Top 10: Community-Building Cheat Sheet

You’d be hard pushed to find anyone who claims they don’t want to be part of a thriving community. So why don’t most of us live in well-connected communities these days? Is community a relic of a bygone era, or is it possible for us all to rekindle that connection?

Sustainability guru Shani Graham believes community is something we can all connect with, but when asked how to build it she replies that there is no recipe, no magic formula that works the same for everyone. The only thing we can all be sure of is that all communities begin with connection, sharing, and spending time together. A community will develop from the ground up and in a way that is relevant to the people living in it, so there’s no sense in trying to provide a one-size recipe that fits all.

But there are a few things we can all do that feed into our communities to help them become more connected, inclusive, and resilient. Here’s SHIFT’s cheat-sheet of ten tips for getting started…

Connect | Level: Novice

1. Pay it forward

Giving without expecting to receive anything in return is a way to connect with others that builds trust and reciprocity. There’s unlikely to be any shortage of needs in your community, so it’s a matter of meeting the ones you can with generosity. If you grow food and have a little surplus, for example, take some to your neighbours, or if you’re feeling a bit shy, perhaps leave a box on their doorstep with a friendly note. Perhaps offer to mow a neighbour’s lawn next time you do your own. Or perhaps next time you bake you can whip up a little extra and surprise your neighbours with a treat that’s sure to break the ice.

2. Learn to receive

For many, receiving is harder than giving, as it involves admitting that we don’t have the means to meet all of our own needs – that we are interdependent, not independent. But interdependency is a core attribute of a connected community, so you’ll just have to overcome those jitters you feel when you have to ask someone else to meet your needs! Start small – like with the clichéd cup of sugar – and then build up to borrowing bigger or more valuable items such as tools, and asking for a hand with something you can’t manage by yourself, like moving furniture. You’ll be sure to find others become more forthcoming in asking for help – and in offering it – as they see people helping one another in their community.

Spend time together | Level: Beginner

3. Make opportunities for casual encounters

Spending more time in your community in a way that is visible to others in your community provides more opportunities for the casual encounters that can lead to deeper connections. Simply stepping out more makes a difference, and activities such as tidying the front yard, tinkering in the garage with the door open, or simply hanging out on the front porch all increase your chances of encounters that break the ice, as does walking to local stores or markets instead of driving to distant ones, where possible. Moving backyard activities to the front yard trades a little privacy for the reward of connection, and can include anything from putting a chair out in the front yard to read the Sunday paper to shifting the family barbecue to the front yard.

4. Find things to do together

Whether you want your community to work together to address a local cause, to build resilience in the face of uncertain times ahead, or just come together to support one another, spruiking ideology is no way to sell the idea of community. Communities coalesce around shared activities, so that means spending time together doing things that you can all enjoy. The good news is that this can be as simple as having your neighbours over for a barbecue, as functional as inviting your neighbours to chuck their pre-loveds in with your next garage sale, or as dastardly as luring your neighbours into permablitzing your backyard with the promise of lemonade and lunch (you can be sure yours won’t be the last backyard to get blitzed)! You could even culture-jam your community by having monthly movie nights in the street, like Shani Graham’s Hulbert Street Community.

Communicate | Level: Practitioner

5. Keep tabs on folks you think might need extra care

We all know someone in our community who needs a little more care or support than they are getting. Often it’s the elderly or the sick, but it could just as well be a young family or a new arrival struggling to stay afloat while looking for work. Once you’ve established initial connections it’s relatively easy to keep an eye on people in need and determine who is best placed to offer support. As we all have varying skills, capabilities, resource and time constraints, it takes as many members of a community as possible to do their bit for that community to thrive. People tend to feel a stronger connection to their community if it is clear how they can engage most helpfully or how best to receive support from others.

6. Create a community communication platform

People engage with communities in various different ways, and although face to face communication is ideal, it may take other means for some folks to feel comfortable with engaging. Many thriving communities have a newsletter that provides updates on issues relevant to their community, while others maintain a Facebook page or group for discussion about community events or issues. In fact, community use of social media has become so popular that a website has sprung up to facilitate community connections, with 70 new neighbourhoods joining every day in the US. Nextdoor.com enables people to share tips and recommendations, locate lost pets, and share information about community events such as garage sales, as well as just connect with others in their community.

Share | Level: Expert

7. Set up a community sharing register

Sharing is caring, and functions as a way of building trust within your community as well as meeting diverse needs. We all have something that someone else lacks, or lack something that someone else has. Our consumer culture encourages us to try to become self-sufficient by personally owning everything that is desirable to have, regardless how much use you get out of it. This is the reason so many households boast an electric drill that is used for a grand total of between 6 and 13 minutes in its lifetime. It makes far more sense to find out who in your community has items they’re happy to lend out to others, and set up a register so that others in your community know how to get hold of something they need.

8. Set up a community lending library

Going one better than a sharing register, a community lending library is a brilliant means of empowering your community. A library doesn’t just have to be for books – libraries are springing up everywhere for the sharing of anything from tools to toys. All you need is a space that is accessible to all members of your community, and sufficient trust in one another. If you have an electric drill that’s lying idle while a neighbor needs it, why not put it in your community tool library for common use, and gain access to your neighbour’s coveted lawn-mower that you couldn’t afford to buy for yourself?  A community toy library enables children to have access to a range of toys without you having to spend a lot of money on things they might get bored of or outgrow quickly, while also demonstrating a culture of access over ownership from a young age. 

Engage your community in projects | Level: Ninja

9. Kick off a community project

The possibilities for community projects extend as far as your imagination will take you, but the most obvious first step for many is to set up a community garden. Nurturing a patch of earth together is a fun and productive way of engaging your community in something positive and lasting. You can seize on a common grassy area – even your roadside verges – or find someone willing to donate part of their land. So long as someone has a little know-how, others can easily become engaged and learn the basics. Other more unusual projects communities have engaged in include the Hulbert Street pizza oven (used for their neighbourhood movie nights), bike shed (leading to reduced car use), skateboard ramp, and even a sustainability fiesta, in Fremantle, Western Australia – demonstrating what creative projects communities can conjure up, given the chance. 

10. Organize to address a local issue

Collaborating over an issue of mutual interest to your community is an excellent way to build solidarity while exercising empowerment. Every community has at least one issue that can be addressed with a little collaboration and willpower. Grassroots community projects as diverse as establishing safer spaces for childrencampaigning for affordable housing, or mobilizing to preserve a local woodland or wetland, or protect it from the threat of a ‘development’ project, have often been successful thanks to direct community engagement and empowerment.

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