Co-intentional Co-mmunications: Strategies for creating true inclusive communities

Today we continue our series of regular posts on the Trellis blog for science community managers interested in diversity, equity and inclusion. This installment is an invited guest post from Yasmin Marrero, Program Assistant, Global STEM Alliance, The New York Academy of Sciences. Series coordinators are Jennifer Davison, Urban@UW, University of Washington, Marsha Lucas, Society for Developmental Biology, Josh Knackert UW-Madison Neuroscience Training Program, and Rosanna Volchok, The New York Academy of Sciences. You can find all of the posts in the series here.

As a first-generation Latina and neuroscientist by training, I have been in few spaces where I could talk freely of my emotions and my experiences without fear of exclusion or misalignment from my community—allowed to be my whole self. More often, I was in communities where I was only able to be seen and valued by things related to my work, forcing me to disconnect and inhibit other parts of myself. It was in the communities where I could be my whole self and coexist with others that my work truly transformed: my creativity thrived, my research enhanced, my connections and relationships flourished.

How are you creating inclusive communities? Image credit: Taomeister https://www.flickr.com/photos/taomeister/36417528694/in/photostream/
How are you creating inclusive communities?
Image credit: Taomeister
https://www.flickr.com/photos/taomeister/36417528694/in/photostream/

Community managers are arrangers, facilitators, catalysts of unity. Not only do they have the ability and responsibility to bring people together, but they have the platform to transform community interactions and create true inclusive, virtuous spaces for all those who enter it, inspiring collaboration, communication and innovation. Yet this power is often untapped, partially because community managers are never taught how to fully create these spaces.

I believe the creation of these spaces depends on a co-intentional process, with the community manager as a catalyst and communication as the anchor.

A co-intentional process allows for individuals to decide what they need as a group, identify what each can offer, and how they can feel supported to do so. This occurs through communication and facilitation, as opposed to a feed of ideas to be consumed by participants, and considers the different individuals that comprise the group.

Here are some steps for how a community manager can start to develop these spaces with in-person, guided facilitation through a co-intentional process. These mechanisms have been collected mainly from the studies of social/ restorative justice and performance arts, areas that specialize in group dynamics and engagement. While they come from other disciplines, I have used and witness the transformational use of these mechanisms in STEM communities. This guide can be used with groups of 8 or more, and can guide one session or a series of focused community engagement sessions.

 

Fill your toolbox

As mentioned earlier in the blog series, independent work must be done by the scientific community manager for them to understand the current cultural boundaries and skills they need to build community. This allows them to equip themselves with the tools and information that will be called to use in these sessions.

 

Community agreements

We discussed community agreements in an earlier article, which are key to set the intentions/ values of the group. The group must reflect on what they need as individuals to be present, and what they can each bring to the table to reach a common setting. This can be done along with the following steps or as a separate group session.

 

Be here

With the intention and reflection done, we must consider the role that mindfulness and presence play in creating inclusive space. Mindfulness, the state of being aware and conscious of something, allows us as community managers to improve our communication and emotional intelligence, skills to understand ourselves and consider another individual as a whole being. To be mindful of one another also allows us to be present, key to building community.

To bring mindfulness to a group you can (should be done each session):

  1. Start and end with a quick centering meditation, 4 minutes of breathing in and out in silence. Note that you may encounter some resistance to meditation and should approach it per your awareness of the group.
  1. Do an ice breaker/ activator that engages the whole body and allows the individuals to address one another. 350.org has many icebreakers that engage the whole body. Be aware that as a facilitator, you cannot force anyone to be present, you can only offer them the space to be a part of the group and welcome them when they are ready.

 

Let’s get talkin’!

Before each session, the manager must choose a topic that aligns to the community agreements for the engagement. They must initiate the co-intentional process through activities that spark exploration and communication. To do so, they can lead small conversations that build interpersonal relationships, then unify the whole group in discussion about building community, trust, empathy, and breaking the perceptions of others as objects or singular, static identities. Here are some staple methods on how to do so:

  1. Co-centric circles allow the participants to think on their toes about a question and address it as soon as they can, no filtering (for groups of 8+). Participants should be in two circles facing one another in pairs; where they will each answer a specific prompt from the facilitator in a short time. Once they have answered, pairs are asked to step to the side (outer circle) and to create new pairs (see image). “If you had thirty seconds to describe the purpose of community, what would you say?” “Are all the groups you are a part of, in your lab or in your institution, based on your statement thus a community?” These are examples of questions that can be explored in co-centric circles.
  1. Dyads are one-on-ones, where a person has three minutes to answer a prompt, and the other person must listen, mindfully without commenting (good for smaller groups – but not limited to). The listener and speaker switch after three minutes, when both are done, they discuss and reflect on what was shared. Google’s Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute introduces a new dyad prompt every month that focuses on emotional intelligence, mindfulness, community, and self-awareness.
  1. Story circles involves small group dialogue circles (4-7 people). Like dyads, only one person speaks while others listen, yet here we tap into individual experiences and common themes. The first prompt asks for each person to share a story that caused a feeling. Each has one minute to answer the prompt (with timekeeper), while others listen. When the entire group has gone, they can move onto other prompts engaging in dialogue about what was shared. For example:

Share an experience where you felt at home within a group.

What common themes came up in the circle?

Were there any challenges or conflicts that came up?

Based on the discussion choose three key things that allow for people to feel at home within a community.

After one of these approaches, be sure to bring back the whole group and discuss interesting ideas, common themes, conflicting topics, and ways to implement.

 

Temperature check and closing

Finally, in the beginning, end, and perhaps throughout the session you may ask everyone to share one word to describe how they are feeling (big circle). This will inform what progress was made within the group and on what level. This is particularly important feedback for the community manager to see if the session addressed the intention and allowed the community to build/ keep the agreements made.

These are just some mechanisms by which a community manager can facilitate co-intentional community building. Remember there are many ways to ignite a community process that allows inclusion, communication, and solidarity. It’s important to create spaces where the community can exchange and build together towards a common goal. While not always easy, this work truly inspires great collaboration, support, and trust within a group. – Good luck!

I would like to thank the Posse Foundation, Create Forward Organization, the Science Alliance Leadership Training program at the New York Academy of Sciences, and author Paulo Freire (Pedagogy of the Oppressed) for the tools and experiences they provided to me that informed this post.