May 05 2007

Archive: Communities: Dancing with fire?

(Original post here on my old blog)


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Originally uploaded by pteronophobia182.

The ongoing conversation about communities, networks, groups and individuals is always fascinating to me. I deeply appreciate the new possibilities unearthed for networks in the digital era, the flexibility personalization allows the individual, particularly for self directed learning, but I cannot let go of this voice inside of me that affirms and reaffirms the value of community. Particularly of community in the larger contexts of networks and individuals. They are a productive and interdependent set of forms; an ecosystem.

Martin Dugage wrote:

Why is it that the strongest advocates of a networked economy fail to see the importance of communities, which they wrongly equate to social networks?

Perhaps our resistance or worries about community may come from the fact that communities are like dancing with fire. There is something exciting and beautiful about them. When we have sufficient practice, we can dance with fire. When we don’t we get burned. They can and are both “heaven and hell.” But we can do things within them that most of us simply cannot do alone.

This is just a simple analogy and full of holes, but it just came to me when I saw this picture of my niece, Ayala, fire dancing. And not just fire dancing alone, but with others. With her community of fire dancers. Have they ever “burned” each other? I’d hazard a guess of “yes.” But in that quick burn, comes learning (hopefully!).

Last week 18 of us gathered here in Setubal Portugal for 2 days of dialog about communities of practice and three days of working together for others. Three days of practicing together, as John Smith called it.

The last time we were together in such numbers was 5 years ago. We were a barely formed group them. I was struck this time of how much we had grown, both as individuals in our practices and as a group. We danced with fire better. It was a joy to reflect with some of the group about how I experienced their deeper practice and how they have nurtured their natural talents and energies into forces in their worlds.

We initially plotted to do this work for others, together, coordinated by Bev Trayner, to fund our gathering. It isn’t cheap to convene a F2F of a global community. Bev and I had had an informal conversation months ago about “how much would it cost to gather and who might want us to do something for them.” Bev, in her typical amazing way, created the connections and made it happen. (Note: don’t underestimate the amount of work, energy and reputation this takes. Bev gave with a depth and breadth that is hard to even calculate.)

This act of working together is not insignificant when you consider that we were doing work for real clients with little pre-planning. Last Friday we were in a van and two cars, split up into work groups and planned a series of workshops for that very afternoon where we would negotiate with a leadership team four workshops related to school librarians in Portugal, which these leaders would then offer to their wider, emergent community the next day. One of our team jokingly called it “van planning” – a new form!

How often would you trust others to do something seemingly insane as this?

We could, because we have relationships of both practice and trust with each other. We have danced with fire together and separately in various permutations, but never as a whole like this. But we pulled it off. And I think it went well.

There were some significant learnings for me, that I’m just starting to unpack. Here are the first set, most easily available to my cold-clogged brains. (Communities share viruses too!)

1. The role of the new-bees in our group. This is always an area of learning for me both about the identity of the group, of individuals and my place within that context. Of the 18, we had 4 who had never been to one of our gatherings, 2 more who had been to smaller gatherings and the rest returned from the original Setubal Dialog from 5 years ago. There is quite a bit of explicit and implicit negotiation that is required to both welcome folks in and to keep forward momentum. The key point for me was when one of our group expressed her feelings about our, um, ahem, chaotic practices, right up front. She made them discussable thus a place of learning rather than solely of stress. In hindsight I would probably not put all the new folks into one team. I think it happened that way because of their particular expertise, but we have so much to learn FROM and WITH each other that perhaps mixing us up might be good.

2. Gender. In talking with Bev after the event, I was struck by an observation she made about gender and the fact that I don’t recall us ever talking about how gender shows up in our community. I want to bookmark this to come back to in the future. I think this may be something significant to explore when we try and develop and improve our practices of planning community events. There is a huge amount of logistical coordination and “scene setting” that goes into a gathering. I don’t think it is an accident that it is usually women doing this work. I wonder if it is easy to romanticize “washing up together” as a central learning experience if you are not the one who has been doing that every day at home for your family and others. I wish I would have had a web cam at the sink to see WHO actually washed up and IF they had significant learning conversations at the sink. I bet things are somewhere between the romantic notion and “total waste of energy.” 🙂

3. Negotiating processes. In a community made up of smart, quirky and diverse individuals who really love and respect each other, sometimes we can get in our own way. (Are we collectively “high maintenance?”) I sense there is a lot of wisdom in our group about group process, yet I also sense (and I would love to KNOW) that we all don’t fully step into the role of convenors at the needed moments. It is as if we are afraid our actions are acts of control and imposition. Our reactions to control are also significant. It would be worth a conversation. We decided to convene in Open Space this time and while I think it was a really good decision, we sometimes did not embrace it fully and may have missed some of the value that way. I also re-learned a lesson that I know and should be practicing: don’t facilitate and meta talk on the process at the same time unless everyone wants that. I made that mistake again. Oi! But I would like to think with my community more about how we make decisions.

4. Caring for the little things. Bev was our Deva of the master plan, carried out in an amazing manner. But there is the community perspective as well. All along there were always these moments when a community member noticed and cared for the little things. A hug in a moment of insecurity. Notes taken and shared during ‘van planning” so we could remember our crazy ideas. Shared shoes and socks. Heaters turned on so a bedroom would be warm after a late night session on the veranda. Driving some of the shoe-lovers to a quick shopping session in Lisbon. Picking people up at the airport even though that meant another drive into town – even when they could take a train/bus/taxi. Food prepared with both expertise and love (THANK YOU >ROGERIO!) Little things matter. I love little things. Personally, they give me great joy. It would have been fun to try and document them and tell that part of the story of the gathering.

Of course, then there were all the wonderful conversations and learnings from them. We need to gather our notes, review our drawings and make sense of all them. But for now, this is enough observations. Back to work!

Oh, and yes, I’m quite happy to dance with fire with my communities!

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