“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.