[These are my own personal views and do not reflect the position of PlacerSustain, the organization]
- Supporting Leadership by helping leaders connect with partners, allies, and other resources.
- Building Social Capital to empower a populist local movement to steward Sustainable Communities through social networking.
- Supporting “Learning Communities” that are sharing information about practices that support sustainable communities.
The Inception of the Idea
The idea of a leadership network, ultimately called PlacerSustain, was conceived in 2010 as a result of a small meeting held in my home that included people I knew who were active in community affairs and interested in what can be loosely called “sustainable communities”—communities that are healthy and stewarding their human and environmental resources in a condition that serves future generations. The first question asked was “How can we support the leaders who in turn are active in bringing people together to work on strengthening our community?”
Building Social Capital
The answer that evolved from that question was to create a communication network that provided a platform for leaders to identify and communicate to find partners, allies, and other resources. The platform also evolved to include facilitating face to face meetings, social networking, and learning, all part of building “social capital.”
Social capital has been defined as:
Social capital is a form of economic and cultural capital in which social networks are central, transactions are marked by reciprocity, trust, and cooperation, and market agents produce goods and services not mainly for themselves, but for a common good.
The term generally refers to (a) resources, and the value of these resources, both tangible (public spaces, private property) and intangible (“actors”, “human capital”, people), (b) the relationships among these resources, and (c) the impact that these relationships have on the resources involved in each relationship, and on larger groups. It is generally seen as a form of capital that produces public goods for a common good.
A New Type of Community Leadership
There are different kinds of leadership styles or models. In our context, in the context I would suggest serves “Sustainable Communities” as a populist movement, the term “Leader” means a Citizen who is committed, self-motivated, and engaged in action. This Leader stands as a source of possibilities of what can be accomplished, and is not waiting before acting for more money, more authority, or support. This leader recognizes that it is committed citizens that are the true resource, not money,power, or social status per se. This Leader works with what we have, not what we should have or wish we had. This kind of leadership distributes power and authority broadly among peers and allows for the dynamic formation of like-minded working groups (“leadership teams”) as the participants themselves determine. This is the kind of social organization that is appropriate for a self-organizing peer to peer populist social movement.
There are other leadership approaches that are centered on high status individuals, top down authority, expert direction, centralized management and control, and so on. No doubt there are social settings where other types of leadership serve their function, however, they are not appropriate for efforts to build a populist social movement that helps empower the ordinary citizen to take ownership of our future at the local level. These other leadership approaches can actually discourage general citizen involvement.
Leaders and Network Building
People vary in their level of awareness of the value of networking to build constituencies (or customers). However, there is growing recognition that people and organizations find resources through networking. The first and most efficient method of increasing resources is to connect what already exists. Although new ideas are great and needed, we have far more good ideas than we have resources to put the ideas into action. If you enjoy the hearts and minds of people who understand and share your interests and goals, conventional resources (money, labor, expertise) follow.
This kind of network building is about connecting with people around what they believe is important and care about. No leader can engage in this work without telling your own story and values, and listening to information from people about what they care about. Today the work involves using all available media, including face to face meetings, and online social networking, to tell your story and listening to the stories of others. There is nothing new about the basics, this is relationship building. This is about the engagement of regular Citizens, and differs significantly from traditional non-profit funding raising among affluent high status community members, which no doubt has its place.
We do not simply provide a platform for individual activist leaders to build their own action networks, the platform provides the means for activists to connect their network with other networks.. No matter the issue, whether it is community based health, local food and nutrition, energy conservation, waste recycling and reuse, open space, etc., these various sustainable community interests share many common values, and building constituencies can be greatly accelerated through cross-networking between related “silos.” Every organization or network, no matter how successful, can benefit from participating in a cross-networking hub that is efficiently reaching new constituents.
A Personal Story About Leadership
Some years ago I attended a one week “leadership” training intensive. On the first day 40 of us are in a room sitting in a circle of chairs. At the back of the room about 20 feet away are the facilitator and staff. We were to start at 8:00 am. Twenty minutes go buy, the facilitator says nothing, and gradually the talking between participants dies down. Thirty minutes go by, nothing from the facilitator–then the participants start talking again. Eventually, the participants themselves started the training based on what they wanted to accomplish. The facilitator did not rescue them by jumping in prematurely and providing help.
Lesson, what would a leader do faced with this situation? Answer, not wait for somebody else to tell them what to do. Leaders stand as the source of their own interests, direction, and action. This is the missing ingredient in traditional approaches to community involvement, a shift from being passive spectators and consumers of civic life to becoming an actively engaged Citizen. All Citizens in this responsible and participatory approach are Leaders. Considerable work has been done by Peter Block and John McKnight (The Abundant Community) on this new approach to empowering communities.
PlacerSustain is a platform, a vehicle, an instrumentality. What is done with it is up to you. If you want value beyond the basic networking framework, you have to create it yourself with partners and allies you attract. There is a core group of interested Citizens, including the PlacerSustain Board of Directors, that are committed to support the work, but the leadership must come from you. This is not for everybody, and many good people who are interested in our community may look to other ways of getting involved that better suit them. We invite Leaders to step forward and help build a network that raises all boats.