Community Organizing Lessons for Science Community Managers

We’re now mid-way through the first year of the AAAS Community Engagement Fellows Program (CEFP), funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The first cohort of Fellows is made up of 17 scientific community managers working with a diverse range of scientific communities. As they continue to develop their community engagement skills and apply some of the ideas and strategies from their training, the Fellows will report back on the Trellis blog, sharing their challenges, discoveries, and insights. Today, Fellow Melissa Varga identifies ways that community management is a model of community organizing.

Posted by Melissa Varga, Outreach Associate and Online Community Manager at Union of Concerned Scientists 

South Dunedin community art project. Organised by Malcam Trust Wilkie Road, South Dunedin.
South Dunedin community art project” by Paul Allen under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Following the 2016 election, we saw a huge increase in interest and engagement from  scientists around the country who wanted to get more involved in advocacy, policy, and public engagement. At the Union of Concerned Scientists, we saw a record influx in the number of Science Network members, as well as high levels of engagement around advocacy actions—not just opportunities from our organization, but rallies and letters organized by other groups as well. In light of this I’ve been thinking a lot about the overlap between scientist engagement and community management, and how organizing skills are important for both. Building off of CEFP Fellow Rosanna Volchok’s blog post, here are a few more ways that community management is a model of community organizing.

 

Leadership Development

Rosanna addressed the idea of leadership as a core skill for community managers, both for them to exhibit leadership as a manager, and to develop leaders within the community. Identifying those dedicated people who rise to the top in the community requires cultivation and relationship building before you can begin to provide them with deeper opportunities to demonstrate their skills.

In the Science Network, one of the ways we develop the voices of our leaders and help them demonstrate their expertise is by having them write a guest blog for UCS. Often we find these guest bloggers through our webinars, where the questions they ask, and the feedback they provide, suggest to us that they want to get more involved and have a story to share. Through email or phone conversations, we work with them to help them develop their story to share with the broader network. We then use the guest blogging opportunity to train them for other leadership development opportunities—we may reach out to them to write an op-ed or letter to the editor for their local paper on a critical issue, or ask them if we can put them in touch with a reporter to speak to local impacts of science-based policies. It is a time-consuming? process to identify and cultivate these leaders, but it ultimately makes the community much stronger to build leaders from within.

 

Power Mapping

Power mapping (as I mentioned in my first blog post) is one of my favorite organizing tools that can be applied to community management. Power mapping is an exercise we use a lot in the policy and advocacy world to chart out a path to influencing the decision maker on the issue you want to change. At its most basic level, you create a “map” with the appropriate target (the person who can make the change you are seeking) at the center. Next, you outline ideas for what and who might influence them to say “yes” to what you want them to do. Finally, you connect those ideas with the pathways you have access to in order to apply pressure on the target.

Usually, power mapping is looking at external stakeholders—think members of Congress, or heads of federal agencies. But you can also utilize this exercise internally, to help you get more buy-in for a specific project, for more investment in your community, or perhaps even within your community itself, to identify your top influencers who are demonstrating the behaviors you want other members to mimic. Think of power mapping as a strategy tool to help you think through how to guide your influencers over to your side.

 

Facilitating Interactions

Facilitating interaction among members is one of the most visible jobs of a community manager. We are the host of the party, so to speak. We encourage members to welcome each other and introduce themselves when they join, encourage the flow of conversation and start new discussions to keep members engaged, and ensure that communication in the community is respectful and follows any community guidelines.

In science community organizing, we’re often dealing with communities that are spread out geographically, and so our main form of communication is through online forums—although it’s also important to think about facilitating interactions at in person events (more on that below). In community organizing, much of this facilitation occurs in person, at community meetings, events, or perhaps in negotiations with elected officials or other decision makers. Regardless of whether this facilitation occurs in a discussion thread online or at an in-person town hall, the skills are very similar, and require a lot of active listening, bringing people in so their voice is heard, and enhancing the value of the community.

 

Online to Offline Connections

While some communities may exist entirely online and never have members that interact in person, it can also be invaluable for community members to connect in person. There’s just something about sharing a meal with people that allows you to connect at a deeper level. That said, it can be a little nerve-wracking to bring people together in person, but there are some tactics that can help people “break the ice.” Icebreakers are a great way to help get everyone on the same page and get people chatting to one another. They can be silly, or they can be more structured and topically focused; the goal is to get people to introduce themselves and get comfortable in the space. Another tactic that helps is for the community manager to really step up in the facilitation role mentioned above—make sure to welcome every single person to the event, give them the basic information of what to expect, and perhaps make an introduction with someone who is already there.

Also, don’t underestimate the power of food! Another project that I work on at UCS is building partnerships between scientists and community members, and food is such a simple but crucial part of that. Breaking bread with people builds trust. All good community organizers know the importance of sustaining our bodies as well as sustaining our communities with positive action.

My interactions with community organizers, and background in political organizing, has been immensely helpful in my work as a community manager, especially in the current climate facing the science community. If you want more information about community organizing, here are some resources I recommend:

         Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing

         Organizing for Social Change

         How Organizations Develop Activists: Civic Associations and Leadership in the 21st Century

         Beautiful Trouble.

 

This is the second in a two part series on community organizing and community management. You can read the first part here and find all of the CEFP Fellows’ posts here.