Over the last almost two years, as Virtual Coffee has formed, evolved, and solidified, I’ve spent time writing down the approach I’ve taken to community and my thoughts on what makes a community. There’s a lot of talk about metrics around communities, but we often forget that metrics don’t equate to community health. How is your community, as a whole doing? How are your members doing? Ideally, your first concern is with the people and that’s not easily wrapped up into numbers because communities are living, changing, complex. And to have a thriving community, you need a healthy community.
Virtual Coffee is a tech-agnostic community open to folks at all stages of the coding journey, that has twice weekly zoom coffee chats, frequent Lunch & Learns and has a strong commitment to creating a safe space for everyone with no cost to members. As a result of learning as this community has evolved and grown, I’ve been allowed the opportunity to focus on health and support without pressure to provide numbers. And I think that allows for this conversation and my perspective on community health.
As part of this, you have to start with trust. Trust has to be established, acceptance has to be part of the process, the ability to express contrary opinions has to have a place in a healthy community. Listen as best as you can to the voices in the community. To the silence in the community.
Diversity in people, ideas, backgrounds creates a space for growth and rich conversations. It allows for disagreements. It allows for different approaches. It embraces people who are willing to lead conversations and those who are are willing to find the right tools and the right structures to make sure that all the voices are supported. As part of that, these are some of the ways I’ve identified to help judge the health of community:
Authentic connection isn’t transactional. It means you are interested in knowing more about the people or community, about developing relationships. You’re not there to just get something from someone else. This will look different for everyone, and those connections will take a different amount of time for everyone. This is why we’ve emphasized that it’s ok to participate in ways that make each person feel comfortable. Because when people feel comfortable, they’re more likely to have a connection and to grow together.
Silence is usually not a good sign. When a member asks a question, how quickly does someone respond? How many responses are there? Are further connections created: “Let’s jump into the co-working room!” “Can we set up a time to meet?” “Can I share this document with you for your feedback?” “Can we work on this together?” You want to create a space where everyone takes care of each other.
How do the members talk about themselves as part of the group? If they refer to the group as we or us, like “We get together every…” it means that we work together as a team to accomplish a goal, rather than feeling outside of or excluded from the community. By using “we/us,” there’s a sense of belonging, which is ideal for a healthy community.
This means there’s a growth mindset. By keeping our minds open to learning from anyone in an organization no matter the status or role, we allow ourselves to be versatile and open to growth. A growth mindset is one where the individual believes hard work, openness to input from others, and learning can develop talents as opposed to a fixed mindset where a person is more likely to believe they are born with talents. Members can learn something from every person in the community, no matter the level or experience. Egos getting in the way of collaboration is way less likely to happen when we’re open to hearing from and listening to members of all different backgrounds or experience levels. Diversity of career level provides opportunity for new perspectives and innovation.
We value each of our members, whether or not they’re active contributors. There’s room at our table for everyone, but more importantly we value every person who shows up. We believe everyone should be able to participate in the way they feel most comfortable. I believe in building communities that are connected, authentic, and meaningful. When I’m looking at community health, I’m not talking about users. I’m talking about people. And I believe that the core value of community is connection. And that most strongly comes when we create spaces that allow for honesty, vulnerability, and growth at all stages.