“Important: This document is for people who like reading documents. If you don’t, stop reading now” (first line of the Collective Self free coworking space onboarding document)

“How can we coordinate ideas about community to start designing reflective communities where none seem to exist? What are some of the best practices of designing community among people/organizations/groups so that others may learn from and with them?”

This blog post is for Carey, who asked these questions in response to a recent blog post here. And for anyone else, like me, who needed to hear somebody else voice these questions before I recognized them as my own.

Carey, you already did the most important thing. You reached out to talk to someone and you asked for help. That’s the most important part, I keep learning. That’s the community creation work engine. Reach out. Get help. Reach out. Give help. Watch. Get inspired. Repeat. The-mad-ninja-skills version of this process contains just one word: Play. So if you can start there, by all means, just start and finish there. 🙂

I like to start where I am, embrace those I’m with, try something that seems a bit crazy to us as individuals, and learn together as we go. Play together. It’s helpful for me to believe (thanks to group experiences) that we learn more–together as learners–than I ever can as an individual expert. Helpful to know that my goal isn’t to become an individual expert (oh, how tempting!) when what I’m after is community. My goal is community! My deeper self IS community I’m learning. Playful community.

I’m not knocking education (says the girl who got a doctorate degree mostly to make more equally socially awkward friends). But I am knocking putting the design of reflective communities solely into the hands of learned experts. Because isn’t that kind of what’s already been done? And didn’t that land us with what we’ve already got? Neighborhoods full of individual experts who talk a good game but don’t know their neighbors as friends and human beings?

So look to yourself and your groups and community for best practices. I just started looking for and paying close attention to abundant groups within which people felt free to be their whole selves (including a few of my own, and also those that felt abundant but looked nothing like mine). After enough study (yes, I’m a nerd), I eventually found myself part of multiple abundant communities and a whole culture of people who care about becoming and creating said communities. These people were all around me–just waiting to be discovered!

Here are some amazing communities doing amazing cross-community work that I look to for inspiration. These are only those I myself, or my trusted community members, personally rely on, use, and love ourselves:

There are tons of others out there. When I want really deep learning, I find community centers in my own neighborhood and/or those that are emotionally local to me, and I spend as much time there with them as I can. Distant others can inspire, but they don’t hold our answers. We do.

For example, I’ve hooked up with the emerging Seattle orchard steward community and the Seattle Collaborative Space Alliance community, in addition to starting a coworking space out of my home. I watch my neighbors community build at the Central Cinema, Katy’s Coffee, Tougo Coffee, and Earl’s Barbershop. I also read local blogs like http://www.capitolhillseattle.com/, http://centraldistrictnews.com/, http://beaconhill.seattle.wa.us/, and http://seattlebikeblog.com/. I also regularly watch the Facebook groups of emerging local community-centered groups (City Fruit, Alleycat Acres, Popcycles, Seattle Collaborative Space Alliance, etc.). I watch the interactions between people, what they share, how they share and grow, etc. I regularly watch emergent online groups I’m asked to be a part of too.

I also follow the work of emotionally local others (friends, long-lost brothers/sisters/parents/playmates) who just happened to be in other countries and states. These are my heart neighbors. I read their blogs, follow their tweets, chat with them whenever I can, and even work with them when the opportunity appears. I’m currently designing work travel to coincide with where my heart neighbors live so I can see their smiling faces. Some of my heart-local buddies include http://www.projectshrink.com/, http://lenellemoise.blogspot.com/http://www.deepfun.com/, http://dwellingherenow.blogspot.com/, and http://www.readinclover.com/, and https://natplays.wordpress.com/. You’ll recognize your heart neighbors by how free to be yourself you feel in their presence. More free than you could imagine on your own.

I need a lot of help. Because I’m brand new at this community creating/becoming/designing myself (as evidenced by our free community coworking space’s page: www.facebook.com/collectiveself). On my own, it’s tough. Together with all these other people, it’s a piece of cake. Literally, often cake is involved.

We are an emerging community. As an individual, I don’t design it, not if I’m honest with myself. I let go into it. I open myself up. I ask for help. I ask for cake. I need community. Eventually, we experience community together, look into each others eyes, and say “Oh, hello community!” Then, on the back side of that, we can sound all smart and designer-y and talk about how we got there.

But planning didn’t get us here. The act of planning and designing got us close enough as individuals to recognize community that we couldn’t recognize on our own. As we got closer, we began to play, and community happened on a small scale. And as we get closer, we play even more, and community shows up with sidewalk chalk. It’s just there. Some days now, I find it in all directions around me, and I’m so flooded by community and grateful for it that its beauty makes me weep. This happened to me earlier today. Other days, like last Wednesday, I sit here at a coworking table for 10 with just one other person, and I think “Ok, community, where the hell are you?”

On the nitty gritty details side… Another coworker and I take turns sharing things with our coworking community via the Facebook page, but at the moment, 99% of the good stuff happens here face to face, via Skype face to face, and via email. Think as our community here grows, involvement with our FB page etc. may increase. I’m not entirely sure. For me, patience is a key, because I can already imagine a large, thriving community here even though what we actually physically have here in our coworking space at the moment is a small, thriving community.

We’re not doing traditional advertising, because we’re not after a million Likes or Followers. Community takes time and is worth it. I think the number of Likes on our community coworking page should genuinely reflect the number of people who either cowork here now or would cowork here if they visit Seattle (plus the few friends and neighbors I’m patiently waiting for to leave their ball-and-chain jobs to come work with us here). But maybe that’s just me. I want community members. I want to be surrounded by the faces of old and new friends. People who I’m “all in” for and who are “all in” with us. This means getting to know people as whole human beings. It means taking a caserole to a neighbor whose husband is in the hospital. It means crying on the phone together when she loses him. It means walking on my feet to get to know more people in the neighborhood. Asking for help with things I’m not good at every single week (this week: creating a coworking space post card to hand to people as I meet them in our neighborhood and asking a well-known community creator in our neighborhood to come spend a day in our space). Watching movies together after work.

I’ve also been taking photos at get togethers and events and getting them posted to places where members of my emerging communities can see each others’ faces and names. Here are three of mine:

My hope is that eventually other group members will start posting photos too. I ask periodically. Will it happen? It did in one of them already. Yea! Hopefully, eventually, all three, and until then they are places I can go to see the faces of the people I love. And I can use them as indicators of my own need to get closer to those within these communities.

And you need patience. Did I mention patience? It bears repeating if I did. I seem regularly to need more of that. In fact, I’m actively looking for a coworker who exceeds at patience for our space, so that patience can sit with somebody better suited to it than me and/or so I have a patience mentor.

Working in the gift economy appears to be another great way into finding yourself part of an entire culture dedicated to creating and becoming more reflective communities. That is, give yourself, your time, and what you love to create with all your being as a gift to others. Wow, could I say a lot about that one. Think that’s a whole other blog post or three.

From my perspective today, anyone who is setting aside “I should” for “I love” (or “belief” for “friendship”) is—in that very act—creating a vibrant, thriving community. Whether it can be seen yet or not, the seeds are there. Because communities centered on “I love” and friendship are amazing communities. My evidence is the 15 stories in the book that Bas and I just created: Different Work. And my own Central District neighborhood. And the Beacon Food Forest community here in Seattle. And now the free coworking space we’re creating here in our home. The physical space of our home/work space has begun to feel like a community coworking space whether there are people in it or not. The space holds the community when they’re here and the potential for community when they’re not. It’s beautiful. Even its flaws have become beautiful to me. The trick is for me to learn to be happy with the full community state and the empty, potential for community state. And learning to find peace with not being “in charge” of things, including the schedule, which nothing teaches me quite as well as true community.

One final piece of evidence is my life. Because when it comes to believing in and becoming abundant, thriving, and reflective communities, as my new Booted friends would say, I’m all in.

Socially awkward and all.

Ideas, coordination, design, reflection–for me, all these almost magically appear when we’re “all in” together. Most days, I no longer worry about coordination, design, or even what the ideal community would be anymore. I don’t need an ideal community. I need mine. The friends and strangers who show up at my door. So I focus on being “all in” where my heart truly is and letting everything else go. And I notice that I am surrounded by people teaching me to do this now. All people teach me this now. I think that is the design that community itself creates and teaches.

We are the design.

And we are unbelievably beautiful together.