To build a community, elevate the storytellers

2 September 2020
2 Sep 2020
West Lafayette, IN
6 mins

Communities either die young, or live long enough to become institutions. The difference between the ones that endure, and the ones that don’t, is collective memory – how well does the community remember its identity, as generations of people move through it over time? How quickly do its people forget the values and traditions from its first days?

Who we are, together

Great communities are built on shared identity. That shared identity might start as situational, like “new parents,” or deliberate, like “startup founders at UC Berkeley,” or even immutable, like “first-generation Korean-Americans.” Whatever the catalyst, people first gather into a community to find people to share that identity with.

But a shared identity isn’t enough to sustain a growing community. There are hundreds of new-parent communities, dozens of startup clubs at Berkeley, and undoubtedly thousands of places where Korean-American immigrants gather. We come for that small bit of shared context to begin, but what makes us stay together is the process of building up that shared identity together, from a single fact to a string of memories and conversations. Together, we choose the foundational values, people, and traditions we care about. Communities that survive are the ones that stay true to them over time.

In great communities, though, we don’t simply stand in a circle every so often to debate the foundational values upon which our communities should stand. Most great communities don’t have a sacred Book of Traditions given to new initiates, from which everyone learns exactly why we gather. Great communities build up and remember a collective identity, but not by rote repetition. They remember, together, by telling stories.

The stories we tell

Like in many American high schools, in my high school, every year, the graduating senior class pulled a prank on the rest of the school. My year’s prank was pretty bland. I don’t even remember what we did. But there are a few pranks from the past that we used to recount every year around that time of the year, the ones that transcended pranks to become inside jokes, stories, even legends.

My favorite story involved a few students who purchased three rats, labelled them “1”, “2”, and “4”, and let them loose in the building, prompting the administration to begin the impossible task of finding the nonexistent rat number “3”. There was also the story of the car wrapped around the flagpole, another classic. We all knew those stories.

Among university communities, MIT has no shortage of hacker lore intertwined with the campus and its inhabitants. If you attend their campus tour, every guide will be sure to mention the classic MIT hacks – the Great Dome painted like R2-D2, the Tetris game on the side of the Green building, the various other out-of-place decorations that occasionally top the roofs of campus buildings. These stories are told for more than fun. They communicate something about the MIT community, and invite those who want to be a part of the same values and the same culture.

In the Silicon Valley startup ecosystem, a more expansive community, a different kind of myth prevails. These are the founder stories. Mark Zuckerberg’s founding of Facebook in his Harvard dorm room. Steve Jobs’s ascension with Apple, his subsequent firing, and return to throne. Similar refrains exist for other era-defining companies of the Valley – the Ubers and Airbnbs and Dropboxes in the community. The stories we don’t tell also carry a message. Female founders don’t figure quite so heroically in the lore of Silicon Valley that we’ve inherited from decades before, and just as the stories we do tell embody the community’s values, so do the stories we leave to be forgotten. In this way, it matters not only that we tell stories, but also which stories we re-tell. In the case of the Valley, though the road ahead is long, we’re starting to see more diverse characters behind our stories.

At the heart of the strongest communities, the proto-institutions that endure the weathering forces of time, are great stories. These stories are carried forth by communal storytellers who take on the important role of preserving these stories, passing them down to new generations. These are the oral traditions of a community. Oral traditions preserve and carry a community’s identity through time, tightly packaged in values and traditions and lore that we repeat over time. Oral traditions are how communities remember together, and remembering together is how communities last.

To build a strong community, elevate storytellers. Find the stories and memories that show what you stand for together, why you gather, and create ways for those stories to become fables, myths, and legends. Storytellers are how a community remembers, and the best communities are often communities of storytellers.

In the beginning, this may start with simple stories about the founders or early members, told after meetings or around the dinner table. But good community leaders also create opportunities for these stories to arise, and make space on the calendar to give the stories chances to be re-told and passed around, until each has a life of its own, apart from its provenance. The best stories don’t happen at work while everyone’s hunched over their desks. They come from intense moments of collaboration or challenge, from near-death experiences, from that time you almost ran out of money, from the time you got stuck in the mountains on the way to a community retreat. Good stories happen when people are together, and they survive when we share them with each other. Keep an eye out for the stories being written within your own communities and think about which ones you want to be remembered.

The flame

In a world increasingly immaterial, where communities meet at the convergences of video streams, stories tie our communities together, and us back to our roots. Stories that embody what our communities stand for, and why we get together – this is the torch passed down to us by the communities we choose to join, and the torch we’ll pass down to the communities we build tomorrow.

In building a community, we light that flame with all the energy and love and creative optimism that inspire our work, and share a little bit of the warmth with the people who join us. We do this in the hope that, when their flames burn brighter and taller, they’ll share their light with their people, too.

This is the work of building communities. To bring people together, to find great stories, and to carry forth the flame.

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