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Communication + Capacity + Community: What Capacity Building Means to Us

Thoughtful communication is the most effective path to connect and engage communities.

It was bell hooks who said,

“Building community requires vigilant awareness of the work we must do continually to undermine all the socialization that leads us to behave in ways that perpetuate domination.”

It’s this ‘continuous work’ that we believe speaks directly to the need for communications specific capacity building.

So much of the language we use, when not reflected upon, can and often does—cause harm. How we talk to one another and what we say is all directly tied to power hoarding and many other white supremacy and patriarchy characteristics. If our work is truly meant to dismantle systems of oppression, we must begin by “noticing and reflecting” upon what we’re saying and how we’re saying it. We need to build and develop our own internal capacity, as well as that of our teams, to communicate in ways that more effectively align with our values.

That is why we need communications specific capacity building.

Oftentimes, when we think about capacity building we are thinking about the internal structures or processes that support our personal, professional or organizational growth. But, if we are not communicating/explaining/talking about our work in ways that are values aligned, how will we create a culture that can support these internal structures and equitable processes? 

Walking the talk starts internally with you…it starts with me…it starts with each of us spending time reflecting on how white dominant culture characteristics are showing up in conversations, in relationships, and how we describe the mission impact of our work.

Consider how language can so easily drive you to anger, how the subtlety between words like under-‘resourced’ versus under-‘privledged’ can feel like a microaggression.

Language, both visual and written, are constantly changing in meaning based on how society is using them—what’s the latest buzzword, what colors, images or even icons may have felt bold or radical in the past, but after being adopted and mutated by dominant society, now feel like power hoarding.

Consider asset-based language and how at its core and in its intention is about describing people based on their strengths and aspirations. But how often do we see people avoiding ‘at risk’ only to use ’empowered.’

Wait wait wait! Empowered is a good word isn’t it? Well, yes and no. Who is empowering who? And why are we still framing in relationship to ‘power’ at all?

When we do the personal work to be able to recognise these nuances, we build our internal capacity to be more relational and less transactional in our interactions.

For example, one of the biggest mistakes we all make in describing what we do is when we do not center the perspective of who we are in conversation with. When we think we need to explain every complexity all the time (sometimes this is called opening the fire hose). So, instead of considering who we are communicating with and what is important to them, we end up overwhelming our listener and giving them no space to stop and think about what we are sharing.

Here are two examples of basic interactions that illustrate how the way we deliver a simple introduction can actually feel aggressive—we all know someone who has done this and have probably done it ourselves.

A person comes up to you and starts talking as fast as possible explaining what they do for a living, why they do it, who they are, and what their background is that proves why they should be doing that work.

Next, they begin rapidly asking you questions about your work, never once saying that they are looking for partnership opportunities, but you assume that they are based on how they are talking. It all ends up feeling very transactional.

Is that a conversation you want to be a part of? Did they give you any time to digest, breath or reflect on any one thing they were saying? I’m pretty sure you had no space. Their way of communicating limited your capacity to understand and engage, and surely undermined your interest in being in community with them. 

Ok, now stop. breathe. look away from your screen for a moment.

Breathe again.

One more time.

Now, let’s replay that scenario a bit differently.

A person comes up to you and says hello. They introduce themselves and ask you your name. They let you know they would like to talk about what kind of work you each do and see if there are places you might be able to partner, share resources or connect in some way.

They ask you what you do and what kinds of relationships you are looking for…i.e. they center your needs and your perspective. In doing so, they illustrate that they value you as a person that they want to be in community with. Next, they share what their work entails, but they explain it to you in a way that feels relevant to what you just shared with them.

Now this time, how did it feel? Did you have space to breathe while reading those sentences? Do you think this is a person you want to interact with more in the future?

That new space you felt…

That was capacity.

The person communicated with you to be heard and understood on your terms, they met you where you were and in turn, you were able to listen and engage with them.

When we show up differently and center real, authentic connection, we are able to transform our relationships individually and collectively. In the moments that we are communicating with more intentionality we are also able to heal.

It is not enough to want more authentic connection and community engagement, we must practice it… and it can be messy.

“Culture is not accidental. Culture is a creation that can be tended to and focused in specific ways. Every time people are gathered together, the homogeneity of dominant culture is playing out unless there is an intention to be/do otherwise. There are skills and capacities we need to live into the future we believe in and we can develop and practice them…” – Sage Crump, Holding Change

Words can harm or they can heal. As Crump said, “culture is not accidental.” It is created through our words and actions when we are gathered together in groups and when we are one-on-one. Really, during any kind of social interaction, we need to be self-aware enough to recognise that our dominant culture’s “homogeneity” is going to play out unless we intentionally set out a different path for ourselves.

We must take the time to notice and heal the harm dominant culture has done to us as individuals. Because if we don’t take the time to practice different ways of seeing, doing, and saying it will become impossible not to reproduce harmful practices.

Communications capacity builds relational and authentic communities.

We need places and spaces to talk about how we communicate so that we can bring more intention to our practice. We need people to rally with, to deconstruct with, a community of people who can help me, and I them, question our belief systems and the way our identities and biases affect what we say, how we say it, and who we say it to.

In Leading Systems Change: A Workbook for Community Practitioners and Funders, authors Heather McLeod Grant, Adene Sacks, and Jenny Johnston share:

“Forming trusted bonds with like-minded leaders who share the same frustrations…and the same determination to improve their communities…changes everything…creating a level of support and solidarity.”

This is the vision of rootid’s education pillar work—to be a place of introspection of ourselves and reflecting upon our practices in a space with like-minded friends, colleagues and community members so that we can think, learn, build, try and experiment together. In a space where we can nurture one another, help one another heal from the harm of our white, dominant culture and bring more intention and vision into our work moving forward. A place where we can learn together in public and feel supported and cared for.

Being a nonprofit and systems leader demands a new and evolved toolkit—one that sets more intention around our mindsets, approaches, as well as the resources required for seeing, acting and co-leading change in a much more relational way.

We need new methods of holding space for leaders to talk, heal, and overcome siloed ways of acting. This is how we will co-design and transform our systems, processes and structures for the benefit of us all.

This is Part 1 of a two part series, stay tuned for the rest!