Leadership: The Art and Skill of Mobilizing One’s Community to Action

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, in part one of a collaborative two part series, Fellow Rosanna Volchok shares her thoughts on the similarities between community engagement and community organizing, as well as the importance of recognizing leadership skills in community managers.

Posted by Rosanna Volchok, Manager, Network Engagement at the New York Academy of Sciences

Flock of Ducks Flying Overhead
Flock of Ducks Flying Overhead” by Don DeBold under CC BY 2.0

When one thinks about fast-paced work, community engagement may not be the first thing that comes to mind. But ask the Fellows in the CEF Program and I am certain that many (if not most) would agree that effective community managers must be both agile and adaptable to change. The beauty, then, of the CEFP is that it provides those of us working in scientific community engagement with the space and time to reflect upon our roles. These meditations, in turn, allow us to define what it is that makes our work both unique and important to the communities we represent. In reflecting on my own role, I keep coming back to this idea that community management can be viewed–and perhaps should be viewed–as another model of community organizing. Blame my background in public service and advocacy, but I’m inclined to think that us Fellows are all community organizers no matter the title listed on our business cards.

That said, if we want to make the distinction between community management and community organizing (and many do), drawing parallels between these two fields has helped me to understand the critical role that leadership plays in my day-to-day work. Cultivating the art and skill of leadership is essential to mobilizing one’s community to action.

Community Management vs. Community Organizing

What are some key similarities between the two fields and can community management be viewed as a model (or type) of community organizing? Let’s unpack this:

Community Management:

According to our friends at the Community Roundtable (The CR), community management is the “discipline of ensuring productive communities.” Thus, community managers provide value to their members by creating a system of meaningful engagement. We are “managing” our communities so that they thrive, fostering shared purpose and value in order to increase connection, trust, and desired community behavior.

Community Organizing:

Similar to, though slightly different from, the CR’s take on community management, community organizing can neatly be defined as “the coordination of cooperative efforts and campaigning carried out by local residents to promote the interests of their community” (Oxford English Dictionary). An alternative and more elegant interpretation comes from Dr. David Elcott, the Taub Professor of Practice in Public Service and Leadership at the Wagner School of Public Service at NYU and associate faculty at the Research Center for Leadership in Action: the skills of community organizing consist of “listening, finding areas of consensus and building on that consensus, [and] finding ways to make change happen.”

After unpacking these two frameworks of community action, the overlap has me coming back to my initial question: if community managers want to generate shared value and purpose with the goal of increasing desired behaviors, how is this really different from principles used in community organizing wherein the goal is to mobilize cooperative effort to carry out the goals of the community?

Perhaps one of the key points here lies in where community decisions are made.  For example, a convening organization may prioritize certain values and norms which may not be completely integrated parts of the community itself. With community organizing, however, decision making and agenda setting seem to originate from within the community. That said, regardless of who has set the agenda, the ultimate goal of a community is for individual members to feel empowered to reinforce their community’s shared value and purpose.

In any event, if our roles as community managers necessitate that we empower and mobilize those in our community, then aren’t we leaders?

 

Recognizing Leadership as Essential to Community Work

So…are we leaders? Of course we are! To bring it back to principles of community management, our friends at the CR explain that “community building is critical to leadership success—and it always has been.”

While we are at it, let’s see what Saul Alinsky, often dubbed the founder of modern community organizing, has to say about leadership: “The education of an organizer requires frequent long conferences on organizational problems, analysis of power patterns, communication, conflict tactics, the education and development of community leaders, and the methods of introduction of new issues” (Alinsky, 1971).

The Community Engagement Fellows have the potential to be agents of change and I think that we, and the communities we serve, will benefit from our being more intentional and explicit in cultivating our leadership craft.

Many of the skills outlined on the CR’s Skills Wheel are, of course, talents that many leaders possess. And yet, if being an effective leader means mobilizing others to action, then I perhaps we can–and should–add “Leadership” to this idealized skillset. Let’s then imagine “Leadership” as the Skill Wheel’s axle: leadership is the overarching ingredient that allows  us to tap into our own abilities to move our communities forward in a meaningful way.

 

Next up in this two-part series, Fellow Melissa Varga of the Union of Concerned Scientists offers us some practical community organizing lessons for science community managers.

You can find all of the CEFP Fellows’ posts here.