Building Community from the Ground Up

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m deeply interested in the question of community: what it is, how you build it, and how it sustains you.
On her Social In Silico blog, Lou Woodley outlines six types of communities: of interest, of practice, of inquiry, of action, of place, and of circumstance.
Since much of my thinking about community has centred on communities of place, it was helpful to learn that communities can spring up around all sorts of defining factors. Lately I’ve been pleased to discover that I’m part of a community of interest (members who are interested in and passionate about the same topic) that overlaps heavily with a community of practice (members share a profession or craft and come together to share experiences and expertise, thereby improving themselves professionally or personally). I guess you could also say that, through Science Borealis, I’m part of a community of action (focused on bringing about a change in the world), as we’re focused on promoting Canadian science and science communication.
My recent thoughts about community have gelled around a quote from my interview last summer with Cynthia Barnett. I’d asked if her writing community comprised a diverse array of people, or whether it clustered around a particular group/type of people. Her response included the following:

“Depending on the piece or chapter, I trade work with several other science/environmental writer friends…The key word is trust, built over time. These are trusted writing friends who will also be there for you later when you get the rejection or other inevitable crushing disappointment, and remind you of your worth.”

Community is built on the foundation of trust. Of mutual respect and consideration for each others’ trials and tribulations. Of kindness and caring for others’ work and well-being.
On the Trellis Science platform (run by AAAS to connect scientific communities), the C4Sci-Community Management group had a discussion back in June about the importance of kindness in communities. It started with a quote from a blog post by Jono Bacon:

“[Kindness] is the core of what makes community so special, and so important…What helps this kindness bubble to the surface are great relationships, trust, respect, and clear ways in which people can play a participatory role and support each other.”

We discussed how kindness is on a completely different level than being ‘nice’ (read more about that from Kelly J. Baker), and how important kindness is not only in bringing on new community members, but in engaging with existing community members. We talked about how being kind brings us more personal fulfillment from our community engagement, particularly where it’s appreciated and obviously has a direct positive impact on others.
Earlier this year, a colleague at Science Borealis added me to a community of writers who run several private groups on Facebook. I felt as though I’d instantly built a community of practice – here were many women interested in writing of all kinds, sharing their tips and advice for others to freely use, and cheering on women who had successfully published articles in a range of venues. It was through this group that I discovered a call for articles for magazine, and submitted an idea for a Q&A with a woman named Margo Farnsworth.
Margo, incidentally, is a member of another community I’ve been part of for a few years now: a group of nature writers informally brought together by my friend Kimberly Moynahan (see also my Q&A with Kim here). We share writing residency info, read each other’s pieces prior to submission, and cheer each other on when we finally get published. I’ve felt a particular connection with Margo because she’s also an environmental scientist, working on biodiversity and biomimicry topics. Our Q&A went exceedingly well, and should be published in the October issue of
Like Cynthia Barnett, I’ve developed online relationships with several writers (community of practice) who are interested in nature writing and creative nonfiction (community of interest). These relationships include sharing and commenting on relevant articles, photos, ideas, etc. I’m closer to some community members than others, likely because our interests converge more closely, or we’ve spent a bit more time chatting one on one.
Kindness is a core value that seems to run through all of these communities.
When I decided to apply to the Banff Centre’s Emerging Writers’ Intensive program, I was faced with an application process that was completely unfamiliar to an ex-scientist. A one-page resume. A 100-word bio. A one-page proposal about what you planned to work on. 20 pages of sample writing.
Thanks to the good advice of my husband, I decided to call on my communities of practice and interest for help. I asked three nature writer colleagues – Julian Hoffman, Steve Edwards, and Lorne Daniel – if they’d be willing to review my application. These are busy people – they teach, they write, they win Victoria Mayor’s Medals for their work on building community in the city (the latter would be Lorne). But each one agreed to help – and all of their comments were critical in improving my application.
I felt like I was part of a community that was interested in seeing me succeed. It gave me quite a confidence boost – and helped me feel that I was going in the right direction by taking my writing work more seriously (read more about the importance of taking yourself seriously in this piece).
When I decided to pitch an article to Hakai Magazine – a magazine about coastal environments based here in Victoria – I relied on Kim Moynahan to help me polish it. Kim is not only part of my nature writing community, but we’ve been part of the Science Borealis community since we co-founded it with Jenny Ryan and others back in 2013. The three of us (Kim, Jenny, and I) have only met once in person, but we chat regularly on email, Slack, Twitter and Facebook. Kim and I laughed (virtually) the other day when we realized we practically share one brain when it comes to Science Borealis volunteer work.
All of this thinking about community has made me realize that being part of a community, however that community is defined, requires a complex web of give and take.
In our Science Borealis community, people often offer to read over and provide feedback on articles that other community members are preparing. Recently I wrote a scholarship reference letter for one of our first Science Borealis volunteers, and I know that other Science Borealis members have served as references for members applying for jobs. I get emails from students asking how to get into science communication, and whether or not they should get a PhD or be a professor. I take the time to respond because they’re hoping to join our Canadian science communication community. I’ve made introductions between students looking for science communication work and people I know in the same geographic region who might have that information.
Realizing that I’m part of a community – whichever one (or more) of the six types it is – has made a big difference to me. While I may not have a strong community of place, I have a networked community of people that I trust and can rely on when it comes to writing, science communication, and more.
What communities are you part of? How are they defined, and how do you both benefit from and contribute to those communities?

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