high income housing; from detached single family homes to townhouses and multi-unit apartments.
  • Make sure there are multi-generational housing options, including units appropriate for extended families or other communal living groups that wish to be linked by shared common areas.
  • Make sure the built environment accommodates people of all ages and abilities, including ramps, elevators, and play areas for children of all ages, etc.
  • Create physical features that encourage, enhance, and sustain interactions among and across all community members, such as—
    • More, and more varied, common public meeting spaces, especially outdoors, like: civic centers, plazas, sidewalk seating, parks and picnic shelters, shopping areas, public gardens, recreational spaces.
    • Community meeting spaces that are multi-use—can be set up for different functions and different size groups.
    • Spaces that mix open, public spaces with business—all within walking distance to housing and transportation.
    • Businesses that are themselves meeting spaces: g. coffee shops, other restaurants and pubs; book stores.  Also post offices, libraries, day care, schools.
    • Public art: murals, statutes, sculptures, fountains, sidewalk and other public art that celebrates the diversity and heritage of cultures within the community.
    • Large video screens and microphone/speaker systems for every meeting space so people can participate online as well.
    • Other features that encourage people to meet and linger outdoors: Benches!!!  And more benches.
  • The community has a wide variety of recreational options: from walking paths and bicycle paths, to soccer fields, courts for basketball, tennis, pickleball, volleyball, shuffleboard, skateboard parks, bocce ball, cross-training courses, frisbee golf, chess boards, accessible fishing docks, skate parks, hockey rinks, baseball/softball fields, etc. 

Implementations that are social and cultural

  • There are affirmative, specific, and ongoing efforts to redress the legacies of past segregation or past exclusions from the community.
  • There is a positive emphasis on and promotion for social and cultural aspects of the community, including ways to encourage acceptance of, interaction and engagement with, and learning from our differences.
  • There are a significant number of multi-cultural and cross-cultural celebrations and other programs and events that are open to all and where different groups can celebrate and share with the larger community their stories, food, music, language, dance, dress, art, etc.
  • Older residents are enabled to play a key and valued role, not only as helpers in the community-wide task of caring for and educating the next generation, but also as sources of wisdom, expertise, and key professional or life skills.
  • Community leadership reflects the diversity of the residents.
  • The community’s written statements—its mission statement, rules, policies, and marketing information—also reflect, and proudly highlight, its strong and ongoing commitment to diversity and inclusion for all.

2.  Fostering a Community Spirit of Inclusivity.  This possibility focuses on creating a community that has a strong, healthy sense of neighborliness, community spirit, and service.  Key components of—and implementations for—this vision of community include—

  • Community residents know each other. They are open and engage in conversation with each other—even when they have very different backgrounds or viewpoints.
  • There is a shared sense of trust among residents.
  • There is a feeling of engagement, that everyone takes part, everyone is in outreach, everyone is both serving and being served, a feeling of give-and-take.
  • Community service is a key value and activity for the community that is also part of the appeal. There are many different options and opportunities to become involved. Everyone has a role, a purpose, and these can change over time.
  • There is a generous spirit toward and among neighbors and all residents.
  • Residents look out for each other and freely and frequently help each other out: sharing their practical advice and experience when asked.
  • There are numerous community-wide events and celebrations that are open to all: g. concerts in the park, dances, art fairs, food fairs, craft fairs, fundraisers, sporting events, farmers markets, parades, presentations, wine and/or beer tastings, history night, spring clean-up (and celebration), treasure hunts, garage-sale Saturdays, etc.

3.  Increasing Outreach, Coordination, Interaction. This possibility focuses on actively reaching out to, and coordinating with, other individuals, organizations, and communities—both within and outside of the community. It envisions activities that work to welcome and include members within a community, as well as coordinating and engaging in joint programs and initiatives with other communities.

Within a neighborhood

  • Create active and coordinated welcoming committees that can operate at different levels (from the building floor, to the homeowner’s association, to the neighborhood or community level) and that go beyond the welcome mat.
    • Set up community ambassadors to carry out these outreach efforts.
    • There are individual, face-to-face home visits or interviews and follow-up meetings for all new residents to provide orientation, answer questions, and check on how they’re doing.
    • There are information and social events designed to help both newcomers and current residents meet, get to know each other, etc.
    • Personal emails, introductions, invitations to lunch, social events, to serve on committees and in other leadership positions; and opportunities to help out with the welcoming committee going forward.
    • Ongoing efforts to ensure that every individual feels invited, welcomed, and cared for—whether they’ve lived in the community for 2 hours or 20 years.

Across neighborhoods and other communities

  • Focus on being good neighbors to other communities
  • Create numerous joint programs with other, surrounding communities: g. connecting younger people with seniors; connecting across cultures.  Examples could include—
    • mentoring, tutoring, advising; learning a language, job skills, etc.
    • assistance with setting up and using new technology
    • assistance with household chores
    • shared educational programming (history, culture, civics), and other activities
    • shared recreational facilities
    • shared cultural events, celebrations: trick or treating, parades, community clean-up, etc. 
  • Coordinate, sponsor, and support joint efforts with other organizations and institutions, including especially among schools, community centers, recreation programs, health care systems and hospitals, social work agencies, parks and recreation, etc.

      4.  Community Leadership that is Committed to Inclusivity.  This possibility focuses on the vital role that community leadership plays in fostering an inclusive community that is genuinely welcoming of diversity. 

      • Make sure that community leadership (e.g. board members and officers) are committed to fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion.
      • Equity and inclusion don’t just happen—they have to be intentional goals for the community: commitments to welcoming diversity and inclusion should be included in the mission statement, the community policies and rules, and within all marketing or publicity materials.
      • Explicit commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion are also incorporated into and part of any planning or visioning processes, any strategic plans, or other longer-term planning goals for the community.
      • Sustaining inclusive leadership means there should also be an ongoing effort to cultivate and mentor the next generation of community leaders.
      • Inclusive leadership should be committed to ongoing education and training for themselves.
      • Inclusive leadership should be willing and eager to listen to multiple and differing views, to survey residents, to try new things, and to change how things are done.

      Bright Spots, and Possible Building Blocks or Starting Points in the Present for Welcoming Communities

      • Build on the experience of this group and the people in it. Explore ways to keep it going: exchange contact information and follow-up with one another.
      • The Diversity Relations Council as a locus for activity around these interests.
      • Personal invitations to join or attend events hosted by other groups, clubs, organizations
      • Include, consult, and work with community staff people (they are part of the community).
      • Meet with the executive committee and share with them the interest and ideas developed through this class.
      • Survey the community to get additional input, ideas, and involvement for welcoming communities
      • Research what other communities and organizations are doing on welcoming, diversity, and inclusion.
      • Convert this group into an advisory council for the executive committee(s).
      • Revisit the strategic plan. What opportunities are there to use it to build toward a more welcoming community?
      • Explore the possibility of hiring a staff person to oversee and coordinate the community’s diversity and inclusion efforts.

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