As a Community forms, it grows to be coherent, building out shared language, rituals, artefacts of power, identity, sometimes purpose and values. And as it does so, it can become increasingly exclusive, identity led, silencing, and monocultural. There is no innate way in which Communities become better over time, just predictable ways that they can change.
Our earliest interactions are around credentialing, exchange, projection and power: we share our stories to establish commonality, exchange gifts, compliments, or stories, we project roles and limitations onto other members, and figure out where we sit within the implicit power structure.
Somewhere in this mix sits the things that bring us together, which may be experiential, or belief based. And the nature of this thing forms the walls around the community.
For example: a group of domestic abuse survivors share an experience, which becomes a wall. Those of us lucky enough to never have had that experience cannot cross that wall. We may hear stories, we may be allies, we may have empathy, but we cannot be members. The unifying force is experience. But a group of environmentalists may be united by belief: to join, i simply need to believe. Both groups may form, grow, become effective or dysfunctional by the same steps, but the walls that surround each one are materially different.
Some walls have gates in them, and others do not.
We typically belong to many different communities: each of which may serve a different purpose, and within each we take a different role. Some may be surrounded by those high walls of experience, with no gateway, whilst other have barely a fence around them, and many ways in.
Indeed, one of the most interesting questions i have been exploring with groups recently is ‘how do you know if you belong?’. Can you be a member of a Community if nobody else knows that you are there? Probably. I can be a Belieber* without any permission or visible totem of membership (* a believer in Justin Bieber: honestly this is a thing).
Other communities have very formal membership barriers: so the walls may be high, but they may choose to open the gate. High walls do not simply mean a barrier: they may mean selectivity. Which may be a different language for exclusivity, or bias. Some clubs are men only. Or white men only.
In part, it is this exploration that has led me to adopt the definition of Community that is is, at heart, an entity of exclusion: as a Community forms, by nature it builds it’s mechanisms of membership, and identity, and hence inherently excludes those that are outside it’s space.
And it is this understanding that has evolved my focus in Social Leadership: not simply to be a strong leader within a Community that we know and are part of, but to be an inter-connecter between different Communities, to reach out beyond the familiar, to help connect across difference. Sometimes to search for the gate.