An Interview About Building Community

I’m one of the founding members of Spokane CoHousing. Hopefully this fall we will break ground on a 39 family community. It is only a couple of blocks from where my spouse, Susan Virnig, and I have lived for 43 years. We still have to clean out the damn basement, but that is another story. One of our members, Sarah Conover, interviewed me recently about building community. I liked what I said! And thought some of our NewStories readers might as well!

Sarah: What is your “elevator speech” when you describe your work to someone? 
Bob: I help people remember how to listen to each other, to trust one another, and to co-create new possibilities in a rapidly changing world.

Sarah: Do you consider your skills to be that of a community organizer or something different? 
Bob: I am a witness, a steward of knowledge, a host of generative conversation and a guy making my way, one step at a time.

Sarah: How would you define “community?”
Bob: Community is a nested system.  I am community. We are community. The larger world around us is community.  We are distinct and we are inseparable.  We are one and we are many.

Sarah: What are your educational degrees vis a vis community building? 
Bob: I have a PhD in “Learning and Change in Human Systems” from the California Institute of Integral Stories.  My deepest learning, however, has come from literally thousands of conversations with people around our little planet who are discovering how to make a difference that makes a difference.

Sarah: What got you interested in community building and process? What life experiences? 
Bob: People got me interested in community building. This sea of difference we call humanity which, at is core, is often the same. When I was ten, I started work for the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry in Portland and I worked there until I was twenty-five.  Science was our focus; community was our ground.

Sarah: Can you give us some examples in which you’ve played this role in the past? Presently?
Bob: I am involved in many things.  They range from co-hosting an annual learning journey to Fukushima for Japanese people, to being part of the facilitation team for a global first people’s gathering on climate-forced displacement.  I am working in the fire disaster areas of Northern California to pioneer regenerative approaches after disaster.  I am in constant dialogue with amazing people everywhere on our planet as we find a way forward in a time of disaster, collapse and possible extinction.

Sarah: Can you give us some specific anecdotes and examples of successful community building from a few of these experiences?
Bob: One of my favorite hidden stories is the story of Onagawa, Japan.  A beautiful fishing village of 10,000 people in NE Japan that was totally destroyed in the March 11, 2011 tsunami.  They have managed to reframe it as a once in a thousand-year opportunity and come-together to create a new vision for how they will live together, keeping beauty and safety at the center.  You can read more about it in Chapter 9 of my book – AfterNow: When We Cannot See the Future, Where Do We Begin?

Sarah: Can you give us some ideas of what frays a community’s strength? 
Bob: Lack of listening, lack of trust, a rush to get things done, and putting off the hard conversations for another day.  Community takes time.  You can spend it building community, or you can spend it dealing with the fallout.

Sarah: What are some of the obstacles communities like ours—a new community—can expect to run into?
Bob: Too much to do and too little time.  A shirking away from the obstacles.  A loss of a sense of humor. An insistence on certainty when uncertainty and ambiguity are the rules of the day.

Sarah: What are some basic ground rules for a healthy community, and how does a community hold itself to these rules?
Bob: For me it is more about principles and values rather than rules.  Principles and values that are returned to when things get rough, as they always will.  Values that I invite into the center of any community — be it the temporary community of a workshop or gathering or the long term place-based community — are respect, curiosity and generosity. 

Sarah: Can you speak a little about “trust” in maintaining a healthy community? What does that word mean to you in this context?
Bob: Trust is something that grows over time.  What’s most important is having enough trust to take the next step, and the next. Trust is not an absolute or a universal, it comes in parts and pieces at first.  It is essential in building community, but not monolithic.  Within our community it is often most present in different groups who find enough trust there to have a willingness to trust the whole.

Sarah: Can you speak a bit about the human need for “belonging” and how that plays into a community’s vibrancy? 
Bob: A sense of “I belong here” is the core of any community.  Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of Beloved Community which is, at its core, a community of belonging.  It is the sense of all of who I am is welcome here.

Sarah: How have you facilitated both trust and belonging in your work with groups?
Bob: I work a lot with people’s stories, inviting vulnerability and intimacy.  I avoid ice breakers—the ice is fine, thank you very much — and invite people into the conversations and explorations of what their hearts yearn for.   

​Sarah: What’s a counter-intuitive aspect of community building that no one would have expected? Can you give an example? For instance, our son told us that if a person moves into a new neighborhood, they will connect to neighbors much more readily if they ask them for a favor because people like to be generous and it opens something between them
Bob: One of the tribes of Vancouver Island has a core principle in their worldview: “It is unkind not to ask for help.”  I guess I don’t really have a sense of what is counter-intuitive.  In some ways, I don’t have much perspective here.

Sarah: Is there anything important about community building I didn’t get at with these questions, and if so, what?
Bob: We just need enough — enough clarity, enough trust, enough confusion, enough of a sense of direction.  We make the path by walking it, one step at a time.  We each need to discover what we will stand for and then find enough courage and clarity to step into the unknown.  We need each other.  We are not alone.

Check out Bob’s new mini-book on AmazonFutureSessions: A Pathway to Co-created Action  

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