The term “intentional community” generally refers to a shared living situation, be it a commune or a co-op or a planned neighbourhood or village. It puts me in mind of another type of intentional creation and curation of community.
When I attended university, I was fortunate to discover a social network cum distributed messaging system (like a BBS or a set of Slack channels) called Usenet. My creative writing activity in one area of this system attracted the attention of someone called Rissa, and I received my first significant invitation to a curated community: a mailing list called ENIAC populated by people Rissa liked because they consistently wrote things that pleased her. I have friends I first met through ENIAC and Usenet who remain dear to me. Some of them I’ve known for more than half my life. A few of them I have yet to meet in person, though I hope to some day.
Rissa’s intentionally curated community brought together people who formed bonds based on significant similarities. Not only did we all enjoy writing, but we were all exceptionally bright and most of us were in some way looked down on by the dominant groups around us. We cheered on each other’s successes and supported those whose stories resonated strongly with us through their hard times. We mourned a few untimely deaths as well.
An intentionally curated community goes beyond the shared circumstance that throws people together. The people you work closely with, your fellow participants in a class or project, the members of a political party or community service club all come together and share some common interest. That commonality is akin to one of the two tubes of an epoxy resin: part of what holds the universe together, but not enough to do the job on its own.
You need a convener: one or at most a handful of people who facilitates building and running the community. In my experience, the convener isn’t in a position of power in the traditional sense. They have social capital, a commitment to the group, and skill in bringing and keeping people together. A convener may be the person who invites people to coffee or the torch-holder of wisdom or someone who takes on a project management or administrative role for the group.
At a former workplace, Keith used the excuse of needing a mid-morning coffee to gather several people who didn’t necessarily work on the same things for discussions that ranged from social to technical to strategic. Whether you wanted a coffee or tea or small snackerel (or nothing but a chat), the gang came together to share a togetherness that reflected in our work outside coffee breaks. Coffee with Keith encouraged us all to reach out to build additional communities throughout a large and silo-encumbered organization. In a small way, we made the workplace better because our convener set a fine example we wanted to follow.
In my Toastmasters club, one of the long time members is our unofficial club mentor. Duke works consistently, most of the time with little apparent effort, to set the tone and share wisdom. Not all Toastmasters clubs have the feeling of intentional community that ours does. Visitors frequently remark on the exceptionally strong mutual caring in the club. The sharing of personal histories and dreams through planned and impromptu speeches bring the web designer, the fitness coach, the headhunter together. As people join, grow, and leave, the sense of something akin to a family remains in the organization.
Curating an intentional community starts with a desire to bring people together and share some aspect of the human experience that you care about. It requires focus and commitment. I challenge you to consider one aspect of your world you’d like to improve, that you need to work with others to achieve. When it works (you can make it work) you gain excellent leverage to bring your vision to life.