Lowering barriers to information builds a healthier ecosystem for neighborhoods and community organizations to make change. One Omaha is breaking down the buzzwords and institutional jargon that often define our understanding of community development. Today, we’re focusing on community building.
Community building is a series of practices that create or enhance connection among individuals within an area (such as a neighborhood) or with a common need or interest.
Community building is:
- Authentic and people-centered
- A chance to foster connections and build trust
- An opportunity to address shared concerns/organize
Often we hear about community building in a business context – “How can we build a community of consumers who are loyal to our product?” Community building takes on a different meaning when applied to the work needed to bring neighbors, co-organizers, and other collaborators together toward a common goal. You aren’t trying to sell people a product or service; you’re trying to build mutual understanding with them in support of a shared cause or project.
All communities need a reason for being. Friends come together every week because they like the same movies. Garden clubs spring up around folks who want to plant, weed, and share clippings or vegetables. Demonstrators for a social or political cause join up to have their concerns heard more clearly in the larger community.
An example of a local group that grew through authentic community building is Skatefest Omaha, an organization centered on supporting and celebrating Omaha’s skateboarding community. Their three mission outcomes are connection, creativity, and inclusion.
The group saw a void in Omaha’s skate culture and knew it would grow and prosper if they began investing in their community. The brainchild of Blake Harris and other local organizers, Skatefest quickly grew from several limited art and skate events to larger, more accessible events around the city, skate camps, and additional programs providing youth with positive role models committed to fostering leadership, grit, determination, creativity, and self-confidence.
By forming relationships with other local groups, such as BFF, Skatefest expanded its community base to include local artists and creatives – interests that often overlap with skateboarding. “We want to serve the skate community and the creative community,” Harris said, “because the skate community is the creative community.”
The group has also worked to build and maintain skate parks in underutilized areas, creating physical spaces for connection among its community members.
Skatefest Omaha is now a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with a strong base of community support built through authentic engagement and celebration of culture.
“We feel so good supporting our community, and they support us back,” Harris said.
It’s easy for communities to form around charismatic leaders and create top-down leadership structures. It often takes one or several persistent and vocal folks to begin stirring up interest in building a new community. However, for the sake of longevity, it’s essential to have group buy-in and investment. Consider co-leadership, committee, or group vote models if leadership is needed. Group decision-making ensures more chances for voices to be heard and the group to reach a consensus on plans and actions.
Avoid being a lone wolf organizer. Lone wolves choose advocacy strategies that focus on becoming a source of information and expertise rather than putting effort into engaging others. Lone wolves may need more resources to engage large numbers of people. Often they think engagement is optional. These limitations can severely impact their ability to affect change and frequently leads to burnout from taking on too much without help.
When building a community, try to cultivate and transform people’s interests. Focus on bringing them together and giving them space to exercise strategic autonomy. Research shows that this method of collective action inspires people’s motivations for action to change, grow, and develop.
Getting Ready To Build
So how can you build community? First, ask yourself some exploratory questions:
- What issues are you passionate about? Do you notice others are also talking about or acting on these issues?
- What changes do you want to see in your neighborhood or community? Are you comfortable sharing your vision with others?
- What activities do you enjoy? Can you share these activities with others? How?
Try to be specific in identifying the topics or activities you’d like to build a community around so you can communicate them to potential group members. Take your time making real connections with your community members. Remember that relationships shouldn’t be purely transactional – we form relationships because we genuinely like someone or share a common goal.
Relationships are often the key to solving a problem or getting the job done. In fact, fostering relationships is 90% of community building. Focus on deepening bonds with your community members. All members should feel safe and comfortable sharing their opinions and concerns within the group. Diverse points of view and shared leadership also help groups tackle problems or undertake activities more effectively.
Ready to Start?
If you’re ready to start building community, One Omaha can help! Contact us to work on setting goals, creating action items, and assigning leadership roles.
This blog was written by Noelle Blood-Anderson, One Omaha’s communications manager.