Blog > Ben Smith

A Practical Approach to Community Building: We Create Here

I've spent a great deal of time with others who are passionate about community building — people who see the enormous potential in our communities to find their own solutions, to muster their own resources, and to move toward a shared future of their own design. This is an inspiring and attractive view of community that shines like a beacon in our collective future. And yet as clear as the goal may be, the path is still sometimes hard to see. Getting there requires that we look down from where we are going and find the next, best step today.

We Create Here is an innovative and experimental team, part of The Gazette Company, that has been combining community building and journalism based in Cedar Rapids, Iowa for almost two years. Currently, the two core team members — Sarah Binder and Ben Kaplan — are focusing on entrepreneurship and new urbanism in Iowa's Creative Corridor. You can check out their awesome work here.

At the outset the call to community building and journalism seemed so very clear. Entrepreneurship and new urbanism are two local and regional issues which cannot be fostered by an occasional piece in the newspaper, nor should they be left to "the powers that be" in any community. They are issues which require shared understanding, community input and discussion, and civic engagement. A perfect fit for the team trying to figure out how "journalism plus" could serve a community.

Initially the road was rocky. Everyone involved in the team — which has also changed significantly over its tenure — was enthusiastic and curious, but they didn't really know what they were getting into or how to proceed. Terra incognita is hard to navigate precisely because there's no way to get one's bearings.

  What the team did know was that We Create Here, in combining journalism and community building, would have to do much more than just write articles and take pictures.

What the team did know was that We Create Here, in combining journalism and community building, would have to do much more than just write articles and take pictures. An early, core area of exploration was centered around convening and calling together groups to discuss pressing topics, to share learnings, or to just connect with one another has become part of their everyday work.

But in addition to articles and convening, there were calls to make community maps, to build cumulative knowledge, to seek out partnerships, to develop the team's brand, to support specific (and vague!) community efforts, and much more. Over time the question shifted from trying to figure out where to start (not enough to do) to how to choose from all the opportunities that presented themselves (way too much to do).

It would be misleading to say that this has completely resolved itself, but through a series of intense and frank conversations between Sarah Binder, Ben Kaplan, Peter Pula and me, the team decided to focus their work on a set of five core activities that resonated strongly with both their own desires as individuals and with what they felt was the core mission of We Create Here.

In the end those five core activities boiled down to:

1. Connecting

This is time spent convening the community, having one-on-one coffees with individual community members, being a good connector, visiting workshops/conferences/etc. All of these activities are intended to boost and maintain the social capital and connections within the community. Connections are the fertile soil of community.

2. "Evergreens"

Most people come into communities without solid foundational knowledge about the state of the issue, be it economics, education, entrepreneurship, urbanism, or, well, almost anything. Traditional media has not seen it as its role to fill this deficit in basic knowledge, but We Create Here decided that it should. Evergreens is the name they give to articles that try to cover these bases — such as "What is urbanism?", "Why support entrepreneurship?", definitions, etc. —  so that community members can operate from a place of strong knowledge and not vague ideas.

3. Community News

Communities exist through their own stories. Humans are fundamentally narrative animals and often what is lacking in our communities is not action and engagement, but simple knowledge (=stories) of what's already going on. But stories can also help connect, highlight current issues, celebrate success and failure, and much more. So, We Create Here decided to make all these variations of news and stories part of their core activities too. (In a future post I will outline different kinds of community stories and their functions.)

4. Project Focus

We Create Here is approaching journalism and community building with the idea that their activities can support a community to thrive and flourish on its own. But this means more than just connecting and sharing stories. It means doing stuff too. That's why We Create Here decided that they would also focus on a very small number of projects in the community — currently, celebrating failed startups & exploring the potential of a single road in Cedar Rapids — to leverage the communities their work serves.

5. Customer Exploration

Finally, one radically new aspect of We Create Here — in contrast to traditional media — is that the team genuinely wants to serve its community, its "customers". For Sarah and Ben that means talking regularly with community members about the work of We Create Here and getting feedback on what is working and what isn't. Viewing the team as a startup, they feel its essential to find a good product-market fit and know that their work is making a difference.

So, what's the point?

The point is that community building can often seem (1) vague and unspecific, wandering off into abstraction, discussions of the future, and idealistic and (2) completely overwhelming because there's just so much that one *could* do. The practical approach to community building that the team at We Create Here is taking is to counter both of those tendencies directly.

By defining five core activities that they feel best foster their mission, they are delimiting clear, actionable fields that they can get up on any morning and work on. And by focusing on just those same five activities, they are setting aside — for the moment — the temptations of so many other sirens of opportunity.

Community building is long-term, multifaceted, and complicated work. It's hard to see the effects of any one action and it's hard to know what the next, best step is. This can lead to inaction or spreading oneself too thin. The practical approach being taken by We Create Here is to simplify and clarify.

To see what happens next, keep an eye on Sarah and Ben. Exciting things are on their way!

Blogger Profile

Ben Smith's picture

Benjamin Smith is an applied anthropologist devoted to figuring out just what community building is. He believes that communities have everything they need to create their own desired future, but that some basic structure for moving to that way of being might be helpful.

Ben is interested in tools, but not for their own sake. The entire course of human history is about our species figuring out new cultural practices, new technologies, new forms of organization and then using them to achieve entirely different results.

His explorations in community building over the last years have included experiments in traditional media, organizing a learning circle, writing a book about the community-building cycle, and generally looking for fellow travellers who want to chart this new territory. Both his background in anthropology and philosophy as well as his time living abroad in Russia, Egypt, and Germany have contributed to the broad perspective and global points of comparison he brings to the work.

Ben lives with his wife and two young daughters in Berlin, Germany where he also plays old-timey music, tends a vegetable garden, builds acoustic guitars, and enjoys a nice beer every now and then.

Latest Blog

Fostering generative community is filled with delicate paradoxes. One of those that seems to frustrate and confuse in turns is the role of tools. Which is it? Are there great tools that we can adapt to various communities in service of generativity or is each community so unique that we should abandon all tools and focus our effort on refining our ability to sense and respond to each moment as it presents itself?

It only occurred to me recently that making music with others is a form of convening; the groove is a field of generativity.

Community building is rife with fascinating — and sometimes frustrating — paradoxes. Keeping one's mouth shut is often the best way to move a conversation forward. Planning is necessary and useless. We arrive at a place of vibrant being only through years of doing.

I see community building as an emergent set of practices that centers around fostering health and vibrancy in communities based on the knowledge and resources already present. How does this work, exactly? Well, like I said, it's emergent. But one commonality seems to have arisen clearly out of the initial confusion. Namely, community building involves some combination of convening and narration.

The 20th century was wildly successful on any number of counts. Global measures of health, life expectancy, wealth, employment, wellbeing, school attendance, and more grew faster than ever before. To be sure, the rising tide did not lift all boats, but if we step back and look at the global score, the century brought forth a number of big wins.