In January 2017, we wrapped up the training week for the inaugural class 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 the January training, the Fellows will report back on the Trellis blog, sharing their challenges, discoveries, and insights. Today, we’re featuring a piece by Jennifer Davison who describes her experience during the CEFP training week.
Posted by Jennifer Davison, Program Manager at Urban@UW
As part of our preparations for the weeklong training in January that kicked off the AAAS Community Engagement Fellows program, the new fellows were given a worksheet to capture expectations, needs, concerns, and hopes for our time together. At the end of the form we were asked to list five emotions we hoped to feel by the end of the week. I spent an inordinate amount of time refining my list (I may have used a thesaurus), settling on the following: Focused, Heartened, Inspired, Grateful, and Prepared.
As program manager for Urban@UW, an initiative that fosters cross-disciplinary research on cities, my job is both hectic and diffuse, with big aspirations, few resources, and fewer models of how to make this kind of research happen. In applying to the CEFP I hoped to gain perspectives and tools to help me be more effective at my work. I was also really excited to connect with other people across the world who engage in the same kind of work: managing scientific communities and catalyzing action to achieve larger goals.
With these hopes in mind, I joined eighteen other members of the initial CEFP cohort, along with about a dozen amazing trainers, mentors, and leaders in the field of community management. We arrived to frigid sub-zero temperatures and wrapped ourselves in scarves and down as we trekked between our hotel and the beautiful AAAS building, where we wasted no time getting into the thick of training. We had only 6 days to develop a common language around community management, some common goals for the year, and a strong bond among us to help ensure the success—and enjoyment! —of this inaugural cohort.
Weaving our way through the rich tapestry of community management, we explored ideas relating to all aspects of supporting a community to achieve shared goals. We talked about indicators of the rise and fall of communities; examined the unique role and skill-sets of community managers and of scientific community managers in particular; practiced differentiating “shared values” (between a community and an organization) from “what is valued” (by the organization as evidenced by its norms and processes); and explored cutting-edge research on scientific collaborations.
As we moved briskly between lectures, workshops, reflection sessions, and group discussion, I felt surprisingly… comfortable. It was satisfying to see the clear evidence-base for the strategies, impacts, and value of scientific community management. And I was relieved and energized to have the space, tools and support to explore this evidence. I loved the delicious wonkiness and the group’s shared recognition of challenges and solutions for the work that we do every day.
As the week went on, a few epiphanies bubbled up for me:
1. Community managers are change agents! The work that community managers do to facilitate community connection and catalyze action requires that they identify and address behavioral, cultural, and/or institutional barriers to those actions. To me this resonated with a newer definition of leadership: one based not on top-down hierarchy but on collaborative influence borne of trust and common ground. And, it was instructive (and sometimes hilarious) to see this cohort of process-oriented systems-thinkers facilitate change within our own group.
2. Content strategies help communities evolve! It is essential that the events, blog posts, webinars, and other content developed for a scientific community aligns with the goals of that community. Just as importantly, a content strategy should be flexible, adapting to the community’s changing needs. As we talked about assessing the stages of communities and tailoring content to their evolution, I realized that my organization’s content strategy was already out of date from this fall, and that it was time to let go of some old efforts and develop new ones.
3. Big-picture thinking has to be planned! As the week wrapped up, I was not the only person anticipating that the fantastic new ideas and strategies we’d identified, both for our own programs and for our cohort as a whole, might end up on the back burner as soon as the wheels of our homebound planes touched the ground (I mean—come on, it’s been 6 weeks and I’ve just now been able to write this post!). I couldn’t even go through my notes until a month after the training week. It is critical, though, that we take time to think about strategy, vision, mission, and goals: otherwise our efforts may become less effective, and we will burn out from the minutia while losing sight of our purpose. The training week gave me a chance for that kind of high-level thinking, and reminded me to make space for such thinking on a regular basis.
4. Community managers are awesome people! One of the most amazing things about the training week was connecting with an incredible group of people who are dedicated, brilliant, creative and fun. The intensity of our time together galvanized my belief in this work, but it also created strong bonds that I hope will last a lifetime.
In short, I came away from the CEFP training week feeling how I’d I hoped: focused on what I can do next, and prepared to do so and inspired, heartened and grateful to be in this work and in this fellowship. So far I have been able to implement a few ideas and tweak a few strategies in the communities I manage, with plans for more systemic change. And I am part of a subgroup of our cohort that is further defining the role of community managers as change agents. At once a learning lab, a safe space and an incubator, our training week has provided the foundation for the great work in this fellowship and beyond.