Community Building 101
Want a future community leader? Local churches and unions are finding the best way to get one is to train one yourself.
Thursday, December 14, 2000
Martha Diehl just concluded eight hours of role-playing, active listening exercises and communication training aimed to make her feel more connected to people around her. "It''s a very different way of doing things. It''s very nebulous," says Diehl, a retired ship captain and a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Monterey Peninsula. "It really takes a suspension of disbelief."
Over the past six weeks, Diehl and 40 other trainees from Salinas, the Peninsula and beyond have come together for four sessions led by the newly formed Central Coast Interfaith Sponsors. Together these people--everyday members of religious congregations, unions and community groups--have explored how to talk honestly about the problems facing the region. But unlike participants in a typical workshop, they haven''t arrived at any solutions.
That is precisely the goal of the Central Coast Interfaith Sponsors, a multi-denominational coalition of 40 congregations, unions and teachers'' groups from Santa Cruz and Monterey counties formed under the vague aegis of "a broad-based organization for the common good." The point is to get comfortable discussing problems that have no easy answers--problems like the ones community leaders grapple with. In its four "responsible public life" trainings, Interfaith Sponsors has sought to identify local leaders who can identify the region''s most pressing issues, then lead the search for local solutions.
"Central Coast Interfaith Sponsors exists in order to help local people build an organization--that''s where the name ''Sponsors'' comes from," explains lead organizer Ken Smith. "Our work, leadership training and research into the community is meant to bring people together. It''s all oriented toward identifying local talent and energy."
This model of community mobilization springs from the decades-old organizing efforts of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), a national network that once involved gurus like the late Cesar Chavez, founder of the United Farm Workers. IAF has inspired the founding of 65 groups similar to Interfaith Sponsors across the country.
In 1997, IAF was invited to the Central Coast by a group of concerned clergy and community people, and Smith moved to town to explore the extent of community support for a new organization. Finding significant interest from a broad base of religious groups and $250,000 a year in seed funding from national religious organizations, Smith and partners moved to found Interfaith Sponsors earlier this fall.
The first step is a year of training, with the principle goal being to nurture a sense of shared experience among the diverse people of the Central Coast. "People are not in the habit of sharing their stories with one another--they think their stories are very different," says Smith, recalling the first trainings. "What we tried to do was to get them to see that all their stories were about family and work and the health of their congregations. They may have different elements, but those are the common themes. We''re not stupid, but we''re not going to settle for the belief that people can''t relate with each other from the Valley to the Peninsula, from class to class and race to race."
According to Marta Crespo-Rosado, a participant in the Interfaith Sponsors'' recent Salinas training, the training''s extensive role-plays, active listening exercises, and intensive dialogue are translating the goal of community-building into reality.
"We learned more about how really to get people building relations with other people, to find out what their pains and joys are," she explains. Martha Diehl, meanwhile, says her interactions with Spanish-speaking members of her training group have inspired her to refresh her high school Spanish.
Whatever the individual goals and lessons gleaned from the training, the next move is to get the message of inclusion and communication from the conference room out to the streets. "We''re supposed to go out and talk to people and see what sorts of shared interests and concerns they have, and what their talents and energies are," says Diehl. "It might be with people we know or people from our congregations, people like my hairdresser, who I really like. Maybe we''ll go get coffee and just chat and see what''s on their mind."
Interfaith Sponsors'' hope is that a cadre of new community leaders will emerge from the group of several hundred people to be trained this year, leaders who will work to build ties and uncover the concerns of the community. If the experiment is successful, says Smith, within two to three years the group will have a founding convention with more than 1,000 members and will have garnered local funding from congregation dues.
As for the present, it''s anyone''s guess what the potential impact of all this community building will be. In areas as diverse as Sonoma, Chicago and inner-city Washington, DC, IAF-affiliated groups have increased immigrant participation in public life, become low-income housing developers, created effective programs for job development, and new opportunities for parental engagement in public schools.
But according to Interfaith Sponsors, the focal issues for the Central Coast---the issues that resonate widely across the region''s great racial and geographic divides--will only be revealed by an ex-tensive network of communication that connects person to person, church to temple, and community to community.