If I was looking to overdose on digital neighbourhood issues, this was the week. We are in a unique situation of working with two amazing tutors
- Sophie Hostick-Boakye from the Young Foundation’s Digital Activism programme on raising awareness of community concerns
- Thom Townsend of izwe to understand digital organising as part of our training with Locality.
These two programmes of tailored learning and practical coaching will prove themselves complementary in time but at present the two sets of developing agendas are taking up much of my thinking space. Just to make things more complex still, this Thursday David Wilcox and Drew McKie ran a gaming gathering of twenty people at Cambridge House, which I hosted (photo below). We considered how digital tools might best work with neighbourhood level community organising, enabling or building (depending on your preferred model of change). It proved a great opportunity to meet old friends and make some new ones!
From the various discussions and exchanges this week, I’ve come away with three particular perspectives on digital neighbourhood / community organising that may not be new but have been reinforced for me.
- Digital needs to primarily serve face-to-face relationship building
People come to trust each other and have the courage to take action when they meet in person. The digital world can produce a great deal of online activity but the fleshly world often remains unaffected by it. As Eileen Conn said at the day event, many of those she knows as local online activists – even in a local borough – are unengaged with the community enablers on the streets.
- A blend of online and offline techniques and tools are needed, bespoke to the specific circumstances
The conversations that happen in the pub, on the doorstep or over the fence offer many opportunities to build community. Online exchanges are by their nature between a minority, use a particular digital platform and require a certain confidence to sustain. Telephone, text and email are perhaps the most widely used digital tools and must remain at the heart of encouraging neighbours to work together inclusively.
- Digital tools or hardware can offer new possibilities but can also dominate strategy unhelpfully, especially at grassroots
The possibilities of using the newest tools and approaches always excite and get the creative juices running. But the purpose and function has to be primary at all stages. The form of the digital offering must be honed carefully to the carefully examined context and intent. Too often those who are aware of the possibilities of using new tools can persuade those who are not of their supreme potential. It often leads to an unsatisfactory solution.
Go Deeper – Digital Organising
At the inaugural day of the Digital Organising course this week, Thom Townsend, Mark Corbin and their colleagues introduced a four-fold overview of the course themes. I felt they were a helpful distillation of the areas of digital skill and applied knowledge needed for a rounded community organiser. I also felt that in each case they had aspects that were internal – focused on the neighbourhood network itself – and aspects that were external – presenting the network’s life to the wider world.
1. Listening to community conversations (and joining in)
Here the team suggested the skill was discovering the online forums and settings where local residents were already engaged. In preparation for the day, we were asked to scan Twitter and Facebook for active people or groups from our area. During the day, we began to explore how such local networks might be a springboard to fleshly conversations and meetings. Such a strategy could be used to widen the net of those involved in the network and to draw in more diverse participants.
Using the internet to help the community to work more effectively together was a high priority in our group. Given the abundance of social networking tools now available, communities can be overwhelmed at the options available. Finding the right platform will only work if it really meets the felt interests of citizens; a network also needs to be evidently for “our kind of people”. From the earliest, inclusive practice has to be at the centre.
3. Telling the community stories
Many communities lack a place to tell their stories to each other. Older people know much about the history of the area and younger people often know things from a different angle. Capturing the key events in the oral history of a neighbourhood can provide a place for deepened relationships and new stronger bonds to be forged. The network also needs to tell its story to the wider world – to local voluntary organisations, to local government, to other statutory agencies and to the commercial world. Making allies has to be central to storytelling.
4. Exploring the community’s data
With an abundance of open data sources to be mined, a community can discover a great deal about it’s life by examining what others already know and representing that data in more accessible formats such as maps or diagrams. But we also have significant information ourselves on the neighbourhood from the many face-to-face listenings we have recorded. We might also be able to use the network to gather and explore new information that can offer tangible benefits to residents.
In each of these four areas (which evidently overlap and inter-relate), the community organiser needs to become competent themselves and have sufficient confidence to be able to support interested citizens to continue with the established approach. Getting something relevant and sustainable up and running in the next few months will be the goal of our conversations with each other and our tutors in the next weeks. Exciting but also a significant challenge!
Howard Rheingold (2012) Net Smart: How to Thrive Online MIT Press
Beth Kanter and Allison Fine (2010) The
Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive
Change Josseybass This is a marvellous introduction for non-profits to
working in a completely fresh way, using networks to drive change. Whilst online
networks and social media are central, much of the thinking is relevant to
face-to-face networks too.
Peter Plastrik and Madeleine Taylor (2006) Net Gains – A handbook for
network builders seeking social change Available from www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/plastrick.pdf This
marvellous guide takes social network theory and makes it both accessible and
directly useful for the advocate for social change
Valdis Krebs and June Holley (2006) Building Smart Communities through
Network Weaving Available from www.orgnet.com/BuildingNetworks.pdf In
this seminal work, Krebs and Holley explore what makes networks effective and
how network weaving can enhance their functioning. Much else on the orgnet site
is also worth exploring.