Nothing reminds me more of my teenage years than groups of grownups who claim to be a community-as long as you are just like them, and as long as you are their friend. As a former classroom teacher, your community included all the children, all the voices, no matter what their strengths and weaknesses were, no matter how loud or small their voices were. You cannot teach and be effective until your classroom has formed some kind of community, with all the norms and respect that truly supportive communities of learners deserve. It takes time, it takes patience and it requires masterful communication. What I discovered is that outside of education, the definition of “community” varies, and the way communities come together may or may not achieve desired results for all community members.
Two New Communities
This year I decided I would try to engage in two new communities-a running group and my new gym. The running group has focused on community for many years, and they all sounded friendly and inclusive enough, using Facebook to lure you in, but one night at the track and one volunteer event proved otherwise. I arrived at my first track night alone, and as members of the group arrived, not one person went out of their way to welcome me. These were the regulars who insisted that newbies were welcome! I am not an outgoing person and just showing up took me a year. As other members arrived, one by one, a few turned to look at me but they went right back to their runner friends and then started to run warm up laps. I left. Nobody even knew I was there. On another occasion I volunteered to hand out water at a road race figuring it would be a different group of runners. I arrived to a group of people filling water cups chatting away with each other. Not one person stopped their conversation to say hello. After the conversation stopped and the race started, I awkwardly stepped into line and handed out water. Nobody welcomed me and nobody said goodbye.
This year the gym also tried to encourage “community” events. But I guess knowing I am not a social butterfly, I was never asked if I would be attending, nor reminded of any events except via Facebook posts or the whiteboard. At the gym in the days preceding and following the events, community members would be chatting about the events, sharing stories, and talking about what they did last night. These are not teenagers, but boy did it feel like high school.
The one event I decided to attend I signed up for with my daughter and the gym owner did not even know I would be going. When he said “See you Monday!” and I said “You’ll see me tomorrow,” he looked surprised. It was awkward. On the day of the event my daughter and I arrived early and when the rest of the group arrived, they all chatted among themselves but no one welcomed us, and by no one, I mean the group leader, the organizer, the gym owner. We had fun because we were together, but if I had been by myself I would have felt very unwelcome. When it was over, my daughter and I walked off with not even a goodbye. “Well, that was very unwelcoming,” my daughter said.
The Dreaded Clique
As a group leader if you are trying to establish a community, you had better make sure you are inclusive from the beginning; a community is more than a place. A community leader ensures ALL members, new and old, feel welcome, especially people choosing to join alone. There is a risk-especially when there are groups of members who already know each other and they arrive in packs- of the community turning into a clique.
a small group of people, with shared interests or other features in common, who spend time together and do not readily allow others to join them.
As a quiet, introverted somewhat anti social person, you would think I would want to be excluded from community events. Newsflash: everyone wants to feel as if they belong, just showing up means they want in. It is then up to the group leader to nurture that sense of belonging. This is crucial in the beginning. This might look like introducing people in the group who come from similar backgrounds or similar careers. If the group leader does not make it a priority and allows the community to gel organically, what you end up with is a clique.
A Community is More Than a Place
A community is more than a place where people talk and yuck it up about last night, and the group leader sets the tone by including all the voices. By choosing to interact with selected voices you are modeling that behavior. By choosing to interact with the extroverts, you are excluding those that would love to feel like they, too, are part of the community. By choosing who you interact with you are silently sending a message to the rest of us that “you do not belong here.”
Right now I feel duped. I was tricked into thinking both communities were welcoming of new members, supportive and encouraging, AND inclusive. After a year what I have discovered is that once the newness wears off, the newness wears off. I am no longer the cool new kid. Both communities are encouraging and supportive when they want or need something from you-because after all, they are businesses. But most importantly, both communities are exclusive. Once inside, if you are not already friends with someone or a colleague or co-worker or a friend of a friend or family member, then you are on the outside looking in.
It is funny because I really thought I was over reacting and feeling hyper sensitive to my environments this year, but I am not the only one who feels this way.
What does it look like to form a meaningful community where everyone feels welcome when they walk in the door and that is nurtured? That is what I will be looking for in my next fitness community.