Community is political

Community is political

InclusionDefining community

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In December 2021, I interviewed for a community position at a community platform that I use for the Soapbox Project membership community.

An important note before I begin: I love the platform (so far) and have had many good experiences and conversations with the people who run it. I will not go into detail about who the characters of this story are, because I (currently) believe in their ability to learn and take feedback.

Anyway, back to December 2021.

The interview process was going great, both in my opinion and in the opinion of the person reviewing my take-home presentation. My interviewers said some amazing things about me that I think about when I have a bad day. It really reinforced my belief in myself, and I’m grateful for it.

Then, I had a ~1-hour conversation with one of the executives about my political beliefs.

Everything is political

This person said that their community platform was meant to be apolitical. They questioned me about my open politics (specifically referencing the fact that I have “wack tech bros” on my Twitter bio, which could “make some of the men on the team not want to talk to me”). Essentially, they were concerned because their platform was not political; yet I was.

I said in response that I believe everything is political, especially community.

I asked them what they meant by apolitical.

They didn’t have an answer ready.

Here’s why it matters: If you believe you’re building something apolitical and you haven’t critically thought about what it means, you are likely buying into the political will of the oppressor.

You’ve heard this quote before:

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality. — Desmond Tutu

If you’re building a company, especially anything community-related, you have to accept that humans cannot exist without bias. In a world where injustice peeks out from every corner, we are constantly under oppression, or under threat of it.

If you disagree with this premise, this article will not be valuable for you. Let’s only continue if we agree with the following statements:

  • We do not live in an equal world
  • We want to build towards a world where everyone has rights
  • Humans are biased, and these biases will naturally feed into everything we do

Why is community political?

If you agree with the premises above but are still struggling with the “chosen the side of the oppressor thing”, or you’re thinking to yourself, “community can be apolitical!” I get it.

Let’s break it down.

Reason #1: Community is about identity. Identity has been politicized.

I try to be consistent, so I use Carrie Melissa Jones’s definition of community wherever I can on this site, and she says, “A community is a group of people who share an identity and a mutual concern for one another's welfare.” Identity is political. I mean, we have a whole Wikipedia page for it! Look, many of us born in the last 2-3 decades haven’t actively chosen the political decisions that envelop our identity in today’s world, but they still very much exist. I, for example, am a straight, first-generation, Brahmin Indian immigrant millennial woman. I didn’t choose those things. Nor did I choose the laws that allow me to get legally married, while others don’t have that right. Nor did I choose for Indians to be colonized by the British. Nor did I choose the caste system that oppresses millions yet puts me at a higher status in Indian culture. Nor did I choose the patriarchy taking away my reproductive rights. You get the point. Identity has been politicized, and community does not exist without a group of people who share an identity. This can be more or less apparent depending on what communities you’re involved with, but it’s always there. For example, if, like me, you’re running an environmental and social justice community, you’ll know that many members have joined because politics is literally a matter of life and death. Or, if you’re running a developer community, you might think you’re creating an apolitical space. But consider some questions:

  • Without psychological safety, building real community is impossible. If your members can’t trust each other, is the community you’re facilitating truly valuable?
  • What does it mean for white men of color who are developers to have far greater career opportunities and generational wealth than women of color developers? Should the community ignore this or use resources to lift people up? The answer, regardless of which one, is political.
  • Can developers exist without their other identities of what makes them them? (Lol no.) Then, consider the fact that some community members have a lot more institutional burdens to carry than others.

This example below sums it up.

Reason #2: Community exists to build citizens; not consumers

If you’re running a product-led community but you’ve still agreed with the initial principles laid out in this article, please bear with me through this statement. It might go against what you’re told — product communities must drive customers, right?

Well, sure.

But going back to Carrie’s definition, if communities must include people sharing “a mutual concern for one another’s welfare”, we must transcend our identities as consumers and embrace our citizen-ness. Let me explain. Better yet, let Peter Block, the author of Community: the Structure of Belonging state his definition of citizens:

Our definition here is that a citizen is one who is willing to be accountable for and committed to the well-being of the whole. That whole can be a city block, a workplace, a community, a nation, the earth. A citizen is one who produces the future, someone who does not wait, beg, or dream for the future. The antithesis of being a citizen is being a consumer or a client, another idea that John McKnight has been so instructive about. Consumers give power away. They believe that their own needs can be best satisfied by the actions of others—whether those others are elected officials, top management, social service providers, or the shopping mall. Consumers also allow others to define their needs.

And that’s what we want in our communities! People who are committed to the well-being of the whole.

If we truly wish to fulfill our roles as community builders in this way, we can’t ignore that the citizen exists in multiple realms. The consumer exists in the realm of commerce. But we’re not just consumers; we’re whole, living, breathing humans capable of deciding our own futures.

To box community members into consumers is to ignore humanity, and this goes against the very definition of community-building. We can’t recognize people’s humanity outside the realm of politics, at least in the world we’re currently living in. Politics defines who gets rights and who doesn’t, and if we as community weavers are here to facilitate well-being, we have to accept that community is political.

Reason #3: Community and politics both hold the keys to our survival

As mentioned before the intro to this article, I’m writing this a few days after Roe v. Wade in the United States was overturned, which means that people can literally die from not getting access to abortion.

You can’t separate having a uterus from other aspects of your life. It doesn’t magically go away when you join a new online community or find a group of friends to hang out with.

And it’s governed by politics.

Community, as well, is life or death.

There are different degrees of this — for example, organizing people together during civil rights movements is literally a life-or-death community moment, but even otherwise, there is evidence that social isolation is as good of a predictor of mortality as well-documented clinical risk factors.

Here’s a quote from the 2013 study linked above:

Social isolation is defined as disengagement from social ties, institutional connections, or community participation. Socially isolated individuals have been found to have a higher risk of mortality in several studies.  Although a recent meta-analysis suggested that the rate of all-cause mortality among the most socially isolated individuals may be 50% higher than the rate among socially integrated individuals, there have been few large-scale studies, and these investigations have yielded mixed findings about the association between social isolation and mortality both in general and according to gender.

The mortality rate for the most socially isolated individuals may be 50% higher than the rate among socially integrated individuals!! 50%!

You can read about the variables and limitations of the study in greater detail, but one thing is clear: the quality (and quantity) of our lives can hinge on finding our people.

When people don’t feel safe to express their true selves, they can withdraw into social isolation. Creating spaces where everyone is welcome — and has the right to a dignified life — is the role of community builders.

So, to summarize…

  • Community is political
  • Community builders should invest in learning about trauma-informed practices, digital accessibility, mutual aid, and other “political” things, because it’s part of our skillset to protect the members we serve
  • Community will continue to be political as long as some people’s existences are politicized by others, and I hope we will see a world where we can all just ✨vibe✨

What can community builders do in a political world?

If you’re still with me, it’s time to take action! Yay my favorite thing! Here’s some options on where to go next:

  • Create clear community guidelines that highlight what is okay and what is not okay in your community. You can’t be “apolitical” but it is fair to say something like: “in our community, we do not share news articles that aren’t related to X topic”. Apolitical spaces don’t exist, but when you lead by acknowledging this, you can create a safe haven from heavy topics — if you wish to do so. Be specific. Be clear. Communicate boundaries. You can check out this
    What do you actually use community values for?
    post on how I think about this. Yes, everything is political, and also yes, you can state that your community is not the place to discuss it as long as you communicate what you mean by “discussing politics”! Expectations are 🔑.
  • Read
    What is tone policing?
  • Book Empowered in Color for DEI consulting
  • Sign up for SBLTN’s newsletter with accessibility and inclusion tips
  • Give historically exploited people and community members a greater platform on your events, not just to talk about their trauma, but to thrive and share their expertise with others.
  • Understand that being an ally never ends. We don’t need perfection; we need momentum.
  • Ask questions! No, you’re not going to “””get cancelled””” as long as you’re acting in good faith. Be courageous. If you don’t understand something, reach out. Maybe you don’t want to do it on social media, but you can start by sending me an email.

Shoutouts to some of my favorite community builders/people to follow in this space — Carrie Melissa Jones, Evan Hamilton, and Mirella Ang for directly and/or indirectly giving me the courage to publish this article.

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