Community is the vehicle, not the destination.
Action is the destination. Any output beneath that may be fun, but it’s not what we should be shooting for.
It’s a necessary distinction because you may think your work is done once you build a vibrant community, if ever you’re so lucky. For too long I’ve fallen into that trap. You think: Once I build this community, it will create solutions.
No it won’t. Not automatically, at least. It may have been damn hard to build that community, but you’re still just halfway there.
For the past several years, I’ve made “building communities” my end goal without much vision beyond that. I’ve had vague ideas of what output those communities could produce: A marketplace of ideas, stronger community ties, better journalism, etc. But even that output, which is indeed valuable, falls short of what every community aims for: Making that community better, stronger, safer. To achieve that you need to produce tangible action, which is a step or two further down the road.
So simply gathering people together isn’t enough. Fostering discussion isn’t enough. What we need, then, is discussion leaders who can laser-focus the community on what action they might take. There needs to be a strategy for what the community can achieve and how it might do so.
I realized this as I considered the self-assigned and unofficial title I gave myself at Philly.com: Community builder. It’s accurate, but it’s incomplete. It’d be like a football player calling himself a weightlifter; he may work his tail off in the weight room, but that doesn’t mean anything unless it translates to wins on the field. And I can build all the active communities I want, but it won’t mean anything unless they’re leading to actual results.
I pitched an idea for how communities might produce action at several of my job interviews. I hope to implement that idea, and others I’m cooking up, in some community initiatives I’m working on at Philly.com (more details coming soon). I personally believe anyone can serve as those discussion leaders, but we’re all better off if a trusted news organization is at the center, undergirding those discussions with reliable reporting.
One brilliant idea is emerging in CAT Signal (CAT stands for Community Action Team). I’d love to hear more ideas on how we can get from discussion to action. There’s a big gap in there that hasn’t been mapped out enough.