Community Building Workshop with Peter Block

Published 31 March, 2010 by Kyla

Thanks to the generosity of Louise van Rhyn and all at the fabulous Symphonia, I was able to attend the Community Building Workshop with Peter Block last month. I can’t tell you how glad I am that I made it. I will try though, otherwise this will be a pretty boring blog. I had seen the ad for the workshop in my inbox several times since last year. Each time I made a mental note to get in touch with Louise and book my place but…you know how it goes…the emails pile up and life rolls on. A week before the event I got the blurb again and thought, ok now Kyla, it’s now or never. What’s more important: spending yet another two days in front of your computer in the name of Invisible Networking or actually getting out of your pyjamas and moving to sit in a room full of real people, with real jobs in real time?! Well, what do you think is more important…?

So up I got and away I went and found myself not only in a room full of real people, but absolutely extraordinary ones at that. There were teachers and social workers and CEO’s and bank managers and artists and IT -guys and nuns and clergymen and ecologists and entrepreneurs and musicians and actors and activists and all in a range of colours, genders and languages that would have made any Rainbow Nation PR person fall over themselves to photograph us. If ever there was a moment for celebrating true and honest diversity, this workshop was it. I was honoured just to be in the room. Before I’d even poured milk in my coffee I’d made two new best friends.

The first day started with Louise admitting nervously that Peter Block would not be with us until the following day due to Visa complications. She was bold and brave in saying however, that the nature of the workshop was not about Guru-worship but rather about ‘the people in this room’. I was instantly hooked. I really appreciated her saying that we did not need a ‘leader’ to embark on the process of Community Building and that in fact, particularly in South Africa, this requirement is often a hindrance to ordinary people just getting on with it. It’s not rocket science really, it’s just listening and being and engaging.

Good start to the day as far as I was concerned.

I’m not the kind of person who takes notes, preferring instead to absorb all the information at once, let it settle and then see what sticks. So what you get here is not a blow by blow account of the ‘outcomes’ and ‘objectives’ of the workshop but rather, as Peter himself so succinctly puts it, ‘what struck me’ about the many conversations, discussions and connections made in the space.

The first conversation that struck me is the response to the question that we were asked: ‘What is the crossroads you are at in your life’. As with all the group discussions, we were asked to sit in groups of three or four, with our knees no more than 9 inches apart. I loved this! After having a particularly passionate discussion over teatime with another young person about how we missed travelling by tube and bus in London because, despite the often stinky discomfort, connections made between us humans are not always verbal. Sometimes touching knees or elbows with a stranger is enough to feel part of something bigger. It was certainly good for my soul and I miss it now, living in Jo’burg. So did my teatime-mate. Bring on Rea Vaya…I’m ready to move!

But back to the conversation, I was struck by how my ‘personal crossroads’ which I explained as not being able to separate the personal from the political in my life was echoed back to me by my fellow group members. We were all experiencing versions of the same dilemma. How to conserve enough energy and joy in our private lives and hearts in order that we may continue on our journey as Changemakers in the big, wide, unaccommodating world. I think this feeling of fatigue resonates for a lot of community-builders in SA. The mountain seems so very high and wide, the change needed so immense, that to look at it head-on is to feel instantly exhausted. How do we integrate building community in this land into our everyday lives so that it does not have to mean self-sacrifice and constant heartache. Because the journey is indeed a tough one. No answers here. Just a reflection. And comfort found in finding that I am not alone on this ‘mountain’.

The next thing that stands out for me as an Aha-moment (sorry to get all corporate on you there, but it was!) is Louise’s fantastic story of the time when she was told at a company board meeting at which she was being her passionate, motivated, ideas-factory self (and please excuse the para-phrasing, this is how I remember it): ‘You are so certain Louise, there is no room for my uncertainty. I need you to hold your certainty a little more gently.’ Wow. It could have been good advice specially for me. I realised, when I heard this story, a couple of things. Firstly, the idea of holding ‘certainty a little more gently’ is revolutionary. What a wise woman who said this. Rather than jumping on the defensive and telling Louise to back off or, worse yet, telling her to change her personality, she was saying ‘Stay who you are, keep your style, your tone, your passion, your ideas but, in that strong space, make room for others to contribute’. Beautiful. It implies also, that in Community Building, there is no room for arrogance or surety because nothing in life is for certain. We are all building this together, blindly, and so the future needs to be held gently by all of us, each of us contributing what we can, how we can and leaving room for others to do the same. Big lesson for me that and, now that I think about it, perhaps the answer to my Crossroads Dilemma above?

The next day was no less awesome. After a night of fitful sleep which Peter said would happen (he said if you are not getting up between the hours of 3 and 4am, the Watchmen’s Hour, you’re not really working) I arrived looking forward to more gems and insights. The thing that struck me on the second day was the the notion of dissonance and diversity. I often fall into the trap (and I think it is one that gives the very word ‘community’ a bad rap) of thinking that if we are all to live peacefully together, we must just get along and feel like sunshine and roses ALL the time. Not so. Dissonance is good. Argument is good. Conflict is good. It is only by recognising what you don’t want that you are able to see what it is that you do. Not some fabricated hippy village where we all borrow each other’s clothes but rather a robust and open society where everything is held up to the light and examined intelligently for it’s flaws and virtues. Taboos, values, ethics, ideas, plans, relationships, all should be seen for what they are and not accepted at face value just because someone tells us they are good and proper.

It was on this day that I found myself (me the tree-hugging, outspoken, fossil-fuel bashing activist with my ostentatious earrings and youthful defiance…) in a knee-touching discussion with a high-up employee of a Coal Mining company. Ah, the irony of community. The cruelty of synchronicity. Now then, our rules tell us that we don’t belong together in the same circle. We are enemies, we are on the ‘other side’, we are both, according to each of us, not helping with any kind of Progress at all. But life tells us different. And open, honest, genuine communication tells us even more: that we absolutely are on the same side and furthermore, that that side is the Human side. We find ourselves, all of us, thrust into a society (nowhere more true than here in SA) where all around us we see foes. Different colours, different cultures, different languages, different professions and different religions or morals. It’s difficult to even look strangers in the eye, let alone trust them or listen to them. But listen we must, and accept differences without trying to smooth over them with a steam roller and we have to try, above all else, to be empathetic. Not helpful (another one of Peter’s suggestions: Don’t be helpful) but empathetic. Therein lies grace. Therein lies an honest community strong enough to weather any storm.

Needless to say, me and Mr Coal didn’t become best friends (that’s kind of the point) but we also left with each finding a new understanding and compassion for where the other was coming from and, in some respects, noticed that we had a fair amount in common in terms of our ethics and lifestyles.

These profound moments of insight were of course just highlights of a consistently profound and meaningful two days. I can’t even go into all the snatched moments of deep conversation that were happening all around me during teatime, lunchtime, inbetween tasks and even in the queue for the toilet. Everywhere I went, everyone I sat down next to had something utterly inspiring to say about who they were and what they did. It’s true that the people in this city who are working hard to make change happen will always find each other at some point. Not fate, not luck, just inevitable. The inexplicable law of pulling into your life and surrounding yourself with exactly what you need, exactly when you need it.

In closing (although I feel I could still go on at lengthy detail about my full two days), I just want to share the most wonderful statement I heard during the workshop. A deeply passionate woman who had just explained to me that, in her mind, she has been building community her whole life with her grandmothers and mother told me that her version of community is ‘no one leaving until the last dish has been done’. Perfect. The image that that statement evokes in me is so powerful I could weep.

When I see my community, I see a place where work gets done, often menial but necessary work that someone’s gotta do. A place where women: mothers, grandmothers, sisters (obviously with the men amicably nearby…) are central. A place where information is shared, gossip is mongered and silliness and laughter happens. A place of care and love and meticulous attention to detail. A place where we are all squeezed together in a tiny space and yet everyone has their part to play, their job to do, their voice to raise. A place where tragedies and triumphs are shared and celebrated. An ever-moving, ever-changing, ever-growing sense of belonging somewhere and being invested in something. A place of passion. That is my idea of Community.

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1 Comment

  1. Wow, Kyla, what a mind-blowing experience! This piece literally took me into the workshop you had. I could almost see the people in the room you were in, the smaller groups, bigger group, tea and lunch time conversations….. Thanks for sharing your experience with us, a lot of what is said here resonates well with me.

    Published April 6, 2010 by Dorah Lebelo

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