Puddle (1952), MC Escher.” Photo: Pedro Ribeiro Simões

“Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”—James Baldwin

Take a breath. Go ahead. Take a deep breath.

It has now been a full revolution for us around the sun as the reflections and lamentations of this pandemic year are shared and grieved. How are we making sense of this last year?

As the pandemic shut down the United States a year ago, and a racial justice movement engulfed the nation and the globe, we began to engage in conversations about community. On why cultivating community is important. On how we see or fail to see one another in community. On the ways in which community can be intensely local and yet national. On what it means to disagree and be cared for in community.

For if we are talking with each other and engaging with one another, we may be able to hear and see one another, and grow personally and professionally from these conversations. Indeed, we, the authors, wish to use “community” as a way to gather educators, organizers, and activists—leaders diverse in race, faith, age, and class—and create a platform for new ideas and courageous conversations where we can build and strengthen relationships, learn together, and take action.

In our work as consultants and educators, we have often wrestled with essential questions on how to challenge and reimagine community. These questions include:

  • When do we see or feel a sense of community?
  • Where do we want our community to be?
  • Who is in our community, and who is not?
  • How do we get from here to there?

A written report by two of us (Tiell and Linden) frames this work more broadly. Last February, more than 60 educators, organizers, and activists gathered at a two-day summit that discussed steps that might be taken to rebuild connection and cultivate community. The goal of the summit was to create conditions for building relationships. This included 10 peer-led community labs over the two days. Participants self-selected which workshops to attend and had the opportunity to connect more deeply with five to 10 other educators, organizers, and activists. The executive director of a racial justice organization in Los Angeles connected with the dean of students of a nearby public university. A musicologist and philosopher from Chicago met the executive director of a family foundation in the San Francisco Bay Area. The leader of a social justice roundtable nonprofit in Washington, DC connected with a handful of potential new funders, and the three of us met the program coordinator of a similar community-building platform from the Aspen Institute. Those are but a few examples of dozens of connections generated.

This work is inspired by the realization of how siloed so many of us are, whether in philanthropy, activism, or otherwise. We’ve seen too many “solutions” that don’t challenge our thinking or the confines of our institutions. So many of us are moving outside our institutions—bypassing them, in fact—to create the change we seek. Here we begin to find the real work being done, and individuals who need each other to do transformational work are finding one another.

One of us—Kyle Beckham of Berkeley Educators for Equity and Excellence (BE3) at the University of California, Berkeley—discussed the importance of facilitating the creation of community asset maps with BE3 teacher candidates and how the process of asset mapping can provide a pathway for the (re)creation of community connections. One attendee noted that the session compelled participants “to think more deeply about who and what we center when we think about community.”

The process of community asset mapping has a history, of course. Back in the early 1990s, John (“Jody”) Kretzman and John McKnight published Building Communities from the Inside Out. Community assets, Kretzman and McKnight point out, can include many things, including:

  • the skills of local residents
  • the power of local associations
  • the resources of public, private, and nonprofit institutions
  • the physical infrastructure and space in a community
  • the economic resources and potential of local places
  • the local history and culture of a neighborhood

The idea, in short, is to see in community—especially low-income communities and communities of color—the source of solutions. It seems like common sense, and yet so many still start with reiterating the problems rather than identifying the community resources that might address those problems. Fortunately, over time, the idea of community asset mapping has gained more and more adherents.

As the Laundromat Project, an arts nonprofit in Brooklyn, explains on its website, “Asset mapping is a map-making methodology that allows the mapper to understand and appreciate a place through the perspectives of those who live there.” It allows the group “to empower artists and neighbors to collaboratively identify social issues and make change in their communities.” The group adds that “developing and maintaining a knowledge of various neighborhood populations, resources, hyperlocal politics, etc.” is a core part of its work of being “a place-based, grassroots arts supporter.”

For the teacher candidates of BE3 embarking on the unique challenge of training to be teachers under pandemic conditions, the process of creating asset maps of their immediate context helps to build linkages among themselves, their students, and the neighborhoods around the schools that would have otherwise never emerged. Further, the maps served as offerings candidates could bring to the schools themselves, as resources to be shared with the school community to help better meet its many needs and to chart people, places, and activities that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. One participant afterward contacted Beckham to get models to take to the school where he works to use in his community.

Building on these examples, participants were asked to imagine what resources their communities might identify through asset mapping and how the process of mapping might nudge them to see things that might otherwise go unnoticed. Participants were also challenged at the sessions to begin to make their own asset maps and bring them to future gatherings to share how others are engaged in the act of going out and finding what preserves community strength during difficult times. One learning is how to involve all members of your community, in whatever ways possible, to be as inclusive and welcoming and supportive of their needs and wants—which may be at odds with our own.

The language of community can be complicated, and we recognize that notions of community, depending on how they are applied, can exclude as well as include. Thoughtfully carried out, however, we believe that building bridges across difference is critically important. We believe that by building new coalitions, creating common bonds and rituals of community, and mapping our assets and needs, deeply thoughtful and creative connections, learning, and action will emerge.

Kyle Beckham is a career educator working across the K-16+ spectrum, currently focused on teacher education and preparation at Berkeley Educators for Equity and Excellence (BE3). He has a PhD from Stanford in Race, Inequality, and Language, in Education, and ten years of direct K-12 experience largely in a project-based alternative high school for students at-risk of dropping out.

Seth Linden is founder and principal of Gather Consulting, where he advises philanthropists and nonprofits at the intersections of education reform, leadership development, and community building.

Jeffrey Tiell is a cross-sector professional working at the intersection of philanthropy and place. He is the Director of NextGen Milwaukee at the Milwaukee Jewish Federation working in partnership to build the future leaders of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation and broader community.