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How to Stop Competing and Start Building Community

Using community-building to create system change. Credit: Finance Innovation Lab Facebook.

Using community-building to create system change. Credit: Finance Innovation Lab Facebook.

For years I struggled with having a public side to my work. I’d become anxious at the thought of public speaking. I’d hold back from sharing my opinions, especially in the expert world of NGOs. Public visibility triggered a sense of shame about myself.

I’m not alone in feeling that there was something wrong with me. Our neoliberal society pits us against each other, we must compete with one another to be the “best” in all spheres of life: at work, in our looks, in how popular we are. The list is endless. We learn that we are not enough; that we must constantly improve to “get ahead”. As Buddist psychotherapist Tara Brach says: 

“This breeds a culture of shame and separation. We learn early on that any affiliation – with family, friends, school or the workplace - requires proving we are worthy.  Someone is always keeping score.”

The best way to break free from our shame is to acknowledge and share it through community, creating bonds of friendship and support. 

While community helps us at an individual level, it’s also a strategy for wider systemic change. If we want to address the entrenched injustices and suffering in the world, then, put simply, activists will need to work together. By building communities, we create stronger groups of activists working in concert to achieve more ambitious change. We also create a counter to the individualistic neoliberal cultural that predominates in most realms of our lives.

I’ve been creating communities of people working for systemic change for nearly seven years. I’ve led the development of the Finance Innovation Lab, a network of people building a more democratic, responsible and fair financial system, and Campaign Lab, a leadership programme for activists working for an economy based on social and environmental justice, now part of the New Economy Organisers Network (NEON). 

The Finance Innovation Lab has engaged with over 3,000 people who want to change the financial system. It has incubated alternative business models in finance, influenced government policy on regulation for alternative finance and developed the leadership capacity of pioneers of finance that puts people and planet first. NEON is a network of over 1000 activists from right across the progressive movement – faith groups, trade unions, NGOs, academia, media and more.

Over 60 leading activists have been on Campaign Lab, including Disabled People Against the Cuts, Compass, 350.org, TSSA, the Quakers and many more.

The communities I helped to build had three key features: a strategy for collective impact, a safe space for personal growth and a practice ground for liberation. 

Strategy for collective impact

Working with others means we increase our collective power and impact. But in order to work well together, there needs to be at least two basic conditions in place: high-trust relationships and some sense of shared strategy. If we don’t trust each other or understand each other’s approach to change, our efforts will most likely crack under pressure.

Community helps us put in place these two basic conditions. By being in an open and supportive space, we are enabled to open up and share more about ourselves, creating intimacy and strong bonds. This builds the bedrock for effective collaboration. As the social change theorist Marshall Ganz says: “relationships precede action.” 

Community can also create the space in which to strategise together. In The Finance Innovation Lab, the network Transforming Finance connects financial reform activists to develop shared strategies for systemic change. Each member of the network is working to change an aspect of the financial system, be it ShareAction on pension reform, NEF (New Economics Foundation) on banking reform or Positive Money on reforming the monetary system. Friends of the Earth are working with Transforming Finance members to create a communication and advocacy plan for civil society on how to react when (not if) another financial crisis happens in the next few years.

Together, Transforming Finance members link up their strategies into a broader narrative of change for the whole financial system. As a result, they are increasingly recognised as a significant moral and intellectual force for financial systems change and have influenced policy and regulation. The network has run workshops to shape policy with the Bank of England, the Treasury and the Financial Conduct Authority and is is working more closely with MPs and Parliamentarians on financial systems change.

Safe space for personal growth

In Campaign Lab, we have seen that a non-judgemental culture gives activists a safe space to try new things out, from personal practices to new campaigns strategies. Our participants support each other to take risks, to try, to fail and to learn together. Without this space to grow and innovate, we are unlikely to try more radical approaches to change. 

Participants use the skills that they develop in the safe space of Campaign Lab to create more effective and systemic campaigns, on issues as wide as migrant rights, racial justice and climate change, and to build their organisations, such as We Own It, Rethinking Economics and 10:10.

Practice ground for liberation

Finally, community can help us start to heal the wider fractures in society that echo throughout the progressive movement. 

We live in a deeply unjust world where a small section of society either inherits more privileges from birth or accumulates over them over the course of time – or both. As a result, these people end up having more power than others. Their power solidifies into structures that favour an elite and oppress and marginalise those who are excluded. This plays out in the progressive movement, too, with white middle-class men very often promoted to positions of power and people with marginalised identities – women, people of colour, people with disabilities and LGBTQI people – pushed to the edges.

This happened to the convenors of Campaign Lab, who are all white, able bodied, cisgender people. We were confronted with the uncomfortable truth that we hadn’t been intentional enough with reaching out to marginalised communities when recruiting participants, and the speakers and materials we were using were didn’t draw on the rich diversity of social change activists.

By intentionally building diverse communities, we can start to right this wrong. But it requires much more than tokenistic diversity. It requires community members to hold a mirror up to themselves to see the ways that their behaviour can – often unwittingly – perpetuate patterns of dominance and oppression. This can be very hard to hear, particularly when it relates to our own behaviour and advantages.

Building on the insights from NEON’s own work on power and privilege, we developed links to groups of campaigners on issues often seen as more marginal, such as Disabled People Against the Cuts, West Yorkshire Racial Justice Network and Migrant Forum. We made our materials more accessible and, most importantly, we admitted our own weaknesses and grew stronger with the Campaign Lab community. Our last cohort was the most diverse we’ve ever had, with more women than men in the group and strong participation from black and minority ethnic people and people with disabilities and LGBTQI people. Many participants told us it was an inclusive and empowering experience, making us even more motivated to build on this for future programmes.

The end game is a community actively seeking liberation – working towards unlearning oppressive behaviour and giving up power to truly stand in solidarity with one another. Through our collaboration with community empowerment expert, Shilpa Shah, we are learning the power of witnessing each other and honouring our different experiences that have been shaped by our different backgrounds and identities.

In creating a community that is anchored in this kind of deep honesty, we create a loving space, where we can admit our weaknesses or our sense of shame. In doing so, we become more powerful: we can take on challenging work, free from the fear that others will “find out” our weaknesses. And perhaps most importantly for activists working for systemic change, having liberated ourselves from our own fears, we are able to create a safe space for others to understand where they have been made to feel small and ashamed and to step into their own power.

Ultimately, I am learning that being in community really means being in service to systemic change, and to each other. 

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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