Category Archives: Community

Small groups make change

“Communities are human systems given form by conversations that build relatedness. The conversations that build relatedness most often occur through associational life, where citizens show up by choice, and rarely in the context of system life, where citizens show up out of obligation. The small group is the unit of transformation and the container for the experience of belonging.” ~ PETER BLOCK, COMMUNITY: THE STRUCTURE OF BELONGING


A sustainable transformation happens when citizens choose to come together to create a future grown out of their aspirations and gifts. And when small groups are convened into something bigger, that’s even more powerful.

Journalist David Bornstein studied the bank for the poor, Grameen Bank, concluding that sustainable changes in community occur locally on a small scale, happen slowly and are initiated at grassroots level. Grameen Bank was declaration of possibility – that poor people are good credit and entrepreneurs – and relied on working with groups, lending to groups of four. Each small group is asked to operate as part of a larger whole community too.

In Obama’s election campaigns, millions of citizens contributed. Thousands were trained and thousands of local leadership teams were responsible for local objectives.

Marshall Ganz calls it, “The biggest investment in civic capital that has ever been made.”

Civic capital is the skills and practices of working together and self governing in a democracy.

Organisations that are taking advantage of cognitive surplus are thriving, with Wikipedia being the best known example. Adjunct professor at New York University Clay Shirky explains in his book Cognitive Surplus:

“Civic value rarely comes from sudden social conversations; nor does it bubble up from individual actions. It comes, instead, from the work of groups, small groups at first that grow in size and importance, the pattern of collaborative circles, communities and practice, and many other group patterns. If we want to create new forms of civic value, we need to improve the ability of small groups to try radical things…”

History supports this theory of change. The English movement for the abolition of slavery was built on top of the decentralised platform of the Quaker movements.

As Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom explain in The Starfish and the Spider, “Just as the abolitionist movement had piggybacked on top of the Quaker network in England, the women’s suffrage movement now piggybacked atop the abolitionist movement in the United States. Women’s suffrage circles began forming all over the country.”

American abolitionist and women’s rights activist (mid-1800s) Elizabeth Cady Stanton was “the architect of a movement that changes the lives of American women. By creating circles, tapping into an ideology whose time had come, drawing upon a pre-existing network, and joining forces with a champion, Stanton changed the course of history…”

Digital now means that the cost of coordinating and convening these circles is the lowest in history. Everyone is empowered to gather together and get things done.

How nature increases health, productivity and wellbeing

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhere do people currently experience nature in Australia? What activities, groups or organisations are involved? What are the new opportunities in this space?

As Richard Louv has extensively documents in The last child in the woods, saving our children from nature deficit disorder, future environmentalists are formed through childhood experiences of play in nature.

And as Common Cause research into values shows, engaging intrinsic values primes people to care and act on behalf of the environment. Nature connection engages the following values:

• A world of beauty
• Unity with nature
• Protecting the environment
• Care for future generations

I am fortunate in my work at ACF, to have the opportunity to explore some powerful questions about how we can be more effective in our work, and how social and cultural change relates to our environmental goals. One of the question we’ve been exploring this week is where the opportunities lie to reengage and animate people in their connection to the natural world.

The “great outdoors” is an Australian myth and reality, rated highly by Australians when they talk about what makes this country unique.

Healthy Parks, Healthy People is an extensive literature review, by Deakin University in 2002, updated in 2008, examining over two hundred studies indicating significant human health benefits of contact with nature.

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Creating change with distributed leadership

Slide1Marshall Ganz defines leadership as “Accepting responsibility for enabling others to achieve shared purpose, in the face of uncertainty.”

Marshall Ganz gives a substantial introduction and summary of his work in this video, but it’s long, so if you’d like a summary, read on.

Ganz describes how to build leadership, build community, build power. You can’t, he explains, rely on super-talented extraordinary leaders, so you have to figure out how to grow and spread leadership. The only way you get to scale is by developing the capacity of lots of people to lead.

Social movements have rarely been successful as an isolated local movement, nor as someone sitting in capital central. It’s the combination of national purpose and local action that builds a social movement. Local action gains meaning and significance from being part of greater whole.

This is rich food for thought for my work at the Australian Conservation Foundation, as I think ACF can be powerful in this role.

It’s not sufficient to rely on systems and procedures, because in social change we are constantly confronted by uncertainty, says Ganz.

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