Membership architectures to create power

Talking with Ben Pollard of Local Welcome about community, resilience and power.

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We need a certain amount of civic courage to do “politics without violence.” Unfortunately, the architecture of our digital communities - Facebook, etc. - is about maximizing polarization instead of civic courage.
– Ben Pollard 

Nonprofits and community groups (and what many around the world call civil society) often hold different views about the purpose and goals of community building. 

Organizations may tackle big problems, provide resources and support others. Think of food banks, shelters and disaster assistance. When successful these communities are changing lives, keeping people healthy and providing homes. 

Another model builds power alongside members. Community offers opportunities for co-creation, collaboration and resilience. Membership, including the monetary support that often comes with it, gives the community power by providing resources, bodies, labor and skill.

Both approaches bring value. The first centers power in the organization. The other expects community members to hold power, create solutions and support one another. 

The pandemic has thrust both models into relief. Weak safety nets have left people dependent on unsafe jobs or just unemployed. 

I recently spoke with Ben Pollard, the founder of Local Welcome, a London-based group that helps communities organize meals that bring together long-time local residents and recent migrants. 

Last year, Local Welcome posted a series of “what we learned” articles. For example, 5 things we've learned about leadership and 5 things we've learned about being a good partner. These draw out themes that you - or any community-based organization - may apply in your work. 

I planned our latest conversation as an opportunity to hear more about the lessons that helped Local Together respond to the pandemic with what I call a “pivot with community.” In essence, the focus on community leadership and partnership instead of logistics and “meals served” let the team better recognize and solve for community needs. And use its strengths. 

What we ended up talking about, though, was a little bit of community architecture,  membership theory and power practice. 

Three ideas about community surfaced for me this conversation. 

  1. The “why” of community and membership often defaults to self-interest. Especially in our dominant digital community infrastructures.

  2. Group membership is a powerful source of resilience. 

  3. There’s been a decline in membership as a source of power.

This conversation is for you if you’re membership person, community builder, and/or interested in the power dynamics between members, organizations and funders. 

Ben began the conversation reflecting on his approach to community building, leadership and power. We started by surfacing the struggles and lessons of Local Welcome during the pandemic. 

Last year Local Welcome endured a pandemic that made community meals difficult at best and launched Local Together and ADHD Together. 2020 speaks to community resilience. Say a little bit about how you view come to view community and its purpose.

I grew up in diverse church communities. My parents were basically missionaries in North Africa running a church supporting Black African communities who were not safe in 1980s Algeria. This included hiding people in basements, helping them escape and other adventures.

It wasn’t safe and we came back to England. We were in Liverpool after the riots. It was a part of the world hollowed out by neoliberalism and Thatcher. 

I experienced being in a very poor but close-knit community. Eventually I went to boarding school and really grew up in schools from then on. 

I missed the real world and closeness of those communities. A lot of my 20s were spent involved in church communities proactively changing the world. I was campaigning and organizing. It was rewarding but exhausting. These church communities were very intentional in thinking about membership and leadership.

Life, I observed, is fundamentally better during hard times when there is a close-knit community that builds resilience and social capital.

But I burned out. I wanted to remain part of these communities but no longer subscribed to their worldview. I also found I was struggling with undiagnosed ADHD. It was affecting every part of my life, work and relationships. 

I was reframing my understanding of the world at a time when I was missing being in a close community. 

Also worth adding that this was also a time when I was observing my brother’s work in government digital service. He had gone into tech and was working as a Director at the Government Digital Service where he led the GOV.UK team that built a single website for all of UK government. Meanwhile, I was part of a campaign trying to negotiate with the immigration minister. My sense then was that he was having a bigger impact working on the digital side. I learned a lot by watching what he was doing. 

Now I’m assessing all this in the context of the past few years, especially 2020. People are isolated. Our community structures aren’t caring for people. We haven’t really seen community organizing admit or recognize that there’s a crisis of civil society and membership in particular. 

These days, most organizations approach community with a digital-first layer. Or only with a digital layer (especially in the pandemic). That opens up community, doesn’t it? Does that digital layer help?

Design and tech are just part of a bigger problem for civil society. Digital has been framed as a savior. We’re all “citizens in the Internet age,” after all. 

But we need civil society to go on a more important journey. People storming the Capitol makes me think of people who feel left behind. And sometimes people are left behind. There are a lot of very isolated people out there. 

Many people have lost jobs and a sense of place in the world. They aren’t members of anything any longer. I’m thinking of the book Alienated America. [Timothy P. Carney, 2019] The genie is out of the bottle. We need to remember how to do the things that were responses to first industrial revolution: settlement houses, work of the Quakers...but do those again with technology. Great examples in history that we’ve forgotten and need translation for today.

Tech isn’t the problem but it has been captured by political elites and financial institutions. 

Have community organizations to become less welcoming to progressive worldviews that may support these “service to others” programs? I’m thinking of churches mostly here, I guess, but also unions and other community groups. 

I don’t think this is a problem of evangelical churches. Settlement houses and other work at the beginning of the labor movement came about through associations, labor and churches. 

There’s a feedback loop: You’re not a member of anything so you have fewer opportunities to observe others or practice civic rituals. You lose familiarity with what Bernard Crick called “politics as the negotiation of difference without violence.”

We need a certain amount of civic courage to do “politics without violence.” Unfortunately, the architecture of our digital communities - Facebook, etc. - is about maximizing polarization instead of civic courage. 

We spoke a few months ago about steps to build and sustain community. You said:  

Rituals are ways of gathering people to tell their stories. 

I highlighted and circled that -- and keep coming back to it. Stories, and sharing them, are a kind of bridging ritual. What have you learned about community ritual in transitioning your work from in person to virtual? What’s consistent? What changed? 

It’s been joyful and surprising to discover how much of the learning about rituals has been translatable to the design of our online ADHD groups. These online gatherings can feel like an old-fashioned house meeting. I’ve also been surprised at how powerful a well-designed ritual can be online. 

People are hungry for the safety of structure. They’re exhausted by the constant flow of time during the pandemic. We don’t have milestones.

We’ve been thinking and talking about ritual for a few years at Local Welcome. We’re designing how people interact because we want to create conditions for well-being, belonging and civic literacy. Bringing people together is just an important step towards the bigger goal: the capacity to do politics. That is the power to do good.

Rituals have been a powerful way of approaching that vision. At its best, ritual reinforces a shared story. When we’re hungry for security we don’t know what story to believe so finding a story that’s shared and makes sense of the world is powerful. 

Organizations and systems also have rituals. How we interact with government is all about ritual. And there are shared stories about it. Similar with organizations. Think about how rituals and their stories reflect who has power. 

I’ve also been thinking about the rituals of growing up, becoming an adult and seeing the big complex world. Rituals can help us grow up. Or they can give us shared permission to not grow up. And it can be dangerous when childish communities learn to do ritual. 

Membership, Ritual and Power

Talking to Ben in the wake of the January 6th insurrection, I’m left wondering about QAnon, the American far-right (including militias and now much of GOP,) and the power of digital community architecture to create childish and exclusionary rituals that create a veneer of community and socialization.

These are all examples of rituals that make us feel like we’re part of community: joining a Facebook group or Parler, adding a Q symbol to a Twitter bio, copy/pasting an extreme post. They’re thoughtless, even childish, rituals. But potentially powerful: there was an insurrection on January 6th. 

Three ideas about community surfaced for me this conversation. People working in and with civil society, nonprofits, community building and even civic tech may recognize some of these issues. 

First, the “why” of community and membership often defaults to organizational self-interest. The digital layer of community isn’t helping. We often point to professionalization, high salaries and the “non-profit industrial complex” as reasons why organizations use membership to serve themselves instead of the broader community. But modern community architecture, especially online and when mediated by social networks, isn’t optimized for community. 

Second, group membership is a powerful source of resilience. Modern community models use technology to build lists of people and scale community size but they optimize for individualism instead of interdependency. Instead of resilience and support we get self-help. 

Finally, there’s been a decline in membership as a source of power. A growing reliance on foundations and philanthropy disincentivizes membership. Churches and unions needed members to build community and serve others. But they also used membership payments to build infrastructure, provide resources to members and develop leaders. A digital world blurs community and membership. Anyone and everyone can belong. Anyone can leave. Maybe you pay. Maybe you don’t. Organizations learn not to rely on members and people aren’t invested in being a member. 

Links for your spare time. What is time, really?

The best newsletter about newsletters ever. Wow…have you seen the Trump’s fascist propaganda film from January 6?! Fish to humans: BE QUIET. 15 years after its founding, Twitter looks for revenue. Twitter is also opening its archives to researchers. Here’s how to have better conversations with the voice in your head. Maybe there’s an inverse relationship between use of blackletter fonts and the general health of society. The success of “watch me clean” videos also says something not so good about the collective. The pandemic has crushed casual friendships (I feel this, do you?).

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