A Slow Community Movement?

slow, small and underfunded
A couple of weeks ago, Peter Block said the qualities of successful community initiatives were, in his experience, being slow, small and underfunded. We all laughed, but looking around the room, his bravery in saying it seemed to resonate with many of us.

Have we been “communitied” to death? Has the abundance of choice, the speed with which commercial ventures have yet again jumped on to the “community” bandwagon anesthetized us to what “being together” as a community really is in our lives?

I was on a Skype call with a friend and colleague from Germany this morning and he was reflecting on how much he was enjoying working on an unfunded project. Used to the structure of organizations and businesses, he found the passion a wonderful, refreshing experience. I paused, then laughed and told him about hearing Peter Block. Something resonated. Bing!

Then, for fun, I said “what about a ‘slow community’ movement — like the ‘slow food’ movement?” We laughed, but again, that bell went off.

I thought I was joking, but now something is blossoming from that moment of humor. A few minutes later I read an email from Jay Cross recommending the article, Freedom to Learn :: Unitierra in Oaxaca by Gustavo Esteva. The article talks about the work of communities in Oaxaca who are eschewing schools and centrally designed learning experiences to take learning back into the hands of the community – on it’s own time, terms and tempo.

In the rush to colonize the possibility of community on the internet, with its characteristic speed and fleetness of metaphorical foot, we may have lost sight of the fact that some many of our most precious communities are slow, small and underfunded.

What kind of magic is this? What should we be paying attention to?

Is it time for a “slow community” movement? What would that look like to you? More importantly, how would it make your world a better place?

(Edit: Vanessa DeMauro had this thought in March. A good sign! )

19 thoughts on “A Slow Community Movement?”

  1. Nancy, I think you may (yet again) be onto something. I experienced something akin to this recently with CPSquare, where there is some testing underway to explore an email distribution problem. With posts and communications going back and forth, for the first time in recent memory I suggested we step back from some of the technology and schedule a simpler phone conference, since the technology seems to be a bit faster than some people (meaning, at least me!) can handle.

  2. I’ve always felt frustrated with the “slow” metaphor.

    I’ve found communities and people that embrace it, and then seem to end up becoming sleepy. As if action were not important, or working quickly. Which is not what the original “slow” movement was about.

    The Federation of Damanhur, for example, meets the kinds of observations that the “slow movement” champions. But you would never think of the word “slow,” to see them.

    Focusing on what is important in our lives, detaching from consumerism, growing food, eating sensibly, and bewaring illusions of “speed,” does not mean that we need to get sleepy, or ponder everything mercilessly before taking to action.

    This is my only concern about the use of the word, “slow.”

  3. Nancy,
    Whoa! Great little post here. Based on my understanding of creating and sustaining networks and communities online, small and slow are what people really need (as opposed to what they think they need or what they end up with). As Jeffrey notes in the comment above, I too think you’re on to something important here. I need some to think this through some more.

    Thanks for the spark!


  4. Nancy, I’m wondering how your idea applies to school, an institution constantly berated for being slow to keep pace with the rest of society. Of course being slow in your example does not mean out of touch or always being change resistant but taking the more considered, stripping things down to what is really important type of approach. As each school is its own community, this concept has a lot of merit and could allow that community to identify what are its goals and priorities. That’s why we have vision statements but when the school is part of a larger structure like a department of education, slowness can be equated to the metaphor of a giant supertanker that is impossible to turn with any sort of haste should the need arise. Hmmm… a lot more thinking on this idea required.

  5. Nancy, great food for thought again. When I moved from Germany to northern Ghana with a research project aiming at improving multi-stakeholder water governance, I had to learn slowness the painful way and for the longest time I was (very fast) hitting my head against a wall that wouldn’t give in. The only effect, it seemed, was a tremendous headache. But then, after being continuously involved in research, feedback, official and private interactions of all kinds, after 1 1/2 years something happened that I came to call “harvest time” because things (results) just came to me as if for free. For a few months things were so easy that I became lightheaded and couldn’t believe that this had ever cost me any sweat. Maybe I have worked in the agric sector for too long but I have come to think of initiating change in agricultural metaphors of planting, watering, weeding and harvesting and start to understand (at least in theory, alas) that you can’t make anything grow faster by pulling at its leaves…

  6. Sue Thomas tried to post this comment, but it had a challenge getting here, so here it is, off her blog: http://www.hum.dmu.ac.uk/blogs/part/2008/04/slow_community_in_action.html

    Nancy, I cannot tell you how much this resonates with me right now. For the past week I’ve had two problems with speed: (1) my broadband is broken so at home I’m reduced to dialup – am writing this in notepad now to paste in since I can’t be sure the dialup with stay connected – can you remember how that feels? (although I confess to rather revelling in the glorious sound of the modem dialling in..) and (2) I have been ill with a virus which involved many hours laying on the sofa watching crap TV. As a result my entire life slowed to about 10% of its usual pace,and I have been musing a lot on how that feels. Early last week it was very weird, but as the days have passed I’ve become more used to it and I’ve been pondering on how much time I spend being distracted by all the hi-speed interactivity we’ve got going at the moment – of which Twitter is the prime culprit. (Having said that, without Facebook I would not have known it is your birthday and without Twitter I would not have found this post.)

    However, what with Twitter and Skype etc we have interactivity and presence in huge amounts and in ways that were never possible in the 90s when you and I first met each other across the O’Reilly webboards. I spent all my time then trying to find apps that were better and faster than Webboard – and now we have them,or at least we’re closer to them. But sometimes I wonder whether the quality of the interactions we can now have are really better and faster, or just more numerous? More people pushing past me on a noisy street?

    I don’t know, but more and more recently I’ve found myself longing for a way to be slow without having to disconnect altogether — but do you think that’s possible?

    Sue (count me in)

  7. Nancy, I admit that the phrase “slow community” resonated with me, but reading the comments I also agree with Lion Kimbo’s comment about “slow” sometimes ending up “sleepy” or, less charitably, “pretty much dead”.

    For me “slow” means moving at a pace that allows learning. And for me, now that I’m in my 60’s, that pace is slower than it was when I was 25.

    Eva’s agriculture metaphors seem generative in this regard. Sustainability does require sustained attention and effort. And sustained attention and effort requires pacing myself.

    So I’m associating this post and the comments with the ideas of scale, scope, and just plain being practicable. Even though things need to change, and in any given network or community there are priority actions that need to be taken, I try to remember that “patience is a virture … hard to come by.” Slow community practice might be one avenue.


  8. Depends on the community. We’re just getting funding organised for setting up a bunch of communities of interest in the context of careers development extending from students at entry point through to established, mentoring alumni. Some of those communities may well be very slow. Some of them may be very small. Some of them may be quite the opposite. I think your key point is “on it’s own time, terms and tempo”.

  9. Nancy, your post comes at a time when I am preparing contracts for a new fiscal year and your comments about skipping, seeing patterns, scanning and discerning interventions strikes home.

    In contracting there’s always a linear outlined action plan with outcomes and deliverables. While I used to be able to write one of these easily, I find these days, the more I am working with technology in communities, the more difficult it is for me to put some things ahead of others in a linear way. More often than not there is significant looping back to inform actions more clearly and yet it would appear to an observer that looping back is wasted time. Your post and several of the comments make me think that maybe sometimes slowing down and looping back or standing still is exactly what we need to do. Maybe we ask a different question, maybe the slow motion helps us to get new people connected and engaged and maybe we need to experience and recognize the pattern. In the end, you nailed it … it is “discerning if and where to intervene” that makes all the difference and that is the really tall order. Thank you.

  10. I feel remiss that I have not come back and engaged with all your wonderful comments, observations and questions. I keep writing on my to do list “follow up on Slow Community” but ironically, I’m moving so fast, I have not felt the space to chew and digest. So this is still percolating with me. Please, keep deepening things. I’m listening, thinking, absorbing.

  11. Nancy –

    I had occasion to think of this again (& thanks @ourfounder) in the context of a couple of very small, seasonal, local mailing lists that I’m on.

    There are some sets of community that because of the seasons happen only once a year. The set of people who know when in this town you should can tomatoes (because they are abundant and cheap and farmers have a surplus), the set of people who park cars on their lawns for football games 6x/year, the peculiar rituals around back to school, the 4th of July parade etc all have their community aspects.

    The passing of time forces these communities to be slow, in the sense that you can only really operate at the pace of the seasons. There may be a frantic build up to an event but the real win comes when you can build an organization over what may be many years that can do something that looks to the outside to be enormous (e.g. serve 12,000 chicken dinners in one day) but which is really the end result of 55 years of process development.

  12. As each school is its own community, this concept has a lot of merit and could allow that community to identify what are its goals and priorities.
    Wide Circles

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