Community Building Practices that Attend to Difference – Janet Newbury, Ph.D.
How can community building practices be done in a way that attend to difference, and are genuinely committed to consider power relations and how they play out when working amidst differences? Community building comes with honor, privilege, and immense responsibility. Most challenging is to respectfully know when and how to show up, when is it useful to step back, create space, or bring someone along.
Season 5 is a Collaboration with the Taos Institute
This season of the Positivity Strategist podcast is a collaboration with the Taos Institute. We’re focusing on the topic of Constructionist Practices as Social Innovation. My guests in this season are Taos Institute associates who’ve contributed to The Sage Handbook of Social Constructionist Practice. [Links are below.]
Author Bio and Chapter Title
Janet Newbury, Ph.D. lives and works on the traditional territory of the ɬəʔamɛn (Tla’amin) people, who are a self-governing Nation, in the northern part of the sunshine coast, north of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. She teaches and conducts research in the School of Child and Youth Care at the University of Victoria, B.C. where she is also an adjunct associate professor in the Faculty of Graduate Studies. Janet has traveled extensively. She has worked in group homes, schools, camps, an after-school program, an orphanage, and a family resource center. Among her various roles, she was a family initiatives worker and a family enhancement worker. She sits on a number of boards and is actively involved in a range of formal and informal inter-generational initiatives in the region.
The focus of her research and practice has primarily been on fostering the structural conditions that contribute to wellness for children, youth, and families. Organizing economic, social, and political realities so that barriers can be removed and opportunities created for children and families to thrive has been a key focus of most of her involvements – with particular interest in contributing to decolonization efforts.
Chapter Title: Inclusion and Community Building: Profoundly Particular
Community Building Practices and Inclusion
Janet’s participation in community building practices is continuous and varied. She is excited by this work. She likes that it keeps her open to surprise. It enables her to adjust ideas and practices in response to what she encounters in community. She is acutely aware that there is no unified “we”. She lives with the questions:
- How can community-based practices be done in a way that attends to difference, and is genuinely committed to consider power relations and how they play out when working amidst differences?
- How can we respect that this is not intellectual work, but embodied work – and that this positions us differently in relation to one another as well?
The inclusion of the words profoundly particular in the title of her chapter is deeply intentional. Janet stresses she can only write from her own perspective. As a white, English-speaking, university-educated woman, she is extremely aware of the risks that people like her present because of the generalizations they make on the topics of inclusion and community. Yet, she realizes that it is her responsibility to speak about these generalizations and differences. Profoundly particular reflects the great caution with which she engages in this work in practice and in her research. Inclusive community building work is difficult and important.
Interwoven in her sensibility of profoundly particular, she is respectful of the moment in time, the context, the political, cultural, and economic realities, the body we move in, and the power dynamics. All these factors influence the way we move into the world.
Respectful Community Building Practices
Community building comes with honor, privilege, and immense responsibility. Most challenging is to respectfully know when and how to show up, when is it useful to step back, create space, or bring someone along. It becomes most meaningful in her work when revitalization of cultural practices emerge and when the lines between professional and personal roles fade away. This leads to moments of realizing that she, as a non-indigenous person, is privileged to be both a witness and a participant in sacred and unique practices. The richness and depth that emerges from these relationships and experiences are impossible to capture in a few words.
Ensuring safety in community building practices involves a need to know the context and the experience of those coming together. Safety is not an absolute, but constantly in negotiation, changing moment to moment. Structuring safety becomes the work itself. It invites attuning to the places where people might feel unsafe, not presuming safety at the start, and paying attention to history to avoid re-traumatizing someone. Building transparency and trust so that people are able give information in a way that makes sense for them. The most suitable people to implement such community building practices are people from within the community.
The most suitable people to implement such community building practices are people from within the community. And, if from outside the community, as a facilitator, stepping back is very often the right thing to do.
“If I’m interested in disrupting power dynamics that privilege certain people over others then that means that if I’m one of the people who’s currently privileged by current systems, I have to be willing to recognize that maybe my role is not front and center in community building work, maybe my role is to step back or pick up the catering or something like that.”
Sending out invitations and assuming that those who show up are the right people is often the case for planning community building meetings. Yet, treating people in different ways is another aspect of respect and sensibility. Oftentimes, more work can be done around the invitation to make it more inclusive and remove power differentials. For example, funds can be allocated for childcare or transportation to enable those individuals to participate who otherwise might have been excluded. Different kinds of energies need to go into the process to have diverse voices at the table.
The invitation also contributes to how we cultivate a feeling of safety from the start through the language we use and the relationships we hold. We can be transparent about what people might expect. Anticipating aspects of the physical place, transportation, or other needs that can potentially compromise people’s sense of safety is an important way to attend to the power dynamics.
When it comes to community building practices, attending to how we are in our bodies informs us. It is related to how we show up, the places where we meet, how power is read through skin color, age, or spoken language. There is the potential to work in an embodied way – how we physically come together, how we live our cultural traditions – not just speaking or teaching it. Embodiment is about experiencing something together, being, feeling the comfort or discomfort. It goes beyond just talking, it means breathing, singing, drumming, or dancing in unison. It invites us to ask:
What is the healing potential of things beyond the ideas we bring to this work.
Social Innovation in Community Building
The ideas of social construction inform Janet’s world view. Meaning varies based on context. Meaning is fluid. The social constructionist orientation enables her to be curious, observant, responsive. She strives to use it gracefully and not impose a social constructionist view on others. Without hesitation, the response Janet offered to complete the sentence: The social innovation we most need for the work in inclusive community building is…
Janet explains that we need very deep structural change because current systems are not just and not accountable. Just tweaking at the edges is not enough, especially in community building practices. To be part of change, we need to be part of the system that exists. Merely being in the system without action results in perpetuating the system. This can lead to burn out, because our hands are tied and the solutions to change run deep below the surface embedded in the narratives.
Power is never balanced. What we can do is to acknowledge and repair. This happens when we move from individualistic perspectives to collective ones; when we collaborate and co-ordinate our gifts and begin organizing and communicating outside of silos to change the very systems we are part of.
How can we think differently and move differently to make community building practices just and accountable?
Message of Hope and Gratitude
Janet shares a story that fills her with hope. In a local community building effort, for the first time in her career, she is seeing creative partnerships and structural changes to support children and families coordinated by three local governments over a 10-year plan. This is groundbreaking. It is enormously encouraging for all participating groups.
In concluding our conversation, she expresses her thanks to those in her community and elsewhere who have given her permission to share stories and speak to these topics that she cares so deeply about.
Connect to Janet
- The Sage Handbook of Social Constructionist Practice.
- Newbury, J. (September, 2018). A love story. CYC-Online, p. 58-69.
- Modlin, H. & Newbury, J. (2016). Thinking and doing together, ‘as a field’. Relational Child and Youth Care Practice, 29(1), 6-35.
- Chapter in other books