(Image via Diem Chau)
[Note: updated photo and new resource added as of Aug 6, 2012]
What a week! As a first time ALIA Summer Institute participant, beginner meditator and member of the ALIA media/video crew, I 'filled my boots' at the 5-day Leadership Conference cum Mindfulness Retreat. The radically different perspective on Leadership at ALIA (in contrast to that of the business world) was particularly interesting. I left with two big take-aways, slow down and create containers, and one big question about the future of community.
Question: Can Varying Scales Of Community Co-Exist?
Are we losing touch with our sense of community? During his opening keynote, Peter Block pointed out that "we are always saying we need more money, better leaders, improved services, and more expertise; as consumers, we are always waiting for the next best thing". He explained that this ‘need for more’ is having detrimental effects on our personal relationships and our local communities. This is because we hire help rather than make time to get know our neighbours and, in the end, to support each other. (This point is further made in a recent McLean's article about how we are 'outsourcing' our lives)
“Today, it is easier to reach out to the entire world then to communicate with your own neighbourhood” – Candy Chang, Artist, Designer, and Urban Planner
But is this a problem? Isn't this just a sign that we are socially evolving and transforming? On one hand, this changing social structure (aided by technology) is giving birth to larger citywide, national and global communities. On a citywide scale, we are seeing this manifested in innovations like Tyze, an online platform and social network for elderly care-giving support, and Time Banking, a skill-sharing medium that uses Time as a currency to promote volunteerism (Trade School, a recent kickstarter project I backed, is an excellent example of the Time Banking principle used to provide alternative education to the masses). On a national and global scale, the collaborative consumption movement, which is described as "the rapid explosion in traditional sharing, bartering, renting, gifting, and swapping reinvented through network technologies” has been a boon to modern society by creating micro-entrepreneurs and a marketplace for new services. On the other hand, loss of local community can be dangerous because individuals tend to group with others who think and act like themselves; yet, diversity of interests and the complex web of a community is what has traditionally created the balance to hold each other accountable. “Like-mindedness is the end of democracy” said Peter Block. It’s in the differences that learning really happens and the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts.
While the loss of local community is a legitimate concern, the question becomes whether different scales of community are mutually exclusive. A similar comparison of this question of scale could be between local shops (bookstore, craft fair) and online shops (amazon, etsy). So far, it seems that these two forms of shopping each have a distinct role and can co-exist. Is this the case for Community? Can we achieve a balance or must we choose only one form?
Take Away 1: Slow Down
(Image via Delivering Happiness)
Each day, the conference opened and closed with a meditation session. At first, I didn’t quite get the whole meditation thing. It wasn't until a fellow attendee explained the value of meditation using the metaphor of an iphone (thanks Ko-Ichiro!). He explained that when many unused apps are open on an iphone, the operating system is slower and can sometimes cause glitches or crashes. The phone runs much smoother when unused apps are closed. Meditation (i.e. being still and concentrating on breath) is a way to close unused apps (or thoughts) that are clouding the mind. Doing so allows us to reach mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially when faced with challenging situations. This clarity better enables us to bite into the problems around us. The idea of slowing down was a major conference theme and was particularly profound for me, having just finished a gruelling two-year graduate business program in which my mind was at a constant tug of war between urgent and important. In the b.school setting, endlessly cramming more into your schedule is the norm (as are panic attacks and stress induced anxiety). I can see now that slowing down is extremely important to our overall health and ability to perform (i.e., our work-life balance). A good friend recently showed me this website that also makes the point about taking a moment to yourself in a quietplace (it's great, check it out!). In any case, I appreciated slowing down in this way over the week and am making more of an effort to slow down on a regular basis.
Take Away 2: Create A Container
(Image via CCCA)
Essentially, creating a container is about intentionally creating an environment where desired outcomes can flourish. In the context of ALIA, it referred to empowering people and levelling the playing field to encourage social innovation.
"Creating the right container - the right heat, light and water - for change will go a lot further than micro-managing the details" - Michael Chender, Founding Chair of the ALIA Institute
This concept of the container is at the crux of the field termed the Art of Hosting (AoH), a collection of methodologies that invites and enables participation, self-organization and meaningful conversations. Often, communication breaks down due to our tendencies to: 1) not have the right conversations, 2) ask the wrong questions or 3) tip toe around issues. AoH offers a toolkit, which includes Circle, Open Space and World Cafe, where hosts create safety within a figurative 'container' by spending time to carefully craft appropriate inclusive language around contentious or sensitive topics. Having facilitated an unConference and previously participated in other AoH methods, I eagerly joined a group at dinner to continue the conversation about personal success stories and lessons learned. Interestingly, practitioners have found that the amount of time spent crafting the right questions is directly proportionate to the depth of the conversations and overall success of the session. This language around 'creating a container' stood out for me as a holistic and progressive way of thinking about what is needed to ensure a successful meeting of minds.
(NOTE: I'm in the midst of organizing a 3-day Art of Hosting foundations training session in the fall to be held in either Montreal or Toronto... stay tuned!)
Can different scales of community co-exist? What are the implications of our new global communities?
Hungry for more? Below are some excellent books/links on the topics mentioned above. Enjoy!
- Report on Community and Engagement by Vancouver Foundation
- Community: The Structure of Belonging by Peter Block
- Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert Putnam
RE. Art of Hosting
- The Circle Way: A Leader in Every Chair by Christina Baldwin
- The World Cafe: Shaping Our Futures Through Conversations That Matter by Brown, Isaacs, et al.
- Open Space Technology: A User's Guide by Harrison Owen AND Open Space Technology: A User's NON-Guide (PDF)