The Art of Community Building review:

Change starts with each of us. One conversation at a time.

By Sue Northam

‘The Art of Community Building, conversations that can change the world’ – it had intrigued me enough to take two days off work in order to ‘work’ on aspects on my being as well as my greater global understanding. Under the broad spectrum of ongoing self-improvement, I pursue these types of workshops because no matter what the subject, I always find it enriching, and often enlightening, to be in a shared space of awareness and learning.

A breakfast table of muffins, fruit, juices and more greeted us on arrival. A theme soon to be shared was how essential it is to provide a gesture of food when in an environment of establishing community, and how the offer of food can start to bring people together. Such a simple concept, yet so vital an approach! This was a confirmation how it is often the simple things done beautifully, and with care, that impress and impact on us greatly.

So the workshop began, two days structured around six conversations, created by six powerful questions. I was reminded again about the art of powerful questions. And I was enamoured all over again by how one seemingly simple yet beautiful, bold question – with adequate space created for it to settle and inspire – can do so much.

Six big questions inspiring six bold conversations. Four food snack breaks a day (very important don’t forget). Three fabulous facilitators. Two days of time away from the routine world to discuss and engage with fellow South Africans of all ages, cultures and backgrounds. One common purpose. Conversations that change the world.

The words of South Africa’s ultimate education ambassador and ex-MD of the World Bank Mamphele Ramphele still ring through my mind from that video clip on the first day. She said, “Africans have a subject mentality rather than a citizen mentality.”

The concept of active citizenship within the democracy of South Africa, created over 18 years ago, was presented in a subtle yet powerful way. As South Africans we have the world’s best Constitution in place to support the freedom we fought for all those decades ago. Yet here we are ‘waiting for superman’. Waiting for someone else to start something. Waiting for someone else to deliver. We have become consumers. We expect. Instead of creating what we need and want. It is this compulsive materialism which erodes the power of our very own citizenship privilege.

Leadership as a concept was presented as a way of being, an attitude rather than a role or a position. Along with this, principles of self-responsibility were read out like a manifesto of desire and delightful expectation. A manifesto we wanted to aspire to, to uphold, to be our best for ourselves and to respect and honour the best from those around us. To be aware of the stories we tell and how we are in our conversations. The facilitators spoke to the highest within each of us collectively in the 50 strong participant group and they created the space for us and invited us to take part in a shared purpose of experiencing conversations that can make an immense difference.

Many impactful quotes were shared which landed with new meaning in context of the workshop. From Tolstoy’s “Every man wants to change the world, but nobody wants to change themselves!” to one of my renewed favourites from Plato “Be gentle with everyone you meet, for you never know what battles they are fighting.”

The essence of Symphonia, the NGO behind these Community Building workshops, became clear and resonated within me – a coming together of everyday South Africans to make a difference. Symphonia began as a passion project inspired by Ros and Benjamin Zander’s book The Art of Possibility by the now returned expat Louise van Rhyn. The focus of Symphonia is on education, with schools being at the heart and centre of the community.

As a recently returned expat myself, I too feel the desire and urgency in Louise’s need to see and make a difference in South Africa.

I also learnt about Symphonia’s Partner for Possibility Programme as I sat amongst a majority of school principals and their ‘partners’, each of whom is an active citizen adding their time, experience and insights to assist our country improve and succeed. One school principal at a time.

As the conversations unfolded, I listened to stories I’d not heard before. I heard how it was from all angles of the rainbow family. I listened with awe and inspiration to some, and with shock and sadness to others. One teacher expressed the challenge of getting parents involved in their children’s homework and development as well the difficulty in getting these parents to attend meetings or join the school’s governing body. He said how most parents in his area merely saw school as a place to leave their kids during the day while they went to work.

It was these intimate nuggets which opened my eyes the widest. It reignited in me that to get the right conversations started all we need is a little bit of courage, and a big bold beautiful, sometimes scary, question and then the safe space to speak, listen and hear others out.

The two days were gently facilitated and tools were provided to take part in and take away the conversations that can build community. From the importance of inviting people to participate (not telling them to do so) to looking at the things we are moaning about and thus what we are subconsciously perpetuating in our disempowering dialogues. We looked at the value of acknowledging the gifts people bring of themselves, and recognising within ourselves our own gifts. The theory of the six conversations is based on the methodology and work of Peter Block who has written two books, ‘Community: The structure of belonging’ and ‘The Abundant Community’.

Peter captures the essence of his work eloquently in saying, “Most sustainable improvements in community occur when citizens discover their own power to act… when they stop waiting for professionals or elected leadership to do something, and decide they can reclaim what they have delegated to others!”

I left the two-day workshop assured and certain of my need to step fully into being an active citizen. I will use my gift of writing to share the sentiments, insights and inspiration of how a few beautifully placed questions along with creating and allowing a safe space and adequate pauses and silences for authentic responses, how we can each and all contribute to uplifting each other, and our communities, our country. One powerful gentle conversation at a time.

Conversations can change the world.

For information about Symphonia’s Conversations  workshops in Cape Town and Johannesburg see

http://scenicsouth.co.za//wp-content/uploads/2012/06/CommunityBuilding-v32-links-LR.PDF