7 tips on how to build, support, and grow your community
Community has been on my mind quite a bit these past few months. After living by myself in solitude in the Swiss Alps (you can read about that here), I had the opportunity to live and work with 36 young entrepreneurs from 13 different countries to help prepare them for the Thought For Food Summit.
Some members of the growing TFF Community
This was an incredible week. All day we would work on business models and practice business pitches. At night, we would share stories from our homelands. One of my favorite memories is when we learned how to dance Samba (from Brazil), Salsa (from Spain), and some traditional dances from Indonesia, Pakistan, and Uganda.
After the Summit we all returned home as a unified community. In the span of a week, we formed life long friendships with up and coming young leaders from around the world.
Since then, I have been working with Thought For Food to develop a thriving global community, which has led me to ask…
How Do You Grow and Build a Tribe?
Tribe: A group of persons having a common character, occupation, or interest
For the past 15 years of my life, I have been surrounded by and within communities. Community living, sharing, and reflecting has shaped me to become the person I am today.
Here are reflections on some of those communities, with key highlights on how to create a vibrant and growing tribe.
Pocono Plateau Camp and Retreat Center
The first real community I was a part of started in 4th grade, when my family moved to Pocono Plateau, a summer camp in the middle of the Pennsylvania mountains. Living at Pocono Plateau was a childhood dream come true. All summer long I would go to camp - what could get better than that? There were kids my own age to play soccer with, then afterwards we would jump into the lake and compete in splash competitions. I grew up navigating low and high rope challenge courses, pushing myself to face my fears and trust those around me. Camp is the place where fun and laughter are constants throughout the day.
Laughing and playing with friends at camp.
The most important lessons at camp came later, when I started working on summer staff. As a ‘staffer’, I lived and worked with 30 other young adults, spending 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with them for 3 months. All of us agree that these were some of the best days of our lives. Here I learned the following things…
The Importance of Play Summer Camp is built around the premise of fun and play. As a staffer, you are directly responsible for a child having a good or bad week at camp. Our staff community put aside our differences for a common cause, ensuring that all children had fun and were loved. By creating a safe place for our campers, we created an atmosphere in which they could truly be themselves. Think about it - when you can be goofy and not worry about what others think of you, how much more comfortable do you feel in your own skin? To be a part of a genuine community, people must first feel comfortable with themselves. Utilizing play at camp created an open, caring, and fulfilled community.
Read Play It Away for more information about the importance of play.
Challenge by Choice Communities grow when individuals grow. At times it can be easy to forget that within a group of people each person is different. Everyone has their own unique experiences, hopes, and fears. To grow and build a community, you must find a way to grow and challenge each community member. A great way to build individual growth as a collective group responsibility is to utilize Challenge by Choice. To effectively use Challenge by Choice, follow these steps:
Let the group spend 1 day together, getting to know each other. (While this example is more relevant to new groups, but Challenge by Choice can be used at any stage within a community.)
After a rather difficult team activity or experience, call the group together.
Explain that each person in the group is different. Something that may be extremely easy for one person (for example, jumping in the lake) may be panic inducing in another.
Have the group members commit to pushing themselves individually to try things that are out of their comfort zone (for instance, taking 5 steps into the lake).
The rest of the group must agree to always support these challenges. Support does not mean force, but it also does not mean to let things slide. It is the group's responsibility to ensure that each member is challenging themselves in a way appropriate for them.
Have the group sign something physical which can serve as a reminder of the Challenge by Choice contract.
Disconnect from Technology To have a strong community, you must be connected to those around you. In a world full of ‘fake’ communities on social media, it is important to be fully present in the physical space around you. At camp, we took away campers cell phones (but there was no cell service anyway). In real life it can be extremely hard to completely disconnect from technology, but this is an integral part of building a strong community. Not only will you have stronger interactions with others, but by putting away your distractions you are showing how important the other group members are to you. I suggest having dedicated ‘tech free’ times throughout the day - meals are a great place to start with this.
This is a core premise of Retreets, a community building platform open to any type of group.
Another extremely powerful community I have been a part of is ThinkImpact. In 2013, I decided to forgo some amazing engineering internship offers and spend my summer living and working with smallholder farmers in rural Kenya. For 2 months we lived in mud houses without electricity or water, immersing ourselves within the village to understand challenges and opportunities smallholder farmers face on a daily basis. The experience changed my life, and set me off on the path I am taking today.
Our amazing ThinkImpact Kenya group. Photo by Eric Chen.
At ThinkImpact I learned the following about building a community…
Shared Purpose Everyone that participated in ThinkImpact was there for a common reason - we saw entrepreneurship as a way to lift others out of poverty. While many of us have since moved on to different fields, when we were together in Kenya this was our motivation. To have a strong and united community, a shared purpose is integral. Many times communities are self selecting, and the community forms around the purpose. If that is the case, it is important to have an extremely clear mission and vision. For a self selecting community, you need to make it as clear as possible what your shared purpose is so that you attract the members you would like to see in your community. A shared purpose can also be developed later with the help of the community. This may be more challenging at first, but by giving individuals the opportunity to craft a shared purpose for their community you are giving them ownership and responsibility, which translates into a stronger and healthier group.
When coming up with a shared purpose, try to answer the following. What do we do, how do we do it, whom do we do it for, and what value are we bringing?
Reflection and Check-Ins One of my favorite parts of the ThinkImpact program was the dedicated group check-in times scheduled on an almost daily basis. At first, they seemed a bit silly - why do we need to talk about our feelings and challenges all the time? However, as the program progressed it became clear to all of us how important these check-ins were. By providing a safe place to express our current physical and mental states to each other, we were able to move past some major roadblocks. For instance, many of us struggled with the adjustment to ‘African Time’ which seemed to cause everything to happen 2 hours after it was scheduled, if at all. By talking through this challenge as a group, we realized it was something we were all struggling with, which not only brought the group closer together but also spawned some ideas on how to embrace this cultural difference. In communities, it is important to give a safe space to share challenges and conflicts that are bound to arise. By discussing them early and transparently, your community will limit the toxic buildup that can occur from small annoyances and disagreements.
As I have experienced different communities it has become very apparent that the most impactful ones (Pocono Plateau, ThinkImpact) have created a sense of belonging. The co.space has taken that one step farther and created a physical home.
I discovered the co.space in 2013, and signed up to live there right away. Here was a community of young changemakers looking to live life a bit more intentionally. During my two years of living in the house, we did everything from throwing a murder mystery party, to installing beehives, to hosting a Mongolian Throat Singing concert. So many lessons were learned about how to (and how not to) build a community, and here are some key takeaways…
Shared Responsibility A constant source of conflict and tension in the house was the kitchen sink. No matter how many times we begged and pleaded with each other, people would always leave dirty plates and dishes in the sink, waiting for them to somehow magically clean themselves. We finally found a solution to keep the sink clean. Every Sunday night after dinner, we would have a cleaning party. This consisted of loud music, obnoxious singing, and crazy dance moves. Within 30 minutes the entire house would be clean. Before this, we instituted chore charts, tried public shaming, hid video cameras to catch the culprit - nothing worked. In the end, it was a pretty obvious solution to a pretty obvious problem. Since there were 20 people living in the house, we all assumed someone else would clean up. We had to break that assumption, and the only way to do so was by switching that thought process and creating a shared sense of responsibility.
A community thrives when everyone involved feels responsible for the outcome.
Curriculum and Guides A core piece of the co.space are the activities and programs we participated in throughout the year. For instance, everyone in the house attends 2 retreats in which they go through personal and team development activities. During the rest of the year, there are monthly programs such as Pitch Night - a chance to win $100 to implement a project that the house selects. On the surface, these events seem like fun excuses to do some crazy activities. In reality, the events are part of a planned curriculum to both inspire and motivate members to make the house and community a better place. By having a set curriculum, the co.space provided a guide and pathway to personal and group development. A successful community will always have a roadmap and plan for their community members.
There are three core tenants to hosting a successful community
Community members must be present and focused.
At Pocono Plateau, we prepared individuals and groups for growth by utilizing play, Challenge by Choice, and a disconnect from technology.
A community must tell stories.
At ThinkImpact, we shared a common purpose and came together on a daily basis to share stories and experiences.
There must be clear paths of action for community members, and opportunities to rebuild the community when things break down.
At the co.space, there was a curriculum in place to keep our community growth on track, and we transformed a collective apathy to a collective responsibility.
Over the next few months I will be taking these learnings and applying them to the global Thought For Food Community of 5,000+ millennials from 105 countries. We do not live together, and only occupy the same space one time per year, but the sense of community TFF holds is one of the most powerful I have ever experienced. By following these steps, we expect TFF to amplify in reach and impact, empowering millennials to create a food secure world for all.