Community Building for Alaska: The possibilities of every person
by Shannon Sanderson
Several members of the Alaska LGBT community recently attended Community Building for Alaska sponsored by the Alaska Community Foundation & Alaska Pacific University, joining other Alaskans from throughout the state in a two-day program in experiential education on how to build community. We welcome one attendee, Shannon Sanderson, as a new contributor to Bent Alaska.
To realize that possibility, I will take what I learned on Monday and Tuesday October 24th & 25th at the Community Building Conference held at APU, and spread it out into our community, beginning here, with Bent Alaska.
At the conference, Louise van Rhyn led us through a series of activities intended to create intimacy and bonding while simultaneously teaching us how to effect positive change by reaching out to the community at large using these same techniques. The basis for the whole experience was having six critical conversations, managed in a very specific manner. The Invitation, Gifts, Ownership, Possibility, Dissent, and Commitment conversations. Each conversation has a very specific purpose and underlying each is a guideline for making the conversation productive in building community.
The Gifts (or talents) conversation is about sharing with the other person what gift they’ve given you by participating in conversation with you and with sharing with others what our own gifts are. The guidelines are, don’t make an accounting of deficiencies, our own or theirs and to make this conversation a ritual that we do frequently and sincerely.
The Ownership conversation is about taking personal responsibility for where we are and what we’re going to do to get where ever we want to be (if anything) without blaming or criticizing each other or ourselves.
The Possibility conversation is about creating and then stating in a positive manner the “end result” we want to see most, succinctly in terms of us making it occur. (“I am the possibility of every person honestly being themselves in a loving community.”) We address what crossroads we are at as individuals and our discussion evolves into the declaration of possibility. This is done without problem solving, not addressing the journey required to get there, just the final result.
The Dissent conversation is probably one of the most critical because we tend most often to create more animosity and resentment with in our day to day lives when addressing dissent. This conversation is about creating the safe place for all parties to state what they disagree with, don’t see as possible, are intimidated by, afraid of or otherwise feel conflicted about. Here we have to remind ourselves not to attempt to fix or correct anything, we are there just to listen, to allow them to speak their feelings aloud. Our goal is to learn about them and their feelings.
The Commitment conversation is the place where we make a promise regarding what we are or are not going to do without the expectation of a return. No one is required to commit to anything, all are welcome, but those who choose to commit are held to honor their word.
We practiced each type of conversation and shared our experiences with the larger group as we accomplished each small conversation task. Some were easier than others were and notably, which ones were easier or harder varied by person! It was an amazing experience.
The room was packed full of an amazingly diverse group of people. The LGBT community was well represented, in part thanks to Grrlzlist for providing scholarship opportunities for some of us (THANK YOU SO MUCH!), but there were also people from outlying bush communities, Homer, Talkeetna, Wasilla to name a few. There were CEO and staff from a number of nonprofit groups, teachers, students as young as 13 from the middle schools. There was a gentleman who was born in “The Alaska Territories” and a beautiful young lady with a passionate singing voice who is an Anchorage middle school student. There were men in positions of authority in Christian churches and an outspoken, charismatic, APU student who is a secular humanist. Monica Letner shared a song that touched to the heart of the LGBT battle, “Who You Are” and a young native woman shared her heart with us so we could celebrate her 92 days of sobriety, even now, I get chills and goose bumps as I remember!
Mel Green spoke for me and I’m certain many others when she stood up to tell the group at large that she was so amazed and blessed to be at a non-GLBT function and find such a diverse group of people who were open, accepting, curious and friendly. In the course of two days tight emotional bonds were created between people who otherwise likely would never have encountered one another much less sought each other out.
The ideas presented (as I understand them) originate with Peter Block, the author of several books including Community: The Structure of Belonging. Some of them seem at first to be counter-intuitive to resolving issues of discrimination and segregation. However, in experiencing them first hand, the effect they had not only upon myself but also upon the other people involved, I have to admit that they transcend common beliefs and ideas to a place that is true and much more efficiently and effectively capable of creating the changes we seek. These activities transferred me, and so many others, from a place of wary defensiveness to a place of true community… in less than two days.
We went from being members of our own individual, segregated communities, come together to seek solutions to our individual complaints, to being members of one loving community looking forward to a time when each of us could see our dreams of a perfect Alaska realized.
Many of us started from a place of hopeless anger and resentment, but found
ourselves hopeful and re-energized by the support and commitment of help and
understanding from precisely the people we were resenting and angry with at the
We learned the importance of art, music, light, and nature in creating safe places for addressing tough topics.
We experienced the amazing (and unbelievable) change of attitude that comes over strangers when we sit in groups of 4 or less (knees no more than 9 inches apart) instead of in long rows or around tables for meetings.
We experienced first-hand how we CAN change the world on a large scale in magnificent ways; not by standing up and yelling or demanding what we want, but one room and one conversation at a time.
A few poignant statements I noted, I believe are worth sharing;
An interruption as someone speaks affects their body on a physiological level in the same manner as a slap in the face.
A citizen is a person who says, “This is the future I want to see” and then goes out to create it.
A consumer is a person who is so caught up in blaming someone or something else for the current environment that they are unhappy in, thus they remain stuck in that same circumstance.
A true leader invites others to talk about what they want and need and how they can make it happen.
“The quality of your thinking speaks to the quality of my listening.” — Nancy Kline
When you are so confident and certain, my voice dies.
There is no space for my voice to be heard in your certainty.
It matters what we talk about AND how we talk about it.
Focus on the goal and state it positively.
Don’t reiterate the problem or address the goal in terms of the negative.
Before we can address issues, we have to build connections.
We have to feel trust and love in order to get things done.